My State Struggles With the Perils of Legislating Higher Education Reform

Universities have by and large rendered themselves unable to be policed—sometimes quite literally—and that has not gone unnoticed by the legislators who fund them.

Wisconsin’s Campus Free Speech Act is just the latest attempt by states to impose some order on institutions by compelling their colleges and universities to take free speech seriously. Thus far, North Carolina is the only state to have enacted it, although several other states have passed less comprehensive free speech legislation.

The bill, AB 299, is modeled on draft legislation put forward by the Goldwater Institute. It was passed by the State Assembly in the spring and is, along with a competing bill, currently in committee in the Senate.

Predictably, AB 299 has its detractors. Some of them point out the dubiety of government officials telling universities how to conduct their business. State Representative Terese Berceau of Madison attacked the crisis of campus speech as an “artificial, political controversy” and disagreed that “the university needs us to tell them how to handle this.”

Another, more virulent criticism of the bill comes from Scot Ross, executive director of the leftist group One Wisconsin Now. He stated that the Republican sponsors of the bill “want to make our campuses safe spaces for Republicans to be free of criticism and subject students to sanctions if they speak out.” That is simply false, but indicative of the heated rhetoric the Left is using against the bill.

But for other Wisconsin citizens, particularly those purportedly served by these institutions, the question about the bill is not “Why?” but “What took so long?”

With the exception of Governor Scott Walker’s notorious passage of Act 10, which limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees and has, according to Forbes writer Patrick Gleason, saved taxpayers billions of dollars, the state has only tinkered at the margins of higher education reform.

Act 10 was followed four years later by the removal of tenure from state statute, meaning that the law would no longer require state universities to have tenure. The most noticeable effect was that UW lost the distinction of being the only system in the country to have tenure protected by law. The authority to set tenure policy, as it does virtually everywhere else, now lies with the Board of Regents, which has affirmed its commitment to maintaining tenure protections.

Nevertheless, the legislation led to ineffectual resistance from the Left. Protesters showed up at events brandishing placards that read “Get Politics Out of Education,” hardly the right message to garner sympathy for an embattled professoriate.

And so, while the free speech bill should not come as a surprise to observers of higher education in the state, institutions within the system have done precious little to dispute its need.

Controversy heated up late last year when a UW-Madison course called “The Problem of Whiteness” was thrust into the spotlight after its instructor launched a series of celebratory tweets over the murders of three Dallas police officers. In response, a number of lawmakers, invoking their duty to oversee the prudent management of taxpayer dollars, threatened to withhold funding if the course was not canceled.

They also called, albeit a bit faintly, for the offending professor to be fired. That was never going to happen, but it perhaps served as a shot across the bow in the war over the limits of academic freedom and the extension of speech rights outside the context of academe. From an institutional standpoint, it merely allowed the university to assert its commitment to defending the social media rantings of its faculty.

What critics of reforms fail to acknowledge is that legislative meddling has all along enabled higher education’s thorough politicization, particularly during the Obama years.

Then, in March 2017, Governor Walker’s biannual budget initially included a provision—later removed—that would have allowed students to opt out of paying allocable student fees. The rationale was that such fees are being increasingly used to fund student organizations and activities with a decidedly leftist bent. The centerpiece for the opposition was perhaps Madison’s “Sex Out Loud” program, but other events across the system covered by these fees, such as UW-La Crosse’s “Drag Show” would have done just as well.

The bigger problem, however, is that these and other measures are largely symbolic and would do little to ameliorate the problem of the ideological monoculture that persists on Wisconsin’s campuses.

Student fees are indeed objectionable, but they constitute only a minute fraction of a student’s total outlay. And interference with curricular matters, even those treating tendentious and divisive subjects like whiteness, is ultimately antithetical to the reforms these initiatives seek to enact. College administrators have already amassed a fair degree of control over instruction, and anyone seeking true academic freedom, especially those who might deviate from campus orthodoxy, should be wary of adding another layer of oversight. Political winds tend to shift.

