Discover more from Discourse
A College Free Speech Crisis: The Challenge of Complicit College Administrators
Instead of being free speech’s biggest defenders, academic administrators are encouraging a campus climate of censorship
This is Part 2 of a four-part series in which a college professor examines modern challenges to campus free speech and how we can overcome them. Part 1 examines the unnatural and counterintuitive nature of academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Today’s free speech crisis at America’s colleges and universities echoes some of the speech challenges the country has had to face in the past. The McCarthyism of the 1950s finds expression today on college campuses, with many faculty now required to show their ideological conformity by adding “diversity, equity and inclusion” statements to their syllabi, self-assessments and hiring and promotion materials—statements that have been criticized as “higher ed’s new woke loyalty oaths.” Faculty have been forced to sue their own universities to escape the ultimatum of either forswearing their deep-seated personal beliefs or being fired.
But our current free speech predicament is also quite different from those of the past, in at least a couple of especially ominous ways. The purges of previous eras involved the failure of schools to live up to the free speech ideals they claimed to espouse. For example, when Harvard forced historian Ray Ginger to resign for refusing to take a loyalty oath in 1954, the university claimed it was because Ginger and other suspected communists wouldn’t swear to uphold our constitutional system of government, of which the First Amendment right to freedom of expression is a centerpiece. But today, it is the freedom of expression itself, both in practice and as a constitutional ideal, that is under attack—not just on campuses but throughout society.
Also, in previous eras censorship was imposed in a largely top-down fashion, with older generations policing the rebellious minds of youthful radicals. The Cold War censors of the McCarthy period were ultimately overtaken by a younger generation who, in a burst of freedom, started a radical free speech movement on U.S. campuses during the 1960s. Today, the youngest generation of adults is mobbing and rioting in favor of censorship rather than against it. This bottom-up demand for censorship is a new phenomenon in American history—and so far, it has been extraordinarily effective and shows no sign of relenting.
Statistics guru Nate Silver has crunched the data on the extent to which current college students welcome censorship of ideas they oppose. If Silver’s analysis is correct, the decline of academic freedom may continue for decades, eventually culminating in a dark age of conformity on our campuses. But while college students’ embrace of censorship is obviously a problem, the reason why it’s a particularly strong threat is that these students often have the full-throated backing of college administrators.
Higher Ed Administrators Are to Blame
Academic administrators tend to be neither educators nor scholars. At the higher levels—presidents, provosts and deans—they function as executives and personnel managers. Some may have been promoted from the faculty and may still teach and publish, but when they are acting in their administrative capacities, they assume a fundamentally different role. Their primary purpose is to protect the “great conversation” that should be happening on their campuses by creating the best environment possible for teaching and learning.
Guaranteeing open forums for the free exchange of ideas is essential to achieving that purpose. Given the natural inclination to censor when confronted by transgressive speech—and given the ascent of the new post-liberal ideology—fostering such forums is hard work. Administrators must be proactive and vigilant to ensure that discourse on campuses has room to breathe. Instead, too many are helping to smother it.
While the hostility of faculty and students to free speech, academic freedom and intellectual diversity is a huge problem, it’s administrators who are tasked with enforcing the rules that guarantee these values. Faculty have little power to censor outside the classroom, and students have virtually no power to censor that isn’t given to them from above.
University presidents and deans are encouraging the censorial instincts of faculty and students and failing to protect those who express unpopular or offensive beliefs on campus when they need that protection most. Those who do express such beliefs can be subject to stigma, ostracism and vindictive conduct. According to a recent major study, over 80% of college students censor their own views “at least some of the time.” They have no faith that the institution they belong to will safeguard their right to speak.
Perhaps the unkindest cut of all, though, has been the alacrity with which administrators have thrown faculty caught in public free speech controversies to the wolves. Instead of shielding their employees and teaching the public the importance of free speech, they have frequently joined the mass denunciations and public shaming. Their treatment of faculty has been especially ungracious given the blurry and constantly shifting standards defining the new campus orthodoxy under which professors have had to operate.
Intellectual exploration is part of a professor’s job description. Therefore, at some point every professor will likely say or do something others will find offensive. It’s during these moments—when students, alumni or a social media mob turn against them—that professors must depend on their dean or president, who might personally disagree with them, to hold up the shield of academic freedom and protect their ability to do their job.
