Here’s another “I don’t work in higher education anymore, I can say what I want!” post.
There’s a reason many right wingers feel unwelcome on college campuses: the mission of higher education is intrinsically liberal. The University of Chicago’s famed Kalven Committee of 1967 (full report here) put it best:
The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.
Right wingers, by design and by effect, defend existing social arrangements and resist new ones.
The Kalven Committee definition also serves as a reminder that college campuses are not the same as cable news stations. Although first amendment law requires public universities to make their facilities available on a content-neutral basis, thus granting crackpots and provocateurs the same access as genuine scholars, the goal of any campus presentation should be the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge, not political put-downs.
I’m comfortable with the tension between that legal must and ethical should. A certain amount of crude — even hurtful — posturing is a regrettable but acceptable cost for broad freedom of expression. But a number of intelligent scholars find that tension uncomfortable. See, for instance, this argument from Yale Law School professor Robert Post and this one from Wuhan/Yale/Vassar philosophy professor Bryan Van Norden. Berkeley Law professor john a. powell articulates his objections in this upcoming New Yorker article.
For its part, the political right is uncomfortable with any social institution that challenges old dogmas. Despite controlling all three branches of the federal government and most state governments, the right fixates on its lack of control over higher education and the so-called mainstream media, fact-based institutions with missions hostile to its worldview.
So it has set about attacking both.
The right has hit on a no-lose strategy for college campuses, particularly public universities. Step one is to send in extremist speakers. Either their simplistic formulations (such as Milo Yiannopoulos’s “feminism is cancer”) are heard, or they aren’t heard, in which case the right pities itself as a victim of political correctness and uses the incident to impugn higher education in general.
Step two is to conflate campuses with militant platform deniers. UC Berkeley spent nearly $4 million protecting the first amendment rights of Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos in September 2017. Physical resistance to the speaking engagements came not from the campus, but from leftist fringe organizations such as By Any Means Necessary, the Revolutionary Communist Party (through an offshoot called Refuse Fascism), and Antifa. Who got blamed, though?
The strategy has worked, at least among the faithful. A July 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, a jump of 21% in two years. Anti-higher education sentiment is especially strong among conservative Republicans, nearly two-thirds of whom say colleges and universities have a negative impact on society.
If this dynamic continues, the reputational damage may present a major risk to higher education, as it will provide a rationale for state governments to defund and micromanage public universities (which has already occurred in some states).
All because most authoritarians find it easier to tolerate North Korea than a homegrown institution whose core purpose is to challenge that old-time thinking.