It’s been five years since University of Chicago dean John Ellison made a splash with a letter to the school’s incoming freshmen.
“Our commitment to academic freedom,” he wrote, “means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
In the years since, a number of schools have adopted the so-called Chicago statement, reaffirming a commitment to intellectual engagement and academic freedom on campus. But many more colleges remain mired in a kind of woke fog where neither students nor faculty know what will get them expelled or fired or just publicly shamed. Earlier this summer a center at Brandeis put the phrase “trigger warning” on a list of violent and oppressive language that could get those who utter it in trouble because of its association with gun violence. And the word “picnic” is now verboten because of its association with lynchings.
Schools that want to engage in this kind of speech policing should take a page from their religious counterparts. Colleges and universities who count faith as an integral part of their identity have long issued statements of faith and codes of conduct that explain to students exactly what the university stands for, what ideas students must affirm to attend, what ideas faculty must affirm to be employed, what issues are up for debate and how all members of the community are expected to behave.
At Brigham Young University, for instance, the website alerts potential faculty and students that the school is “founded, supported, and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and that its aim is “to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.” The code of conduct forbids sex outside of marriage, consumption of alcohol and violating the law.
At the evangelical Westmont College in California, the college’s trustees, administrators and faculty must agree to a statement of faith that affirms, “The Lord our God is Triune-one being in three persons-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in co-equal, co-eternal communion. The Lord our God, Creator and Sustainer of all that is, redeems the world from its fallenness and consummates his saving work in a new heaven and a new earth.” They also ask everyone to sign a “community life statement” agreeing to not engage in sexual activity outside marriage, or “drunkenness” or “occult practices.”
It is not that there are never conflicts over what counts as a violation of these faith statements. A few years ago, Wheaton College, another evangelical school in Illinois, fired Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science who wore a hijab during Advent in what she said was a message of solidarity with Muslims. The college says they objected to her assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In a statement the administration noted that “We affirm that salvation is through Christ alone.”
Such incidents are relatively few and far between because most faculty and students at strongly religious institutions know what to expect. They have decided to attend or take a job at a school with a full understanding of what that school stands for and what it would mean to violate that school’s standards. Even the American Association of University Professors doesn’t object to statements of faith for faculty members at religious colleges. The AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure says that limitations of academic freedom because of “religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.”
But shouldn’t this policy also apply to secular institutions? Observers often joke that modern-day wokism is really a kind of religion. You simply have to take certain ideas on faith: Sure it may seem as if there are actual differences between men and women, but gender is just a social construct. Of course, the highest academic achievers in this country are Chinese, Indian and Nigerian, but getting the right answers in math is a sign of white supremacy.
On today’s campuses, a professor can be punished for uttering a word that sounds like an ethnic slur, even if it’s not. Others are fired for political views they express on social media but not to their students. There is no single agreed-upon definition of academic freedom. Frankly, it would be surprising if there was — given the thousands of different institutions of higher education in this country, how many different things they aim to teach and how varied missions are.
But very few institutions are interested in a game of gotcha where someone is lured to a school only to be banished in a very public way. Instead of making potential students and employees engage in a perpetual guessing game about what will get them into trouble, all schools should issue “statements of faith.” And then, well, buyer beware.