Elite Universities’ Fall of Failure on Free Expression

 

It probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to Ricochet readers that America’s most elite colleges and universities are often far from elite where their performance on free speech is concerned. Even so, as we’ve been writing at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) over the last couple of weeks, their cultures of free expression have been showing some signs of seriously ill health. A quick rundown:

  • Yale University attracted nationwide scorn this fall for its treatment of a law student, whom it pressured to issue a public apology over an email promoting a social event that made a joking reference to a “trap house.” But as my colleague Adam Goldstein and I wrote recently, another, less ballyhooed incident likewise raises serious concern. Psychiatrist and author Sally Satel delivered a lecture to the psychiatry department at the Yale School of Medicine (where she is a visiting lecturer) discussing the year she spent working in rural Ohio treating people struggling with opioid addiction. Following her lecture, a group of “Concerned Yale Psychiatry Residents” demanded that Satel be stripped of her lecturer title for her “dehumanizing, demeaning, and classist” remarks, seizing upon, of all things, a reference to an “artisanal coffee shop.”
  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology came in for heavy criticism after its department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences rescinded its invitation for University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot to deliver its annual John Carlson Lecture. The reason for Abbot’s disinvitation had nothing whatsoever to do with the scientific nature of his planned lecture; it was because he’d previously published a column criticizing university diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and proposing what he believed to be a fairer alternative. As my colleague Komi German documents, that’s only the most prominent in a string of free expression challenges that has seen MIT stumble.
  • Most recently, the Stanford University Undergraduate Senate denied funding to the Stanford College Republicans, who sought to bring former Vice President Mike Pence to campus for a lecture. Audio recordings of the senate’s vote make clear that viewpoint discrimination played a role in the decision. ​​One student senator is recorded saying that “if you’re against the individual speaker, then I think it’s fine to vote in that way.” Or, put differently, it’s perfectly fine to let your personal politics and morality supersede your duty to treat funding requests in a viewpoint-neutral manner.

At least at MIT, it should be said, a silver lining may be coming into view. Abbot’s disinvitation has galvanized alumni and faculty to push for MIT to strengthen its free expression promises, most prominently through passage of the Chicago Statement on free expression; nearly 150 MIT professors (Noam Chomsky among them) have signed a petition calling for MIT to adopt the statement. It would be a welcome end to an avoidable chapter — and hopefully an inspiration to its peers.

A final note: alumni who are interested in holding their alma maters accountable on free expression should consider joining FIRE’s Alumni Network and consider as well the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, with which FIRE has worked closely since its inception.

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  1. Victor Tango Kilo Member
    Victor Tango Kilo
    @VtheK

    They aren’t universities anymore, they are socialist monasteries. The students who go are obliged to dutifully record and reiterate their leftist professors’ lectures about social justice, feminism, anti-racism intersectionality and any other dogma that makes up the left’s religion like monks instructed to faithfully reproduce holy texts. With #MeToo and Cancel Culture, they are even nicking the old monasteries’ vows of chastity and silence.

    • #1
  2. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    At least Yale hasn’t yet fired Sally Satel according to this article written last week: https://www.thefire.org/yales-treatment-of-psych-lecturer-another-step-in-continuing-retreat-from-academic-freedom/

    But I desperately want some administrator to publicly say “Oh shut up” the next time such a letter is received.

    • #2
  3. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    As long as people can pay the tuition there will be an oversupply of people smart enough to get in and clueless enough to get the proper education.  

    • #3
  4. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    It isn’t just “elite” universities. Even the diploma mills are bad.

    • #4
  5. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Victor Tango Kilo (View Comment):
    They aren’t universities anymore, they are socialist monasteries.

    Good line…but I’d argue that the ‘woke’ ideology, with its obsession with race/ethnicity and its economic model (businesses nominally free but totally under the thumb of government) comes closer to classical Fascism than to classical Marxism.

    • #5
  6. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Hostility toward free expression has been a growing phenomenon at American universities for a couple of decades now, and it is exerting a toxic expression on the overall society.

    See my 2016 post The United States of Weimar? for some examples of what has been going on in our ‘educational institutions’.

    • #6
  7. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):

    It isn’t just “elite” universities. Even the diploma mills are bad.

    Yes. In the past few years, I saw an Arizona community college commencement with a DIE administrator spewing boilerplate bilge about stolen Indigenous people’s land and associated alleged ongoing sexual violence and genocide.

    • #7
  8. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    I had a student applying to UChicago around the time when then-President Robert Zimmer was helping the school to articulate the Chicago Statement

    I was quite proud of UChicago for taking a stand this way. 

    The student, upon receiving the letter, began to question his interest in attending the school. Bright kid, but that reaction  definitely lowered my opinion of him. 

    I’m not a Pollyanna about universities; UChicago is no Hillsdale. But it seems to be one of the few bright points in an academy which is giving in to the liberal mob. 

