Part 1 of this essay outlined six major threats to free speech at university, focusing on institutions in the UK and US: first, speech codes, speech guidelines and free speech zones; second, no-platforming of external speakers; third, bullying of academics by student activists, other academics and university administrators; fourth, harassment, intimidation or abuse of academics by external actors; fifth, formal sanctions imposed on academics by department heads, university administrators and academic journals; and sixth, self-censorship. Part 2 of this essay discusses proposals that have been made for how to counteract threats to free speech on campus. Some of these proposals are of a general nature, while others are specifically designed to address one or more of the threats listed above. The essay will therefore begin with those of the former kind, and proceed to discuss those of the latter kind.
Putting Pressure on Institutions
The first proposal for how to safeguard free speech on campus is raising awareness about the nature of the problem, and encouraging free-speech-minded academics, donors and other stakeholders to pressure their institutions into action. One of the people who has done most to raise awareness about threats to free speech on campus in recent years is, of course, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt. (Among other things, he co-founded Heterodox Academy with the legal scholar Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, and co-authored The Coddling of the American Mind with FIRE President Greg Lukianoff.) In two scholarly lectures, Haidt outlines the fundamental choice facing universities at the present time, and explains what they can do going forward to protect the values of free speech, open debate and academic freedom.
In the first of Haidt’s lectures, entitled Two Incompatible Sacred Values at American Universities, he reminds us of the concept of telos, that is, the end or purpose to which an institution is directed. And in this regard, he presents the shields of two of America’s leading Ivy League institutions: Yale’s, which reads Lux et veritas (meaning Light and truth); and Harvard’s, which simply reads Veritas (meaning Truth). These inscriptions would seem to imply that the relevant institutions were founded with the aim of pursuing the truth above all else. However, Haidt argues that some American universities have recently adopted a new telos––in place of, or in addition to, truth––namely social justice. He suggests that those universities should now be placed in a similar category to the private religious colleges, such as Wheaton in Massachusetts, which openly admit to having goals other than the abstract pursuit of truth. For example, Wheaton’s mission statement declares that the College “serves Jesus Christ and advances His Kingdom through excellence in liberal arts”. Haidt concludes that many American universities now face a fundamental choice of whether to retain truth as their ultimate aim, or to adopt social justice in its place.
In the second of Haidt’s lectures, entitled Why a Twenty-First Century Enlightenment Needs Walls, he invokes the ocean liner as a metaphor for civil society, suggesting that each compartment along the ship’s cross-section can be seen as a different institution (i.e. one compartment is the family; one is religion; one is the academy, etc.). And just as an ocean liner will be at risk of sinking if water flooding into one compartment breaches another compartment, so civil society will be at risk of breaking if norms that emerged in one institution take hold of another institution. Haidt argues that, in the last few years, the norms of politics and activism have been flooding into the academy, and that––as a result––many people on campus now see universities primarily as vehicles for social change, rather than as places for learning and research. He concludes that, in order to prevent further damage to the academy, we need to shore up the metaphorical “walls” separating it from neighbouring institutions. And this means reasserting the importance of traditional academic norms, including an emphasis on reason and civility, as well as fostering viewpoint diversity as a way to overcome confirmation bias.
The current scale of Social Justice activism on campus, and the corresponding backlash from conservatives and Republicans off campus, might suggest that Haidt and his colleagues are fighting a losing battle. However, there are plenty of things that academics and other stakeholders can do to put pressure on universities. Academics can write articles highlighting the importance of open inquiry and viewpoint diversity, and can signal their commitment to these values by joining relevant civil society organisations. Donors can express their dissatisfaction by withholding gifts, or by indicating that gifts will be conditional on an institution’s continued support for free speech. And prospective students can vote with their feet by eschewing institutions that maintain speech codes, kowtow to activists, or otherwise fail to support the free exchange of ideas.
