Universities: “The Most Authoritarian Institution in America

November 17, 2012

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, occasional COMMENTARY contributor Sohrab Ahmari distills an interview with Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The article really is a must-read. It begins:

At Yale University, you can be prevented from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on your T-shirt. At Tufts, you can be censured for quoting certain passages from the Quran. Welcome to the most authoritarian institution in America: the modern university—”a bizarre, parallel dimension,” as Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls it.

A glance at FIRE’s top current cases shows just how serious the problem has become. Campuses may still teach science, engineering, and humanities, but they do not imbue basic notions of liberty or intellectual tolerance. Too many administrators and professors seek to stifle rather than promote free speech, the tenure process now squelches it as junior faculty members are reticent to speak their mind lest they cross politically or otherwise senior professors.

The irony is that while some professors explain away the huge discrepancy between left and right among the professorate by simply suggesting that leftwing/progressive positions are more educated, many of the same professors refuse to debate their positions in front of those with alternate viewpoints. Some students affiliated with Alexander Hamilton Society chapters, for example, say that professors refuse to debate mainstream foreign policy experts and right-of-center academics they bring to campus. Sometimes they decline on grounds that they are not expert enough in topics such as Iran, Syria, a rising China, and resurgent Russia. This itself is problematic, as it suggests the theories in which the professors immerse themselves and their students have no basis in reality.

Other times, professors simply tell students that they do not believe debate is the best way to highlight arguments or educate about issues. Perhaps then speech codes and strict litmus tests of campus speakers is a product of this intellectual cowardice. Either way, Lukianoff and FIRE deserve kudos for holding university presidents’ feet to the fire by shining a spotlight on universities abusive of free speech and refusing to let these campuses to hide behind the artificial barriers and reality which they construct.

Schools: Tufts University Yale University