Who’s afraid of free speech? That is the question explored in the linked Atlantic article about the state of campus protest these days – the tone, the content and often the lack of content.
As always seems to happen, then end of fall semester was a time of hard deadlines then the holidays were a time of fatigue and recovery. With that behind us, now is the time to comment on a few of the many articles we followed along the way even if there wasn’t time or energy to link to them previously.
The theme of today’s catch-up is a common one here: calling out how campus opportunities and academic freedom are threatened across the nation. While I’ve seen several great articles and commentaries on this over the last month, I flag a few representative examples below.
The Week carries a commentary about students who want to delegitimize the very institutions from which they seek credentials. This does seem odd, don’t you think? Paying money to buy the attention of experts in order to denigrate them for being wrong? Perhaps these students are not actually paying with their own money. If they were then it seems more likely that they’d care whether the resulting credentials might enjoy some legitimacy.
Not just students assail campus scholarship. Other scholars (or at least those charged with leading them) are doing their best to dismantle scholarship too. In a Washington Post opinion piece, José Cabranes, a federal appellate judge and former trustee of Colgate, Yale and Columbia universities, laments how the system is gradually narrowing the scope of speech on campus, to the detriment of our scholarly work products. To find the best results, scholars need freedom to vet all ideas; we learn even in shooting some idea down since the effort to articulate one’s rationale helps us better organize the body of knowledge. Stifling speech because it is unpopular or inconvenient – as happens even here at College Park – thus delegitimizes our results, since objective viewers won’t ever have seen them tested against competing assertions. They won’t have been shown how the results are better. As we’re fond of quoting, if everyone is thinking alike, then nobody is thinking.
We can’t note the limits of speech (as above) without linking to National Review’s roll up of 2016’s most ridiculously PC moments. (Look closely to see how many of those might well have been College Park antics.)
Finally, and with regret, we mark the final columns penned by Prof. Thomas Sowell, as the 86 year old thinker steps back from his regular on-line commentary. We have often quoted Dr. Sowell, and hold in high regard his scholarship, so we will miss him. His farewell column is titled Random Thoughts, Looking Back. But one of his best regular columns appeared just a week before, The Diversity Fraud; he may as well have been staring straight at College Park. We commend to you the tribute to Dr. Sowell published by the Foundations of Economic Education site, since it is grand. Professor Sowell: thank you.
Kudos to the University of Chicago for asserting a strong position on intellectually diverse and open speech on its campus, which is to say, they offer no “trigger warnings” or “safe space”. (This is also reported in the student newspaper there.)
College Park manages to avoid unseemly confrontations by only inviting right-thinking (which is to say, left-thinking) visitors who mouth the group-think here in the first place.
… and not that other stuff. That’s effectively what Facebook provided, according to “news curators” who had worked there and were interviewed for a Gizmodo article. The effect was to put a thumb on the scales of public opinion, biasing it toward promotion of liberal views and suppressing material that might have reflected conservative opinion, or so was the article’s point.
And that point would be quite plausible when you have an unchecked system that relies upon promotion of articles by people who are drawn from a pool that itself is dominated by certain views. Selection bias nuances the choice of curators, and the curators thus bias the messaging by what they choose to promote. How do they recognize a likely article? They’ll see it when they know it.
What starts as a review of an important new book on academic freedom quickly moves to a first person account of the effects of speaking freely at the Naval Academy, written by a professor of nearly three decades there.
We’ve known that open discourse has generally been lost to most campuses, but it sure is sad to see this turmoil at what should be one of the last bastions of liberty. Future officers and leaders should be free to vet ideas on their merits, not on their conformity.
It was going to happen eventually. The lure to mug for the crowds, and show how trendy and correct we are at the same time, would have to be too much for President Loh to resist. And so it was:
But let’s think back for a moment, not to the era of Curley Bird but to 1991, when the campus refused an Hispanic man the opportunity to compete for a minority scholarship. The campus was sued, fought it and lost, with the federal court declaring our practices unconstitutional. Ultimately the University of Maryland appeal to the Supreme Court was denied cert in 1995.
The case was Podberesky v. Kirwan – yes, our Brit Kirwan – which means that in October of this year we named our mathematics department’s building after the named defendant in a fight to unconstitutionally deny Hispanics a minority scholarship opportunity.
The University of Maryland was on the wrong side of history in that case, just as it was in 1935 when it was sued for not admitting a black man to its law school. Its the side of history where Curley Bird sits too.
Let’s be clear: Brit Kirwan is a spectacular scholar and has given a lifetime of service to this campus and state. Yes, he has championed race-based practices in admissions and other campus policies, some of which persist today. But contemporaries viewed them as appropriate to the era, even though reasonable people who might have been looking further into the future disagreed. He is very deserving of having a math building named after him, and a lot more for that matter. Maybe Curley Bird deserves some slack too? And after all – the stadium is a monument to everything people have won since his era. Victors in that civil rights battle walk on that field every day. Renaming it takes that away.
As for President Loh: lots of luck explaining how naming facilities for people who discriminated against black people is bad, whereas naming facilities for people who discriminated against Hispanics is okay.
What once was a mandate to provide equal opportunity to athletics programs on campus has grown into a potent weapon against free speech even about the nature of Title IX.
It is shocking how many supposed scholars are coming out in opposition to free speech. Not hate speech – scholarly and reasoned discussion that touches on topics on which some are hypersensitive. Opponents to certain ideas, lacking success in countering them on their merits, now silence the very mention of those ideas.
Previously we noted the concerns over federal funding for study of social networking and internet memes. The concern expressed at that time was simple. Quoting the article:
The Truthy team says this research could be used to “mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”
Federal creation of tools for tracking so-called hate speech or propaganda is the necessary first step to the control of speech and propaganda, and some feel that the government simply should not be playing in that space (though it isn’t like there aren’t many private studies actively moving forward in this area.)
That message obviously struck a nerve, as a collection of top computer science and industry groups quickly rallied to defend the funding of the Truthy project, run by a principle investigator who, in his off-campus personae, comfortably pattern matches as a left wing extremist who is concerned about finding ways to clamp down on hate speech, which by his definition includes conservative commentary.