Podcast on Intellectual Diversity and Free Speech

Yesterday I was very pleased to hear the pointed, smart questions posed to lecturer Mark Bauerlein, who was meant to be making arguments about non-conformity and political correctness. Students pointed out that his so-called non-conformity or anti-political correctness has also been a cover for mobs energized by misogyny, racist hatred and resentment. Others emphasized that intellectual diversity shouldn’t only be about adding conservative voices to the campus mix, it should also be about adding perspectives outside of the technocratic, liberal mainstream (and this student didn’t mean more Trump supporters). Wesleyan students and faculty certainly were able to listen and respond to the speaker with critical perspectives from which everyone learned, myself included.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed at Wesleyan about related issues. Here is our conversation about free speech and intellectual diversity, this time in podcast form.

“Where the hell did he get automatic weapons?”

That was the question asked by the brother of Stephen Paddock, the latest American mass murderer whose access to weapons turned whatever madness he had inside into an immense public menace. Of course, our hearts go out to the many, many victims of the carnage, but our thoughts and energies have to turn to prevention. We must implement common sense gun control. I can do no better than to quote Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy:

It must be said that nowhere else but in America do these horrific, large-scale mass shootings happen with this degree of regularity. Tragically, this epidemic is uniquely American.

This madness has to stop. And the collective silence from Congress in the face of these mass shootings is complicity — it sends a quiet message that as a legislative body, these murders are something that we are willing to accept.

It’s time for us to stop pretending that there aren’t public policy responses to this epidemic.

There are. And the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.

I am not ashamed to admit that no legislation will suddenly stamp out every act of mass violence in this country. But the excuse that legislative action is not a guarantee that we will prevent future tragedies is just a mask for cowardice, or cold-hearted political calculation.

Should we pass comprehensive background checks? Should we take weapons off the streets that are designed solely to kill lots of people with speed and efficiency? Should we do more to ensure records are getting into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System? Should we act to make sure it’s easier to get mental health care than it is to buy a gun in this country?

Yes. Yes. Yes. To every one of those questions, yes.

At Wesleyan, we can inform ourselves about the role of guns in our history this semester at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns. Here’s the schedule.

Human concerns — that’s what will lead us to mourn the victims of this massacre and what must inspire us pass common sense gun control.

Reflecting Again on Free Speech on Campus

The Washington Post asked me to review this slim book on free speech by two senior administrators at the University of California. I repost it here.

Surveys show that more than 70 percent of college students believe that offensive speech should be subject to disciplinary action, and many commentators profess shock at this lack of commitment to the principle of free speech. What’s this country coming to? Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman, academic leaders at the University of California, believe that the commitment to free speech is not only an essential value for any democracy, it is the value upon which all other democratic values depend. They take the “free market” approach to campus speech: Just as more competition in the economic marketplace makes it more likely that goods and services will improve, so more competition in the “marketplace of ideas” makes it more likely that better theories and practices will be developed. The cure for offensive, hurtful talk should be “more speech,” not the regulation of speech. It is through more speech that avenues for social change and scientific advances are created. It is through more speech that bigoted attitudes about minority groups are changed. Free speech, in this view, is the fuel for progress, bending the arc of history toward prosperity, understanding and justice.

As a teacher and president of a university, I find much to agree with in Chemerinsky and Gillman’s account of campus speech issues. And I share their concern that too many people fail to recognize that restrictions on expression have most often been used by those in power to censor those who are trying to create social change. I can admire that the authors, themselves in positions of academic authority, maintain what they call “an instinctive distrust of efforts by authorities to suppress speech.” But I cringe when these senior university officials glorify their favorite examples of liberal social change (such as the first years of the free speech movement at Berkeley) and self-righteously proclaim, “If you value social order and conformity more highly than you value liberty and democracy, then you will not support free speech no matter what else we say.” Readers may be forgiven for wondering whether they must be conformists if they fail to agree.

To find justifications for their dogmatic approach to freedom of expression, these fundamentalists, like so many others, look to the past. “History demonstrates,” they write with abandon, “that there is no way to define an unacceptable, punishment-worthy idea without putting genuinely important new thinking and societal critique at risk.” Their rhetoric suggests that a succession of horrible events will be the unintended consequence of even modest restraints on expression. If any idea is regulated, they seem to think, all ideas are at risk for censorship. As many have done before them, they quote John Milton’s argument that individual opinions must be allowed to flourish if we are to pursue truth. But as Stanley Fish has pointed out, Milton indeed defended diversity of opinion — among Protestants but not Catholics: “Them we extirpate,” Milton wrote.

