On February 18, Sandra Y. L. Korn, a senior “joint history of science and studies of women, gender and sexuality” major, published an incendiary essay in the Harvard Crimson that quickly caught the attention of many campus observers.1 Under the headline, “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom,” Ms. Korn wrote: “Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.” She proceeded to do just that. (http://www.thecrimson.com/column/the-red-line/article/2014/2/18/academic-freedom-justice/)
Korn’s main point was that permitting free expression of views on campus inevitably means allowing the presentation of ideas that contradict the values of the campus community. Her lead example was the publication in 1971 of Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein’s views on the heritability of IQ, which occasioned—rightly in her view—efforts by the Students for a Democratic Society to disrupt his classes and get him fired.
This attack on academic freedom was based on a premise that has become widespread in contemporary higher education: “No academic question is ever ‘free’ from political realities,” as Korn put it. Everything scholars do is political, either implicitly, as in the support that scholarship may tacitly give existing power structures, or explicitly, as in the efforts of scholars to advance social reform.
Once we take this premise on board, it is a short stroll to the ideas that Korn argues. Since we are engaged in politics no matter what, we should take care to ensure that only the right kind of politics benefits from the prestige and authority of the university. A faculty member who violates the political ideals of the campus should therefore be silenced. Korn’s bracing formulation of this is that “academic justice” is more important than academic freedom.
Korn unabashedly upholds opposing “racism, sexism, and heterosexism” as a campus priority and cannot imagine any valid reason for compromising this “rigorous standard” for anything as porous as “academic freedom.” She cites various examples of opinions that she believes the Harvard community could and should appropriately quash. In addition to Herrnstein’s views on the heritability of IQ, this includes the (“hateful”) views of a particular Indian scholar who writes about Muslims in India. Korn also singles out Prof. Harvey Mansfield, who, she says, may have “the legal right” to publish statements about “ladylike modesty,” but Korn herself would “happily organize with other feminists on campus to stop him from publishing further sexist commentary under the authority of a Harvard faculty position.” She recommends that those who favor an academic boycott of Israel bypass academic freedom objections and focus on academic justice instead.
Korn’s short essay occasioned a great many responses in the conservative and independent press, mostly because of her astonishing candor. It isn’t difficult to find apologists for the academic Left’s domination of college campuses and the illiberal exclusion of alternative views that typically follows from that dominance. But these apologies usually take the form of “We uphold academic freedom, but we must also uphold certain norms…” Korn’s originality lies in her dispensing with the nod to academic freedom. Perhaps she simply recognizes more fully the implications of the everything-is-political premise.
This might be reckoned as a new surge of agreement with Plato’s position in The Republic, in which Socrates is given the argument that, in the pursuit of justice, those who undermine the city’s noble lies must be excluded. In any case, John Stuart Mill’s ideas that intellectual freedom and debate are necessary foundations for a good society seem to have lost much of their grip on campus these days. A new willingness to shut down or even foreclose debate is visible.
In truth, the trampling of academic freedom by forces within the academy has been underway for some time. Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of the American Debate (2012) provided a Cook’s tour of one side of the suppression. But the story is still larger than speech codes and harassment rules. Benchmark cases include Harvard’s firing of president Larry Summers in 2005 and Columbia University’s anemic response to the mobbing of Jim Gilchrist in 2006. To these we can now add the September 2011 mobbing by University of Wisconsin students of a press conference in which the Center for Equal Opportunity’s Roger Clegg was attempting to speak, the swarming by radical students of a trustees’ meeting at Swarthmore in May 2013, and the shouting down at Brown University of New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly in October 2013.
A full account of this trend has yet to be written, but one aspect that deserves close attention is the emergence of rhetoric that justifies the use of force to prevent the expression of someone else’s views. In general, this rhetoric deploys the idea that the speaker who has been silenced enjoyed an unfair advantage and that the protesters were simply using the tools necessary to ensure that the “voice of the voiceless” was heard. The silencing of someone else, in other words, was itself an act of free speech.
