Fostering Free Expression in Higher Education

Choose an institution that has adopted the Chicago Principles, and then learn how to shed light on the dark corners of inquiry, and of your own mind.

How might faculty, administrators, and students foster free expression in higher education? Rather than rehash events of the past, I would like to offer advice for members of each of those three groups.

The Chicago Principles

Individuals doing the right thing cannot solve this problem. Game theory tells us that as an individual, if you stand against a mob, you will be torn apart, unless one of two things are true: 1) a large number of other people are willing to stand with you, quickly, or 2) your institution has your back.

Most people will not stand up for what they believe because risk-aversion and fear are powerful motivators. Given this, if you do stand up, you nearly guarantee that you will be alone, or close to it. That leaves the second option: your institution must have your back. Institutions of higher education must adopt the Chicago Principles, such that administrators, faculty, and students know that, if they do stand up and defend their right to free expression, their institution will not turn on them.

The Chicago Principles are probably familiar to readers of Public Discourse, but in summary, they guarantee “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”

What is a University for? As Jonathan Haidt has argued, you cannot simultaneously maximize both a pursuit of truth and a pursuit of social justice. The University of Chicago made it clear that, as an institution, it sees its mission as the pursuit of truth. Compare this with The Evergreen State College, the public liberal arts college where I was tenured until resigning last year, an institution that was once pedagogically experimental and allowed for a deep dive into ideas both disconcerting and dangerous.

In 2011, Evergreen modified its mission statement to read, in part: “Evergreen supports and benefits from a local and global commitment to social justice.” This seems innocuous on its face. Not only that, it seems morally good and, therefore, that anyone objecting to it must be, somehow, on the wrong side of issues that us “good people” care about. This is where the danger lies.

The search for truth and beauty, in its many forms, is what higher education is for, and about. The Enlightenment opened up our world, and gave us, among other things, the beginning of a formalization of the scientific method. One of the great strengths of the scientific method is its ability to reduce the role of bias and emotion in what we understand to be true. It is, at its core, a method for reducing bias. But in an era of information overload, when it seems that nothing can be trusted, many are reverting to trusting their own feelings above all else. It is ironic that, as people have come to lose faith in our system, they have run from science, and not toward it. For while scientists themselves are humans, and therefore fallible, rigorous application of the scientific method is the best cure for human fallibility ever devised.

One key distinction between human beings and most non-human animals is that we acquire insight cumulatively. Not only do we stand on the shoulders of giants, but riding on the shoulders of giants is our niche. We should learn from them when we can, and credit them always. What we should not do is trust that they are right simply because they are famous, or lauded, or because it is easier than thinking for ourselves. Institutions of higher education are supposed to be in the business of making, assessing, and communicating truth claims, and teaching others how to do the same.

Advising Administrators, Faculty, and Students

My advice, then, to administrators, faculty, and students:

Once an institution adopts the Chicago Principles, administrators are free to embrace and uphold them by, among other things, creating an explicit expectation that protest is acceptable—honorable, even—but not if it hinders others’ ability to hear, convey, and exchange ideas.

Administrators should not allow vocal authoritarian minorities to hold their campus hostage. And they certainly should not collude with such vocal minorities in order to achieve their own goals. We are, in effect, experiencing a dearth of adults, people willing to make unpopular decisions and stand by them. When someone throws a tantrum, regardless of their age, ceding to them because it is easier in the moment is always the wrong response. It creates larger tantrums down the road.

Administrators and faculty, in their role as hiring authorities, change their campus with every hire of new faculty. So when hiring a chemist, for instance, hire an actual chemist, not a “chemistry educator,” which is code for something else entirely.

To faculty, my advice is trickier, as faculty are in some ways the most entrenched lot. Those without tenure are at risk of blowback for politically incorrect actions or views, those with tenure are more likely to defend the status quo than question it, although tenure is supposed to allow for exactly the opposite.

Faculty: do not model authoritarianism yourselves in your classrooms, labs, or studios. Do not rule with fear (or pointless workload). Ruling with fear is easier, perhaps, than establishing trust and allowing dissent, but it will backfire.

Similarly, faculty, do not encourage students to respect you based on your credentials, either implicitly or explicitly. It is your ability to convey and wrestle with ideas that is valuable, which you can and should model for the students. This requires risking being wrong and being willing to return to your students with information that is more accurate or relevant to the question at hand. You need to be willing to make corrections, to be able to say: “I was wrong about X. Here’s why.” Think of yourself not as gatekeepers to hallowed halls, but as mentors and fellow humans who are learning as they go.

Many people now use the internet for discussion of deep, resonant, complex ideas, which can be fruitful. But if you do so rather than coming together in real life, with people who may disagree, you guarantee finding yourself in a silo, out of which you cannot see. Such echo chambers can become so loud and self-referential that you can cease to believe in the reality of anything outside of them. Too many classrooms are not places for engagement, but rather for bland dissemination of facts. Time together is precious: let us be willing to disagree with respect, and able to shift as we take new ideas and ways of thinking on board. The revisioning of belief in the face of new evidence is core to the scientific method. Everyone claiming a life of the mind should be willing to do the same: change their minds when the evidence calls for it.

And finally, to students, I have the following advice, although truly, this applies to everyone.

Consider the distinction between being part of a group, and being a follower. Speak up in small conversations, among friends, when you know that there is social pressure not to do so. Perhaps you lack the confidence that your convictions are apt, but being silenced into not exploring them is evidence that something is amiss.

Be open. Walk around with positive expectation rather than a feeling of grim defeat, and more diverse experiences will come your way. Do not seek safe spaces, be on the lookout for microaggressions, or demand trigger warnings. Yes, there are moments when what you want is the familiar. But if you allow yourself to take umbrage at that which is unfamiliar—by convincing yourself that unfamiliar is synonymous with outrageous—you will have an ever narrower horizon. Embrace the idea of the unexpected—not just the unexpected itself. This will be easier to do if you do the following:

  • Have friends who think differently from you or have truly different life experiences.
  • Leave behind as many of the reminders and comforts of home as you can, so that you actually immerse yourself in other people’s worlds.
  • Explore the physical world, not just the social one. The physical world provides non-gameable feedback on how well you are doing. Spend time engaging with experiences and tools that do not respond to emotion and manipulation, and you will learn much about the universe.

Remember, or come to realize, that all brains are different. Nearly all students at elite colleges, and many students at all institutions of higher education, have a particular way of being academically successful: they read easily, follow commands to do homework (even when it feels pointless), have at least some facility with writing and math. But there are many brilliant people out there who do not fall into this rubric. Neurological diversity crosses all demographic lines.

Do not let anyone tell you: we don’t ask those questions here. Dangerous questions exist. And there are going to be some ugly answers. Education and research, the twin goals of post-secondary institutions, are the routes towards understanding, and ultimately minimizing, the prevalence of ugliness in human interactions moving forward. Disappearing ugly facts, or silencing those who speak about them, gives them power that they do not deserve. Choose an institution that has adopted the Chicago Principles, and then learn how to shed light on the dark corners of inquiry, and of your own mind.

This essay is adapted from comments presented at the Department of Justice panel on Campus Free Speech: The Path Forward on September 17, 2018.

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