Don't Blame the Students


Jonathan Cole, professor and former provost at Columbia University, is a distinguished advocate for academic freedom whose work I have long admired.  Last year he and his Columbia colleague, Akeel Bilgrami, edited an important collection of thoughtful essays, Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?, which I review along with several other titles in the forthcoming 2016 issue of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom.  Yesterday The Atlantic published online an article by Cole, “The Chilling Effect of Fear at America’s Colleges,” which also merits a response.  As I will note, there is much to agree with in Cole’s essay, but it’s also essential to take issue with one of his central premises.  According to Cole, “No great universities exist in the world without a deep institutional commitment to academic freedom, free inquiry, and free expression. For the past 60 years, American research universities have been vigilant against external and internal attempts to limit or destroy these values.”  I’m not so sure how vigilant they’ve always been, but so far, so good.  However, Cole continues, “these core university values are being questioned again, but from a new source: the students who are being educated at them.”

Cole’s claim is based largely on a recent telephone survey, conducted by Gallup, the Knight Foundation, and the Newseum Institute, that between February 29 and March 15 posed a series of questions about free expression to 3,072 students, age 18 to 24, at 240 four-year colleges.  Cole is troubled that nearly half those surveyed were “supportive of restrictions on certain forms of free speech on campus, and 69 percent support disciplinary action against either students or faculty members who use intentionally offensive language or commit ‘microagressions’—speech they deem racist, sexist, or homophobic.” (In reading the full survey, however, I did not see any use of the term “microaggression.”)

Cole then illustrates the problem with examples ranging from five incidents — all at elite institutions — of withdrawn commencement speeches, the “monitoring” of a Brandeis professor who discussed the term “wetback” in class, and the demand to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from the School of International Affairs at Princeton.  Cole says these “restrictions on free expression” necessarily have a “chilling effect.”  Perhaps.  But how representative and widespread are such incidents?  And more important are these incidents all about seeking limits on free expression?  Certainly, it would seem, the Brandeis case has deeply disturbing implications for academic freedom, but whose expression rights were Princeton students violating by demanding the removal of Wilson’s name because of his racist views and actions?  (The demand was in the end rejected by the institution.)  Don’t those students have the right to express their views about Wilson?

As for the much-ballyhooed “disinvitations”  (FIRE, for example, keeps a running database of “disinvitation season” incidents on its website), it is surely true that in many instances student objections to controversial commencement speakers may indeed inappropriately chill meaningful debate.  But a closer look at the phenomenon reveals that students are often more concerned about whether speakers were chosen with meaningful participation by student representatives than they are with the content of the speeches or the pedigree of the speaker.  Moreover, protesting students often point out that a commencement speaker is not an ordinary campus speaker.  Those invited are generally given some honor, usually a symbolic degree, and hence their words are provided a sort of official “stamp of approval” that would not necessarily be the case for those invited during the school year by an academic program or a student group.  In addition, students say, commencement is not a classroom or a traditional forum for debate; it is a celebration of the graduates and their achievements and speaker choices should recognize that.  On ordinary occasions when an objectionable speaker comes to campus, students who disagree can boycott the speech or peacefully protest the talk outside.  But is it fair to ask them to boycott or demonstrate at their own commencement?  One example of this dilemma arose recently at a private eastern law school, which honored one of its alums, a prominent conservative journalist, whose dismissive comments at the ceremony about the Black Lives Matter movement were so offensive to some black students and their families that they walked out.  I guess one could say that free speech triumphed here.  The speaker got to say her piece and those who were offended got to protest it.  But what about how this marred the experience of the graduates?  Surely, the commencement speaker issue is at the least more complex than simplistic claims that speakers are being censored would have it.

But enough about commencement speeches, which is not the main point I want to make in this post.  The real issue is: are students the main danger to free expression on campus?  Cole seems to imply that’s the case, but a closer look at the survey on which he relies suggests some confusion.  Certainly the survey results can be read in contradictory ways.  On the positive side, 78 percent of those responding said that it’s more important for colleges to create an “open learning environment,” even if that means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people, than to create a “positive learning environment” for all by prohibiting certain types of speech or expression that are offensive or biased.  Large majorities of various subgroups — including 70 percent of black students — endorsed the primacy of such an open learning environment.  Hardly a ringing student endorsement of censorship.  By contrast, only 66 percent of the general public takes this more tolerant position.

