Ethics & Public Policy Center

The American University Must Reaffirm Its Liberal Character

Published in Real Clear Policy on June 19, 2020


The events of 2020, like 1968 before it, may eventually be seen to have set the terrain of political and cultural debate for the next fifty years. And while not the leading edge of social unrest, certain movements within the university will stand out years from now. Taken collectively they may be seen to have made a significant dent in the armor of the liberal character of the American university.

But that retrospective analysis is years away. We the living have at this moment an opportunity to rediscover and recommit to the ideal of the university as the home of rational debate and inquiry. This core mission of the American university is the common ground of American society, apart from partisan rancor and mob tactics, and dedicated to the proposition that all positions are created equal and up for debate. Now is the time, especially for those in leadership positions within the university, to remember the university’s core mission and defend it.

Many incidents indicate the university is under attack by the mob. At UCLA, an accounting professor was put on leave and has received police protection due to threats because he did not allow African-American students a delay in taking their finals. At the University of Chicago, an economics professor was fired from his post at the Federal Reserve and let go from his position as a top editor at the Journal for Political Economy for holding the wrong political and cultural line. At Cornell, where the memory of 1968 appears to burn bright, a law professor has been publicly denounced by students and faculty alike, with the added stain of his dean’s issuing a public statement announcing that his statements were “offensive and poorly reasoned.” And there is an attempt to take down Michigan State University’s vice president of research on the grounds that he is a “vocal scientific racist and eugenicist.”

All of these incidents have one thing in common: The professors who have been publicly harangued in the name of fighting racism have not bowed to recognize the legitimacy of the protests and rioting throughout the country and have defended their own arguments and practices. They have not gotten the message that there is a political line, however momentary, that must be toed and that rational inquiry is out while the revolution is in.

What ultimately counts in the university is a liberal disposition toward intellectual work — a disposition that is willing to put forward theses based on evidence and allow those theses to be attacked, argued about, and cut down, all for the sake of a refined understanding of the truth. That disposition is what underlies not only philosophical but also scientific assertions. The sciences require practitioners and researchers who are willing to assert, argue, listen, and refine. The university is inherently liberal insofar as to be liberal means to enter freely into dialogue and argument about what is true. This ideal has guided educational endeavors throughout the West for millennia. The “cancelling” of professors we are witnessing on campus — not one but many within the span of weeks at different campuses — has quite a different stamp, one that prizes group identity over the ability to argue rationally about the truth.

It is ironic that at just the moment when humanity needs the sciences more than ever to enter into scientific debate for the sake of finding a vaccine to COVID, activists have sought to abolish the independence of scientific thought by rendering it unfit to solve the challenges of group identification and relation. The American university used to be the institution that, in the face of the tempest, upheld the scientific ideal and cowered in the face of no political headwinds. But to do this requires leadership.

Recall, for instance, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins’ defense of his faculty when Charles Walgreen in 1935 accused the University of turning his daughter into a communist. Hutchins replied that his faculty were free to teach and believe as they wished but also that communism could not withstand intellectual scrutiny. The task is rational inquiry, to which ideology must answer.

But there is good news and common ground to be found today. Countless university administrators across the country are no doubt holding the line, heads down while the current political storm passes. And while the aforementioned Mr. Jacobson has come in for criticism, his dean, Eduardo M. Peñalver, has paid lip service to the integrity of academic freedom. Still, in an age in which Twitter can turn the mob on professors in a split-second, Mr. Peñalver’s actions surely won’t be enough. It will be up to Mr. Peñalver, and his colleagues at institutions of higher education, to hold the line lest the ground be swept from beneath their own feet.

The current battles within the university have nothing to do with the difference between liberals and conservatives. In my own home growing up — my parents were and are staunch political and cultural liberals — free thought was the ideal, the thing to which it was the duty of liberals to aspire and to demonstrate to those who would close it down. What is at stake now is a conflict between a mob that wants to close down freedom of thought in the name of ideology and the institution of the university, which aims to uphold the ideal of freedom and excellence of thought.

The American university is the child of a thousand-year old institution begun in Europe in the 11th century. American universities are the most beautiful outgrowth of the seeds planted in Europe, transfigured by the stamp of coming to the new world and finding its way by importing the ideal of freedom of thought while also being self-consciously counter to European politics, which was dominated by aristocratic institutions. If it is to survive, it will need to tend to its liberal character. This is not an easy task. It requires defining questions that will allow its members to stand on common ground, not necessarily for the sake of agreement, but rather for the sake of turning together toward common questions and being able to discuss them freely and rationally.

Ian Lindquist is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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