Fish and others have underscored that defenses of free speech always exclude something. For Milton, it was Catholics; for some today, it might be child pornography or incitements to violence. Usually, the exclusions can be enforced informally by social or professional pressure (appeals to civility, ostracism), but borders for acceptable speech also get codified in rules and regulations. And there are always borders.

Even Chemerinsky and Gillman recognize that the marketplace of ideas on campus needs some regulation. Harassing speech can be punished, they aver, but only if true harassment is taking place. Although they don’t acknowledge it, this is a political determination — a judgment about discrimination, history and power. They write that “speech should be subject to punishment if it causes a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety,” but they insist that only physical safety counts. This, too, is a political judgment about what really counts as harm. Making judgments about harassment is something professors and administrators have to do — but there is no evidence that this leads to conformism or authoritarian control of expression.

Issues concerning either the Citizens United ruling or the value of equality don’t get much attention in “Free Speech on Campus.” And the failure of the marketplace of ideas to create intellectual diversity on many campuses goes unremarked. To be fair, this is a very brief book, and it does a solid job of exploring some of the issues facing professors, administrators and students today. Chemerinsky and Gillman maintain that professional norms should determine how people speak in class, but they are adamant that outside the classroom any regulation of expression must ignore the content of what is being said. They are convinced that the regulation of content, even when the intention is to protect the vulnerable, puts us on a path to authoritarian censorship.

FREE SPEECH ON CAMPUS

By Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman

Yale. 197 pp. $26

Thoughts for Mexico and the Caribbean

What a horrific season we have seen, with hurricanes and floods ravaging towns, cities and entire communities…and now this massively destructive earthquake killing and injuring so many in and around Mexico City. Our hearts go out to those afflicted, and we search for ways to support those who succor to the distressed.

As Dean Mike Whaley recently wrote to the student body, “Our goal in Student Affairs is to reach out to students whose family and friends may be impacted by these events (as the class deans have already done with those students who we know are from south Texas, Louisiana, the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Florida) and/or who may be studying abroad in these areas. Today we will add those who may be impacted by last night’s earthquake in Mexico to our outreach. …The entire Student Affairs team looks forward to working with our caring student body to find ways that all of us can together help the many communities who will need our support in the coming months.  Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are with the many who have lost so much and who are in harm’s way.”

What a horrific season we have seen! And still the season turns. Among those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah this week, there will be prayers for those whose lives have been overturned in recent weeks. As the new year begins, we will turn ourselves toward healing and toward peace.

 

 

 

We Must Not Turn Back the Clock on Sexual Assault

The following is cross-posted with the Washington Post.

When I was a student in the 1970s and 1980s, it was not uncommon for male professors to use their classroom authority to initiate sexual relations with their students. Of course, teachers didn’t see it quite that way, thinking their evident charms just encouraged their young charges to act on their desires. But once activists and authorities put these abusive relationships in the spotlight, it became clear that the sexual attention from those with power to grade them could be an important restriction on students’ educational opportunities. Sexual pressure from those in official positions on campus was often a type of harassment, and in its most blatant forms a civil rights issue.

Building on this activist work, one of the Obama administration’s most significant legacies in higher education was its use of Title IX and the Office for Civil Rights to deal with sexual harassment assault on campus, especially by other students. “Students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn,” Vice President Joe Biden declared in the spring of 2011. “That’s why we’re taking new steps to help our nation’s schools, universities, and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus.” Three years later, President Barack Obama made this work even more personal in launching notalone.gov, a website to help survivors of sexual violence: “We need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted: you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back.”

The Trump administration has made no secret of its disdain for strict prohibitions on sexual assault and harassment. As President Trump famously said, “when you’re a star … you can do anything.” Such an attitude coming from our national bully pulpit, combined with a blanket critique of campus disciplinary proceedings, threatens to undermine much of the progress of the last decade. There is, of course, room for improvement in campus proceedings, and strong criticism may be warranted in the handling of particular cases. Many have questioned the lower evidentiary requirements for finding someone responsible for assault (“preponderance of evidence” rather than “clear and convincing”). Although this standard of proof parallels requirements in many civil cases, it can be problematic when one considers the profound effects of a false conviction.

At my university, we regularly review procedures to ensure that adjudication is supportive of those who come forward with reports of being attacked, and that the process is fair in assigning any responsibility to a particular individual. We will pay close attention to the reports filed with the Department of Education in the coming weeks, and we hope to learn from them. It is clear that universities must continue to protect the presumption of innocence and due process for anyone facing serious allegations, even as they protect the rights and well-being of those who have been assaulted.

