Janet Napolitano, President Obama’s former Head of the Department of Homeland Security and now leader of the largest university system in the United States, is the latest high-profile college administrator to come out and forcefully criticize the campus crusade against liberal norms of speech and expression. A passage from her op-ed in the Boston Globe:
As president of the University of California system, I write to show how far we have moved from freedom of speech on campuses to freedom from speech. If it hurts, if it’s controversial, if it articulates an extreme point of view, then speech has become the new bête noire of the academy. Speakers are disinvited, faculty are vilified, and administrators like me are constantly asked to intervene.
The goal of our university education today should be to prepare students who are thoughtful, well-informed, and resilient. The world needs more critical, creative thinkers, and American higher education does a better job of producing them than any other higher education system in the world. We seek to make the world a better place for the next generation, and teaching the values and responsibilities of free speech is inextricably linked with this goal.
This is strong language from arguably the most influential higher education official in the United States. Unfortunately, Napolitano—who herself has been shouted down and heckled by students more than once during her tenure—tries to hedge her position later on in the piece in ways that muddle her original message.
First, she gestures in support of “safe spaces,” describing them as places where students “can gather with others of similar backgrounds to share experiences and support one another.” This is largely a straw man: When critics of the campus left denounce “safe spaces,” they are referring to the well-documented efforts by campus activists to create areas of campus where no one can voice opposition to their political agenda. We are not aware of anyone arguing that students should not be permitted to gather with other students “of similar backgrounds” if they so choose.
Second, Napolitano characterizes the recent University of Chicago letter to incoming students in support of academic freedom as “Speech Darwinism”. It’s unclear what this means. The UofC letter was a statement of commitment to open inquiry, and itself was a reaction to the increasingly widespread successes of campus activists to shut down classroom discussions, or have visiting speakers shouted down or banned. The letter made clear that “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to threaten or harass others” and that “civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us.” It was not a brief for vulgarity and wanton disrespect, but for intellectual pluralism and fidelity to longstanding liberal norms.
All that said, Napolitano’s acknowledgment that American universities are facing a crisis of free speech, and her sharp criticism of illiberal activism, is an important step forward for the movement to save universities from the forces of censorship and intolerance. Let’s hope that a critical mass of students and faculty will back her up.