Taking Away Funding
The second proposal for how to safeguard free speech on campus is the one recently proposed by US President Donald Trump, namely requiring universities to uphold free speech in order to receive federal research funding. (In a speech announcing his executive order, the president noted that, despite receiving “billions and billions of dollars from taxpayers,” universities “have become increasingly hostile to free speech” and have tried to “shut down the voices of great young Americans.”) However, it is not yet clear exactly how the proposal would work: important questions such as how universities will be monitored, and what kinds of violations will be punishable, remain unanswered. Unsurprisingly, many colleges have already expressed their opposition. For example, The American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,700 college presidents, has reportedly described it as “a solution in search of a problem.”
At a conference held in London earlier this year, the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton went further, suggesting that one could “get rid of universities altogether”. He proceeded to clarify what he meant by this, specifically that one could “make sure their sources of funding dry up”. In his remarks, Scruton noted that “we don’t want to lose all the scientific advances that universities produce and which are necessary to a modern economy”. However, he argued that funding for other areas of scholarship could not be so easily justified by appeal to the notion of a public good. Indeed, large swathes of the humanities have recently come under intense criticism, following the much-publicised Grievance Studies Affair. This was where Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Areo‘s editor Helen Pluckrose managed to get a series of hoax papers published in supposedly respectable journals in fields like Gender Studies, Race Studies and Fat Studies. One of the papers they got published was a rewritten version of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which had the title Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism.
While I am not aware of any systematic analysis of the phenomenon, circumstantial evidence suggests that scholars from the humanities and qualitative social sciences are substantially over-represented in activism, including anti-free speech activism, on campus. First, reading through lists of signatories on academic petitions and open letters, one encounters a disproportionate number from the humanities and qualitative social sciences, especially fields like Gender Studies, Critical Race Theory and Postcolonial Studies. Second, analyses of voter registration data indicate that these academic disciplines have among the lowest levels of viewpoint diversity. In a 2018 study, Mitchell Langbert found that the ratio of Democrat to Republican professors was less than 6:1 in fields like engineering, economics and mathematics, but that it was ~44:1 in sociology, 133:1 in anthropology and 108:0 in interdisciplinary studies. Third, according to recent faculty surveys carried out by Mark Horowitz and colleagues, large percentages of both sociologists and anthropologists see activism as integral to their work. For example, 59% of sociologists agreed that, “A central aim of sociology should be to analyze and transcend all forms of social oppression,” while 43% of anthropologists disagreed that, “Advocacy and fieldwork should be kept as separate as possible to help protect the objectivity of the research.” It is also worth noting that many of the concepts commonly invoked by anti-free speech activists, such as white privilege and epistemic violence, originated in the so-called theoretical humanities.
Although Trump’s proposal is still somewhat inchoate, the principle on which it is based does not seem at all unreasonable, namely that taxpayers’ money should only go to institutions that actually fulfil their obligations to protect free speech. One would also presume that the policy––if correctly designed and properly enforced––would have a deterrent effect. (It is altogether easier to recall one’s obligations, as a department head or university administrator, when faced with the prospect of a financial loss for not fulfilling them.) Of course, Trump’s proposal would be unlikely to stymie threats such as low-level bullying, sanctions by academic journals and self-censorship. But it could easily serve alongside other measures designed to counteract those particular threats. Scruton’s suggestion––that is, of selectively defunding certain disciplines––will be seen by some as excessive or unwarranted, although others will say not a moment too soon. Its appeal will depend mostly on one’s assessment of how much work in the relevant disciplines has genuine scholarly merit, and hence whether one believes the disciplines are, in a sense, salvageable.
Setting Up New Universities
The third proposal for how to safeguard free speech on campus is one that has previously been championed by the psychologist and anti-PC campaigner Jordan Peterson, namely setting up new universities as competitors to the existing ones. This proposal is based on the Econ 101 principle that, if an industry is delivering a low quality product––say, a university education in which certain ideas cannot be discussed––then one might stand to gain by entering that industry and offering a higher quality product––say, a university education in which all ideas can be discussed. Setting up a new institution committed to free speech would not only allow one to pick up the proverbial $100 bill on the sidewalk, but would presumably also incentivise existing institutions to make changes, thereby improving the general quality of education available. Peterson’s original idea was to establish the new university online, based on the premise that “there’s absolutely no reason why high quality education can’t be made available to masses of people at low cost.” As to how such an institution might be funded, Peterson suggested that there could be “a monthly subscription that would help pay for the content, but the primary source of revenue would be on the accreditation end.”
