College presidents flunk their exam before Congress and two lose their jobs; a common-sense policy might have protected them
By Herbert Rothschild
Last year, many of our nation’s elite private universities began addressing seriously the status of free expression on their campuses. What happened on Dec. 5 must have lent urgency to their self-examinations. That day, appearing before the House Education and Workforce Committee, the presidents of Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania gave evasive and convoluted answers when Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) asked them if calling for the genocide of Jews would violate their rules on bullying and harassment and subject the speaker to disciplinary proceedings.
The subsequent fallout was swift and, for the presidents of Penn and Harvard, drastic. The former, Elizabeth Magill, was forced to resign four days later. Regarding the latter, the Harvard Corporation (the governing board) announced that it stood behind Claudine Gay, but it also revealed that it had been investigating charges of plagiarism against her since October. They hadn’t found evidence rising to the level of plagiarism, but there was enough “there there” to seriously embarrass Gay, who was already damaged by her remarks to the House committee, and so she resigned.
In itself it was bewildering that the presidents wouldn’t declare without qualification that if a member of their university communities called for the systematic extermination of a sizable portion of their faculties and student bodies, they would face some kind of disciplinary action. It was even more bewildering given that tolerance for speech and opinions that fell far short of such hate had been contracting on many college campuses.
Harvard officially has become so censorious about subject matter and opinions that might cause discomfort to certain historically marginalized groups that more than 120 faculty formed a Council on Academic Freedom to respond to perceived assaults on free inquiry. In an article about the council that appeared in Harvard Magazine last June, Edward Hall, professor of philosophy and co-president of the council, said that what is “disappointing to me is the way that the administration has been dragging its feet on its role.”
In an article Harvard Magazine published just after the Dec. 6 Congressional hearing, Watson Professor of Law Jeannie Suk Gersen, one of the founders of the council, spoke of a “slow erosion” of open inquiry that had recently “started to feel unbearable.” She recalled private conversations with students who told her they were afraid to speak their mind in class for fear of being shamed or ostracized. Meanwhile, she said, some colleagues have removed controversial topics like gender, sexual assault, or racial discrimination from their syllabi. She said they have told her it’s not worth the potential problems those classroom discussions could cause.
As I was processing the puzzling discrepancy between President Gay’s refusal to tell the House committee that a call for extermination of Jews wouldn’t be tolerated at Harvard and what I knew was happening on the campus over which she presided, a friend forwarded me a State of the University letter that Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber had just sent out. His remarks in the section labeled “Free Speech” reflected such good judgment that I requested and received from his office permission to quote them extensively.
Eisgruber begins the letter with the bedrock principle: “Free speech and academic freedom are the lifeblood of any great university and any healthy democracy.” From which it follows that “Princeton’s policy on free expression provides students, faculty and staff with ‘the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.’ Our policy, like the First Amendment, protects even speech regarded by ‘some or … most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. We protect it nonetheless.’”
In this vein he continued: “(W)hile we recognize that speech can sometimes cause real injury, great universities do not trust any official — their presidents included — to decide which ideas, opinions or slogans should be suppressed and which should not. Censorship has a lousy track record.”
There are limits at Princeton. “The mere fact that speech is offensive is never grounds for discipline at Princeton; the speech must fall under one of the enumerated exceptions to our free expression policy, such as those permitting the university to restrict threats or harassment.”
I would assume that calling for the extermination of Jews would fall within one of those exceptions.
Further, to tolerate vile speech or opinions is not to condone them. “Universities do indeed advise students to treat one another with respect and to avoid unnecessary offense to anyone, including minority groups …. Advising students to avoid offensive speech, however, is very different from suppressing or punishing that speech. Advice is not a ‘speech code.’ On the contrary, advice and counsel are part of education, which is the essence of what we and other universities do.”
Eisgruber developed at greater length this essential distinction. “Universities must protect even offensive speech, but that does not mean we must remain silent in the face of it. On the contrary, we must speak up for our values if we are to make this campus a place where free speech flourishes and where all our students can feel that they are ‘hosts,’ not ‘guests.’ We must model and teach constructive forms of dialogue if we are to enable our students to build and inhabit a society more inclusive than the one that exists today. We must also ensure that students are exposed to competing viewpoints, feel able to express thoughtful ideas and arguments even when they are unpopular, and know how to discuss controversial issues respectfully.”
Given the family in which I was raised, when it came time to apply for colleges I was pressured to apply to Yale, Harvard and Princeton. In a bold act of teenage self-assertion, I applied to Yale and Amherst. I dismissed Princeton because its compulsory system of “eating clubs” seemed to enshrine social stratification. Now that some of its competitors are plagued by a different kind of oppressive tribalism, Princeton might be a more attractive choice.
Herbert Rothschild’s columns appear on Friday in Ashland.news. Opinions expressed in them represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feb. 2: Redundancy removed in the fifth paragraph.