As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, institutions of higher education in the United States face an existential threat. Even if they can survive their current budget crisis, what kind of institutions will American universities and colleges be in a decade’s time?
One crucial front in the war over the university pits defenders of the free-ranging pursuit of truth against those who would put political limits on such inquiries. For most of higher education’s history, this dispute was between advocates of academic freedom inside the universities and skeptics of it who were outside. On behalf of conventional mores or the community’s political and economic interests, politicians, or donors, took the position that the pursuit of knowledge is all well and good…until it threatens vital orthodoxies. The example of Socrates has always been both an inspiration and a warning. Heterodox gadflies tend to get swatted.
In the 21st century, however, academic freedom’s most determined adversaries are inside rather than outside academia. A growing army on college campuses would like to restrict the scope of intellectual debate by subjecting academic inquiry to political litmus tests. Over the 20th century, American universities’ students and faculty pushed to make them havens for heretics, dissenters, iconoclasts, and nonconformists. In the wake of their success, many scholars now demand that campuses adhere to their own orthodoxies. Until recently I would have said that many students and faculty want the range of intellectual debate on a college campus to be narrower than the offerings in the New York Times’s op-ed pages. But now, of course, the college graduates hired by the Times are scrubbing its op-ed pages of heresies as well.
We have seen the practice of stifling debate and purging dissenters on college campuses, but not the theory. Proponents of an intellectually restricted campus have been more interested in imposing than justifying those restrictions. What Snowflakes Get Right by Ulrich Baer, comparative literature professor at New York University, tries to fill that gap. Baer is not a terribly reliable guide to First Amendment doctrine or American constitutional history, but he calls, explicitly and forcefully, for sharply curtailing the scope of speech and debate on American college campuses.
Baer attracted some notoriety when he published an op-ed in the Times in spring 2017 while serving as NYU’s vice provost. Transferring the article’s clever title to his new book, he emphasizes that the First Amendment is not absolute: before its relatively recent, assertively liberal reading, “free speech” was understood in ways that allowed a great deal of speech to be censored by government officials. In other words, there’s nothing sacred about the current academic regime.
Leaning in part on the work of Yale legal scholar Robert Post, Baer emphasizes that the logic of free speech fits uneasily alongside the core mission of the university. If the university’s central purpose is to advance toward truth via research and teaching, then free speech has always been circumscribed. Universities—quite properly—suppress speech precisely in order to facilitate the academic project. We expect students in the classroom not to be disruptive and derail the lesson. We expect instructors to stick to their knitting, and neither hijack their classes to pontificate on irrelevant issues nor become purveyors of snake oil to unsuspecting minors. We refuse to accept dissertations or monographs that do not reflect professionally competent discourse. In short, we routinely exclude lots of bad speech from the halls of academia.
Free speech, Post would observe, arises from a democratic ethos. The different, narrower concept of academic freedom arises from the professional ethos of modern higher education. Free speech assumes everyone has an opinion and should be allowed to voice it, no matter how silly or repugnant the rest of us think it might be. In its radical egalitarianism, free speech makes no distinctions between the well-informed and the woefully ignorant. But academic freedom, neither egalitarian nor democratic, protects some speech while dismissing other speech as unworthy. Scholars properly claim the right to engage in professionally competent critical inquiry without having to worry that the university president or board of trustees will disapprove, and we give them that right because we think that such protections are the best means we have for advancing and disseminating human knowledge.
But if that is what universities are all about, then we have little or no interest in protecting members of the university community from the consequences of voicing half-baked political opinions, since such protection has no obvious role in fostering truth through scholarly inquiry. Indeed, it could be counterproductive to the academic mission if universities implied that charlatans and serious scholars were equally welcome. University values might best be advanced by expelling charlatans from the campus rather than allowing them to pollute the information environment and debase the university’s reputation for expertise and truth-seeking.
Baer draws also on postmodern theory, which permeates the humanities, to make a useful point about the difficulties surrounding the free speech debate. Speech is not, or at least not merely, a means by which we discover and communicate what is true and false. Speech can also be an instrument of power. Contemptuous of pursuing truth through speech, the demagogue, like the postmodernist himself, is concerned with manipulating the thoughts and feelings of his audience so as to advance his own political goals. If speech is an instrument of power, then perhaps it should be taken away from those who would wield it for disreputable purposes.
Baer aligns himself with the “snowflakes,” to borrow the popular reference to left-wing campus activists that caught on in 2015 after the world saw videos of Yale students confronting Professor Nicholas Christakis over a controversy about Halloween costumes. What the snowflakes get right, Baer thinks, is that some controversial views not only don’t deserve to be debated but don’t deserve to be expressed, on a college campus or in polite society. The specific views he has in mind are ones covered by proposed hate speech regulations. Unlike some hate speech proponents, he makes clear that he wants to suppress not just offensive or harassing slurs directed at individuals, but also substantive ideas that he deems dangerous. He thinks modern democracies, and by extension university campuses, are committed to a creed—non-negotiable, non-debatable, and unquestionable. Central to that creed is the “principle of equality.” Anyone who disputes this principle threatens the community and should be suppressed and excluded.
