Academia is under increased, and increasingly successful, threat. Threats to academic freedom and tenure should be strenuously resisted, yet authoritarian efforts are successful precisely because academia has increasingly lost its way. Shrill identity politics advocacy has too often replaced open inquiry and good data as the emphasis of academia. As a consequence, and alongside soaring costs, public confidence in universities is decreasing. Universities would be well served by rediscovering principles of free speech, institutional neutrality, and an emphasis on merit rather than identity.
Academia, such as it was in the 5th century BCE, is perhaps best represented by the famous philosopher Socrates who taught reason and logic to Athenian youth. Socrates epitomized the best of Athenian rationality and inquiry, particularly during a time of otherwise significant discord during and after the Peloponnesian War, which was marked by unstable governments. But Socrates also represented a threat to traditional values of religion and culture by coming into conflict with the conservatism of the Athenian state. So, did he win?
On the one hand, Socrates remains perhaps history’s most famous philosopher, and he is generally viewed positively. On the other hand, he was executed for corrupting the youth (by a democratic jury no less), was parodied as absurd by playwrights such as Aristophanes, and, famous though he is, most people today probably don’t know what he actually said, even if we assume Plato and others represented his views faithfully.
In the United States today, academia is not unlike Socrates, at once both the pride of our culture and also seriously at odds not just with conservatism but also with a general public that is increasingly frustrated by rising costs, doctrinal rigidity, academia’s sometime opposition to core values such as free speech and due process, and political one-sidedness. To be clear, speaking as an academic who loves academia and believes in the mission of the American university, we are at a crisis point. We need to restructure and reform, but to do so cautiously, based on first principles of academic freedom, free speech, due process, and data-based open inquiry.
In recent years, much has been made of illiberal efforts by conservatives such as Ron DeSantis to erode academic freedoms, defund universities, and ignore science. Conservatives have criticized universities for decades, so this is nothing new. What’s new is that, increasingly, the criticisms that underly these conservative efforts are accurate. To be clear, too many conservative efforts to erode tenure, censor speech, and target historical minorities (particularly gay and trans Americans) deserve opposition. But we can also acknowledge that some concerns that underlie many of these authoritarian efforts are valid. Increasingly, the American university is itself illiberal, censorious, ideologically absurd, anti-science, and prejudiced (often tokenizing minorities while engaging in blatant bigotry against whites, Jews, Asians, men, women, and gay, black or Latino scholars and students who oppose identity politics). Increasingly, we are becoming the caricature of Socrates in Aristophanes’ The Clouds.
This is not to say that conservatives’ caricatures of academia are all correct. Most faculty and students are absolutely dedicated to data and open inquiry. But as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has indicated, censure of students and faculty for “wrongthink” has accelerated at an alarming pace. Even tenured faculty are not safe from being fired. Political loyalty oaths involving commitment to the progressive ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI, as misnamed a label as there has ever been) also are proliferating in decisions over hiring, raises, and tenure/promotion. Major academic publications such as Nature, one of the world’s leading science journals now actively advocate censorship of science that might “offend” certain groups. We should be clear: the offended parties will seldom be poor black, Latino, gay, trans, or other individuals, but rather highly privileged managerial elites or coddled students hoping to join that managerial elite class.
Once again, to be clear, most students are not fragile, coddled, perpetual victims. Nor are most faculty seeking to indoctrinate students into sociocultural leftism (although some do protest too much). But we are now in a phase of what some call “minority rule,” in which the most aggrieved, aggressive, outraged individuals, abetted by feckless and cowardly administrators, have set the cultural tone for too many universities. The result has been widespread fear of speaking openly, and gross violations of due process when accusations are made. Most universities also now have an effective snitch culture of bias response teams.
To put it simply, American universities are turning their back on seeking the truth, however uncomfortable it may be, and instead are pursuing leftist ideological purity. At the same time, college tuitions have soared, greatly outpacing inflation. Thus, it should be no surprise that public confidence in universities is dropping quickly. Enrollments are also dropping, particularly among men. Despite the fairly obvious gender disparity in universities at this point, somehow this is never identified as systemic prejudice against men. Instead, it’s naturally the men themselves that are to blame. As an Atlantic article put it, “…the ideology of masculinity isn’t changing fast enough to keep up.” Of course, it’s silly to think universities are discriminating against men, but this highlights how “disparities = bias” arguments are raised selectively for some groups but not others depending upon ideological convenience.
With that in mind, there are some reforms we need to consider. These reforms should, whenever possible, be data-based and carried out in such a matter as preserves existing jobs. Further, all reforms should be guided by first principles of freedom of speech and due process.
Universities Need to Bring Down Costs
I don’t think it’s remotely controversial to point out that US universities are now far too expensive. And these costs are not reflected in the academic component of universities. Instead, expenses are frittered away on a bloated and unhelpful administrative system (and, yes, that includes DEI), as well as amenities designed to make universities more like spas than educational facilities. For smaller universities, significant costs may also go toward athletic programs that are not profitable.
Universities need to bring those costs down while preserving the core academic missions of teaching and research. My advice is a hiring freeze on unnecessary administrative positions, including DEI positions, which are shown to have little value in producing positive outcomes. No one should be fired; rather, their positions should simply not be replaced when they leave or retire. And as much as I love them, maybe we could do without extravagances like lazy rivers on college campuses.
Some Departments May Need to be Cut
Cutting low-service departments is a difficult issue, because it intersects concerns about free speech with those regarding rigorous inquiry. My observation is that some departments are suffering from two issues: low student enrollment and lack of academic rigor. And sure, I generally mean the “studies” departments, where some fields such as “whiteness studies” may come very close to actual institutionalized racism or sexism.
