Civil rights historian Abigail Thernstrom once spoke of the American campus as “an island of repression in a sea of freedom.” That was in 1989. At the high tide of freedom we who believed in unfettered inquiry and free speech believed these islands might “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it,” as Jefferson proposed to leave the enemies of freedom in his day. We were wrong.
Reason is not left free to combat unreasonable arguments when reasonable arguments are squelched by force. Reason is not left free when teachers and students are not free to hear and assess the reasons of all sides for themselves. In happier times groups like the National Association of Scholars, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni thought that Universities could be saved for freedom by insiders. But each cohort of insiders has proved to be either more impotent in the face of the challenge or more hostile to freedom than those who came before.
American universities can repress because a free society thoughtlessly subsidizes repression.
Freedom isn’t free, as the cliché goes. But fortunately for the partisans of freedom, totalitarian thuggery isn’t free either, and can can only survive when it can take or steal the resources it needs to pay for its seitan and arugula.
American universities can repress because a free society thoughtlessly subsidizes repression. But most Americans, one has no choice but to hope, are still partisans of freedom, and the democratic process has put the enemies of freedom into the power of its friends. Those friends must, for once, recognize that the boldest measures are the safest. I have a bold measure to propose—but first we must consider whether it is bold enough.
The commanding heights of American higher education lie in the accreditation process. To bring in tuition money through government tuition grants and subsidized student loans a school must be accredited. To bring in foreign students, highly desirable because they generally pay full tuition, a school must likewise be accredited.
Who guards the guards? Schools are accredited by accreditation agencies, but by Federal law accreditation agencies must be certified by the Secretary of Education. All Betsy DeVos has to do is require that these agencies ensure that their students and teachers are protected in their ability to study, discuss, and learn. How, in turn, can agencies, carry out this function?
Fortunately the agencies can learn from best practice. The University of Chicago, which has received the highest rating in the United States for protecting and encouraging intellectual diversity has set out its principles in a brief report where the University promises “to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
DeVos must simply demand that all accrediting agencies take the “Chicago principles” for their guidelines. The agencies must, in turn, require that all secular schools under their purview endorse these principles, and withdraw the accreditation of those that do not endorse them or fail to protect freedom against thuggery. Pomona, say, may prefer to remain under the knout of its student “Red Guards” as enabled by faculty and administrators—but Pomona has a $2 billion endowment to waste in much the same fashion as the thug state of Venezuela has wasted its oil wealth. A free people will look on from without in pity and horror.
To impose freedom from without requires allies from within: accreditation requires accreditors, academic peers, to visit campuses and make reports. If we act now there are still genuine liberals (of all parties) scattered throughout the cities of the plain, including scholars of national reputation such as Camille Paglia, Laura Kipnis, and Cornel West. It may take legislation or even the creation of a new civil rights commission for higher education, but enough of these men and women are prepared to testify before Congress or to serve.
American higher education can still be saved for freedom, but only if all who love alma mater as she was and could be will cut her off from the moneys that have financed her totalitarian binge.