ACTA in the News | Religious Freedom

The Way Forward At Penn, Harvard, And Higher Ed’s Elite Universities

FORBES   |  December 14, 2023 by Michael B. Poliakoff

On December 5, 2023, the public, perhaps more than at any prior time, began to fathom just how untethered our institutions of higher learning are from the values America generally endorses. This revelation, as disturbing and stunning as it was, also presents a rare opportunity to reclaim the values our colleges and universities once upheld. It could be the sea change, a chance to arrest the rapid slide toward illiberalism and enforced orthodoxy on campuses, stop the rampant indoctrination of students, wring out the bloat and wasteful spending associated with administrative regimes that police language and thought, fully grasp the urgency of free expression and heterodoxy, and return higher education to its core mission of seeking truth, welcoming all ideas and speech in an open forum, and, above all, teaching and learning unfettered by ideological preference.

The December 5 testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce centered on the rise of vitriolic and explicit antisemitic behavior among both students and faculty on American campuses in the wake of the attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7. The testimony featured presentations by three college presidents, Claudine Gay of Harvard University, Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and M. Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), in which the witnesses spent four hours obfuscating, deflecting, robotically mimicking one another with legally engineered answers, and generally struggling to address basic questions on how they have responded on their respective campuses to an explosion of antisemitic speech and conduct in keeping with stated principles of freedom of speech.

The rampant double standards were clearly evident to anyone paying attention to prevailing campus culture at American colleges and universities. When pressed, higher education leaders wrapped themselves in their reverence for free speech—but without the slightest acknowledgment that their own institutions have systemically driven out heterodox voices (either through private harassment and isolation and/or via public shaming), disinvited and shouted down speakers, and spent tens of millions policing language and thought on their campuses. The intellectual and ethical muddle displayed at the hearing has continued in the days since, as several of the witnesses try to “clarify” their deficient statements and only deepen the holes they dug for themselves.

None of them seemed aware that they presided over echo chambers where claims of “settler colonialism,” “intersectionality,” “implicit bias,” and other manifestations of an obsessive focus on race and gender have replaced objective study of the human condition. They themselves oversee campus cultures where students are now more likely to endorse reflexively the primitive, destructive libels of antisemitism.

The dysfunction at Penn came to a climax on December 9, with the resignation of President Magill and the board chair. President Magill had been unable to give a full-throated yes to Representative Elise Stefanik’s question about whether calling for genocide of the Jews would violate Penn’s policies. But as Penn’s now-former board chair Scott Bok said, President Magill’s downfall was that she gave an insipid legal answer to what was a moral question, and the moral and ethical bankruptcy in evidence at that moment was deafening. What kind of campus produces students in such significant numbers who demonstrate in favor of a terrorist group guilty of the worst murder of Jews since the Holocaust?

Then there is the compelling matter of consistency of policy. Penn, like so many other institutions, has suddenly hewed to the principle of free expression. How strange that it is emerging now, after October 7, on a campus where faculty and administrators have continued a multi-year effort to silence Penn Law Professor Amy Wax for speech they openly acknowledge is protected.

For example, it was Harvard’s Claudine Gay who stood by as distinguished biologist Carole Hooven was systematically ostracized and marginalized—effectively driven from her teaching career for supporting the incontrovertible scientific fact of biological sex difference. Claudine Gay has so far avoided the reckoning with her board and faculty. The finding that only 3% of Harvard faculty identify as conservative speaks volumes about that campus’s readiness to burst into pro-Hamas jubilation on October 8.

As significant as President Magill’s departure is, it is hardly the national catharsis needed to remedy the ethical bankruptcy of our current campus culture. Penn, its elite sister institutions, and many other American colleges have far more to do.

To see real course correction, new leadership with a deep commitment to free expression—armed with the authority to make these changes—is now required. Unfortunately, higher education leaders appear to be taking exactly the wrong lesson from the hearings and subsequent developments. Though they failed to speak when conscience alone would have summoned them to condemn the barbarity of Hamas, what they must not do now is intensify censorship and add to the already lengthy list of prohibited speech in yet another ham-fisted attempt to remediate their own sorry past performances.

Instead of policing speech, college presidents should remove barriers to free expression and worry exclusively about fairly enforcing codes of conduct that forbid violence and terroristic threats. If chanting the words “Whites only” at a campus rally is per se harassment, so should be “Globalize intifada.” Claudine Gay needs to think that through. Whether speech is protected is not dependent upon its content.

Further steps: Commit to regaining intellectual diversity among the faculty and administrators. Cashier the wasteful DEI bureaucrats who enforce the monoculture and police speech and thought. Eliminate all mandatory requirements for signed DEI statements and reestablish fair hiring procedures to ensure long-term intellectual diversity within and across departments and programs. Institute annual mandatory teaching modules that instruct everyone on campus about the history of free expression and the value of civil discourse and tolerance on campus.

As journalist and founder of the Free Press Bari Weiss observed in her November 10 Barbara K. Olson Memorial Lecture before the Federalist Society, “The proliferation of antisemitism, as always, is a symptom. When antisemitism moves from the shameful fringe into the public square, it is not about Jews. It is never about Jews. It is about everyone else. It is about the surrounding society or the culture or the country. It is an early warning system—a sign that the society itself is breaking down. That it is dying.”

The disappearance of intellectual diversity among faculty and administrators and the rise of the thought and speech police is a disease rampant on far too many college campuses, particularly the elite ones. We can only hope that the regime change at Penn will also be a harbinger of a thorough change of campus culture, there and elsewhere.

This piece appeared on Forbes on December 14, 2023.


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