But this is the conundrum. On the one hand, academic freedom means it is wrong to cut fields of inquiry simply because they are objectionable, despite such attempts by conservative legislatures. On the other hand, it would be absurd to take academic freedom to the extreme of supporting departments such as astrology, eugenics, or parapsychology (as much as I enjoy a good ghost story). The deciding criterion lies in distinguishing departments which have demonstrated some rigorous approach to truth. This could be by means of the scientific method as used in such fields as biology and psychology, even if the failure rate is often high, or else by other rigorous methods, such as the historiography of history, the logic of philosophy, and so on. This is not to say that these departments are immune to nonsense (many traditional humanities and social science departments are at the root of current misinformation), but at least they have some rigorous foundation upon which to rebuild. Many of the new “studies” fields do not, as they are often based on activism or one-sided political ideologies. To put it in perspective, most universities would probably see little value in, to pick on my own group, “Irish Studies,” if the main thrust of that field were to argue for the perpetual victimhood, unimpeachable moral virtue, and endless need for restitution for Irish and Irish Americans (and indeed, let us not forget, the Irish were historically marginalized and oppressed both in the US and on their home island). Nor would universities support departments of Intelligent Design or Reaganomics, nor should they.
The trick is in how to balance the commitment to freedom of expression with reversing the intellectual emptiness that has plagued modern universities. To be frank, I don’t have all the answers to that. Any conversation on this should be had with an eye to compassion for the faculty employed in these departments, and to compromise. For example, faculty members in any department cut due to (again, to be blunt) scholarly irrelevance should be moved to another core department. The university committed to that faculty member and decided to hire them in full knowledge of what they taught. But the university need not hire further faculty members in the same vein.
Also, to be clear, I think it’s also possible for the “studies” departments to reform along more scholarly, less activist lines. It’s possible to imagine an Irish Studies that doesn’t spend all its time griping about oppressive WASPs, and acknowledge that sometimes the Irish did bad stuff too. That’s honest academics, but unfortunately, it’s not what’s happening in many departments.
Universities Need to Stop Demonstrating Prejudice Against the US (and Europe)
At this point, academia’s criticism of US history has deviated far beyond anything like “honest history” or acknowledging the US’s bad behaviors into full blown obsessiveness. Universities now engage less in an honest telling of history, which would note both the positives and faults not only of the US, but also those of other countries and indigenous cultures, as well as the ubiquitous nature of slavery, genocide, and misogyny across the world, thus actually giving students a full picture of humanity. Rather, they often appear to demonstrate personal virtue through a neurotic focus on US faults. This has devolved into a kind of reversed American exceptionalism and embrace of Noble Savage myths for indigenous and non-European people. Once again, to be clear, we should be honest about the US history of racism, slavery, Frontier Wars, and so on. But we should also be honest in acknowledging the fact that Black Africans also kept and sold slaves (both other black Africans, but also other groups including Whites). We can acknowledge that indigenous people around the world including Native Americans kept slaves, engaged in genocide, damaged the environment, engaged in misogyny, brutally colonized other groups, etc. Bad behavior is a human universal, whether among the Irish, the Spaniards, the Comanche, the Hawaiians, the Han Chinese, the Zulu, the Arabs, the Jews, or any other group. Nobody is immune. In the end, Europeans just acquired boats, gunpowder, and comparative immunity to smallpox in the right combination at the right time. That’s the only real difference between groups: luck. In a different historical timeline, we might all be speaking Chinese or the language of the Aztecs.
Universities should also focus on the positives of disparate cultures, including America. We can acknowledge that the West was often brutal, but also voluntarily ended slavery, and in fact forcibly abolished slavery in other cultures without which slavery might still be accepted across the world today. The West also turned against the ubiquitous genocide, colonialism, misogyny, and ethnocentrism that marked almost all of previous human history. Diversity, as a goal of universities, should focus less on the evils of the west and our identity differences, and more on our human universalism as well as on learning about the art, food, and customs of other cultures. In other words, DEI should focus on exploration, not condemnation. And inclusivity should mean what it means to average people, not the ideological buzzword of progressive conformity that it has become. We can encourage students to explore the beauty of our diversity without being taught to hate their home country.
Universities Need to Adopt the Chicago Trifecta
The Chicago Trifecta refers to principles developed at the University of Chicago. These include:
- A statement rigorously defending free speech on college campuses.
- A statement committing to institutional neutrality (i.e., not weighing in on culture war or political issues with official statements representing the university).
- A statement affirming that academic merit will be the sole criterion for hiring, promotion, tenure, and raises.
Much of the problem for modern universities has been their dalliance with identity politics authoritarianism. This trend must be reversed.
Some colleagues I know feel that universities are lost to the Great Awokening. I take a longer view. Nothing is forever in history, and misguided movements can be reversed. Progressive dominance of universities was, itself, a long, determined march. But it can be reversed with determination and perseverance on the part of scholars, students, administrators, and a public courageous enough to stand for first principles of open inquiry, free speech, data-based knowledge, and due process. That march can begin today.
Christopher J. Ferguson
One thought on “To fight off threats to academic freedom, academia needs to rediscover its core principles”
I feel that the way identity politics has gone, has been a mistake. Whereas minority identities need to defend themselves from attacks and campaign against built in those disadvantages they face, the current situation is that the reaction against the racism (or other prejudices) is being allowed to define people, almost as much as racism seeks to narrowly define people. The result is an inhumane orthodoxy, almost as bad as the inhumane pressures they are fighting against.