I was pleased to learn that Texas A&M University was one of only 45 American institutions of higher education to receive the highest rating for protecting free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). This so-called “green light” award goes to those schools that have no policies that violate the First Amendment. Unfortunately, my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin, along with 18 other Texas institutions, earned FIRE’s “red light” award, the worst a school can receive. On a positive note, however, the newly appointed Chancellor of the UT System has indicated that he wants this situation changed by adopting much stronger First Amendment protections, such as those in the University of Chicago Statement, which has become the “gold standard” for free speech protection in higher education.
In case you are not familiar with it, the Chicago Statement is a concise but comprehensive statement of principles adopted several years ago by its Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression. Its most definitive paragraph reads as follows:
In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
It goes further in requiring all members of the University to act in accordance with these principles and “not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe”.
These are strong words, and it has been puzzling to me why, with all the evidence around the country of gross violations of these basic precepts of education, it is taking so long for all of our major institutions to get on board. Most of the fault lies with the trustees, who should be the leaders in protecting the integrity of their institutions, but in many cases are overly deferential to and intimidated by the “gowns” in the proverbial “town and gown” relationship. What is needed is more institutional consequences and I applaud President Trump for recently suggesting an executive order requiring colleges and universities to protect free speech in a meaningful way in order to qualify for federal research grants, which, according to the National Science Foundation, total approximately $26 billion annually.
This is a good way to get their attention, but the trustees shouldn’t need it to do their jobs. In a speech last October accepting an award from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, former University of Pennsylvania trustee Paul Levy had this to say to university trustees and alumni:
- Don’t give money to your alma mater unless it meets your standards for campus free speech.
- Demand that some version of the Chicago Principles be adopted by your school.
- The humanities representing the backbone of our civilization, our thinking, and our values must be reinstated to their central role in educating our youth.
- If you are a trustee, make sure the right people lead your institution. Leaders need not be chirpy, cheery cheerleaders; we need people with core convictions.
- Trustees have to take stock. A trustee is a fiduciary ultimately responsible for a school’s direction. Unfortunately, we all know that’s not the way it works. They like the role of trustee, they like the prestige, and they have absolutely no incentive to rock the boat. And that’s why we are where we are today.