All posts by Donald A. Downs

Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

U. of Wisconsin Will Suspend or Expel Campus Disrupters

Following a spate of controversial protests on college campuses across the nation that sought to silence mostly conservative speakers, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents has adopted a policy that mandates punishment for students and other campus citizens who willfully seek to disrupt speakers.

The policy, resulting from pressure by the state legislature, calls for mandatory suspension of students who disrupt a speaker for the second time, and expulsion for a third offense.

This is one of the two most controversial aspects of the policy; the other is the potential for the “chilling effect” of those who want to properly protest a speaker. The disruption standard comes from a famous Supreme Court student free speech case (Tinker v. School District of Des Moines, 1968), which covers those who “materially and substantially” disrupt a lawful speaker on campus — a valid concern if the standard is not applied conscientiously. Ultimately, the courts may have to weigh in on how to draw a legitimate line between protest and disruption.

In addition to the disruption standard, the main features of the policy include requiring the following:

  • An annual report on the status of free speech and the application of the policy by the system’s campuses to the Board of Regents.
  • Orientation on free speech principles to all freshmen and transfer students.
  • That the University not in any way discourage students or employees from expressing or harboring their own views when the University takes a public stand on a policy issue (the so-called “Neutrality” policy.)

Supporters of the policy claim that it is a necessary response to the spate of disruptions that have beset higher education over the course of the last few years, epitomized by the physical attacks on American Enterprise Institute political scientist Charles Murray and his faculty host last March at Middlebury—a disruption heard around the academic world, though it was hardly the only such noise.

Related: Middlebury Sounds an Alarm

At Middlebury, where protestors injured a liberal faculty member who was scheduled to debate Murray after his talk, dozens of students were disciplined, but no one was suspended or expelled.

At Berkeley, where preventing people from speaking has become routine, the protests exceeded their goals and became violent and destructive. Property was destroyed, businesses in the area were looted and fires were set in the streets. It’s hard to say how many were students and how many were from outside groups. The growth of these university protest movements with little or no consequence to those who disregard the first amendment of the Constitution must have prompted the Wisconsin State Legislature to act.

The only way to adequately restore the free speech integrity of the campus is to appropriately punish those who do the disrupting. Reasonable people can argue over what punishment is proper, but sanctions need to be meaningful to work. Claremont McKenna provides a recent positive example: it suspended the students who shouted down Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute to stop her from speaking last spring.

Several intellectual and constitutional harms arise when a rightful speaker is disrupted: the rights of the speaker; the rights of the person or group who brought the speaker in; the rights of the audience to listen to the speech—listeners do not always agree with a speaker; the right of the institution to be an “open university;” and even the obligation of the republic’s fundamental commitment to intellectual freedom. (The First Amendment does not apply to private schools, but most of them provide similar protections to students and faculty through contractual agreements or official campus policy.)

Implementing free speech counseling during freshman orientation is a good and necessary idea in today’s environment.  The lack of civics education and American history, including a basic understanding of the Constitution, requires at least this effort.

Swinging the Pendulum Too Far the Other Way

So why are there critics? Several reasons. First, as FIRE pointed out on its website, the policy does not provide for disciplinary discretion to mete out different penalties based on the degree of one’s level of disruption. Those who shout down speakers or physically intimidate them are one thing; those who provide minor assistance in some other way other are another. Criminal law usually makes such distinctions. Should not higher education as well?

Another concern is the academic freedom of the institution itself, which has traditionally included sufficient institutional autonomy. This is the first time in history that the legislature has dictated to the University how it must punish its students. As mentioned, there are reasons to be distrustful of higher education’s will to apply sufficient sanctions in this context; but empirical evidence of the problems at UW System institutions would be good to substantiate these concerns in relation to the actual institutions the policy covers.

Just last week the legislature introduced a policy that FIRE claims would directly interfere with the UW Medical School’s academic policy and training of physicians when it comes to abortions. The proposed law does not allow training of UW Medical School personnel at places like Planned Parenthood. According to the medical school dean, Robert N. Golden, this training is required for the medical school to keep its national accreditation for OB-GYN training. As Golden said in testimony reported in the Wisconsin State Journal, the policy could leave medical school residents “with no place to be trained,” which would “’destroy the program and result in residents going to other states. Allowing them to leave Wisconsin would only worsen the state’s shortage of OB-GYN doctors, particularly in rural areas.’”

“It is disappointing to see members of the Wisconsin state legislature attempt to interfere with the academic policy and decision-making of UW’s medical school. The legislature would do well to avoid such intrusions into the academic freedom of faculty teaching at the state’s public universities,” FIRE wrote.  Some observers of the free speech policy see it in the context of this and other legislative interventions into UW academic policy that have taken place in recent times.

Many people worry that this external intervention will set a precedent for other cases, especially given past legislative actions that have negatively affected Wisconsin’s national standing. And as conservatives have long maintained, government action is often meted out with a hammer, not a scalpel.

Another unfortunate feature of the policy is that is has been construed by many sources—including those with no political ax to grind and are even champions of campus free speech—to be a partisan effort. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the policy is ultimately the fruit of a legislature that is highly partisan and has its own agenda with a university system that it considers, not unreasonably, to be clearly tilted toward the left. Second, the legislature’s actions were modeled on a blueprint for such policies presented last January by the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, which leans right. Such pedigree does not mean that the policy is unprincipled per se, but the political background plays into the hands of those who see partisanship behind the scenes.

Supporters of the policy may properly reply that the legislative left and their allies have exacerbated the partisanship problem by refusing to acknowledge that free speech and other issues that marginalize the right have endangered higher education. (Interestingly, this lack of acknowledgment is not matched at UW-Madison and other national campuses, where numerous faculty members on the left share genuine concern for the status of campus free speech.) Amazingly, some have even asseverated that no such problem exists on campus nationwide. As it is, the politics of free speech remains as divided and partisan as our national politics more generally.

Accordingly, rather than helping the cause of free speech, the regent policy and its links to the legislature may ironically be harming the cause of free speech in certain respects. One of the lessons I have learned during my long tenure as a pro-free speech campus activist is that being perceived as partisan undermines the credibility of erstwhile valid free speech claims. Sadly, this misstep has taken place in Wisconsin.

To be sure, higher education has opened the door to such intervention by its failure to protect its most important principle, which is intellectual freedom. But the need for remedial action still leaves open the question of the most prudent way to proceed, especially when empirical evidence of disruption is lacking for the institutions the law targets.