However, what critics of reforms like these fail to acknowledge is that legislative meddling has all along enabled higher education’s thorough politicization, particularly during the Obama years when Democrats imposed numerous mandates on colleges and universities. It is natural to expect this impulse to cross party lines.

Such are the stakes of partisanship. To wit, once universities unblinkingly accepted the “guidance” offered by the Office for Civil Rights, it became disingenuous to suggest that measures constraining activism or threatening to pull federal funding, as President Trump did after the Berkeley riot, are beyond the pale.

The argument might be made that an institution’s student conduct policies should preclude legislative mandates or at least render them superfluous. UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas indeed made that case, asserting the importance of the “free exchange of ideas and need for order,” while invoking “the existing student conduct process that has served institutions well for many years.”

Yet how well that process and other related policies have served our institutions is debatable.

In December of 2015, the Wisconsin Board of Regents adopted a policy similar to that put forward by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago. The Regents made clear the university’s commitment to free speech, and academic freedom, and that people who violate those freedoms can expect punishment.

Not quite a year after passage of this policy statement, though, protesters, abetted by UW police and administrators, disrupted a speech by Ben Shapiro by blocking the stage and yelling “safety” ad infinitum. They left after a period of time, but surely such disruptions cannot be the price of hosting speakers the Left feels to be offensive.

The university, in a statement after the event, reminded everyone that it “expects community members to engage in discussion…in ways that are respectful of others’ viewpoints.” It also ambivalently expressed disappointment “that some attendees at the event chose not to do so.” It is telling that the statement refuses to specify which attendees it is referring to.

For now, we might begin exploring alternative means for allowing speech that challenges current orthodoxy.

This past May, Charles Murray spoke at the private Madison Club for the first “Disinvited Dinner” hosted by UW-Madison’s Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy. A closed forum such as this has the advantage of actually taking place, since the establishment where the event takes place can control who is admitted. However, as Murray himself noted, the format inhibits the kind of free and open exchange that was once the hallmark of liberal education.

In the absence of institutional seriousness in addressing crises like that of free speech, this presently seems like a desirable option. But unless and until our public universities find seriousness, we will have politicians intervening in higher education.

  • DrOfnothing

    Books by Conservative authors sell millions of copies. Breitbart and FOX news broadcast their views uninhibited. Trump and his representatives offer bald-faced lies that are, in turn, challenged by respectable news organisations. Even far more extreme spokesmen such as Alex Jones can spread their most outrageous and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories to anyone with an antenna.

    So where is this “crisis of free speech” of which you write?

    • Mark Zunac

      It is on the campus, not in our living rooms or personal libraries. Alex Jones or a Breitbart writer like Steve Bannon – and even those more reputable public figures like Heather Mac Donald, Jason Riley, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleezza Rice, George Will, or Christina Hoff Sommers – very often meet a whole lot more than respectful disagreement on these increasingly volatile campuses, provided they are even allowed to speak. There is also always a very good chance that they will be prevented from engaging in any kind of civil Q-and-A session. Ignorance of the problem does not justify its denial.

      • DrOfnothing

        Well, they’re not _forbidden_ from speaking, but ardently Conservative speakers are greeted with protest and even hostility, this is true. The more extreme speakers like Milo (who advocated pederasty) are treated with open contempt and prompt demonstrations.

        In no other aspect of our society do we _insist_ that people have to listen to speakers to whom they have a strong political opposition. Nor do we punish or chastise people for speaking out. If a majority of students oppose a speaker, and choose to protest their presence on campus, how is this not democracy in action?