On the other hand, 69 percent of survey respondents said colleges should be able to limit the use of slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups. Seventy-nine percent of black students and 67 percent of white students endorsed this view.  But one wonders exactly how problematic this sentiment might be, considering that definitions of a slur and of offensive language are highly subjective.

The Atlantic itself previously published a rather different take on this survey by Vann R. Newkirk.  That article points out that “Seventy-three percent viewed freedom of speech as secure or very secure, and 81 percent view freedom of the press as secure. Half of all college students said they thought free-speech protections have grown stronger over the past two decades. Students themselves seem to be less concerned about a wave of ‘political correctness’ overtaking free speech than some journalists.”

Moreover, Newkirk adds, “Black students seem to be less sure about First Amendment protections than their white counterparts. . . . Across each of the five freedoms—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—black students were less likely to rate them as secure. . . . While certain writers have caricatured racial ‘social-justice warriors’ as anti-freedom zealots who simply wish to curtail speech they don’t agree with, this data point provides a reality check. How does that caricature fit with this survey’s suggestion that black students are more afraid than anyone of losing their freedoms?”

A mere 39 percent of black students said they believe the right of people to assemble peacefully is secure, compared to 70 percent of white students.  That provides a little context for assessing events like those last fall at the University of Missouri, where demonstrating African-American students brought down the university president and chancellor, but one white assistant professor was singled out for punishment for allegedly “assaulting” a student journalist.  (For a thorough examination of this case see the AAUP’s recently issued report of an investigation, which I led.)  The survey asked, “Do you think students should or should not be able to prevent reporters from covering protests held on college campuses?” Only 28 percent answered “yes.”

As Newkirk points out, what the survey didn’t ask may be as important as what it did ask.  “While the survey does have items pertaining to social media, it has some trouble grappling with the fact that social media is now a natural and necessary extension of campus life, as opposed to a separate world with separate rules,” he writes.  Moreover, “the survey does not broach questions like whether protected tweets or Facebook posts can or should be shared, or whether campuses could monitor or take action on social-media organizing and offensive posts. These considerations are probably more immediately present in the minds of students than journalists’ admission to in-person rallies.”

Do student protesters sometimes threaten free expression?  Yes, they sometimes do.  But, as I have previously argued,

it’s necessary to credit the students for their courage and determination in addressing the sometimes unconscious but nonetheless real and persistent racism that infects our society and our campuses. In doing so, they have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others even as they respond to deeper offenses against their own dignity. They may demonstrate indifference to the rights of others, as protesters everywhere always have. But, in doing so, they will learn. And that, it seems to me, is the essential point. Student academic freedom, in the final analysis, is about the freedom to learn. And learning is impossible without error.

What is therefore most remarkable about today’s student movements is not their alleged intolerance or immaturity. It is not their intemperance or supposed oversensitivity to insult and indifference. It is that they have begun to grapple with issues that their elders have resisted tackling for far too long.

Having said all this, I must agree with Cole that too many students have bought into a culture that privileges security and comfort over liberty and challenge as, for example, in the movement to impose so-called “trigger warnings,” which the AAUP has rightly decried as “at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”  And I also agree with Cole’s major argument concerning the sources of this culture.  He writes that

the fault largely lies at the feet of many of the country’s academic leaders. Students and their families have been increasingly treated as “customers.” Presidents of colleges and universities have been too reluctant to “offend” their customers, which may help explain why they so often yield to wrong-headed demands by students. Courage at universities is, unfortunately, a rare commodity—and it’s particularly rare among leaders of institutions pressured by students to act in a politically correct way.

It seems that the vast majority of presidents and provosts of the finest U.S. universities have not seized this moment of concern voiced by students as a teaching moment—a moment to instruct and discuss with students what college is about. Too many academic leaders are obsessed with the security of their own jobs and their desire to protect the reputation of their institution, and too few are sufficiently interested in making statements that may offend students but that show them why they are at these colleges—and why free expression is a core and enabling value of any higher-learning institution that considers itself of the first rank.

