A Defense of the Neoliberal University

Keith E. Whittington has written the best of the recent books on free speech and higher education, a confident defense of what I would call the neoliberal university. Let me explain my terminology, recount the argument of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, and ask whether the recovery the author intends can be achieved.

In political economy, the term “neoliberal” has been used to describe the late 20th century revival of free market economics on a global scale. That American advocates of the market are generally called “conservatives” points to a genuine ambiguity: Neoliberals look back to the past, but not to the distant past of a landed aristocracy, rather to the 19th century world of “classical liberalism,” where old privileges were dissolved in the name of economic freedom and commercial innovations changed the face of the world. Likewise, Whittington recalls a classical age, the liberal university of mid-20th century America, devoted to research and the advancement of learning, to the recruitment and promotion of highly professionalized tenured faculty, to robust intellectual debate uninhibited by Christian strictures, to the admission of students from groups previously excluded from the most prestigious schools—first Jews, then African Americans, then women—and to service to American democracy, through the education of citizens, the development of public policy, and the fruits of scientific research.

Of course the classically liberal university was not exactly the friend of classical liberal economics. Quite the contrary, it was the robust child of the progressive project to redefine liberalism for the 20th  century, dedicated to rational management of itself and the world. But the project of recovering that university today would be, analogically speaking, neoliberal, for in the past 50 years its independence and integrity have been under assault by those who would assimilate its curriculum and activities to the wider world of our own day, whether by orienting its students to careers and arranging its funding by market mechanisms, or by leveraging its influence in support of various causes demanding the transformation of society. In Speak Freely, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University explains how to recover the robust intellectual debate of the mid-century secular university, which he recognizes has decayed, signaling in passing his endorsement of the whole package as an attractive ideal.

 A John Stuart Mill Protégé?

Though his ambition is, on my terms, neoliberal, Whittington himself does not assume a liberal persona, at least by Robert Frost’s definition of one “so altruistically moral/ I never take my own side in a quarrel.”[1] Identifying himself playfully on the first page of his preface as possessing an “inner Texas populist” and having “political inclinations [that] might be charitably called outside the mainstream of university faculty,” he counts himself “immensely grateful for the opportunities that universities have provided me” and “unabashedly an advocate for universities and their place in American life.”

The author makes clear at the outset that for him a university is a place devoted to “gathering, preserving, and advancing human knowledge not for the sake of achieving some other goal, but for its own sake,” though “equally committed to the dissemination of knowledge,” since “the scholarly enterprise is fundamentally communal.” He is unapologetic about the central role of the faculty in the university, and he accepts the whole regime of journal publication, peer review, and tenure as insuring intellectual merit and disciplinary expertise. Optimistically, he sees this not as a machine to guarantee conformity but as institutional practice that promotes “skeptical inquiry in pursuit of the truth” or “open inquiry and disciplinary rigor.”

Thanks to the reformers of the Progressive Era, he writes, “the core value of the modern American university would be free inquiry, not indoctrination,” and “liberalism, democracy, and meritocracy would go hand in hand.” Since learning itself is progressive, with “new insights, new discoveries, and new knowledge” as its goal, higher education must be characterized by a spirit of ambitious freedom, not humble curation. “Speak freely”: It’s the only way to really learn.

Whittington’s mentor for this approach to learning is an unabashed liberal, John Stuart Mill, a 19th century Englishman (though he acknowledges Mill’s debt to Wilhelm von Humboldt, the true godfather of the modern university). Carefully noting that Mill was more a public intellectual than a university man, living in the last generation in which a private scholar might excel in many areas of learning, unencumbered by the organized disciplines that would soon come to define academic life, Whittington uses Mill to explain the value of free speech in society at large in modern America. He gives Mill an original interpretation, summarizing the familiar arguments in chapter two of On Liberty (1859) as the argument from humility (free speech is needed because our opinions might be false), the argument from arrogance (we are certain our opinions are true so we can indulge the expression of contrary views), and the argument from conviction (we only know our opinions are sound if they have withstood challenge).

Actually, he notes, the ground for Mill’s success in American law was prepared in the early republic, both by the Jeffersonian critique of the Alien and Sedition Acts (no one can be trusted as a neutral arbiter of truth and falsity) and by Lockean liberty of conscience (tolerate religious differences for the sake of civil peace). While John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Mill defend equal freedom of speech in society at large, a university stands or falls by its claim to superior knowledge and scientific expertise. Whittington’s point is that the arguments for free speech in society bleed over into the university, since human passion and prejudice are not shed by either faculty or students when they pass through the university’s gates.

