Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Did the Harvard Placemats Abridge Free Speech? Why Great Universities Should Not Take Political Positions

In an interview with the Weekly Standard's William Kristol, Lawrence Summers, President Emeritus of Harvard University, decries what he calls "creeping totalitarianism" on many of America's college campuses.  (Go here for a video of the full interview.)  Examples, he said, include calls [by students at Yale] to fire faculty who question university policy as well as Harvard's "us[e] of placemats in the dining hall to propagandize about what messages students should give their parents about Syrian refugee policy[.]"  Explaining why he believes these actions were problematic, Summers invokes basic free speech principles, namely, that the "answer to bad speech is different speech [and] not shutting down speech."

Summers is certainly correct to decry both the particular events described above as well as the anti-academic trend that these events exemplify.  At the same time, this blogger respectfully suggests that Summers has identified two analytically distinct issues.  To be sure, firing someone for expressing disagreement with University policy abridges the sort of free expression that public universities are obliged to protect and that many private universities (including Yale) promise to protect.  Those who call for such termination instead of engaging in counter-speech thereby ignore the basic premises of a free society that inform the protection that a university accords free expression.

Ironically, even the Harvard administrators responsible for conceiving and distributing the place mats in question conceded, in a letter of apology, that distribution of place mats contravened "academic freedom."  However, distributing placemats containing political messages does not in the view of this blogger abridge free expression or contradict academic freedom.  On the contrary, the propagation of centrally-approved political messages left members of the Harvard community (and everyone else) perfectly free to express their disagreement with the messages in question or, for that matter, with the decision to create and distribute such mats in the first place.  Many, including Harvard's Undergraduate Council and College Republicans, did exactly that (see here and here), without suffering any penalty, whether formal or informal.  As Justice Brandeis explained, those who wrote and ratified the First Amendment believed that "liberty was the secret of happiness and courage the secret of liberty" and that "an inert people" was the "greatest menance to freedom."  Freedom implies the courage to exercise it, even in the face of dominant opinion.

None of this is to say that the distribution of such placemats was appropriate.  Such distribution offended a different but related principle, namely, that universities should not take political or ideological positions, even if taking such positions leaves members of the community entirely free to disagree.  Nearly five decades ago, a University of Chicago Committee chaired by Harry Kalven explained why great universities should remain politically and ideologically neutral:

"To perform its mission in the society, the University must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions and pressures.  A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.  It is a community, but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research.  It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby. . . . . A great university should not, therefore, permit itself to be diverted from its mission into playing the role of a second-rate political force or influence."

By taking political or ideological positions, then, a university short-circuits the process of inquiry, discussion and engagement that furthers the pursuit of truth and its dissemination in the classroom.   One might also add that, by rejecting neutrality and wading into social or political disputes, a university discourages individuals who might disagree with these positions from joining the university community in the first place, thereby reducing the extent of ideological and political diversity at such institutions.   Moreover, a university that takes such positions implies that there is an academic answer to vexing political or social controversies.  While the results of academic inquiry can of course inform public debate, such results can rarely settle such debate.  A university that suggests otherwise misleads the public (perhaps inadvertently) and, by trafficking in political or ideological disputes, undermines the perceived credibility and academic integrity of its own scholars, by signaling that politics, not free inquiry, drives their research.   This can be so even if, as often happens, administrators, and not scholars, determine a university's official position on (non-academic) matters of the day.  As the Kalvin Report properly explained, a "great university's . . . prestige and influence are based on integrity and intellectual competence" and not upon things like "political contacts or influential friends."  While taking political positions may further the short term interest of a university or those who lead it, taking such positions will, over the longer run, compromise the institution's reputation for integrity and intellectual competence, thereby (properly) weakening its influence and prestige.