Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Colleges open new school year with same fear of free expression

THE HILL   |  September 3, 2019 by Jeffrey M. McCall

Common gumption would dictate that colleges and universities foster environments that promote “free and open inquiry in all matters,” and guarantee “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” Too many higher education administrators today, however, are afraid to endorse such principles, principles clearly articulated in what is known as the “Chicago Statement.” These administrators have allowed their institutions to become ideological gulags, where speech codes limit discourse, certain topics are off limits, and invited speakers must pass litmus tests. Entire academic disciplines, such as political science, education, sociology and others, are in pedagogical and ideological lockstep. It is hard to have open inquiry in subjects where most faculty think the same.

The University of Chicago took the lead five years ago in trying to establish a climate in higher education that fosters robust intellectual inquiry by adopting the Chicago Statement. The principles contained really aren’t all that radical. It should be pro forma for a university to support free and wide inquiry. But universities today live in a world in which mom and apple pie are not traditionally supported and fundamental principles about learning freely are turned on their heads.

Only 67 universities have adopted or endorsed the Chicago Statement, even after five years of national discussion in higher education about what the statement means and its value. That disturbingly low number raises the question of why universities appear to be so afraid of free inquiry. Any time some segments of a culture are silenced by others, power is being wielded at the expense of somebody else. University administrators should feel an obligation to promote robust dialogue for all parties. It appears administrators fear that kind of free dialogue.

Princeton University was one of the first adoptees of the statement. A professor at Princeton, Keith Whittington, wrote a book last year entitled “Speak Freely,” a defense of why universities must support free speech. He wrote, “To shut oneself off from that conversation is to shut oneself off from the scholarly enterprise itself.” Hundreds of universities today have, indeed, shut themselves off by not affirmatively standing up for free thought.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order last spring that aims to cut federal research funding to universities that fail to protect free speech rights. It is unclear how the order will be operationalized, but university deans appear unfazed by the threat. The action got virtually no attention in the media’s news agenda. The major three broadcast networks failed to even mention it in their flagship evening newscasts.

Some states are taking matters in their own hands. Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a law over the summer that protects free speech on college campuses, joining a handful of other states such as Kentucky, South Dakota, and Iowa. These actions, nice as they are, should be unnecessary in a nation that has a First Amendment, not to mention an expectation of academic commitment to free discourse.

The president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Michael Poliakoff, issued a statement this summer calling for philanthropic foundations to withhold gifts to universities that fail to affirm a “commitment to a comprehensive policy protecting and fostering freedom of expression.” Poliakoff cited prominent examples in which campuses have restricted expression in recent years, warning those incidents violate “the deep traditions of academic freedom.”

Knight Foundation study this year found that over two thirds of college students believe the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking freely. Yet, almost half of college students think promoting an inclusive society is more important than protecting free expression. This apparent contradiction demonstrates the utter confusion under which universities approach this matter. A campus can’t be inclusive unless a climate supports the opportunity of all to engage in open inquiry. It figures that only half of Americans think universities “are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country,” as reported by the Pew Research Center.

The crazy vision of free expression under which universities operate today condemns a generation of young people to an intellectually dark place that alters their view of inquiry for their entire lifetimes. This harms a society that must find its way through fake news, conspiracy theories, demagoguery and shrill, irrational thinking. Democracy functions poorly absent the principles contained in the Chicago Statement.


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