I am not clear where this conceit of silencing-in-the-name-of-free-speech originated, but I see it in print in the aftermath of every incident. After the Brown shout-down, for example, an alumna wrote: “I am proud to be part of the community that booed Kelly offstage. Nobody needs to entertain arguments that assert this in any way prevents open discourse.” So wrote Chris Norris-LeBlanc (Class of 2013) in an October 30, 2013, letter to the editor of the Brown Daily Herald. Norris-LeBlanc explained that the protestors were really “trying to preserve…rigor in an academic environment.” That rigor is undermined when a dominant view “is unchallengeable.” “When this happens, freedom of speech is compromised.” (http://www.browndailyherald.com/2013/10/30/letters-community-weighs-protest-cancellation-ray-kelly-lecture/)
In other words, to maintain free speech on campus, it is important to silence some views. As an unnamed Army major told Peter Arnett in Vietnam a long time ago, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
On February 11, the Pew Research Center issued a white paper, The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. Largely based on an October 2013 survey of 2,002 adults, the report is another entry in the long-running debate over the wisdom of American social policy that encourages a large percentage of young people to pursue college degrees. (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2014/02/SDT-higher-ed-FINAL-02-11-2014.pdf)
We have covered this debate in Academic Questions, at the National Association of Scholars national meeting in 2013, and in various other NAS publications. Most recently, Herb London reviewed William Bennett and David Wilezol’s Is College Worth It? (Fall 2013) in which the authors introduce a ranking of colleges based on “return on investment.” The authors of the new Pew report—Paul Taylor, Kim Parker, Rich Morin, Rick Fry, Eileen Pattern, and Anna Brown—do not cite Bennett and Wilezol. Nor do they mention Glenn Harlan Reynolds, whose new book, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is another major expression of skepticism about the prevailing American model of “going to college.” Nor do they mention Richard Vedder and his Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which has issued a series of data-rich analyses of how college graduates are faring in the marketplace.
But Bennett, Wilezol, Reynolds, and Vedder are pretty clearly the predicates of the opening sentence of The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, which refers to “those who question the value of college in this era of soaring student debt and high unemployment.”
Taylor et al. attempt to answer the skeptics with another version of a familiar higher education trope: that college graduates “are outperforming their peers with less education.” The evidence for this outperformance is indeed very strong. Individuals who have a bachelor’s or graduate degree on average make more money than those whose highest educational attainment is an associate’s degree or some college courses; and these individuals in turn make more money on average than those whose highest attainment is a high school diploma. Other measures trend in the same way. The unemployment rate of college graduates is lower, fewer college graduates live in poverty, more college graduates “have a career,” and more are “very satisfied” with their current jobs.
There is some minor mischief with the way the Pew report puts all this together.2 But the larger issue is how Taylor and co-authors conceive the problem. The defense of the existing college system they offer is constructed entirely by way of contrasts between the educated and the less educated. But this is beside the point. No one has been arguing that ignorance is more fulfilling than knowledge, or that attaining credentials from our often mediocre public schools is sufficient preparation for the marketplace. Rather, the critics have been calling for reform of American education, which they argue is over-priced, substantively deficient, and ill-matched both to the needs of students and to the American economy.
Reform might well include developing educational options other than the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree. It may mean we end up with fewer bricks-and-mortar colleges. It may mean thinking about the “credentialing” of individuals in new ways. But it definitely does not mean lowering expectations for the coming generation. The problem with The Rising Cost of Not Going to College is that the authors assume that our choices are limited to more-of-the-same and “not going to college.”