While there have been some courageous exceptions, such as President Robert J. Zimmer of the University of Chicago and President David Yager of the University of the Arts, administrators are now more inclined to placate, or even encourage, censorial mobs than they are to defy them. Through a potent combination of complicity and cowardice, they have facilitated the current crisis.
Faculty Under Attack
The stories of supposed speech transgressions on college campuses show how college administrators have become hostile to the very ideas they’re meant to defend. In fact, they’re often shutting down universities’ free speech defenders.
That’s certainly the case in the story of Timothy Boudreau. As chair of Central Michigan University’s journalism department, Boudreau worked to impart the importance of the First Amendment to his students. In one class, he used racial slurs as a teaching device to show students how and why the First Amendment protects the use of every word, even those society considers the vilest and most offensive. But one of Boudreau’s students furtively recorded and saved footage of his lecture, and in 2020, after she graduated from the university, she posted the footage on Instagram. Two days later, without any notice to Boudreau and before an investigation, university administrators apologized to the student publicly on Instagram.
An apology, of course, is an expression of contrition that, in this case, concedes precisely what an investigation is meant to determine. And indeed, Central Michigan University moved aggressively at every stage to affirm its initial presumption of guilt. When Provost Mary C. Schutten asked Boudreau not to use racial slurs in the classroom again, he explained that “the very nature of the course involves offense, often ugly language,” but that he’d “weigh very carefully” the competing interests.
From that moment on, Boudreau, a fixture on Central Michigan University’s campus, was persona non grata: “Two hours later, I was suspended from the university, told to stay away from campus, from students, turn in my I.D.,” he said later. “I felt like I was a criminal.” After nearly 20 years of employment at the university, Boudreau was fired. Ironically, by firing Boudreau, Central Michigan University contradicted the very First Amendment values he was trying to teach his students.
Sometimes a speaker doesn’t even have to say an offensive word to be targeted. In 2020, Greg Patton of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business was suspended from teaching for repeating in class a commonly used Chinese word that a group of students believed sounded too much like an English-language racial slur. They complained to the university, inciting a public controversy that, in less febrile and polarized times, would have seemed surreal. The discussion centered on the difference between “semantic harm” (psychic pain inflicted by offensive words) and “phonic harm” (psychic pain inflicted by sounds that are not offensive words but sound like them). According to his accusers, Patton was guilty of the latter offense.
Patton felt bad when he learned that some had found what he said upsetting: “My heart just sank,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is distract or hurt my students.” He immediately emailed an apology to his class. Though it was obvious he had neither used insulting words nor intended the Chinese word to be offensive, an angry clique of students demanded that the university fire him: “He’s a white American. He knows what it sounds like, right?” argued one of the students pushing for his dismissal.
Rather than stand by Patton, Dean Geoffrey Garrett removed him from his class, apologized for his behavior and, as in the case of Timothy Boudreau, conceded the professor’s wrongdoing before engaging in any fact-finding. The Patton controversy spread off campus into national and international media, where the larger public joined with groups on campus to push back against Patton’s mistreatment. Fortunately, he survived the investigation and continues to teach at the University of Southern California.
Then there are times when administrators find fault not because of any action but because of inaction. Professor David Batson of the Georgetown University Law Center was pulled from the classroom, placed on leave and ultimately pressured until he resigned his position in 2021 after video emerged of him listening and nodding while a colleague, professor Sandra Sellers, spoke about grading her students. Sellers was fired for her remarks, the most offensive of which seems to have been this: “I hate to say this. I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks, happens almost every semester. . . . And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You know? You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”
To quote NBC’s reporting, Batson “did not disagree or interject in the video” while his colleague spoke. It was his silence, it seems, that doomed him. As with Patton and Boudreau, students saw a video of the speech and demanded action. One student group complained that by nodding his head as Sellers spoke, Batson “affirmed” her objectionable comments and that his “response [to her] was insufficient.” Another group demanded a “public apology” from Batson for “his failure to adequately condemn Sellers’ statements.”
Batson, for his part, disavowed his colleague’s speech in his resignation letter, suggesting that his nodding might have meant something other than agreement. Many of us nod during conversations merely to show that we hear and are processing what others say, for instance. Batson further explained that, while reacting in real time, he nonetheless failed in his duty to disagree with Sellers.
The complaining students in this case seemed to be urging a standard that would punish faculty for nothing more than silently witnessing the disapproved-of speech of another person. This would create a “bystander responsibility” to intervene and correct another’s speech. Bystander intervention of this kind has been advocated as a campus policy by groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and has been promoted by some colleges and universities, including Clemson University in South Carolina.
