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Two Threats to Intellectual Freedom

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Intellectual freedom is in danger on American campuses. Although they’ve highlighted some real grievances, the recent wave of protests include unprecedented demands for uniformity on controversial issues related to race. Big changes may take longer than protestors would like, particularly on matters subject to faculty governance. But residential life administrators are enthusiastically proclaiming the new orthodoxy in areas under their influence.

It’s important to publicize attempts to exclude politically incorrect beliefs and practices, which sometimes collapse under scrutiny. But social justice activists and their bureaucratic allies are not the only threats to free thought and speech. At many universities, presidents and trustees with business backgrounds are trying to replace relatively unsupervised with scripted content delivery.

A recent incident at the University of Iowa reflects this development. At a meeting of the Staff Council, university president Bruce Harreld reportedly told faculty that there was “one way” to prepare for class and that instructors who failed to do so “should be shot”.

The ensuing controversy has revolved around the shooting comment, which Harreld now denies having made. Worse than this stupid but essentially harmless dead metaphor, however, is Harreld’s background assumption that education is about offering up  previously prepared goods for students to consume. It’s worth noting that Harreld, a former computer executive who was chosen for the Iowa job through a murky selection process, has minimal academic experience and appears confused about what universities do.

The two threats to intellectual freedom are not equally distributed. Political correctness is a bigger problem at elite private universities that enjoy enormous prestige but enroll only a tiny fraction of students (these schools are also not subject to the First Amendment). The corporatization of the curriculum is a greater risk at public universities, particularly below the flagship level, that are less glamorous but do most of the actual teaching. Conservatives who care about higher education can, and should, oppose both tendencies. It is no victory to prevent the rule of fanatics by transferring power to philistines.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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