Saturday, January 12, 2013

Unlearning Liberty

Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, by Greg Lukianoff, draws on the files of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) to document the infringement of free speech at American colleges. It's an exhaustive catalog -- at least I hope it is exhaustive; I'd hate to think that misguided administrators somewhere could come up with any forms of censorship beyond those enumerated. It's also a very readable account, with chapters on freshman orientation, student groups, the campus judiciary, and so on, each illustrated by examples. A large number of the case studies are such blatant abuses that they would be silly if they were not so sad: Rules outlawing "offensive" or "hurtful" speech, or even worse, speech that is perceived as offensive or hurtful. The only way a speaker could be sure not to violate such a standard would b not to speak at all!

Really, some of the prohibitions are so remarkably stupid that there were times as I started to read the book that I wondered whether the subject was worth an entire book. For example, Lukianoff points out that a prohibition of speech that would offend any religion, or be considered blasphemous, would send any latter day Martin Luther off campus to post his 95 theses. Don't the people who draft and promulgate such rules see how inconsistent that is with the basic idea of a university, where ideas can be freely stated and discussed?

But Lukianoff does not stop with the laugh lines. He takes us through the real problems with these tendencies, and they are not ultimately about political correctness or the suppression of conservative ideas, for example, though that is what one most often hears from critics of campus speech codes and the like.

The book's analysis has two special merits. First, Lukianoff manages to avoid making the right wing the source of all the complaints. A number of cases are politically neutral, and many are simply confused, where both left and right have tied themselves in protective knots in which they find themselves trapped.

And second, Lukianoff takes the time to go back to first principles. The reason free speech is important is because debate is important, and the reason debate is important is that it is the key tool of deliberative democracies. If we don't train our students to argue with each other, without crying foul every time one side hurts the other's feelings, we will wind up with … a dysfunctional Congress, maybe?

So the book's mission is fundamentally civic, and I applaud it for that reason. Let's hope that university administrators will remember that our form of government relies on an educated citizenry. If everyone simply votes their immediate self-interests, we won't survive as an enlightened, prosperous nation. All the great figures in American politics, from Jefferson on down, seem to have understood this in ways it is very hard to find today, when education is seen mostly as a tool for economic advancement. (See my Harvard Magazine piece with Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Renewing Civic Education.)

The root cause

Lukianoff identifies a root cause of campus censorship, a particular way in which good intentions have gone completely out of control. It is the growth of the student-service bureaucracy, the large number of non-academic staff whose job it is to make students feel good about attending their institution.

Multiculturalism, feminism, and so on often get the blame, but, like them or not, these cultural forces were not the problem in themselves. What happened was that as colleges diversified their student bodies, the faculty did not bear the burden of deciding what concomitant changes needed to happen. The administrative fix was to staff up with experts: People who allegedly knew what black students needed, what women needed, what gay students needed, and so on. These folks, many of them fine people, are not for the most part academic professionals, and do not instinctively think of academic freedom or the civic function of debate as core to their jobs. It is perfectly natural for student service deans to conclude that a key to making students feel comfortable on campus is to discourage their fellow students from saying things that will make them uncomfortable.

We are going through the same cycle now with social class and income level as the parameter.

A second force supporting the creation of a student-service bureaucracy whose values are not primarily academic or civic is the shift of colleges toward competitive entities vying for students as consumers. The costs of this trend in rock climbing walls and lavish student centers has been well documented, but it also means the creation of offices and deans and subdeans for "student life." That never used to be a concept at Harvard---student life used to mean the Houses ("a social device for a moral purpose," as Lowell called them) and student organizations (about which the College itself used to be, for the most part, benignly indulgent but not heavily involved, except for athletic teams and large musical groups).

Most recently, the student service bureaucracy is being called on in the battle for mental health. An unhappy student is a potentially suicidal student, goes the reasoning, so we need to do more to see to it that students are happy. So Harvard now has a committee to examine stress. I hope the committee recognizes that teaching students to cope with stress will in the long run serve them much better than trying to create a less stressful environment.

