Today on “The Argument,” do college campuses have a First Amendment problem?
Last month, a group of academics, writers, and activists announced that they were founding a new college, the University of Austin. Finally, Texas gets a winning team. Founders of the university think that there’s too much censorship on American college campuses. Too many professors, quote unquote, “canceled,” too many boycotts of controversial guest speakers. Instead, the University of Austin wants to bring back a wide range of contentious debates. And it’s already sparked several of those. A lot of people have opinions about the new university and the team that’s behind it. But according to the new president of the university, Pano Kanelos. That’s a good thing. His announcement states, and I quote, “We welcome their opprobrium and will regard it as vindication.” Very on brand.
I’m Jane Coaston. And when I was in college back at the Big Ten champion, University of Michigan, we were having the same debates around free speech. So I don’t know how much creating a new university will solve these age-old issues. And also, what kind of issue is this anyway? According to a 2020 Gallup-Knight Foundation survey, 81 percent of college students say it’s more important to build a learning environment that welcomes all kinds of speech than one that prohibits certain discussions, even if those discussions are biased or downright offensive. But then we get into the conversation about what counts as offensive because I’m guessing that Pano Kanelos and I might have different definitions. So I want to break down what we really mean when we talk about free speech on campuses with a couple of guys who think about this stuff a lot. Greg Lukianoff —
I am the president and C.E.O. of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, also known as FIRE. I am also the co-author, along with Jonathan Haidt, of “Coddling of the American Mind,” which came out in 2018.
— and Mark Copelovitch.
I am a professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I have been on faculty here for 15 years. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Mark, you do not think that creating an entirely new institution is going to solve any issues. What are the biggest challenges a brand new institution would face? Because it sounds like if creating a university was easy, people like Jeff Bezos or basically anyone with a lot of money would have done what Andrew Carnegie did and start a university.
Yeah, I mean, my general take on this is if it succeeds, it’s going to take a lot of time and resources and money. And it will have to become what existing universities already are. Right? So you have this set of people that are claiming they’re fed up and done with existing universities, and existing universities have all kinds of problems. And they’re going to go set up something new. And among other things, said that professors are going to do all of the admissions process, right? So as someone who is at a university and sort of has seen over 15 years what the bureaucracy looks like, there’s large bureaucracies at universities because running universities takes a lot of work and time and money and careful investment in things that are, frankly, not very sexy, to run courses, to develop curricula, to do admissions processes, to do all the administrative stuff on campus. So I don’t have any sense, really, or confidence that the group of people that are behind the University of Austin really want to do that. There’s a media splashiness about saying that you’re going to found a new university and challenge the existing problems and the existing institutions. It’s not clear that these people want to do that work at a new institution. And if they do, over time, what they’re going to find is the reason we have all of the bureaucracy and the rules and the processes and the budgets that we have at universities is because you need that in order to function. And so I am a skeptic on whether it’s actually going to come to fruition.
Greg, you’ve said that you don’t really get the criticism against University of Austin. Why do you think that there has been so much response and backlash? Because I think that for me, it’s about the context in which this exists, and especially because of the people involved with it. Based on the context of this university’s creation, what excites you about it?
Sure. Well, the reason why I’m excited about every experiment we do to get out of the current very expensive, very bureaucratized higher education model is because I’ve been defending free speech and academic freedom on college campuses since 2001. And nonetheless, I feel like I’ve been kind of screaming in a tunnel, saying, guys, the situation for free speech on campus is much worse than you think. And of course, we’re disproportionately reliant on these schools like Harvard and Yale or where Professor Copelovitch attended, that, for example, only about 3 percent of the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard is conservative. So I’m mentioning that to say, first of all, there’s pretty low amounts of viewpoint diversity at a place like Harvard to begin with. I think that recommitting, starting from scratch, recommitting to the idea of having a marketplace of ideas is worth a shot. I think being less bureaucratized because this is something that people don’t seem to get, is that if you’re going to get in trouble on campus, it’s overwhelmingly coming from the administration itself. And I think these are often good people, but they’re even more politically homogeneous than the professor. So I think that just by virtue of being less bureaucratized, that’s a step in the right direction. I think having an orientation where they explain freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, all of these ideas that most universities don’t even have orientation sessions that are about these counterintuitive ideas that, for example, the Enlightenment was essentially the discovery that, in the grand scheme of things, we’re quite ignorant, and we have to test our biases. And we’re constantly going to be shocked, and that it’s a constant arduous process to simply know the world as it is.
