The Forum | Freedom of Expression

How Campus Illiberalism Betrays the Fight for Progress

May 17, 2017

Since its founding in 1870, generations of young women with inquiring minds have gone off to Wellesley College, coming of age through a rigorous liberal arts education, encompassing debate, discussion, and the challenging of conventional wisdom about the role of women.

The broader American liberal arts tradition has been nourished by the safeguarding of free expression. It’s hard work to keep an open mind, but a strong education and a free society depend on it.

However, earlier this month, the Wellesley News, Wellesley College’s campus paper, became the poster child for one of American higher education’s greatest challenges: a rise in closed-mindedness. In a now-viral editorial, the News declared: “If people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted.”

What lurks behind the threat of “hostility” is unclear.  But the resulting ultimatum is effectively a call to coercion: Students should allow Wellesley to re-educate away “previously-held biases” and “controversial statements”—or face the consequences.

Threats to Progress

The Wellesley News’s audacity united thinkers across the political spectrum, with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlanticdescribing it as “one of the more frightening editorials” he had ever read. As Wellesley alumnae, we too are very concerned. For over a century, free expression has been recognized as central to the mission of higher education—including and especially when it reflects novel, unorthodox, and often contentious views.

Wellesley students are the heirs to an intellectual tradition forged by trailblazing women leaders. But today’s college students seem increasingly willing to cast aside their inheritance. A 2016 Gallup survey found that more than one in four college students felt colleges should be able to restrict students from “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups,” while nearly half were open to restricting press access to public events.

Given the current undergraduate tendency toward intellectual orthodoxy, one wonders: Would the advances of the feminist movement even have happened, had the campus conformists of a half-century ago had their way?

Respect for freedom of speech and diversity of thought are essential for achieving civil and thoughtful discourse, but also for enabling societal progress itself. Progress relies on early agitators, who are willing to speak out and press forward, no matter the backlash they engender. Many ideas once considered heretical have become accepted wisdom, thanks to early dissenters challenging the tide.

Indeed, the example of women’s rights offers a powerful case study of this phenomenon. Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s acclaimed 2016 book, “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation, recounts just how different campuses were in the not too-distant past. Elite universities like Yale and Princeton considered their mission solely one of admitting and educating the next generation of male leaders.

Real change relied on the courage of young women during the 1960s and 1970s, who stood up for equal opportunity in higher education and the workforce. They faced vocal opposition from many college alumni, professors, and fellow students. Nevertheless, these women persisted, no matter how “problematic” their efforts may have been considered. Their determined activism paved the way for the generations to come.

Today’s campus conformists are in danger of squandering this legacy. How can students learn, think, and grow without exposure to unexpected, challenging ideas? How can Wellesley fulfill its mission of preparing tough-minded and capable women if it instills in its students a desire to squelch opposing views rather than a willingness to consider and confront them?

Preserving First Principles

Instead of the Wellesley News’s cavalier assertion that “hostility may be warranted,” Wellesley and other institutions should look towards the University of Chicago’s example. In its 2015 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, Chicago reaffirmed that: “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” At least eighteen other institutions have already adopted the so-named Chicago Principles or a similar policy as their own.

Colleges and universities—and their presidents, boards of trustees, faculties, and alumni—must maximize support for free expression and intellectual pluralism. Perhaps some unwise ideas will be presented with which students will vociferously disagree, but this debate will strengthen campus discourse and help students become independent thinkers. In the end, students—and society—can only benefit from embracing the free marketplace of ideas.

Jane Levine Lewit is a 1962 graduate of Wellesley College. Alexis Zhang is a 2016 graduate of Wellesley College and the research associate / editor of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


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