Now all these threads tend to bolster the self-sustaining bureaucracy in which academic values and faculty input are of very little relevance. This is the argument of another excellent book, The Fall of the Faculty. There are large parts of student life in which the faculty is not involved at all, and so there are many meetings planning freshman orientation and rules for residence life where there is no professor present who might say, "Well, perhaps, but isn't that something the students should debate and discuss, rather than being told?" (Among the funnier passages in Lukianoff's book are where he documents debate being avoided because it is so time-consuming and the outcome so uncertain; more efficient, given all the other demands on time, just to tell students the correct answer.)

Once the student service bureaucracy became large and empowered, it began to have its own conferences, its own handbooks of best practices, and so on. It began to have some of the characteristics of a profession, with its own standards for protecting itself, its own consultants, who left their universities to establish themselves as hired guns to tell other universities how to set up the best programs, and so on. Perverse financial incentives arose, for example, having regional accreditation boards consider the three threads and the extent to which an institution had staffed up for them a criterion in determining how well the institution was being run. Meanwhile, the faculty orbit became more and more disconnected from all these matters.

In other words, there is no longer an active, routinely present voice for free speech at most of the places where plans that abridge free speech are being formulated. It is my belief that until the faculty reasserts control of student affairs from the student affairs bureaucracy, nothing will happen to change this basic reality. So wherever you are, look at the juncture of the faculty to the student service deans and ask if the former has any influence over the latter. In most places the answer is no, and that is the way all parties prefer it---the faculty are happy to interact with students mainly via the classroom, library, and laboratory, and the deans prefer not to have the faculty looking over their shoulder---but that is, ultimately, why howlers such as Lukianoff documents come about.

The Harvard cases

I struggled with these issues when I was dean, and have continued to encounter them in the subsequent years. My only real criticism of Lukianoff's book is to wonder whether "censorship" is really the right label for all the cases he discusses. Because I was close to some of these cases, perhaps I am too sensitive to their subtleties. (Lukianoff presents some horrifying cases from the Harvard professional schools, in particular a couple from the Law School where they really should know better, but I can't comment on those from any first hand experience.)

I don't think either Lukianoff or I am wrong about the Freshman Pledge that Harvard floated in the fall of 2011 (p. 91 of the book). Though nobody ever said that students would be punished for not signing, the plan to list the names of those who had signed it and omit those who had not was so coercive as to count as abusive. The fact that the pledge itself was philosophically naive and semantically peculiar only made matters worse. It was basically an amateur job. One of the enduring mysteries to me is, where was the voice of the faculty when this idea was being hatched?

I think I also agree with Lukianoff about the de-listing of the Harvard Summer School courses of Subramanian Swamy, in the course of a routine faculty vote approving the course catalog (p. 90). Swamy had written an offensive article in an Indian newspaper; it had nothing to do with his teaching introductory economics in the Harvard Summer School. I wish the Economics Department had not re-hired him after he had excited such antipathy the previous summer for no good reason (there was no reason to have a debate at Harvard about whether India should annex Bangladeshi territory). But I thought it was a dangerous precedent for the rest of the faculty to peremptorily cancel Swamy's courses, and I had a friendly debate about the merits of the case on WBUR with my colleague Diana Eck. (Just as I feared, a few days later some undergraduates proposed that Harvey Mansfield should get the same treatment as Swamy, for his anti-feminist sentiments.)

The thing that makes the Swamy case a little more complicated in my mind is that it was very nearly a hiring decision. Swamy seems to be a crony of the Harvard economists and his position was renewed annually, but he had no contractual expectation that he would be rehired from year to year. So just to change the circumstances a bit, let's suppose that Swamy had never worked at Harvard before and was one of several comparable candidates for an assistant professorship. Would it be "censorship" if the Economics department did not hire him because of his inflammatory (though in the US, perfectly lawful) writings on political matters in India? It is certainly a defensible position to say that only teaching and research in the candidate's area of professional expertise should count. But in fact we want faculty also to fill a variety of collegial and citizenship roles, and we inevitably try to peer into their character and understand their values since we expect that our students will learn more from them than their technical subjects. When candidates come to campus for interviews, we chat informally with them one on one, and take them out for nice, relaxed dinners. Is all that inappropriate and irrelevant? There is a good argument to be made for that---someone once told me that the Math Department thought such interviews were a waste of time since the senior faculty had read all the candidates' papers, and their quality was the only legitimate basis for hiring decisions. But it doesn't seem to me wrong to try to figure out if future faculty will be people we will respect for more than their scholarship and teaching.