Clear Thinking about Campus Controversies

The heart of the book—more than half its pages, and worth its price—is the magnificent chapter on “Free Speech on Campus,” where patiently, thoroughly, and unflinchingly the author sorts through most of the critical issues on campus today. Throughout he displays a sympathetic awareness of opposing points of view and offers sensible advice. Like the Chicago Statement of 2015, he is uncompromising in his fidelity to the priority of free inquiry in the academy, but eschews the ridicule of universities in which conservatives are often tempted to indulge. As in his scholarly work in political science, Whittington explains each controversy in its historical context, in a lucid and lively style.

He discusses “trigger warnings” in the context of the specific dangers associated with medically diagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The latter are real, and should be handled individually through universities’ disability offices and their procedures, but the risk to a few does not excuse interference with consideration of troubling issues by the university community at large nor with assignments in the classroom. The call for “safe spaces,” he says, is on the one hand a “thin” demand for professorial agility in handling sensitive issues in class to establish an atmosphere of mutual respect, and on the other a “thick” request for affinity housing or lounges (or fraternities or religious congregations), where bonds of friendship and solidarity can be formed, in a respite from stress and confrontation. There is room for both on campus: “those segregated safe spaces of thick fellowship as well as those integrated safe spaces of sharp contestation and debate.”

On hate speech, Whittington endorses the American solution of prohibiting only true threats and harassment, not every insult. The Jeffersonian recognition that “once an official has been empowered to suppress speech, it is inevitable that good speech will be suppressed along with the bad” has been amply verified by recent experience with campus speech codes, the better solution being to encourage reply.

Whittington’s handling of student protests is particularly nuanced. Free speech involves the right to choose not only what to say, but how to say it. “The marketplace of ideas is crowded” and the temptation to get attention through protest is often irresistible, but since the point of the university is truth-seeking, protest ought to initiate conversation, not preclude it. Disruption in the form of  “staged” events, which Whittington would (one senses, reluctantly) allow, since event planners can budget for the extra time, should be distinguished from disruptions that actually suppress others’ speech, which are rightly crushed. It was a major advance in constitutional law, he thinks, when the mob’s threat to a speaker was no longer treated as an excuse for stopping his speech, rather as a call for his protection.

On the topic of student groups and outside speakers, Whittington is moderate: At graduation, please, only a silent protest, and only about the honorary degree; better to invite controversial speakers to a separate event where the issues their presence raises can be debated ahead of the ceremony. Student groups ought to be advised not to waste their resources on inviting mere provocateurs, who “are parasitic on free speech,” but student groups ought to be treated fairly (as  is required at public universities under “limited public forum” law), whether by administrators or  by the student governments behind whom administrators are wont to hide. It is as unacceptable today to deny free market libertarian groups and speakers, writes Whittington, as it was 20 years ago to deny gay rights advocates.

What about academic freedom? Whittington traces its history in the United States up to its solid establishment in the 1940 Statement of Principles by the American Association of University Presidents. “The office of professor was to be held in public trust in order to enhance human knowledge,” said the AAUP, on the one hand freeing faculty from interference by donors and alumni, on the other requiring faculty “to maintain and enforce professional discipline.” Their freedom is to teach the truth as they see it and to pursue it in their own research—not to use their platform for political or other contentious discussion unrelated to the subject matter of their classes.

The tricky part is what professors say on their own time outside the university, as citizens, an issue much compounded in the age of social media. Whittington steps gingerly here, generally indulging private-time faculty folly as inescapable and showing little patience with boards and administrators who use private weakness as an excuse for ridding themselves of disagreeable dissenters. It is not hard to imagine, given his proud defense of a professional professoriate, that, populist or not, he harbors for such faculty carelessness no little contempt. He concludes the book with a discussion of the absence of “viewpoint diversity” among the faculty at most institutions, citing numerous studies that no one contradicts about the dominance of left-leaning professors, but limits himself to a plea for his colleagues to recognize that the case for ideological diversity is as strong as the case for the demographic diversity they generally support.

After all, most disciplines have plenty of academic issues that divide them already—for example, in political science, between behaviorism and rational choice—so they know how to live with disagreement and even thrive on it, while outside attempts by state legislators or politically appointed boards to police ideological diversity are invariably clumsy. He is confident, in short, that appealing to his colleagues’ liberal commitment to free speech will be enough for conservatives to win a few arguments and at least a fair hearing. (The selection of his book as this year’s summer reading for incoming freshmen at his own institution, Princeton, perhaps vindicates his wager, at least on his home turf.)

