Last week, American University’s faculty asserted the academic freedom that was once a central value of our colleges and universities is now under almost unremitting assault. Departing from the intellectual cowardice of many other institutions, the Faculty Senate simply said “no” to the use of the popular “trigger warnings” ostensibly designed to shield students from any topic that might reawaken trauma or cause even the faintest offense. They took this stance proactively through a resolution on freedom of expression, concerned that AU’s standards and principles would otherwise be compromised.
How sad it is that such principled behavior is not everywhere the norm.
Far from fostering a robust debate and free exchange of ideas, the very lifeblood of American higher education, our colleges and universities too often find ways to shut down speech. The news is filled with stories of “disinvitations” of speakers, free speech “zones,” disturbing speech codes and now “microaggressions,” generally innocuous questions or statements that become grounds for punishment of students and faculty because of perceived offense.
In too many ways, institutions of higher learning have abandoned freedom of speech for what First Amendment scholar Greg Lukianoff has dubbed “freedom from speech.” “Sensitivity” and a commitment to so-called civility too often hold a veto over the chance to debate and discuss.
The search for truth has throughout the ages been a battleground of ideas. To inhibit free inquiry and debate is to abandon that search. No less a jurist than Oliver Wendell Holmes admonished that it is easy to call for free thought we like but that our Constitution calls on us to guard “freedom for the thought that we hate.” As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian C. Vann Woodward observed: “The right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the unchallengeable” is the unique opportunity of the academy.
This indispensable ethic of great universities can be ensured only if those legally responsible — namely the trustees — make that clear. That was surely the message of 22 top civic and education leaders who last year issued Governance for a New Era. According to the report, led by former Yale University president and CUNY board chair Benno Schmidt, “Academic freedom is the single most important value informing the academic enterprise, and governance for a new era requires trustees to protect it.” The signatories call on trustees around the country to make certain that the “meaning of academic freedom and its central value to a functioning university” are outlined.
In July, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote to more than 1,100 boards around the country calling — bluntly — on trustees to do just that. We wrote to them urging them to endorse or adapt the University of Chicago’s 2014 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which affirms that “mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable.”
Adopting such best practices, and after extensive and open consultation with the entire academic community, Johns Hopkins University this month issued exemplary guidance on academic freedom. Hopkins’ Statement of Principles holds that “academic freedom necessarily permits the expression of views that even the vast majority of the community may find misguided, ignorant, or offensive. The appropriate response to such statements in an academic setting is not to censor or punish, but to challenge, criticize and persuade.”
Boards across the country have an opportunity to stand up for First Amendment principles by resolving vigorously to demand and protect the free exchange of ideas as the birthright of a liberal education. First Chicago, then Princeton, Purdue, Johns Hopkins and now American University have stepped up by adopting powerful statements of academic freedom.
We are fortunate to have our deep heritage of academic freedom in higher education; many nations do not. It’s time that the rest of our colleges and universities send a strong message that American higher education prizes its heritage of free inquiry and will stand firm in protecting it.