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.