So, Mark, I want to ask you, academic freedom means something. It is a specific concept. What does it mean? And do you think that there’s a concern on university campuses like Wisconsin or Michigan that there’s not a commitment to it or too little of a commitment to it?
So, no, I absolutely think there is a commitment to academic freedom at the University of Wisconsin. I think about people’s political views, right? Whether they’re left or right or whatnot. And when we think about academic freedom and we think about viewpoint diversity as scholars, we’re very much, most of the time, thinking about this is our field, right, and what are we focused on and what are we teaching and researching. One of the hardest things here is, look, I’m a political scientist. We teach in times of incredible asymmetric polarization between the two parties. And what’s become really difficult with academic freedom and campus speech issues for us as professors is every single professor I know, my friend, my colleagues here at Wisconsin, everywhere else, we take teaching really seriously. We take being as unbiased as possible in the classroom really, really seriously. It’s incredibly hard to do right now in this political environment. I teach international relations to 300 freshmen every fall. I specialize in the politics of international trade and finance. So one of the things I’ve studied a lot in the last few years is the trade war and Trump’s trade policies and things like that. And I can’t in good faith actually teach my students that the way the politics and economics of international trade work is the way the president talked about them from 2017 to 2020 because most of what he said was factually untrue about things, right? And so the problem with academic freedom is we’re trying to make a commitment to the sifting and winnowing what is — we’re scholars trying to figure out what is the, quote unquote, “truth” about how the world works as social scientists. And there’s an increasing disconnect between encompassing all political views and staying in that spectrum of data-driven, evidence-based research. And if you’re trying to be a serious scholar and a serious teacher, it’s increasingly difficult to stay unbiased, right? Because staying within the realm of data and evidence and truth now looks like bias in a way that I think it didn’t 30 or 40 years ago.
One of the challenges that we have is there are lots of different ways to have wide ranging debates and discussions. And there are lots of ideas that people find anathema. And so my concern, Greg, and I wanted to ask you, is that there’s a pretty good chance that this university could create a similar bubble of self-censorship that you’re worried that other universities already have. And so my concern here is, how can any university, especially one that is set up by people with this particular context, not create a bubble of self-censorship that we all have? How do we think about this? Why wouldn’t another bubble be created?
Yeah, could it be created? Absolutely. I just don’t know yet. And the idea that opening up with it being a place that’s about the marketplace of ideas, it’s about sifting and winnowing from the very beginning, I think that it just remains to be seen if they actually pull it off. And I think that one of the things that I found kind of shocking about the hostile reception that they got on Twitter was, like I said, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and people are kind of like, well, if you don’t like it, well, start a new university. And then someone’s trying to start a new university, and they’re like, ha-ha, losers. So I think that their dismissiveness towards it is disappointing, but could it crash and burn, like I said? Absolutely it could. But let’s look at some of the kind of common — like the case that I’m dealing with right now. One of the bigger cases over the last semester has been the fact that Dorian Abbot, who was supposed to speak on the existence of there being far more exoplanets than we think, and he was supposed to speak at MIT, his speech was canceled because he’d written an article talking about how he thinks that — he was defending his point of view that you should be picking professors on the basis of merit. And because this was offensive, he ended up getting disinvited for something having nothing to do with the speech. But that’s something like 16 cases we’ve seen just at technical schools, nearly 500 examples of disinvitations at schools. This was just another day at the office for us. So the fact that some of the stuff is causing people to want to look at the data a little bit more, to look at the examples a little more, I really urge them to become more curious about some of these incidents, to see it doesn’t fit people’s stereotypes in the same way they think it’s going to.
