The Cost of Ignoring First Principles

The reputation of American universities, already precariously low, hit a nadir with the testimony of the presidents of three iconic American universities, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and University of Pennsylvania (Penn) before the Committee on Education and Labor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Borrowing from Victor Davis Hanson, to these schools, the House hearing was what the woke Bud Light commercials were to Anheuser-Busch: an unmitigated disaster. The pusillanimous privileged perversities who use DEI bureaucracies to rule the elite schools have encountered the real world. At this writing, Penn President Liz Magill has resigned, and the tenure of the others seems shaky. I think the fundamental problem is that these presidents—all women, of course, given the intense anti-male hostility prevalent in the academy—largely ignored two First Principles, embodied in The Ten Commandments and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

More precisely, the presidents seemed to equivocate and waffle on the importance of moral imperatives such as the biblical “thou shalt not kill” when they failed to unconditionally condemn the genocide generated by Hamas when it started its current war with Israel. They did so because they did not want to inflame a large pro-Palestinian campus constituency. Kowtowing to campus wokeness trumped adherence to the Ten Commandments. American higher education began largely as an exercise in promoting Christian morality, and on the eve of the American Revolution, roughly one out of four students at America’s nine colonial colleges were studying to be ministers, and promoting virtue was considered a major if not the dominant reason for colleges.

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which commits us to free speech, is a fundamental American principle. However, for generations, thoughtful people recognized that it applied to behavior consistent with laws governing criminal behavior. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919 famously opined that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” Thus, if a pro-Palestinian student fanatic told a campus group that “We must gather here tonight and by all necessary means systematically eliminate Jewish students on this campus” that is going too far as he advocates intentionally breaking laws relating to criminal behavior. Not only should that speech be off limits, but the student should also be severely disciplined—including expulsion and criminal charges—for attempting to incite riots and bodily harm. So, there are limits appropriately placed on speech-threatening life or property. And college presidents must navigate those limits. Necessarily, there may occasionally be gray areas—has provocative speech gone too far by potentially criminally endangering people or property?

While Holmes was a significant name in American legal history, so was University of Chicago law professor Harry Kalven (1914-1974). Kalven in 1967 chaired a committee of seven distinguished scholars (i.e., John Hope Franklin and George Stigler) that produced the report regarding the university’s role “in political and social action.” I think a vast majority of the campus brouhahas of today could have been avoided or at least mitigated by adopting and following the principles of the Kalven Report. To quote from it: “The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement and dissemination of knowledge …The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is … a community of scholars … it cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” How wise, how correct.

Hence, if I were one of the presidents at the House hearing, I would have said, “Our university adheres to the Kalven principle that universities are merely academic villages, communities of scholars. We provide resources and space in which members of that community express themselves, but we ourselves as an institution do not take positions on issues of the day. We do this, however, mindful of the laws of the broader community, laws to which we adhere.”

There is another issue: the quality of presidential leadership. All three presidents testifying were in only their second year of leadership. At least one prominent Harvard alumnus and major donor has asserted that at least at Harvard, the President, Claudine Gay, received her job only after being vetted by the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy that are powerful at virtually all major universities. Interestingly, she rose swiftly to becoming a named full professor of political science despite never publishing a book—exceedingly rare at Harvard (she does have several fairly highly cited journal articles). Of the nine current presidents of Ivy League schools plus MIT, seven are women, and no man has been appointed president for a decade, consistent with the view that DEI vetting of top administrators has probably become a de facto unwritten requirement—since no DEI administrator would likely ever consent to a straight white male as president.

Vicious sex, race, and viewpoint discrimination is dramatically narrowing the pool of qualified leaders. It showed at the recent Congressional hearing. The Penn board of trustees went into an emergency meeting after hearing the damage that President Liz Magill had done in less than two years to a school already reeling from significant donor rebellion against a progressive agenda, as followers of the Amy Wax—Penn Law professor—inquisition are aware. Ironically, Magill is now becoming a Penn Law professor at the same time it is trying to oust Wax, whose big crime was offending Penn’s Woke Supremacy. Is higher education needing a more comprehensive auto-da-fe, a cleansing of the collegiate environment? For starters, shouldn’t we eliminate DEI bureaucracies from campuses?

Photo by Larry — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 248203198


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

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One thought on “The Cost of Ignoring First Principles”

  1. The problem lies in Richard Vedder’s first paragraph, where he refers to Harvard, MIT, and Penn as “elite schools.” Eventually, perhaps, this will have only a sarcastic connotation, but at the moment it is at most ironic. By viewing them as elite, Vedder cedes them moral and academic authority. The only way to break their influence, and the power of the establishments which run them, is to delegitimize their pretensions and deny any presumptions that their graduates are educated. State that their graduates did not go to real colleges, and the institutions are diploma mills for second-rate minds.

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