This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on September 15, 2015.
Is there no end to the illegal suppression of free speech and debate on America’s public university campuses?
Apparently not. The latest perpetrators in the academic assault on the First Amendment are the University of Tennessee (UT) at Knoxville and the 10-campus University of California System.
At UT-Knoxville, the campus Pride Center published a guide instructing university members on the proper use of pronouns. Arguing that terms like “he” and “she” may be insufficiently “inclusive,” the guide recommends replacing these potentially offensive terms with, for example, “ze” and “xe.” Moreover, the new standards carry with them the suggestion that faculty inquire of each student by what pronoun he/she (sorry: make that “ze/xe”) prefers to be addressed.
Apparently, the leaders of UT believe that there is a pressing need for the university to shelter those who find the terms “he” and “she” offensive. But UT’s sensitivity toward those who might be offended has been taken a step further by the University of California System, whose Board of Regents is considering As a Washington Post op ed points out, a number of pressing issues today, immigration and marriage among them, could become subject to censorship on the grounds that certain opinions on these issues constitute “intolerance,” defined by the university as “unwelcome conduct motivated by discrimination against, or hatred toward, other individuals or groups.”
But these encroachments on free speech are beginning to encounter resistance. When UT-Knoxville issued its language guide, some members of the Tennessee state legislature took notice. State Sen. Bo Watson called on members of the Senate Education and Government Operations committees to “investigate and review” what the school was up to. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey blasted the language guide as “the clearest example of political correctness run amok that I have seen in quite some time.” Ramsey added that the state legislature might “weigh in on the issue” when it returns in January if the school fails to “take quick action” first.
As a result, the UT administration quickly did an about-face, issuing the following “clarification”: “There is no mandate or official policy to use the language. The information provided in our Office of Diversity and Inclusion newsletter was offered as a resource to our campus community on inclusive practices. We recognize that most people prefer to use the pronouns he and she; we do not dictate speech.”
As for the University of California’s proposed speech restrictions, its Board of Regents meets this Thursday to discuss the matter. This Thursday (September 17) is Constitution Day. One can only hope that the regents will have the Constitution’s First Amendment in mind when they meet to review the proposed resolution. One also hopes that they remember that it is illegal for public universities to deny those on campus their First-Amendment rights.
As I documented here, such refusals by public universities to uphold the First Amendment are beginning to be noticed at the national level also. This summer, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing titled, “First Amendment Protections on Public College and University Campuses.” Based on what it learned at the hearing, the committee sent a letter to 162 public colleges and universities whose policies, the committee found, fail to ensure the First Amendment rights of their professors and students.
That state and federal lawmakers should find that they need to go where university leaders dare not tread is simultaneously encouraging and frightening.
It is encouraging because, finally, notice is being taken of the fact that American higher education today faces an existential crisis. While many focus on the unaffordability of higher education, as well as on its poor record in producing a competitive workforce, the deepest crisis in which our colleges and universities find themselves is this: More and more, our institutions of higher learning are abandoning their very reason for being, the reason that justifies academic freedom in the first place. They are abandoning the nonpartisan quest for truth; instead, they are degenerating into havens of ideological conformity and its inevitable consequence, intellectual mediocrity. So, it is heartening that lawmakers are taking up the task of teaching the teachers about the conditions of human freedom.
But it is also frightening, and for the same reason, namely, that politicians are now needed to force universities to once again act like universities. The failure of our higher education leaders—professors, administrators, and trustees, alike—to promote and practice freedom of speech and debate is proof, if any more proof was required, of the suicidal imperative at work in the ideology governing too many of our universities today. Without the freedom to debate competing visions, both scientific/intellectual progress and democratic dialogue are hampered, if not simply doomed.
There is a better way to purge the intellectual barbarism operating within the university’s gates. Rather than rely on lawmakers, universities should clean up their own houses. The University of Chicago provided us the template for such a renaissance when it recently published the “Chicago Principles,” which reaffirm its commitment to free speech and debate “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The Chicago Principles champion “the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” Since the announcement of the Chicago Principles, Princeton has joined as a signatory. And recently Purdue University, under the leadership of former Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels, became the first public university to embrace the Chicago statement.
As a former professor and university administrator, I can imagine how concerned many in academia must be over the prospect of looming regulation of universities by state and/or federal lawmakers. Universities themselves could go a long way toward averting such interference if they were to embrace the Chicago Principles on their own. Such self-policing appears to be the only method that is consistent with universities’ deserved autonomy vis-à-vis the political sphere.
The problem with this solution, unfortunately, is that too many in our universities do not want to be divorced from politics. Far from it, in fact. Too many were raised on the mantra, “the personal is political.” Believing that everything, including education, is unavoidably “political,” too many on our campuses now feel free to jettison a fair-minded, balanced education, which is open to all competing viewpoints. Instead, they desire to write not only books but also laws.
It was only a matter of time before their move into politics would set universities at loggerheads with real lawmakers. In the coming battle, some schools could find themselves casualties. But the first casualty has already been tallied—the freedom to learn.