As a result of taking this position, Baer finds himself juggling two quite different kinds of claims. On the one hand, he embraces Post’s view that universities should be dedicated to advancing the truth and should reject falsehoods. Since it is an article of faith that “equality” is true, whatever that means exactly, then anyone who questions that article of faith is necessarily spouting falsehoods and no longer belongs on a university campus. On the other hand, Baer embraces an explicitly political vision that is at odds with Post’s ethos of expertise. Those who question the principle of equality advance an ideology that is dangerous, just as the advocacy of Nazism is dangerous. For Baer, the best way to address such ideologies is to silence them. Moreover, those who question the principle of equality question a key commitment of an inclusive university, and thereby undermine that commitment. Whereas Post would emphasize that universities prize expertise and professionalism above all else, Baer would emphasize that the universities’ highest value is inclusivity. When values come into conflict, inclusivity must be given priority. Ultimately, inclusion requires the exclusion of all who challenge inclusivity’s tenets.
Post has expounded at length on the statement made by the American Association of University Professors in 1940 that the “common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” In this view, professors should enjoy academic freedom because allowing them to pursue critical inquiry, subject only to professional norms, is in the long-term best interest of a democratic society, even if the arguments of the professors are sometimes discomforting to the demos.
At bottom, Baer rejects that claim. He thinks professors should not be allowed to discomfort the demos, at least not on the commitments he particularly values. But once we make that concession, it is no longer obvious what universities are doing, or what purpose academic freedom serves. Baer’s creedal university will eventually swallow his technocratic university as a widening set of controversial social and political issues are shielded from acceptable critical inquiry.
What Snowflakes Get Right elides differences between the various kinds of speech that take place on a modern college campus. If the question is whether neo-Nazi activist Richard Spencer should give an academic talk sponsored by the political science department, then the answer is an easy one. But no one thinks that is the question. The activities on a modern university campus cannot be reduced to the faculty’s scholarly pursuits. Speakers routinely visit campus because a group of students finds the speaker interesting or entertaining, or because administrators think the speaker will add luster or excitement to a drab campus. Advancing the search for truth in adherence to disciplinary standards doesn’t enter into it. (In Spencer’s case, the rationale was simply that the university makes its facilities available for use by members of the general public.) Universities open their doors to a host of non-expert speakers precisely because they have long served as venues for public debate as well as for scholarly discourse. We could dramatically reduce academic free speech controversies if we restricted the speaking activities on campuses to professors reading their scholarly papers to entranced audiences.
In practice, universities encompass both of the values that Post identifies, expertise and democracy. Baer ultimately makes clear that he would sacrifice both for the sake of his vision of equality: “In today’s age, we also have a simple solution that should appease all those concerned that students are insufficiently exposed to controversial views. It is called the internet.” Unfortunately, Baer’s allies, using his arguments, think that controversial views should also be driven off the internet. Worse, Baer’s notion of what counts as a view that is too controversial to be aired on a college campus would likely encompass ideas held by the bulk of the American citizenry and a non-trivial fraction of the professoriate.
Would he stop there? When discussing the need to exclude speech that questions principles of equality from campus, he reasonably thinks that not much of intellectual importance would be lost if figures like Spencer or alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos never again appeared on campus. (He could but does not say the same about many popular campus speakers on the political Left.) Though Baer is less forthright about how deeply his exclusionary approach should cut into the heart of academic freedom and be applied to scholarly research and teaching, many “snowflakes” would certainly be all too eager to expunge professors if they fail to pass the constantly evolving political litmus test of the creedal university. Baer’s proposal leads naturally to the demand in a recent letter signed by hundreds of my Princeton University colleagues, calling for the formation of a committee to investigate and “discipline…racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of the faculty.”
Baer is cavalier about what an earlier generation of liberals took as a hard-won victory in expanding the space for dissent in America. He breezily notes that things could be different but gives us little indication of how we got here or why. If only we tweaked First Amendment doctrine a bit, he suggests, we could rid ourselves of white supremacists and leave everything else untouched. There is an all too common suggestion that the American Civil Liberties Union protected the free speech rights of Nazis simply because civil libertarians do not mind Nazis. Like many campus censors, Baer imagines that altering the rules surrounding free speech will inhibit only those who disagree with him, never his allies.
He ignores the costs associated with the kind of campus revolution he outlines, and he provides frustratingly few details about how his reimagined university would look and operate. If given free rein, Ulrich Baer’s version of a university is unlikely to resemble the kind that has made American higher education the envy of the world. American universities have evolved over time, and there is no reason to think that the intellectual openness that has characterized them for the past half-century will characterize them a half-century from now. The buildings might survive, but there is no guarantee that free and open inquiry will.