Peterson’s idea will no doubt be appealing to people who are fed up with the stifling atmosphere and questionable course content at existing universities. However, there are at least two major obstacles to its success. The first is that existing universities do not simply provide education to their students (in the form of lectures, seminars and examinations) but in fact provide them with a whole bundle of goods, including opportunities to live away from home, socialise with new people, look for a potential spouse, pursue extracurricular activities and participate in intramural sport. (In other words, most universities today have considerable consumption value, in addition to their putative investment value.) While administering lectures and examinations online is presumably quite easy, supplying all the other goods with which education is usually bundled strikes one as considerably more difficult. This problem is compounded by the coordination dynamics that characterise educational choices: young people’s decisions about where to go to university will to some extent be determined by where other young people are going, and the current equilibrium is for almost everyone to attend a three- or four-year college.
The second obstacle is that students tend to select universities based on their overall “prestige”, rather than on the quality of teaching they provide, which––after all––cannot really be observed. The most prestigious institutions are generally the oldest ones, such as Oxbridge and the Ivy League, which command large endowments, boast scores of famous alumni and offer coveted Gothic-style quadrangles. Why would prospective students pay more attention to prestige than to teaching quality? The reason will be familiar to anyone who has studied labour economics (or has read Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education), namely that going to university may not actually do very much to improve an individual’s human capital. According to the so-called signalling model of education, the value of a university degree derives more from what it conveys about an individual’s underlying characteristics––such as intelligence, work ethic and willingness to conform––than from any lasting impact it has on the individual’s knowledge or skills. Insofar as this is true, it makes sense to select a university whose degrees are already known to signal high productivity, which means choosing one that is prestigious and hard to get into. With someone like Peterson at the helm, a new online university might stand a fighting chance in the fierce competition over prestige. But luring large numbers of students away from places like Oxford, Harvard and MIT would surely be an uphill battle.
The fourth proposal for how to safeguard free speech on campus is one that was mentioned in a recent article by FIRE President Greg Lukianoff, namely using pre-commitment devices as a way to forestall demands for censorship. Why pre-commitment devices? The situation in which university administrators find themselves when faced with a jeering mob of activists trying to, say, de-platform a speaker or get an academic fired is one that economists refer to as time inconsistency. Administrators would prefer to abide by a policy of never giving in to demands for censorship. However, as soon as a protest does arise––and activists begin hurling invective and using other forms of emotional blackmail to get what they want––administrators may decide that is preferable to simply do the activists’ bidding. (Abandoning one’s commitment to free speech may not be particularly commendable, but at least it makes the profanity and intimidation stop.) Under these circumstances, the most effective strategy for administrators is to find some way of pre-committing to not give into activists’ demands. And if they do manage to credibly pre-commit, activists will have less incentive to stage protests and launch petitions in the first place. As Lukianoff notes, “policies should be adopted publicly and conspicuously before a controversy arises.”
What kind of pre-commitment devices might a university employ? One option, recommended by FIRE, is to endorse what has become known as the Chicago Statement––a declaration on the importance of freedom of expression, drafted by the University of Chicago in 2015. As of November 2019, 70 US colleges have adopted some version of the statement, which could certainly be considered a promising start. However, one might ideally want something slightly more succinct for colleges to endorse. While there is very little to disagree with in the statement––it makes the case for free speech eloquently and forcefully––the document comprises 10 paragraphs and over 800 words in total. Another potential drawback of the statement is that it does not explicitly address the problem of universities being exhorted to officially denounce or disavow things. Indeed, one common tactic used by activists is to call for an institution to “issue a public statement” distancing itself from a particular person, article or idea of which they happen to disapprove. (Such statements are, unfortunately, all too often forthcoming.)
In light of these considerations, an alternative declaration might read as follows: This university is committed to freedom of speech. Except where bound to do so by law, it will not sanction any individual on account of his or her expressed beliefs. Individuals may speak freely on campus so long as they do not threaten, intimidate or harass others. The university does not issue statements commenting on the speech of particular individuals. Such a declaration would be sufficiently concise––and correspondingly emphatic––that it could be pinned on bulletin boards, appended to university documents, or quoted in official emails. If a situation ever arose in which activists were calling for a speaker to be de-platformed, or for an academic to be fired, university administrators could calmly point to the declaration and say, “What you are demanding is inconsistent with our policy on freedom of speech, which we have been so kind as to make you fully aware of in advance.”