What Scalia Did for Undergrads

Justice Scalia had an important impact among many college students, certainly among mine, and especially among those who  often or usually disagreed with his conclusions.

I taught law-oriented classes for thirty-five years—constitutional law and politics, civil liberties, criminal law and justice, jurisprudence and legal theory, and the First Amendment. During this span, Scalia’s opinions were ever-present pedagogical companions in our classes, making him feel like a colleague, even though we never met. More importantly, his impact upon my students can point to what a university should be.

Campus Censorship Returns

I taught at one of the most notably progressive universities in the country, and many of my students came to class predisposed by the student opinion grapevine to dismiss or disrespect Scalia’s thinking because he was a conservative. But such students were often shaken out their dogmatic slumbers by reading Scalia’s cases, and, hopefully, by noting the due respect—critical as well as appreciative—that I exhibited while leading the discussions.

The first lesson students learned was that stereotypes are often wrong, or at least incomplete. Though many of Scalia’s flamboyant opinions did not constitutionally support such liberal causes as gay marriage and abortion rights, others provided protections for free speech, the privacy rights entailed in the Fourth Amendment, and the rights of terror detainees. And his decisions regarding such things as checks and balances cut different ways politically. The reason for these ostensibly unexpected results was that Scalia’s opinions were guided by a judicial philosophy that did not always lead to conventional conservative conclusions or his own personal preferences. Constitutional truth is not the same thing as your own preferences.

A second, related, lesson harkens back to Plato’s archetypal discussion of justice in Book I of The Republic, where Socrates and Thrasymachus debate whether justice is something other than that which serves the interests of those in power. Applied to our classes the question was whether a constitutional decision reflects a striving to find impersonal constitutional truth or simply the value or political preferences of the Justices. For example, were Scalia’s opinions regarding abortion rights and the death penalty manifestations of his own values, or of his reading of the constitution?

Scalia’s vibrant and forceful style could bear the appearance—and reality—of self-assertion; but his consistent referral to originalism, textualism, and the principle of judicial restraint pointed to something beyond the self. Such acknowledgement and deference to truth and meaning outside one’s own personal needs and preferences is the beginning of intellectual integrity and even wisdom, as Socrates—the founding father, as it were, of what ultimately became higher education—taught.

Not Always Disinterested

Alas, like all Justices and human beings, Scalia was not always successful in separating his own preferences from the law. Human nature will not countenance complete disinterestedness, nor should it. But it is a matter of degree, and bearing witness to the struggle between reason and self-interest teaches us something fundamental about the stuff of which humanity is made, and how to make the most of it.

Indeed, liberal democracy itself is premised upon striving to achieve a productive balance between universal justice and the self-interest that is an intrinsic element of the pursuit of happiness and liberty itself. In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections into human nature?” So were the most important Scalia opinions.

Third, students were impressed by the spirit and élan of Scalia’s pen, and the character it evoked, which made studying constitutional law exciting and showed students how and why the Constitution is important to our nation’s fate. Most importantly, Scalia’s writing highlighted the virtues of intellectual courage and honesty—virtues that lie at the foundation of First Amendment theory and jurisprudence. Such virtues need much more support on college campuses today as the bloated sensitivity bureaucracies and increasingly misguided student leadership call for more “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and what Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has labeled “the escape from freedom of speech.”

Though he did not often talk explicitly about courage, Scalia’s fearless opinions simply embodied this virtue. And his free speech opinions empowered the speech of dissenters. On a personal note, his controversial pro-free-speech majority opinion in R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992) literally stopped the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents in their tracks from adopting a restrictive new student speech code in the spring of 1992. This decision and its impact played a role in the ensuing success of the free speech movement at U.W. Madison of which I have been proud to have participated—a movement that included many students over the years.

Though he did not often talk explicitly about courage, Scalia’s fearless opinions simply embodied this virtue. And his free speech opinions empowered the speech of dissenters. On a personal note, his controversial pro-free-speech majority opinion in R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992) literally stopped the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents in their tracks from adopting a restrictive new student speech code in the spring of 1992. This decision and its impact played a role in the ensuing success of the free speech movement at U.W. Madison of which I have been proud to have participated—a movement that included many students over the years.

Students learned ways to think more conceptually and analytically. Scalia eschewed the mushy two- or three-part tests that characterized so many Supreme Court decisions before his time in favor of more analytical opinions based on concepts linked to the text, historical meaning, and precedents. This emphasis called upon students to respond with reasons rather than personal preferences or sloppy thinking.

A classic example of this effect that many students commented upon was his dissent in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the 2004 case dealing with terrorist enemy combatants. The plurality opinion applied a makeshift balancing test that Scalia thought constituted a wooly subjective deference to the Executive branch that was not justified by the Constitution’s text. His lonely 1988 dissent opposing legislation creating an independent prosecutor in the executive branch is another example of  this same reasoning. Today that dissent is widely considered the best constitutional position.

He was immune to fears of public or elite opinion, as his dissents in some privacy cases, First Amendment cases, and the independent prosecutor case revealed. In Holloway v. U.S. (1999) he dissented when the majority held that a car-jacker had the requisite criminal intent to kill when he told the driver that he would kill him if the driver did not surrender the car. According to Scalia, “conditional intent”—I will do X unless you do Y—is not criminal intent per se. It only becomes intent if the condition is not met. He wrote the opinion at a time when national anger over carjacking was high.

A Source of Tension

Finally, Scalia’s opinions embodied a tension that is essential to the normative order of liberal democracy and to the thriving of higher education. A meaningful life and citizenship dictate that one must stand for what one believes, that an unprincipled life is less worth living. (Think “Live Free or Die”) But a democratic society beholden to the natural and experiential fact of human differences also requires citizens to harbor due respect for the rights of those with whom they disagree. Civic and constitutional virtue entail an ironic tension between self-assertion and restraint—a tension Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes captured in the most famous of all free speech dissents, Abrams v. U.S. (1919), which laid the foundation for what later became the Modern Doctrine of Free Speech. Holmes asserted that the strong commitment to “fighting faiths” must not be allowed to stifle disagreement. The Constitution is not only about doctrines and laws, but also about a type of character. As are universities.

