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Universities should be deeply embarrassed that it has come to this. The President of the United States uses the financial big stick:
Many [universities] have become increasingly hostile to the First Amendment and free speech. Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans like those here today. All of that changes starting right now. We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars.
Yet politicians absolutely should not be diversity-enforcers especially when it comes to ideas.
So a natural response is the purely democratic argument that says Yes, politicians should force diversity: Government-funded universities are paid for with tax monies, and in a democracy politicians are responsible to their constituents to ensure that their funds are spent appropriately. But biased faculties cannot deliver quality education, especially on important controversial issues about which students need to hear and weigh all sides of the arguments. Therefore, it is democratically appropriate that politicians either withdraw government funding or intervene to mandate intellectual diversity and balanced presentation.
The other side of the argument says No, even state universities should be self-governing institutions free of political pressure. The ideal of liberal education holds that knowledge seeking and transfer require intellectual freedom to pursue politically unpopular lines of thought in research, publication, and in the classroom. But governments are institutions of compulsion, and any thought policing by politicians must be rejected vigorously in the name of academic freedom. So government-funded universities should not be seen in purely democratic terms but—true to their medieval roots—more in feudal terms, as part of an overall political structure but with special privileges and rights not necessarily granted to other sectors.
But what if the universities—or significant portions of them—become captured by professors, administrators, and/or student groups actively opposed to liberal education? That is, what if they willfully engage in biased teaching or even indoctrination? What if they suppress the academic freedom of those they disagree with? What if they tolerate the use of physical threats or engage in acts of compulsion against dissenters and intellectual minorities? If the case for academic freedom is part of the ideal of liberal education, but a university rejects or subverts liberal education, then the politicians who fund the government universities face a dilemma.
Politicians must then choose either (1) to fail in their responsibilities to taxpayers by continuing to spend their money on educationally irresponsible institutions, or (2) to use their political power to interfere with or override the self-governance of universities. The dilemma is worsened by the government’s being an institution of compulsion: it either uses compulsion to get people to pay their taxes to fund the universities, or it uses compulsion to force the universities to reform (or it does both).
The tension between liberal education on compulsory funding thus becomes explicit.
If politicians choose the route of imposing reforms on the state universities, they have a number of sub-options:
- Eliminate tenure in order to speed up the process of replacing faculty.
- In the hiring of new faculty, require a kind of affirmative action for under-represented perspectives.
- Threaten to or actually withdraw funds unless specific politically-decided reform targets are met.
- Tie political funding to demonstrated educational responsibility, including ideological balance, but leave it up to the universities how they will achieve that.
But history shows that politicians’ controlling education is a worse outcome. In politically authoritarian societies, uniformity and fear replace independent thinking and debate. And in politically democratic societies, political control means that education becomes a football kicked back and forth across the field depending on who won the last election.
Preserving the autonomy of universities should therefore be the priority. And that means that the needed diversity reforms have to be effected by other interest groups that care about education—students, administrators, boards of trustees, donors, accrediting agencies, media, and, perhaps most importantly, those faculty who are genuinely committed to liberal education.
Despite the worrying current trends, there is also encouraging evidence that the pushback against intellectual intolerance has momentum:
- Students marching with their feet to avoid the most politicized universities, e.g., the significantly declining enrollment at University of Missouri in response to out-of-control events the previous year.
- Donors who withhold their much-needed funds when educational bias increases, as the examples of Amherst, Yale, and other institutions show.
- Reporting by widely-read publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education to highlight the seriousness of the problems.
- National and international groups of professors joining with other professors to reinvigorate the ideal of genuine knowledge-seeking and liberal education.
There’s no obvious answer to the question of which side will prevail—liberalism versus authoritarianism is an age-old, multi-front battle. But when there is still hope that the universities can heal themselves, precedence should be given to the principle of keeping separate the spheres of intellectual freedom and political compulsion.