The scene was deeply troubling. Hundreds of college students proclaimed that Hamas’ October 7, 2023, assault on Israeli civilians was a heroic and justified act of liberation. It confirmed a level of ignorance engendered by decades of decay in our colleges and universities. But equally troubling is the fact that the United States Congress immediately intervened. If there is any social institution, along with religion, that should be insulated from political meddling, it is higher education.
Not long after October 7, the presidents of three of America’s most prominent universities were called onto the Congressional carpet by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. When asked to explain their failure to condemn Hamas’ atrocities, all three offered what has been widely panned as evasive and inadequate responses. On December 13, the House of Representatives adopted House Resolution 927, “Condemning antisemitism on University campuses and the testimony of the University Presidents.” The resolution was approved in a 303-126 vote, with 84 Democrats and 219 Republicans in favor. The resolution condemned the presidents by name and called for their resignation.
After a brief effort at redemption, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Liz Magill, was forced to resign. The president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, resigned a few weeks later in the face of demonstrated plagiarism in her academic publications on top of concerns about her testimony in Congress. As soon as the plagiarism issue arose, the House committee demanded documents from Harvard’s internal investigation of the charges. Following Magill’s resignation Representative Elise Stefanik, who sponsored HR 927 and led the aggressive questioning during the committee hearing, proclaimed: “One down… Two to go… This forced resignation of the President of @Penn is the bare minimum of what is required.” After Gay’s resignation, Stefanik posted to X, “TWO DOWN.”
A few days after the adoption of the House resolution, United States Senator Dan Sullivan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, declared: “It is time for Congress to save these important and once-respected institutions from themselves and their weak leaders who have lost their moral compasses. I intend to work with my colleagues in the Senate to do so.”
The House committee and Senator Sullivan clearly believe Congress has a role in reforming our colleges and universities. But what would that role be? Hire and fire college and university presidents? Dictate course curricula? Mandate qualifications for faculty? Approve promotion and tenure decisions? Set parameters of acceptable research and scholarship? Establish speech and conduct codes for students and faculty? Instruct college and university presidents on what public policies to favor and disfavor? Create a new federal agency to oversee higher education? Any such interventions, even if within the constitutional authority of Congress, would compromise the academic freedom essential to democratic government and the academic pursuit of truth.
Federal or state government meddling in the programs and employment decisions of colleges and universities cannot be justified, even when institutions of higher education have clearly lost their way. But one thing the Senate and Congress can do, without question, is condition the many public funding sources on meeting federal mandates. In its demand that Harvard submit documents related to President Gay’s alleged plagiarism, the House committee reminded Harvard officials that “federal funding to Harvard is conditioned upon the school’s adherence to the standards of a recognized accreditor.” The reliance by Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania on federal largess likely explains why the three presidents agreed to voluntarily subject themselves to a grilling before the House committee—that and a misplaced confidence in the rationality of political inquiry. Colleges and universities have gotten themselves into the political thicket by becoming dependent on direct government subsidies and indirect subsidies that fund student tuition. If they don’t kowtow to the members of Congress, they risk a significant part of their budgets.
Of course, the situation is different for public institutions created and funded—to a diminishing extent but with no less oversight—by state governments. In Florida, for example, the governor cut $120 million from the proposed higher education budget while allotting a record $50 million to New College, where he also replaced the Board of Trustees with members committed to his vision of what a college should be. Although such interventions are fully within the authority of the state government, they pose the same risks to academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. It is a hazard inherent to publicly funded higher education.
But it’s not just the funding that encourages and allows for government intervention. Universities and colleges have brought political meddling on themselves by embracing political and ideological causes. They have abandoned their historic mission of truth-seeking in favor of promoting and pursuing an assortment of social and political agendas. Although the formal mission statements of most universities and colleges proclaim a commitment to the pursuit of truth and the development of knowledge, they have embraced favored social policies, most notably diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as constraints on that search. Candidates for faculty positions are screened through a DEI filter, while professors, students, and staff receive DEI instruction. At the same time, many classrooms have become training centers for activists recruited to pursue favored outcomes—a carbon-neutral economy, a more equitable distribution of wealth, healthcare for all, freedom for the Palestinians and all other victims of colonization, or any number of other causes.
Universities and colleges have also taken it upon themselves to issue public statements on issues of the day and to censure student and faculty expression of disfavored views.
When George Floyd died while being constrained by police, presidents, provosts, and deans issued statements of condemnation on behalf of their institutions. When the Supreme Court’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson—overruling Roe v. Wade—was leaked, similar statements of disapproval were issued from those authorized to speak for colleges and universities. It is, therefore, not surprising that students and the general public expected similar statements condemning Hamas’s brutal assault on Israeli citizens. Nor is it surprising that members of Congress wanted to know why the student defenders of Hamas were not censured. But neither statements of condemnation nor restraints on student speech were forthcoming.
