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Perspective: How universities can restore academic freedom and free speech

A set of ideas called the Chicago Trifecta can help higher education return to its primary mission: the pursuit of truth and advancement of knowledge

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The Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University is pictured on Sept. 9, 2016, in New Haven, Conn.

The Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University is pictured on Sept. 9, 2016, in New Haven, Conn.

Beth J. Harpaz, Associated Press

Editor’s note: This column is drawn from the Stanford Free Speech Declaration, of which Robert P. George is one of many signers.

America is blessed with two broad categories of universities: religiously affiliated and non-sectarian. Both make important contributions to the education of America’s young people.

All public universities and many private universities — including Princeton University, where I teach — are non-sectarian. Their primary mission is not to promote a particular set of doctrines. It is to provide a forum in which faculty and students representing a vast range of religious, political and moral opinions can engage each other fruitfully in the pursuit of truth and the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. A robust culture of free speech and academic freedom is essential to that mission.

Unfortunately, academic freedom and freedom of speech are rapidly declining in leading non-sectarian academic institutions, including universities, professional societies, journals and funding agencies.

Researchers whose findings challenge the narratives that have become dominant on campuses find it increasingly hard to get published, funded, hired or promoted. They, and teachers who question prevailing orthodoxies, are harassed in person and online, ostracized, subjected to opaque university disciplinary procedures, fired or “cancelled” by other means.

Employment, promotion and funding are increasingly subject to implicit or explicit political litmus tests, including approval from DEI (“diversity, equity and inclusion”) bureaucrats. Activism is replacing inquiry and truth-seeking discourse and debate. An increasing number of simple facts and ideas cannot even be mentioned without risk of retribution.

Public high-profile victims are the tip of the iceberg. An atmosphere of fear and self-censorship pervades contemporary academia. Many faculty and students believe they cannot voice their views, question political dogmas, investigate certain topics or question the loss of academic freedom without risking ostracism and damage to their careers. Knowledge is lost, and many talented scholars are leaving academia.

Universities and professional societies were created to resist such illiberal forces, which have arisen many times throughout history — from all sides of the political spectrum — and to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. Yet they are failing in this duty.

Crisis of leadership

Many universities and professional organizations now qualify their support for freedom: free speech, they say, so long as nobody feels offended or excluded; free speech, so long as it does not challenge institutionally approved narratives and conceptions of social justice; free speech, but only within narrow credentialed boundaries.

These restrictions are counterproductive, sometimes even to their goal of advancing a particular ideology. People infer from censorship a desire to protect lies from being exposed. Historically, censorship has supported monstrous regimes and their ideologies. Bad ideas are only defeated by argument and persuasion, not by suppression. True justice and freedom cannot exist without each other.

The loss of academic freedom results in part from a leadership crisis. While many university leaders issue statements that support open debate, they nonetheless oversee and expand politicized bureaucracies that harass, intimidate and punish those who express views deemed to be incorrect, and enforce ideological conformity in hiring and promotions.

A boilerplate generic defense of free speech does little good if, at the same time, university administrators conduct investigations in secret, without due process and based on anonymous complaints and if administrators publicly ostracize the victim to all potential future employers. Boards of trustees, alumni organizations, donors, government granting agencies and other institutional stakeholders likewise fail to uphold the principles of academic freedom. 

Universities and professional organizations are instead racing into institutional political and ideological activism. Departments and other university units, despite representing themselves as non-sectarian, make public statements of political views, thus effectively branding as heretics — and even bigots — members who may question those causes.

Increasingly, centers and “accelerators” are devoted to political and policy advocacy, advocacy of the supporting ideologies, and suppression of competing ideas. Professional organizations and journals announce, all too often, that certain kinds of research, no matter how methodologically valid, may not be published and have turned to advocacy. University bureaucracies demand that certain authors, or authors fitting certain descriptions, be included and others excluded from reading lists and classroom discussion.

What can be done?

Non-sectarian universities, academic associations, journals and national academies can and should adopt the “Chicago Trifecta,” consisting of the Chicago Principles of free speech, the Kalven Report requirement of institutional neutrality on political and social matters and the Shils report making academic achievement and promise the sole basis for hiring and promotion.  

In the words of the Kalven Report, “To perform its mission in society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.”

It continues: “While the university is the home and sponsor of critics, it is not itself the critic and therefore cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises … not from lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”

Furthermore, faculty are well-advised to create (or join existing) non-partisan associations aimed at defending these values on campus, and, at a national level, organizations such as Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the Academic Freedom Alliance and Heterodox Academy. Professional organizations should prioritize the defense of academic freedom and free speech of their members.

Freedom is a culture

Many universities have officially adopted the Chicago Principles. Robust structures must be developed to uphold these principles. Faculty under fire from student groups, other faculty, deans and administrators or university staff must be able to effectively assert their freedom of inquiry and expression by appealing to those statements.

Universities must deploy safeguards to ensure that administrators work to uphold these principles rather than to undermine them. University disciplinary procedures must become transparent, following basic centuries-old protections of the accused, such as the right to see and challenge evidence, the right to confront witnesses against them, the right to representation, and the principle of innocence until proven guilty.

University leaders must also promote and institutionalize free speech and academic freedom by concrete actions. Freedom is a culture, not merely a set of rules, and a culture must be nurtured. Free speech, free inquiry, tolerance for opposing views, meeting such views with argument, logic and fact, abstaining from ad-hominem attacks, character assassination, doxing and other unethical behavior must be highlighted in the orientation materials for all new students and employees.

Freedom comes with a culture of responsibility, but responsibilities are better enforced by social norms than by extensive rules enforced by bureaucrats. If community members or groups petition school leaders for the sanction or punishment of a faculty member or a student for expressing a point of view, university leaders should publicly and clearly respond with a statement affirming that the university is a place to discuss and debate all views, and that an attempt to punish others for having “incorrect” views is incompatible with the community standards of the school.

Non-sectarian universities, to be true to their missions, should commit to all students, faculty and employees that they will not punish or sanction free expression.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. This column is drawn from the Stanford Free Speech Declaration, of which he is one of many signers. The Declaration is available here, and members of the public are invited to sign it as well.