heterodox: the blog
Why Free Speech is Central to Universities’ Mission
In The New York Review of Books, Jeremy Waldron offers a number of criticisms of the idea that college campuses ought to be uncompromisingly committed to free speech. I’d like to single out one of his claims for scrutiny, namely that robust protections for free speech on campus aren’t as crucial to academia’s research mission as we might think. Waldron writes:
“Is the free research of mathematicians or philosophers or physicists really in peril because of how one group of students responds to an invitation to Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos? Most of the free speech issues on campus have nothing to do with the lectures, laboratories, or seminars in which academic freedom is implicated. Aside from commencement addresses, a college or a university rarely invites or hosts speakers itself. Academic departments sometimes do, but few of the incidents that people complain about have involved speakers invited as part of a classroom series.”
At first blush, this argument seems reasonable. Why think that silencing a speaker for her political views is going to hamper the work done in a lab? But this dismissal is too quick. Shutting out and shouting down unpopular speech is a threat to universities’ ability to, in Waldron’s terms, “work as institutions of higher learning.”
For one, Waldron leaves unmentioned the growing number of cases in which students and professors (not simply invited speakers) are effectively silenced for having dissenting political views.
The incident at Evergreen State College is probably the best known. But there is also the case of Reed College, where students repeatedly disrupted Humanities 101 lectures, prompting students to fear a campus culture of “intimidation, stigma, and silence.” Consider also a recent poll of students at Pomona College which found that only 35% of non-liberal students felt comfortable expressing their political opinions to their professors and only 21% felt comfortable expressing them to fellow students.
And it is not only conservative speech that is chilled: Polk State College recently banned a faculty member’s anti-Trump artwork from a campus exhibition and Fresno State formally investigated a professor for writing tweets critical of Barbara Bush. It’s hard to see how students and professors on these campuses and others like them can fully perform their respective roles in their institutions of higher learning.
Although speech from both sides of the political aisle has been suppressed, there is reason to think that the effects of suppression are not evenly distributed. (See, for instance, the “Disinvitation Database” from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.)
Jeffrey Adam Sachs has argued that there is no free speech crisis on college campuses, partly because roughly twice as many liberal faculty members were terminated for political speech than conservative faculty members from 2015-2017 (excluding private religious colleges). However, as he notes, “we are not talking about a population where political ideology is uniformly distributed. It is possible for liberals to constitute the majority of faculty terminations and also for conservatives to be terminated at an equal or higher rate” (emphasis in the original).
In fact, the article itself links to a report showing that only about 9% of college faculty members are conservative. Thus, the evidence suggests that conservatives are terminated at a higher rate for political speech.
Suppression of disfavored political speech contributes to a campus culture that can be hostile to conservative viewpoints. For instance, 82% of liberal social psychologists explicitly admitted that they would discriminate to at least some extent against a conservative job applicant. A similar number was found for peer reviews of research papers.
Perhaps then it is no surprise that 82% of conservatives found their field hostile to their political beliefs, compared to only 7% of liberals. Indeed, this willingness to marginalize unpopular political viewpoints supplies a disincentive for conservatives to enter academia in the first place, contributing to the dramatic underrepresentation of conservatives at institutions of higher learning (and especially, in social research fields).
In addition to chilling classroom discussion and faculty research, the marginalization of dissenting viewpoints is bad for higher learning because ideological diversity provides a check on confirmation bias, broadens the menu of topics given serious academic consideration, facilitates more creative solutions to (non-political) problems, and more.
Waldron is wrong, then, to dismiss worries about free speech on campus as a misguided “moral panic.” Rather, the suppression of speech is a threat to the universities’ very identity as institutions dedicated to the production and dissemination of knowledge.
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