We all know that both the Left and the Right impinge on free speech and academic freedom in American colleges and universities. Though the Left does it more often, at least judging by the number of speaker deplatformings and disinvitations, the Right is no stranger to censorship. The latest incident from the Right occurred recently when Nikole Hannah-Jones, known for her founding of the NYT’s 1619 Project, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, was refused tenure by the Board of Trustees for a position in the journalism school at the University of North Carolina. Her position had already been approved by the journalism school itself, and by the UNC administration, but the Board of Trustees, which has ultimate power, put the kibosh on it. Though I’m no fan of Hannah Jones or the 1619 Project, I think the trustees should have rubber-stamped the decision of the school itself and hired Hannah-Jones. It’s pretty clear they didn’t do so because Hannah-Jones is a controversial figure beloved by the progressive Left.
Incidents on the Left are more numerous, and I often describe them here. Some are summarized by my colleague Tom Ginsburg, a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, in a new article at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The UNC debacle was not an isolated incident, nor is the threat limited to the political right. Consider other recent examples: the University of Oklahoma demanded agreement from faculty and staff members with certain diversity-related statements as a condition of employment; Chapman University faculty members called for the firing of a professor who appeared at the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that took place hours before the Capitol insurrection; and Central Michigan University ended the contract of a journalism professor who invited members of the Westboro Baptist Church to class. A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology found widespread self-censorship among U.S. academics.
What to do about this? Ginsburg’s article proposes a solution that seems excellent. Read on by clicking on the screenshot.
The issue is a disparity involving colleges having ample resources and programs for promoting DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), often with policies that can impinge on freedom of speech and/or academic freedom, but lacking programs and resources to ensure those freedoms themselves. Ginsburg describes this disparity:
In recent years, colleges have devoted significant resources to institutionalizing diversity, inclusion, and equity. These efforts accelerated after the murder of George Floyd, and many colleges are now creating vice president- or vice provost-level positions, leading entire bureaucracies devoted to this effort. As a requirement of federal law, colleges have also developed Title IX bureaucracies, which help to ensure that institutions receiving federal money deal with sexual harassment. Whatever one thinks of the implementation (and the implementation of Title IX in particular has been controversial), it is clear that colleges are serious about these important goals.
In contrast, in most institutions of higher learning, issues of academic freedom or free speech have no designated campus officer. There is no emerging profession devoted to it, no mandatory training programs, no resources for faculty members and students who want to understand what it means. There are no job ads posted for vice presidents for academic freedom. Instead, academic-freedom controversies tend to be left to faculty committees, whose membership turns over regularly, or to ad hoc decisions by provosts and presidents. Among students, questions of freedom of expression are left to deans of students or in some cases to the diversity bureaucracy. Without an institutional base to protect free inquiry, standards are applied in an uneven way. The risk is that administrators will simply give in to the loudest voice in the room, which will, by definition, never be someone whose full-time job is to speak up for academic freedom.
Perhaps Ginsburg was inspired by discussions that many of us have had about the Kalven Report, one of the U of C’s foundational principles. I’ve discussed it here many times; the report is meant to ensure that, with a very few exceptions, neither the University, its administrators, nor its departmental units are permitted to take ideological political, moral, or ideological positions. (Professors and students themselves, of course, are welcome and encouraged to do so.) The purpose of this policy is to avoid chilling speech and intimidating dissenters that could occur when those who disagree with “official” political or ideological stands become fearful of their standing or treatment by the University.
The Kalven principles were affirmed last fall by our President, Bob Zimmer. Despite that, administrators and departments have been posting many “official” political statements on University websites, most of which clearly violate the University’s own Kalven policy. But it’s hard to get departments to remove them (I think all of those at the previous link are still up), and there is no official mechanism for doing so—and no official ombudsperson, group, or unit devoted to protecting our own principles of free speech. This is important, for it is those principles that the school uses to attract students, and advertises them heavily as an inducement to come here. Without enforcement, though, our famous principles, which include “the Chicago Principles” of free speech (copied by over 55 other schools) are in danger of disappearing.
One solution mentioned by Ginsburg is to give incoming students a unit on freedom of speech and academic freedom, comparable to their units on DEI. But the other is the creation of a formal academic system to ensure freedom of thought. To my knowledge, no university in America has such a system, though nonpartisan organizations like the American Association for University Professors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Academic Freedom Alliance will go to bat for faculty and students if their freedom of expression is violated.
As Ginsburg notes, however, such external bodies “are too removed from the front lines to touch the culture of students and faculty members”. So Ginsburg proposes a way to create or strengthen a freedom-of-expression culture in universities and colleges (remember, public ones must adhere to the First Amendment):
Institutionalization of academic freedom could look something like diversity initiatives, and would have the same goal: to advance core values in the culture of colleges. Staff members would serve as a resource for the faculty, develop basic explanations of core concepts for students, collect data, and advise leaders behind the scenes on how to handle controversies when they arise. While the last thing faculty members need is another online training program, there should at least be materials introducing new faculty members and students to the importance of academic freedom. One might imagine orientation programs where participants wrestle with the idea, perhaps role-playing through tough cases; books on free speech could be considered for pre-freshman summer reading; and students should be invited to ruminate on the fate of academics in places like Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary, where attacks on colleges were a harbinger of broader assaults on democracy.
Indeed, when the controversy about the Kalven Principles arose in the past year, many faculty members were completely unaware of this policy, even though it’s a critical part of our Foundational Principles. But even when departments are informed that they’re putting up statements that violate these Principles, they ignore the critics and leave them up. This has already caused some chilling of speech on campus.
I would go even further than Ginsburg, though. The “institutionalizaton” of freedom of expression and academic freedom should encompass a formal and permanent unit that will adjudicate reported violations by the University itself or by its departments. The decisions should not be left to the University administration, for, as in our case, they’ve let stand several arrant violations of our own principles—for reasons I can guess but don’t know for sure.
If we can have permanent units to deal with and promote DEI, we can surely have permanent units to promote and enforce academic freedom. After all, our principles are already written down; all we need is a way to ensure that they’re followed. This need not involve Pecksniffian “bias reporting,” but certainly can involve dealing with issues like deplatforming, disruption or abrogation of free speech, and, for the faculty, violations of academic freedom.