June 18, 2018

The Campus “Free Speech Crisis” Is About Power, Not Speech

Gregg Ivers Professor of Government, American University

Until the early 1960s, American college campuses were among the last places that one could expect to find raging debates over controversial ideas or alleged administrative efforts to limit the “free expression” of students, faculty or invited guests. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Slightly less than ten percent of all Americans completed a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university in 1960. And that even takes into account the enrollment boom after World War II, when returning veterans used the newly enacted G.I. Bill to attend college. By 1947, World War II veterans made up roughly fifty percent of college students in the United States. That trend continued into the 1950s after Congress enacted additional legislation to support Korean War veterans who wanted to earn a college degree. Not surprisingly, men, by 1960, attended and completed college at roughly double the rate of women. Due to restrictive admissions policies and cultural norms, many women attended private women’s colleges rather than elite private universities reserved for men or the flagship public institutions of their state.  The college gender gap did not begin to close in a meaningful way until the early 2000s. By 2013, women attended and completed college at higher rates than men, regardless of race or ethnic origin, a trend that has remained consistent through 2017.

For African Americans in 1960, entering college and completing a bachelor’s degree were even more elusive goals. Somewhere between two and three percent of African American men and women were enrolled in four-year institutions in 1960, almost all of whom attended black colleges and universities. Although the Supreme Court had ruled well before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that white public universities could not exclude African American students if “equal opportunities” were not available to them at black institutions within their state, most Jim Crow states of the South were dragged kicking and screaming to desegregate their ever-growing systems of higher education. Governor George Wallace’s petulant “last stand” against a federal court order to admit James Hood and Vivian Malone into the University of Alabama in June 1963 marked the formal end to segregated public higher education in the United States.

Most elite private universities in the South did not even begin taking their first steps towards desegregation until the mid-1960s. Many continue to struggle, some fifty-odd years later, in their efforts to recruit and enroll black students on their historically and still predominantly white campuses. But focusing on Southern universities’ long and ignoble history of deliberately excluding African Americans lets institutions outside the historic Jim Crow South off the hook. Public and private institutions outside the region that did not exclude black students by law often did so by custom. Those that did admit African American applicants did so under a strict quota system.

Put simply – and this is no exaggeration – college in 1960 was generally a place for white men, Christian by denomination, with the means to afford it. And the campus climate reflected that demographic dominance. Student activism as we understand it now was virtually nonexistent. The chill of the Cold War culture continued to shape the contours of campus life. Professors were often required to sign loyalty oaths to keep their jobs. University presidents were on the side of the established order, not those seeking to challenge it. Not even the Supreme Court, which had gradually expanded the scope of constitutional protection for unpopular religious and political viewpoints, was willing to intervene in campus politics.

But to hear current right-wing critics of American universities tell it, our campuses have always been playgrounds for the progressive politics of professors disconnected from “real America,” cocoons where socially maladjusted spoiled children recoil at the slightest offense to their organically-fed sensibilities. None of this criticism is either new nor terribly original. In the late 1980s, right-wing critics began attacking universities for abandoning what they believed were traditional standards of classical liberal education in favor of some sort of self-esteem reinforcing curriculum designed to make women, racial minorities and other previously marginalized groups now present on campus feel better about themselves. Helpless undergraduates were being led to intellectual slaughterhouses by “tenured radicals” determined to implement their vision of a socialist America to largely unqualified students who did not deserve to be in college in the first place.

If only that were so.

Right-wing commentators most often begin their indictment of American universities by returning to the scene of their favorite crime against all that was right and good with campus intellectual life – the Free Speech Movement that emerged at Berkeley during the Fall 1964 semester. Conventional wisdom often points to the drama at Berkeley as the first time that student activism emerged in full bloom on college campuses. That is true, as far as predominantly white campuses go. But this view fails to acknowledge where the first concerted student movement really began – on historically black college campuses in early 1960. On February 1st, students at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, soon joined by other close-by black institutions and even white women’s colleges, launched the first sustained sit-in movement directed towards ending racial segregation in public accommodations. The sit-in movement quickly picked up steam around the South among black college students and succeeded in desegregating many public accommodations throughout the region.

By Easter Weekend, roughly 125 students from mostly black colleges throughout the South met at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., at the suggestion of the legendary civil rights activist Ella Baker to chart a path forward. Out of that weekend the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born, an organization that would soon take its place on the front lines of the Southern civil rights movement. Outside the region, Northern students, black and white, began to picket stores and engage in other forms of non-violent protest off-campus, as college campuses were not accommodating of student protests on campus. In fact, it was quite common, and this included black colleges as well, for students to face discipline and even expulsion for participating in civil rights protests.

