God and Man at Florida
More competition is the right response to the leftward tilt of U.S. higher education
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Higher education in America is in turmoil. The latest fallout over the testimonies of several university presidents before Congress is merely symptomatic of the underlying disease.
By now, the story is well known. Appearing before a congressional hearing on anti-Semitism on Dec. 5, 2023, the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Mary Elizabeth Magill, Claudine Gay, and Sally Kornbluth, respectively) were pressed by New York Rep. Elise Stefanik to answer a simple question: Does calling for the genocide of the Jewish people violate the universities’ rules against bullying and harassment?
Each president in turn failed to give a definitive “no” to the question. “It can be, depending on the context,” Gay replied. The responses were so devastatingly insufficient that even critics of Stefanik had to admit that she got the better of the college administrators in the exchange. Four days later, Magill resigned from her post. A month later, Gay followed suit, as the pressure was intensified by the discovery that her dissertation and published works contained instances of academic plagiarism. Gay landed softly however, retaining an academic post at Harvard and being invited to write a column about her experience for The New York Times, where she suggested racial and gender discrimination were the real culprits behind her early exit.
These events have elicited a range of reactions on both the left and the right. Many on the left have leaned into the discrimination rationale, though the irony of that charge (against woke Harvard, of all places) is surely not lost on many Americans, Jewish Americans in particular. Some on the left have conceded that the responses of Gay and her colleagues were disastrous. The rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses since the onset of the war in Israel is a difficult proposition for any politician to be forced to defend.
For some on the right, the main lesson is one of consistency. How can the very institutions that treat “misgendering” and even the slightest “microaggressions” as “verbal violence” also consider calls for Jewish genocide as a context-dependent judgment call? Is free expression only applicable when it is aimed against the perceived enemies of the left? More libertarian leaning conservatives might wish to give wide berth to both kinds of speech. Perhaps both chants of “Intifada” and transgressions of fashionable orthodoxies regarding sexuality and gender should be permitted as the price of entry for a free society.
But there is another possible conservative response to these recent events. We might note that while Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, private institutions may do just that. Harvard or Penn has every right to delineate the kinds of speech they deem permissible or impermissible on their campuses. But parents and students also have every right to send their tuition dollars elsewhere.
Over 70 years ago, a young William F. Buckley, Jr., made a similar argument in his book, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”. Buckley made the case that the benefactors of Yale had no moral obligation to permit every possible expression of academic freedom, regardless of its fit with the university’s purpose and charter. If professors have academic freedom, then so too do administrators and alumni. The constituents of a university or college are under no obligation to allow professors to undermine the educational, philosophical, and theological aims of the university (and, yes, the Harvard of 2024 still has theological commitments).
A prudent university administrator or alumni base will still allow a range of academic freedom within the school’s basic philosophical framework. Intellectual uniformity, too, is stifling to academic inquiry. Students, even more so than professors, must be allowed freedom of expression as a necessary precondition for genuine learning and personal development.
As a professor at a private university affiliated with the Baptist tradition, I have seen this creative tension between the university’s worldview framework and the faculty’s real (but limited) academic freedom play out in intellectually stimulating ways. As one of our confessional documents puts it,
In Christian education there should be a proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility. Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute. The freedom of a teacher in a Christian school, college, or seminary is limited by the pre-eminence of Jesus Christ, by the authoritative nature of the Scriptures, and by the distinct purpose for which the school exists.
Any university true to the name (Latin, universitas) teaches the various arts and sciences from a particular, holistic framework. Making that framework explicit gives space for both the professor and the institution to exercise their freedom and responsibility.
Furthermore, academic freedom thrives best in the marketplace of ideas. If the Ivy League wants to become a bastion of wokeness and leftist speech codes, it has a right to do so. But it may lose ground to other schools more amenable to ideological diversity, or even to explicitly conservative and religious aims. As the Ivy League’s academic standards and intellectual prestige recede, so too will its foothold on our collective educational and professional imagination.
So, part of the response on the right to the leftward tilt of certain academic institutions should be more competition, not just increased demands for ideological conformity. That response undergirds the experiment of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his overhaul of the New College of Florida. The fact that New College is a public university and not a private one does not undermine the Buckleyan principle: Taxpayers, too, are benefactors whose voice deserves to be heard.
The ethos of University of Florida president and former U.S. senator, Ben Sasse, also represents this approach. Some institutions may be won back, if not to an explicitly conservative framework, at least to an educational philosophy where intellectual diversity is allowed to flourish. As Sasse puts it, “If you don’t have viewpoint diversity, I don’t know how you ever get to education—you just get indoctrination.”
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.