OR…Is it okay to yell “FIRE” in a crowded classroom?
Nothing happens in isolation. Perhaps the best and most recent example is the a movement initiated at the University of Chicago to defend freedom of speech and expression on college campuses. A statement of principles is at the center of this movement, based on a report by the University’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, whose charge was to “draft a statement articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”
As someone who spent nine years on the faculty of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and attended lectures and presentations ranging from the Dalai Lama to Christopher Hitchens to Ann Coulter, in principle, I could not agree more. Students and faculty should be exposed to the broadest range of opinion with certain exceptions, several of which are noted in the statement of principles.
The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.
However, as stated above, nothing happens in a vacuum. Where else is the integrity of higher education under fire? One prominent example is efforts by conservatives and the Republican party to paint universities as liberal “madrasas.” Not surprising, Donald Trump, who admits he “loves the undereducated,” is leading this crusade, having Tweeted on July 10, 2020:
Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education. Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status…
Perhaps, the most pointed attack came from Bill O’Reilly in a June 2013 essay in the South Florida SunSentinel titled, “Liberal indoctrination poisoning our colleges.”
There is no question that liberal indoctrination is a fact of life on most American college campuses. Tenure means never having to say you’re sorry or you’re wrong. And, overwhelmingly, tenured college teachers are liberal. They dominate and intimidate their students.
If you go up against them, your grade often suffers. There is a tyranny in higher education that is gravely harming this nation.
Of course, O’Reilly did not present evidence of an actual instance in which a specific student was unfairly graded by a liberal professor.
Which brings me back to the “Chicago principles” and what they do not say, in particular the mission of higher education. In my case, as a professor of entrepreneur, I never believed I had all the answers. When students came to me with what they thought was a good business idea, my answer was always, “If I was that smart, I would have bought Netflix at $18 a share.” Instead, we talked about how to assess an opportunity and make a calculated assessment whether the potential reward outweighed the risk. More generically, the goal was always to train students to explore, seek out information, analyze and assess.
If students are given the opportunity to pursue the truth, maybe it is something other than a liberal conspiracy that educated young men and women tend to be more progressive, liberal or whatever you want to call it. Consider the following.
- According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as of June 2019, the richest 10 percent of Americans hold 69.4 percent of the nation’s total net worth.
- In August 2019, the Economic Policy Institute reported CEO compensation rose 1,007.5 percent since 1978 compared to 11.9 percent for the average worker. CEOs now make 278 times the average worker.
- When compared to the 10 most highly developed western countries, the United States spends twice as much on health care as a share of its economy and has the lowest life expectancy among the 11 nations.
- In December 2019, the Institution and Economic Policy found 60 Fortune 500 companies with combined 2018 profits of $79 billion paid no federal income tax.
When you look at the data, why would curious, thinking young people NOT ask themselves, “Does this make sense? Should there not be some balance?”
Yet many who are championing the free speech and expression movement as presented in the “Chicago principles,” simultaneously label this kind of intellectual curiosity as socialism or worse. Instead of engaging in the debate, they demean it.
Which brings me to my final concern, the golden rule. Not the universal one about treating your neighbor as you want them to treat you, but the one that says, “He who has the gold, makes the rules.” With the exception of the most heavily endowed universities, higher education in the United States is on the precipice of financial collapse. And pressure to find new sources of revenue could lead to rescues by benefactors with an agenda, as is now the case with local media. White knights always seem to have a dark side also.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE) has taken a lead role in promoting adoption of the “Chicago principles” at other colleges and university. One activity is the awarding of ratings based on their assessment whether an institution has policies which “seriously infringe on student speech rights.” Of the two co-founders, one clerked for Justice Samuel Alito and the other is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. Yet, Alito and Cato are famous for opposing centralized oversight of any other aspects of society. As Roger Miller might sing, “Hypocrisy swings like a pendulum do.”
This is one more example where we might want to heed then Senator Joe Biden’s 1974 declaration, “When someone says ‘Power to the People,’ they really mean power to MY people.”
When recently discussing this issue with a colleague, he used the example of a professor at our university who, in class, passed out campaign material for a specific candidate. I agreed this was improper, but it is completely different from the free speech issue. Particularly, in the case of a public university, this could easily be addressed with passage of legislation similar to the federal Hatch Act which prohibits political activity by public employees while “on the clock,” including professors at state-supported institutions.
For what it’s worth.