During his speech at the recent CPAC conference, President Trump thrilled the crowd, many of whose members were college students, by announcing that he plans to issue an executive order to protect freedom of speech on campus. My friend Stanley Kurtz has devoted years to fighting for campus free speech. Who better to evaluate Trump’s idea?
Writing for NRO, Stanley concludes that “yes, there are many potential problems with federal intervention, but there is really no good alternative.”
Voluntary action by colleges and universities is not the answer:
They are caught in a quicksand of their own creation and are well past the point of self-extraction. This isn’t just a university problem either. The extremism of our politics; its historical naïveté; the bitter mutual recriminations that dog our every debate; the country’s rising divisions along lines of religion, ethnicity, sex, and race; and the endangered liberties even of Americans well past college age; are all outcomes of the noxious spirits the academy has been injecting into the body politic for nearly six decades.
[I]t is. . .mistaken to treat campus free speech as just another case in which unfettered markets will flourish in the absence of outside interference. The campus is the opposite of a free market. It’s protected from market forces by tenure, and further insulated from public dismay — and bursting economic bubbles — by hundreds of billions of dollars in annual government subsidies.
Public policy should be informed by colleges and universities as they are, not by the idealized classical liberal vision, once arguably compatible with reality, that justified the federal government in conferring benefits and privileges on them. That vision entailed a faculty selected based on intellectual merit rather than politics or identity that strives to present students with the best thinking from a wide range of sometimes conflicting perspectives, while avoiding ideological pressure and indoctrination. It entailed protection of the freedom of students and faculty to think and speak as they see fit, while taking care to instruct students in the fundamental principles of free speech. itself.
In exchange for fulfilling this mission, colleges and universities received loads of free money, the right to insulate faculty hiring and the content of courses from public pressure, and an informal but powerful cultural norm of public non-interference.
Today’s college and universities don’t just fail to live up to the idealized classical liberal vision; they reject it. As Stanley says:
In place of that liberal bargain there has grown a fundamentally illiberal perspective in which freedom of speech and the various liberties upon which our constitutional system rests are dismissed as smokescreens for “oppressive power,” “white supremacy,” “heteronormativity,” “neo-colonialism,” etc.
From this new perspective, the principles of classical liberalism — free speech, disinterested study, the search for truth, universal standards of excellence, neutral interpretation of law and principle, due process rights, etc. — do not form a legitimate framework within which political contestation or authentic education can take place. They are instead sham excuses by which the dominant powers gull the oppressed into accepting their subordination.
The new university takes its mission to be the stripping away of this liberal smokescreen, and the empowering of oppressed groups and their allies to resist the system that dupes and disadvantages them.
This is the ideology of the students who shout down visiting speakers, pull down displays that they don’t like, and in various ways ostracize and intimidate students who disagree with them. These supposedly oppressed students and their allies act without scruple, fully convinced that they are justified in suppressing the speech of others because they view the very ideas of “individual rights” or “rule of law” as flimsy cover-stories for “white supremacy,” and such.
Students absorb this ideology from their teachers. Administrators share it in some cases. In other cases, they lack the confidence and the courage to explain to bullying students the principles upon which liberal education rests.
The federal government should not subsidize colleges and universities that behave in these ways. Thus, as Stanley says, there’s a conservative case for cutting federal funding entirely.
Stanley recognizes that this isn’t going to happen. But strings can be attached to federal money that, during Republican administrations at least, will curb the worst campus excesses and perhaps cause colleges and universities to move closer to the classical liberal vision of an education.
In sum, President Trump is on the right track. Let’s hope he follows through.