Scalia’s judicial philosophy was a living example of Holmes’ logic. His strong and sometimes strident opinions stood out for their audacity and commitment to constitutional principle as he understood it, while his underlying theory of judicial restraint was based upon leaving most important normative questions to be decided by the democratic political process unless the Constitution clearly dictates otherwise. He railed against what he called an elitist “Nietzschean Superman” Court of nine unelected lawyers who too often, in his view, usurped the power to decide supra-constitutional normative disputes. At the same time, no Justice displayed the Nietzschean virtues of intellectual courage and aggression more fully.

But if Scalia’s jurisprudence were to prevail, “We the People” would have to fight among ourselves to resolve most, though not all, contentious normative questions. That’s what it is to be self-governing. And this is what we strove to do in class, where we came to think ourselves empowered, however temporarily, to consider constitutional meaning for ourselves.

Will the GOP Cut University Budgets?

Governor Scott Walker has called for draconian budget cuts to the University of Wisconsin System: $300 million, including $114 million for my flagship institution, UW-Madison. Coupled with previous recent significant cuts, this move furthers the on-going downward trend of state funding for higher education in nationwide. The Wisconsin legislature has the final say over Walker’s call, and even some of the Governor’s legislative supporters have expressed misgivings; after all, they, their children, and their constituents have a stake in maintaining the quality of UW.

The governor also launched a quickly aborted attempt to unilaterally redefine the hallowed “Wisconsin Idea,” the longstanding statutory mission statement of the University that is such a part of the historical DNA of the institution. He deleted language touting service and knowledge in favor of narrower language befitting a trade school: “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” The blowback was instantaneous from across the political spectrum, leading the governor to back off, unconvincingly blaming a “drafting error” for the misunderstanding.

Finally, Walker has proposed turning campuses into “public authorities,” which means giving them more control over their policies and allocations of resources. It is not clear if some key legislators will permit this weakening of their control over the University; but this reform could compel us to get our fiscal house in better order.

As Madison’s chancellor, the indefatigable Rebecca Blank, has averred, the accumulation of such drastic budget cuts poses a genuine threat to the quality of UW-Madison. Mobile faculty members here are considering leaving for greener pastures lest they remain aboard a sinking ship. Higher education exists in a competitive market, and no doubt Madison’s competitors are already licking their chops at the prospect of raiding some of my best colleagues.

From a broader perspective, the Wisconsin affair is part of a twofold historical challenge. First, it is no accident that the forces behind the Governor’s actions are Republicans. I have spoken with numerous conservative leaders and critics in Madison and around the country over the years (including trustees, regents, and politicians), and many feel deeply alienated from higher education because of the  left-wing orientation and political correctness that reign in many domains—an alienation especially acute in polarized Wisconsin.

Regarding political correctness, higher education has met the enemy, and it is itself. At the same time, many conservative critics focus exclusively on bad apple examples, ignoring meaningful counter-examples that exist, sometimes even in abundance, including at Madison. In my experience, the vast majority of my colleagues excel at their jobs without letting politics influence their work one way or another. The fact that I, known as a conservative libertarian type, have thrived here supports this claim.

It was perhaps inevitable that the University of Wisconsin would be targeted as a liberal bastion. Political ambitions add fuel to the fire, as Walker’s presidential run suggests. So has our inability or refusal to acknowledge our own responsibilities for this dilemma. Before Walker, we were whistling past a graveyard. Now he has arrived.

Second, Wisconsin is also ground zero as an example of the growing challenges to what Walter Russell Mead has labeled the “Blue Model” of political economy, built upon large investments in the public sector as a principle of political order, including support for public unions, public social programs, and public education. Walker is famous for having waged the initial attack on this model back in 2011. Now he has turned his sight on the University itself. As Mead has recently written on his blog at The American Interest: “We have warned for some time that the modern American university system is more vulnerable than many professors like to think, and that the way public universities organize themselves is going to come under much tougher scrutiny in the coming years…A major restructuring of the university system is likely to come, with the weak spot being the publicly funded university system.”

Universities ignore the forces that Mead illuminates at their practical and moral peril. For example, we have let tuition go through the roof, pushing responsibility for our costs onto economically vulnerable students. This and other neglects have added fuel to attacks by Walker and others. But does this fact in itself justify bringing the University to its knees, if that be the effect?

Meanwhile, back on the ranch at Madison, professors across the political spectrum are deeply concerned about what is happening and reasonably fear we will lose our status as a leading research and educational institution. Virtually every conservative professor I know (a not inconsiderable number) is upset, including a colleague and friend who came within half an eyelash of defeating hyper-liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin for Congress in 2000. We also take particular umbrage at the Governor’s disparaging of our work habits, which is based on his ignorance regarding a fundamental fact: faculty at a research institution are supposed to do research in addition to teaching and service. The disparagement of research is symptomatic of the Governor’s attempt to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea.

If the budget cuts prove as harmful as critics fear, what effect would a decline in quality and reputation have on the state and the power of students’ degrees? And would the nation be better off if private schools ended up gathering the pieces public universities leave behind in their fall? These and other questions call out for answers as the drama of higher education deepens.

Madison’s Anti-Bullying Policy: Not a Civility Code

In November the Faculty Senate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison voted to adopt a new policy designed to prohibit “bullying” in professional conduct. To be more exact, the policy states: “Unwelcome behavior pervasive or severe enough that a reasonable person would find it hostile and/or intimidating and that does not further the University’s academic or operational interests is unacceptable to the extent that it makes the conditions for work inhospitable and impairs another person’s ability to carry out his/her responsibilities to the university.” The policy includes several examples, such as abusive expression, physical contact, sabotage of work, conspicuous isolation, and abuse of authority. Each of these examples is constrained by the operational definition of pervasive or severe behavior, a limitation meant to track federal harassment law.

An Office in Siberia

Naturally, this policy is, and should be, controversial—especially at a school with a history of having voted for speech codes and later doing away with them. (See my book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus). Several questions arise. Why was the policy adopted? What problems could develop?

Though there is no reason to consider UW-Madison a unique bastion of bullying in any respect, many individuals in this large institution have complained about their treatment at the hands of colleagues and administrators. Some of the examples provided by a committee that considered the matter last year were quite disconcerting. To wit, one woman had to deal with a colleague who would only speak to her by barking—literally. In another case, a faculty member was banned to the University’s version of Siberia, having his office transferred to the isolated basement of the building that housed his department. With no rules in effect to deal with this form of banishment, he had no meaningful recourse.

