This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on April 3, 2017.
Two alarming developments on America's campuses point to the need for and the means through which the new administration in Washington might restore the First Amendment at America's public colleges and universities.
First, in November 2015, as racial protests consumed the University of Missouri (Mizzou), as well as a number of other schools, the National Association of Scholars’ (NAS) president, Peter Wood, crafted a “College and University Presidents’ Intellectual Freedom Commitment.”
NAS’s move is the good news. Here’s the bad: When asked how many university presidents have signed the pledge, Wood answered, “Zero, absolutely zero.”
Second, OpentheBooks.com just released its latest study, “Ivy League, Inc.,” which shows Ivy League “payments and entitlements cost taxpayers $41.59 billion over a six-year period (FY2010-FY2015). This is equivalent to $120,000 in government monies, subsidies, & special tax treatment per undergraduate student.”
In fact, says the report, the Ivy League’s eight colleges “received more money ($4.31 billion)—on average—annually from the federal government than sixteen states.” This comes on top of these schools’ titanic endowments: “Endowment funds (2015) exceeded $119 billion, which is equivalent to nearly $2 million per undergraduate student.”
Moreover, as “non-profits,” these schools pay “no tax on investment gains. . . . In FY2014, the tax-free subsidy on endowment gains amounted to $3.4 billion, or nearly $60,000 per student.”
What these two stories have in common emerges from a new Brookings Institution study on the type of colleges where censorship of conservative speakers was most likely to take place. Brookings found that, the wealthier the school, the more likely it is to engage in censorship. As the coauthor of the study states it, “The domination of elite institutions of higher education by the upper middle class is a big problem for social mobility. . . . It looks like it might be bad news for free speech, too.”
What can the new administration do to restore intellectual freedom on our campuses? It might take a page from the prior administration's 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, which, according to Inside Higher Ed, has become "the guiding document for colleges hoping to avoid a federal civil rights investigation into how they handle complaints of sexual violence."
The new administration might consider issuing a new "Dear Colleague" letter, which could become the guiding document for colleges hoping to avoid a federal civil-liberties investigation into how they protect the free-speech rights of students and faculty.
If, after issuing the proposed letter, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights finds a school deficient in fulfilling its legal responsibility to protect the First Amendment, what would be the consequences? How about this? Denial of all federal funding for the period of one year, after which the school would be free to reapply through demonstrating that it is now in compliance.
This move would cause great wailing and gnashing of teeth on some of our campuses. Nonetheless, it would be less offensive to everyday Americans than the previous administration’s 2011 letter. Why?
Free speech, though under assault on a growing number of campuses, is still deemed a paramount feature of American democracy by most Americans–certainly those who received their college educations years earlier. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey of 38 nations found “Americans were among the most supportive of free speech, freedom of the press and the right to use the internet without government censorship.”
But Americans’ devotion to the First Amendment can be expected only to weaken annually if we continue to graduate college students reared in the new regime of intolerance establishing ever-more beachheads on our campuses. Another 2015 Pew study finds that 40 percent of Millennials favor violating the First Amendment in cases of “offensive speech against minorities.” Pew goes on to note that the sizable percentage of Millennials espousing anti-freedom sentiments is “striking given that only around a quarter of Gen Xers (27 percent) and Boomers (24 percent) and roughly one-in-ten Silents (12 percent) say the government should be able to prevent such speech.”
Here we see the growing divide in America over the sanctity of the freedom, and, with it, over the means by which both universities and democracies strive to discover the truth. This widening divide explains Jonathan Haidt’s dark observation, “Now that many university presidents have agreed to implement many of the [Social Justice Warriors’] demands, I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable.”
Haidt is correct. University administrators cannot be counted on to restore free academic inquiry. Far from it.
It now falls on political leaders to attempt to educate the educators.
And as the Mizzou debacle demonstrates, going after schools’ money is the best means of capturing their attention.