An Ominous New Rationale for Trampling on Academic Freedom

Students walk between classes on the Locust Walk on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., September 25, 2017. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
An NYU professor sees free speech as a tool of a ‘reactionary agenda.’

Free inquiry on campus has come under fire. Survey data make it clear that many students (especially conservative ones) are hesitant to speak up in class. Faculty at schools ranging from Portland State to Sarah Lawrence to Northwestern University have been castigated by campus mandarins for the sin of challenging the regnant groupthink regarding such issues as the legacy of colonialism, the role of campus support staff, and Title IX. In light of that, one might expect academics to man the ramparts of academic freedom in the name of self-preservation.

Even as faculty have been investigated and intimidated for questioning campus orthodoxy, however, the academy has stood mutely by. And yet campus apologists have felt obliged to insist that concerns over attempts to encroach on academic freedom are exaggerated or overstated. For all the hypocrisy and obfuscation, this has at least suggested a professoriate that thinks it’s supposed to defend free inquiry.

That’s what makes a recent turn so disturbing. Some in the academy increasingly argue that the whole notion of free inquiry is a reactionary blemish rather than a bedrock principle. Indeed, in a new book published by Oxford University Press, New York University professor Ulrich Baer has done a signal (if disheartening) service in articulating this ominous new stance.

NYU’s Baer, a professor of comparative literature, German, and English, and author of What Snowflakes Get Right, told Inside Higher Education last week that “the urge to block speech, which is really a reminder that the university’s purpose is to vet ideas and regulate speech so that teaching and learning can proceed, is related to a new generation’s realization that free speech has become a weapon for conservatives to undermine equality and the university itself.” He explained that free speech “is neither a blanket permission to say anything without consequence . . . nor identical with academic freedom.”

Got that? Forget all that talk of free, untrammeled inquiry. The university’s very purpose is to “vet ideas and regulate speech” — with an eye to the fact that “free speech” itself is a political “weapon” that threatens the “equality and the university itself.” What Baer offers is a pivot that would leave behind any squeamishness for those wishing to stifle conservative perspectives or maintain any romantic attachment to the age-old principles articulated by the American Association of University Professors.

You see, Baer argues, “universities get confused about their mission in the free speech debates and insist . . . that open-ended and unregulated inquiry is their purpose.” In fact, Baer says, universities are supposed to tolerate free inquiry only as a means for “advancing knowledge and seeking truth,” and the campus mandarins should serve as censors who determine which ideas and speech do so — and which do not.

This is the next front in the push by campus culture warriors to marginalize and silence those who hold objectionable views or values. Baer is explicit on this count, explaining that “free speech only has meaning in the university when it’s paired with the legally mandated principle of equality for all qualified participants.” He elaborates: “When a speaker proposes that some people are innately inferior, such speech conflicts directly with the university’s mandate to provide equal access to its facilities and resources.”

Now, I’m scratching my head trying to think of many campus speakers in 2019 who spend their time arguing “that some people are innately inferior.” But the game, of course, is that Baer and his cronies will define ideas and thoughts they dislike as fitting the bill — and they trust that progressive, weak-kneed campus censors will see things their way. Recent history suggests that they’re on safe ground, on that score.

Baer explains that this profound redefinition of the university reflects the “new generation’s” sense “that free speech can serve as a hollow concept to advance a reactionary agenda.” This cynical dismissal is a telling summation of how Baer and likeminded illiberal thugs view the ideals of free inquiry and academic freedom.

A century ago, in 1915, the American Association of University Professors, then led by John Dewey, set forth its founding principles, proclaiming, “The university cannot perform its [primary function] without accepting and enforcing to the fullest extent the principle of academic freedom.” In 1940, the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges declared, “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good. . . . [And the] common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

The question for the academy is whether these values still hold sway. Will a left-leaning professoriate accept Baer’s convenient new doctrine and the chilling future it portends, or will it choose to say “Enough is enough” and reassert a faith in its enduring principles?


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