I just wanted to jump in on the question of could it succeed. I think my corner of Twitter of professors, at least, and the people I saw reacting to it, I think the part of the strong nature of the reaction was what I already mentioned about all the work that actually needs to go in to do a university and I think the sort of, frankly, the hubris of “we’re going to kind of get this off the ground,” or the, “you’re not actually serious, but you’re doing it for kind of a marketing ploy.” But I think the other one is if it succeeds and the founders are really serious about doing the work, I think the view from the academic world is there’s only two outcomes, that this is another Liberty University and it will develop into that. It will be successful, but it will be a very certain type of university with not the viewpoint diversity that campus speech advocates claim to want. The other is it becomes a university that does have diversity, but has to become institutionalized and accredited and have administrators and have faculties and do all the things that, again, all of us do for 99 percent of our workdays, in which case you have recreated over a 10 to 20 or longer year period an elite liberal arts college that looks like all of the other elite liberal arts colleges around the country and probably has exactly the same set of problems about academic freedom and campus speech. Greg, you mentioned earlier I went to Yale and Harvard, and I did a postdoc in Princeton. And look at all the faculty around the world. And it’s true in political sciences and other disciplines. There’s a very limited number of Ph.D. programs that faculty at elite universities end up at. So if this becomes an elite university with viewpoint diversity, it’s going to be stocked by scholars from those same departments across every discipline. And the bias in political views is going to exist, right? So I see those as, if this really succeeds and becomes a serious university, there’s kind of those two corner solutions as outcomes. And frankly, I think the Liberty University one just seems much more likely, given the individuals involved in setting this thing up.
I think that this is an important point because I know, Greg, you think about this all the time. And Mark, you have, too, on a lot of different issues. But I think that the media, of which I am a part, tends to center on, like, 10 schools.
And I call that kind of an aspirational focus. I’d be interested to hear from you, Mark, how you think that speech and these issues may have changed over the last few decades, but also, was there a time where things were better? And have they gotten worse, or is this just a debate that we’ve been having for a really long time?
I mean, look, I was a small town public school kid from a steel town in Pennsylvania. I ended up spending 12 of the greatest years of my life in the Ivy League at Yale and then at Harvard. And it was amazing, and I loved it, but completely unrepresentative. And even UW Madison is one of the small number elite big public universities that are that near the pinnacle of higher education. And they’re not representative. And but even here, the diversity of the students I see across the socioeconomic spectrum, kids from small town Wisconsin, kids from Milwaukee who are first generation college students, working 20, 30 hours a week to get through college. So again, my take on this is the media has not only covered the outlier cases of free speech, but in covering these outlier institutions, it’s basically ignoring the lived experience not only of the faculty, but the students. And the students I encountered, the vast majority of them don’t have time. They’re thinking about, how am I going to pay for school? Am I going to get a job this summer? What am I going to major in? Working on their courses, their extracurricular activities. So it’s not that these issues are not important, but they’re magnified in the media and in American politics as being the central thing going on, on campuses, and there’s this culture clash going on between the left and the right. And on a day-to-day basis, that’s just not true, I think, for the vast majority of students.
Just to push back on the idea that this is uncommon — and also, by the way, why you should care about elite colleges, too much of our ruling class — and this goes for both the right and the left, Democrats and Republicans — went to two colleges, Yale and Harvard. These are disproportionately important universities. I think that we’re making an argument about a time when things were better on campus for freedom of speech without updating our information. Because after doing this for 20 years, I have to say, 2020 was the worst year I had ever seen. And one last thing, I call it the golden age myth, myth, that essentially, I get frustrated sometimes when people think it’s a substantive argument that it’s like, well, these people posit that there was some mystical golden age. I’m like, no, actually, I don’t. I know that free speech is always under threat. It’s actually really unusual in human history. But have things gotten worse in my 20 years of doing it? Absolutely. [MUSIC PLAYING]
A few weeks ago, we asked you to tell us if you think the world is getting better or worse. And so far, you’ve told us it’s kind of a mixed bag. I get it. For me, I feel like parts of my life are getting a lot better. But I’m really worried about a lot of aspects of American culture and political life. 2021 isn’t over yet. But as it comes to a close, I want to hear your argument. Did things get better or worse this year? I’m talking about you personally, but also in your community or in the world. What are you feeling optimistic about? And where do things feel like they’re really going off the rails as we head into the new year? Give me a call at 347-915-4324 and leave me a voicemail. We may share some of your stories in an upcoming episode.
How much of this is a problem that’s fueled in part by social media? And I don’t mean in a “social media created this issue” kind of way. I mean in a way in which people can hear about a professor who’s at a school that they do not attend who says something they do not like and get very, very upset about it. And then they call the school, and then they’re like, I want that professor out. How does social media and these issues, how has that impacted this back and forth?