And that is as it should be, but for the double standard now revealed to all. Colleges and universities have chosen sides on matters of wide public concern. They have privileged some speech while censoring other speech. They have dug themselves a hole out of which they have been unable to climb.
The solution, uncomfortable and controversial as it will be, is to admit failure and start afresh with institutional policies founded on two now familiar principles. First, colleges and universities should be strictly neutral on all questions, whether of science or public policy not directly relevant to institutional operations. The University of Chicago’s 1967 statement on institutional neutrality—the Kalven Report—is as sound today as it was over a half-century ago when activists pressed for university condemnation of the Vietnam War and for divestment in South Africa. “The neutrality of the university as an institution,” wrote the faculty committee, “arises … not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”
It will be objected that some acts and opinions are so self-evidently wrong that they must be condemned, and ‘incorrect’ views must be suppressed. But if a truth is self-evident, contrary opinions will be revealed as false in a free exchange of ideas. A recent essay by Tom Christina in Law and Liberty argues that the Kalven Report’s insistence on institutional neutrality in conjunction with unconstrained expression by students and faculty effectively embraces the relativism that feeds the rot in higher education. Christina contends that the Report’s failure to mention Oliver Wendell Holmes’ metaphor of a marketplace of ideas exposed a lack of confidence in the free exchange of ideas as a prescription for revealing truth. But no person was more confident in the power of free speech than Harry Kalven. Rather than accepting that relativism is inherent in unconstrained expression, institutional neutrality assures that the authority of the institution does not bias the inquiry. In stating that the university has the “obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints,” the Kalven committee was saying that openness to all viewpoints, not every viewpoint, is to be cherished.
The second principle that must guide college and university policies flows from the respect for free inquiry. 48 years after the Kalven Report, another University of Chicago faculty committee issued a report on freedom of expression now known as the Chicago Principles. After declaring that “the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it,” the faculty committee, giving credit to their former president Robert M. Hutchins, observed that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.”
Those who would impose constraints on speech, issue trigger warnings, and establish safe spaces contend that speech can be hurtful and detrimental to the education of those harmed. But if we are educating youth to be productive and contented members of society, they must be exposed to rather than protected from the sometimes harsh realities of social life. The common law has long relied on a reasonable person standard to distinguish between actually harmful and merely offensive speech. Colleges and universities must do the same if they are to truly educate their students.
Only by committing to these two principles can the hundreds of institutions calling themselves colleges and universities warrant those appellations. Many, if not most, have wandered far from the historic mission of the university. They are, of course, free to do so. But if they seek to regain their status as institutions of higher learning, they must wipe their messy slates clean and begin anew with an unwavering commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression, bolstered by institutional neutrality. Hundreds of University of Pennsylvania faculty have set a good example by endorsing a proposed constitution for their university with these two principles at its core. That a written guarantee of institutional neutrality and freedom of expression is needed at Penn is evidenced by the large number of anonymous signatories.
Politicians will always seek to influence college and university curricula and policies. One need only look to the politicized universities that are the norm in many other countries to understand why American colleges and universities, long resistant to political interference, have drawn scholars and students from across the globe. As with the millions of immigrants attracted to the United States and other western countries by the prospect of freedom, the academic freedom that long characterized American higher education has been a beacon for those seeking knowledge and its rewards.
Threats of the withdrawal of federal or state funding should be dismissed just as early defenders of free speech rebuffed alumni threats to withhold support. Principle must trump pragmatism when it comes to the core mission of the university, even if it means the loss of funding. This does not mean that alumni and other private philanthropists should be ignored, however. When complaints are to the speech or writings of particular faculty or students, adherence to principles of academic freedom requires polite dismissal. But when the objection is that the university has abandoned academic freedom and the pursuit of truth to activism and indoctrination, university leaders should engage in some self-reflection. The efforts of alumni organizations like Princetonians for Free Speech, MIT Free Speech Alliance, and the umbrella group Alumni Free Speech Alliance may yet garner the attention of university leaders. The appropriate influence of alumni and other individuals is categorically different, however, from the influence of government. The former have only money and persuasion at their command. Government has the power to regulate, prosecute, and ultimately disband for whatever reasons those in power think appropriate.
There can be little question that higher education has compromised the pursuit of truth to activism and indoctrination. The members of Congress and other government officials are not wrong to see a serious problem. But it cannot be for the government to fix the problem. The fix must come from within. With a history of issuing statements on matters of public concern and a record of speech codes declaring what views are acceptable, colleges and universities have established expectations they must find the fortitude to disappoint. Students, professors, deans, and presidents must demand that their college or university deliver on the promise of education for the sake of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Looking to the government for a fix will only ensure that politics, not principle, guides the future of higher education.
Photo by New Africa — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 662449850 & eskay lim — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 79389519 — Edited by Jared Gould