    • #8
  9. GlenEisenhardt Coolidge
    GlenEisenhardt
    @GlenEisenhardt

    We need an economy where universities are irrelevant. That is the solution. We don’t need to complain about them. We don’t need to talk about reforming them. Their legitimacy should be endlessly assaulted and we need to reduce barriers to entry across the board for all kinds of professions. Universities should be for losers who want to spend their lives writing academic articles. Bring back apprenticeships, incentivize trade schools, reduce credentialism.

    • #9
  10. James Salerno Inactive
    James Salerno
    @JamesSalerno

    GlenEisenhardt (View Comment):

    We need an economy where universities are irrelevant. That is the solution. We don’t need to complain about them. We don’t need to talk about reforming them. Their legitimacy should be endlessly assaulted and we need to reduce barriers to entry across the board for all kinds of professions. Universities should be for losers who want to spend their lives writing academic articles. Bring back apprenticeships, incentivize trade schools, reduce credentialism.

    I like the cut of your jib.

    I don’t care how many “good teachers” are out there. If you need to go to college for 8 years to get a general education degree to teach fourteen year olds, with no real world experience of your own, you shouldn’t teach. This mentality is destroying generations of American children.

    • #10
  11. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    This is important, because restoring and preserving free speech is our great challenge right now, and the universities are a big part of the problem.

    As a conservative, I generally favor reformation over revolution. In the case of universities, and particularly our elite universities, I’m not sure that’s possible: they are deeply broken and, unfortunately and thanks to their vast endowments, well insulated from the consequences of their rapidly increasing mediocrity.

    Far too many people attend university today. I hope that we will see a shift back toward more meaningful education in the trades. There is a place for the things traditionally taught in liberal arts universities, but only a small fraction of the population is both inclined toward and well suited for pursuing that kind of education. Because we’ve mistakenly pursued an everyone-should-go-to-college path, colleges and universities have become dumbed-down four-year social clubs.

    And worse. Worse than being merely mediocre, they’ve become toxic environments inculcating illiberal dysfunction.

    We still need STEM programs. The rest of it is gangrenous and should be allowed to rot away. Young people who really want to and are able to learn the humanities will have to seek new institutions and the very small number that haven’t abandoned quality in favor of facile social justice tripe.

    • #11
  12. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    So many of these tragic oppressions   are occurring now inside the leafy green academic world that it seems like The Cultural Revolution has arrived.

    Reader’s Digest published an article maybe 8 years ago that featured photographs taken stealthily during Mao’s reign of terror.

    One of the most interesting and most confusing was that of a man forced to sit on a tall wobbly stool with a dunce cap on his head while his neighbors pelted him with rotten veggies and fruit. His crime? He had so admired the Chairman that he had asked his barber to trim his hair Mao-style. Of course, no normal human was allowed to emulate this modern day god of communism, so he had to be publicly humiliated.

    Author Sally Satel’s being slandered for her use of artisinal coffee falls in the same category  of micro management of each individuals’ behavior  today and forever.

     

    • #12
  13. GlenEisenhardt Coolidge
    GlenEisenhardt
    @GlenEisenhardt

    James Salerno (View Comment):
    I don’t care how many “good teachers” are out there. If you need to go to college for 8 years to get a general education degree to teach fourteen year olds, with no real world experience of your own, you shouldn’t teach. This mentality is destroying generations of American children.

    Yup, it is nothing but rot. Anyone who has any significant expertise or experience should be allowed to teach. Why not?

    • #13
  14. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Especially, we need to stop allowing a few ‘elite’ colleges to act as gatekeepers to a number of lucrative and influential careers.

    The management consultant, writer, and social analyst Peter Drucker wrote, more than 50 years ago, that a major American advantage over Europe was that we did *not* do that in this country:

    One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…

    We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above.

     

    • #14
  15. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    What we’re seeing everywhere is what happens in a giant country when the top runs matters.  Indeed the world was run top down throughout history until the US came along.  Moreover, the larger and more diverse the country the more totalitarian the top must become to stay in charge and that reality deepens as technology becomes more complex.   That is where we’re headed and leaders in both parties either don’t realize it or think it will be different this time, indeed the first time in history anywhere.  That’s not arrogance.  It’s stupidity. 

    • #15
  16. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    A good first step would be abolishing government-backed student loans. In my opinion, that program is largely responsible for the hyper inflation of college tuition and fees. Too many students are taking classes that have no practical value in the real world, while racking up tremendous student debt and then demanding that others (taxpayers) bail them out. 

    • #16
  17. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    A good first step would be abolishing government-backed student loans. In my opinion, that program is largely responsible for the hyper inflation of college tuition and fees. Too many students are taking classes that have no practical value in the real world, while racking up tremendous student debt and then demanding that others (taxpayers) bail them out.

    It’s impossible for that to be a first step when nobody, not even conservatives, is willing to take the first step toward the first step.  

    • #17
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