Well, I wrote the book “Coddling the American Mind” with Jon Haidt, and our opinion on social media is it sped all sorts of pre-existing trends up greatly. It was kind of amazing because I wrote this article back in 2006 about this new thing, Facebook, and about how we’re increasingly seeing students getting in trouble for what they post on Facebook. Now back then, they would actually post them smoking pot in the dorms and be like, don’t post yourselves doing illegal things on the Facebooks. But I do think that the social media is an accelerant. Suddenly having billions of people who can talk to each other has accelerated all sorts of change that was relatively slow moving. And so many of our cases, by the way, are, “I said something on social media, and now someone wants to get me fired.” And those cases, we first started with professors. There was a professor at Kansas State University, Professor Guth I think his name was, and he said something after the wake of the Newtown massacre. And he said, may it be your kids next time, NRA. Now, I also am the father of kids, so I understand how that could provoke people. But this is one of the trend of tenured professors getting fired for what they said. But the thing is, it doesn’t just mean that we’re hearing about these cases more. It’s that there are more of them because people get riled up. So this is inextricably linked with social media.
Yeah, I think this point of acceleration is really true. As I said earlier with the history of this, I don’t think there’s much new at all about the politics of this. But I think it’s not just the acceleration with social media. It’s that it’s become an active strategy of groups that want to make a certain political point about campus speech. There’s a conscious strategy now of groups that try and get invited to campus. And then there’s an uproar. And they use the uproar to launch a social media campaign making a point about free speech. Or there’s a tweet by a professor that’s picked up in the same thing. And so it’s not just that the technology enables the acceleration and the dissemination of the information. It’s that the outside groups, whether those are politicians in the state, as you said earlier, Jane, or whether that’s private organizations or individuals that want to make a point, are basically organizing their strategy about campus speech by exploiting what they know will happen with social media.
Mark, you’ve been working in higher ed for a really long time. Do you think that these debates reflect any actual changes in student experiences? Or are we talking about them more now? When you talk to students that you work with, whether they’re undergraduates or graduate students, what are you hearing?
Almost nothing, which might be selection bias, right? Or it might be what I was alluding to earlier of the vast majority of students, this is simply not priority one, two, three, four, six, 10, 12, or 15. Now I don’t want to make the point or the argument that these issues are not important and they’re not happening on campus, but students don’t come to me with concerns about being stifled. Now, again, that might be as a 46-year-old white male that students don’t want to do that, especially minority students or female students. And they don’t want to challenge the professor, and they’re self-censoring. I have no way of actually knowing that. But again, I have been in higher education teaching for 20 years now. And the number of conversations that I have had about this, again, relative to all of the time spent on all of the other things that we as professors do with teaching and mentoring and interacting with students, it’s tiny. It feels like, again, the selection bias is the actors from outside or a very small number of people on campus are pitched as being representative of the main thing going on, on campus.
I’m glad you noted the idea of self-censorship. And I’m curious to get your thoughts, Greg, because —
— we self-censor all the time in life. You self-censor at work. We self-censor with people we know. So when is self-censorship just what you do so you’re not weird? And when is it a cause for concern?
So when it comes to self-censoring, there are about 80 percent of students self-censor their viewpoints. Now, the idea that people self-censor for reasons that make sense out of politeness and all this kind of stuff, it’s a good point. But at the same time, higher education is supposed to be a special space. And it doesn’t work unless students and faculty alike — and I’m sure Professor Copelovitch can do this — are able to occasionally approach things with some amount of detachment, the idea that you have to engage in devil’s advocacy, that you have to engage in thought of experimentation. You have to take seriously the idea that you might be wrong all the time, which is a very hard habit to develop. And yes, we can say maybe people were just self-censoring to be polite. What we hear from a lot of students — and we also have this in our own data — they’re afraid of their professors. They’re afraid of some of their fellow classmates for something that could have been the kind of thought experimentation or the kind of devil’s advocacy that might have been totally wrong, but it might have led to an interesting idea. It might have popped the bubble a little bit to lead to good discussions.
