By Harvey A. Silverglate
Although our beleaguered universities continue their seemingly inexorable march from being institutions of higher education to resembling, more and more, political and social re-education camps for the young, every now and then the students demonstrate that they remain well ahead of campus administrations and faculties when it comes to appreciating the true role of our colleges and universities: It appears that our universities' efforts at attitudinal indoctrination have not been wholly successful.
We see the latest example at Harvard in an editorial in the college newspaper The Harvard Crimson. Headlined "A University, Not A Think Tank: Harvard should not issue a formal position on inequality" (The Harvard Crimson, December 14, 2011), the undergraduate journalists take their professors to task for continuing on the perilous journey of politicizing the institution by seeking to have the school, in the editorial's words, "use its position to make a statement against social inequalities."
The statement, triggered by the ubiquitous "Occupy" movement that recently swept the nation as well as many college campuses, was proposed at the December faculty meeting by Professor Susan Suleiman, acting chair of the Department of Romance Language and Literatures. While the student editorialists agreed with Professor Suleiman "that social inequality is an important issue to address in today's society," they warned against turning a university into a "think tank" by officially espousing political and social positions.
The Crimson editorial argues that Harvard's primary responsibility is "to promote free discourse," and that the university's taking a formal and official position on "contemporary political issues...such as inequality" would inevitably move it in the direction of, for example, "endors[ing] a presidential candidate, or impos[ing] a political litmus test for faculty."
In fact, this would hardly be the first time that the student journalists had to lecture their teachers on the contours of intellectual freedom and of the dangers in crossing the line from education to indoctrination. Whether defending a student's right to parody seemingly incompetent administrators at the Business School, or castigating the attempted imposition of a racial speech code at the law school, the student editors of the Crimson have for the most part eloquently defended intellectual freedom against those who would constrain it.
But the push against open discourse and intellectual vibrancy at the university has been strong over the last two decades, as university administrators and faculty have made a veritable tradition of betraying these seemingly sacrosanct principles. In 2006 the faculty managed to drive out the university president, Lawrence Summers, for suggesting the existence of scientific evidence of women scientists' gender-based overall predisposition not to perform at the highest levels, in contrast to their male counterparts. In 2009, the Dean of the Law School publicly embarrassed and castigated a student for a controversial private e-mail expressing the student's interest in seeing more scientific research results on the hot-button issue of race and intelligence. And at the beginning of the last semester, the Harvard College Dean of Freshmen sought to impose on all new arrivals a "Freshman Pledge." As explained in this space this past September, it was only because of considerable push-back that the dean retreated from his insistence that the oath be posted at every freshman dorm entryway with a signature line for every student, so that everyone would see which students were, and which were not, prepared to publicly declare their fealty to the notion that "the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment," thereby "upholding the values of the College" that include "inclusiveness and civility." (For a longer discussion of Harvard's new tradition of betraying free speech, see this piece by Daniel R. Schwartz.)
And so even though the Dean of Freshmen failed (for the current year only - he vowed to return to the issue at the start of fall semester later this year) to stampede first-year students into pledging to kindness and inclusiveness as essential and mandated values rather than mere personal preferences, the acting chair of a major department tried to pledge the entire institution into solidarity with a social and political movement.
And unfortunately, we cannot be overly confident that the Crimson will maintain its longstanding policy as a bulwark against administrative and faculty overreach. In the last year alone, Harvard's highly regarded student newspaper ("The University Daily Since 1873," blares the masthead proudly) has failed twice to defend freedom of conscience at Harvard. In response to the pledge controversy, rather than support former Dean Harry Lewis's unmitigated position against the pledge, the Crimson editorial board called for the imposition of amoral code. The code would, said the editors, represent "an explicit affirmation of the moral value set that should guide the Harvard community;" such "codification of morality" being necessary to "truly bring integrity, respect, compassion, and kindness on par with success."
And two days earlier, the student editors reminded the faculty of the proper academic and intellectual mission of the liberal arts university, the same editorial page supported the December 6th vote of the Harvard College faculty to exclude from the Harvard Summer School catalogue two economics courses taught by Indian economist Subramanian Swamy. The reasons for Swamy's effective expulsion from the faculty was his authorship of an editorial--for a newspaper in his native India--urging the Indian government to take drastic steps in response to Muslim extremism. This action by the faculty was taken at the behest of Comparative Religion Professor Diana L. Eck, who strained laughably to characterize Swamy's newspaper column as something more sinister and dangerous than mere speech. This time the Crimson editorialists bit: "Swamy's op-ed clearly constitutes hate speech, by even the most lenient definition," they wrote. "As a matter of principle, there is no place for hate speech in the Harvard community." While a clear misreading of the article--Swamy's piece may seem radical, but calling it hate-speech is quite a stretch, and calling it incitement absurd--what neither Professor Eck and her faculty colleagues, nor the student editorialists understood, of course, was that in the society outside of the ivy gates, "hate speech" is accorded vigorous constitutional protection.
As the Crimson editorial's warning to the university not to go overboard in adopting formal institutional positions on such political issues and economic inequality demonstrates, the students are still ahead of their teachers when it comes to preserving the academy's unique devotion to freedom of thought and speech, and to intellectual pluralism. However, as the Swamy and pledge editorials equally show, even student editors are not completely immune from the increasingly dangerous politicization of the academy that threatens academic freedom and, indeed, the whole concept of a liberal arts education. The danger, of course, is that within another generation, the constant pressure from faculty and administration to water down the liberal arts university's traditional mission will have converted the students into unquestioning followers of their politicized elders.
Harvey A. Silverglate, a Boston trial lawyer and a graduate of Harvard Law School, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, and the co-founder and current Chairman of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Thanks go to research assistant Daniel Schwartz.