Higher Education Free Speech Commitments Are Empty Platitudes

Higher Education Free Speech Commitments Are Empty Platitudes

Last month, in a rare moment of good news in higher education, the administration of Cornell University rejected an unanimous student government resolution to mandate “trigger warnings” for a wide range of sensitive classroom materials and to permit students to “opt out” of controversial course content without penalty. In a brief but incisive statement, Cornell President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff wrote, “We cannot accept this resolution, as the actions it recommends would infringe on” and “unacceptably restrict the academic freedom of our community.”

Perhaps more significantly, Cornell’s leaders reasoned, “learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education.” To permit otherwise “would have a deleterious impact both on the education of the individual student and on the academic distinction of a Cornell degree.”

Reading between the lines, one might imagine that colleges and universities are starting to see the light. As speech codes, safe spaces, and de-platforming have proliferated across American campuses, public reaction has been palpably negative. College enrollments have dropped 18% since 2010, and that trend has only accelerated as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. According to Gallup, over the last decade public confidence in higher education has fallen faster than it has for any other institution. History, English, and other disciplines that once commanded massive undergraduate interest have registered enrollment declines of 50% or more. Fewer than half of Americans now believe a college education is essential for success—down from 95% in 1980. Aggrieved students, faculty members, and private citizens have taken to the media, the courts, government regulators, and civil society to protest violations of their rights, often successfully and at great cost to institutions of higher education.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the administrators left behind—many of whom have claimed to be “victims” of some nebulous form of injustice—suffer depression, burnout, ostracism, mental illness, and other consequences for which progressivism failed to prepare them. As Cornell now fearfully admits, the value of even a prestigious institution’s degree is now under threat in a society that increasingly rejects the dubious, un-American values ​​that have permeated academia. It is not difficult to imagine that an Ivy League degree will soon do little more than identify its holder as an incompetent and emotionally fragile member of an aggrieved group who should best go untrusted and unhired. Indeed, this is already happening: In the last year, a number of federal judges have refused to hire graduates from law schools with questionable track records on constitutional rights and legal professionalism.

Are the university administrators who are now parroting a pro-free speech line sincere? Don’t bet on it—or at least judge them by their actions, rather than their words.

Student walks along the campus of Princeton
Students walk along the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.
Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

At Stanford Law School last month, US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan was prevented from delivering prepared remarks at the invitation of a student group. The protestors were supported by “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” Dean Tirien Steinbach, who questioned the value of Duncan’s remarks and moralized that he had caused “harm” in judicial rulings to which the protestors objected. Stanford’s president and law school dean afterward apologized to Duncan and said that Steinbach’s actions were “inconsistent” with Stanford’s values. But Steinbach, who is on leave, curiously employed and is using her time off to position herself as the free speech advocate high-tuition-paying parents would like to see rather than the free speech opponent she is clearly documented on tape as being. Stanford Law School also declined to any student’s discipline, comically claiming that they could not be identified even though they, too, appeared on tape.

Earlier this month, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber congratulated himself in a weekly alumni newsletter for hosting a controversial speaker. “We have civil discourse on this campus,” he lectured Princeton graduates, “I believe we have it on most American college campuses. …We should be proud of that, and we should push back hard against the distorted accounts of those who say otherwise.” Eisgruber has yet to “push back” in any way against massive criticism leveled at his illiberal decision less than a year ago to fire longtime Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz, who is widely believed to have been dismissed because he publicly objected to racialist demands of other Princeton faculty members shortly after George Floyd’s killing in 2020.

So much for civil discourse—but pretending to care about it presumably keeps enough Princeton alumni dollars rolling in to pay Eisgruber’s $1 million annual salary. Few are convinced. “Complete crap and hypocrisy and alums suck it up,” laments Paul S. Levy, a private equity executive who resigned from the University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees over its censorious treatment of law professor Amy Wax, who faces “major sanctions” over disfavored statements of opinion. “Too bad people like Joshua Katz get fired in the Star Chamber proceedings for speaking their minds.”

Perhaps the most revealing case occurred this earlier month at San Francisco State University, where women’s rights advocate Riley Gaines was mobbed and, she claims, physically assaulted and trapped in a classroom by student protestors after participating in an invited event. SFSU President Lynn Mahoney offered no apology, did not mention Gaines by name, and stated only that “her departure from campus was unnecessarily delayed by protestors.” Mahoney then sanctimoniously claimed that she “support(s) freedom of expression to protect us all,” while also expressing the fear that “denying any speaker the right to speak based on the content of their speech would quickly ensure a long and expensive period litigation.” When all is said and done, it is that fear that may save the day for campus free speech.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.