This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on May 8, 2017.
Throughout American history, our colleges and universities have enjoyed a respect, even a reverence, from the American people. And for good reason: A college degree has long been seen as the ticket to the American Dream—as the merit-based path onward and upward.
Over the past half-century, a growing number of America’s campuses have come to be seen by those who pay for them as inefficient and thus overly expensive, at best, or as anti-individual liberty and thus anti-American, at worst. For some critics, they fail on both counts.
Our universities have not helped themselves in rebutting this public perception. Quite the contrary. Recently, a growing number of colleges and universities have doubled-down in their ongoing war on free speech and thought, as documented by annual surveys conducted by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Right in Education (FIRE).
If these universities thought that the premium given to a bachelor’s degree would continue to trump public concerns over campus censorship, they should have been disabused of this notion after the fallout from the 2015 protests at the University of Missouri (Mizzou). Public disgust over these protests, as well as over the Mizzou administration’s spineless response to them, has led to a back-breaking decline in freshman enrollments as well as donations, as I documented here.
This week saw the latest entrant into the campus culture wars when a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives calling on public colleges and universities to terminate campus “free speech zones” (small areas on campus to which the First Amendment is effectively quarantined.)
House Resolution 307 was introduced by Representative Phil Roe (R-Tennessee), and cosponsored by Representatives Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), Todd Rokita (R-Indiana), Rick W. Allen (R-Georgia) Glenn Grothman (R-Wisconsin), Jason Lewis (R-Minnesota), and Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama).
The resolution rehearses the judicial record that unambiguously requires all public colleges and universities to uphold the First Amendment. It then cites FIRE’s nationwide research, which reveals that “roughly 1 in 10 of America’s top colleges and universities quarantine student expression to so-called ‘free speech zones,’ that more than 20 speakers were disinvited from speaking on campuses in 2016, and [whose] survey of 449 schools found that almost 40 percent maintain severely restrictive speech codes that clearly and substantially prohibit constitutionally protected speech.”
The House Resolution also quotes the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which argues, ‘‘’Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.’” The ACLU goes on to assert that “’all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.’’’
In a press advisory on the House Resolution, Representative Roe stated: “With our current political climate, it’s more crucial than ever that colleges and universities protect all First Amendment rights.” He goes on to decry the fact that “frequently a vocal minority of dissenters” are “allowed to drown out or block alternative viewpoints or thoughts from even being shared. . . . With this bipartisan resolution, we can send a strong message that Congress expects universities to protect and foster the free and open exchange of ideas.”
This move by the U.S. House—added to the likeminded efforts of various state legislatures and students and alums—represents a formidable force.
Will the universities listen?
Perhaps, but consider higher education’s prior history of flouting the law. In Jonathan Zimmerman’s new book, “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (2016), he notes the instances in the past in which courts have struck down various schools’ speech codes. How did the institutions respond? Zimmerman answers, “Many universities retained [these illegal speech codes] or added new ones, even in the face of judicial decisions prohibiting them.”
As someone who spent thirty years in the Academy—as a student, professor, and senior administrator—I was less than shocked by Zimmerman’s revelation. Why? Because my experience has taught me that some in the universities today look down their noses at the average Americans who send them their children, their tuition payments, and their tax dollars. Nothing less than contempt explains their open disobedience—even to federal judicial decrees.
In short, our universities have none but themselves to blame for the growing public backlash from which they are suffering—and will likely suffer further if they continue to treat concerns over campus censorship with what sometimes appears to be smug indifference. By letting ideology trump scholarship, by elevating feelings over rational arguments, by strangling the quest for truth—their reason for being—at the altar of political correctness, our colleges and universities have squandered the almost-devotional respect felt for them by the larger society.
In this light, these schools should be grateful for the public pressure being brought to bear on them. The public’s indignation may be school’s last hope of being saved—from themselves.