An important caveat to the preceding analysis is that a key assumption on which it is based may not be entirely correct. Specifically, it is not always true that “Administrators would prefer to abide by a policy of never giving in to demands for censorship.” As the political scientist Sam Abrams has pointed out, university administrators (a group that skews even further left than professors) often actively encourage student activism. At his own institution, Sarah Lawrence College, the Office of Student Affairs has apparently organised many “overtly progressive events,” including programs like Stay Healthy, Stay Woke and Understanding White Privilege. Abrams’ account is consistent with the observations of Steven Pinker, who has argued that many illiberal antics “come from a radical fringe of students, egged on by an autonomous student-life bureaucracy.” In one particularly egregious case of administrative complicity, two of the activists who importuned Professor Nicholas Christakis in the quadrangle of Silliman College, Yale, were subsequently awarded “race relations” prizes for their efforts. And as Heather MacDonald notes, not a single student “was ever disciplined or even reprimanded for the grotesque insubordination showed to Christakis.” The implication of all this is that pre-commitment devices can only work if administrators actually want to use them.
Academic Freedom Champions
The fifth proposal for how to safeguard free speech on campus is one that was put forward in a recent report by the political scientists Tom Simpson and Eric Kaufmann, namely to appoint what they call Academic Freedom Champions at both universities and England’s national regulatory body (The Office for Students). What exactly would these Academic Freedom Champions do? In the case of universities, they would be endowed with four main responsibilities: to “investigate complaints of political discrimination” and “recommend actions as appropriate”; to “investigate allegations, by whistle-blowers, of political discrimination on academic appointments and promotion committees”; to compile an annual report on the state of academic freedom at their institution; and “to examine and as appropriate revise existing policies and codes of practice.” In the case of England’s national regulatory body, the Academic Freedom Champion would have two main responsibilities: “to investigate allegations of academic-freedom violations” at specific institutions; and to “lead on enhanced monitoring requirements or other sanctions” for institutions where such allegations were shown to have merit.
The key advantage of Simpson and Kaufmann’s proposal is that it would give the principle of academic freedom the kind of broad institutional support that is already enjoyed by the principles of “equality” and “diversity”. As the authors note, without such institutional support, “the clear danger is that expansive interpretations of the demands of equality and diversity, which in practice serve to legitimise political discrimination, will be given de facto priority.” However, this could also be seen as the proposal’s main downside. By establishing a bureaucratic infrastructure around the principle of academic freedom that, in the authors’ words, would be “separate” from existing infrastructure around the principles of equality and diversity, the proposal effectively concedes that academic freedom is just one of several principles—as opposed to the only principle—that universities should seek to promote. Of course, the authors might argue that––whatever one’s view about the roles of equality and diversity at university––those principles are here to stay, so one might as well try to prevent them from encroaching on academic freedom any further than they already have. While this argument is by no means unreasonable, many will refuse to accept that universities should be concerned about equality and diversity at all, and would prefer to dismantle existing infrastructure than to expand it still further.
Academic Freedom Metrics
The sixth proposal for how to safeguard free speech on campus is one that was put forward in a recent article by the academics Mohan Dutta, Richard Ashford and Shampa Biswas, namely incorporating some measure of academic freedom into university rankings. (Note that the same proposal was independently made by Simpson and Kaufmann in their aforementioned report.) Dutta, Ashford and Biswas begin with an example. Despite the fact that the University of Illinois went through a multi-year scandal (involving protests, a mass boycott and censure by the American Association of University Professors) after a job offer to Professor Steven Salaita was controversially rescinded, its position in the U.S. News & World Report’s national university rankings hardly budged. The authors contend that what happened at Illinois should have been reflected in a fall in the university’s position, given how crucial professorial free speech is to the mission of higher education.
