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Truth-Seekers or Coddlers at the Elite University? A Conversation with James Orr

An ideologically captured university creates the illusion of consensus on questions that in fact are highly contested off campus. That makes public disagreement a puzzling and unintelligible phenomenon. It creates a cascade of resentment and negative sentiment throughout the rest of the elite classes towards any dissenting views in the public square. It shatters a society’s understanding of itself and its role in the world, of what social flourishing looks like.

In Public Discourse’s latest interview, Dr. James Orr, Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University of Cambridge, joined Contributing Editor for Special Projects Jamie Boulding to discuss how Cambridge, one of the world’s oldest universities, is wrestling with very modern questions concerning freedom of speech, cancel culture, and open inquiry. In this discussion, which has been lightly edited for clarity, Dr. Orr also explains why campus culture matters, what academic job candidates should know, and how globalization and faith function at the elite university.

Jamie Boulding: Dr. Orr, thanks for taking time to interview with us. You frame the question of academic freedom on campus as a debate between “truth seekers” and “coddlers.” Could you say more about how you understand these groups?

James Orr: Thank you for asking me to have this discussion. Those terms were meant to pick out two competing visions of what a university is for. There are those who think the university is effectively a mechanism in a larger project of social engineering, or that the primary function of the university is to ensure that students are not challenged in any way that might offend them. A culture of psychological fragility—the end-state of Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic—has taken hold that is overriding the university’s foundational commitments, namely to what Robby George refers to as the pursuit of truth, the preservation of truth, and the passing on of truth.

Truth-seeking isn’t the only function of the university. It confers recognition and credentials on the best and brightest, it forms future citizens, and it signals to the professional sectors that the students are of sufficiently high caliber to work well. But John Dewey was right when he said that primarily the university function is the truth function.

JB: In the past few years, your own university—Cambridge—has been at the center of a number of intense debates about the nature and limits of academic freedom. Could say more about these developments, and how you see the condition of free speech at Cambridge today?

JO: The fact that these debates are happening at all at Cambridge is a sign that the health of its intellectual culture is better than it is elsewhere. I cannot think of a major US university where these problems are being debated as openly as they are here. And compared with other universities in the UK, I would say that Cambridge is in relatively good shape, partly because the architecture of power is flatter: it’s more diffuse, decentralized, and dispersed than universities that operate on a more top-down dirigiste model where there’s almost no opportunity for staff and students to resist ideologically driven interference with teaching and research. Unlike every other university in the country (except Oxford), Cambridge has a quasi-parliamentary mechanism in which executive action can in principle be challenged and debated.

For example, in 2019, there were a handful of controversial incidents at Cambridge that made it clear that small bands of keyboard radicals, willing to throw tantrums on social media or in the student press, could easily erode the institutional commitment to academic freedom.

The following year a proposal was advanced to amend the university’s policy on harassment and free speech. The proposed changes were perfectly well-intentioned, but the language wired into the fabric of the university a therapeutic logic that would have granted a heckler’s veto to the most easily offended person in the university. Of course, this meant that the risk of subjective offense would have become a dispositive factor in circumscribing teaching and research.

Thanks to my colleague Arif Ahmed, a group coalesced to challenge the proposal. Ultimately, a vote was held by secret ballot, in which a choice was placed before staff between the language of “respect” and the language of “tolerance” as fixing the appropriate parameters of acceptable speech. In terms of tolerance, the idea was that people should be free to disrespect views—even to have contempt for them—but accept that all lawful views be tolerated, including offensive ones. On what was a strong turnout by historical standards, nearly 90 percent of staff voted in favor of this language of toleration. This was a strong expression of sentiment from professors in favor of what I would think of as liberalism—at the heart of which lies toleration—over valorizing progressive values and confected victimhood above all else.

That was an important and galvanizing moment in the recent history of the university. It showed that, broadly speaking, people are not on board with the kind of creeping authoritarianism that suggests that we should be canceling speakers—or politicizing curricula, appointments, or admissions—based on criteria that have nothing to do with academic excellence or the testing of received wisdom—that is, nothing to do with facilitating the proper function of the university.

 

JB: While this seems like a victory over the coddlers, how might truth-seekers ensure that this kind of attempt at restricting academic freedom doesn’t one day reemerge?

JO: The value of truth-seeking is hard to instill when its defenders are routinely demonized or threatened with kangaroo courts; it’s still harder when students who should be cultivating it face the real threat of social ostracism. As for finding the right kind of solution, I am pretty pessimistic. The UK government is about to introduce legislation that will impose a duty on every university to promote academic freedom. It’s a clunky and imperfect antidote, but as Jonathan Swift says somewhere, it’s hard to argue people out of a position that they were never reasoned into. I think Jonathan Haidt’s analysis is probably right—that we often operate on the basis of a different configuration of moral foundations. The stance that one takes on the truth-seeking versus the coddling function of the university is for the most part a pre-rational one.

Looking at the data, the Higher Education Policy Institute here in the UK recently ran a useful survey that suggested a gloomy future for truth-seekers. For example, 77 percent of students thought that there should be mandatory training for university staff on understanding other cultures, up from 55 percent in 2016. In addition, 39 percent thought that student societies should ban all speakers that cause offense to students, up from 16 percent in 2016. And 36 percent thought that academics should be fired if they teach material that “heavily offends” some students, up from 15 percent in 2016. So as a matter of raw demographic reality, the direction of travel is pretty clear, and I don’t think anyone really knows where the brakes are, let alone what reverse gear looks like.