In another case, an administrator had imposed discipline upon a faculty member for alleged bullying even though no rules covered the conduct at stake. Eventually this person had to seek outside legal counsel to redress having been disciplined without due process. We learned of other such cases. Indeed, some of us—including me—have counseled colleagues who have been subjected to such administrative behavior. Having a rule in place could protect liberty rather than harm it—depending, as always, on how the rule is written and applied.

Rejecting a First Draft

The first draft of legislation presented to the Senate last October was unacceptable. In essence, it came close to constituting a general “civility code,” which experience has shown is an excuse for stifling dissenting and challenging unorthodox speech and thought. So some opponents quickly organized to challenge the first proposal. Two options presented themselves: oppose any kind of new policy per se; or reform the original proposal in an acceptable manner. This choice often presents itself in campus politics, and we have frequently taken the first option, often with success.

In this case, the University Committee (the elected committee of faculty members that controls the agenda for the Senate, interacts with the administration, and that sponsored the original legislation) was remarkably receptive to reforms. We activists also made a political calculation: that some sort of policy was going to pass the Senate based on discussions at previous a meeting, when the original policy had been introduced. In addition, some of us have worked with colleagues who had suffered bullying at the hands of administrators. So we confronted a strategic decision: support a policy that included significant reforms, or oppose any such policy at the risk of having the first proposal adopted.

The small reform coalition then met to discuss changes in the original policy, and also reached out to outside campus freedom groups. We strove to limit the policy as much as possible to federal standards regarding harassment—hence, the language about pervasiveness, severity, and hostile and intimidating environment, which was absent from the original document. Among other things, we added a clause saying, “The policy is not intended to constitute a general civility code addressing ordinary stresses of the workplace, such as occasionally insensitive language or behavior.” We also added a clause affirming that no ideas could be considered a violation of the policy.

Shared Concerns

In the end, the UC accepted almost all of our reforms. They believed in the need for a policy, but also shared concerns raised by us and by others. They acted in good faith. So we decided, not without reservations, to support the revised policy. Did we do the right thing? This is the $64,000 question.

After the Senate accepted the revised policy in November, several colleagues who were previously quiet have expressed new misgivings about the potential for questionable enforcement. The objections boil down to this: given the many thousands of personal interactions that transpire daily on this campus, the potential for mischief is great unless the limits of the policy are strictly and conscientiously adhered to.

Then there is a story that appeared in Inside Higher Education on December 2, which featured UW-Madison Dean of the School of Human Ecology, Soyeon Shim, who was the original inspiration for the policy.

In that article, Shim portrayed the policy as either a general civility policy, or as an enforcement threat that could be used to compel people to act more civilly—even though the policy expressly disavows this intent. Just as troubling, she presented the reluctance of junior faculty to speak up at a meeting as an example of bullying. Such reluctance is most likely in no way a manifestation of bullying, but rather simply the way junior faculty members often behave before they grow into the role of being faculty members. Are we now to assume that bullying lurks in the background anytime someone is reluctant to speak up? Indeed, a faulty interpretation of the bullying policy itself could chill the incentive to be critical of something someone said! Finally, Shim made no mention of the fact that bullying is often practiced by administrative leaders and that many senators supported the policy for precisely this reason.

If Dean Shim’s comments reflect the intentions or orientations of individuals who will be bringing claims or who will be involved in the enforcement process, the policy will prove to be a mistake. Believing the policy is just, members of the University Committee were outraged at claims made in the Inside Higher Education article.

We know that measures governing speech and behavior often have two faces: the policies’ wording and the intent behind that wording; and how such policies are applied in the real world. These two faces can certainly be in conflict, as the experience with speech codes amply demonstrates. Accordingly, UW Madison is now on notice to ensure the policy is not misused.

Some faculty members are contemplating further actions. For example, establishing an oversight board to monitor all claims and proceedings and that must report to the UC. Or, better yet, making the policy purely informal rather than formal. The University has long dealt with such behavior informally, but an actual policy setting up the informality might make this process more legitimate and effective. If behavior meets previously established harassment prohibitions, then go that route. Some individuals have also spoken to me about abolition if evidence of abuse emerges.  It must not turn into a “civility” policy that limits free speech. Whatever happens, those with legitimate concerns must be vigilant.

(Photo Credit: Warner Bros.)

Donna Shalala: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The redoubtable Donna Shalala is retiring as president of the University of Miami, leaving behind a major record of service in higher education and government, as well as a mixed record on censorship and free speech.

Before her tenure at Miami she served as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration; Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1987-1992; and President of Hunter College in New York City before venturing to Madison. Her stint at Hunter gave her some notice, but it was her position at Wisconsin that catapulted her into genuine national prominence as a notable leader in higher education at an institution that James Piereson claims epitomizes “The Left University.”

Continue reading Donna Shalala: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A Misguided Feminist Agenda Curbs Free Speech

As everyone but members of the National Ostrich Society now knows, Washington, D.C. is beset by three actual or potential scandals: the Benghazi matter; the IRS’s politicization; and the wiretapping of the Associated Press by the DOJ. These matters are important and call for genuine investigation and concern.

But there is another controversy emanating from Washington that should also be of great concern to citizens who care about the education of the nation’s young men and women and the status of free speech and thought in our country. And once instituted, the policy involved could metastasize into other domains as well.

On May 9, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice wrote a letter to the president of the University of Montana, mandating a broad new sexual harassment standard for that institution. But rather than limiting itself to that institution, the letter portrayed itself as “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.” This would be fine if the standard for harassment were properly defined, consistent with the standard proffered by the United States Supreme Court in 1999 Davis case.

Continue reading A Misguided Feminist Agenda Curbs Free Speech

Overcoming Shalala and the Speech-Code Movement


Remarks delivered upon acceptance of the Bradley Foundation‘s Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Award, March 15.                                                    


Commitment to the principles of academic freedom was tested when new forces of politically correct censorship and thought control began to sweep higher education in the later 1980s, the latest historic example of a moralistic movement that considers academic freedom a hindrance to its ascendency. Before you knew it, speech codes, excessively broad harassment codes, and related policies cropped up across the land. To me, it was existential….The University of Wisconsin was a renowned pioneer in the rise of academic freedom in the United States, and our official University motto is dedicated to “that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

But in the late 1980s the University prided itself on being a pioneer of a different sort. We considered ourselves a leader of the national speech code movement under the chancellorship of Donna Shalala. Before long, there was less sifting and less winnowing, at least in some important areas. By the early 1990s we felt a pall being case over the campus when it came to free speech and thought regarding such controversial issues as race, gender, sex, religion, and related matters that were covered by the new codes.

