You Support Free Speech? Show It

By James A. Bacon and first shared on Bacon’s Rebellion and shared her by permission.

The leaders of Virginia’s colleges and universities are increasingly sensitive to the public’s distrust in higher-ed’s ability to protect freedom of speech and “cultivate robust and divergent viewpoints,” in the words of Jonathan Alger, Shannon Kennedy, Katherine Rowe, and Timothy Sands (presidents of James Madison University, Rappahannock Community College, William & Mary, and Virginia Tech, respectively).

“Today’s students may hesitate to discuss difficult topics for fear of retribution or ostracism,” write the four presidents in an op-ed published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Yet free expression and academic freedom are essential to the tripartite mission of learning, discovery and engagement.”

To address these fears the Virginia Council of Presidents has issued a statement expressing support for free expression:

“As presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, we unequivocally support free expression and viewpoint diversity on our campuses. Free expression is the fundamental basis for both academic freedom and for effective teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom. Our member universities and colleges are bound to uphold the First Amendment. We are committed to promoting this constitutional freedom through robust statements and policies that are formulated through shared governance processes and through actions that reflect and reinforce this core foundation of education. We value a scholarly environment that is supported by a diversity of research and intellectual perspectives among our faculty and staff. We pledge to promote and uphold inclusivity, academic freedom, free expression, and an environment that promotes civil discourse across differences. We will protect these principles when others seek to restrict them.”

Noble words. But I won’t believe the presidents’ commitment to “free speech and viewpoint diversity” until I see massive changes in the way they run their institutions.

The fact that the college presidents felt moved to voice their commitment to free speech, civil discourse, and intellectual diversity is a positive step, not the least in that it acknowledges the existence of a problem that many have contended is a figment of conservatives’ imagination. Here’s the rub: faculty and staff of Virginia’s universities are lopsidedly left-of-center and they are getting less intellectually diverse, not more. The pressure to conform to leftist pieties is intensifying, not easing.

The prime driver is the universities’ commitment to a left-wing or “woke” paradigm for social justice that views society through the lens of racial, gender, and sexual oppression. To institutionalize this paradigm, almost every public university in the state has erected Diversity, Equity & Diversity bureaucracies, and many require employees and job applicants to submit “diversity statements” outlining their commitment to social-justice goals.

The Baby Boomer generation of scholars is more leftist in orientation than the generation that preceded it, but Boomers are marked by a modicum of diversity in intellectual viewpoints. They are being replaced by a younger generation that is far more uniformly leftist. Ideological filters such as DEI statements weed out scholars not committed to a “woke” position on the greatest social controversies of our day. The evolution toward an intellectual monoculture has enormous momentum. Few conservatives are willing to undergo years of graduate-student poverty knowing how dim their academic employment prospects will be. The pipeline of diversity of thought is being shut down at the source.

I’m inclined to view the Council of Presidents’ statement as political posturing while a Republican occupies the Governor’s Mansion and Republicans in the House of Delegates control the public purse strings. I’ll believe the presidents are genuinely committed to free speech and intellectual diversity when they scrap their diversity statements, rein in their DEI bureaucracies, and stop punishing students and professors for violating the woke orthodoxy.

It is ironic that Timothy Sands affixed his signature to the op-ed, even as Virginia Tech soccer player Kiersten Hening continues to pursue a lawsuit against a coach who benched her two years ago for refusing to kneel to show support for Black Lives Matter. Demonstrating solidarity with Black Lives Matter may not be official Virginia Tech policy, but Sands has fostered a campus culture where Hening’s experience is hardly unique.

The assault on free expression runs deep. University presidents need to rein in their EEOC offices, bureaucracies that enforce left-wing speech standards under the guise of combating “discrimination.” They need to scrutinize the many other ways, often arcane, in which mid-level administrators and student institutions of self-governance suppress heretical views.

Article 35 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China promises the right to freedom of speech. We know how well that works. In the absence of concrete action to change campus cultures, abstract expressions in support of free speech and intellectual diversity in America don’t mean much more.

Full disclosure: Jim Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council, a University of Virginia alumni group dedicated to protecting free speech and advancing intellectual diversity.


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