The Declining Commitment to Academic Freedom and the Free Exchange of Ideas

J. Martin Rochester

NAS member J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis, has written a case study of the 2015 crisis at the University of Missouri, using it as a window into the declining commitment to diversity, free speech, and academic rigor nationwide.

One might argue that the very concept of “academic freedom” entails allowing faculty to study and teach virtually whatever they want and how they want, at the same time giving students an ever-wider menu of choices in the curriculum—even in an era of scarce budgetary resources, which might suggest a need to assign priorities. However, freedom only goes so far. It has never meant total license. In fact, in many respects personal liberty is increasingly being infringed upon in academia, as seen in the imposition of mandatory cultural competency training for all stakeholders at Mizzou, similar to programs throughout American higher education. These programs bear an unfortunate resemblance to the political reeducation camps of Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

The roots of the current challenge to academic freedom lie half a century in the past. In the 1960s, students challenged authority structures. But today the authority structures are so mired in political correctness that they themselves are enablers of protest. As political correctness took hold in the 1970s, and became ensconced on and off campus, young people became more convinced than ever of the rightness of their cause, indoctrinated or validated by their professors. Mario Salvo’s Berkeley Free Speech Movement degenerated into restrictive campus speech codes in the 1980s and 1990s, which by the new millennium were transforming the university into an academic police state. Bias Response Teams report the most tangential affronts to PC, while Title IX sexual harassment cases proceed against defendants with minimal due process.1 Censoring has replaced censuring, and “hurtful” comments have replaced hateful comments as the mark of unacceptable behavior. The same collegians uttering obscenities at university officials and their peers claim a right not to be “offended” by even the slightest counter to their worldviews or the tiniest “micro-aggressions.” Their psyches are apparently so fragile that they require “trigger warnings” for any idea that might deny them a “safe space.”2 These phrases have now become the ubiquitous, everyday vocabulary of thin-skinned collegians, who have variously been called “snowflakes,” “Little Robespierres,” and “crybullies.”3 They are being coddled in more ways than one.4

As at Mizzou, administrators tend to cave in to protestor demands. There are now limits to free speech so outrageous they leave one almost speechless, as epitomized by the note on University of California president Janet Napolitano’s website instructing faculty to avoid uttering such “microaggressions” as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” At the University of Tennessee and many other institutions, diversity offices, worried about student discomfort with gender-specific pronouns (“he,” “she,” etc.), are urging gender-neutral substitutes (“ze,” “hir,” “xyr,” etc.). The president of Emory went so far as to sympathize with students who felt “endangered” by “Vote Trump in 2016” chalk markings on sidewalks, and authorized investigations of those responsible for such epithets. Following Trump’s victory in November, the Hampshire College administration lowered the American flag to half-staff in the main quad and offered grief counseling services, anticipating an unusually heavy load of post-traumatic stress disorder cases in a college community unable to handle the bombshell result of constitutional democracy. Also in the fall of 2016, a student at Pierce College was barred from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus, since he was held to be outside the school’s designated “free speech zone.” The University of Northern Colorado’s “Language Matters” campaign warned against saying “all lives matter.”5 So much for “courageous conversations.”

Speech is supposed to be protected at public universities by the First Amendment, and at private universities by the traditions of academic freedom. Neither is being defended vigorously at present. This perhaps is seen most clearly in the number of campus speakers being disinvited or prevented by force from speaking. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked such trends in recent years, as “the number of disinvitation attempts from 2000 to 2016 has grown fairly steadily.” FIRE found that 2016 “featured a record number of disinvitations to speakers from colleges and universities, 46 in total.”6 While 14 of these were targeted at Milo Yiannopoulos, the anti-PC provocateur, most involved less provocative figures. It is one thing to try to ban an incendiary provocateur like Yiannopoulos, whose visit to the University of California-Berkeley campus on February 1, 2017 sparked violent rioting. That may be understandable, if inexcusable. However, among those experiencing disinvitations recently have been the following: former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (at Rutgers), former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley (at Brown), International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde (at Smith), human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (at Brandeis), columnist George Will (at Scripps), columnist Jason Riley (at Virginia Tech), and former UC-Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau (at Haverford).7 Virtually all of these and other speaker disinvitations monitored by FIRE came “from the left of the speaker and occurred most often for controversies over racial issues, views on sexual orientation, and views on Islam.”8 Even when conservative speakers appear on campus, they are not assured of being able to deliver their remarks, as seen most recently in the cases of Charles Murray (whose visit to Middlebury College on March 2 was cut short by loud disruptions and physical assaults) and Heather MacDonald (whose lecture at Claremont McKenna College on April 7 was cancelled when protestors blocked the auditorium).

The Middlebury College home page website advertises, in clichéd words, a “commitment to a diverse and respectful community.” And that is the rub; the modern university respects all manner of diversity (racial, ethnic, gender, and otherwise) except the most critical type of diversity that defines the academy—diversity of ideas. As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his 2014 commencement address at Harvard, ”Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.”9

The 2005 report “Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action,” observed that “the most serious challenge for higher education today is the lack of intellectual diversity.”10 Now, more than a decade later, action is long overdue.


  1. On Title IX abuses, see Laura Kipnis, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (New York: Harper, 2017).
  2. There is a huge, growing literature on micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. See, for example, Holmes, op.cit., chapter 6; and Jonathan Zimmerman, Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  3. Roger Kimball, “The Rise of The College Crybullies,” Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2015; “Yale’s Little Robespierres,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2015; and Ben Yagoda, “Who You Calling ‘Snowflake’?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, 2016.
  4. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic (September 2015).
  5. See “UC System Going the Wrong Way on Free Speech,” editorial, Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2015; and Katherine Timpf, “UC Faculty Training: Saying “America Is the Land of Opportunity’ Is a Microaggression,” National Review, June 10, 2015. On the University of Tennessee and other examples, see George Will, “America’s Higher Education Brought Low,” Washington Post, November 25, 2015. On the Emory incident, see Jonathan Turley, “Free Speech Should Not Be Big News,” USA Today, August 30, 2016. Also, see “Hampshire College Draws Protests Over Removal of U.S. Flag,” New York Times, November 28, 2016; “Student Sues Pierce College Over Tiny ‘Free Speech Zone’,” Los Angeles Daily News, March 29, 2017; and Jillian Kay Melchoir, “Censorship Is Free Speech? It Must Be the Class of 1984,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2017. Other incidents are reported in “Studies in Free Speech,” New York Times, June 23, 2016.
  6. Sean Stevens, “Campus Speaker Disinvitations: Recent Trends (Part 1 of 2),” Heterodox Academy blog, January 24, 2017,
  7. See Jason Riley, “I Was Disinvited on Campus,” Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2016; Timothy Egan, “The Commencement Bigots,” New York Times, May 16, 2014.
  8. Sean Stevens, “Campus Speaker Disinvitations: Recent Trends (Part 2 of 2),” Heterodox Academy blog, February 7, 2017, speaker-disinvitations.
  9. Quoted in Ray Sanchez, “Bloomberg: Universities Becoming Bastions of Intolerance,” CNN, May 29, 2014.
  10. “Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action” (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2005).

Image: Auguste Couder - Le Serment du Jeu de Paume, June 20, 1789 [1848] by Gandalf's Gallery // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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