Is social-media criticism by professors bullying and a violation of academic freedom?

March 28, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here we have a back-and-forth in The Chronicle of Higher Education between two professors at Portland State University (“PSU”; a public college). The first piece is by Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies, and the second by Peter Boghossian, a philosopher, anti-woke writer, atheist, and one of the three people involved in the “Grievance Studies Affair“.  Ruth complains that critics of Critical Theory have been bullies by engaging in social-media pile-one (does she know how the Woke do that much more often?), and refers specifically to Boghossian and another professor, Bruce Gilley, who has argued that colonialism is good for the colonized, which of course caused a huge fracas.

As far as I can determine, what happened here is that a student (none of the principals already named) took pictures of some slides in a teacher education course which “offended” him/her because they were of the “Math is Racist” genre, and put the slides on Twitter. Boghossian and Gilley retweeted the slides. Apparently, though, some of the first names of students were on the slides, and so the dean asked Gilley and Boghossian to take down the tweets. They did so immediately. But apparently others joined in on the discussion, and that was considered bullying by Dr. Ruth.

Click on the screenshots to read.

Why was this considered “bullying”? According to Ruth:

[The professor who showed the slides] is shocked, then, to find her name and picture tied to the phrase “math is racist” — shorn of any context or any reference to the CNN article — and posted on Twitter by two of her male colleagues. It is picked up by the anti-woke warrior Chris Rufo, who tags the professional provocateur Joe Rogan and Fox’s voluble and influential Tucker Carlson. She has now become the latest exhibit in a national right-wing campaign to frame university professors as the new apparatchiks of a racially motivated totalitarianism. She shares an article with her students, and she is cast as one of Stalin’s henchmen. She is one of the “new racists.”

Anyone who has lived through one of the right-wing rage-gasms of the past decade — and they are disproportionately women and faculty of color — knows how terrifying they can be. All you have to do is say, “It’s true that the Greeks painted their statues,” or, “Hmm, it seems that the far right is appropriating a lot of medieval imagery,” and you can find yourself in the cross hairs, subject to doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats.

Note that neither Gilley nor Boghossian engaged in this pile-on and did not encourage it; others took up the issue and (I didn’t follow this) there was a social media pile-on—one of the kind with which we’re familiar but apparently coming from the anti-woke. Nevertheless, Gilley and Boghossian suffer the consequences and take the blame for the mob. Peter, by the way, is a classical liberal, not “right-wing”.

Ruth continues:

The two men who circulated the “math is racist” meme were outsourcing the harassment of a colleague to the legions of trolls flying from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss to rapping librarians to the next faux-outrage fury-fest. Every time this happens, the targets of right-wing rage can only hope that a shiny new object will come along to distract their tormentors. But there is always the possibility — given the apocalyptic rhetoric that higher education’s attempts to reckon with systemic racism constitute a Maoist Cultural Revolution — that one of these stunts will get someone hurt.

The above scenario is not a hypothetical. It happened at my university, Portland State, and was instigated by our very own anti-woke warriors, Bruce Gilley and Peter Boghossian. Gilley and Boghossian have been working this beat for years now, on Twitter and on blogs. And they claim to be doing so in the name of academic freedom.

No, Boghossian and Gilley—and no, I don’t agree with Gilley’s thesis, but he has the right to his opinion—did not outsource harassment or encourage it. They were simply exercising the right to criticize ideas like “math is racist.” That is both free speech (PSU must adhere to the First Amendment and academic freedom). And the “math is racist” meme certainly does deserve examination, criticism, and, to my mind, a fair amount of ridicule.

As for the worry that “one of these stunts will get someone hurt”, it’s ironic that Ruth is part of the group who is always claiming that speech itself is considered harm. She’s already been hurt!

The details of this kerfuffle are described in a document by the Oregon Association of Scholars. which links to the following resolution of the PSU Faculty Senate which was the result of the two retweets (click on screenshot):

Part of the resolution:

While we all have the right to express our opinions in accordance with The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, there are limitations to free speech when it violates our laws and when it results in a true threat for an individual or a group of individuals or incites actions that will harm others. It is crucial to ensure that the members of our academic community can learn and work in an environment that is free of hate and hostility.

Whereas When faculty become active in, or even endorse or tacitly support, public campaigns calling for the intimidation of individual colleagues they disagree with, or with an entire faculty they disagree with, they are undermining academic freedom. Intimidation and explicit or implied threats to physical integrity are not accepted as academic methods.

. . . . BE IT RESOLVED

As Faculty, we must be thoughtful in our exercise of academic freedom and guard against its cynical abuse that can take the form of bullying and intimidation. This kind of abuse of academic freedom destroys academic freedom by eroding the trust that makes possible open dialogue, which is a central tenet in university intellectual life as well as in the practice of participatory democracy more broadly.

Again, this meeting was occasioned solely by the two taken-down retweets by Gilley and Boghossian who, needless to say, are not greatly beloved at PSU. And the resolution accuses them, though it doesn’t mention them by name, of intimidation, making threats, and academic bullying.

None of that was true; remember that this comes from just two social media posts taken down at the behest of the Dean. This is, pure and simple, chilling of free speech and academic freedom (which, though Ruth claims are not the same thing, are so closely related—identical in this case—that one must be careful about distinguishing them).

At any rate, Peter (full disclosure: he’s a friend of mine) wrote a response to Ruth’s piece in the Chronicle, and it’s quite good. The take-home lesson is in the title, and we should all make this a mantra:

I’ll give two quotes. Given that two retweets brought down official opprobrium of PSU on Boghossian and Gilley, Peter is quite measured in his response (the bolding is mine):

By claiming that criticism of published ideas and pedagogical models is harassment, and by creating institutional mechanisms that erect barriers to wholly appropriate critique, entire lines of scholarship become exempt from scrutiny. The academic process depends on having the freedom not only to state ideas but also to criticize other ideas. Limiting criticism in academia is tantamount to telling potters they can make all the clay pots they want so long as they never use clay. This is particularly disturbing because the claims in question — almost always about race, gender, and sexual orientation — are presented as knowledge and then used to influence public policy.

It is worth noting that criticism is framed as harassment only by academicians working in certain domains of thought that are in Critical Theory’s orbit. Civil engineers are not claiming that criticism of truss bridge design is harassment. Physicists are not claiming they’re being persecuted when their contributions to quantum theory are criticized. Philosophers are not claiming victimization when their arguments about free will are scrutinized. Claiming criticism is harassment occurs when a discipline’s North Star is not Truth, but ideology.

