Greg Lukianoff on the recent history of campus free speech

December 15, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Over at the Reason site, Greg Lukianoff has an interesting article on the two (yes, two) ages of American political correctness. You’ll have heard of Greg, as he’s president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and co-author with Jon Haidt of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.  The present article is not on the FIRE site, so represents Lukianoff’s personal analysis rather than any official statement of FIRE. But it’s an interesting analysis, although some people may find it long. Click screenshot to read it.

I’ll give a brief summary. The article, as one expects, deals mainly with issues on campus

We’re noqw in the “Second Great Age of Political Correctness”, which Lukianoff sees as extending roughly from 2015 to the present.  This means that, as during the First Age (1980-around 1995), there was the the “political correctness” we see today: divisiveness between “tribes” on campus, a disconnect between students and administrators (but in the earlier years, the administrators were the censors), and approved language which was eventually mocked as “p.c.”

The period of quiescence lasted from about 1995-2015. Now, of course, we know what age we’re in, because it’s largely the subject of this website. Colleges have speech codes, approved ways of talking and thinking, punishment and demonization of transgressors, and restrictions on freedom of speech that causes speakers to be deplatformed. This trend has of course spread beyond campus, most notably into the media.

It’s Lukianoff’s contention that during the Great Quiescence, the ground was being laid for our present age of political correctness. What happened? First of all, administrators began burgeoning in colleges, and many of these came from schools of education, which are seen as the most activist educational institutions of all. Thus a flood of activist administrators was filling the colleges, as well as secondary schools. Universities then began hiring “more politically homogenous professors and administrators; and reframing speech policing as a crucial part of protecting students’ mental health.”

And there was this:

But it wasn’t just an increase in coverage. Something else had changed on campus. During the previous two decades, administrators were usually the leaders of campus censorship campaigns. Students, in turn, resisted those efforts. In late 2013, however, there was an explosion in censorship that was student-led. The infrastructure built during the Ignored Years was producing downstream effects.

The generation hitting campuses in 2013 had been educated by the graduates of those activist education schools. In some cases they were literally the children of the students who had pushed for (or at least were OK with) speech codes in the ’80s and ’90s.

This generation also grew up with social media; it had a genuine awareness of how hurtful and nasty speech can be, especially when anonymous and online. But it had not been taught that freedom to engage in nasty speech is necessary to the functioning of our democracy and to the production of knowledge.

This all sounds plausible, and a lot of Lukianoff’s article goes to documenting the deplatformings of speakers (now largely but not exclusively to the Left), the Right’s attempt at censorship by passing anti-CRT laws, the firing of professors for saying verboten things and making Nazi salutes (yes, the salute thing really happened, and is not a fantasy of “The Chair” t.v. show), the creation of Pecksniffian “bias response teams” to police campus behavior, and the increasing polarization and liberalization of campuses. Here are some data just for fun:

More recent statistics paint a starker picture. A 2019 study by the National Association of Scholars on the political registration of professors at the two highest-ranked public and private universities in each state found that registered Democrat faculty outnumbered registered Republican faculty about 9-to-1. In the Northeast, the ratio was about 15-to-1.

In the most evenly split discipline, economics, Democrats outnumber Republicans “only” 3-to-1. The second most even discipline, mathematics, has a ratio of about 6-to-1. Compare this to English and sociology, where the ratios are about 27-to-1. In anthropology, it’s a staggering 42-to-1.

In the Ignored Years, higher education became far more expensive and considerably more bureaucratized. From 1994–95 to 2018–19, the inflation-adjusted cost of public college tuition nearly doubled. Meanwhile, the administrative class expanded, from roughly one administrator for every two faculty members in 1990 to nearly equal numbers of faculty and administrators in 2012.

What’s more, preliminary research showed a “12-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative college administrators,” wrote Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College in The New York Times in 2018. His conclusion: “It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate—and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.” Following the Times article, Abrams was targeted twice by students in an unsuccessful campaign to get him fired for speaking out.

So much for history. Lukianoff’s peroration is a genuinely valuable list of things that we should do “to save higher ed”. And these should be read by all college administrators and faculty:

Amid the Second Great Age of Political Correctness,American higher education has become too expensive, too illiberal, and too conformist. It has descended into a period of profound crisis wrought by shifts in hiring, student development, and politically charged speech codes developed during the Ignored Years, when too few were paying attention. American campuses should be bastions of free expression and academic freedom. Instead, both are in decline.

We cannot afford to just give up on higher ed. College and university presidents can and should do the following five things:

  1. Immediately dump all speech codes.
  2. Adopt a statement specifically identifying free speech as essential to the core purpose of a university and committing the university to free speech values.
  3. Defend the free speech rights of their students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early.
  4. Teach free speech, the philosophy of free inquiry, and academic freedom from Day One.
  5. Collect data and open their campuses to research on the climate for debate, discussion, and dissent.

Those who donate to colleges should refuse to do so without demanding these changes.

#3 and #4 particularly interest me, as I want to make sure that colleges can defend free speech, which means preventing violations of it. And this means having some kind of policy like the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, which, by preventing university administrators and departments from making official statements about politics, ideology and morality (except in specially delineated circumstances), prevents the chilling of speech by those who disagree. #4 should be a part of all orientation at colleges, and also taught in secondary schools: a unit on the reasons for our First Amendment, what it means, and why it’s valuable. Watching Hitchens’s video about free speech should be mandatory.

