Published on March 11, 2019
In principle, I strongly support President Trump’s plan to issue an executive order to protect freedom of speech on campus. Yes, there are many potential problems with federal intervention, but there is really no good alternative.
I don’t know what will become of our ever more bitterly divided nation, but I do know there’ll be no peaceful coexistence for our warring camps without a cooling of the campus free-speech crisis. It’s no use looking to universities for a resolution. They are caught in a quicksand of their own creation and are well past the point of self-extraction. This isn’t just a university problem either. The extremism of our politics; its historical naïveté; the bitter mutual recriminations that dog our every debate; the country’s rising divisions along lines of religion, ethnicity, sex, and race; and the endangered liberties even of Americans well past college age; are all outcomes of the noxious spirits the academy has been injecting into the body politic for nearly six decades.
There are certainly good reasons to be wary of federal intervention in matters of local concern. We would much prefer our campuses to heal themselves. Yet it is foolish and blinkered at this point to believe that they will. That does not remove the dangers of ham-handed, biased, or counter-productive federal action. Yet it is equally mistaken to treat campus free speech as just another case in which unfettered markets will flourish in the absence of outside interference. The campus is the opposite of a free market. It’s protected from market forces by tenure, and further insulated from public dismay — and bursting economic bubbles — by hundreds of billions of dollars in annual government subsidies.
In effect, American society over the years has struck a kind of bargain with the academy. Colleges and universities get special treatment and privileges: loads of free money; the right to insulate faculty hiring and the content of courses from public pressure; and an informal but powerful cultural norm of public non-interference. In return, all the academy has to do is conduct itself according to the accepted norms of liberal education. It must choose its faculty based on intellectual merit rather than politics; strive to present students with the best thinking from a wide range of sometimes conflicting perspectives, while avoiding ideological pressure and indoctrination; and it must protect the liberties of students and faculty to think and speak as they see fit, while taking care to instruct students in the fundamental principles of free speech, including freedom’s foundational relationship to liberal education itself.
The problem is that the implicit bargain undergirding liberal education in America has been consistently and egregiously violated for decades. In fact, the old liberal bargain has now largely ceased to inform the spirit of American higher education. In place of that liberal bargain there has grown a fundamentally illiberal perspective in which freedom of speech and the various liberties upon which our constitutional system rests are dismissed as smokescreens for “oppressive power,” “white supremacy,” “heteronormativity,” “neo-colonialism,” etc.
From this new perspective, the principles of classical liberalism — free speech, disinterested study, the search for truth, universal standards of excellence, neutral interpretation of law and principle, due process rights, etc. — do not form a legitimate framework within which political contestation or authentic education can take place. They are instead sham excuses by which the dominant powers gull the oppressed into accepting their subordination.
The new university takes its mission to be the stripping away of this liberal smokescreen, and the empowering of oppressed groups and their allies to resist the system that dupes and disadvantages them. This is the ideology of the students who shout down visiting speakers, pull down displays that they don’t like, and in various ways ostracize and intimidate students who disagree with them. These supposedly oppressed students and their allies act without scruple, fully convinced that they are justified in suppressing the speech of others because they view the very ideas of “individual rights” or “rule of law” as flimsy cover-stories for “white supremacy,” and such.
Students absorb these ideas from their teachers, the most active and influential of which have largely abandoned classical liberalism in exchange for the blend of postmodernism and neo-Marxism described above. There are whole departments now — various forms of racial, ethnic, and gender studies programs — where this ideology permeates and predominates. And the ethos of the “studies” programs, once peripheral to the university, now dominates even mainstream humanities and social science disciplines. The faculty once stood as a check against administrators too weak to protect free speech. Now faculty in the “studies” programs purvey an ideology that actually inspires speech suppression.
Administrators either share this ideology or are too afraid to explain to bullying students convinced of their own righteousness that shout-downs violate the principles upon which liberal education rests. Standing up to the bullies would require a commitment to classical liberalism, and a willingness to discipline students who disregard it. In the short term, this would yield additional angry and perhaps violent protests, which would in turn require still more determination and backbone from administrators. Knowing they are possessed of neither the courage nor the conviction to rein the bullies in — and afraid of being thrown onto the defensive by accusations of racism, sexism, or bigotry of one sort or another — administrators preemptively capitulate.