The internal rationale for calling criticism “harassment” is as simple as it is absurd: because these Critical Theories are believed to proceed from one’s “social position” as an occupant of some “identity category,” the person and her ideas are treated as though they overlap. They do not. Thinking they do is a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, not least institutions that are nominally devoted to Truth. The backbone of rational thought is separating people from ideas to protect the dignity of the former while being free to criticize the latter.

Boghossian defends the use of Twitter as a way of alerting people to what’s going on inside the academy, and also as a way of making arguments—not the best venue for extended discourse, though! However, scholarly journals aren’t accessible to the public. Boghossian ends like this:

There’s a dual irony in Ruth’s accusations. First, if there’s an institutionalized rule that criticism of academic work is harassment, how would Critical Theory, which is entirely predicated on criticizing existing systems, have emerged? It would not have. The ability to criticize has enabled the existence of disciplines in which my colleagues work, and from which they have framed criticism as harassment. Second, Ruth is doing to Gilley and me exactly what she claims we are doing to our colleagues — criticizing us. The only difference is, she takes aim at us, while we take aim at ideas.

Gender studies professor has freedom of speech chilled for “transphobia”

March 26, 2021 • 10:15 am

This instance of free-speech suppression has a twist, as the victim is an endowed professor of gender and women’s studies at a public university. She’s Donna M. Hughes, who holds the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Endowed Chair of Gender and Women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island (URI).  She’s known for her work on human trafficking and sex work, but has now ventured into the minefield of transgender analysis. As Inside Higher Ed (IHE) reports, her university has, while grudgingly affirming her freedom of speech (always guaranteed at state schools), nevertheless done everything it can to demonize her and distance itself from her. Why? Because she feels—as do I—that there are some limits to the rights and privileges of transgender women considered as “women”. That makes Hughes, of course, a “transphobe”.

Click the screenshot to read the piece by Coleen Flaherty.

Hughes was somewhat out of mainstream feminist ideology when she wrote in the past that “there’s a fine line between sex work and sex trafficking and that legalizing prostitution helps only pimps and johns, not sex workers.” But that didn’t get her in nearly as much trouble as her February essay in 4W (a “fourth wave feminist” site), in which she not only called out QAnon, but made an analogy with that group and some of the proponents of the “transsexual women are fully women” view:

The political left is quick to denounce the campaign of disinformation that led to the Capitol riot on January 6. But fake news and harmful politicized beliefs leading to real harm are not solely a right-wing phenomenon. The American political left is increasingly diving headfirst into their own world of lies and fantasy and, unlike in the imaginary world of QAnon, real children are becoming actual victims.

The trans-sex fantasy, the belief that a person can change his or her sex, either from male to female or from female to male, is spreading largely unquestioned among the political left.

The trans-sex fantasy returns us to the question: “What is a woman?”. . .

. . .The trans-sex/“gender identity” ideology challenges same-sex rights, particularly those of women and girls. Interestingly, men and boys have had no attack on their rights. The biological category of sex, particularly women’s sex, is being smashed. Women and girls are expected to give up their places of privacy such as restrooms, locker rooms, and even prison cells. When biological males identify as trans-women, they can compete in women’s and girls’ sports. There are now cases of women being injured, some severely, by biologically larger and stronger biological men competing as “transwomen.” In the most well-known case in 2014, a transgender competitor broke the skull (linked video is graphic) of a female during a mixed martial arts (MMA) competition. In Fall 2020, World Rugby banned the participation of transwomen (biological males) in rugby citing the high risk of injury. Even Title IX, which granted women equal access to educational opportunities, such as those provided by sports and scholarships, are being taken away. It used to be when someone took unfair advantage, we’d call it cheating, but that is no longer recognized in this fantasy world.

The dystopian trans-sex/“gender identity” world claims that female mammalian characteristics should be redefined and disappeared from the female body to satisfy the feelings of biological males who identify as women. Basic biological words like breast and vagina are replaced by misogynistic, trans-sex/trans-gender language so that a female has a “front hole” instead of a vagina; females “chest feed” instead of breastfeed. All references to women disappear into terms such: “people who menstruate,” “people with uteruses,” “a pregnant person,” or “a birthing parent.” No such changes in terms are proposed for men’s bodies and anatomy. These redefinitions are hatred targeted at women’s bodies and their rights.

Strong stuff, but not irrational or hateful stuff. Nevertheless, that can’t be allowed to stand in a liberal university! And so, as IHE reports, the University of Rhode Island has issued the usual statement that criticizes the views of a faculty member while at the same time saying that it “honors and respects” her right of freedom of speech. That’s a form of hypocrisy. A good free-speech university, like the University of Chicago is at present, affirms that it will make no official statement supporting political, ideological, or moral views, and in response to the mob that’s descending on Hughes, would have said something like “Professor Hughes has the right to say whatever she wants, and the University supports that right.”

But URI has to flaunt its virtue, and so issued the statement below:

I find this statement weaselly to the extreme. While it’s entirely proper for the URI to have a page of resources and policies for supporting transgender students, faculty, or staff, it should not issue statements criticizing individual faculty members’ political views. (They even name Hughes!). What that does, as Hughes claims in the article, is to chill the speech of those who hold similar views, and it’s not at all “transphobic” to want a rational discussion about the extent to which transgender women (or men) are identical to biological women (or men). In other words, URI’s statement acts to squelch the speech of others—and they are many—who want a public discussion of the issue, and a discussion without being demonized as a “transphobe.”  This is why the University of Chicago enshrined in the Kalven Report the principle of not officially endorsing political/ideological/moral views. (Faculty members and others, of course, are free to issue their own personal statements on the issue.) Imagine how brave you’d have to be to risk being named as a public enemy by your own university!

It’s no wonder that Hughes takes this as an affront. It’s a blatant attempt to stifle the speech of URI members who have views different from those of extreme pro-trans-rights people.  The statement below says, in effect, that “Hughes can say what she wants, but she really shouldn’t have said this stuff”:

A faculty member’s First Amendment and academic freedom rights are not boundless, however, and should be exercised responsibly with due regard for the faculty member’s other obligations, including their obligations to the University’s students and the University community. As stated in the above referenced documents, faculty have a special obligation to show due respect for the opinions of others and to “exercise critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint” in transmitting their personal opinions.

In other words, her own University is calling Hughes irresponsible and disrespectful of the opinions of others, lacking “critical self-discipline and judgment” and “appropriate restraint”. If that’s not an attempt to stifle speech that’s not ideologically approved, I don’t know what is.

I could go on, but you can read the articles for yourself. Let me just add that Hughes has a lawyer, which means that a free-speech/academic freedom lawsuit may be in the offing. While the University may have had the right to publicly criticize Hughes’s views, and even name her, any respectable institution wouldn’t have done that, nor implied in the statement that there are limitations to freedom of speech and academic freedom. I have no respect for what URI has done to Hughes.