How might a measure of academic freedom be incorporated into university rankings? As Dutta, Ashford and Biswas note, one component of the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking is “expert opinion,” which is apparently based on a survey of high-level administrators. One option would therefore be to add questions dealing with academic freedom to this survey, or––alternatively––to carry out a new, purpose-built survey. Yet the authors are sceptical that a survey-based measure would work, noting that high-level administrators “are often more concerned about the public reputations of institutions” than about the principle of academic freedom (an observation with which it is difficult to disagree). Another option––to which the authors are more favourable––would be to code universities for the presence of things like institutional statements supporting academic freedom, robust policies for dealing with alleged violations, and “active AAUP chapters that are integrated into shared governance mechanisms.” One could also code them for the presence of things like speech codes, as FIRE does in its own annual rankings (see Part 1 of this essay). In addition, one might impose ad hoc penalties on universities that had disinvited speakers or sanctioned academics in the previous year.
Of course, any measure of academic freedom on which universities were ranked––particularly one that took into account actual incidents of censorship––would be open to being gamed. In particular, universities would have an incentive to pay lip service to the importance of academic freedom, whilst at the same time working to minimise the risk of controversies arising in the first place. They might, for example, “encourage” hiring committees and admissions offices to opt for “low risk” candidates. However, although such unintended consequences cannot be strictly ruled out, the benefits of incorporating measures of academic freedom into university rankings––and thereby holding institutions accountable––seem very likely to outweigh the costs. And given that there are multiple national and international university rankings, each of which would presumably adopt a slightly different measure of academic freedom, it might be difficult for an institution to simultaneously game all of them.
The seventh proposal for how to safeguard free speech on campus is one that was recently advocated by the historian Niall Ferguson, namely setting up an academic equivalent of NATO. As Ferguson notes, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty––which was originally established in order to check Soviet geopolitical expansionism––famously states that “an armed attack against one or more of [the members] shall be considered an attack against them all.” By virtue of this stipulation, the treaty aims to achieve what is known as collective defence. And an academic NATO would work in exactly the same way. All intellectual dissidents who felt threatened would sign up to an agreement whereby each of them would promise to publicly defend any other who happened to come under attack by activists. (As Ferguson puts it, “we either hang together or we hang separately.”) Signatories would not be required to mount a public defence of the impugned individual’s entire corpus of work, but simply of his right to express his beliefs free from harassment, intimidation and loss of livelihood.
One mechanism by which an academic NATO might achieve collective defence is by quickly organising petitions––or indeed counter-petitions––in defence of beleaguered academics. These petitions would primarily serve to reassure the impugned individual that she had the support of her peers. And since there is strength in numbers, they would assist in overcoming what Lukianoff and Haidt call “fear of defending the accused.” Counter-petitions might also help to deter future cancellation attempts by demonstrating that there is widespread opposition to them. After I was fired from St Edmund’s College––following a five-month investigation and a censorious open letter––Quillette’s editor Claire Lehmann kindly organised a petition in support of me, which was eventually signed by over 600 scholars. Counter-petitions have been deployed in other cases too. For example, when historian Rachel Fulton-Brown was denounced in an open letter that referred to her “ignorance of basic theoretical principles of race theory,” the National Association of Scholars (a conservative advocacy group) organised its own open letter defending her. Of course, academic disputes should not be settled via an endless series of petitions and counter-petitions. The point is that fire must sometimes be fought with fire. (A good rule of thumb might be to avoid signing any petition unless it is to defend an academic against another petition.)
Ferguson put forward the idea of an academic NATO in a newspaper column earlier this year. Since then, the journalist Toby Young has sought to create a similar––though not identical––organisation himself. Young’s proposal is to establish what he calls The Free Speech Union (as he informed me in an email), which would function as a trade union for people concerned that their speech rights might come under threat. He envisions that the organisation would provide members with “access to an approved list of defamation and employment lawyers, expert guidance on how to crowdfund their legal costs, access to lists of potential donors, PR advice on how to generate favorable media coverage [and] access to a network of sympathetic colleagues, many of whom will have been through a similar ordeal.” So far as security is concerned, Young notes that there would be no computerized database of members. “Just a single hard copy, locked in a safe.” While Young’s organisation is not yet fully up and running, he is currently soliciting interest from potential members.
