There was a time when universities provided a hospitable environment for intellectual experimentation, the questioning of prevailing conventions and the pursuit of robust debate. Even at times when society was dominated by a climate of conformism, the university offered academics and their students opportunities to question prevailing conventions.
Of course, universities were always subject to external pressures and sometimes gave in to demands to regulate the behaviour of their members and silence those with dissident views. But up to the late twentieth century, they tended to provide far greater scope for the free exchange of views than was available in other sectors of society.
That was then. Today, in contrast, the university demands the kind of conformism more historically associated with authoritarian institutions.
Something very strange is going on in universities. In late August 2016, the University of Chicago sent a message to its new intake of undergraduates informing them it does not accept the practice of trigger warnings and safe spaces. It indicated that ‘our commitment to academic freedom’ means ‘we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial’. That Chicago had to justify the importance of academic freedom to its new students suggested that a fundamental feature of university life - intellectual openness and rigour - can no longer be taken for granted.
The letter sent out by the Dean of Students, John Ellison, explained to the incoming students that the University of Chicago rejected calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces. It said:
‘Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.’
When the letter was made public, many academics and commentators said they were pleased that, finally, an important institution like the University of Chicago had taken a stand against attempts to subordinate academic freedom to the imperative of therapeutic censorship. Ellison was praised by many of his colleagues for having the confidence to confront the pressure to institute a therapeutic quarantine zone against free speech on campuses.
However, as a sociologist, what struck me was just how much this letter ran against the zeitgeist that dominates campus life. There are powerful cultural forces at work that encourage the idea that the policing of academic freedom is not what it really is, that it isn’t really the coercive regulation of everyday communication and the repression and stigmatisation of certain ideas. No, the regulation of academic life is now presented, not as a form of authoritarian intrusion, but as a sensible and sensitive measure designed to protect vulnerable students from pain.
Sadly, it soon became evident that not even the University of Chicago was immune from the paternalistic ethos that drives safe-space advocacy today. More than 150 members of the University of Chicago wrote an open letter to freshmen condemning Ellison’s circular and arguing that trigger warnings and safe spaces meet the legitimate needs of students. Their response indicated that active support for the regulation of controversy, criticism and debate on campuses is gaining in momentum. That is why some university leaders went so far as to publicise their disagreement with Ellison. The president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, condemned Ellison’s letter as a publicity stunt, written for ‘those concerned with the bogeyman of political correctness, and those who worry that free speech isn’t the absolute value it used to be’.
Roth was effectively speaking for the cultural establishment that dominates higher education, much of which shares his view. His words expressed the widely held idea that academic freedom is not really a big deal. Those who mock the idea that free speech is an ‘absolute value’ are really saying this freedom should not be taken too seriously. In Roth’s and many other academics’ outlook, academic freedom is at best a second-order value that is subordinate to ensuring that students are made to feel comfortable and are not offended by words and ideas they might find distressing.
Others go further than Roth and claim that academic freedom and free speech have become weapons wielded by those who possess power against the weak and vulnerable. The following statement by the sociologist Jennie Hornosty illustrates this approach:
’[W]hat does it really mean when universities have been dominated by white male elites who define knowledge, curriculum, ways of being, and the organizational culture in their image? What does it mean to talk of academic freedom in a class society with multiple layers of inequality?’
For Hornosty, when balanced against the issues of inequality and oppression, the value of academic freedom pales into insignificance. Instead of drawing the conclusion that in an unjust world the promotion of academic freedom is particularly necessary for creating the conditions for change and progress, many argue that social reality, the existence of ‘multiple layers of inequality’, means that academic freedom is not a useful thing, and might even have a pernicious influence through extending certain people’s power.
We need far more than an occasional letter that reminds students of the value of academic freedom. The prevailing paternalistic culture of higher education needs to be challenged thoroughly and consistently. Universities have to re-educate themselves, and re-appropriate academic freedom as the foundation of their work. There is no better place to start than through altering the relationship of the university with its students. We need to take students seriously and expect them to be able to act as adults who posses the capacity for moral autonomy and independent learning, and who can cope with difficult and even ‘dangerous’ ideas.