This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on June 9, 2017
(This piece was coauthored with Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph. D., Trustee, Lone Star College System)
Campus protests are the new, fashionable zeitgeist. Protesters have become emboldened, with virtual impunity. It is quite conceivable that no well known Republican or conservative will any longer be permitted to speak on many college campuses. The point survives the exaggeration. We know with certainty that the zeitgeist will bode negatively, even destructively, against any speaker, conservative or even centrist.
To see this, we need only look at recent cases to glean that the precedent for protest has been firmly established. We saw it, of course, at Middlebury College against Dr. Charles Murray. The faculty fueled this fire when scores of them sent a letter to the president of the college, imploring her not to introduce Dr. Murray because such would make his presence on campus “legitimate.” Professor Allison Stanger, Dr. Murray’s chaperone, was injured by protestors and hospitalized.
We saw it at UC Berkeley, even before Ann Coulter appeared on campus, with masked protesters throwing rocks, breaking windows, and setting fires. We saw it, too, at Claremont College, where conservative writer Heather MacDonald was not permitted to speak. We saw it at Bethune-Cookman University, where during her commencement address, Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed and shouted down repeatedly.
And we saw it at Texas Southern University, where 863 people signed a petition demanding that U. S. Senator John Cornyn not be permitted to give his earlier scheduled commencement address. His appearance was cancelled the day before commencement, owing to credible threats of protest violence. People would get hurt, property, damaged.
So the most germane question of all is, what can be done to stop the disruptive, intolerant, violent protests and to permit the intellectual diversity of opinions on campus in a free society? A number of solutions could be considered, but none of them will work satisfactorily. One, an appeal could be made to college administrators and faculty to encourage more intellectual diversity and tolerance on campus. Don’t hold your breath. Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University; writes: “In New England, where my own university is located, liberal professors outnumber their conservative colleagues by a ratio of 28:1.”
Two, speakers could be guarded by police troops to ensure safety. But this would likely exacerbate destructive reaction, as occurred at UC Berkeley with masked protesters. Three, the college could set aside a protest zone some distance from the speaker’s domain. But protesters would have none of it. They want to be where it counts. And four, punishment of disruptive protesters could be made more severe. But administrators prefer only to slap wrists.
What, then, can work? Bank robber, Willie Sutton, points toward an answer. Sutton was once asked why he continued to rob banks. His answer: “Because that’s where the money is.”
Universities are expensive places to run these days. They require ever-more money to maintain the campus version of the modern welfare state. Cutting off their funding is guaranteed to get their attention in a way that appeals to their teaching duties have not.
There are two primary means of accomplishing this goal. First, government, either at the federal or state level, or both, could reduce funding to anti-First-Amendment schools. Second, private actors—prospective students and alums—could tape over the campus cookie jar.
Both of these methods have been verified in practice by the sad, instructive case of the University of Missouri (Mizzou), whose administration responded spinelessly to campus protests in 2015. The result? Rightly enraged alums, state legislators, and prospective students cut them off. Mizzou’s freshman enrollment fell 25 percent in 2016, and is projected to fall another seven percent next fall. Donors have reduced their giving, and the state legislature reduced some funding. The school has now been forced to close four dorms. And—horror of horrors!—professors may be required to empty to their office trash cans.
The new Mizzou administration got the message. It recently announced a policy aimed at restoring free debate. The statement derives from the University of Chicago’s model free speech policy, known as “The Chicago Statement.” The Mizzou policy now affirms that, “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”
If we are serious about saving higher education, we need first to make “Mizzou’d” a new verb in the national lexicon (as in “Borked”). Alums need to consult the free-speech rating of their alma maters on the website of the nonpartisan, free-speech watchdog organization, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). If your alma mater does not have a “Green Light rating” from FIRE (no First Amendment violations), then inform the fundraising office that you will not be contributing until they do. If your child is looking to go to college, perform the same study, and do not send him or her to an offending institution.
In short, it is time for the people to rise up and educate the educators. Nothing less can be counted on to incentivize these offending institutions. Nothing less will cause them to recommit themselves to their founding mission: the unfettered pursuit of wisdom concerning humanity’s highest and deepest questions, a pursuit that is impossible without the freedom to debate and disagree, that is, the freedom to learn.
It has been said that what is taught in the classroom in this generation will be practiced in the legislature in the next. Bottom line: If free speech is lost on our campuses, it will shortly thereafter be lost in our politics. American democracy, which Lincoln declared to be “the last, best hope of Earth,” will fall to what I have termed, “university-assisted suicide.”