In fact the administration itself has been vastly expanded — often after building takeovers by demonstrators — by “diversity” bureaucrats who stoke the grievances of the coalition of the “oppressed,” and act as a kind of internal check on the college president. Worse, the new diversity bureaucracy now supplements restrictive speech codes and tiny, Orwellian “free-speech zones,” with “bias-reporting systems” that encourage students to anonymously turn each other in. Reports can and do lead to terrifying investigations of perfectly permissible speech.
The outcome is an atmosphere of self-censorship and fear, not only on the part of conservative and moderate students but even many liberal professors. With leading administrators afraid to stand up to accusations of bigotry from the intersectional coalition, students subject not only to peer-pressure but to unconstitutional speech codes, zones, and bias-reporting systems have little recourse. Their calculation is to speak their mind and perhaps face bogus accusations of bigotry, formal investigation, and punishment, or just stay silent and safe. Most choose silence.
In this way, a coalition of activist student groups animated by an extremist ideology keeps the rest of the campus in check. Ultimately, the student bullies are creatures of the radical faculty and the vastly expanded diversity bureaucracy. A coalition of activist faculty, administrators, and students holds the whip hand on campus, keeping dissenters silent and afraid.
The shout-downs at the center of the campus free speech crisis are merely the cherry on top. The shout-downs say to students and faculty: “Shut up or we’ll do this to you.” Shout-downs are spectacular public police actions, but the day-to-day reality is self-censorship, silence, and fear for anyone on the wrong side of the intersectional elite.
This system won’t change on its own. Every year it deepens its hold on our campuses. The “studies” programs were once side-shows. Now they run the show. Once there were only speech codes. There followed cramped free speech zones. Now there are bias reporting teams. Whenever one of these pernicious devices is ruled unconstitutional by a court, the college looks for ways to reinstitute them by another route. Trigger warnings and safe spaces didn’t exist until a few years ago. Now they’re expected and demanded. I can’t think of a single case in which a shout-down has been punished in a manner likely to deter future occurrences. In the few instances where discipline has been handed down, it’s either a wrist slap, or has been paired with an action likely to nullify its deterrent effect.
We’ve been nearly 60 years getting to this point. Alabama governor George C. Wallace was disinvited from a talk by the president of Yale in 1963. That began a decade-long string of shout-downs and disinvitations, finally addressed, condemned, and rectified by Yale’s famous Woodward Report of 1974. The Chairman of the commission that issued that report was historian C. Vann Woodward, perhaps the most respected faculty member at Yale in that era. Woodward’s book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, had been dubbed the “historical bible of the civil rights movement” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And Woodward had advised Thurgood Marshall’s legal team on the Brown vs. Board of Education case. Woodward was a legitimate civil rights hero. Yet just because of that, he saw that everyone’s freedom depended upon the universality of basic rights. Undoubtedly, Woodward recalled that minority demonstrators during the civil rights era had often been protected when courts upheld their rights to free speech and free assembly. Woodward recognized that if Wallace could be stifled, support for everyone’s rights — minorities most of all, would be endangered. Today’s shout-downs, where demonstrators chant “liberalism is white supremacy” or “rule of law equals white supremacy,” show the collapse of this understanding on campus.
When the Woodward Report came out in 1974, classical liberalism clawed its way back to the university’s commanding heights and the excesses of the sixties were temporarily held at bay. Yet as the sixties radicals worked their way through graduate school and the junior faculty, eventually securing tenure, speech codes emerged, shout-downs went unpunished, the terms “political correctness” and “multiculturalism” came into wide use, and classic liberal education fell into decline.
By 1990s, two decades after his famous report, Woodward had come to believe that the fundamental pillars of liberal education in America were under threat. He joined the National Association of Scholars (NAS), alarmed that an organization dedicated to upholding the classical liberal values of free speech, free expression, and academic freedom was being stigmatized as reactionary by the campus left. In a brief but revealing 1993 address in which he accepted an award from the NAS, Woodward criticized extremist liberals whom he said were “denying academic freedom by acting to control and police academic appointments, admissions, curriculum, teaching, and thought in order to promote their political programs.”
