By now, many have heard about the dispute at Rutgers over its selection of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker. Rutgers, to its credit, is sticking to its guns. But what my colleagues at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) have dubbed the annual “disinvitation season” rolls on nonetheless. The latest absurd row is over the invitation to Greg and Susan Gianforte to give commencement addresses this year at Montana Tech and at Rocky Mountain College. The Gianfortes are multi-millionaires who two years ago sold their Bozeman, Montana-based business, RightNow Technologies, to Oracle for a reported $1.5 billion.
So what’s the problem? Is it that, as The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports, that Greg Gianforte “is involved with an affiliate of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.?” Yes, in part. Is it that they have spoken out against the possibility of a local ordinance that would add sexual orientation as a protected class for discrimination? Yes, in part. But their greatest sin seems to be that “they promote unscientific beliefs, as evidenced by their contributions to the faith-based Glendive Dinosaur Fossil Museum, which teaches that humans co-existed with dinosaurs.” Some Montana Tech faculty members are planning to boycott the speeches.
There is growing conviction in some quarters that if another person has a belief that strikes one as weird, stupid, unfounded, or bigoted, that person cannot possibly have anything useful to say and must be excised from polite society or, better, silenced. This also applies to people who are merely the other side of the political spectrum, like Condoleezza Rice or Dick Cheney.
This conviction is self-evidently absurd. Dr. James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, has been roundly criticized as racist. Senator Robert Byrd was a member and sometime leader in the Ku Klux Klan. The Reverend Jesse Jackson called New York “Hymietown.” And Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes penned an opinion in support of eugenics in which he (in)famously declared that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Yet all of these people managed to make meaningful contributions to society. And while these comments and opinions are certainly hard to defend, the fact remains that in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, and surreptitious video recordings, you can always find something to feed the outrage machine. (Ask Stephen Colbert.)
Gianforte, according to reports, was not asked to talk about and is not planning to talk about gay rights or the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs. He’s there to talk about his experience in business and technology, a subject that he obviously knows plenty about. More importantly, though, a college or university is supposed to expose people to views they might not have heard before or with which they might not be comfortable.
Too many in academia take the Marcusian view that openness to differing views should only go one way—i.e., that expression is free for left-leaning views only. Recognizing (and resenting) this, some on the right try to fight back by lashing out with the power of the state when it’s available. What both these approaches have in common is that they victimize students in order to score political points. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty:
[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
College students deserve to have the opportunity to exchange error for truth, or just as usefully, to gain a “clearer perception and livelier impression” of their own views and the views of others. This is as true in commencement speeches as it should be in the classroom.
As a new author on Phi Beta Cons (my thanks to Jane Shaw and George Leef for inviting me!), I hope to help guide the conservative discussion of higher education towards the principle of free speech and open debate on campus. It’s no secret that academia is overwhelmingly left-wing, and that the groupthink and general blinkered attitude of too many at our colleges and universities is hurting our students and our society generally. (My boss, who is liberal, wrote a book on this.) But the conservative solution to this problem cannot be a right-wing purge of the Ivory Tower. Not only would that be wrong, it would be doomed to fail. The conservative solution must be the continuous, untiring, and utterly principled insistence that the “marketplace of ideas” must be open to all the intellectual products available.