Threats to universities go unheard amid sound and the fury

A babel of voices are drowning out the many real threats to intellectual freedom, warns Alan Ryan

June 18, 2015
Alan Ryan illustration (18 June 2015)
Source: Paul Hamlyn

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in The New York Times and elsewhere over threats to free speech on campuses across the US. It began months ago when a few students demanded “trigger” alerts if distressing material was likely to show up in class. More recently, it has been the overzealous use of a federal anti-discrimination law to intimidate colleagues who say disobliging things about complaints of sexual harassment.

The hand-wringing is reminiscent of the hand-wringing from the same sort of conservative commentators a couple of decades ago when political correctness was said to have rotted the brains of students and destroyed the morale of teachers across the US. The earlier wave provoked one perfectly wonderful book, Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint, and much nonsense of which Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education is a good example. Unlike everyone else, Hughes had a real talent for slaughtering sacred cows, those of the politically correct and their conservative critics alike.

It’s tempting to say that this latest episode is just one more instance of a familiar phenomenon – students, academics and administrators are seized by panic, conservative commentators see a chance to bash overzealous liberals for their illiberal tendencies, everyone gets annoyed, and it all goes away a year later.

But there are some differences, if not in the hand-wringing responses. Two decades ago, all the pressure for political correctness came from students; indeed, “political correctness” was a self-mocking epithet coined by students. Often, it was a pressure to make institutions, professors and other students “respectful” of the ethnic or cultural background of students who felt themselves slighted by the unspoken assumptions they found themselves surrounded by. At least occasionally, it was expressed as an unabashed assault on liberal notions of free speech, seen as a cover for disabling attitudes of contempt and rejection.

Of course, different intellectual and social traditions place a very different value on unabashed argument and its appropriateness in different contexts. Even within one university the culture of, say, the law school and the philosophy department may be very different. One of the many absurdities of arguments over political correctness and the curtailment of free speech on campus is the way they conflate every institution with every other. “The university” covers tiny Christian colleges as well as large colleges such as Miami Dade with 165,000 students. There are about 7,000 post-secondary institutions in the US, of which less than half are four-year degree-granting institutions. Some are consensually thoroughly illiberal, most the reverse.

This time, the row is largely about insensitivity to sexual harassment. And two large differences between two decades ago and now are social media and the role of the Department of Justice. The latter has taken the Title IX legislation on equal opportunities that began as a requirement for universities to devote equal resources to male and female students, and used it to impose more adequate procedures for responding to complaints of sexual harassment on universities in receipt of federal funds. Since almost all institutions receive federal money, the threat of its withdrawal gets management’s attention. The latest case to provoke hand-wringing happened when a faculty member at Northwestern University found herself the object of a university investigation for publishing a – pretty intemperate – denunciation of two students’ earlier use of the legislation.

The rise of social media enables someone with a complaint to publicise it, but it also allows the angry and ill-intentioned to abuse anyone they have a mind to. A Facebook post by a professor who said that he was frightened of the way his students tried to suppress the discussion of ideas that made them uncomfortable was, apparently, looked at and commented on by 190,000 readers. How many were themselves frightened by the students’ behaviour is anyone’s guess. My money is on very small numbers amplified by the noise of instant communication.

What is depressing is that all this noise obscures the many real threats to intellectual freedom. States with Republican governors and legislators have been campaigning for tighter political control of their public universities. The most aggressive campaign is being waged against the University of Wisconsin system by the Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a college dropout, right-wing Republican presidential candidate, and a fierce enemy of public sector trade unions. The Wisconsin system’s flagship institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the glories of American higher education. Walker’s aim is to abolish tenure – shades of Margaret Thatcher – but also to circumscribe faculty control of the curriculum and diminish the faculty’s role in governing its institutional life. Add to that a programme of making it easier for the governor of the state to appoint and dismiss the system’s governing body, and you have a recipe for a world in which professors whose views are at odds with the politics of their board of regents face the sack with no recourse. This was exactly the state of affairs that tenure was invented to prevent a century ago.

Nor is the danger confined to Wisconsin; the form varies, but the urge to get a tighter grip on professors and their institutions is pretty widespread, and much more alarming than the sight of a young woman taking a mattress she has been carrying around the Columbia University campus for months to her graduation ceremony. That may have been embarrassing to the university’s president, but the revival of something closer to McCarthyism is worse than embarrassing.

Alan Ryan is emeritus professor of political theory at the University of Oxford and visiting professor of philosophy at Stanford University.

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Article originally published as: Sound and fury (18 June 2015)

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