In December 2021, the University Committee on Academic Freedom at the University of California (UC) submitted a formal policy proposal to UC’s Academic Senate that would allow academic departments to “issue or endorse statements on political issues in the name of the department.” If approved by the Academic Senate, the policy would go into effect on all ten campuses in the UC system.
The irony of such a proposal coming forth from the so-called “Committee on Academic Freedom” should not be lost on those engaged in the nationwide battle for free speech on college campuses. Make no mistake—the Committee's ill-conceived policy proposal would undermine academic freedom, not enhance it. The Committee members acknowledged this fact themselves, admitting that political statements “have the potential to chill or intimidate minority views.” However, they maintained that such a chilling effect is of no concern provided the political statements “make clear that they are not intended to represent the views of the University as a whole.”
Anyone who is familiar with the intricacies of campus politics knows that fine print indicating that a statement “does not reflect the views of the university” is all but meaningless—especially when the statement comes blasting through the university’s megaphone. Students and faculty will quickly get the memo: if you want to be in the department’s good graces, you must fall in line with their political views, however extreme they may be. Never mind the winnowing effect that such statements will have on potential hires within the department. Those on the academic job market whose political opinions do not align with the majority in the department will quickly realize that they are not welcome.
The proposal has not gone unnoticed: over 100 faculty members from UC campuses have signed a letter, drafted by Computer Science & Engineering Professor Ethan L. Miller, opposing the proposal. The letter details the problems with the proposal and explains the threat that it poses to freedom of speech and to the mission of the university:
Diversity of thought and opinion is critical to a well-functioning university. Difference of opinion with existing beliefs is necessary to advancing new beliefs in all fields. Allowing departments and other University units to formally endorse political views will allow them to intimidate contrarian voices into silence, limiting individual free speech and stifling the pursuit of new knowledge. This is completely opposite to the purpose of a university as a center for the discovery and preservation of knowledge.
The National Association of Scholars applauds Dr. Miller and his colleagues for their commitment to fighting for freedom of speech for all faculty members, regardless of whether their views are shared by others in their department. We encourage any NAS members who are formally connected with the University of California to sign the letter before it is sent to the Academic Senate on March 17th, 2022. More information about the proposal and the chilling effect it would have on campus speech is available at this website.
If you are not associated with the University of California, we still encourage you to read the letter and to share it with those in your circle. New methods of attacking free speech tend to spread from campus to campus, and it is important to keep a watchful eye on any attempts to stifle dissent. In order to combat this spread, we must insist that university departments and administrators alike remain politically neutral in their public pronouncements.
Marina Ziemnick is a Communications Associate at the National Association of Scholars.