Politics & Policy

Is It the Right or the Academy That’s Lost Faith in Free Inquiry?

(Photo: Mactong70/Dreamstime)
If conservatives have a low opinion of American higher education, it’s because our elite academic institutions have strayed from their core principles and mission.

In the past few years, the closing of the academic mind has become hard to ignore. When a Republican presidential candidate’s name chalked on a sidewalk is cause for student protest, “bias response team” investigations, or even calls to the police, universities are clearly not embracing robust dialogue. When faculty are disciplined for critiquing university-sponsored anti-bias training, it’s evident that only certain views are deemed permissible. So Pew’s new study showing that conservative support for higher education has plummeted was noteworthy but hardly surprising. Pew reported that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of conservative Republicans say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, while 43 percent of moderate and liberal Republicans agree.

These results have prompted predictable head-shaking and defensiveness on the part of college and university officials. The most revealing response was offered up in the Chronicle of Higher Education by the respected Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. After noting just how problematic it is for higher education and for the nation that colleges and universities are seen as partisan institutions, Hartle explained why it is that higher education has lost favor on the Right.

Hint: It’s not because conservative speakers have been disinvited, shouted down, and assaulted by campus mobs. Nor is it because of institutions’ repressive speech codes, seemingly adopted to stymie any opinions that run afoul of regnant notions of political correctness. Nor is it even because of an overwhelmingly progressive professoriate, comprising too many faculty members who’ve confused proselytizing for pedagogy.

Nope. As Hartle sees it, Republicans’ darkening view of colleges and universities is less the fault of higher education than of irrational, right-wing pathologies. For one, he asserts that Republicans don’t understand higher education’s economic value; for another, he argues that the “conservative echo chamber” gins up controversies for its own selfish purposes. But the heart of the issue, as Hartle sees it, is that conservatives have turned against facts:

There also is a broader issue confronting higher education that is much harder to tackle: the changing views of truth. Logic, the disinterested search for truth, rigorous scientific research, and empirical verification have been at the heart of higher-education institutions in the modern era. But today, for many citizens, feelings outweigh facts.

That’s certainly one way of putting things. Here’s another way: The problem is not that conservatives have lost faith in the mission of the university, but that too many universities have discarded their sacred commitments to dialogue and truth in favor of ideological crusades.

Indeed, the mandarins of the academy now openly spout Orwellian arguments for speech suppression based entirely on feelings. Earlier this month, Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett penned a piece for the New York Times titled “When Is Speech Violence?” that claimed the mantle of “science” to argue for campus speech restrictions. Before that, an April Times op-ed by NYU’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech,” justified censorship on the grounds that subjective emotions should be privileged “over reason and argument,” and that “[freedom of speech] means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.” Disappointingly, the author never quite got around to specifying just who will determine the criteria for this “balancing.”

In short, the academy has abandoned its core values of free inquiry in the service of ever-more-rigid political dogmas.

In short, the academy has abandoned its core values of free inquiry in the service of ever-more-rigid political dogmas. President Harry Truman, that voice of an older, more sensible Left, made those values plain in his 1948 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the speech credited with giving rise to the National Science Foundation:

Continuous research by our best scientists is the key to American scientific leadership and true national security. This indispensable work may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumors, gossip, and vilification. Such an atmosphere is un-American. It is the climate of a totalitarian country in which scientists are expected to change their theories to match changes in the police state’s propaganda line. . . . Now and in the years ahead, we need, more than anything else, the honest and uncompromising common sense of science. Science means a method of thought. That method is characterized by open-mindedness, honesty, perseverance, and, above all, by an unflinching passion for knowledge and truth.

The 1974 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale, known as the “Woodward Report” and later adopted as a model for institutions across the nation, proclaimed:

The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.

In 2005, Hartle’s own organization — representing nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and executives of related associations — drafted and endorsed the “Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities.” It held that “intellectual pluralism and academic freedom are central principles of American higher education,” that “colleges and universities should welcome intellectual pluralism and the free exchange of ideas,” and that “neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions.”

Contra Mr. Hartle, today’s universities — rife with speech codes, “scientific” defenses of speech suppression, and faculties that speak in one voice on seminal issues ranging from race relations to immigration policy — have failed to adhere to their professed ideals or even to his organization’s own standards. It’s true that there are plenty, on the Left and the Right, who sometimes prefer dogma to science. Colleges and universities, however, are supposed to offer a corrective to such thinking; they’re not supposed to be a party to it. The sad truth is that conservatives are right to look askance at higher education in 2017. Too many of our most esteemed academic institutions have drifted from their historic mission — and that’s their fault, not ours.

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