At the end, Lukianoff touts “alternative models to traditional higher education”. He mentions the recently-discussed “anti-woke” University of Austin, for which I have little hope, and Khan Academy, which is much better. As Lukianoff argues, “It’s not too hard to imagine a future in which employers value a mastery level from the Khan Academy or a degree from Minerva more than a degree from a middling traditional university.” I have no quarrel with that, though I’m a fan of the traditional university where you interact with your professors and fellow students online, and can have small group discussions in which people learn from each other. “Mastery” is not just the goal of college; one goal is to awaken a love of learning and dispute, an inculcation of critical analysis, and the production of students who know how to analyze evidence and come to rational conclusions. You can’t get that with an online education.

And I’m with Greg 100% in his conclusions:

The bottom line is that the opinions of professors and students should be ferociously protected, and that those who run universities must reject the idea that colleges and universities exist to impose orthodoxies on anyone. Over the past decade, too many academic institutions have grown used to promoting specific views of the world to incoming students.

Radical open-mindedness would be wildly out of place at most contemporary universities. Getting there will take substantial cultural and political change.

That starts with self-awareness. One lesson of the First Great Age of Political Correctness and the P.C. wars of the 1980s and ’90s is that it was a huge mistake to think that because a movie like PCU skewered campus culture, the problem had already fixed itself. As a result, the problem was allowed to grow worse.

We can’t make that mistake again. The ideal time for achieving real change in higher ed was 30 or even 40 years ago. The next best time is now.

Alternative and online colleges are not going to save us, for the rot has spread too far. We need adherence to the five points above, and a group of people who won’t financially support colleges who violate those points. Money talks, and colleges are already worried about the loss of income from miffed donors who aren’t down with extreme wokeness.

4 thoughts on “Greg Lukianoff on the recent history of campus free speech

  1. > it was a huge mistake to think that because a movie like PCU skewered campus culture

    If you haven’t yet, please please please watch the movie!

  2. I was going to send this directly to our host but I’m hoping he will find it relevant enough to his subject that it is on topic as comment.

    The column (Bagehot) is subtitled, “Anatomy of a Cancellation.” (at Cambridge.) But it’s good news because the cancellation was uncancelled as the end result of diligent guerilla work led by a Professor of Philosophy named Arif Ahmed — yes I think his name is important. This eventuated in Cambridge adopting an academic code that says all points of view have to be tolerated, not “respected”, and which rebuffed bureaucratic efforts to chill free speech. Mr. Peterson was invited back to speak.

    Says “Bagehot”:
    ‘The bloody history of the 20th century can lead to a misapprehension about free speech. It is thought to be lost suddenly, to stormtroopers in the night. In fact, freedoms are almost always first removed bureaucratically, with processes made steadily more onerous, whisper campaigns started by colleagues, a word in the boss’s ear. Bertrand Russell—another academic kicked out of Cambridge, in his case for pacifism—wrote that the habit of considering morality and political opinion before offering a person a post “is the modern form of persecution, and it is likely to become quite as efficient as the Inquisition ever was”.’

    We subscribe to the print edition but I did not have to sign in to read the column.

    My sense from reading this story, as well as the furor around Peter Singer’s talk on Pandemic Ethics (which was quite uncontroversial) at Rhodes College, is that the censorious Left is not really trying to stifle ideas they don’t like — although sure, they would like to. What they really want is to demonstrate that they have power to stifle. It’s the power they get off on, not the ideas themselves. If the people in the institutions stand up to them they can be beaten….or ignored into a state of impotent irrelevance. Not always today maybe. But one day at a time.

  3. In regard to the timeline, I agree that 2015 is about right for the second and bureaucratically imposed age of PC (standing for Progressive Conformism). I get this timeline by observing events at the institution from which I am on permanent leave due to my condition of emeritis,

    20 years ago, there were no signs at all of the coming deluge in my old department, which is in the School of Medicine. Nor were there any when I closed my lab in 2007, nor for the next few years (during which I kept considerable contact with the department). In 2015, a Race and Equity Initiative was announced at the university, and a congery of administrators concerned with D, E, or I (in various combinations) appeared as if by magic at all three campuses. These offices were at a high level, including not only Deans but Vice-Presidents and Vice-Chancellors, no doubt all with ancillary staffs appropriate to their feudal rank. A few years after that, the DEI craze swept into the SOM and other faculties, with widespread formation of DEI committees. These committees function to advance DEI doctrine, recommend articles that promote the Faith, and denounce any expressions that depart from it.

    The DEI committees, no less than the DEI officialdom in administration, are thus defined institutionally as antagonistic to the Kalven Report. Interestingly, the verbiage of the committees and of their acolytes is often (in such key words as “inclusion”, “harm”, and “healing”) therapeutic in character, revealing a mental link to elementary school educationism and to group therapy. It is reminiscent of Lukianoff and Haidt’s theory that late 20th century helicopter parenting of children underlies the later deluge of campus wokeness. The present generation of administrators were perhaps parachuted down to our campuses from the same helicopters.

  4. Something also needs to be done about:
    1. Reducing the number of adminstrators and curbing their power.
    2. Making college less expensive…we can start by slashing the amount of administrators.
    3. Investing more in community colleges and vocational schools. They need more prestige and the Ivy League needs less.

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