Continue reading Overcoming Shalala and the Speech-Code Movement

FIRE Singes the Censors


How time flies. In 1987, a new breed of speech and harassment codes and student indoctrination were unleashed on college campuses across the land. Thus, what Allan Kors
and Harvey Silverglate famously labeled the “shadow university”–the university
dedicated to censorship and politically correct paternalism–is
now at least 25 years old.

The public recognized the consequences
of the new censorship early on. Noteworthy authors began writing articles and books
about the mounting suppression of free speech, academic freedom, and due
process on campus, culminating in the in-depth chronicling of the dark state of
higher education in The Shadow University
in 1998. 
By the end of the 1990s, however, many observers predicted that the repression would eventually run out of steam as the
passions driving political correctness waned with age. And in many respects,
political correctness often did appear to mellow out. More skeptical
observers claimed that it was not disappearing, but metastasizing. Who
was right?

Greg Lukianoff adresses this question in his outstanding new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter Books).  Lukianoff is the president of the Philadelphia based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, popularly known by its telling acronym, FIRE. Unlearning Liberty is based on cases with which FIRE has dealt over the years.

Continue reading FIRE Singes the Censors

Want to Hear Obama? Just Say You Support Him

Many people are miffed at the way the University of
Wisconsin is handling President Obama’s visit to our campus today. Concerns are
not with the visit per se–most of us think the event is something very
compelling, a bit of history entering through our gates. The location of the
speech in the heart of the campus is one problem–it requires the cancellation
of some classes. A far bigger one  is
that to get tickets to the event, students are required by the University to go to the Obama campaign website, provide
contact information, and then click on a button that says ‘I’m In!’.

A faculty colleague,
Ken Mayer, sent around an email of protest. He wrote: “Having a president visit as an
educational public event is one thing. Forcing students to declare their
support for a presidential candidate in order to attend the event on campus is
quite another. Should we be in the business of helping a campaign farm
thousands of email addresses?”

Mayer’s point is very well taken. The University is
making itself a partner in a campaign operation that will take extensive
student information and use it for campaign purposes. I cannot imagine this
procedure being employed for a typical public speech on this campus.

In addition, this procedure raises questions of
“compelled association.” Under the First Amendment, no one can be compelled to
associate with or support ideas or causes with which that person disagrees or
does not care to associate. A long line of cases support this principle: the
right not to speak or associate is the flip side of the right to speak or

It is very likely
that principled students–those on both sides of the political spectrum as well
as many students who have taken my First Amendment class–will refuse to so
associate. Interestingly, many pro-Obama faculty members I have spoken with have
expressed deep concerns about the procedure for obtaining a ticket. Mayer and I
have expressed our problems with the handling of this event to campus
authorities, but at least I have not heard back as of this writing.

Is this an example of a partisan university bending over
to accommodate the progressive hero? I do not know. I think the more likely
explanation is that decisions were hurried, and that it simply may not have
occurred to anyone that the registration procedures in this case posed serious
problems for the principles of an open university. By delegating this plan to
the campaign itself, we have forsaken our commitment to an open university at
the same time that we are striving to affirm those principles by holding this
extraordinary event. This is not something of which we should be proud.

Campus and Armed Forces–Too Far Apart

arms and the university.jpg

Alienation between the military and the society it serves has grown in recent decades. There are several reasons, including the advent of the All Volunteer Force and the relative abandonment of military service by the upper and upper-middle classes (the so-called AWOL of the elites). Other factors are the military’s redistribution of resources for ROTC and military bases to more pro-military regions of the country and marginalization of the military at many major and elite universities.

Such alienation is unhealthy for a lot of reasons. It can compromise both sufficient civilian control of the military and the long-standing ideal of the “citizen soldier.” Furthermore, in recent times, alienation has led to justified resentment on the part of many members of the military, who feel that the significant sacrifices they and their families assume are taken for granted by the civilian population–after all, we have been asking less than 1% of our population to bear virtually all the burdens of our wars and military engagements. And the alienation has weakened citizenship by removing many citizens from a tangible connection to the military and the missions it serves.

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Protest Versus Disruption at the University of Wisconsin

CEO_Logo.pngIt has been over a week since the University of Wisconsin at Madison was torn by the debate over affirmative action on September 13. The conflict was precipitated by the presentation of a study conducted by the Center for Equal Opportunity, which alleges reverse discrimination in UW admissions policies.

A lot has been written about what happened at the press conference announcing the event and the debate between CEO’s Roger Clegg and UW law professor Larry Church later that evening. Most publicly presented views have been supportive of the students who protested at these events, and have defended the UW’s admissions policies. But criticisms of how this conflict has been handled have percolated beneath the surface.

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Military History and ‘The Revolt Against Elitism’

In his blog commentary, KC Johnson of Brooklyn College questions the results of a new American Historical Association survey, which found that more historians are focusing on diplomatic and military history than in recent times. “In contrast to critics (including me) who have suggested that the profession has aggressively diminished approaches to history deemed ‘traditional,'” Johnson writes, “Inside Higher Education reports that ‘designations of military history are up by 39 percent over the decade, for instance. Diplomatic history is up by 36 percent.’ We’re experiencing a veritable flowering of pedagogical diversity within the field!”

In recent decades, historical scholarship has turned away from a focus on higher levels of power and decision making (e.g., political, diplomatic, and military history) in favor of more egalitarian “social” research, stressing aspects of race, gender, and economic oppression. As historian H.W. Brands wrote in the 1999 Oxford Companion to Military History, “As the context of diplomacy was changing during the Cold War, so was the context of diplomatic history. Starting in the 1960s, the American historical profession experienced a revolt against elitism. The study of governing groups and ruling classes gave way to investigations into the lives of common people. Women and racial and ethnic minorities were judged more interesting than white males. Political historians were supplanted by social and cultural history. On nearly all fronts, diplomatic history came under attack.”

Critics have raised several objections to this trend, claiming that is deprives students of learning about important matters of citizenship and the state and that it embodies a progressive agenda that includes an implicit bias against traditional American values and power. In other words, it constitutes yet another example of political correctness’s reign on campus. 