And here’s a statement she gave to IHE:

Via email, Hughes said it’s “just sad that we have reached a point in society where difficult issues cannot be freely and openly discussed without resort to personal attacks and calls for censorship.”

The marketplace of ideas, she added, “has broken down and increasingly, university faculty are terrified to speak out on a wide range of important issues for fear that — as seems to be happening here — they will draw criticism from their students and their institution will throw them under the bus.”

Bingo. No academic institution should make its members afraid to express views on political issues, nor try to enforce a political orthodoxy, no matter what it is. They can affirm that they won’t discriminate against various targeted groups (after all, that creates a climate for free discussion), but that’s as far as it should go.

h/t: William

How to ensure academic freedom

March 17, 2021 • 1:45 pm

The article below, from Quillette, is by Eric Kaufmann, a professor of Politics at Birkbeck College of the University of London, who works with the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI).  Kaufmann’s paper reports on a study of attitudes towards free expression in the U.K. and U.S. His U.K. work led to  a CSPI report that apparently became the basis of an official UK government policy paper on Academic Freedom and Free Speech that will likely become U.K. law.

You can click on the screenshot to read the piece for free; below I’ll just list Kaurfmann’s major findings and then his conclusions, which involve government intervention to ensure the freedoms he wants preserved. Note that the sample size was not large.

Kaufmann’s findings:

a.)  Few academics have been subject to threats or disciplinary actions over their speech, but it’s been far more frequent in the U.S. than in the UK.

b.) Right-wing academics, especially if they are Ph.D. students, experience threats and disciplinary actions far more often than do left-wing academics.

c.) While most academics would not support campaigns to oust other academics who take unpopular possessions (Kaufmann gives a list of five hypotheticals, of which I put two below), a substantial proportion (around 40%) would remain neutral, not opposing campaigns to fire professors. This is a “silent moiety” that, says Kauffmann, are enablers of those who censor others.

Here are two of his five examples of unpopular positions that were used to query his subjects; these are based on real episodes on campuses:

  1. If a staff member in your institution did research showing that greater ethnic diversity leads to increased societal tension and poorer social outcomes, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]
  2. If a staff member in your institution did research showing that the British Empire did more good than harm, would you support or oppose efforts by students/the administration to let the staff member know that they should find work elsewhere? [Support, oppose, neither support nor oppose, don’t know]

d). Roughly half of academics, and a large majority of Ph.D. students, support “diversity quotas” for reading lists.

e). Support for dismissing academics who hold unpopular positions decreases significantly with age (5 classes from 35 to 65 years old). It’s the young folk who are the authoritarians.

f). Self-reporting by academics on whether they find themselves in a hostile climate for their beliefs was much higher for right-wing academics than for far-left, fairly-left, or centrist academics. This is true in both the U.S. and U.K.

Not much of this surprised me—with the exception of high support for diversity quotas on reading lists.

Because Kaufmann’s UK research actually translated into government action, he sees using the government as a way to ensure academic freedom. I’m not completely convinced of using that route, though. Here are what he recommended for the UK, with the first what the government is apparently going to do:

Importantly, most of our recommendations were adopted in the government’s new Academic Freedom white paper, which is likely to become law later this year. Foremost among these is the creation of the new position of Academic Freedom Champion on the Office for Students (OfS), the sector regulator. This individual will be tasked with proactively auditing universities for compliance with their free speech duty to not only defend, but promote, academic freedom. In addition, this office will act as an ombudsman to hear cases from individuals whose rights have been abridged by their universities. The new bill gives the regulator teeth to fine universities, which is vital. Only if the cost is high will administrators be able to face down activists and tell them that they cannot restrict the freedom of dissenting academics, no matter how much they wish to do so.

The second:

. . . our recommendations also include an explicit mention of political discrimination as grounds for bringing a complaint against a university. I recommend that university officers, when speaking in an official administrative capacity, be governed by a duty to remain politically neutral on any issue not directly concerned with the university’s narrow sectoral self-interest.

And the third:

Finally, I’ve argued for a requirement that universities show equivalent action between policies to promote traditional forms of diversity and equality, and moves to promote viewpoint diversity and equality. Institutions would be free to dial down all forms of equity and diversity, but should not be permitted to privilege identity-based diversity over political diversity.

This is all contingent, of course, on the first recommendation: that there be a government body to ensure academic freedom, headed by one individual (a Big Brother?). That seems dangerous, for that individual has enormous power to shape academia via fining universities. There’s a danger that that individual, rather than being neutral, might help bend academic discourse towards what’s acceptable to the current government. As Hitchens used to say, “Who would you entrust to do that job?” I prefer the alternative of private-sector pressuring, as is done by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and similar organizations like the AFA, which has the power to bring lawsuits against universities.

As for the second, I’m heartily in favor of it, for it is the embodiment of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Principle that the University take no official ideological, moral, or political positions—with a few rare exceptions.

As for the third, I’m not sure. While viewpoint diversity is desirable as well as ethnic diversity, there’s a rationale for promoting ethnic diversity that doesn’t hold for other forms. And that rationale is to increase ethnic diversity as a form of reparations for bigotry in the past. That is affirmative action, and I’m in favor of a limited form of it.

A new and powerful organization to preserve freedom of expression in universities

March 9, 2021 • 1:30 pm

There seems to be lots of organizations forming to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the three I know of (two of which haven’t yet been announced) include a mixture of liberals and conservatives, which is great. After all, freedom of thought and expression isn’t the bailiwick of any one side of the political spectrum.

I found out about this one from my colleague Brian Leiter, who posted this on his website Leiter Reports: (CHE is the Chronicles of Higher Education, and you should read their article; link below). Brian’s short post:

“Academic Freedom Alliance”

Stanford’s faculty senate condemns a colleague for exercising free (but misguided) speech

January 6, 2021 • 9:15 am

Once again we have a professor who said stupid stuff—not hateful this time, but medically wonky and potentially dangerous—and was officially condemned by his University.

Hot off the press from The Stanford News (click on screenshot): Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution—and formerly a professor and chief of neuroradiology at the Stanford University Medical Center—became a coronavirus advisor in the Trump administration, and proceeded to make a number of pronouncements about the pandemic that contravened medical wisdom.  Last Thursday he was condemned in a Stanford faculty resolution, with 85% of the faculty voting for that resolution.

So here we have the usual conflict between freedom of speech and the “harm” imputed to that speech. And once again, while condemning the speaker, I defend Atlas’s right to say what he wants without institutional condemnation.