The “Marketplace of Ideas” Notion Has Its Limits

What about in the university more generally: Is a neoliberal university possible in our ideological age? That is to say, a liberal university devoted to knowledge for its own sake, where genuine dialectic is fundamental, not for the sake of liberal (or neoliberal) politics, where claims of economic or political urgency will always be available to override scholarly detachment? I am less sanguine than my friend on this score.

In the first place, Whittington’s reliance on Mill’s account of counter-speech and on the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas seems to me precarious, as these describe the true character neither of modern scientific thinking nor of serious study in the humanities. In science, dominant discoveries, concepts, and paradigms define the disciplines and their subfields, with genuine debate focused on critically identified problems and empirical observation encouraged to advance knowledge both by helping to settle these and to discover details within established lines of inquiry. In the humanities, fundamental alternatives persist across generations even as knowledge ebbs and grows. The scientists think Mill has little to say to them, and he proves welcome only to humanists in retreat, not those who pretend they are progressing like scientists as they promote new modes of critiquing the benighted past while anticipating a liberated future.

Second, I think the university in its classical liberal moment overlooked the importance of the moral formation of students, taking it for granted that they came to college with scholarly habits and needed only reminders about intellectual honesty, and ostentatiously declining to curb student experiments with what Mill politely describes as alternative ways of living in On Liberty, chapter three. Whittington says little on the topic, other than to dismiss pre-progressive colleges in America as governed by indoctrination—underestimating, I think, the serious attention paid to moral philosophy in their curricula and to the encouragement of genuine debate over numerous questions of history, morals, politics, and much more. The vacuum of moral authority in the formation of today’s students at once risks damage to their personal lives and invites political indoctrination to satisfy the obvious yearning of the young for moral ideals.

Third, and relatedly, Whittington leaves religion at the margins of university life, as a matter of identity or as an impediment on some campuses to full Millian freedom. This is wrong, I think, in two respects.

First, theological inquiry was integral to the pre-liberal university, where it was not merely a matter of indoctrination. Read any page of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and the spirit of disciplined argument, not dull indoctrination, is evident. I have no reason to think that theological study in the colleges that became our leading universities was any more dogmatic—certainly no more dogmatic than the dismissal of theology as a serious field of learning in the liberal universities of our day and the consequent ignorance among many faculty of its intellectual claims.

Second, religious schools today, leaving aside perhaps a few Bible colleges, are in my experience deeply engaged with secular learning and routinely hire faculty who received their training at major universities, even if they occasionally require membership in the sponsoring denomination and hence acknowledgment of its creed and code of conduct. I think it is simply mistaken to write that “Notre Dame could declare that it would henceforth refuse to allow scholarly teaching or research that calls into question any components of the Catholic faith.” Not only is such a declaration unimaginable in the foreseeable future at a school like Notre Dame, but it would no longer be a Catholic university if it did not subject the faith to questioning—even if it were to insist on adherence to Catholic moral doctrine in its campus rules.

My point, I should clarify, is not that the neoliberal university is not a worthy ideal, only that it should not be paradigmatic. There is a deep pluralism of institutions of higher learning in America, and there is much they might learn from one another.

Finally, the problem of ideological one-sidedness on university faculty is only the tip of the iceberg in American education, with profound consequences for American politics. Probably no one can graduate from high school without learning about the Nazis and the Holocaust, but few students I encounter even in the very conservative part of the country where I teach have any knowledge of the crimes of communism in the 20th century, in many ways equal in cause and brutality to those of the Nazis and more numerous in their victims by a factor of five or more.[2]

Whatever the cause of this distortion, I see little prospect of its being corrected in the current academic environment and little chance of contemporary politics being soundly evaluated if it is not. Millian liberalism ought to summon more than a few lonely voices on this matter,[3] but in practice it has not, which leads this reader to wonder whether it is really enough to welcome pluralism without being alert to the characteristic failings of any dominant regime and the need, for the sake of getting at the truth, to seek out the classical alternatives.

Of course one can hardly criticize Millian liberalism without immediately acknowledging that Mill in principle welcomes criticism and recommends it be answered rather than ignored. Keith Whittington has made a noble and prudent case for its recovery. For that he deserves our gratitude, even if the bridge he recommends might lead to destinations other than the one he imagines.

[1] From his 1941 poem, “The Lesson for Today,” lines 122-23. See The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969), pp. 354.

[2] Compare “Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website (accessed July 1, 2018) with Stéphane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer (Harvard University Press, 1999).

[3] See Alan Kors, “Can There Be an ‘After Socialism’?” Atlas Society website, September 27, 2003 (accessed July 1, 2018).