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Signs of Campus Dissent in Madison

Not surprisingly, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has been deeply affected by the important labor dispute that has consumed the state, its capitol, and the nation the last two weeks. Passions are high, especially over the part of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal that will drastically limit collective bargaining by state employees covered by unions. The budget proposal also requires public employees to contribute substantially more to their healthcare and pensions. But the collective bargaining provision has generated the most heat.

Libertarian thinker Alvaro Vargos Llosa has remarked that Wisconsin’s debate over collective bargaining is of “planetary” significance, while Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest claims that the standoff constitutes a “watershed” event in American history, as the nation vies over the size and scope of public finances.

At an overflow law school forum on the issue on February 23, I stated that the conflict is an example of what the great political scientist Samuel Huntington called “creedal passion” in American Politics and the Promise of Disharmony. Creedal passion involves the intense conflict that periodically erupts over which fundamental values will shape public policy and philosophy.  As Huntington wrote, “The history of American politics is the repetition of new beginnings and flawed outcomes, promise and disillusion, reform and reaction. American history is the history of the efforts of groups to promote their interests by realizing American ideals.” In the Wisconsin case, the creedal debate concerns the proper balance and arrangement between the private and public sectors in an era of crippling debt.

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The New Yorker Takes on the US News College Rankings

college-cover.jpgMalcolm Gladwell has written his share of interesting and penetrating essays in The New Yorker in recent years. He has also authored such best-selling books as Blink, which is about rapid cognition and intuition, and The Tipping Point, which addresses the factors that contribute to unexpected change. The relevance of Tipping Point has received another big boost by the recent happenings in Egypt. Among Gladwell’s attributes is his ability to question and challenge conventional wisdom.
The virtues of Gladwell’s scalpel are on display in his New Yorker essay (February 14 and 21 issue) attacking U.S. News and World Report’s famous (or notorious) national “Best Colleges” ranking guide. Even though U.S. News is now defunct, the Guide survives and is used by millions of families. “The rankings have taken on a life of their own,” as Gladwell writes. Given the difficulty and complexity—often the sheer mystery—of knowing how schools compare, the Guide’s assignment of numerical rankings appears to have been a blessing, as it simplifies the task of evaluation for millions of students and parents. But what if it amounts to a false promise?
The Guide has been questioned by some empirical researchers, including Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan and Jeffrey Stake of Indiana University, as well as by schools that feel unjustly slighted by its determinations. But seldom has it found itself in the sights of a national magazine like the New Yorker. Gladwell’s critique provides convincing evidence that consumers should take the Guide with a big spoon of salt.
The heart of the problem lies in the use and abuse of measurement. Gladwell tellingly begins his piece by comparing the Guide’s logic and methodology to Car and Driver’s recent comparison test of three sports cars: Chevy’s Corvette, the Porsche Cayman S, and the Lotus Evora. (Porsche won, followed by Corvette and Lotus). Car and Driver’s report is unreliable, Gladwell avers, because it applies the same twenty-one criteria to sports cars that it applies to all vehicles, thereby ignoring special concerns that sports car buyers have, such as the way the car looks. Nor did the test give much weight to cost, which matters a lot to consumers. Car and Driver attempts to have its cake and eat it, too, but “it’s an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be both comprehensive and heterogeneous at the same time.”

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Social Justice Art and Liberal Democracy

imagesCAFBEVA41.JPGMichelle Kamhi is the co-editor of the online arts review Aristos, and a mild-mannered, well-spoken New Yorker with a love of art and intellectual integrity. She is also the cause of a heated controversy that has broken out in the world of art education. The source of this conflict is an op-ed Kamhi wrote in the Wall Street Journal last June entitled “The Political Assault on Art Education.” Presenting a condensed version of a longer piece she had written in Aristos in April (“The Hijacking of Art Education”), Kamhi took aim at a movement that merits heightened public scrutiny and discussion: “social justice art,” a branch of the broader “visual culture” movement in art education. By thrusting this issue onto the stage, Kamhi has provided us with information about a disturbing trend in art education, and with an opportunity to hold a needed public discussion about education and the arts in a democratic society.
Art education is part of the educational mission regarding the young, which unavoidably entails making normative (and perhaps political) choices about the types of citizens we want to shape. But because liberal democracies are dedicated first and foremost to individual freedom and conscience (Lincoln said we are “consecrated” in liberty), state power and politics are limited. This means that art education in a liberal democracy will eschew the politicization of art, freeing the individual student to learn art for its own sake in a manner that cannot be reduced to politics and the state. This model of art education differs from the art education espoused by such thinkers as Plato and Rousseau, and various activists whose vision of art education is political, not aesthetic and individual. The “social justice” art movement points us decidedly in the direction of Rousseau than James Madison.
Just what is social justice art? In terms of definition and purpose, it is art in the service of such socially “progressive” causes as identity politics (“recognition”); greater equality through redistribution of resources; the environment; and critiques of the present social, economic, and political arrangements in the United States. The movement is propelled by a partnership between “art activists” and education school faculty, and it draws its inspiration from such sources as “critical theory” and the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire. Freire’s classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was written to address the severe repression of peasants in Brazil in the 1960s. Applying Freire’s logic to the United States, education activists have come up with such concoctions as “Radical Math,” which incorporates radical politics into, of all things, mathematics. (See Sol Stern’s “The Propaganda in Our Ed Schools”: ) The list of potential subjects for radicalization is vast; so enter art education.

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A New Law Student Protest: ‘Where’s My Job?’

An interesting article in USA Today could signify the arrival of a new type of campus-related protest in America. In it, Mary Beth Marklein reported that a new generation of law students and graduates is rising in protest over the failure of law schools to give them honest accountings of the job market and their professional prospects. She wrote: “Law schools, once viewed as a guaranteed path to a high-paying career, are coming under fire as disillusioned graduates find a tighter job market than they say they were led to expect… A small but growing coalition of graduates, on blogs with names like ‘Scammed Hard’ and ‘Shilling Me Softly,’ blame their alma maters for luring them into expensive programs by overstating their employment prospects.”
Two Vanderbilt law students have founded a new organization, “Law School Transparency,” which has asked 200 law schools to submit data about salaries and employment for recent graduates, which they plan to make available on line. According to Marklein, one recent grad has even gone on a hunger strike to protest his predicament and the situation.
Though most grads end up employed (88% of the class of 2009), many languish in part-time or temporary positions, and pay is often shockingly disappointing. And, of course, there is the problem of debt, the new version of American Apple Pie. The average debt for a public law school grad is about $60,000 and slightly over $90,000 for private school counterparts. One Georgetown grad quoted in the article is drowning in debt amounting to $175,000. “If you count on law schools to do the right thing, you’re going to be waiting a long time,” he told Marklein.