From the report:

A resolution, introduced by members of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee and approved by 85 percent of the senate membership, specified six actions that Atlas has taken that “promote a view of COVID-19 that contradicts medical science.”

Among the actions cited are: discouraging the use of masks and other protective measures, misrepresenting knowledge and opinion regarding the management of pandemics, endangering citizens and public officials, showing disdain for established medical knowledge and damaging Stanford’s reputation and academic standing. The resolution states that Atlas’ behavior is “anathema to our community, our values and our belief that we should use knowledge for good.”

The resolution singles out for criticism Atlas’ recent Twitter call to the people of Michigan to “rise up” against new public health measures introduced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to curb disease spread.

“As elected representatives of the Stanford faculty, we strongly condemn his behavior,” the resolution states. “It violates the core values of our faculty and the expectations under the Stanford Code of Conduct, which states that we all ‘are responsible for sustaining the high ethical standards of this institution.’”

In approving the resolution, members of the senate called on university leadership to “forcefully disavow Atlas’ actions as objectionable on the basis of the university’s core values and at odds with our own policies and guidelines concerning COVID-19 and campus life.”

The indictment goes beyond simply damning Atlas for misrepresenting the scientific consensus in a potentially harmful way (presumably if he misrepresented continental drift there would have been no faculty resolution), but criticizes him for giving the imprimatur of Stanford and the Hoover Institution to his words. This is a common way to criticize speech: by saying that the speaker is an authority figure and puts the weight of his/her position behind the words.

In discussion, David Spiegel, the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professor in Medicine, who has been among Atlas’ most vocal critics, reiterated his belief that the university has an obligation to act because Atlas has inappropriately used his position at the Hoover Institution to give credibility to his COVID-19 positions.

“What Atlas has done is an embarrassment to the university,” Spiegel said. “He is using his real affiliation with Hoover to provide credibility in issues he has no professional expertise to discuss in a professional way.”

Yes, of course what Atlas said was dumb, and would have potentially harmful effects on those who followed his public statements. (But be mindful that there have been dissenters from the received wisdom about how to control the pandemic. Sweden, for instance, initially (and fruitlessly) sought to stem the pandemic through herd immunity—one of Atlas’s recommendations.)

But stupid pronouncements, even when made as an official of the Trump administration (and a fellow on leave from Hoover) constitute free speech. Atlas’s intent, or so he said in his response to the resolution, was neither intended to cause harm (the guy was just clueless), nor, if harmful, did it cause immediate harm. Ergo it’s free speech under the First Amendment.

And it doesn’t violate freedom of speech to make a pronouncement as an individual affiliated with Stanford. As far as I know, if I tweeted, as Professor Jerry Coyne, “Face masks are useless for preventing spread of the virus,” I would not be violating the First Amendment simply because I mentioned my position.  I might be violating a company’s regulations, or Stanford’s regulations (though I don’t know if that’s the case), but Stanford, although a private university, should not have rules that prevent free speech among its faculty.

Indeed, faculty who voted against Atlas recognized the tension between free speech and “harmful speech”, but resolved it in favor of preventing harm. It’s a case of “we favor free speech BUT. . . ”

In his comments on the issue, [Stanford] President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply troubled by the views by Dr. Atlas, including his call to ‘rise up’ in Michigan.” Tessier-Lavigne noted that Atlas later clarified his statements, but he said that the tweet “was widely interpreted as an undermining of local health authorities, and even a call to violence.”

Tessier-Lavigne reiterated Stanford’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Atlas, he asserted, remains free to express his opinions.

“But we also believe that inflammatory remarks of the kind at issue here by someone with the prominence and influence of Dr. Atlas have no place in the context of the current global health emergency,” he said. “We’re therefore compelled to distance the university from Dr. Atlas’s views in the strongest possible terms.”

No, President Tessier-Lavigne, Atlas’s misguided statements were NOT a “call to violence”, at least of the immediate and predictable kind that does violate the First Amendment. Atlas even made that clear. How a statement is interpreted by people is not important; what’s important, if you’re seeking to damn someone for free speech, is what they intended to do. 

The University didn’t have to pass a resolution “distancing itself” from Atlas, and that wouldn’t have happened at the University of Chicago. For passing such resolutions chills speech, and, as our Kalven report emphasizes, says these wise words:

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. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. 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. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

In this case the University (Stanford) is the critic, making public pronouncements so it looks good. And by so doing, it chills the speech of those faculty who would advance renegade views. Some of the faculty even recognized this:

The discussion of Atlas’ actions raised issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as it has in the past. Among those expressing concern about the resolution’s effect on freedom of speech and academic freedom was John Etchemendy, former provost, the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Denning Family Co-Director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

Etchemendy said that the resolution could be interpreted as suggesting Stanford faculty members have less freedom of speech rights than members of society in general.

But Etchemendy said, “As far as the statements that have been made by Atlas, as a private citizen he has the right to make those statements. I am troubled by the idea that a person who has those rights to speak and to assert certain things – however outrageous – have fewer rights to speak, given that they are Stanford faculty. I find that to be contrary to what is, I think, the highest value of the university, which is the value and promotion of free speech and open dialogue.”

I agree wholly with Etchemendy. But clearly most faculty, even if they do favor free speech and academic freedom, favor the “free speech BUT. . .” variety. One more quote:

Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said she believes the resolution has reminded the university of the importance of leading with its values.

“In our messaging, we have sometimes been more focused on the legal issues rather than the value issues,” she said. “This brings the value issues front and center. We have been pretty good at pointing to the value of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry, which I believe are central. But there are other values at stake. As a university, we have a commitment to push back against the undermining of expertise and knowledge. That is one of the great threats to our democracy at the moment.”

In my view (others may differ), those “other values”, which constitute misinformation—even potentially harmful misinformation—do not outweigh the great value of freedom of speech, especially at a university. Stanford should have kept its collective mouth shut.

Now you might be asking, “Well, what’s the difference between what Atlas said and false advertising, which DOES violate the First Amendment?”  After all, Atlas’s statement, like false advertising of drugs, could be harmful to people’s health.

As far as I know, commercial advertising has a bit less leeway than other forms of speech, and what has been prohibited by the courts is deceptive commercial advertising, when a firm makes claims it knows to be wrong. That is not the case for Atlas, who believed what he said. But even if he knew what he said was wrong, he should be damned and excoriated for it by counterspeech, not subject to official university condemnation. Universities, after all, should be kept as unsullied as possible by the chilling of speech, for they are places where ideas should be freely expressed and debated.

Atlas is a moron, but even morons get to say dumb things under the First Amendment.

I was going to put a poll here, “Do you agree that Stanford should have had a vote on condemning Atlas?” But I’d rather hear what you have to say in the comments, so speak up.