The “sexual harassment” juggernaut continues. The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice in 2013 issued new rules that significantly shifted the burden of proof in cases involving allegations of sexual harassment. The new rules make it difficult for an accused individual to mount a defense, and they provide a strong incentive to colleges to act quickly and decisively against the accused. In his February 28 Real Clear Politics essay, “On College Campuses, a Presumption of Guilt,” Peter Berkowitz summarized a case involving a former Swarthmore College student (“John Doe”) who has brought suit in federal court after being expelled by the college for sexual misconduct. Mr. Doe “contends that 19 months after three separate consensual sexual encounters—a kiss, sexual conduct not including sexual intercourse, and sexual intercourse—a fellow student reported to Swarthmore the first two and claimed she had been coerced.” Swarthmore investigated for two months and dropped the matter, only to reopen it when two other Swarthmore students complained to the Department of Education about the college’s handling of sexual misconduct cases. Citing the new federal “more likely than not” standard of evidence, Swarthmore found Doe guilty and expelled him. He claims his due process rights were trampled by the college. (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2014/02/28/on_college_campuses_a_presumption_of_guilt.html)
In addition to this instance, Berkowitz ranges through some other cases and one breathtaking declaration of principle that achieves a Sandra Korn-like distillation of illiberal philosophy. Amanda Childress, the Dartmouth College Sexual Abuse Awareness Coordinator speaking at a University of Virginia conference on campus sexual misconduct, asked the question, “Why could we not expel a student based on an allegation?” And she answered, essentially, that such expulsions are justified as a preemptive step to protect students. “Higher education is not a right. Safety is a right. Higher education is a privilege.” It is a privilege that, increasingly, can be revoked based on unsubstantiated suspicion.
The Rule of Law Schools
Plunging applications and sharply declining enrollments, large percentages of graduates unable to find suitable employment, cuts in staff, layoffs and buyouts of faculty members, reduction in tuition, scandalous revelations about false reports meant to mislead the public, price wars in local markets: American law schools have had a torrent of bad news in the last few years. We probably should have reviewed Brian Z. Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools when it appeared in 2012, but let’s note it now. Tamanaha, professor of law at Washington University School of Law, was among the first to catch wind of what was happening and was likely to happen to law schools and to put this down on paper. As of the end of 2013, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported that law school enrollments were down 11 percent for the year, and down 24 percent since 2010.3 This precipitous decline follows mostly from public recognition that graduates of law schools face bleak employment prospects. Many large law firms that used to provide a secure destination have folded, while the supply of new lawyers continues to outpace demand. Tamanaha cites figures from 2008 to 2010, when about 19,400 jobs for lawyers were open each year, but law schools were graduating “more than two times that number” (73).
Failing Law Schools analyzes this situation first as a failure of self-regulation. The ABA, which accredits law schools, became a vehicle for ballooning law faculty perquisites while cutting workloads and driving up costs for students. In 2011, when the ABA was momentarily touched by sanity and tried to institute some modest reforms, law faculties across the county erupted in protest. This is mostly the story of an entrenched interest group so unwilling to accommodate needed changes that it has put its whole enterprise at risk. Tamanaha then works his way through the details of shrinking teaching loads that drive the need for more faculty members, which in turn drives the need for more facilities, and more students to pay the bills.
Are law schools the forerunner of what will happen in other sectors of higher education?
This column has for many years worn the rubric of “Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.” The “item” part of that tends to get lost like loose change in a sofa. I have reached in and retrieved some quarters. Or at least some quarter-sized items.
The NAS in conjunction with the Maine Heritage Policy Center held a conference in Brunswick, Maine, on February 6. It was titled “Global Illusions: Bowdoin’s Post-Citizens and the Future of American Higher Education,” and included as speakers KC Johnson, John Fonte, Herbert London, Michael Poliakoff, Susan Shell, and myself.4 Our aim was to follow one thread of our study of Bowdoin College, What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students, by having scholars from a variety of disciplines examine the conceit of “global citizenship” in detail. It was intellectually a significant success and well-attended.5 We had, however, hoped to draw a considerable number of Bowdoin students and faculty members. To that end, we waived the registration fee for members of the Bowdoin community and asked only that they cross the street to the Inn at Brunswick Station.6
Alas, few did.7
Which left us with a surplus of mementos. We have “Global Citizenship” and “Citizen of the World” buttons, with the universal strike-through red line announcing disapproval. We also have handsome images of polar bears—Bowdoin’s mascot—wearing American flags on their fur. I have stowed the extras in plastic bins in my glass-front lawyer’s bookshelf between copies of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, The Federalist Papers, Getting under the Skin of Diversity, and a Library of America edition of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.
Available upon request while supplies last.