Unfortunately, however, this argument does not go far enough.  In Cole’s presentation university leaders are essentially cowards.  The problem lies in their too often craven failure to stand up to “wrong-headed student demands.”  But the situation is far worse.  Indeed, more often than not it is precisely these university administrations that are the source of the trouble, not the students to whom they allegedly acquiesce.  For if students do not respect academic and intellectual freedom one important reason may be that the leaders of their colleges and universities have themselves long abandoned these critical values for those of the corporate manager.  In his important 2012 book, Unlearning Liberty (which I also review in the forthcoming Journal of Academic Freedom), FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff documents in horrifying detail how a growing army of university administrators impose an increasingly suffocating conformity on student behavior and expression.  It is not students who have instituted unconstitutional speech codes or created cramped “free speech zones,” even if too many of them passively accept such outrages.  Instead, Lukianoff argues, “the actual regimes of censorship on campus are put in place primarily by the ever-growing army of administrators.”

Administrative bloat is, in Lukianoff’s opinion, a major driver of campus censorship.  “The rise in cost is related to the decline in rights on campuses in important ways,” he argues. “Most importantly, the increase in tuition and overall cost is disproportionately funding an increase in both the cost and the size of campus bureaucracy, and this expanding bureaucracy has primary responsibility for writing and enforcing speech codes, creating speech zones, and policing students’ lives in ways that students from the 1960s would never have accepted.”

The reference to the ’60s is appropriate, for if anything it is by starting to once again challenge campus administrations that the student demonstrators of today may well be doing more to advance the cause of free expression than their occasionally intolerant demands may now and then hinder it.  Take, for instance, the University of Chicago, which according to Cole “seems to have come the closest historically to getting this right.”  As I reported yesterday, that institution’s theoretical commitment to free expression is not always so evident in practice, as their current attempt to discipline a graduating senior for his role in organizing a peaceful demonstration on behalf of underpaid campus workers after the administration refused to participate in open discussion of the issue demonstrates.  Here, as I wrote, the university’s concern seems to be “less with alleged ‘disruption’ or maintaining its commitment to free expression than it is with an apparently firmer commitment to continuing to pay its staff a pittance.”

I should also add that all of Cole’s references in his essay are to elite colleges and universities.  He is silent about the vastly more threatening challenges to free expression in the great majority of public institutions posed by inappropriate political interference (see Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, or Virginia) and massive public disinvestment (see, well, everywhere).  Can it really be said that academic freedom is more gravely threatened by student demands for “safe spaces,” no matter how misguided, than it is by these phenomena or by other troubling aspects of the modern university’s growing corporatization?  Are student demands to rename buildings more dangerous to free expression than the increasing power that donors, granting agencies, and governments have in how colleges and universities make use of the resources they provide?  Is concern over discussion of a racial slur in class more threatening to freedom than the ever-growing censorship of student publications and other media by administrations obsessed above all with their institution’s “image?”

In an essay titled “Does Academic Freedom Have a Future?” that I published in the November-December 2015 issue of Academe, I noted these and other challenges not only to the faculty’s academic freedom but to the free expression of students as well.  In that essay I pointed out how “the rapidly expanding use of social media has seemingly intensified controversy.  In a growing and distressing trend, college and university administrators, as well as politicians and journalists, may treat faculty e-mails, Facebook posts, and Twitter messages as somehow exempt from the full protections of academic freedom and, arguably, the First Amendment.”  And certainly such restrictions can be and far too frequently are applied to student expression as well.  Can it really be said that student protests are somehow more threatening than this ominous trend?

As Newkirk concludes, “Hand-wringing about the First Amendment on college campuses doesn’t necessarily capture what students think about free speech, let alone the novel questions about free speech they are facing in their everyday lives.”  And, I would add, excessive focus on student threats to free expression divert us from the much more formidable and ominous dangers threatening American higher education’s “commitment to academic freedom, free inquiry, and free expression.”


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