This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on August 10, 2015.
As the presidential primary season gathers steam, presidential hopefuls in both parties are pitching voters on a number of proposals designed to arrest tuition hyperinflation and its accompanying, crushing student-loan debt. But barely a mention has been made of the most frightening crisis that American higher education faces—the assault on free speech and debate. Both parties have, up until now, missed the opportunity to challenge our nation’s universities to adopt the “Chicago Way.”
Let me be clear: I am not pointing to this Chicago Way, and certainly not to this one. I refer instead to what has come to be known as the “Chicago Principles,” as in the University of Chicago, which recently reaffirmed 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.”
Apparently, this university believes itself compelled to make this move now because our nation’s campuses are becoming havens for uniform thinking, enforced by anti-intellectualspeech codes, speaker “dis-invitations,” and the usurping of disinterested inquiry by partisan indoctrination in the classrooms. Such propagation of a monochrome ideology effectively squelches free speech and inquiry. These alarming developments, should they continue, presage the death of genuinely higher learning, which is animated by Socrates’ famous declaration in The Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.”
The University of Chicago, following Socrates, recognizes its responsibility to attempt to persuade other universities to return higher education to a place that is truly “higher”; that is, it recognizes the need to reassert that a genuine institution of higher learning must be committed first and foremost to the quest for truth, in the light of which all its other commitments must take a backseat.
It is the quest for truth that both requires and justifies academic freedom, as the fate of Socrates attests. (Socrates was tried and executed for corrupting the youth.) But, sad to say, today, the opponents of the unfettered quest for truth are found often in America’s universities themselves. The nonpartisan think tank, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has published its latest academic freedom report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2015: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses. It reveals that nearly 55 percent of the 437 colleges and universities surveyed “maintain severely restrictive, “red light” speech codes—policies that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.”
This crisis provides major public figures in both parties the opportunity to issue a national call to restore academic freedom to our colleges and universities nationwide. The vehicle for doing so already has been provided—and by universities themselves. At present, 697 university presidents have signed the “American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment,” pledging “to eliminate their campuses’ net greenhouse gas emissions in a reasonable period of time as determined by each institution as well as to promote the research and educational efforts of higher education to accelerate society’s progress toward climate neutrality and sustainability.”
Regardless of whether one shares such a view of “climate commitment,” this effort by our nation’s universities cries out for a parallel movement by them to become signatories to the Chicago Principles in order to demonstrate that they are no less committed to safeguarding the conditions of scientific and intellectual progress—academic freedom, without which we can never hope to arrive at the truth about climate or any other important matter. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.”
Former president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, expressed the core mission of universities thus: “Freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and freedom of teaching—without these a university cannot exist.” So understood, we have to conclude that, today, a number of our free-speech-suppressing universities are driving themselves out of existence. Of course, they likely will continue to enroll and graduate students, play NCAA sports, and do all the other things universities do, but they are transmogrifying themselves into ideological training camps rather than institutions that cherish and embody Socrates’ “examined life.”
But why should this matter to voters? Do such “academic matters” affect our democratic polity? James Madison, regarded as the “Father of the U.S. Constitution,” answered in an 1822 letter: “A popular [democratic] Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. . . . A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Unfortunately, too many of today’s dispensers of knowledge, the universities, are the very ones whose suppression of free speech and inquiry is depriving their students of “the power which knowledge gives.” As a result, democratic discourse is suffering. Indeed, it is hard to see how constitutional democracy, which depends on an informed electorate, can survive the censorship of those responsible for leading higher education. Although American voters do not customarily take great interest in university matters, many rightly care about scientific and intellectual progress as well as democratic education.
The good news is that this distressing state of affairs is finally beginning to be addressed, and not only at the University of Chicago. In the last year, both Virginia and Missouri have passed laws banning restrictive campus “free-speech zones” at public universities, arguing that, in America, everywhere should be a free-speech zone, especially our campuses. Still more encouraging, Princeton University has signed on to the Chicago Principles, and Purdue University has now become the first public university to adopt them.
A major political figure from either party might attempt to ride this wave with the following declaration in an upcoming debate: “Those universities that fail to protect free speech and debate can no longer claim to be genuine institutions of higher learning. Having failed to act like universities, they weaken their own case for both federal research funding and their tax-exempt status. Therefore, this evening, I’m calling on all public universities and colleges to formally sign on to the Chicago Principles. If they do not, then, as president, I will urge passage of legislation that denies them federal research funding and removes their tax-exempt status for a period of five years. If they have implemented the measures needed to restore free inquiry to their campuses after five years, they may reapply for eligibility in these programs.”
Such a bold proclamation would surely make news, would get the universities’ attention, and, just possibly, might prod a movement to restore the academic freedom on which America’s intellectual and political progress depend.
In the process, the American electorate would get a much-needed glimpse into the sorry state of some of the universities that their tax-dollars help support.