The protests and counterprotests have put universities’ efforts to balance their commitments to free speech and diversity under the microscope. University leaders have come under fire for statements that they have issued, or failed to issue; some presidents have made multiple attempts and still failed to appease their critics. Unlike many controversies that flare up and then fade away, the
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All of that has occurred under heightened outside scrutiny. Prospective employers have warned students that their speech on campus might have consequences later. Donors have announced that they will not continue to support colleges. Media figures, activist groups, and politicians have weighed in. On Tuesday the House Committee on Education and the Workforce put the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT on the hot seat, interrogating them about their handling of antisemitism on campus. The hearing did not go well; even the White House rebuked the college presidents for being soft on genocide.
Given those intense pressures, and the widespread unhappiness with how colleges have conducted themselves over the past several weeks, it would be remarkable if colleges did not embark on some significant policy reforms in the near future. But in what direction will colleges move? Two very different options are on the table. Which one most colleges will take is very much an open question.
One path is suggested by Stanford University’s provost, Jenny S. Martinez. After student protesters at Stanford Law School shouted down a federal judge last spring, Martinez, who was then dean of the law school, issued a striking public letter rebuking the protesters, reaffirming the school’s commitment to free expression and open discourse, and firmly rejecting the view that a commitment to diversity necessitated suppressing some speech or speakers. As provost, Martinez has similarly emphasized that colleges must tolerate even extreme and hateful speech, while taking action against actual harassment or threats. Moreover, she and Stanford’s president announced that they believe the university should “generally refrain from taking institutional positions on complex political or global matters that extend beyond our immediate purview.” Institutional neutrality would best secure an environment in which diverse scholars could develop and express their own individual ideas.
A quite different path is suggested by the University of Pennsylvania’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill. Magill has come under particularly intense pressure to address perceived antisemitism on her campus. In her testimony to the congressional committee, she emphasized that “Penn’s approach to protest is guided by the U.S. Constitution” and gives “broad protection to free expression — even expression that is offensive.” But when confronted with questions about whether calls for genocide violated university policy, Magill and her fellow presidents stumbled in their replies. As a result, Magill released a short video. There she repeated that “Penn’s policies have been guided by the Constitution,” but she added that “in today’s world … these policies need to be clarified and evaluated.” She promised a “serious and careful look at our policies” with an eye to ensuring a “safe, secure, and supportive environment.” She will, she promised, “get this right.”
Magill’s implication is clear: The university’s policies need to be revised so that they do not so closely follow the Constitution; they should instead prioritize students’ sense of safety. Protections for free expression and perhaps even academic freedom might well be pared back in the process.
There are two paths forward. Colleges can reaffirm their core principles on free speech and academic freedom, and can commit themselves to more consistently defend and apply those principles in the future. They can embrace a posture of institutional neutrality and quit picking which political causes they will or will not endorse. Alternatively, they can give in to demands to take moral stands, and can condemn and suppress even more speech in the name of inclusivity.
It is far from clear which path most colleges will take. The most expedient course might be to bow to political pressure and double down on an ethos of safetyism and a machinery of speech surveillance and suppression. In doing so, colleges would be drifting further from their distinctive and important mission of free inquiry and robust debate.