Of course, easier said than done. Given the ambiguity that often exists around consent, some critics claim that colleges and universities would be better off not dealing at all with the sexual behavior of their students. But what happens when that behavior becomes violent? For many critics there is a basic bottom line: sexual assault is a crime. Use the criminal-justice system and not the code of student conduct, they say, to determine if a crime occurred and what the consequences should be.

This criticism is simplistic and out of touch with the realities of student lives and the criminal-justice system. At Wesleyan, we work closely with local law enforcement so that if a survivor of sexual assault wants to pursue a criminal complaint, she or he has a clear, workable path to do so. But those who point to the criminal justice system as an arena of fairness for rape victims are at best being naive. Cooperating with the criminal-justice system should in no way ease the burden on colleges to create a more equitable campus culture. Federal officials in the Obama years were right to remind us of this burden in case the voices of often vulnerable student groups were not coming through clearly enough.

Adjudication guidelines and the spectrum of a college’s responsibility in regard to sexual harassment and assault will doubtless continue to evolve, but it would be a huge setback if new policies discouraged victims from reporting and schools retreated to smug satisfaction about the lack of sexual assault complaints on their campuses. Colleges should make it easier for students to report assaults and to have confidence in a process of adjudication.

Higher education must not be allowed to return to a time when schools could turn a blind eye to sexual assault without fear of consequences. As survivors came to realize that they “are not alone,” they forced colleges to take sexual assault seriously as a civil rights issue. Part of this was just shining a bright light on the problem — for example, requiring the publication of assault statistics. At my own university, there was a sharp increase in the number of reported sexual assaults. This is a painful, painful process — but a necessary one. Colleges that have few to no reported incidents of sexual assault are today viewed not with admiration, but with suspicion.

The Obama administration was not “authoritarian” in insisting that colleges and universities have a responsibility to try to correct abusive aspects of student culture that often prevent women (and members of LGBTQ communities) from having access to the same benefits of higher education that most men do. Accusations of overreach should remind us of complaints decades ago about the federal government’s so-called excessive role in promoting desegregation, and they dovetail alarmingly with pleas from today’s polluters (and their new friends at the Environmental Protection Agency) who grumble about the government’s “overreach” in trying to combat climate change.

Clearer expectations and better disciplinary procedures are being developed at many universities, and we must calibrate campus disciplinary proceedings so as to protect the innocent. But we must also resist the urge to turn back the clock to a time when those who were raped were greeted with mistrust and worse. Lately the public has been treated to a litany of cases of men whose parents complain about their innocence, of sexually detailed stories of murky encounters that are subsequently recoded as assaults, and of tribunals that use murky pseudo-science to understand trauma and memory. These stories should not obscure the fact that sexual assault destroys lives and undermines a university’s ethical obligation and educational mission. We in higher education must protect the rights of the accused without relaxing the civil rights imperative to eliminate sexual assault as a part of campus culture. It’s our job.

Free Speech and Inclusion

Now that the academic year is underway, I am often asked about how Wesleyan handles controversy – from government policies that affect higher ed to campus speakers who take unpopular positions. Sometimes those positions, in addition to being unpopular, incite action that can harm individuals or groups. What to do?

Wesleyan students, faculty and administrators alike have made clear their commitment to making our campus inclusive, and that commitment starts with wanting people to feel free and safe. That said, the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. For everyone to have equal access to our educational resources, the campus must be without violence and intimidation; at the same time a campus without challenge would be anti-educational. Although it is crucial to pay attention so as to eliminate subtle forms of harassment, we must also be vigilant in respecting broad rights to speak freely. Beware of those who offer protection! Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when authorities limit freedom of expression in the name of civility, safety or security. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be willing to risk giving offense for the sake of creating new opportunities for thinking.

At campuses like Middlebury, Claremont McKenna and UC Berkeley, we’ve seen incidents in which protestors shut down a speaker whose views they found anathema. At Wesleyan, we recognize the rights of protestors; at the same time, we ensure that those invited to speak on our campus get a hearing. This usually proceeds without problems because invitations go to scholars or other public figures accustomed to engaging in dialogue based in evidence and reasoning. At campuses where purveyors of hate, or celebrities famous only for their viciousness have been invited to speak because of their ability to provoke, it is hardly surprising that some people have, in fact, been provoked. But attempting to shut down speakers only plays into the hands of those who in the long run want to undermine the ability of colleges and universities to expand how we think and what we know.