When, if ever, can you use the “n-word”?

December 15, 2020 • 12:15 pm

About three years ago I got a frantic call from a teacher in the upper Midwest asking for help. Her high school had banned her from teaching Huckleberry Finn to her upper-level English class because the book contained the “n-word”. She thought it was important to not only let the students read the book, but also to read that word, unexpurgated, in class (there were readings aloud). She was willing as well to have a discussion about the use of the word with the students, which I thought was good.  Sadly, I couldn’t help her, for there’s not much someone like me can do on the high school level about such matters.

This kind of censorship has occurred with other works of literature as well, including To Kill a Mockingbird and the stories of Flannery O’Connor. Even historical documents get censored. In the two articles below by libertarian law scholar Eugene Volokh, he reports that his own school UCLA condemned a lecturer, W. Ajax Peris, for reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” aloud. The essay is a classic of anti-racism literature, and an iconic document in the struggle for civil rights.  It also contains the “n-word.”  Peris’s crime was that he read that word aloud, quoting the text directly. (I’m referring, of course to the full word.)

King’s letter contains two mentions of the word; here’s one:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

That’s eloquent, and the word serves a real purpose here—showing its hurtful use in oppressing and degrading black people. Frankly, I don’t see the use of glossing over it, or saying the “n word” in its place, for the “offense” of the word is no worse than the images it conjures up: beatings, lynchings, and cross-burnings. Nevertheless, Peris was reported to the University and condemned by his department. It’s not clear yet whether he’ll suffer further punishment. One thing is for sure, though: he’ll be ostracized.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: is it okay to use the n-word in full when you’re reading it in a historical or literary context? The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says “yes”, arguing that the entire unredacted word has a didactic purpose, and prohibiting its utterance is an infringement of academic freedom:

Peris’s academic freedom, as a faculty member at a public institution bound by the First Amendment, includes the right to decide whether and how to confront or discuss difficult or offensive material, including historical readings that document our nation’s centuries-long history of racism,” Patton said. “Doing so does not amount to unlawful discrimination or harassment, and the law is abundantly clear that UCLA could not investigate or punish a professor for exercising his expressive or academic freedom.”

UCLA is, of course, a public university, and so the First Amendment applies, which allows the use of such a word, especially when it’s not a “fighting word”.

I think the same argument holds true for any historical document or work of literature, so long as it’s presented in a didactic and not disparaging way. Yes, some people may be offended, while others may feign offense (after all, the word is regularly used by blacks themselves, and is pervasive in rap music; the crime is that the word is uttered didactically by a non-black person—but one who is not trying to insult someone). Still, there are a lot of things that are offensive, but none so taboo as the n-word. As a Jew who’s been subjected to similar slurs, those involving epithets like “yid”, “kike”, “Hebe”, and so on, I have to say that I do find them offensive, and would be angry and upset if they were directed at me or other Jews (secular or not). But when they occur in law documents or literature, as they do in, say, The Catcher in the Rye, I find no problem with reading them, silently or aloud.

Why, though, shouldn’t professors redact the word to the shortened “n-word” version when teaching it? Well, think of how that would sound when reading King’s letter. And should you redact the letter itself, changing the text to read “when your first name becomes ‘n-word’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’. . . . .?”  It’s not the same, is it? King’s eloquent denunciation of black oppression is watered down.

In the piece below, Volokh describes how his dean at UCLA apologized (but Volokh did not) for Volokh’s quoting a law case when a man was prosecuted for “loud, abusive, or otherwise improper language” for saying “What, are you an idiot? What do I have to do, be a nigger to be served in this—in this place?”  That’s directly from the law transcript. As Volokh and Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy emphasize in their longer piece below, the word “nigger” has been spelled out in full in literally thousands of court decisions, including those authored by the likes of Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Conner, Clarence Thomas and so on. They didn’t abbreviate the word because they insist on accuracy; and abbreviation not only broaches that accuracy, but distorts the offense.

Lawyers obey what Volokh call the “use-mention” distinction, which draws a bright line between using such a word as an insult, and referencing them in a didactic context, like court cases or teaching literature.  As Volokh says in the article below:

Professors certainly shouldn’t use epithets, racial or otherwise, to themselves insult people. But when they are talking about what has been said, I think it’s important that they report it as it was said. This is often called the “use-mention distinction,” see, e.g., Randall Kennedy, How a Dispute Over the N-Word Became a Dispiriting Farce, Chron. Higher Ed., Feb. 8, 2019; John McWhorter, If President Obama Can Say It, You Can Too, Time, June 22, 2015 (distinguishing “using” from “referring to”).

Thus, when I have talked in my First Amendment Law class about Cohen v. California, I talked about Cohen’s “Fuck the Draft” jacket, not “F-word the Draft.” When I talked about Snyder v. Phelps, I talked about Phelps’ signs saying things like “God Hates Fags.” When I talked about Matal v. Tam, I talked about a trademark for a band called “The Slants,” which some view as a derogatory term for Asians. I suspect many, likely most, law professors do the same; they should certainly be allowed to. If I were to talk about the Redskins trademark case, I would say “Redskins,” rather than talk around the word, the way some news outlets apparently do.

What’s useful in Volokh’s piece above is his list of reasons why you shouldn’t abbreviate the n-word in a “mention” context. He gives five reasons. I won’t go into them all, but they include some of what I said above, as well as the “slippery slope” argument: once a word is made taboo, it makes it easier to make other words taboo, as each group demands that it gets the same consideration. This is not just a theoretical speculation: people have already been punished for using the term “Negro”, “wetback,” “bitch” and “fag.” And of course there are blasphemy considerations as well: many believers get deeply inflamed when someone in academic or intellectual discourse criticizes Islam or mocks the Prophet. Some of those people are even driven to murder! Nevertheless, I, at least, don’t favor a ban on such speech or images.

I recommend you go the article above and read Volokh’s arguments. They’re certainly worth considering.

After several experiences like this, and observing the censorship of those who use taboo words in the “mention” rather than “use” (derogatory) context, Volokh and his UCLA Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom created a statement prompted by Peris’s denunciation. It’s contained in the post below, or you can read it directly here. It allows instructors free rein to assign material that is potentially offensive, but also allows students the right to discuss that material, which is only fair.  As Volokh says, “it’s not a binding university rule [JAC: it should be, as similar principles apply in my school], but we hope it will be influential.”