        I should add that, personally, as someone who works at a university, I definitely support bringing figures from across the political spectrum to campus, as long as they have something add to the conversation–folks like Milo or Ann Coulter, who are merely self-aggrandising “brands” don’t count. I also strongly believe that students should be exposed to the full range of perspectives on any particular topic, from history to literature to philosophy, as long as the focus is on the most influential and significant approaches (which, I know, is somewhat subjective). So, Poli Sci students should read Locke and Burke, Economics majors should read Adam Smith and Marx, and English students should read Shakespeare and Achebe, not one or the other. What I don’t believe is that they _must_ read one perspective on the Right for every writer they read on the Left. That’s not balance, it’s just an arbitrary politicization of teaching (which JMC is supposed to oppose, not advocate).

        Lastly, why is this worse than what Pruitt is doing as head of the EPA by expressly forbidding EPA officials to discuss climate change? That’s out and out censorship, and of scientific professionals, no less. I’m just looking for a little perspective here.

        • cestusdei

          On the contrary people are forced to listen…to Leftists speech from their “professors.” If they object they are punished. Those who want to hear conservative speakers are likewise punished, harassed, and even physically attacked. If a majority of students don’t want to hear something then they can stay home, they do not get the right to shut someone else up.

          As soon as you add “as long as” you have set yourself up as the dictator who gets to decide. Who made you God? I think Hillary adds nothing, so do I get to decide she can’t speak? You are for free speech…as long as you agree with what is being said. YOU are the problem. You don’t want any balance at all, just admit it. You are arbitrarily imposing your pov.

          As for vitriol and venum, I see that from Hillary all the time. i saw it in Obama. I see it in you. You are the haters. You deny any chance of civil discourse, except on your terms. That’s why so many voted for Trump. You helped him get elected by your utter contempt for those who don’t go along with your ideology.

          I think we should require all universities to have an equal number of conservative and liberal professors. Equality now!

          • DrOfnothing

            This makes no sense whatsoever–it’s just a rant with no evidence. Also, venom is spelled with an “o.”

            On the other hand, it’s good that you support equality, and we can assume therefore, that you support equal rights for minorities and other disadvantaged groups. Bravo!

            But, how would you insure that all universities have equal representation of Conservative and Liberal professors? That’s merely an arbitrary imposition of ideology, and it would require massive govt. regulation. Do you, therefore, support massive government regulation? That’s not a very Conservative standpoint!

          • cestusdei

            Golly gee. And you think you were not ranting? It is unfortunate that you don’t support equality and prefer to persecute conservatives. You do not believe in the right to freedom of conscience and speech. You want to keep students in your little ideological box.

            You are the one arbitrarily imposing YOUR ideology. I’m just pointing out your clueless hypocrisy. On the Left you LOVE government regulation, so long as you get to do the regulating. So do you now renounce government regulation? That’s not a very Liberal standpoint. Why are you so frightened of students hearing other viewpoints? I think it is because you know how weak yours is. Why do you not support “equality?”

            I think you make perfect sense. You are a dictator and ideologue filled with hate for anyone who doesn’t agree with you. You simply act accordingly and do your best to discriminate against them at every opportunity. You’re a bigot and at least are consistent when it comes to your hatred. Just be an honest one.

          • cestusdei

            Heidi White:

            “In response to a student petition, the Yale University
            English faculty recently voted to “decolonize the English department” by
            rearranging their course requirements to minimize exposure to, among
            others, Shakespeare and Chaucer. New course requirements mandate that
            undergraduate students choose three out of four core courses, in which
            only one includes Chaucer and Shakespeare, while another includes
            Milton.

            In other words, students graduating with a degree in English
            Literature from Yale University may never read Shakespeare, Chaucer, or
            Milton in the course of their university educations.

            Since all major works of English Literature from Donne to Shelley to
            Rowling descend from these three authors and their classical and
            medieval forebears, this is the equivalent of undergraduates in science
            erasing Galileo, Newton, and Darwin from scientific studies.

            To borrow from Freud, who borrowed from the Classics, this is Oedipal. It is the violence of children against their fathers.”

            This is Leftist insanity at its best. English majors who may lecture us on typos, but have never read Shakespeare.

          • DrOfnothing

            Undergraduates in Biology, Chemistry, and Physics do not read Galileo, Newton, or Darwin, just for the record.