I consider it my duty as university president to ensure that students, faculty and staff have opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. I have and will continue to defend freedom of expression – cognizant that not everyone has equal access to the tools for making use of that freedom and adamant that “freedom of expression” never be allowed to legitimize persecution. I will continue to support the right to speak out with views that may be at odds with the campus mainstream, but I will not countenance harassment. That’s a commitment to free speech, and I view it as core to the educational enterprise.

Events at Charlottesville underscored the problems that arise when exercises in intimidation are permitted under the guise of promoting dialogue and discussion. Our obligation to eradicate harassment entails a commitment to stop those who would bully the disenfranchised, to stop those who would terrorize others for their own purposes. That’s a commitment to equity and inclusion – also core to the educational enterprise.

Engaging with difference, including intellectual diversity, is essential for learning at the highest level. We learn from one another through our differences as well as our commonalities, and, in so doing, we can build meaningful solidarity – learning to care for one another.

I look forward to a year full of learning, engagement and care!

Thinking About Those in Peril

Today Mike Whaley, VP for Student Affairs, sent the following message to students.

As you complete your first week of classes here in Middletown, many of us are thinking about those impacted by what seems like an endless stream of natural disasters around the country and the world.  Our goal in Student Affairs is to reach out to students whose family and friends may be impacted by these events (as the class deans have already done with those students who we know are from south Texas, Louisiana, the Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Florida) and/or who may be studying abroad in these areas. Today we will add those who may be impacted by last night’s earthquake in Mexico to our outreach.

As we try to keep track of all of these global events, we are mindful that media outlets in the US may not sufficiently (or at all!) cover disasters abroad and also that we cannot anticipate the possible connections that members of our community may have in areas affected by such events.  In short, we may not be aware that these or future events may impact you.  Still, we hope to provide support and referrals if you or someone you know is struggling with these or other issues.  Please be in touch with your class dean when we can be helpful to you and your friends.

Recovery from these disasters will likely take a long time and will be most difficult for the poor and marginalized in the affected areas.  The entire Student Affairs team looks forward to working with our caring student body to find ways that all of us can together help the many communities who will need our support in the coming months.  Meanwhile, our thoughts and prayers are with the many who have lost so much and who are in harm’s way.

We have been reaching out to students from various affected areas. Our thoughts are with all members of the Wesleyan community impacted by the earthquake in Mexico and in the path of this horrendous storm.

 

On Liberal Education and the New Economy

This week the Wall Street Journal published my review of two new books celebrating how a liberal education prepares one for the new economy. I repost it here.

A PRACTICAL EDUCATION

By Randall Stross
Redwood, 291 pages, $25

YOU CAN DO ANYTHING

By George Anders
Little, Brown, 342 pages, $27

 

College students returning to their campuses for more reading, writing and ’rithmetic may find they’re not doing all that much of the first two—unless you count messages that come in 140-character chunks or disappear soon after finding their recipient. Breadth of study and deep critical thinking, once thought to be the crowning achievements of American higher education, now strike fear into the hearts of many parents and policy makers, who view them as luxuries or distractions. Instead they clamor for a greater emphasis on quantitative reasoning, involving ever increasing amounts of data. Students and families worry less about being on the “right side of history” than about being on the wrong side of the great economic divide between winners and losers.

Undergraduates today often crave narrow specialization in fields that they imagine will be of immediate interest to employers. Although many still sign up for classes in literature, history and philosophy, the percentage choosing to major in the humanities or social sciences (apart from economics) has been declining. Looking at these trends, a contrarian might conclude that this is an especially good time to choose a major that allows for the development of skills and experiences that set one apart from the hordes clutching STEM degrees. Buy low, sell high.

Randall Stross’s “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees” is meant to persuade recruiters to hire liberal-arts grads, while George Anders’s “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education” is meant to inspire students to recognize how a multifaceted undergraduate experience can aid them in the workplace. Both books are filled with stories like that of Josh Sucher, a Bard graduate who translated lessons from cultural anthropology into market research for Etsy. Mr. Anders calls him an “anthropologist in action,” who uses his skills of observation to more effectively connect artists and potential buyers.