Finally we get to the document at the bottom (click on screenshot below the book) that really does make a compelling case for the “use/mention distinction”: a 32-page, heavily documented piece written by Volokh and Randall Kennedy. If you read Kennedy’s biography above, you’ll know he’s not only a black, liberal, anti-racist Harvard Law Professor specializing in race law and relations, but has no problem using the n-word in full. In fact, he wrote a book about it in 2003 (click below to go to its Amazon page). You can also see Randall Kennedy discussing the word’s use on a PBS video here.

The Washington Post published an excerpt from Chapter 1, which you can see here

I read the entire 32-page document; it’s easier if you don’t delve deeply into the footnotes. Much of it is about the potentially detrimental effect of expurgating words on law students, but the overall argument is a general one for free speech and academic freedom.

In the end, I think I agree with Kennedy and Volokh: professors should be able to use any words in the “mention” context so long as they’re relevant, and students have the right to object or give counterarguments. And I have no problem with professors deciding to censor themselves: University of Chicago professor Geoff Stone stopped saying the whole n-word in his First Amendment law school class after the Association of Black Law Students objected. I wouldn’t fault him for that.

I won’t really have this dilemma, as I no longer teach, and, at any rate, none of my lectures come within miles of using potentially offensive words. But I believe that anybody who does so for good reason in the classroom (or in other didactic contexts) shouldn’t be censored, punished, or rebuked.

U of C President Robert Zimmer issues statement supporting faculty’s freedom of speech

November 30, 2020 • 9:00 am

Yesterday I reported on a fracas going on in my university’s Department of Geophysical Science. An associate professor, Dorian Abbot, put up four YouTube videos (now removed) questioning the department’s procedures for diversity and inclusion, as well as the need for affirmative action as opposed to pure meritocracy. A group of students and alums reacted with outrage, demanding in a letter to the Geophys Sci faculty that Abbot be punished and the department undergo all sorts of procedures to ensure that this “bigotry” never happen again—or at least without sanctions on the perp.

In response, a change.org petition addressed to President Robert Zimmer went up, and as of this morning had been signed by 7,123 people (click on screenshot), including Steve Pinker, who tweeted about it (click on screenshot below to see the petition):

As Reader Coel noted in his comment yesterday, Zimmer didn’t lose any time defusing this controversy, for yesterday he issued this statement (click on screenshot), which I reproduce below in its entirety. It doesn’t pull any punches, and renders the petition moot.

Though Zimmer’s statement was clearly prompted by l’affair Abbot, it properly doesn’t mention his name, but simply upholds the principle that faculty members can say anything they want without fear of retribution, unless the statement violates the law or University policy. Abbot’s statements, whatever you think of them, don’t constitute such violations. (Bolding in the statement below is mine.)

To:        Members of the University Community
From:    Robert J. Zimmer, President
Re:        Statement on Faculty, Free Expression, and Diversity
Date:     November 29, 2020

From time to time, faculty members at the University share opinions and scholarship that provoke spirited debate and disagreement, and in some cases offend members of the University community.

As articulated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, and these values have been consistent throughout our history. We believe universities have an important role as places where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated. For this reason, the University does not limit the comments of faculty members, mandate apologies, or impose other disciplinary consequences for such comments, unless there has been a violation of University policy or the law.  Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.

That said, no individual member of the faculty speaks for the University as a whole on any subject, including on issues of diversity. In turn, the University will continue to defend vigorously any faculty member’s right to publish and discuss his or her ideas.

The University is committed to creating an inclusive environment where diversity is not only represented but individuals are empowered to fully participate in the exchange of ideas and perspectives. As University leaders we recognize that there is more work to be done and are strengthening initiatives to attract faculty, students and staff of diverse backgrounds.

Zimmer could not have been clearer or more articulate about defending the freedom of speech of our faculty, which also holds for students and staff.  Note that he defends the right of the faculty to speak about “issues of diversity,” as did Abbot, but also defends the inclusivity of the University.

Although the letter to the faculty from Abbot’s critics doesn’t demand an apology from him, it does mandate a number of actions that clearly represent “discipline, reprimand, and punishment.” Those can no longer be imposed on Abbot, though of course faculty and students remain free to criticize him and to snub him, though they can’t create a workplace for Abbot that is seen as harassment.

What I like about the letter is not only what it says, but that, while responding to a controversy, does not name names, which would represent an unwarranted singling-out of Abbot. If only other university presidents could show this moxie!

McWhorter on the chilling of academia

September 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

This new article in The Atlantic by John McWhorter (who will never be allowed to write for any organ with “New York” in the title) also deals with cancel culture, as did an earlier post today, but concentrates on the chilling effect it has on academics. Although I no longer teach, I’d be very careful what I said were I to lecture in the classroom. Click the screenshot to read.

McWhorter mentions two “anecdotal” (or at least “self-selecting”) sets of data suggesting that academics are plenty scared about making missteps in the classroom. One is a survey by the Heterodox Academy. Since they surveyed their own members, this is not a random sample of academics, of course:

For example, in July I tweeted that I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) have been receiving missives since May almost daily from professors living in constant fear for their career because their opinions are incompatible with the current woke playbook. Then various people insisted that I was, essentially, lying; they simply do not believe that anyone remotely reasonable has anything to worry about.

However, hard evidence points to a different reality. This year, the Heterodox Academy conducted an internal member survey of 445 academics. “Imagine expressing your views about a controversial issue while at work, at a time when faculty, staff, and/or other colleagues were present. To what extent would you worry about the following consequences?” To the hypothetical “My reputation would be tarnished,” 32.68 percent answered “very concerned” and 27.27 percent answered “extremely concerned.” To the hypothetical “My career would be hurt,” 24.75 percent answered “very concerned” and 28.68 percent answered “extremely concerned.” In other words, more than half the respondents consider expressing views beyond a certain consensus in an academic setting quite dangerous to their career trajectory.

So no one should feign surprise or disbelief that academics write to me with great frequency to share their anxieties. In a three-week period early this summer, I counted some 150 of these messages. And what they reveal is a very rational culture of fear among those who dissent, even slightly, with the tenets of the woke left.

McWhorter admits  that these data are hardly scientific, suggesting that a random sample of 3,000 professors would be needed for that. But he adds, “But let’s face it: Half a dozen reports of teachers grading Black students more harshly than white students would be accepted by many as demonstrating a stain on our entire national fabric. These 150 missives stand as an articulate demonstration of something general—and deeply disturbing—as well.” He would never, ever be allowed to say something like that, even though it’s true, in the New York Times.  And I’ve detected the same fear in colleagues, manifested in other ways that I won’t bother to describe. Let’s just say that McWhorter is on to something.

Here’s an example of the kind of incident that’s made professors leery of teaching and also self-censoring. The words are McWhorter’s or his correspondents’:

  • A statistics professor says:

    I routinely discuss the fallacy of assuming that disparity implies discrimination, which is just a specific way of confusing correlation for causality. Frankly, I’m now somewhat afraid to broach these topics … since according to the new faith, disparity actually is conclusive evidence of discrimination.