The eighth suggestion for how to safeguard free speech on campus is the one proposed last year by the philosophers Francesca Minerva, Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer, namely creating a new journal with the express aim of fostering debate around contentious subjects. The journal these academics have founded, and for which they will soon be issuing a call for papers, is named the Journal of Controversial Ideas. The idea for the project came from Francesca Minerva, who in 2012 had her own run-in with controversy when she co-authored a paper (with Alberto Giubilini) dealing with the ethics of after-birth abortion. Giubilini and Minerva’s paper––which offers a sober philosophical analysis of a complex moral issue––not only provoked a deluge of threatening emails (which have continued to the present day), but also led to each of them losing academic job opportunities. For example, Minerva was apparently told by a member of one hiring panel that “some colleagues were strongly opposed to the views expressed in the paper” and for that reason were opposed to hiring her.
The purpose of the Journal of Controversial Ideas is to enable academics to publish articles that some people might consider “offensive, immoral or dangerous” and––in particular––to help them do so “without fear of harassment.” One innovation of the journal is that authors will have the option to publish under a pseudonym, which should––if anonymity is preserved––protect them from threats and attempted cancellations by bad actors. As the founders note, anonymity will permit “young, untenured or … vulnerable academics,” who might otherwise be deterred from publishing, to put forward ideas without fear for their personal safety or professional livelihood. (Some academics might choose to claim credit for their papers later, once they could be confident that doing so would not pose any risk to their careers.) However, the founders’ decision to offer anonymity has come under criticism, with some observers claiming that it will enable authors to publish highly contentious articles without “taking responsibility” or “being held accountable” for them.
In response to this criticism, the founders have made a number of points. First, there is considerable precedent for the use of pseudonyms, pen-names or noms de plume in intellectual writing, one of the most famous examples being free-speech advocate George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair). Second, “ideas”––as McMahan puts it––“must ultimately stand or fall on their own merits”; better for an interesting idea to be put into the public square anonymously––where it can be explored, debated and potentially refuted––than for it not to be discussed at all. Third, since publishing an article under a pseudonym is not going to advance an individual’s career, at least not initially, it is unlikely one would take the time to do such a thing unless one believed the ideas in question were truly important and worthy of wider consideration. And fourth, submissions to the journal will apparently undergo an “unusually scrupulous process of peer and editorial review”.
Another, rather different criticism to which the Journal of Controversial Ideas has been subjected is that it represents “a capitulation” to the academic culture that motivated Minerva, McMahan and Singer to establish it in the first place. The scholars who put forward this criticism––Bradley Campbell and Clay Routledge––acknowledge the founders’ good intentions, but argue that there is a risk of the journal creating a new “narrative” of victimhood around academic censorship itself. While Campbell and Routledge’s concern should be taken seriously, the mechanism by which such a narrative might emerge is not entirely clear. Indeed, the sense of solidarity felt by two people who are both cancelled for publishing academic articles is unlikely to be substantially greater just because those articles were published in the same journal (holding subject matter constant). Campbell and Routledge conclude their article by avowing that we should, “Let every journal be a place where controversy is welcome.” While few people concerned about academic freedom would disagree with this sentiment, relying on traditional journals to support debate around contentious subjects may not be very realistic at the present time. One upside of the Journal of Controversial Ideas is that it could serve as a catalyst for change.
Part 1 of this essay outlined six major threats to free speech at university, focussing on institutions in the UK and US. Part 2 has discussed some proposals for how to counteract these threats: first, raising awareness and encouraging stakeholders to pressure their institutions into action; second, requiring universities to uphold free speech in order to receive federal funding; third, setting up new universities as competitors to the existing ones; fourth, using pre-commitment devices as a way to forestall demands for censorship; fifth, appointing Academic Freedom Champions at universities and the national regulatory body; sixth, incorporating academic freedom into university rankings; seventh, setting up an academic equivalent of NATO; and eighth, creating new journals with the express aim of fostering debate around contentious subjects. While these proposals should not be considered panaceas, their implementation could help slow down, and then eventually reverse, a trend that is not only undermining research and weakening public trust in the academy, but also robbing students of the chance to get a truly liberal education.