Mr. Stross’s book is based on a narrow sample: Stanford alumni with degrees in the humanities and social sciences. This elite university is among the most selective in the country, admitting less than 5% of those who apply. Sure, one might say, its graduates will do pretty well no matter what they study in school. If they have trouble landing in the very best private-equity firm or start-up, they can use the school network to make connections that lead to good jobs. Even the wealthy neighborhood is a resource. One story features Jessica Moore, who cultivated influential connections for jobs by baby-sitting in affluent Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Stross is well aware that his sample is narrow but presents his anecdotes about non-engineering Stanford grads as being meant to show “the skeptical what is possible.” Interspersed among these stories of enterprising young alumni are short chapters on the history of Stanford, highlighting the institution’s longstanding struggle to offer both a practical education and a broad, flexible one. People interested in the history of education will find these sections illuminating, but for many readers this, too—like the rest of the book—will prove too parochial.

That said, it’s certainly true that many people find ways to add value to enterprises that at first glance seem to have little to do with their undergraduate majors. They have learned to learn, to productively reframe stories, to cultivate teamwork and to communicate in compelling ways. Skills like these—“power skills,” in business-speak—are what students in the liberal arts develop, and this is why Messrs. Stross and Anders find so many examples of young people translating their studies in history, philosophy or political science into value for others—and impressive career trajectories.

Adventurous possibilities abound in today’s economy, says Mr. Anders. Sure, technology is eliminating jobs, and increased automation can be scary. But innovation creates the need for even more people who can imagine the ways in which technology can be put in the service of individuals and communities. “The big societal challenge for the modern world doesn’t involve how rapidly engineers create new technology,” Mr. Anders writes. “The great point of strain involves how rapidly the skeptics and the hesitant can absorb each new wave.” Liberal-arts grads, he suggests, will be especially adept at helping translate technological innovation into everyday uses because they have studied and practiced the “nuanced feat of changing people’s minds.”

Mr. Anders wants his book to be a practical resource and, like Mr. Stross, provides many instructive examples. Readers should feel permitted to sample them rather than plow through them all. And though I suspect that the authors would agree with bromides about the importance of failure, there are no real failures here. Instead they emphasize that the intensity students bring to their studies—combined with the ability to translate that intensity into other areas—is more important than choosing a so-called practical major. And it remains important for a lifetime. “Strong grounding in the humanities or social sciences,” Mr. Anders writes, “doesn’t have an expiration date.” As another academic year begins, these books are salutary reminders that what is learned on campus should have its greatest value beyond the university.

“Fellow Humans,” Defend DACA!

News reports over the past several days indicate that President Trump may be contemplating the elimination of the program that supports hundreds of thousands of young people living in this country brought here without documentation by their families. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program (DACA) has helped so many continue their education, find work and, perhaps most importantly, live without fear of deportation. Eliminating DACA would be a terrible step backward, making more vulnerable young people who should instead be given every opportunity to make the most of their lives and contribute to their communities.

I want to reiterate that Wesleyan has welcomed and will continue to welcome students to apply for admission and, if accepted, to enroll regardless of their immigration status. We will continue to treat undocumented students, with or without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), who apply to Wesleyan identically to any other U.S. citizen or permanent resident in their high school. We are outraged by the current administration’s efforts to scapegoat immigrants, and we reaffirm that we will make every effort to help our immigrant students thrive. A campus-wide committee comprised of students, faculty, and staff worked the past year to make recommendations pertaining to undocumented students as well as those impacted by immigration policies targeting citizens of Islamic countries. We continue to put together resources to help members of our community impacted by these policies, and if you would like to become involved, contact Antonio Farias in the Office for Equity & Inclusion.

In November 2016, Wesleyan declared itself a “sanctuary campus,” and we stand by our pledge not to voluntarily assist in any efforts by the federal government to deport our students, faculty or staff solely because of their citizenship status.

We join many other institutions in urging the White House to maintain the DACA program, and we ask Congress to protect this program with legislation.

In the spring, we awarded an honorary doctorate to Cristina Jiménez Moreta, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream. In her remarks at Commencement, Cristina underscored how important it is that institutions of higher education support the dreams of young immigrants:

Because as we speak there are some powerful leaders telling people like me and my family that we are criminals and that we don’t belong here. They are doing everything to target immigrants, refugees, women, Muslims, and LGBTQ and black people. And thousands are being detained, incarcerated, and separated from their families because of deportation.

So to be honest, immigrants like my family and other communities are going to need fellow humans who are committed to standing in the way of injustice and racism.

And you know what, looking at all of you here out here today and knowing you came from this place, I am very hopeful.

I am hopeful that you will lead with boldness and idealism, just like the mission of Wesleyan, and stand for inclusion and dignity for all people.

We will do our best to acknowledge the important contributions immigrants make to our country and to Wesleyan. We will be the “fellow humans” standing up for justice. #undocujoy