Almost two years have passed since the Halloween imbroglio at Yale in 2015, which launched the current era of student mobilizations against speech that some students don’t want to hear. Whatever their ideological stance, these protests aim to intimidate controversial speakers and those who would invite them to campus, to prevent others from hearing them, and to banish certain ideas and terms from campus discourse.
College leaders invariably denounce violence and affirm their unflagging commitment to robust speech and debate on campus. They invoke the standard tropes of liberal education: to cultivate students’ curiosity, knowledge, imagination, and critical thinking by exposing them to diverse ideas about the world. They routinely genuflect before the First Amendment’s protection of academic freedom and provocative and unsettling speech. (Private institutions, while not legally bound by the First Amendment, subscribe to the same doxology).
Backing up this free-speech rhetoric is anything but free. Security is very costly. It cost Berkeley an estimated $600,000 merely to protect one conservative speaker’s visit recently, a drop in the UC system’s $7.3 billion budgetary bucket. But at smaller schools, protecting such speakers competes with scarce resources for teaching, financial aid, housing, and other essential functions.
Colleges run other serious risks when campus turbulence threatens to blight the school’s reputation with its trustees, major donors, and potential applicants. Presidents who lose control may lose their jobs. Knowing this, they mollify the student groups which threaten to wreak this havoc. Having long ago abandoned the traditional in loco parentis role, their power to shape student conduct is now very limited. Leftist orthodoxy in the classroom is especially prevalent on more elite campuses and in academic departments (the social sciences and humanities, for example) where almost the entire faculty is liberal. (This is evidenced not only by what they teach and assign but also by their campaign contributions). And even if some professors present a range of perspectives, students probably prefer an unvarnished version of conservatism from true believer outsiders to liberal professors struggling to appear “balanced.”
The fuel for the speech-related disorder is inexhaustible. For many students, especially conservatives, these speakers also help to correct for a perceived leftist orthodoxy in the classroom. Scoring outside anti-establishment speakers with wide name recognition, rhetorical flair, and a taste for provocation revs up student interest and magnifies the organizers’ status and recognition on campus, their ideological and militant chops, and their feelings of accomplishment. Some schools even provide student organizations with a budget to support these and other “enrichment” activities. Some politically active outside groups such as the Federalist Society and its counterparts on the left may also subsidize them.
The protesting students can almost always count on some faculty sympathizers with similar motivations as well as a desire to embarrass the equivocating, temporizing administration. At the highest-ranked schools, professors often have great bargaining power due to global reputations and frequent job offers. At lower-ranked schools, many faculty have low status, poor pay, and little job security. Their estrangement encourages solidarity with protesting and disaffected students. And a new study from Brookings suggests that intolerance of unpopular views – and even support for violence to suppress them – is remarkably common among today’s college students.
These incentives and conditions help explain why the adults nominally in charge often seem so feckless. More eager to pacify their protesting student and faculty critics than to protect the abstract intellectual values which they claim to revere, they equivocate. As for students, most surely oppose the extremists — but like most silent majorities, they exert less influence than their numbers might warrant.
What is to be done?
- A counterforce consisting of trustees and major donors – the off-campus people who have invested the most in the institution and care most about its reputation and welfare should make clear to the administration that their future financial support will depend on a clear affirmation that (a) academic values and intellectual diversity are paramount; (b)academic freedom does not protect those who try to stifle other viewpoints; (c) students, faculty, and administrators who do not respect these norms do not belong there; and (d) serious sanctions will attend duly-adjudicated violations of those norms — including expulsion or long-term suspension of students who actively encouraged those violations. Similar sanctions should apply to even tenured faculty who promote them. (This last is easier said than done, of course). The public statement on freedom of expression issued by the University of Chicago in 2012 can serve as a good starting point.
- More student riots and speech-impeding mobs are likely to end up in court. Several of the most publicized confrontations, such as the intimidation of Professor Bret Weinstein by Evergreen students who wanted him and all other Caucasians off-campus for a whites-free day, ended in settlements, in Weinstein’s case for $500,000. Jay Weiser, associate professor of law at Baruch College, points out that the post-Civil-War anti-Klu Klux Klan laws still have power, one of them covering private conspiracies and masked conspirators (the Klan originally and presumably masked Antifa attackers now). Weiser writes:
“The statute applies most clearly to racially motivated physical attacks or efforts to exclude persons. Evergreen State is a classic case: After disrupting Mr. Weinstein’s class, students detained the college president and apparently posted photos of themselves brandishing baseball bats on Facebook. Some faculty members demanded disciplinary action against Mr. Weinstein and later assembled with masked Antifa members who attacked counter-protesters.” As Weiser notes, Colleges are subject to anti-discrimination statutes such as Section 1981, an anti-KKK act that would cover student and speaker contract rights. If they accept federal funding they are also subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and if the crowd attacked white “supremacy” or “privilege,” and if private universities act with deliberate indifference to racially motivated attacks, they may be liable to students or speakers.”
While affirming the right to protest peacefully against speakers with whom some disagree, the administration should inform the community about various federal and state law remedies (including reimbursement of attorney fees in some cases) to would-be listeners whose civil rights are violated by speech-impeding or violent protesters, especially those wearing masks or other disguises. Indeed, those in such disguises should not be admitted to such events in the first place.
- The agencies that accredit universities require them to demonstrate, among other conditions, a commitment to academic freedom, intellectual freedom, and freedom of expression. Defenders of these values on campus can threaten to invoke dis-accreditation remedies for recurrent violations on their campuses.
- Diversity-talk on college today’s campuses is obsessed with gender, race, sexual orientation, and other constructions of identity. In excess, these obsessions degrade intellectual discourse, interpersonal civility, and campus life generally. Colleges now emphasize and promote these often divisive identities rather than fostering the civility, candor, and thicker skins necessary to sustain a robust and competitive diverse society. Colleges’ highest educational priority should be intellectual, methodological, and socioeconomic diversity, not a campus peace based on a patronizing co-optation of sullen groups.
Recently, a wealthy donor offered Yale a large matching grant to promote intellectual and viewpoint diversity, especially in faculty hiring. The offer was designed to parallel Yale’s $50 million fund for identity diversity, established immediately after the Halloween incident. Yale acknowledged the need, especially in law and certain humanities departments, but declined the gift. Evidently, it has other priorities. Columbia’s recently-announced $100 million faculty diversity initiative will likely reinforce its current obsession with ethnic, race, and gender identities rather than augment them with genuinely discordant, conservative voices that might challenge their students’ preconceptions.
Opposition to conservative voices is in the DNA of the radical left, inflamed by apocalyptic “Antifa” activists. The radical right’s uncompromising contempt for the left is a mirror image. Colleges have a tough job in keeping these clashes on the side of the line that protects speech and promotes genuine viewpoint diversity. These measures would go a long toward holding that precious line.