The Larry Summers case (p. 92) presents a different set of complexities. Though in fact Summers lost the confidence of the faculty for many other reasons---and in particular, because he lied to the faculty when asked if he had a view about the Andrei Shleifer affair---in the popular re-telling, the faculty ran him out of town on a rail because of his speculations about female intelligence in remarks to the National Bureau of Economic Research. I have always thought that the dominance of this tale, over the Shleifer affair, as the basis for the faculty no-confidence vote was in no small measure the work of Summers himself and his allies. That is, there is a kind of heroism in being dissed for speaking unpopular speculations, and exciting over-reactions; there is no dignity at all in defending a self-dealing protege and then misrepresenting your role in protecting his reputation.

The vote the faculty took was a simple no-confidence statement; each individual who voted could choose his or her own reasons for lacking confidence in the president. So the vote, as a binary classifier, made very strange bedfellows. I personally thought the Shleifer affair was disqualifying. But I also thought the NBER speech was part of a pattern that made Summers unsuitable to be president---though not unsuitable to be an economics professor, to be sure. That is because I do not think that the free-speech guarantees that protect citizens and professors apply to presidents or deans. You sacrifice, out of respect for the welfare of the institution, some of your free speech rights when you take such a job. The job of the president is to represent the institution's best interests, and it was not in Harvard's best interests for the president to piss off a lot of people unnecessarily. This was not the first time he had done it, and he plainly never would accept my characterization of his responsibilities. But IMHO he was simply wrong to say, as he did at the beginning of the NBER speech, that he was not speaking as president. When the president of Harvard speaks publicly (and this was public for all intents and purposes), he cannot shed his presidential role.

So bottom line---though it wasn't the main thing on my mind, and I agree with those who say it wasn't that outrageous (or even that original---a lot of what he said is in Pinker's Blank Slate), it seemed to me one more reason to lack confidence in his presidential qualities, and I voted accordingly. I don't consider that censorious because I thing presidents sacrifice some of their freedom of speech when they take the job.

Finally, the Christian groups. Lukianoff does not specifically discuss a Harvard case, but there was one of the kind he discusses on p. 169. I'm probably closer to his view now than I was then, but at least in this case the rationale for Harvard insisting on nondiscriminatory membership on the basis of creed was not the one Lukianoff cites (sympathy for gay rights). It was instead Harvard's nasty history with anti-Semitism. I was reluctant to grant an exception (a constitution stating that you have to be Christian to join this group) that might be exploited to exclude Jews from other groups (you can't join this group if you are Jewish). Though the exception was ultimately made and peace reigned, without FIRE being called down on me, the right thing to have done would probably have been to have carved out a special category of religious groups, with some neutral committee to decide whether a group was pulling our leg about its religious purposes in order to achieve some exclusionary membership agenda. But that was long ago and I haven't looked at the language for student groups in a long time.

A final question

There is one category about which I remain confused, and it is typified by my interaction with President Faust about Professor Michael Porter's having dubbed the Libyan government of Ghaddafi a "democracy" and being paid handsomely for doing so. I thought that sullied the reputation of Harvard and suggested that any of us could be bought for a price. It seemed to me important for the university to say---without threatening to punish Porter---that what Porter did was inconsistent with truth-telling and other basic values of the university. The president's response was that her job was to protect Porter's right of free speech, and mine, but not to pick sides. (See my write up on this blog for more details.)

This did not and still does not seem right to me. But I wonder what Lukianoff thinks. Is it ever right for a president to criticize or chastise a professor for what the professor says? If not, can the university really be said to represent any values at all? If so, what of the argument (made by people I respect) that criticism, even with no punitive force, will unacceptably chill free speech on campus, and make other faculty, especially untenured faculty, reluctant to say what they really think?

Great job, Greg Lukianoff. Congratulations!


  1. Lewis did an admirable job of taking a topic that is a political and personal hot-button and explicating it in a way that offers the reader some welcome detachment, while at the same time keeping a realistic sense of outrage at the ("remarkably stupid") absurdities of power wrongly exercised.

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