I just finished reading an article by Noah Carl, a fellow academic victim of a fanatical left-wing Twitter mob, on the threats to free speech in American and European universities. Much of it looks very familiar to me these days, having faced bullying of various sorts both online and in real life, and at my own university and elsewhere, due to the ideas and positions expressed in this blog.
In recent weeks, after a longish period of mostly silence, my own mob of clandestine harassers re-surfaced. Having failed to bully me into a ritual apology, and having failed to force my university — to their eternal credit — to abandon their ethical defense of academic freedom and free speech, they’ve decided to attack my collaborators and colleagues. Basically, because I announced my support for President Donald J. Trump, anybody that is willing to work with me is subject to the hatred of the mob.
Which sucks, but it is also edifying in a way, because it reveals a bit about the range of responses from institutions toward this harassment. Research-oriented institutions appear to be the most resilient, particularly public universities. Presumably people who do real research understand the value of diverse perspectives. For instance, if you actually care about affecting environmental policy, how could you not see the value of having an environmentalist on your team with a genuine right-wing perspective? However, the response from prestige universities and teaching-oriented colleges is much more disheartening.
The former are not surprising; leftist fanatics have worked to infiltrate the commanding heights of culture since the Progressive Era. The vulnerability of teaching colleges to mob pressure surprised me, however. In principle, these are institutions for the common person, and therefore one would expect that their ideological skew would be much less extreme, and much closer to the roughly 50/50 right/left split of the general population. But they are also focused more completely on the classroom experience than are research universities, so the ability of a few angry bullies to destroy that experience looms much larger. Regardless of their personal attitudes toward the value of academic freedom and free speech, faculty and administration at such universities are likely to take the path of least resistance and simply avoid any connection to controversy — which in 2019, means avoiding anything that deviates from the political dogma of the “resistance” left, or even interaction with any people who have ever expressed opposition to those orthodoxies.
Like I said, my university, as of right now, has strongly supported the speech rights of dissenting professors and students. But I am struck, looking at the range of responses elsewhere, by how much luck is involved in the outcome of an academic speaking out against orthodox belief. At other universities, I could have been denounced by upper administration, removed from teaching, or even fired, largely at the whim of administrators. Even here, a change in administration could result in a radical shift in my fortunes. There are legal recourses to prevent this, of course, but they are costly and time-consuming, and certainly less than ideal.
This is an unacceptable situation. One can’t fault universities — which are dependent on putting butts in seats to stay solvent — for wanting to avoid controversy. But information and thought are public goods — the learning and scholarship performed at the university by a few academics for their whole career, and enjoyed by most citizens for a small part of their young life, disseminate throughout society with countless positive effects. As public goods, they are both critically important for the well-being of the nation (and indeed humanity) as a whole, but also vulnerable to infection and misuse by unscrupulous “cheaters” willing to manipulate the system for their own selfish gain.
If we want to prevent the slide of the university system into irrelevancy and preserve public trust in both our scholarship and the education we provide, we have to protect these public goods. And this protection can’t be piece-meal, existing at one university and not at another. It has to be system-wide, and therefore it will require legislation, either at the State or Federal level. Universities and other educational institutions at all levels must be compelled by law to protect students and professors from harassment, both academic and personal, for their speech. Toward this end, there must be significant legal consequences for engaging in mob harassment and bullying, whether from a left- or right-wing perspective (or any other wing for that matter). Moreover, if it is to be successful, the burden for enforcing these laws must not fall to legal action by the student or the professor, who will easily be outspent into penury by the massive endowments and crack legal teams of university violators, but rather by the government, probably through some sort of watchdog agency. At a first glance, fines and removal of federal or state funding from violating individuals and agencies seems like a reasonable stick to use for enforcement.
Not being a law guy, I’m not sure how to accomplish this in a way that prevents it from being used as a way to enforce orthodoxy, rather than resist it. For instance, a red line has to be discovered that clearly separates dissent and disagreement from harassment. Dr. Carl has promised a sequel to his article where he will address some proposals — I look forward to reading it.