One thing that happens when liberals start decrying the excesses and wokeness of the Left is that it groups us with conservatives who decry the same things but for different reasons (some of us, for example, want to create a Left closer to liberal traditions, as well as to maximize our effectiveness in defeating Trump and the Right by calling out our own side’s lunacy). And so I find myself in agreement with the views expressed in the article below by my Chicago colleague Charles Lipson, a well known (and conservative) professor emeritus of Political Science. Further, his piece appears in an organ, “The Bridge,” produced by the Mercatus Center, a free-market-oriented think tank of George Mason University.
The title tells the tale, and it’s true, for it’s not seemly to reject a good analysis simply because it’s made by someone who isn’t on your side of the ideological fence. In his article, Lipson reprises the chilling effect that conformity to (Left-wing) political views is having on college campuses, then limns a form of “diversity” that, he says, creates a real climate for discussion, and, at the end, suggests what students can do to foster such an environment (assuming, of course, that they want one, which they should).
If you don’t think that the campus climate (which of course is on the Left—my side) is having a chilling effect because a lot of Leftism is authoritarian, read this article from the Atlantic on the self-censorship of students (mostly conservative, of course, but many students on the Left are also afraid to voice opinions that aren’t in line with Wokeness). Or have a look at this recent survey from the Heterodox Academy, which found that 55% of college students strongly or somewhat agree that “the climate on [their] campus prevents people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” This is indeed a problem—for all those who aren’t woke and are dedicated to an education that involves honing your views by expressing them and arguing with others. And if more than half of college students can’t say what they believe, then, Houston, we have a big problem.
First, Lipson affirms the value of freedom of speech on campus, something that the University of Chicago has long held, through its Kalven Report and Principles of Free Expression, as overarching guidelines that form the very foundation of our University.
Don’t be fooled by universities’ incessant chatter about “diversity.” Most are poster children for ideological conformity and proud of it. The faculty, students, and administrators know it. Indeed, many welcome it since their views are so obviously right and other views so obviously wrong. They believe discordant views are so objectionable that no one should express them publicly.
What views are now considered beyond the pale? They almost always involve ordinary political differences. We are not talking here about direct physical threats. Those are already illegal, and universities rightly deal with them. They don’t have to face neo-Nazi marches. Nor is anyone advocating such noxious ideas as genocide, slavery, or child molestation. Speech about those subjects might be legal, but virtually nobody is making the case for them. That is not what the fight for freedom of speech on campus is about. It is about the freedom to voice—or even hear—unpopular views on topics such as merit-based admissions, affirmative action, transgender competition in women’s sports, abortion, and support for Israel.
These are perfectly legitimate topics, and students ought to be free to hear different ideas about them. They are hotly contested topics in America’s body politic. That’s how democracies work. Not so on college campuses, where the “wrong views” are not just minority opinions. They are verboten, and so are the people who dare express them. Challenging this repressive conformity invites condemnation, severs friendships, and threatens careers. It is hardly surprising that few rise to challenge it.
I can’t find anything to argue with there. Lipson goes on to affirm, as do I and the Kalven Report, that colleges and departments should take no institutional views on moral, ideological, or political questions lest it create that “chilling effect” that promotes conformity and self-silencing:
[University leaders] have a fundamental responsibility to defend open discourse, and they have largely abdicated it. Shame on them. Instead of defending the free expression of unpopular views, they condemn them and flaunt their own virtue. That’s what Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber did when he attacked classics professor Joshua Katz, saying Katz had not exercised free speech “responsibly” when he allegedly gave a “false description” of a Black student group. Katz’s own department condemned him, too, though the university finally decided the professor would not be formally punished. They will save the ducking chair for another day.
Eisgruber is hardly alone. University leaders have failed, en masse, to confront the pervasive challenges to free speech on campus. It is their responsibility because enforced ideological conformity is antithetical to universities’ basic mission. It damages teaching, learning, and research. It inflicts that damage even if you and I wholeheartedly agree with the predominant views. Letting them go uncontested invites intellectual flabbiness. Allowing them to be coerced into silence invites mob rule and ideological uniformity in what should be a bastion of open and vigorous debate.
It is also wrong for official units of the university, like Princeton’s classics department, to express their institutional views on political issues. Although faculty and staff members are welcome to express their own views individually, taking an institutional position inevitably chills the speech of any faculty or students who might disagree. Top officials at the university should be even more scrupulous. Again, the goal is to encourage open discourse on campus, not chill or suppress it.
Indeed, the University unit and department are the locus of “chilling”, for if there are official department statements on politics and ideology, like these two from the University of Chicago, then who dares contradict them, particularly students or untenured professors? In contrast, an assistant professor has less to fear for contravening something that the Provost or President says, as they can’t seriously damage a career. As the Kalven Report makes clear:
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…To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.
To promote that freedom of inquiry, a diverse student body is essential. As Lipson makes clear, that includes not just diversity of ethnic background (“race”) but of many other characteristics:
Universities, K–12 education, and now news organizations, social media platforms, large corporations, and sports leagues have not only propagated this stultifying ideological conformity, but they have provided its specific content. It is cloaked in benign but misleading terms such as “social justice” and “diversity.” The “justice” of it all is debatable, and it is the very opposite of “diverse.”
“Diversity” as Political Code
On campus and off, “diversity” has become an Orwellian code word for the racial color-coding of students and faculty. To see that clearly, ask yourself how Harvard, Duke, or Stanford would describe three newly admitted students, one White, one Black, one Hispanic, all of them raised in the same wealthy suburb, all children of prominent attorneys, all wearing buttons saying “I Support Single-Payer Healthcare.” The answer is easy: each university would congratulate itself for recruiting such a diverse class. The New York Times and Washington Post would praise the universities and hope that these students would later contribute to their newsrooms’ diversity. This univocal elite would trumpet its own moral superiority while flagellating our country’s past. They march, arm-in-arm, from Scarsdale to Cambridge to Brooklyn Heights.
This self-congratulation corrupts both language and thinking. If diversity means anything, it must cover more than one dimension. It must mean different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, academic interests, viewpoints, and so on. Racial difference is part of it—a particularly important part, given America’s history—but still only part. It is also diverse to include some well-qualified students who come from Appalachia, some whose parents work at Walmart, and some who won the blue ribbon for best pig at the Iowa State Fair.
So, what is to be done? Obviously, a search for a multifaceted form of diversity in the student body. To be sure, I think Chicago does try to do this to some extent, particularly in trying to garner low-income students, for surely “class” is a very important aspect of diversity. But Lipson suggests four other tactics:
- Listen to alternative views and criticism of ideas you currently hold. That does not necessarily mean changing your views. It means testing and reevaluating them.
- Try not to be swept away by peer pressure. One way to minimize it is to widen your social circle.
- Learn to make coherent arguments. Name-calling is not an argument, damn it.
- Report teachers or other authority figures who demand ideological conformity to get a good grade or promotion. Your academic adviser or human resources department can tell you confidentially how to lodge a complaint and what evidence you need to support it.
I’m not so keen on the last one, as “demanding ideological conformity” can be a slippery thing to discern. Further, I’m not keen on reporting people, be they students or professors, without having discussed your issues with them directly. But yes, professors shouldn’t be propagandizing students in the class, though it’s done all the time. My own view would be to avoid those classes known to do this, for I’m not sure how effective reporting would actually be in classes involving, say, gender studies or critical race theory.