Is a New Campus Speech Initiative For Real?

Duke has signed on to the Campus Call for Free Expression. What, exactly, does that mean?

Thirteen college presidents, including those of Duke, Cornell, and Rutgers, have signed on to the “Campus Call for Free Expression” (CCFE), a project organized by a low-profile Princeton-and-Woodrow-Wilson-related group called the Institute for Citizens & Scholars.

Though the move has been celebrated in outlets as dissimilar as Inside Higher Ed and Forbes, I’m afraid it looks like a silly “Well, okay then, I guess I’ll sign on,” limp-wristed, toothless, and redundant exercise rather than a serious effort to get universities back on track.

Rutgers for example, contents itself with the claim that …

academic freedom—the right of our faculty in the discharge of their duties to express their ideas and to challenge the ideas of others without fear of retribution—is a cornerstone of American higher education

… which is about as controversial as professing a belief in gravity. Yet Rutgers, not too long ago, cancelled a speech by one invited woman—Lisa Daftari, accused of Islamophobia—and allowed another, Condoleezza Rice, to back out because students protested. What does Rutgers propose to do to avoid such embarrassments in the future? The president’s 35-word statement is unlikely to stem the tide of progressive sanctimoniousness that continues to flow through that university.

The Campus Call for Free Expression looks like a limp-wristed, toothless, and redundant exercise.Claremont McKenna College, another participant, had already signed on to the Chicago Principles, a more explicit defense of free speech than the CCFE proposal, and their existing policy already supported free speech: “CMC is committed to academic freedom,” etc. Yet CMC also actively encourages students to snitch on professors who say things they don’t like.

Cornell president Martha Pollack, like her counterpart at Stanford Law, thinks that free speech “must coexist” with diversity, equity, and inclusion policies that in fact prioritize hurt feelings over statements of fact. Cornell is, too, a signatory.

Here are brief statements from three of the signers, all saying the right thing:

• One of Duke’s most cherished values is unfettered debate and deliberation, granting wide freedom of expression to those in our campus community. With that freedom comes the responsibility to foster scholarly discourse, not offer a platform for polemics, and to ensure ideas are tested, challenged, defended and debated in a way that advances knowledge, rather than obscures or impedes it.

• It is critical to our mission as a university to think deeply about freedom of expression and the challenges that result from assaults on it, which today come from both ends of the political spectrum. Learning from difference, learning to engage with difference and learning to communicate across difference are key parts of a Cornell education. Free expression and academic freedom are the bedrock not just of the university, but of democracy.

• The debate over unfettered freedom of expression is at the heart of contemporary polemics. While the free exchange of knowledge is vital, it raises questions about responsible discourse and the potential consequences of unchecked speech. Striking a balance between individual rights and societal well-being remains a challenging but crucial endeavor.

Do these statements give any confidence that these administrators either understand or will do anything to eliminate the threats to open inquiry that now exist on campus? For example, number two promises “to think deeply about freedom of expression and the challenges that result from assaults on it.” No. The problem requires action, not thought. The issue is simple: Many students (74 percent by a recent report) think it is fine for the university to censor not just opinions but factual claims with which they disagree. What are college presidents going to do about that?

Do assaults on intellectual freedom really “come from both ends of the political spectrum”?Furthermore, do assaults on intellectual freedom really “today come from both ends of the political spectrum,” as the Cornell statement claims? Isn’t the Left more guilty than the Right these days? (No one has tried to pull down a statue of MLK, as far as I know, but Theodore Roosevelt was swiftly removed from his NYC plinth.) Or is this just an effort to ward off a charge that President Pollack is right-wing?

How about “learning from difference,” also from statement number two? Who could be against learning … from anything? But that sounds like a nod to multiculturalism, the antithesis of the uni-versity, which is supposed to be about the unity of knowledge, not the diversity of experience. A university may study any culture, but it should stick to its own when drawing conclusions.

Finally, there is the ritualistic invocation of “democracy.” There is no single definition of that word. Some are good, some are bad. Some preserve a tyranny of the majority, while others are manipulated by a covert elite. Some, like the U.S., are better called “republics” than democracies. And universities have flourished under democratic and undemocratic (for example, monarchical) regimes. So why is “democracy” part of their mission?

None of these statements is obnoxious or obviously violates academic-freedom principles. But each is bland and formulaic; none has the ring of conviction. This is especially true of number three, which was, in fact, generated by ChatGPT 3.5 in response to the prompt, “Write a 50-word paragraph containing the words campus, debate, unfettered, freedom, expression, polemics, and knowledge.” I doubt it would stand out, in a blinded test, from the other statements produced by university signatories.

The word “truth” is absent from these statements. The distinction between scholarship and research on the one hand, and advocacy on the other, is not mentioned. ChatGPT does better with the prompt, “Write a 50-word paragraph containing the words truth, character, wisdom, and responsibility”:

Higher education at the university level should not merely impart knowledge but also instill a commitment to truth, character, and wisdom. Universities bear the responsibility to nurture students’ intellectual growth, fostering not just expertise but also ethical character, enabling them to contribute responsibly to society’s progress and well-being.

This still needs a bit of work, but we’re on a better tack than the Campus Call for Free Expression is likely to pursue.

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology Emeritus at Duke University. He was profiled in the Wall Street Journal in January 2021 as a commentator on the current problems of science. His book Science in an Age of Unreason (Regnery) came out last year.