          • cestusdei

            Most students don’t read much of anything nowadays. But an English major who has never read Shakespeare? You have to be a Leftist to think of that one.

          • DrOfnothing

            Time to put up or shut up. I dare you to find a single English department at any US university where Shakespeare isn’t offered as a core aspect of the English Major. Go on, I double dog-dare you!

          • cestusdei

            I just did. Yale. I guess you don’t read well either.

          • DrOfnothing

            Golly gee. And you think you were not ranting? It is unfortunate that you don’t support equality and prefer to persecute conservatives. You do not believe in the right to freedom of conscience and speech. You want to keep students in your little ideological box.
            **Please point out where I have persecuted conservatives.
            **Please point out where I have indicated my opposition to freedom of conscience and free speech.

            You are the one arbitrarily imposing YOUR ideology. I’m just pointing out your clueless hypocrisy. On the Left you LOVE government regulation, so long as you get to do the regulating. So do you now renounce government regulation? That’s not a very Liberal standpoint. Why are you so frightened of students hearing other viewpoints? I think it is because you know how weak yours is. Why do you not support “equality?”
            **Please point out where I have imposed MY ideology.
            **Please point out where I renounced government regulation.
            **Please point out where I indicated a fear of students hearing other viewpoints.

            I think you make perfect sense. You are a dictator and ideologue filled with hate for anyone who doesn’t agree with you. You simply act accordingly and do your best to discriminate against them at every opportunity. You’re a bigot and at least are consistent when it comes to your hatred. Just be an honest one.
            **Please point out where I expressed hate towards those with whom I disagree.
            **Please indicate how I am a bigot.
            **Please point out where I have been dishonest.
            **Please indicate how I am a “dictator.” Since a dictator is an individual who holds uncontested power in a national government, and I current don’t hold _any_ power in _any_ government (beyond my vote), this seems to be a rather ridiculous assertion.

            I am not sure whom you are describing in your post, but I am fairly certain it isn’t me! Honestly, it seems like you are quoting from another post or from some type of script, because your response has no specific reference to anything I wrote earlier.

          • cestusdei

            I was just thinking that about you. I honestly don’t think that you…think. You are so mired in ideology that you can’t step outside yourself. You don’t mind arbitrarily skewing things in the liberal direction, which is the point here. It doesn’t occur to you that there is another valid perspective. It is hate and persecution when your side silences others or makes sure that only liberals get to be professors. You are so warped you don’t even notice it.

            I have 2 post graduate degrees. I know how universities work believe me. You smug and superior attitude is no doubt unconscious. It is not ad hominem to point out your hypocrisy and double standard. Next time a position in the philosophy department opens up, hire a conservative. I dare you to even suggest it. We both know what would happen lol. You don’t fool anyone here.

          • DrOfnothing

            You are still not addressing any of the points made, but rather continue offer personal insults and bizarre stereotypes instead (and you are repeating yourself). Please offer some substantive engagement or post somewhere else where this kind of behaviour is appropriate.

          • cestusdei

            No, I am telling you that your points are bigoted and ideological. This is like talking to a Klansman who wants me to answer each of his points. You are missing the forest for the trees. Step outside your box and read your own comments. You are so full of contempt that it doesn’t occur to you that other people might have something to say, especially if they are conservative. I have challenged your pov and you don’t like that. I am betting it doesn’t happen much on campus.

            But concrete? Fine. Mandate that all public universities that there must be affirmative action for conservatives. They are a minority. So 50% of all new professors and administrators must be demonstrably conservative. We pay taxes and so we should be represented. It’s also a matter of of academic freedom. Let’s break the monopoly that people like you have over higher education.

  • Dave Kabay

    And you Dr killspeech want to shout them down and forbid them the ability to do this expression of free speech because you are too lazy to debate/reason with them?? And you don’t think the your Bernie does exactly the same thing as their Donald??? Ah so sad that this crisis is in the name dear Doctor

    Dave