I am a professor who believes that freedom is critical to the best and most defensible purpose of a university: the pursuit of knowledge, whose criterion is truth. And so I have been watching nervously in recent years as crowds on campuses have shouted down, chased off, and forced the disinvitation of speakers. The veritable takeover of Evergreen State by Jacobin mobs last month was positively frightening.
So, I read with great interest an insightful piece on the issue by Georgetown’s Jacques Berlinerblau — increasingly one of my favorite writers — published in the Washington Post last week. Berlinerblau was extolled here at ArcU by contributor Tim Shah, who praised and elaborated on his critique of “pomofoco” critics of religious freedom. Now he weighs in on speech on campus.
Berlinerblau notes that episodes of speech being shut down typically evoke cries of liberal bias:
Recent controversies at American colleges and universities follow a predictable script whose final act culminates in cries of “liberal bias!” The saga begins when a coalition on campus concludes that a person’s ideas are wrong, demeaning to a certain group or lacking in scholarly rigor. The holder of aforesaid ideas might have a lecture invitation rescinded (as occurred when the comedian Bill Maher was briefly disinvited from delivering a commencement address at the University of California at Berkeley in 2014). Or this person will be shouted down and verbally abused (as transpired recently with Evergreen State College professor Bret Weinstein, who declined to participate in a diversity initiative). Or maybe the offender will be shouted down, verbally abused and physically assaulted (as happened to lecturer Charles Murray and Professor Allison Stanger at Middlebury College).
Once the incident goes viral, our drama lurches to its spectacular conclusion: a backlash emerges, and commentators decry liberalism run amok. The scandal at Middlebury impelled right-wing critics to speak of “liberal intolerance” and “liberal groupthink.” After the Evergreen episode, conservative media fingered “liberal terrorists” as responsible for Professor Weinstein’s ordeal. Even a progressive liberal like Bill Maher attributed his rebuff to the wishy-washiness of liberals.
He argues, though, that liberals are not to blame for this, but rather the radical left, which is disproportionately represented on campuses. “This third camp,” he argues, “is composed of a vast, and diverse array of quite serious scholars whose animus towards liberal ideas often exceeds its disdain for conservative ones.” Here is how he describes this camp:
If you want to conceptualize the differences between liberal and leftist professors in political terms—which, I repeat, is always hazardous—think of it this way. Liberal professors are the types that probably voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections. Radical left professors likely wrote her off as a dreaded “neo-liberal.” Their primary votes might have been cast for Bernie Sanders—as irritatingly “mainstream” as the social-democratic candidate might have been to them. In the general election they might have opted for Jill Stein, or sat it out altogether in protest of American capitalism, imperialism, hegemony, etc
Yet whereas Stein received 1 percent of the popular vote, one recent national study of professors in all disciplines demonstrated that roughly 15.6 percent at non-sectarian schools self-identify as “far left.” That finding calls attention to a pronounced difference between the politics of American voters and American professors. But even this number strikes me as way too low. Although the data has never been parsed in this way, if we were to look solely at professors in the humanities and interpretive social sciences, my guess is that the 15 percent figure would be two or three times higher—and more so at elite institutions. In other words, at a nationally ranked school a department of English, Women’s Studies, Art History, French, African-American Studies, Spanish, Philosophy, Anthropology, Film Studies or Sociology is likely to have more far-left faculty than liberals and conservatives combined.
There’s a lot to be gained by contemplating the tripartite distinction identified above. College administrations and scholarly societies need to ask themselves why these ideological imbalances are so pronounced. They might also wonder why it’s so hard to identify a fourth camp, comprised of professors whose politics are inscrutable or unpredictable. (I would hope that my teaching and research places me in that camp.) The radical left might ponder why the academy is the sole American institution where its ideas hold any sway. Conservatives have every right to complain about ideological imbalance. But they need to stop blaming liberals for their misfortune, politically expedient as such a charge might be.
As for liberals, whose core values on issues like freedom of speech are everywhere under assault, they need to define what they actually stand for. And if it causes tension with their “allies” on the radical left, so be it.
A couple of glosses on this incisive piece.
First, I like to think that I am in Berlinerblau’s fourth camp. My views of justices are rooted in Catholic social thought, which, as I often tell my students, does not fall easily into left or right camps. As such, I am all the more committed to free speech on campus. It is the interstitial views that often get rubbed out when the Grim Censor comes around.
Second, I have wondered why more university administrators have not spoken out for freedom on campus. A number of moderate to liberal commentators who have observed the unruliness in forums of learning and reacted with apposite outrage. Journalist Kirsten Powers is one, and has been joined in standing for freedom of inquiry by journalist Fareed Zakaria, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and even President Obama when he was still president. Kristof is especially interesting. Usually a voice for causes of social justice on the left, he was outraged by the silencings and raised his own voice. When readers wrote to the editor asking why conservative views ought to be tolerated at all, he wrote another column pleading for freedom, and then another. But if Powers, Zakaria, Kristof, and Obama have spoken up, why have so few tenured professors and college presidents, with only a few exceptions, raised their voices in solidarity with beleaguered fellow members of what are supposed to be communities of learning? If the free pursuit of truth is the very end of the university, then why have so few spoken out when it has been assaulted? Father Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president of 35 years, who is pictured at the top of this blog, spoke often and eloquently for freedom on campus. But not presidents, provosts and deans today. Even after Evergreen State, where a professor was prevented even from teaching his class. Is not a threat to free inquiry in one university a threat to inquiry in every university? Where is the solidarity?