The problems of higher education in this country are severe. Tuition has skyrocketed. Core departments have languished while Grievance Studies programs have flourished. Spending on students and faculty has stagnated while administrators hire staffs and raise their salaries. Students go into debt but find that their degrees mean little in the marketplace. Meanwhile, every week seems to bring news of a new instance of collegiate intolerance.
These problems don’t stay on campus. They creep into corporate America, non-profits, and state bureaucracies. They shift our politics in ways that are only now becoming obvious.
President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday afternoon as a first step toward solving these problems. He gave a rousing speech defending intellectual freedom on college campuses. He issued an Executive Order requiring, among other things, state institutions to respect the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech to qualify for federal funding.
Administrators have been quick to say that they already respect the First Amendment. That’s absurd. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rates campus speech policies as compliant with First Amendment jurisprudence (a green light), questionable, depending on the interpretation of those implementing the policy (a yellow light), or facially inconsistent with the law no matter how interpreted (a red light). More than one hundred colleges and universities currently receive a red light, including such well-known institutions as Barnard, Bates, Boston College, Boston University, Bryn Mawr, Case Western, Clemson, Colby, Colgate, Dartmouth, Davidson, Fordham, Georgetown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Louisiana State, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, NYU, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Princeton, Reed, SUNY Albany, Syracuse, Tufts, Tulane, Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame, South Carolina, USC, Texas, Wake Forest, and Wesleyan.
Many not only have unconstitutional policies restricting speech but also fund bureaucracies to enforce them. My own campus has an office employing almost a hundred people to investigate Bias Incident Reports through the action of Bias Incident Response Teams. Sound like SWAT Teams? That’s not an accident. They strike fear into people. They’re meant to. Supposedly, the policies are directed at “hate speech,” a category with no legal status. But what the policies chill is very broad. I know people who have been investigated. One criticized a scholar a feminist admired. One sent fellow graduate students an email asking them to swap sections with him for a week. One faced a complaint from a student who thought he and the other students in the class did not adequately appreciate the brilliance of her comments and questions.
More significant than the incidents that make the press is the speech that doesn’t happen. In large classes, where odds are that a radical student is present, students avoid controversial subjects. They won’t talk about topics with an identity politics edge.
For decades I taught a course called Contemporary Moral Problems, an introduction to ethics and political philosophy focusing on hot-button issues such as abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, welfare, and immigration. It was evenly balanced, including readings on both sides of such questions. I can’t teach it anymore. A course including arguments against abortion? Immigration? Affirmative action? I can’t teach it anymore. It would generate a flurry of Bias Incident Reports. No reasonable person would consider anything in that course hate speech. But we’re not talking about reasonable people. We’re talking about activists rewarded for discovering new sources of outrage.
The President’s order changes the balance of power significantly. Universities face little risk when they institute or enforce illegal policies. Lawsuits are difficult and expensive. They take years. And even a judgment against the institution can seem like a small price to pay to advance a political agenda or satisfy activists.
Withdrawal of federal funding, however, is serious. Research universities depend on the overhead they charge the government for administering grants. The universities whose students were on the podium with the President on Thursday should be afraid. So should all the state institutions with FIRE’s “red light” rating. The next to violate the First Amendment’s protections may see the weight of the federal government descend on it.
Stanley Kurtz captures the power of the Executive Order: "Today, colleges manipulate and evade the law, even when they are called on their bad policies by the courts. But Trump’s order raises the stakes in a way that colleges may no longer be able to ignore. And it creates a dynamic in which the public will demand follow-through on the sort of openly outrageous cases that crop up regularly nowadays."
Exactly. Public outrage can exact a cost. But it’s uncertain. Even when it happens, it’s slow; the administrators responsible often pay no price. There are few ways that the public can exert any influence at all.
Thursday’s action changes all that. Maybe our colleges will learn something about the Constitution.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over 60 articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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