Safe Space for Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity?

The academic year 2016-17 saw a spike in illiberal repression of speech on American college campuses. Six eminent professors, alumni of Middlebury College, spoke out when the violence came to their alma mater. In doing so, they helped inspire the CAIF’s mission, exemplifying our shared values in an eloquent statement.

They wrote, on June 1, 2017, in Real Clear Politics:

As university professors and administrators, we are deeply concerned with escalating attacks on free speech and inquiry all across American higher education—and we believe that lessons of national import can be learned from the situation at our alma mater in Vermont. Middlebury College recently completed its public response to the physical intimidation and assault visited upon Charles Murray and Middlebury Professor Allison Stanger on March 2. Last week it issued a press release stating that 67 students had received sanctions “ranging from probation to official College discipline.” Middlebury also has appointed a special committee to “explore and discuss issues relating to” the incident.

They went on to add that these were not isolated incidents, but, troublingly, symptomatic of larger trends:

This past semester featured episodes across the country of university and college students using physical intimidation to preempt or harass speakers; using similar tactics against professors who did not share their views on censoring speech; demanding control of faculty hiring to meet their demands for diversity; and demanding that regular disciplinary procedures to address all such extraordinary actions be suspended. The most recent incidents occurred at UCLA and Claremont McKenna College, Indiana University, Pomona College, and Evergreen State College. Because this educational crisis has spread to so many American campuses, we think Middlebury’s leaders have a responsibility to do more.

In sum, they rejected excuses for unacceptable intimidation tactics, aimed at illegitimately limiting the range of views that can be heard on campus, and demanded specific action from Middlebury’s administration.

Like the Middlebury Alums, we too at CAIF believe that open inquiry is the lifeblood of any college campus, and that it is un-American to try to shout down speakers or deplatform them merely because they happen to be conservative. 

Moreover, as John M. Ellis has pointed out, in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed of November 13, 2017, the real source of the problem (physical violence aside) is the lack of viewpoint diversity on American college campuses, product of a decades-long exclusion of moderate voices from the Humanities and Social Sciences: 

The campus radical monopoly on political ideas amounts to the shutting down of liberal higher education as we have known it. That, not the increasingly frequent violent flare-ups, is the real crisis.

The statistics are clear:

What then is the disease? We are now close to the end of a half-century process by which the campuses have been emptied of centrist and right-of-center voices. Many scholars have studied the political allegiances of the faculty during this time. There have been some differences of opinion about methodology, but the main outline is not in doubt. In 1969 the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education found that there were overall about twice as many left-of-center as right-of-center faculty. Various studies document the rise of that ratio to 5 to 1 at the century’s end, and to 8 to 1 a decade later, until in 2016 Mitchell Langbert, Dan Klein, and Tony Quain find it in the region of 10 to 1 and still rising.

Read the full text of Ellis’s important article here.

In this, our first CAIF blog post, we salute the courage of Professors Christopher F. D’Elia, Richard Eldridge, Peter Minowitz, Suzanna Sherry, James R. Stoner Jr., and Paul O. Carresse, and thank them for standing up for freedom. As we inaugurate the CAIF Blog, even as we take inspiration from them, we also take John M. Ellis’s statistics to heart. Read the full text of the Middlebury College Alum’s statement here.

As the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci said, writing from Benito Mussolini’s jail, in his famous Prison Notebooks, in times like this, one needs to have “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” So, stay tuned for more blasts from the CAIF Blog, as we endeavor to keep hope for academic and intellectual freedom alive in these dark times.