Cotton to Higher Ed: Loosen Up or Lose Your Money

This is how bad higher education has gotten: Republican Senators who worry about federal overreach and don’t wish to harm large institutions in their own states have decided that colleges and universities have fully abandoned their Ivory Tower mission and can only be repaired from the outside. The remedy is called the “Campus Free Speech Restoration Act,” which was introduced by Tom Cotton. Stanley Kurtz explains the salient elements of the Act here

The proposal is simple. “Under CAFSRA,” Kurtz writes, “public colleges and universities that promulgate restrictive speech codes, so-called free-speech zones, and other unconstitutional speech policies will lose their eligibility to receive federal student loans and grants through the Higher Education Act.” Private universities will face lesser scrutiny, required only to disclose their rules for free speech and adhere to them or else face lawsuits.

That’s it: Protect free speech or the federal faucet is shut off. College leaders will have a decision to make. They can maintain illiberal practices such as the sequestered free speech zones (which cabin free speech to postage-stamp areas of campus and have even led the ACLU to protest them) and thereby see federal dollars disappear, or they can dismantle those practices and keep the money coming. They can revise their speech codes to fit the First Amendment and lose no funding, or they can maintain those codes and suffer at the bottom line.

The law has several provisions that Kurtz enumerates regarding complaint procedures and review processes, the role of the U.S. Department of Education, etc. that might slow down its passage. A few Republican legislators may claim discomfort with federal intrusion into state and private entities, although massive federal subsidies to higher education happen all the time and, currently, support these unconstitutional practices. Democrats likely will oppose it for the obvious reason that higher education has become a liberal stronghold and pipeline. The censorious campus has worked very well for the Left. Democrats won’t want to change it.

We’ve seen reform efforts in the past fail, too, such as David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights campaign. But past history doesn’t matter, nor do the old debates. Today, life on campus has changed dramatically. Ten, 20, 30 years ago, conservatives complained about liberal bias, but liberal bias doesn’t describe the mood in higher education in 2020. If you are privy to emails circulating among the professors, proposals and pledges issued by presidents, provosts, and deans, ramped up diversity and “systemic racism” training programs, and organized malicious campaigns led by activist students such as the ones who got the UCLA business professor suspended last term, you know that the problem is not merely the tipping of the ideological scales to the left. 

Things have gotten more aggressive and insidious. The atmosphere is coercive and intimidating. Accusations of racism and white supremacy are loud and shameless, and hardly anybody raises a voice of challenge. (Classics professor Joshua Katz at Princeton is one of the very few exceptions.) It feels like a soft version of Girondins giving way to Montagnards, Mensheviks to Bolsheviks. The infamous demand letter signed by hundreds of Princeton teachers was no statement of liberal bias. It was a direct threat to academic freedom and disinterested inquiry and instruction. It put identity politics at the center of personnel and professional practices. No benign gestures toward “diversity” here, but rather outright insistence on preferential treatment for some and surveillance of the rest. With the subsequent criticism the letter has received from liberals as well as conservatives, some signers regret their participation. But if such proposals come up for an open vote in a college faculty meeting, will they stand up in opposition? No way.

Amelioration cannot come from within. Even our more timid Republican legislators understand this. They know, too, that the issue is a political winner. In March 2019, after President Trump announced his Executive Order securing free inquiry on college campuses, McLaughlin & Associates published the results of a poll on the issue. The tally was a surprise. Nearly three-fourths of respondents (73 percent) stated that they favored the edict (42 percent “strongly favor,” 31 percent “somewhat favor”). 

That means a whole lot of liberals backed the effort. Even some college students who lean left believe open expression is in jeopardy, 41 percent of the overall student population telling the Knight Foundation in 2019 that “Freedom of speech” is “Threatened” or “Very threatened.”  In 2016, the rate was only 27 percent. If we were to ask that question of all students today, now that the Woke Revolution has grown so much more voluminous and impatient, the rate would go significantly higher. (Overall, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, liberal and Left students make up just more than one-third—36 percent—of all college students.) 

Republican politicians, in other words, have no political reason for opposing Senator Cotton’s bill. As for Democratic politicians, they must face the many Democratic voters who acknowledge the problem. They can’t deny it when liberals such as Bill Maher and Michael Bloomberg have experienced it firsthand, or when comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock won’t do campus visits any more. President Obama himself criticized it. 

Senator Cotton’s proposal couldn’t come at a better time for Republicans. I have heard that Senator McConnell has signed on—a clear sign that this is a political winner. It puts Democrats in a bind: either vote against one of your best constituencies or defend an unpopular situation. Imagine how a Republican candidate can paint a Democrat rival who opposes Cotton’s bill. A campaign video might record his “Nay” and then show images of mobs at Berkeley setting fires to keep Milo Yiannopoulos and others away, the Turning Point USA guy socked while manning a table at Berkeley, Heather Mac Donald hounded by chanting dunces at Holy Cross, the infamous episode of Charles Murray at Middlebury, and then present several liberals who decry the censorship such as Jay Leno and President Obama himself. Show the hysterical girl screaming obscenities at her professor on the quad at Yale and calling him “disgusting.” Finally, the Republican candidate can say, “My opponent won’t do anything about this. I will.”

The censorious crusader cutting off free speech in higher education, whether the speaker be student or professor, president or trustee, has few supporters off-campus. They’re not likable. They turn college into a zone of scolds. People already hate the cost of college, and they know what professors think of average Americans. The woke craze of the present time only further estranges ordinary men and women on the street. They are ready to see it curtailed. 

Those of us who have witnessed one reform after another peter out have learned that the only method of ending censorship is to stop the flow of funds. College leaders, in fact, are primarily evaluated on how much money they bring in. A loss of cash will stiffen the spines of those leaders who otherwise appear so craven and conciliatory in the face of the shouters and marchers. One might note the immediate benefit of this bill by turning once again to the case of Professor Katz at Princeton, who will be spared any official rebuke by the administration because the school adopted the University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression a while back, and New Jersey courts will honor that commitment should Katz’s colleagues fail to do so.

 This is a campaign issue that frightens the Left, and with good reason. Republicans should move swiftly.

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