  • A white professor read a passage from an interview with a well-known Black public intellectual who mentions the rap group NWA, and because few of the students knew of the group’s work at this late date, the professor parenthetically noted what the initials stand for. None of the Black students batted an eye, according to my correspondent, but a few white students demanded a humiliating public apology.
  • Overall I found it alarming how many of the letters sound as if they were written from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. A history professor reports that at his school, the administration is seriously considering setting up an anonymous reporting system for students and professors to report “bias” that they have perceived. One professor committed the sin of “privileging the white male perspective” in giving a lecture on the philosophy of one of the Founding Fathers, even though Frederick Douglass sang that Founder’s praises. The administration tried to make him sit in a “listening circle,” in which his job was to stay silent while students explained how he had hurt them—in other words, a 21st-century-American version of a struggle session straight out of the Cultural Revolution.
  • One professor has stopped teaching James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” after Black students claimed that it forced them to “re-live intergenerational trauma.”

What struck McWhorter, which shouldn’t be all that surprising given what we know, is that most of his correspondents were on the Left side of center. As he says, “Thus the issue is not the age-old one of left against right, but what one letter writer calls the ‘circular firing squad’ of the left: It is now no longer ‘Why aren’t you on the left?’ but ‘How dare you not be as left as we are.'”

This trends of increasing fragility of students (real or pretended), and their increasing willingness to damage professors who don’t hew to the preferred narrative, seem unstoppable. For every Leftist and liberal fears above all being called a racist, and yet that’s what you can be called by someone who’s more to the Left than you. This causes those closer to the center to simply keep quiet, creating a ratchet effect that makes the vocal moiety of the Left sound more and more extreme. I can only imagine what this will do to not only American academics, but to American politics.

A hard case to make a good law: the ideological impurity of David Starkey

July 14, 2020 • 12:15 pm

The original saying I paraphrase above, from Oliver Wendell Holmes, is “hard cases make bad law”, meaning you shouldn’t erect general principles based on extreme cases. But in this instance, regarding the defenestration of scholars who say things unpalatable to their peers, or odious things in general, these are the hard cases that should be the basis of a general rule: academic institutions should not punish scholars who exercise their right to free speech.

Sadly, as Benjamin Schwarz—former literary and national editor of The Atlantic—shows in the new Spiked, this rule, which used to hold in the UK, no longer holds, at least with respect to historian and television presenter David Starkey. Starkey, it has to be said, uttered a statement that is reprehensible, unworthy of a thinking person. But it’s still free speech. Read what happened to him by clicking on the screenshot below:

First, Schwarz reports what Starkey said, giving Schwarz’s own take:

‘Slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain, would there?’ With that sentence, in a video interview posted earlier this month, David Starkey, the Tudor historian and documentarian, destroyed his career. Defenestrated by the institutions that had honored his scholarly achievements (Lancaster University; the Royal Historical SocietyFitzwilliam College, Cambridge), that had given him an academic home (Canterbury Christ Church University), and had paid him (his publisher, HarperCollins), Starkey, age 75, is now, and will certainly forever be, adrift and unemployable. No one has publicly defended Starkey’s comment, and Starkey himself has called it ‘clumsy’ and ‘deplorably inflammatory’. And surely it is entirely a private matter, if, because of that utterance, Starkey’s acquaintances and colleagues should choose to upbraid or to shun him. However, in the case of the above institutions, with one partial exception, the only appropriate response would have been no response whatsoever.

Because of this, Lancaster University is contemplating revoking Starkey’s honorary degree, the Royal Historical Society and Cambridge University are deep-sixing his fellowship, and, most unjustifiable of all, Canterbury Christ Church University has ended the Starkey’s visiting professorship. His publisher said not only that it wouldn’t publish future books by Starkey, but might also dump his backlist, punishing both him and the public by simply erasing his published (and acclaimed) scholarship.

Now nobody is going to defend Starkey’s statement. While slavery wasn’t genocide (or, at least, actions designed to wipe out an entire people), it was designed to enslave, degrade, and mistreat an entire people. Starkey’s words were deeply stupid, but should he be punished for it? It depends. A publisher might sever contact with him (there’s no academic freedom in publishing, as we learned with Hachette and Woody Allen’s memoirs), but ditching all previous books is, to me, a ridiculous and indefensible way of virtue signaling. Schwarz declares that most of Starkey’s punishments were not justifiable, on the grounds that scholarly institutions should not take ideological positions and punish those who transgress them:

The sole purpose of any academic institution is – or should be – to pursue and advance knowledge and understanding. This requires a forum free from official censure, so that scholars may pursue any question and consider any view, however despised. Such institutions cannot, therefore, apply any political or moral litmus test to the ideas and speech of their constituent scholars. Thus, in a controversy that heralded the Free Speech Movement, Ernst Kantorowicz, the German emigre medievalist and deeply conservative anti-Communist (and anti-Nazi), famously argued in 1949 that, by requiring a loyalty oath to weed out Communists and Communist sympathisers on its faculty, his adopted institution, the University of California at Berkeley, would destroy itself as an academic community. For the academy to serve its proper function, Kantorowicz recognised, the only criteria for membership must be professional competence and scholarly ability – not the forswearing of any creed, however apparently reprehensible. Furthermore, because academic ability is the only basis by which scholarly institutions can judge their scholars and students, and because those institutions must provide an unfettered environment in which the individual scholar can pursue truth as he or she sees it, these institutions must, themselves, be strictly neutral on political, social and moral questions, no matter how right and settled the answers to those questions may seem.

Schwarz cites a document I’ve mentioned frequently, the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report, one of the foundations of the philosophy underlying my school. (You can find it here.) Sadly, as my University is slowly beginning to take ideological positions that don’t comport with the few exceptions Kalven allowed, the principle of institutional neutrality on politics is eroding even here.

Schwarz continues:

The most forthright and eloquent argument for such institutional neutrality remains the 1967 statement drafted by the great constitutional scholar, Harry Kalven Jr, for the University of Chicago. The ‘Kalven report’ states that ‘a university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices and institutions’. But, the report explains, ‘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.’ Because a university must ‘maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures’, it is ‘a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.’ And because the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, the Kalven report argues:

‘It is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues… It should not, therefore, permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence.’

In short, as the Kalven report explains, scholarly institutions must refrain from deciding social and political questions on behalf of their students and faculty, and they should simply not concern themselves with the views of their students or faculty, no matter how deplorable some or most may find those views.

