Kenneth Waltzer
Kenneth Waltzer

Wrong-headed Responses in the US to the Idea of a University as a Place of Free Speech

Jay Michaelson, writing in the Daily Beast [August 26, 2016], remarks that the University of Chicago’s recent “P.C. crackdown” is about “keeping right-wing donors happy,” although he produces no evidence whatsoever to back up his claim. He characterizes a letter sent by U. Chicago Dean of Students Jay Ellison this past week to all incoming first-year students as “weird,” suggesting the letter proposes “restricting free speech in the name of free speech”.

Other writers similarly criticize the Chicago initiative as misguided and unknowing about the uneven dynamics of participation among undergraduates in American universities, and to see the affirmative support that is required to truly give all equal opportunity to speak. L. V. Anderson, for example, in Slate [August 25, 2016], calls the letter “odd,” and charges the U. Chicago is inadvertently sending a message certain students are more welcome than others!

But Michaelson’s characterization of Chicago’s recent actions – a series of initiatives by top leaders, including President Robert J. Zimmer and former Provost Geoffrey Stone, restating views long embraced at the university – is ill informed and wrong-headed.  The free speech tradition is old gold in Hyde Park and hardly a response to donor behavior. Chicago leaders are simply again stating what they have said before –in the 1960s (in the Kalven Report) and more recently (in the 2015 Stone Report).

L.V. Anderson’s take is also off base, reading too narrowly and rigidly Chicago’s orientation to being a community of scholars and responding without listening to the university’s elaborations.

In the U.S., the University of Chicago strongly affirms the idea of universities as places where debate, discussion, and dialogue are to take place unimpeded and to be expected.   This model stresses that the key mission of the university is the discovery, dissemination, and improvement of knowledge.  Students are to be aided to grow and join in these debates and discussions without being coddled or protected from encountering new ideas. The university is responsible for sustaining conditions underwriting the maximum freedom of inquiry and thought and the maximum open exchange.

In this view, there can be no closing down or silencing of outside speakers according to the whims of popular sentiment or the vogue of current passions; there should also be no interference with and disruption of the rights of others to free speech and assembly and to participation.   By these thoughts, recent BDS initiatives to close down speech by Israeli visitors to American campuses and to disrupt Israel Studies and Jewish Studies-sponsored events violate the rules of such a community.  A true university can function only when members are free from interference by external and internal political or moral forces who insist which views are appropriate to hear and who shall be permitted to exercise rights.

President Robert Zimmer put it well in “Free Speech is the Basis of a True Education” in the Wall Street Journal [August 26, 2016]. “[W]hat is the value of a university education without encountering, reflecting on and debating ideas that differ from the ones that students brought with them to college?”  “Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments….”

Jay Michaelson and others, however, insist that the Chicago approach is conservative and ties the institution to corporate America.  He sees the actions of university leaders as “virtue signaling,” a form of play acting indicating to wealthy donors and conservative alumni the institution is not politically correct.

But there is a different way to think about this. Geoffrey Stone, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review [August 26, 2016], offers some insights, but I wish to push it even further.

Stone argues that academic freedom on American campuses is a hard won achievement, struggled for, periodically diminished and defended, and secured only over time.  It remains something all ought to be interested in supporting. Periodic clashes with business and industrial forces, invasions of campus by patriotic forces, and insistence by religious and moralistic forces alert us to how easily this achievement can be eroded.  Progressives, normally the first people to cry out against infringements when they occur, should be first in line to embrace a model emphasizing intellectual freedom.

Geoffrey Stone writes that the current peril comes primarily from students.  Where once American students demanded free speech, he and others note, many today call for censorship and for freedom from speech that they deem upsetting. Students too easily fall into the error of silencing speech or even demanding punishment for speech believed to be offensive.   Universities should not shield them from discomfort or insult, Stone says, but encourage them to become effective participating members.

But students are not the only problem imperiling free expression and intellectual exchange on American campuses.  Others exist as well.  Some come from the growing corporatization of the university, which constricts university and college initiatives, narrowing education, and sharply impacting the very spaces in universities where students are encouraged to find their voices.  In addition, the increased reliance on underpaid temporary labor surely fails to assist in creating a vital community of scholars or an environment of open debate and discussion.

Additional challenges also come from illiberal currents among some faculty, who interpret academic freedom to mean broad personal freedom to teach whatever and however they want and to use their classrooms for political ends, offering conspiratorial instead of balanced and fair-minded teaching.  I have in mind many faculty, for example, who teach that Israel is a colonial, apartheid, racist state and society, offering a narrative demonizing ne nation state among all others.

There seems quite enough blame to go around, frankly.  But who can really doubt that the remedy is more academic freedom, greater responsibility, more free speech and diverse views, and more exchange.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
Related Topics
Related Posts