Should Faculty Choose Who Speaks on Campus?

The new guardians of the Maoist gate.

As universities continue to be roiled by a debate over which speakers, and which viewpoints, can and should be heard on campuses, some concerned administrators, faculty, and students have sought ways to mitigate the increasing number of events during which heckling, intimidation, and even physical violence were used to foreclose unpopular speech.

Those who have led these protest against conservative viewpoints—progressive students, Muslim students, leftist professors, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and others—have displayed a shocking disregard for the university’s cardinal virtue of free expression, deciding themselves who may say what about whom on their respective campuses, and purging from campuses those ideas they have deemed too hateful, too unsafe, too incendiary to tolerate or to allow to be heard.

When Antifa thugs and other illiberal Berkeley students marauded through campus to shut down a scheduled speech last February by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, for instance, the apparent lesson learned by many who assessed the unfortunate events was not that the protestors’ unwillingness to let opposing views to be heard represented a grave threat to unfettered speech and expression; instead, the takeaway seemed to be that the disruptions and rioting were the fault of the conservative students groups who invited the controversial speakers in the first place, and that those shutting down so-called “hate speech,” any view inconsistent with liberal thought, were doing so defensively to prevent toxic, hurtful, or intellectually dangerous ideas from harming the sensibilities of the many coddled special interest groups on campus.

Guest speakers, of course, are invited to campus by student groups, but in the wake of a succession of controversial appearances by conservative speakers faculty also began to suggest different ways to avoid clashes of ideology, the most obvious one—in their minds, at least—being to more carefully vet individuals in advance and counsel student groups about potentially problematic speakers, based on their prior writing, speaking, and notoriety. This process sounds innocuous enough but is actually quite pernicious when the ultimate intent is to screen the views and ideologies of prospective speakers as a way of preventing them from ever coming to campus at all—in short, violating content neutrality when assessing permitted speech and proscribing certain views in advance.

One recent instance where a professor expressed his view that faculty should be actively involved in the selection of speakers was an October op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, suggested that faculty members, not students, should “decide who gets to speak on campus.” “Free Speech Week was sponsored by a student group,” he wrote, referring to a four-day Berkeley event to host conservative speakers, “and yet it seems to me an open question whether students should be allowed to issue such invitations.”   

“University speaker programs are an extension of the intellectual and pedagogical life of the institution,” Edmundson wrote. “And that life should be directed by the faculty. We are the ones who know, or should know, what outside speakers are likely to be edifying.” But hinting at which speakers this professor is likely to deem “edifying,” ignoring the reality that there is scant balance in teaching or thinking on almost every university campus today, Edmundson optimistically contended that, “Presenting a balanced slate of speakers would be our job, just as it’s our job to offer counterthrusts to the overall direction of our teaching.”

In March 2017, six self-righteous professors (members of the tellingly named Commission for Ethnicity, Race, and Equity (CERE)) sent an email to the entire Wellesley community in which they railed against “several guest speakers with controversial and objectionable beliefs [who] have presented their ideas at Wellesley.” The email was precipitated, somewhat ironically, by a series of lectures as part of Wellesley’s Censorship Awareness Week, during which one controversial speaker, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis, caused backlash when she critiqued the widely-accepted notion that American campuses are awash with sexual assault.

According to these progressive professors, “There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty at Wellesley.” How does this imposition show itself? For one thing, they contended, “dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of a speaker’s words.” More absurdly, they continued, it is hurtful to students to expect them to confront opposing views with ideas of their own; students “often feel the injury most acutely and invest time and energy in rebutting the [controversial] speakers’ arguments,” the professors wrote.

Most egregious was the suggestion by this group of professors, similar to what UVA’s Professor Edmundson had suggested, that speakers be vetted prior to being invited to Wellesley, and that only those with progressive ideologies, acceptable views, be invited to speak.

“This is not a matter of ideological bias,” the faculty contended, and then immediately revealed that ideological bias on their part is precisely what will influence who should speak and who should not. “Pseudoscience suggesting that men are more naturally equipped to excel in STEM fields than women, for example,” they declare without the benefit of being neuroscientists themselves, “has no place at Wellesley.”  “Similar arguments pertaining to race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other identity markers are equally inappropriate.”

This was, of course, a breathtaking display of pretentiousness and audacity by the Wellesley professors, who are confident that they alone can decide which ideas can be heard and which can, and should, be suppressed—all in the name of protecting the sensibilities of victim groups on campus. That is a dangerous notion and one that contradicts the primary goal of the university, which is the unfettered exchange of many views in the “marketplace of ideas.” It assumes, falsely, that some ideas are intrinsically superior to others and that only those deserve to be expressed; that these few professors have the knowledge and insight—about all areas of inquiry—to be able to assess the value of a variety of speakers’ intellectual contributions, based on what may well be a cursory evaluation of their prior research and writing; and that students themselves lack the intelligence to select speakers to visit campus—especially speakers who may be controversial, unorthodox, incendiary, or representative of different political perspectives.

There is another, even more critical aspect of the ideology of the professoriate that would be an argument against having them be responsible for vetting and approving all outside speakers: while faculty and administrators have long expressed a fervent desire to create ideological diversity in academia, research studies have indicated that, in reality, nothing even close to this aspiration has been realized. In fact, in one of these investigations conducted by Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern, the authors identify the existence of what they identified as highly-biased campuses where Democrats (liberals) outnumber Republicans (conservatives) at alarming rates of disparity, with “results [that] support the view that the social science and humanities faculty are pretty much a one-party system.”  The study found that the ratios between Democrats and Republicans in the different academic departments ranged from a low of 3-to-1 in Economics to a shocking 30.2-to-1 imbalance of Democrats to Republicans among Anthropology faculty.  

A more recent 2016 study, published in Econ Journal Watch, evaluated faculty voter registration at forty leading universities and found “that, out of 7,243 professors, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3,623 to 314, or by a ratio of 111/2 to 1.” This average is alarming in and of itself, but History departments, as one stunning example, are virtually absent of ideological diversity, “where liberals outnumber conservatives by a 331/2-to-1 ratio.”

Professors who are openly contemptuous of conservative views, and who have decided in advance that these views are intellectually defective and without value, will never be motivated to even listen to opposing voices, let alone allow speakers with these views to bring them to campus —precisely why the notion of having professors decide who may and may not speak on campus is a flawed idea.

Unfortunately, many on the left, faculty and students alike, believe that their progressive views are virtuous and moral, and those of conservatives are regressive, cruel, and unjust. The moral rectitude of these members of the academic community is not only ill-conceived, but startling and offensive.

 “Without sacrificing its central purpose,” suggested Yale’s still-relevant 1974 Woodward Report on freedom of expression, “[the university] cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect. To be sure, these are important values . . . [for a university, but not] its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.”

 Faculty should not be afraid of that freedom.