One by one, academic departments at the U of C are contemplating putting up statements at odds with Kalven, not just affirming that our institution does not discriminate on the basis of race of gender (an appropriate statement since it’s part of the University’s mission), but also asserting more dubious statements from Critical Race Theory. Sadly, Kalven’s report appears on the way out because of pressure from the woke.

It didn’t used to be this way, at least in Britain. Schwarz mentions the case of renowned art historian Anthony Blunt, who, while working for MI5, was also a Soviet agent who passed nearly 2000 documents to Stalin’s Russia. He was, in other words, a traitor. If that isn’t worse than what Starkey said, I don’t know what is. Yet he wasn’t treated nearly as badly as Starkey. (Blunt, in fact, was given immunity from prosecution. As Schwarz notes:

Although some academic institutions with which Blunt was affiliated, revolted by his treachery, disassociated themselves from him, the most important ones did not. Oxford did not withdraw Blunt’s honorary degree (unlike Lancaster University, which is set to withdraw Starkey’s honorary degree). London University, where Blunt was an emeritus professor, held that his position there had been conferred solely for his academic achievements, achievements that were unaffected and undiminished by his personal, moral and political transgressions. The British Academy took a similar line, its fellows voting by a 3-1 majority that Blunt should remain a fellow. As another fellow, and the director of the London School of Economics, Ralf Dahrendorf explained, ‘the British Academy is about scholarship, and that was the decision we took – by a handsome majority’. The arch-Tory historian Hugh Trevor-Roper justified his vote not to expel Blunt more crudely: ‘The Academy is not a tribunal of morals. If we say we’ll expel so-and-so because he’s a shit, we’ll have to have a whole new set of rules.’

Apparently that new set of rules has been applied to Starkey. It’s not exactly that British academe has forgotten the old rules, it just applies them selectively. Although a chorus of critics called for Cambridge to punish its professor Priyamvada Gopal for proclaiming on Twitter ‘White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives’, Cambridge responded – rightly – that ‘the university defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial’. Cambridge’s stance on Gopal’s academic freedom also reflects the law. The Education Reform Act of 1988 and the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017 require that universities ‘ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions’.

Note that it’s not just jobs, but “jobs or privileges”, like Starkey had at Cambridge.

Now this isn’t a cut-and-dried situation, for there are cases in which some sort of revocation is necessary. For instance, when J. D. Watson made racist statements, he was forced to resign as director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). One could argue that, as director, part of Watson’s mission was to ensure racial equality and equal opportunity, and that was compromised by his statement. On the other hand, CSHL also revoked his  honorary titles, which is far less justifiable.

And if a professor at the University of Chicago said what Starkey did, he might have been censured privately or publicly by colleagues as individuals, but the University itself would not pronounce on his statements one way or another. (To that extent, at least, the Kalven Report is still applied.) The principle of ideological and political neutrality of academic institutions is a precious ideal, one that protects freedom of speech by not penalizing non-conformity. Sadly, it’s on its way out in most American colleges. I hope it’s not on its way out at Chicago.

 

The Kalven Report of 1967, supposedly ensuring the political neutrality of the University of Chicago

June 5, 2020 • 10:30 am

In 1967, President George Beadle of the University of Chicago (a Nobel-winning geneticist and also an avowed atheist) convened a committee whose charge was to “prepare a statement on the University’s role in social and political action.” This was the result of many people calling for the University to take positions on political issues like the Vietnam War, security hearings in the U.S Congress, and so on. The Committee was convened in February and produced its report, remarkably, by November. The report took its name from Harry Kalven Jr., the Committee chair, a famous legal scholar, and a professor of law at the University’s law school.

The document is only a bit more than two pages long, and you can get a pdf by clicking on the screenshot below. You should read it whether or not you think that universities should take official political positions.

The basic conclusion of the Kalven Report was that the University as a whole comprises scholars who are supposed to provide the opinions, but the University itself should not—with two exceptions (see below). This was a landmark document that the University has basically adhered to for over half a century—though I suspect those days are ending.

First, the meat of the document (bolding is mine):

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

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. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. 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. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest. It finds its complement, too, in the obligation of the university to provide a forum for the most searching and candid discussion of public issues.

I agree with that, though I can envision some circumstances that adherence to it would make me a tad uncomfortable (e.g., divesting from harmful causes). But as far as I know, the University has adhered to this pretty scrupulously over the years. And the statements I’ve put in bold show why; it’s hard to argue otherwise. “The University of not a lobby.” The Kalven Report ranks with the Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago (chaired by Geoff Stone, another law school professor) as the two pillars of academic freedom and freedom of speech that has made me proud to be associated with this university.

The report does cite two exceptions, which seem reasonable. The first are cases in “which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.” In such instances, the University is justifiably obliged to combat the threats to its underlying principles.  The second is more mundane:

There is another context in which questions as to the appropriate role of the university may possibly arise, situations involving university ownership of property, its receipt of funds, its awarding of honors, its membership in other organizations. Here, of necessity, the university, however it acts, must act as an institution in its corporate capacity. In the exceptional instance, these corporate activities of the university may appear so incompatible with paramount social values as to require careful assessment of the consequences.

Economist George Stigler, also on the committee (and also a Nobel Laureate some yearslater), took exception to this last bit and added his own coda:

Special Comment by Mr. Stigler:

I agree with the report as drafted, except for the statements in the fifth paragraph from the end as to the role of the university when it is acting in its corporate capacity. As to this matter, I would prefer the statement in the following form: The university when it acts in its corporate capacity as employer and property owner should, of course, conduct its affairs with honor. The university should not use these corporate activities to foster any moral or political values because such use of its facilities will impair its integrity as the home of intellectual freedom.

I think Stigler’s comment is an improvement.

Now, however, I worry that the Kalven Report is being forgotten, or deliberately ignored, as social pressures are applied to the University to make official statements about politics and ideology. Most of these I’ve agreed with in their content, for they are liberal and I am a liberal. I won’t mention the statements, perhaps because I’ve been treated well here, am proud of my school, and don’t want to single individuals out for criticism. Suffice it to say that the increasing wokeness of the University is seeping into its official statements, and this politicizes the University in a way that the Kalven report feared and prohibited.

Will the University of Chicago become, in terms of wokeness, a high-class version of The Evergreen State College or Middlebury College?  I hope not, but I’m worried. Wokeness seems to be a one-way ratchet, for if you oppose it you risk being tarred with all kinds of names and labels.

Well, I’m older and won’t be around forever, but I hope to Ceiling Cat that (as Harvard did do), the University of Chicago won’t start producing “social justice placemats” to put in its dining halls. We seem to be creeping in that direction.