That’s fair, and I agree with a large portion of it. But the social scientist in me who knows enough about survey experiments to be dangerous says the point Jane brought up is a very good one, which is the questions that people ask in these surveys of students don’t actually provide you information that allow you to make the inference that it’s something the university did that has caused this, right? So they tell you about people’s feelings, they tell you about people’s behavior, and they tell you about people’s expectations. But a large percentage of students may feel that they need to self-censor, even in an environment where the universities were arguably doing more to address campus speech issues, right? So I think, Greg, you raise a lot of important points in figuring out how do we overcome this. And people have these concerns, and we should take them valid. And we should try and have that detached discussion. I mean, again, that’s the essence of what we try and do as teachers and scholars, is engage in this type of debate where you have to confront text and arguments that make you uncomfortable and people who disagree with you. But I think from the perspective of a social scientist that often, the way we interpret surveys is different from what the question was actually asking and what the person taking the survey thought they were answering when they answered the question.
I think that for many people when they are thinking about speech on campus, they tend to be thinking about the kind of speech that they themselves would like to have. And so we are much more apt to support the speech of people who might feel the way we do about Israel-Palestine or about gender. I know that FIRE has done a bunch of work recently with a professor who has been accused of defending pedophilia and now requires basically around the clock security because they’ve been singled out by the same people, arguably, who are, quote unquote, “concerned about free speech.” This is not just a college campus issue. I think it’s just easier to think about it in that silo. But speech is hard and especially the speech we despise. How do you each think about the use of speech and the protection of speech, particularly the speech that we tend to find anathema?
Defending controversial speech or offensive speech is just, it’s part of the job. You shouldn’t be doing this if you’re not OK with people having controversial opinions. But yeah, like Ellen Walker, for example — this is the professor at Old Dominion who we’ve been helping. This was a case where the writing was actually saying that we should have a name other than pedophiles for people who are attracted to underage people, but don’t act on it. So basically, if you call them pedophiles, there’s this assumption that they actually act on it. But one thing that I do really worry about and something that I have seen erode, and particularly in the last five years, is this idea that in your heart of hearts, if you believe something bad, if you’re a Holocaust denier, if you have goofy thoughts about the flat Earth, for example, that you can’t be a good teacher in some other field. And I think that it is a sophisticated idea that someone can have horrible beliefs on other things, but also be really, really good at their job, is something that we should always be reminding people of. I mean, for goodness’ sakes, Isaac Newton was an alchemist. He believed in the occult. There’s endless numbers of important thinkers who were racists, going back, I mean. But I do also want to say this. And this is one of the reasons why I’m concerned about some of the schools that now have diversity and inclusion statements for people getting hired for the organization. Even at unrelated positions in the University of California system, they’re being asked to submit these statements. If you have all of the appropriate correct beliefs, the approved ones that a university has, maybe you’re actually fairly doctrinaire as a thinker. And so I think that someone looking at the low viewpoint diversity at some of these universities among the professor and saying to themselves, you know what? There’s not enough ideological conformity here. I think that’s nuts.
I think it’s striking and telling, to some extent, so many of these high profile cases are the ones we were just talking about, where it’s someone who is a scholar in some completely different area has political views —
— that are controversial, right? No, but we as political scientists who teach about politics, we’re confronting how we try our best to be unbiased and teach about that topic that is our topic of research. It’s different for me than it is for someone who’s an engineer, right, who has political views. But the problem is, you can’t run a university where you’re fully screening people for all of their political views and also hiring scholars. Thinking about diversity and equity and underrepresented minorities and those sorts of things is incredibly important. And we’re trying to do that. And here at Wisconsin, we haven’t done it well for decades. So it’s something you need to take into account. But at the same time, the way hiring goes is you bring in a bunch of people who think are good scholars and possibly good teachers and mentors, and they’re experts in their field. And they’re going to be tenured because of their research and teaching. And it’s not clear to me how you would fairly go about policing everybody’s political views. But I would also flip that around, then. That’s why I bristle and I think a lot of professors bristle at the idea of we need more viewpoint diversity. What is the optimum amount of viewpoint diversity in the biological sciences and physical sciences versus the humanities versus the social sciences? Nobody knows the answer to that. And if you start hiring and making tenure and promotion decisions based on people’s political views, that gets ugly very, very quickly. And this goes back to the tension I was talking about earlier of running a university and hiring faculty, where the focus on data and evidence and scholarship, where you’re trying to figure out how the world works, and we’re having the types of debates we want to have with lots of viewpoints, but they have to be within the realm of objective reality. If we’re going to have viewpoint diversity where viewpoint diversity means we need more people who believe that mass voter fraud exists and the election was stolen when we know objectively the data don’t support that argument, it’s hard to square the circle with being a university and sifting and winnowing and pursuing the mission of intellectual inquiry that’s rigorous and grounded in data and evidence and having all views on the American political spectrum represented because the American political spectrum doesn’t overlap perfectly with belief in data and evidence and empirical reality anymore.
