US academy ‘must commit to free speech’ as Republicans lose faith

Survey finds majority of Americans on political Right currently believe universities have negative effect on country

July 15, 2017
Free Speech sign being upheld in Boston
Source: Alamy
Contested speech ‘we no longer simply disagree in this country. We try to delegitimise’

US universities’ decisions to cancel conservative speakers and the “bashing” of the sector by conservatives have contributed to the rise in the number of Republicans who are against higher education, according to sector figures.

A survey from the Pew Research Center published on 10 July found that the majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58 per cent) think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45 per cent last year and 37 per cent in 2015.

Just 36 per cent think that higher education institutions have a positive impact. The survey polled 2,504 US citizens in June.

Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of the American Council on Education, said that the “unsettling and troubling” findings reflect the “radicalisation of civic and political dialogue in the US”.

“We no longer simply disagree in this country. We try to delegitimise,” he said.

Dr Hartle added that “widely publicised” protests over free speech and race at a small number of US campuses – including Yale University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Missouri; Evergreen State College; and Middlebury College – also likely contributed.

“Particularly among Republicans, there is a feeling that universities are not adequately protecting the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and that we are coddling students,” he said.

Joshua Dunn, professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and co-author of the book Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, said that student protests, as well as the “rise of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and bias response teams”, have contributed to the change in attitudes among Republicans.

“Conservatives see those things and think that, while universities often profess their love of tolerance and diversity, they don’t actually practise it when it comes to conservatives,” he said. “There have been enough of these stories to make people, both conservative and liberal, wonder if they are representative of a systemic problem.”

He added that universities must commit to free speech and “stop disinviting conservative speakers and allowing angry mobs to shout them down”.

“Nothing suggests epistemic closure like not allowing those you disagree with to speak,” he said.

Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump suggested that he could take away Berkeley’s federal funding after the university cancelled on safety grounds a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, who was then the technology editor of the right-wing news website Breitbart.  

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that the higher education “establishment” has “neither articulately defended post-secondary education, nor has it stood up for traditional values of free speech”.

Neil Gross, professor of sociology at Colby College, in Maine, and author of the book Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, said that increasingly universities are seen as “primarily partisan institutions, when on the ground it’s obvious they’re so much more”.

While he agreed that universities needed to “reaffirm their commitment to free speech” and “do more to demonstrate their value to the public”, he said that “some of the onus” is also on leaders of the American Right.

“Conservatives have been bashing higher education for years. It’s been good for the conservative movement, but bad for the country,” he said. “Among other things, it’s led state legislatures to cut appropriations for public colleges and universities, which has meant higher tuition [fees]. Inequality has worsened as a result.”

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