Woodward was witnessing the beginning of the end of the liberal bargain upon which the university had long rested. By “political policing of academic appointments” Woodward meant the abuse of the tenure system to secure a controlling majority on the faculty for the hard-left. He called these leftists “extremists” who dismissed as mere propaganda the central tenets of liberal education—pursuit of truth and academic excellence, study of the great books, and the refusal to indoctrinate. In 1993, Woodward was convinced that majorities among both liberal and conservative academics opposed extremist “intruders and their converts” within the walls of the academy. He called for liberal and conservative believers in classic liberal education to get off the defensive and assert themselves.
Two years prior, in 1991, Woodward’s close friend and fellow liberal, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., had published The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Schlesinger’s prophetic and best-selling warning against the fragmenting of the American national community into a “quarrelsome spatter of enclaves” was hailed by liberals and conservatives alike at the time. Curiously, however, Schlesinger focused almost exclusively on K-12, ignoring higher education. He explained: “The situation in our universities, I am confident, will soon right itself once the great silent majority of professors cry ‘enough’ and challenge what they know to be voguish nonsense.”
The confidence of Woodward and Schlesinger that the traditionally liberal majority on campus would follow their lead proved ill-founded. The ‘great silent majority’ of liberal professors stayed cowed. More than a quarter-century later, their replacements have been chosen by the very ideologues Woodward and Schlesinger feared.
So it’s too late for change from within. The obstacles are vastly greater than when the alarm was first sounded and the hoped-for reform failed, nearly three decades ago. A critical-mass of tenured radicals now controls appointments; the dominant “studies” programs provide an institutional base for the new regime; and administrations are swollen with diversity bureaucrats who police the system. A 2018 Gallup survey showed that 37 percent of students see shout-downs as sometimes acceptable, while 10 percent approve the use of violence against speakers in some cases. That’s enough to keep the campus crisis cooking for a very long time—and enough to tear the country apart once they graduate.
The University of Chicago’s President Robert Zimmer warns that Trump’s executive order will lead to bureaucrats in Washington sitting in judgement of universities. That’s rich, since those same universities have hired huge bureaucracies dedicated to policing speech. But shouldn’t private universities have that right? Not when they depend on multi-millions in taxpayer dollars to subsidize their regime of silencing and suppression. Second only to life itself, freedom of expression is our most fundamental individual right. Zimmer speaks with authority, but only because the University of Chicago is the great exception to the rule. Zimmer’s famous because he’s not like the others.
The real conservative position would be to cut the government subsidies altogether, but there is no chance whatever of that happening. Few conservatives even bother to press for it. Why should the public subsidize an ideological training camp dedicated to turning half the children in America against their parents’ values? Free speech advocates have warned for decades that discarding the liberal bargain on which the university has long rested would invite public intervention. That day has finally come, and the attendant dangers notwithstanding, it is long overdue.
Meanwhile, America’s warring camps are at each other’s throats. Politicians are hounded from restaurants like speakers on campus, and distinguished judges are denied due process in the face of questionable accusations, like something out of a campus kangaroo court. The left half of the country sees bigotry in every policy position on the right, even or especially when it’s a matter of upholding classic liberal neutrality — such as opposition to preferences or disparate impact rules. Even Democrats are now split between old-style liberals and a left that coddles bigotry from those at the top of the intersectional pecking order. The marginalization of old-time liberals within the academy is now replaying itself within the Democratic party as a whole.
Classical liberalism grants the right to study radical leftist ideas that if fully embraced would put an end to liberalism itself. It does not, however, grant the right to suppress the teaching and expression of alternatives, above all the principles of classical liberalism itself. Having proven for decades that it will not — and cannot — protect our fundamental freedoms, the academy has left us no choice but to set things right with the blunt instrument of federal intervention. Success is far from guaranteed and the dangers are many. Yet failure to act guarantees that the academy’s descent into illiberalism will endure, poisoning our discourse and imperiling our freedoms till we are past the point of no return.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.