When we’re thinking about speech issues, I think there are a lot of folks who are like, if I am attending Ohio State Lima or Michigan Flint, which it’s actually, Michigan Flint and Michigan Dearborn do a great job. They’re thinking about, yeah, there’s universities with massive amounts of power and universities that can afford to pay Brian Kelly $9 and 1/2 million a year to do something. But there are a lot of universities with a big lack of money to do anything, much less start censoring people. How do you think that those powerful universities could be kept in check? And what do you think could be done that would make universities better overall?
So many things. One thing that I always ask people to do is just to write whatever their alma maters is. And just, even if they’re just reassuring them, even if they just got a reassuring email, to write their presidents and ask them to get rid of speech codes, stand up for your faculty and students from the beginning, passing something like the Chicago statement, which is a statement on academic freedom that’s updated for the scenarios that we’d see in 2015. Survey your students to see if there’s a problem. I don’t think you’ll be surprised and disappointed. And have an orientation program that challenges students to enter that mindset of the exploration of ignorance. I think that we should take seriously the amount of overhead that a lot of these schools have. I think it’s kind of nuts that schools that have $100 billion — I’m talking about Yale and Harvard again — are nonprofits. Yale has almost as many administrators as they have students now. If you add in faculty, so university employees, they outnumber the number of students they have. And they’re still, nonetheless, a nonprofit. We see plenty of cases where free speech rights get trampled on at smaller, poorer schools. And honestly, in many cases, they are the hardest cases to fight because they don’t care. They don’t care about being sued. It’s not their money that they’re going to be paying. But they do tend to be less ideological as you go to the more working class schools.
Greetings from Wisconsin, right, where we’ve been defunding public education. And UW-Madison has done vastly better in that environment than the other schools, like UW-Milwaukee and the smaller universities in the system, because we’ve effectively de facto privatized a large portion of our operations. UW-Stevens Point, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Green Bay, their budgets —
UW-Whitewater, stand up.
Whitewater, exactly. They have been cut for decades. Faculty are not replaced. There’s more adjunctification of the faculty. And the budget cuts are now leading to the cutting of the very humanities programs that people who are setting up the universities of Austins of the world, saying these are the types of programs we probably need to have to have a free and open inquiry. They’re not going to be there anymore because there’s very much a sense of that elite stuff of the liberal arts is fine for students at Harvard and Yale, but students at UW-Whitewater don’t need it, which is a horrible argument. So that’s one point. The other, though, on the admin, so this point comes up all the time, right? And this is, again, we’re all pushed back as someone who’s at the University of Wisconsin. A huge amount of the growth in admin over the last 30 years is because of obligations imposed by the university by the state, and in particular, by Republican state legislators here and —
Also by the Department of Education.
So we now have a much more complicated burdensome post-tenure review process, right? Every x number of years post-tenure, now there needs to be a formal review. It creates all kinds of paperwork. There are administrators that need to administer that. And so, a lot of — it’s not that there isn’t growth administration. And some of the arguments about bloat make very good points. But a lot of the alongside the defunding is there’s more and more rules you have to comply with that the state is imposing on you. Therefore, you need more administrators, right? And it’s a zero sum with the money. The money is going to go to that, which means you’re taking even more money away from hiring faculty. And so I sort of just want to push back on that a little bit, because those things go together, right? And the growth of the administration is not just bureaucratic inefficiency or universities deciding we need to police speech and stuff like that. At a lot of schools and especially at public universities, it’s coming because of political pressure of you now need to do this, and we need to report on that. And you need to investigate that. And you need administrators to do that. That’s some of why, as we were talking about at the beginning, I’m really skeptical that the people founding the University of Austin want to do that sort of work that administrators have to do to actually run a real university on a day-to-day basis. I just don’t see these people as being invested in that project.
When the drive for censorship is coming from other students, whether it’s students who are trying to get a professor removed or students trying to get another student removed, how do you think universities can and should respond? And how do you think students can respond as well?
