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Envisioning a Promised Land of Academic Freedom on MLK Day

Envisioning a Promised Land of Academic Freedom on MLK Day
Harvard University (Getty Images)

Patrice Lee Onwuka By Friday, 12 January 2024 12:56 PM EST Current | Bio | Archive

“I've been to the mountaintop. … And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. closed his final speech the day before his assassination with this biblical reference.

Meant to inspire the nonviolent movement forward with or without him, he envisioned an America that would make good on the promises enshrined in its founding documents.

Today, amid the bigotry and violent rhetoric in our society, the promise of America’s greatness requires that we return again to these unifying values that divisive ideologies have destroyed. May the traverse into this promised land begin with academia.

The resignation of Harvard University’s President Claudine Gay following public outcry against the school’s response to antisemitism is stunning. Last fall, more than 1,600 Harvard alumni threatened to pause their donations to the university, and Gay faced even more heated criticism over her testimony at a congressional hearing on the topic.

In the wake of her resignation, it’s worth examining whether the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) criteria many elite universities have adopted have undermined the core mission of higher education: to pursue truth, freely exchange ideas, teach and learn.

This conceptual framework, which sprouted from higher education and has gained popularity in business, government and other spheres, purports to promote “the fair treatment and full participation of all people, especially populations that have historically been underrepresented.” Instead, censorship and cancellation — from disinviting speakers over their views on hot-button issues, to revoking acceptances over memes and social media posts — are running rampant in academia.

Despite its ranking as a top school in the nation, Harvard scored dead last for free speech and academic freedom by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). This decades-long shift away from the pursuit of objectivity and truth to an obsession with culture and race is now playing out in destructive ways on the quad and in society.

Recently, observers were left wondering how Harvard students could chant “long live the intifada” and “globalize the intifada,” why a tenured Columbia professor would call images of Hamas paragliders “awesome” or why New York University students would tear down posters of missing Israeli hostages.

More alarming, Gay and two other elite university presidents could not — or would not — answer a lawmaker’s question of whether students calling for the genocide of Jews violates their university’s code of conduct.

These students and academics have undoubtedly engaged in ample training about sensitive conversations, offensive or hurtful words, and noninclusive behavior. Were empathy and sympathy not values of DEI programming? Is safety and equality only for some?

From his Birmingham prison cell, King warned of a “frightening racial nightmare” if Blacks abandoned nonviolent protest for Black nationalism.

This period feels dark, but as King said in his “Mountaintop” speech, “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

The removal of one or two college professors will not turn academia back to its core mission. However, institutions and donors can look to points of light to lead them in a better direction.

Here are some important reminders:

Enforce codes of conduct equally. Acts of violence and threats directed at individuals should be punished. Disruptive behavior that prevents speakers from being heard, such as occupying buildings, shouting down speakers, and interrupting classes warrants a response from schools. The content of the speech should not matter.

Commit to intellectual freedom. Can we dispense with the hiring and management practices that police speech and create echo chambers rather than forums for debate?

Affirm a commitment to faculty members’ freedom of thought and expression in their work by refraining from chastising or canceling them. Eliminate mandatory DEI statements that are a litmus test rather than an authentic commitment to intellectual freedom as a condition of employment.

Banish codes and other infringements on constitutional expression. Philanthropic donors should also support organizations that help students and academics fight back when censored by their universities.

Adopt viewpoint diversity. Gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation diversity are crude proxies for the diversity of thought that enriches groups and outcomes. ​​Over half of professors identify as liberal and about a quarter identify as conservative, according to FIRE. At Harvard, that ratio is far more dramatic.

Universities can be proactive in seeking faculty with diverse views and incentivizing departments to pursue greater diversity. Donors and higher education grantmakers should consider funding academic centers dedicated to specific values, such as free expression and opportunity.

It took decades for academia to become the free-speech wilderness. Since then, generations of young people have wandered through intellectual darkness. Blinded by ideology, they are being deprived of the free pursuit of truth and open exchange of ideas.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we cannot sit back and hope they will find the light, but instead must guide them to it.

Patrice Lee Onwuka is a political commentator and director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is also an adjunct senior fellow with the Philanthropy Roundtable and a Tony Blankley Fellow at The Steamboat Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @PatricePinkFile Read Patrice Lee Onwuka's Reports — More Here.

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Despite its ranking as a top school in the nation, Harvard scored dead last for free speech and academic freedom by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
academics, martin luther king
Friday, 12 January 2024 12:56 PM
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