How Liberal Universities Could Liberate Speech

Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, is concerned about the plight of free speech on college campuses and hers in particular.  She says all the right words about the importance of free speech to a university. But her suggestions about how to secure it are vague  and anodyne. For instance, Faust exhorts  those at the university to be “generous listeners.”  For a college President, that is a bit like a preacher exhorting his congregation to oppose sin.

It is easy to be a generous listener when you are listening to people who agree you with you.  But the ideological and partisan homogeneity of Harvard makes generous listening to sharply dissenting views harder, because it is easier to regard them as irrational or evil when none of your friends and colleagues share them. The problem is a structural and institutional one and cannot be solved by sermons.

Thus, if Faust were serious about free speech and free inquiry on campus she would announce some initiatives to make sure that conservative and libertarian voices punctured the campus bubble. A school as wealthy as Harvard could announce a speaker series to bring in a serious conservative or libertarian scholar once a week to speak to the entire university on an issue of public policy or political philosophy.If she feels Harvard needs more money to undertake this enterprise, I am sure she could get some conservative alumnus to fund it.

But even serious outsiders are not likely to fundamentally change the atmosphere of smug ideological self-satisfaction that marks many elite universities. They need to have more conservatives and libertarians on the faculty to create the kind of community where, in Faust’s words, “argument is relished, not feared.” That kind of community needs  “a critical mass,” to coin a phrase, of people who disagree about fundamental matters of politics and social ordering.

Thus, if she were serious Faust would require that her social science and humanity departments interview conservatives and those with more traditional approaches to their disciplines when faculty vacancies occur. And just as it is now de rigueur to have minorities or women on the hiring committees, she should require that a conservative or libertarian have a place at the table. Of course, many departments have no conservatives or libertarians, but even having the most conservative or libertarian faculty member on the committee would be of some help.

I do not approve of any preferences in faculty hiring. But the question here is not the first-best view of faculty hiring, but what Faust should do that is consistent with her own institution’s principles.  And Harvard is committed to substantial outreach and indeed preferential hiring for certain groups. And given that those groups lean demographically farther to the left than most of the non-preferred, affirmative action for conservatives and libertarians is needed, if the affirmative action Harvard practices is not to make its ideological bubble even more impermeable.  Without such affirmative action,  Harvard’s diversity would most remain that of a Coca-Cola commercial where people of different ethnicity sing the same song.

This last image is from Harvard’s own Harvey Mansfield, the most famous conservative on campus.  Of course, the best course for free inquiry at Harvard would be to appoint him as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences!   To be fair to Drew Faust, perhaps the appointment of John Manning, a former clerk to Antonin Scalia, as Dean of the Harvard Law School, is nod in the direction recommended here, but it will take a lot more than the Dean of one professional school to change the atmosphere on the Charles River.

Reader Discussion

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on June 04, 2017 at 23:52:49 pm

[I]t will take a lot more than the Dean of one professional school to change the atmosphere on the Charles River.

Yup. To achieve that, we'll need climate change--but do we really want to go there?

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on June 05, 2017 at 00:11:47 am

From my perspective, the issue of free speech on campus is not that there is insufficient diversity of views. It is rather that discourse is conducted in such a way as to make such diversity not only difficult but undesirable. The issue is not that a conservative or libertarian cannot be found to discuss Hayek or point out the failures of the welfare state. The issue is that when such people are found and attempt to speak they are met with intimidation, threats, and occasionally violence. The problem is not that Charles Murray does not have a chair in economics at Middlebury, it is that goons ran him out of the arranged auditorium when he tried to speak.

Note the term that Professor McGinnis quotes above: "generous listeners." Remember how the mob confronting Professor Christakis at Yale insisted he needed to "listen" and not defend his position, or how Professor Weinstein from Evergreen State College claims he was told there was no venue for him to defend himself against charges of racism. This is an increasingly common tactic of the intolerant: Claiming that their freedom of expression imposes on others the obligation to listen and to withhold contrary views. To the extent that debate implies the existence of an opposing view, apparently, it is oppressive.

These are merely tactics however. They are intended to give an advantage to crybabies in establishing their victimhood. What colleges and universities need, is ultimately not so much more conservatives or libertarians on their faculties, although this is a good idea in its own right. What is needed is for universities to adopt and pass along some very unexceptional truths about the real world:

1.) Nobody really cares about your subjective sense of offense. Being offended by someone else's opinion is a sign of weak character, and the weakness of one;s own opinions.

2.) Micro aggressions are entitled to micro concern.

3.) If you earn respect, you end up with self respect; if you demand respect you end up with self pity. If you have self respect, when you confront obstacles you have the determination and resolve to persevere and overcome them. If you have self pity, when you are confronted with obstacles, you whine, and blame others and have nothing to show for your efforts except resentment.

4.) People will listen if you have something worth listening to.

5.) An affront to an unearned sense of entitlement is not a threat to your "safety."

6.) No one really cares if the world does not provide you with the life you think you deserve, except your mother. You should be nicer to your mother and call her more often.

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on June 06, 2017 at 00:05:42 am

What we are witnessing today in many of America's colleges and universities is the final flowering of the almost 100 year struggle of the Cultural Marxists to take over and to a large extent control the political and philosophical dialogue in American Academia. This was called the "long march through the institutions" which,in essence,would give the Left control over what was taught to young minds throughout the nation. It also included,to a large extent,control of Public Education,the News Media,The Arts,Television and Hollywood. Basically this attack upon the Western Tradition was designed to direct the minds of the masses to accept collectivist thought and morality and to eschew all other notions of individuality,self responsibility,self reliance and liberty and thus direct the masses on to relying on the state,and those that control the state, for their guidance and sustenance. Once in this controlling position the Left has been extremely reluctant to give up any of its power. Especially the professors in the soft sciences and the administrators who run these institutions. Thus when challenged with other ideas,especially conservative and libertarian ideas the Left digs in and allows and even encourages opposition to libertarian thoughts and ideas up to and including violence. This to control the intellectual scene. What we are witnessing on campuses today is nothing more than modern day Brown Shirts terrorizing all opposite thought. This being to the hidden delight of the Leftist professors and administrators in charge. So much for free thought and intellectual freedom on campus. That is by and large over with.

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libertarian jerry
on June 06, 2017 at 10:50:19 am

Then again, "Mommy", having already put up with childish whining for many years, may have simply had enough and doesn't want to receive more whining phone calls. I'm just sayin'.


What is at issue here is the *legitimacy* of opposing viewpoints NOT, as McGinnis suggest, the number of "right-thinking" individuals. To oppose current groupthink is indefensible and illegitimate.

Z: You may be interested in an essay by Manent at American Affairs nominally about "populism" but actually covering the issue of "legitimacy" in politics.

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