Unlearning Liberty

Denyse O’Leary
28 November 2012
Reproduced with Permission

At one time, university campuses were considered bastions of intellectual liberty. No more. In Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate liberal atheist Greg Lukianoff, a founder and the current president of the influential Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), says those days are over. The new reality is:

On college campuses today, students are punished for everything from mild satire, to writing politically incorrect short stories, to having the "wrong" opinion on virtually every hot button issue, and, increasingly, simply for criticising the college administration, just as Hayden Barnes was. In the coming pages, you will see a student punished for publicly reading a book; a professor labeled a deadly threat to campus for posting a pop-culture quote on his door; students required to lobby the government for political causes they disagreed with in order to graduate; a student government that passed a "Sedition Act" empowering them to bring legal action against students who criticized them; and students across the country being forced to limit their "free speech activites" to tiny, isolated corners of campus creepily dubbed "free speech zones." (pp. 4-5)

In his view, this problem will only get worse as university-educated people assume leadership in society without any firm grasp of the fact that good ideas survive challenge and dissent. They will increasingly adopt the view that giving offense is a much bigger problem for society than suppressing ideas.

One problem he identifies is the subtle way in which claims about equality can become an instrument of tyranny. For example, in one of his classes, intelligent students were unable to agree that female genital mutilation was wrong. Their notion of respect for other cultures had simply overwhelmed their sense of natural justice. Others have noted the same thing: Respect for other cultures means that one cannot have a debate about the most basic justice issues for fear of offending someone.

One of the key causes of the growth of censorship at universities may be the growth of administration. Lukianoff argues (pp. 70-75) that there is likely a relationship because bureaucracy greatly increases the cost of education:

Most importantly, the increase in tuition and overall cost is disproportionately funding an increase in the cost and the size of the campus bureaucracy, and this bureaucracy has primary responsibility for writing and enforcing speech codes, creating speech zones, and policing students' lives in ways that students from the 1960s would never have accepted. (p. 71)

He offers a revealing statistic:

In August 2010, the Goldwater Institute published a report titled Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education which found that spending on administration per student grew by 61 percent between 1993 and 2007, a rate that far exceeded the growth in cost for instruction. (p. 73)

Consider the difference between a professor-run campus and one largely run by administrators: A professor has more to lose from simply shutting down free speech than an administrator does. Her career may depend on advancing new ideas; the administrator's career depends on running the campus smoothly and free speech may not be relevant to such a goal.

A chilling discovery from Lukianoff's book is that Christian groups are disproportionately more threatened on campus. He writes,

If you told me twelve years ago that I, a liberal atheist, would devote a sizeable portion of my career to defending Christian groups, I might have been surprised. But almost from my first day at FIRE, I was shocked to realize how badly Christian groups are often treated. (p. 163)

Between 2002 and 2009, dozens of colleges across the country threatened or derecognized Christian groups because of their refusal to say that they would not "discriminate" on the basis of belief. These colleges included, to name a few, Arizona State University, Brown University, California State University, Cornell University, Harvard University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, Texas A&M University, Tufts University, the University of Arizona, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Mary Washington, the University of New Mexico, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Washington University. (p.169)

One contributing factor - as reported by a 2007 study from the Institute for Jewish and Community Research --is that "faculty hold the most unfavorable feelings toward evangelicals" of any group whatever.

That implies that a campaign for intellectual freedom must begin within the Christian community. But what better place?