James Steinberg

Professor Keith Whittington adapted this excerpt from his book, Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, for PAW. 

Modern universities prefer to advertise themselves as committed to the pursuit of truth rather than to the recitation of dogma. Actually following through on that commitment often proves difficult. In order to sustain institutions of higher education that contribute to human progress, we must commit ourselves to liberal values of tolerance and freedom rather than to illiberal values of conformity and coercion. It is only by acknowledging those principles of free speech and respecting them that universities are able to realize their promise and make their best contribution to society.

Embracing free speech is easy if the speech never seems very challenging. It is easy to listen to pleasing ideas and affirmations of our own prior beliefs. It is much more difficult to learn to tolerate those with whom we disagree and who espouse ideas we find preposterous, repugnant, or even dangerous. We tolerate, and even affirmatively seek out, such disagreements not because they are pleasant but because it is through controversy that we can make progress, often in the most unexpected ways. At their best, universities tolerate controversies in the hopes that some of those controversies will generate not just heat but light. As students and scholars, we should welcome controversies that test our ideas and speculations and help us discard those arguments that are weak and build on those that are proven strong.

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Unfortunately, universities sometimes struggle to sustain the kind of diverse intellectual communities that would best facilitate the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill worried that a closed society, too comfortable in its own convictions, would retreat into dogmatism. It would not have the opportunity to grapple with diverse opinions, to have its own opinions tested, to refine its own ideas by identifying and shedding those that were weak and borrowing and bolstering those that were strong. Academia values skepticism, not credulity, but that requires bringing to campus those who will question and not merely affirm.

It marks a fundamental misunderstanding of academic life to conflate scholarly disagreements and political disagreements. It is perfectly possible for university faculties to overwhelmingly hail from the political left and yet disagree vehemently with one another on matters of scholarship and teaching, and it is likewise possible for faculty members who would be very much at odds with one another in the realm of politics to be in complete agreement in the realm of scholarship. Only someone who does not understand what happens on college campuses could declare, as the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn did, that “political science would be better left to pundits and voters,” or that “CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet” serve the same function as the venerable American National Election Studies of public opinion managed by the University of Michigan and Stanford University. Pundits on CNN and political scientists in their ivory tower both have their contributions to make to society, but it is a fundamental error to think that those contributions are of the same type and one or the other is simply redundant.

The evidence that American university faculties lean to the left in their political preferences is overwhelming. While the gap is smaller in some disciplines (e.g., engineering), it is extremely large in many others (e.g., sociology). It would be a reasonable, and in many ways correct, response to this fact to say that for most purposes the political preferences of university faculty members have nothing to do with their work and how they conduct it. It is much less reasonable to respond, as many academics have, that university faculties should lean to the left. 

When few conservative faculty members can be found on a college campus, students and others seeking to hear a conservative perspective on matters of public concern by necessity must look beyond campus. Preferably, the goal of such invitations should not be to replicate what could easily be found by simply turning on a cable news show. It is a missed opportunity if time, resources, and energy are committed to hosting events that do not advance the distinctive mission of a university and aspirations of a campus community, but are instead spent facilitating the business of professional agitators.

Obstructions of campus speakers have the immediate effect of preventing a willing audience from hearing the arguments that the speaker was invited to convey, but obstructionist protest tactics have an additional effect as well. They are efforts not merely to shout down a particular speech, but to ostracize the speaker from the campus community. They are designed not only to prevent a particular message from being heard, but also to send a message of their own: You will not be tolerated here.

Even more disturbing has been the recent uptick of threats of violence against professors who step out of line on American university campuses. Drexel University decided once again to suspend its most notorious professor over tweets about the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017. Because of “a growing number of threats” directed at the professor, the “safety of our campus” had to take priority over free speech and the professor had to be removed, Drexel said. Evergreen State College likewise appealed to campus safety as the reason for suspending a professor who came under fire from students for questioning a proposed “Day of Absence” on which white students and faculty were asked to stay away from campus.

Such purges are not designed to filter out would-be scholars who do not meet professional standards nor to dedicate intellectual energy to the most promising lines of scholarly inquiry. They are designed to impose and enforce ideological boundaries on the scope of academic discussion. Ideas without any credible intellectual grounding can be ignored. Arguments that are simply mistaken can be corrected through further argumentation and research. Scholars who have engaged in misconduct can be exposed and disciplined through fair procedures. Speakers who say things deemed unacceptable should not simply be excluded, and professors who step outside the bounds of academic or societal orthodoxy should not be threatened with violence or termination.