I think that freedom of speech is hard. I think it’s counterintuitive. I think that everybody gets that they should have free speech, but they don’t get that the other person over there should because that person is going to be a blasphemer. That person is going to say something offensive. And that’s just why I try to refer to freedom of speech as the eternally radical idea because in every generation, somebody rises up to oppose freedom of speech. And usually, freedom of speech is on the failing side of it. What you need is an education, and you need to start this early and often, about some of the habits of freedom of speech. So when we were younger, there was more of a — you can see culture values a lot of times in their idioms. So when I was younger, “it’s a free country.” “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.” “Walk a mile in a man’s shoes.” All of these kind of idioms that kind of undergirded the idea that we’re supposed to at least hear people out. And for that matter, even “none of your business” was part of that. I feel like without active teaching about freedom of speech, without actually inspiring people about this larger eternally radical idea, it will start to just naturally erode. So I’m hoping to do more public education from K through 12 — I’m even working on a comic book about freedom of speech, for example — to try to explain some of these really deep and quite sophisticated principles that we were lucky enough to take for granted in the 1980s and ‘90s, in part because we had a decent free speech culture, and also, the law is quite protective. The situation that I feel like we’re in now — and I think this is contributed to by the right, left, and middle — is that we have very strong free speech laws under the First Amendment in the US, but our free speech culture has been in serious decline in recent years.
It’s our job as faculty and the job of people at universities to inculcate this kind of discussion and be able to show people this is what we’re trying to do at a university, is hear arguments from all sides and learn to actually do the sorts of things that Greg was talking about with the idiom. But it’s incredibly hard, right? I think the thing that’s useful to keep our eyes on is, universities do that better than any other set of institutions in the country, right? So, yes, these problems exist, right? And it’s not that they’re not problems. But again, what institutions in American society are better at having a wide range of ideas and debate and free inquiry and protecting free speech? I’m pretty sure it’s not private corporations. I’m pretty sure it’s not individual religious organizations. So, to some extent, the problem I think is never going to go away because the very nature of what Greg said, we’re trying to do as being universities, right? And the project of a liberal arts education makes lots of people uncomfortable. Back to what I said earlier about — you asked me how many conversations have you had with students, and I said almost none. I mean, there’s nothing that makes you feel better about the future of the country than spending your day with 18 to 19-year-olds. They want to know about things. They’re deeply interested. I don’t have to justify why things in international relations are interesting anymore or why financial crises are interesting anymore, given just, like, look around at politics, right?
But again, the overwhelming majority of them, they want to have these debates. They want to test drive ideas. They actually want to interact with each other and hear opposing viewpoints. And that’s what some of them are there for. Again, I don’t have any solutions. But I think cultivating that for me is the way that I, as a professor on a campus, try and cater to that because that’s more of what we need in American society.
Greg, Mark, thank you both so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Thank you for having us. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Greg Lukianoff is the president and C.E.O. of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education — FIRE for short. Mark Copelovitch is a professor of political science and public affairs and director of the Center for European Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We did reach out to the inaugural president of the University of Austin to join our show. He declined at this time. But on its website, the founders of the university say, “we are alarmed by the illiberalism and censoriousness prevalent in America’s most prestigious universities and what it augurs for the country. But we know that there are enough of us who still believe in the core purpose of higher education, the pursuit of truth. That’s why we are building the University of Austin. Finally, I think whenever we talk about speech on campus, it gets complicated. We have a tendency to put forward speech we like and try to limit speech we hate. If you start a university that’s purportedly dedicated to free speech, does that mean you hire people who hate you? Does that mean you hire people who hate me? Because guess what? The First Amendment protects those views, too. Speech is hard. That’s why we need more of it and more conversation, and yes, more arguments. [MUSIC PLAYING]
If you want to learn more about free speech on college campuses, I recommend “Why We Need New Colleges” by Ross Douthat, New York Times Opinion, published November 2021. For the other side, you can read, “It’s the University of Austin Against Everyone, Including Itself,” by Derek Robertson in Politico, also published November 2021. And listen to Greg Lukianoff on the Bulwark podcast titled “Greg Lukianoff, We Are Creating a Culture of Student Fragility.” You can find links to all of these in our episode notes.
The Argument is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha; edited by Anabel Bacon and Alison Bruzek; with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones; mixing by Carole Sabouraud and Sonia Herrero; fact-checking by Andrea López-Cruzado; and audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks this week to Kristin Lin.