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What Happened at Berkeley in November

4123344197_3c3696375a.jpgWe now have a long and fascinating report by the campus police review board on last fall’s disruptive protests at the University of California, Berkeley.
The 128-page document, entitled “November 20, 2009: Review,
Reflection, and Recommendations,”
released in mid-June, is the product of months of yeoman work garnering volumes of evidence. It chronicles and evaluates responses to the events sparked by resentment over tuition increases and cutbacks in the wake of California’s financial debacle.
Berkeley deserves credit for thoroughly investigating the situation. And the report is worth reading for many reasons, one of which is because it casts light on a dilemma that Berkeley and many other schools have been unable to resolve since the famous Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” of 1964 launched decades of illegal student protest: how to balance students’ passions for social justice (and sometimes other motives) with the rule of law.

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When the Administration Takes Over the Departments

New Jersey’s Kean University is planning to institute a controversial new academic structure. The university has presented a draft proposal , its second, to replace the traditional arrangement of academic departments with schools headed by “executive directors” appointed by the president. Initiatives to eliminate such departments as philosophy and social work are already in the hopper, “but this plan would kill even large departments like English and biology, dividing faculty members into new organizational structures they played no role in creating.”
Not surprisingly, Kean’s proposal is sending shock waves through the faculty at Kean and elsewhere. It constitutes a serious challenge to long-standing notions of academic freedom and university life. Among other things, academic freedom entails a significant degree of shared faculty governance, which includes some meaningful say over the organization of teaching and curriculum matters. Kean’s proposal “will allow the upper administration to exert increased control over faculty work lives,” said physics professor James Castiglione, who is also the president of the Kean Federation of Teachers. “That’s what this whole thing is about. This whole thing is about control.”
Defenders maintain that the reform is necessary to save money, but debate rages over the financial consequences of the plan and the costs of reorganization. While cutting 38 department chair positions will save money, the plan also calls for creating eighteen “executive directors” to oversee the new arrangement. Faculty leaders contest the university’s broader claims regarding its financial situation, while university officials stress that the university anticipates a $17.7 million deficit next year. “To suggest that Kean University, for whatever motive, is somehow immune from New Jersey’s severe budget crisis is irresponsible and not in line with economic reality,” a university spokesman told Inside Higher Ed.
Few of us are in a position to determine the truth regarding Kean University’s financial straits. That said, the very existence of the case reflects fundamental changes in the political and economic environment of higher education that are well worth considering. Universities are facing perhaps unprecedented financial pressures in the brave new world of mountainous debt, and something must give. But is the reshaping of higher education a promising step or an occasion to mournfully sing “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie?”

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Hate and Free Speech at Wisconsin

A student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison drew an unusual and alarming advertising request for its online edition. The request to the Badger Herald came a few weeks ago from an agent for Bradley R. Smith, a notorious denier of the Holocaust and founder of the loopy fringe group, Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. Unlike ads in the Herald’s paper edition, online ads linger for a month, providing more opportunity for mischief.
Like some other controversies involving the Herald in recent years, this episode began, essentially, as an accident. The process involved in the placing of ads did not fully vet Smith’s advertisement, which announced his mission and provided an Internet link to his group and other materials. The ad remained on line unnoticed for five days before persons at Hillel, the Jewish center, noticed it and urged the Herald to withdraw it
Many Jewish students had already felt aggrieved by the Herald because of another incident a few weeks before Smith’s ad appeared. Anonymous sources had published threatening anti-Semitic remarks in the “Comments” sections that accompanied the paper’s stories of incidents relating to a party at a Jewish fraternity. Alarmed, the Herald expunged these comments, but only after the damage was done.
Made aware of Smith’s ad, the Herald’s board had to decide what to do. The board of nine students votes independently, but the students consider advice given by faculty members who do not have voting power. Advisors (I am one) provide advice in a manner that is designed to preserve the independence of the board. At a meeting the board voted to do two things: keep the ad up, and produce an editorial, written by editor in chief Jason Smathers, making clear that Holocaust denial is a pernicious fraud that lies outside the bounds of rational debate. I supported these decisions as an advisor. The editorial was a sign that the board knew Smith’s ad was different from the usual controversial ads.

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What Is The AAUP Up To?


Cary Nelson, current president of the American Association of University Professors, has a new book dealing with academic freedom and its relationship to broader structural problems in higher education. No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom is interesting and important, but also frustrating. It provides remedies to the problems confronting academic freedom at the same time that it reflects some of the problems it purports to remedy. Nelson is compelled to criticize the nation’s faculty members for their lackadaisical support of academic freedom at the same time that he feels obliged to vehemently defend higher education from critics who attack higher education for this very reason. Balancing these positions makes sense if one carefully distinguishes valid and invalid attacks, and Nelson often succeeds in doing so. But too often his defenses of higher education come across as special pleading for the professoriate as a class, thereby weakening his claims.
Once upon a time the AAUP was the nation’s leading supporter of academic freedom. In recent decades, however, its prestige has slipped. A couple of years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education featured articles on this reversal of fortune, citing such matters as the AAUP’s bureaucratic inertia, the association’s perceived complacency about the chilling effects of political correctness, and broader trends in higher education that have made faculty members less knowledgeable and appreciative of the organization’s efforts. Leaner and meaner, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, founded in 2000 in Philadelphia) has replaced the AAUP as the nation’s most vibrant fighter for academic freedom. FIRE is conscientiously non-ideological, but its eagerness to take on the policies of political correctness that suppress freedom has made it a favorite of the right in addition to the civil libertarian left.
Nelson’s ascendancy to the presidency of the AAUP represents the organization’s effort to regain its past glory. He is a prolifically published, self-proclaimed “radical” (for academic freedom and other causes), a claim that makes him a left-wing answer to FIRE in terms of commitment. Among Nelson’s impressive list of publications we find Manifesto of a Tenured Radical and Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. Nelson’s left-wing legacy is important to his arguments because his approach to academic freedom is steeped in a broader leftist framework.