While such episodes might showcase academic communities that are failing to live up to their own ideals, do they actually pose a problem for the mission of a university? If the artificial constraints on the intellectual diversity tolerated on campus had no real consequences for the pursuit of truth or the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, then those constraints might be annoying and embarrassing but of no great significance.

It seems naive to imagine that such might be the case. Certainly in other contexts, we tend to think that artificial boundaries on the pursuit of knowledge and exclusions from the scholarly community are damaging not only to those left on the outside but also to those within the community. As Mill pointed out, it is the closed society that will not hear from outsiders that suffers the most from the intellectual blinders it has imposed on itself. Ignorance flourishes where free inquiry is impeded. Flawed assumptions go unchallenged. Weak arguments go uncorrected. The agenda for intellectual investigation itself is restricted as questions go unasked. Indeed, part of the rationale for adding gender, racial, and global diversity to American college campuses is that individuals with different experiences and perspectives will improve the quality of academic discourse. Specifically ignoring the value of nurturing greater intellectual diversity on campus seems misguided.

The lack of viewpoint diversity on campus has also encouraged political backlash. Although the economic, social, and cultural value of universities should encourage their broad support, it has become too easy for some to conclude that they have no stake in the success of universities. Both conservative professors and conservative students often find themselves beleaguered on campus. Conservative interest groups have fanned the flames of mass resentment of the universities. Conservative voters, politicians, and alumni are increasingly adopting the view that mainstream colleges and universities are agents of left-wing politics that should be starved or dismantled. If university faculty understand themselves to be a force of progressive social and political change, it should not be surprising if conservatives use the tools at their disposal to fight back.

It would be preferable if the future of universities did not devolve into a partisan battle. A sincere commitment to preserving free speech on campus and sustaining a space for diverse intellectual arguments is an essential element of demonstrating the value of universities to a broad constituency. Legislative or alumni interventions into campus affairs with a goal of tilting the ideological balance in universities are often clumsy and ham-handed. They subvert important safeguards of university autonomy and intellectual experimentation and distort academic endeavors. The pressure for such outside interventions will only intensify, however, if universities do not seem to be keeping their own house in order. If universities position themselves as little more than partisan think tanks or advocates within the culture war, then partisans on the other side will be inclined to treat them as adversaries to be neutered or destroyed.

Outsiders can worry too much about ideological intolerance on college campuses. While disruptive protests are unfortunate and too common, they do not characterize the everyday routine of campus life. In a nation with hundreds of colleges and millions of students, even a daily episode of uncivil behavior would represent but a drop in the sea. The occasional instance of a speaker being shouted down or a class being disrupted commands attention, but such instances tend to overshadow the thousands of campus speakers whose biggest problem is convincing an audience to attend the lecture or the thousands of classroom teachers who are most concerned that students read their assignments and pay attention in class. Those who worry about systematic ideological indoctrination in college classrooms should be heartened by the evidence that students who are most engaged with their professors and their academic work are the least likely to drift to intellectual and political extremes. It is tempting to indulge ourselves and wallow in the examples of campus misbehavior that conform to familiar narratives, but we should be careful not to let such examples overwhelm us. There are troubling currents swirling through college campuses, and there are genuine disagreements about the proper mission of the university and the modes of realizing it, but campuses are not yet in crisis. Colleges do not need to be dismembered or salvaged. They do need to give attention to their foundations, however. The principles of intellectual inquiry and the conditions that sustain it need to be reaffirmed if universities are to remain vibrant and valuable institutions.

The causes of the ideological tilt on college campuses are myriad. Although it might be the case that simple ideological bias sometimes plays a role in faculty hiring, it is probably more common that ideological blinders help shape an academic culture that is inhospitable to dissenting ideas and points of view. It would seem unwise and likely futile to pursue a system of quotas for achieving greater intellectual diversity on campus. The goal should not be to put a thumb on the scale of scholarly merit. Universities must continue to strive to be the best at what they do by cultivating free intellectual inquiry and creative thinking about ideas. Members of the campus community should pause, however, before dismissing the need for intellectual diversity within academia. Those who are tempted to think that conservatives are simply too “stupid” to participate in the scholarly endeavor, or believe that the intellectual contribution of a conservative scholar on campus would be no different from what could be found on a typical evening on Fox News, should pause to consider whether they have retreated too far into an ideological bubble of their own. Nurturing and grappling with dissenting voices within academia would be likely to pay unexpected intellectual dividends as the scope of academic research is expanded, and the representation of thoughtful conservative scholars and teachers on college campuses is likely to encourage greater tolerance, engagement, and dialogue on campus and beyond.  

Adapted and excerpted from Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech by Keith Whittington. Copyright © 2018 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.