I started this blog and indeed this website with the intention of staying clear of politics and focusing on the scholarship. In an amazingly short period of time, however, our current situation has deteriorated remarkably. A scientific illiterate has taken over in the White House and a shrill, knee jerk, overreaction from the opposition has manifested itself in preposterous anti-scientific proclamations (e.g. trying to substitute sex with gender) and denunciations of free speech as bigotry.
Recent mob suppression of organized talks by eminent, scholarly social scientists (among the few who actually give some credence to the blending of those latter two terms) Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson has made it clear that we are on a collision course with biology denial, the fight against which one can no longer presume to tackle exclusively in the scholarly space. Political ideologues are coming after science and a biological realist who is serious about defending truth has to be prepared to meet the challenge, there, too. (Thanks to Geoffrey Miller for some provocative twitter exchanges that inspired this post.)
Peterson at McMaster University
Murray at Middlebury College
The future of the university is unclear; it may be that these events are part of its death knell. It’s possible that within ten years we won’t even recognize the modern system of post-secondary education. That will be then. Now, though, the university remains a vital center of cultural activity. We are about to decide if the university will remain a domain of truth seeking and scientific method and debate. To do so, as all liberals have always known, a free market place of ideas is essential. The alternative is for our universities to degenerate into indoctrination camps. In many disciplines the balance has already tipped. To help prevent the university system overall from following, I’ve proposed these three suggestions for university reform.
These are all reforms that governments, which stand for truth, science and free speech, can and must impose on taxpayer financed universities. Of course government cannot and should not interfere with private universities, but the latter’s patrons, alumni and customers can and should demand the same practices.
1. Some have defended the actions of these students as just exercising their own free speech. This is obviously not true. No one, including I, would deny them their right to protest – outside. But these people are not good faith actors in the marketplace of ideas. They are trespassing upon the rights of the event organizers to sponsor speech of their choice and the audience to hear ideas they want to hear. It’s not merely freely speaking when you use your voice as a noise machine to drown out the speech of others.
The universities where these things happen have to be pressured to hire sufficient security to remove these people and uphold the freedom to speak, hear and sponsor the speech of those attending in good faith. Those interfering with those rights must be forcibly removed from the premises. Those caught setting off fire alarms, etc., to disrupt events, if students are to be expelled; non-students are to be charged with all applicable crimes (e.g., trespassing, vandalism, public nuisance) to the full extent of the law. All this must be exercised with a zero tolerance policy. This is the lesson learned from the broken windows policing strategy: if small acts of criminality or disorderliness are allowed, there is a creep toward more expansive lawlessness.
And, most importantly, the universities must foot the bill of such security costs, not pass it on to the organizing student groups. Those who own or manage the institutions are responsible for maintaining them as fora of free speech. Further, taking on the costs of enforcement gives university administrators incentives to encourage an organizational culture of openness to speech. Perhaps, if the costs become sufficiently expensive, they’ll consider a critical review of their curriculum and what contributions to such a culture are being made by various departments.
2. Specific disciplines and departments in the universities have fashioned themselves the epicenter of anti-science and anti-market place of ideas movements: identity politics and social constructionism. Faculty from these disciplines and departments, promoting these movements, openly encourage and defend their student’s suppression of others’ right to freely organize, hear and engage in speech in the market place of ideas.
Whether these disciplines and departments contribute anything of value to the universities’ mission to pursue truth is highly debatable, but there is no denying they have become a cancer upon the market place of ideas within the universities. The students in these programs are being trained for nothing more than a life time of assaults on the scientific method and the market place of ideas. Subsidizing of these programs is an offence against science and freedom, which universities continue to facilitate only as black marks against their commitment to science and the pursuit of truth.
Henceforth, all student loans must be co-signed by the university. If students cannot repay their loans, the university will be on the hook to pay off the debts. This reform will incentivize universities to consider more carefully the likely outcomes from accepting students into departments with predictable results in terms of employability and productive contribution to society.
As this reform would incentivize universities to research likely employability and lifetime income from the various disciplines and departments, an additional nice wrinkle to this would be the requirement to share this information with those paying for students’ tuition: including, of course, parents when they are paying.
Such measures may not entirely eliminate the anti-science and free speech suppressing activist departments, but it will likely reduce their size considerably. This should help make reform #1 above more manageable and less costly for universities.
3. Any university administrator that demonstrates lack of understanding that an open market place of ideas is not only the foundation of the scientific method, but the underpinning of the search for truth or that the search for truth is the mission of the university, should be thanked for their service and provided their walking papers, without delay.
Finally, perhaps a bonus reform: I’m not as sure about how I feel regarding this compared to the three reforms above. It is worth considering, though. Isn’t a virtuous and educated citizenry the foundation of popular sovereignty? If it is, how can it be that a free and self-governing society is any less dependent upon the integrity of its universities than upon that of its courts? If, for example, in the United States, judges swear an oath to uphold and defend the constitution, why shouldn’t university professors?
I certainly wouldn’t advocate universities become branches of government nor do I want the government requiring private citizens to be swearing oaths. However, it does seem perfectly reasonable to me that patrons, alumni and customers of universities might demand this of the universities they support – staff and faculty – if indeed defending an open marketplace of ideas is a core value they want to promote. In other jurisdictions there may not be a precise analogy, but the guiding principle would point toward the prospect of some similar demand for an explicit commitment to free speech.
These are my opening suggestions. Those of us who would uphold and defend the scientific method and the market place of ideas more broadly have to push back against the current state of our universities. I welcome comments toward the rigorous discussion needed to get us started with a well-reasoned push back.