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The Problem With Student Engagement

“Student engagement” is a movement and a cause that has made steady progress on our campuses. According to Inside Higher Education, it has reached a “critical mass” of participants, though many in the world of colleges and universities are only half-aware, or perhaps unaware, of what the movement is all about. The National Survey of Student Engagement, an organization driving the cause, is at least partly a product of both a nation-wide administrative push and the nation’s education schools. Student engagement activities, ranging from community service to deeper involvement in more academically-oriented concerns, are gaining more official status with the passage of each year. Last year, for example, leaders of the University of Wisconsin system declared their intention to require students to maintain a “second transcript” that tracks students’ extra-curricular activities. Students would not be required to do anything, but such supplementary transcripts would become part of their record alongside the traditional academic transcript. Such pressure no doubt would compel many more students to enhance (or pad) their resumes, for better or for worse. (I raised many questions about this program here last year.) As far as I know, the program has yet to be instituted.
Robert Morris University, a private school of 4700 students in Pittsburgh, pioneered the next stage of development last month by establishing the nation’s first known deanship to oversee the school’s new Student Engagement Transcript program. According to another recent story in Inside Higher Education, the program “tracks and certifies a student’s participation in faculty-sponsored extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Activities must fall in one of seven areas: arts, culture and creativity; “transcultural/global” experiences, which include studying abroad; research; community service; leadership; professional experience; and independent study projects.” In addition to completing the requirements for traditional majors, Robert Morris University will now require freshmen students to “demonstrate participation in at least two of the seven categories in order to graduate.”

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Card Check Comes To Campus

Labor unions have suffered a number of defeats in recent years, but they hope to regain momentum by gaining passage of the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier to secure votes for unionization, mainly through a mechanism called “card check.” Card check would replace the traditional method of unionization by eliminating secret ballots when employees vote for or against unionization. “Card check” would allow the signing of cards without the benefit of secrecy, perhaps even in the presence of pro-union activists. Will employees actually make free, unfettered choices in the face of union organizers who present them with cards? Or is the “Free Choice Act” but the latest historical incarnation of Newspeak?
Card check is in some trouble in Washington, but similar policies are having more success at the state level. A prominent example is Wisconsin, which has recently enacted such legislation regarding the University of Wisconsin. The policy is part of a larger pro-union package in the state.
Recently Governor Jim Doyle signed the state’s 2009-2011 biennial budget, which includes a provision that gives collective bargaining rights to over 20,000 UW System faculty, academic staff, and research assistants. As of this writing, the faculty members of all UW System schools except UW-Madison have passed resolutions favoring the right to decide on unionization. Madison will no doubt deal with this issue in the fall; but even if Madison faculty members vote to have the right to decide, it is not evident that they will ultimately vote to unionize, for reasoned arguments exist on both sides of this question.

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Cornell ’69 And What It Did

Forty years ago this week, an armed student insurrection erupted on the Cornell campus. I was a sophomore on campus at the time and later wrote a book on the events, Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University. To some the drama represented a triumph of social justice, paving the way for a new model of the university based on the ideals of identity politics, diversity, and the university as a transformer of society. To others, it fatefully propelled Cornell, and later much of American higher education, away from the traditional principles of academic freedom, reason, and individual excellence. “Cornell,” wrote the famous constitutional scholar Walter Berns, who resigned from Cornell during the denouement of the conflict, “was the prototype of the university as we know it today, having jettisoned every vestige of academic integrity.”
In the wee hours of Friday, April 19, 1969, twenty-some members of Cornell’s Afro-American Society took over the student center, Willard Straight Hall, removing parents (sometimes forcefully) from their accommodations on the eve of Parents Weekend. The takeover was the culmination of a year-long series of confrontations, during which the AAS had deployed hardball tactics to pressure the administration of President James Perkins into making concessions to their demands. The Perkins administration and many faculty members had made claims of race-based identity politics and social justice leading priorities for the university, marginalizing the traditional missions of truth-seeking and academic freedom.
Two concerns precipitated the takeover: AAS agitation for the establishment of a radical black studies program; and demands of amnesty for some AAS students, who had just been found guilty by the university judicial board of violating university rules. These concerns were linked, for, according to the students, the university lacked the moral authority to judge minority students. They declared that Cornell was no longer a university, but rather an institution divided by racial identities.

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Universities, Individualism, and David Brooks

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist David Brooks raised an interesting and important question. Drawing on a recent book (largely neglected) by Hugh Heclo entitled On Thinking Institutionally, Brooks critiqued a report on education that a Harvard University faculty committee issued a few years ago. According to the report, “the aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them find ways to reorient themselves.”
Brooks observed that this logic “is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness.” The problem is that this way of living neglects the important role that tradition and institutional custom play in providing order and a sense of duty that give meaning and form to life. Brooks quotes Heclo: “In taking delivery, institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”
Brooks points to the erosion of obligation and responsibility in the banking profession as one example of the problem, among many. “Faith in all institutions, including charities, has declined precipitously over the past generation… Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior. Bankers, for example, used to have a code that made them a bit stodgy and which held them up for ridicule in movies like ‘Mary Poppins.’ But the banker’s code has eroded, and the result was not liberation but self-destruction.”

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The Next Bubble?

The idea of “bubble” has been on everyone’s mind since the escalating housing and economic crisis first erupted in July 2007. Throughout these turbulent times, one institution appeared to be coasting along above the fray: Higher Education. Higher ed has been growing for decades, becoming a staple in the national political economy. The supply and demand situation has been remarkably favorable to it: believing that higher education is a necessary, if not sufficient, ticket to personal success and social progress, the public has tolerated increasingly higher costs and tuition—forces that citizens have rebelled against in other consumer domains.
After all, didn’t ambitious citizens have to pay their dues to higher ed in order to have a meaningful chance at success? With seemingly no viable alternative or exit strategy, consumers have stretched their pocketbooks to the breaking point and taken out loans to purchase a chance at the American Dream. (Today over 35% of students rely on student loans, and the number is growing.) Not surprisingly, the last twenty years have seen tuition costs rise at over three times the rate of inflation. The overall costs for many private schools add up to $50,000 per year, while public universities cost up to $20,000 for state residents, and over $30,000 for those who hail from out of state. Meanwhile, wages for most Americans have been left in the dust.
Something had to give. The fate of the housing market comes to mind. Believing that home prices would rise virtually forever, consumers and investors were willing to stretch themselves and their debt to the limit in order to obtain housing stock. We all know what happened when that assumption ran into the brick wall of reality. Is higher education immune to such a shock?

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