JB: Among academics with a gloomy assessment of these academic trends, there are some—including John Milbank—who argue that the future might lie outside of historic mainstream universities. And, of course, in the US there is a diverse landscape of religious colleges that can extricate themselves, to a degree, from the forces that produce campus illiberalism. Are you sympathetic to this perspective?

JO: It may be that Milbank is right about the United States. He is certainly one of the few academics who not only grasp the nature of the crisis more broadly but are also courageous enough to address it openly. But I doubt that in its current state the Church of England is the right vehicle to initiate any meaningful cultural change in the UK, not least because its leading figures are almost as enthusiastic for these new cults as are university administrators.

In any case, I would be reluctant to walk away from institutions with the heritage and national significance of the country’s great universities. Why should they be abandoned to the coddlers? Why should those committed to the founding vision of these universities be the ones who walk away?

The second worry is that there is no point setting up new institutions if you haven’t worked out how the old ones were colonized in the first place.

JB: Why should the broader culture care about these academic disputes? If you’re outside the university, why might free speech debates within the university matter?

JO: As Andrew Sullivan has observed, we all live on campus now. One of the most concerning developments in recent years is that constraints on free and open debate prevent a public university from discharging its duty to inform public reason and to steer public deliberations through the many technically demanding or philosophically complex questions that underpin law and public policy.

Worse still, an ideologically captured university creates the illusion of consensus on questions that in fact are highly contested off campus. Manufactured consensus signals to the public that the nation’s professional intellectual elite has reached a unanimous view, when in fact it is a highly partisan echo-chamber. That makes public disagreement a puzzling and indeed unintelligible phenomenon. It creates a cascade of resentment and negative sentiment throughout the rest of the elite classes toward any dissenting views in the public square. These dissenting views are often held most fiercely by people in socially or economically disadvantaged groups, and that in turn exacerbates and incubates support for populist causes and widens social division. It shatters a society’s understanding of itself and its role in the world, of what social flourishing looks like.

The trouble with groupthink is that wrongthink becomes evilthink. It means that the dissenting view—particularly when the consensus is on a difficult question that is morally loaded, and there seems to be no real opposition to it at all—is quickly seen as somehow subversive, morally questionable, and trivially easy to demonize. That’s bad for democracy, it’s bad for the nation, and it’s even worse when it’s done by a sector in receipt of funds from the public that it’s dividing.

 

JB: In light of the trends we’ve been discussing, what would you say to young people who might be interested in pursuing an academic career, especially in the humanities?

JO: A lot will depend of course on the field one is in. In terms of the trends, the data suggest a significant divergence on ideological questions between STEM and the humanities, though that is slowly disappearing. Within the social sciences and humanities, some disciplines seem more activist than others. Theology strikes me as having quite an open and balanced intellectual culture compared to other fields, no doubt because it is rooted more firmly in specific texts and normative traditions that are harder to excise or rewrite.

Academia is an odd profession in that it trains so many more apprentices than there are places in the guild. I suspect that if you’re in the business of truth-seeking, but if your research doesn’t express the right views on any of the neuralgic areas, then your chances of professional advancement may be limited.

There are some disciplines today in which signaling conformity to groupthink in your research is plainly the rational thing to do if you want to stand a chance in an extremely competitive market. It will always be possible for candidates to be treated favorably based on ideologically inflected research trajectories.

From what little I’ve seen, the appointments processes at places like Cambridge seem entirely transparent and fair. But internal disciplinary dynamics override explicit institutional commitments to fairness in appointments. If the mood of a guild shifts toward a politically freighted subdiscipline, then the institutional case for making the next appointment in that area becomes overwhelming. Those developments are happening in most universities right across the sector, but one can hardly blame university leaders for that.

JB: Does the global nature of elite universities bear on the issue of free speech in academia? In many ways, these institutions are no longer serving their own regions or even their own countries, but a different kind of demographic and mission.

JO: It’s an excellent point. I think about the scandal over the statute of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. That was imported directly by a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Cape Town, which, as David Benatar has documented in disturbing detail, has surrendered completely to progressive activists bent on its disintegration as a place of learning. Many graduate students are from overseas, and a lot of them are importing US culture war issues into the UK, so that we’re effectively operating with a kind of colonized mindset here. It’s most obvious when we’re talking about issues of race. Of course, the history of interracial relations in the UK is far from perfect, but it’s completely different from the US and by any empirical measure those relations are better than they ever were.

It is surreal and disturbing that events in foreign countries can have a seismic and immediate impact on British institutional life, with endless bouts of self-recrimination and self-reflection that have nothing to do with the problems in the UK. Universities do need to be decolonized—not from an empire that vanished sixty years ago, but from a new form of soft imperialism, an ideology that is dividing us from each other, politicizing our culture, and eroding our freedoms.

JB: Finally, as a theologian, how do you see the role of faith in academia, particularly as it relates to free speech?

JO: A decade ago, it was faith-based communities within the university—basically Catholics and evangelical Christians—whose freedom of conscience was most obviously under assault, especially on issues of marriage, sexuality, and bioethics. Life was often extremely difficult for Muslim students too. But no one cared much back then. However, the ideological shifts of the last six or seven years have meant that people of faith now have an unlikely coalition of support and solidarity gathering behind them, including gender-critical feminists who would otherwise disagree furiously with most of their traditional views.

More broadly, I suppose that those with orthodox religious commitments have a degree of natural immunity to ideological fashions of the current year. Even if most religious institutions are falling over themselves to signal conformity to progressive nostrums at every opportunity, looser networks of religious believers and secular fellow travelers within academia are probably in quite a strong position to endure the worst of this revolution.

JB: Thank you again for speaking with Public Discourse, Dr. Orr.

JO: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.

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