The University of Chicago’s letter to incoming freshmen declaring its support for freedom of expression is winning praise from embattled defenders of liberal education and predictable howls of outrage from academic authoritarians incensed that their march through the Ivory Tower has generated even pockets of resistance.
While the Chicago administration’s bid to position the University as the leading defender of open inquiry and academic freedom is a significant development in the campus speech wars, this particular declaration (and others like it) may turn out to be less consequential than disputants on both sides believe, for the simple reason that the push for conformity on today’s campuses is usually led not by administrators, but by the students themselves.
When the modern debates over campus political correctness began in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s, university administrations were often the principal stumbling blocks to the free exchange of ideas. They enacted broad restrictions on harassment, now known as speech codes, that threatened to punish students for expressing offensive ideas related to race, class or gender. Many of these were struck down in the courts, including at the University of Michigan (in 1989), the University of Wisconsin (in 1991) and Stanford University (in 1995).
Today, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, many campuses maintain restrictions against controversial speech that would not pass the laugh test in a court of law. But these are no longer the focal point of many of the most high-profile campus speech debates. Instead of formal speech codes backed by university administrations, campus illiberalism is increasingly manifested in informal undergraduate culture: Speakers are shouted down by angry crowds; student governments sanction minority student groups for holding unpopular events; faculty mentors who write emails challenging the orthodoxy are pressed by their own students to resign.
In other words, the new campus dogmas are often enforced less from the top down than from the bottom up. There are still things that university administrations can do to counteract this trend: They can decline to negotiate with students making illiberal demands; they can provide security at campus events so that hecklers can be removed and speakers can complete their remarks; they can make clear, as Chicago admirably has, that the role of the university is to expose students to ideas that may make them uncomfortable. But as long as fundamental liberal norms are weakening among young people, those efforts will only go so far.
What is really needed is a movement led by college students to resist and reverse the stultifying effects of the intellectual authoritarianism espoused by the campus left. While many schools have conservative flamethrowers and Milo-style provocateurs, there is no sustained, cross-campus effort by small-l liberal students to push back against the decay of democratic norms that is evident in American academia. The good news is that our friends at Heterodox Academy have created a set of excellent materials for any enterprising students out there who are looking to lead such a charge.