Certainly, the Berkeley movement, inspired by black student activists, encouraged students on other predominantly white campuses to speak up and take action. While there has been no shortage of attention paid to the decidedly left-wing movements that took root at universities like Michigan, Columbia and, of course, ant-Vietnam protests that culminated in the killing of four Kent State University students by Ohio National Guardsmen in May 1970, most campuses were not laboratories for the coming student-led revolution. Popular and academic accounts of student turmoil in the 1960s and 70s often neglect to mention that, even by 1980, college campuses were still institutions of asymmetrical privilege, with less than twenty percent of Americans holding a bachelor’s degree. Non-white students and women still lagged far behind white men by a significant degree. And the reason for that is self-evident: most universities, and especially the historically white public institutions of the South, were still struggling with racial integration. Some of those same universities that had only under legal mandate begun to admit African American students in the late 1950s and well into the 1960s did not even begin to admit women until almost a decade later.

Racial segregation and gender-exclusive admissions policies in American higher education had a secondary effect that is often overlooked in past and current discussions of campus climate – they had a huge and systemic effect on the curriculum and the culture of campus life. Racial and gender discrimination did not just affect where people went to college; it determined what they learned once they got there, just as it had in their primary and secondary education. Students in once exclusively or predominantly white, male-dominated institutions could earn a bachelor’s degree and learn almost nothing about the contributions of African Americans and women to their respective fields. This deliberate exclusion has had profound consequences for the campus climate over time.

Universities now are very different places than they were just ten years ago. Demographic changes have brought cultural changes as well. Our curriculum is more diverse, more open and represents far more voices than it once did. Racial minorities and women occupy far more positions of power at the administrative level and hold faculty appointments at once exclusively and still predominantly white, male institutions. It is this transition of power that has fueled the conservative backlash against American universities.

What sets this new right-wing crusade apart from previous efforts to brush back the changes that more open and inclusive admissions and hiring policies have brought to campus is the instrument of choice to push this new narrative of conservative victimization – that liberals are taking their once treasured commitment to free speech and subordinating it to diversity and inclusion policies designed to pacify their liberal students. Aided by some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful right-wing foundations, student organizations such as the Young America’s Foundation and Students for Free Expression have begun to populate campuses nationwide, pushing the message that unless drastic action is soon taken civilization as we know it will be over.

This is absolute nonsense. First, most right-wing commentators lamenting the decline of American universities are not professional academics. If they were – or were on campus more often than just to pick up a generous honorarium after telling us what terrible things we are doing to our students – they would know the ratio of deplorable incidents to the normal routine of campus life is about the same as plane crashes are to safe take-offs and landings. The inappropriate, sometimes boorish treatment accorded to speakers invited to campus recently under conservative sponsorship has somehow become the norm in the right-wing echo chamber. In 2017, almost twenty-one million students were enrolled in approximately 7,500 two and four-year post-secondary institutions in the United States. A handful of incidents do not define campus culture in the United States; and there are mechanisms in place to discipline students whose bad behavior deserves it.

Second, how far do we take the “we need all sides represented” argument? Since there are self-styled academics who believe the Holocaust is a hoax, should we hire them or bring them to campus so our students can get “both sides” of this issue? Serious academics know that, in most cases, there is more than one side to any argument in any field. But sometimes there are not – the Holocaust and slavery, for example. And those views do not necessarily deserve a platform on college campuses.

Third, and finally, the boundaries of free speech for faculty, staff and students are more fluid than ever before. Ten years ago, much less twenty or thirty, universities did not contend with Facebook, Twitter and other social media that give people a forum to say whatever is on their mind. Can a university staff member be terminated for tweeting participation in a Klan rally? Does the right to free speech mean that anyone affiliated with a university can say anything they want for any reason at any time, regardless of when and where this “speech” takes place? If so, that is a right that few, if any professionals have in any other field in any other context.

On the one hand, right-wing critics lament the decline in serious standards at universities; on the other, we are told that unless we provide a platform for charlatans, neo-Nazis and buffoons we are more concerned with protecting “snowflakes” from unpleasant thoughts than forging an open path to the truth. An important part of any serious education is learning how to reason. If we cannot distinguish the difference between a campus-sponsored debate over whether a bakery owner should be able to refuse service to a gay couple based on his religious beliefs and having a speaker to give a lecture on why homosexuality is a mental illness, then we have a bigger problem than conservatives want to recognize.

There is now more room than ever before for serious academic debate about serious and important topics; what there is less room now for is allowing universities to become conduits for discredited ideas and racist, sexist, homophobic and other “speech” that is intended to do nothing more than to provoke. In my nearly thirty years of college teaching, the most important shift in university life has been the demographics of our faculty, staff and students. Far from turning inward, universities offer more robust, open and wide-ranging debate in and out of the classroom than ever before. For those used to having control over curriculum, scholarship and the norms of campus life, this has been a shocking and disturbing shift in power. Having to listen to ideas and viewpoints that, in a different time, were ignored or treated disrespectfully by professors and students can be difficult for people who always had the advantage. That is the real issue here. Power. Not speech.

Gregg Ivers is Professor of Government at American University. He is currently working on a book, “Swingin’ at Jim Crow: How Jazz Became a Civil Rights Movement” and will begin directing this summer an oral history project on civil rights activist Julian Bond.

Academic Freedom, First Amendment, Free Speech