While it makes perfect sense to encourage bystanders to intervene to help those in physical danger on campuses, stretching bystander responsibility to punish professors for their “failure to adequately condemn” a colleague during an extemporaneous conversation, as Georgetown seems to have done, would be an unprecedented intrusion into academic freedom and freedom of expression. It would announce as policy the most obnoxious and degrading type of First Amendment violation: compelled speech. Faculty would be forced to initiate disagreements and rebuke the beliefs of friends and colleagues, even when they secretly agree with them—always for the sake of promoting whatever beliefs the school currently holds. Such a rule wouldn’t just destroy the intellectual life of a campus. It would create a dystopian hellscape.
Following the usual pattern, Dean William M. Treanor’s initial response to this controversy was to presume guilt and to condemn Batson. In one of a series of public letters to the campus community, Treanor writes that part of his effort to “do better” will include the creation of programs that “discuss bystander intervention.” In another letter, Dean Treanor promises that the law school will “work to address the many structural issues of racism reflected in this painful incident, including . . . bystander responsibility.” The clear implication is that Batson’s choice to remain silent rather than oppose his colleague when she expressed views forbidden by the school was morally and professionally unethical and harmed the campus. Having been publicly pilloried by his boss, Batson was allowed to resign.
Policing the Viewpoints of Guest Speakers
It’s not just faculty who have found themselves the victims of college administrators’ warped approach to free speech rights. Colleges and universities have always invited speakers from outside their communities to offer perspectives on issues of public concern, but over the past few years, such guest speakers have experienced widespread censorship in the form of shout-downs, and even violence, when they espouse conservative or libertarian views.
Shout-downs are a particularly disruptive form of public censorship that has come to be known in First Amendment law as the “heckler’s veto.” The heckler’s veto uses constant interruptions and cacophonous noise to prevent audience members from hearing a speaker’s ideas. Activist student groups and others have used this tactic successfully, and with increasing frequency, across the country in recent years. Adding inhospitality to their growing list of faults, school administrators are no more willing to protect the speech rights of their own invited guests and those who wish to listen to them than they are to protect the rights of their faculty.
Take, for example, the story of conservative activist Ian Haworth. In April 2023, Haworth visited the State University of New York at Albany to give a speech on, of all things, the importance of free speech on campuses. A mob of swearing, screaming, chanting protesters hurled epithets, destroyed a bible and—why not?—formed a conga line in an effort to silence Haworth. They were successful: His speech was cut short.
While Haworth seems personally satisfied with a letter university administrators sent to the campus community, a quick review shows it to be merely a perfunctory and toothless admonition that will do nothing to prevent interruptions of the type that forced Haworth to end his speech early. As usual, there’s no mention of any students being punished for hurling distracting and obnoxious obscenities. Though the letter explains that the university has a “constitutional obligation” to protect free expression and that preventing speech is “unacceptable,” it is conspicuously silent about what measures, if any, the university will take to prevent censorship orgies like the one Haworth experienced from recurring. College students can tell when an administrator is winking.
Now consider the story of NCAA All-American swimmer Riley Gaines, who was mobbed, physically attacked, whisked away by police and put in a secure classroom for her own protection while a horde raged at San Francisco State University. This occurred in April 2023 after she’d given a speech in favor of allowing only biological females to compete in women’s sports. Unlike many other speakers, Gaines was able to complete her remarks. However, the brutal treatment she received as she left the venue sent a chilling message to those considering whether to support her views on university campuses.
Despite evidence that Gaines was physically attacked and confined against her will, no one was arrested, and no students were disciplined by the San Francisco State administration. Instead, university president Lynn Mahoney published a letter to the campus community that neither criticized the mob nor apologized to Gaines. Instead, the letter implies that by visiting campus with intolerable views, Gaines had been the initial aggressor and the university had been the victim in the conflict. Gaines’s speech, Mahoney wrote, was “deeply traumatic for many in our trans and LGBTQ+ communities, and the speaker’s message outraged many members of the SF State community.” She continued, “Last week was a hard one for San Francisco State. . . . To our trans community, please know how welcome you are. We will turn this moment into an opportunity to listen and learn about how we can better support you.”
Millions of Americans share Riley Gaines’s views. They know exactly how welcome they are on San Francisco State’s campus, even if the only purpose of their visit is to express an opinion. And certainly, any speaker holding similar views will think twice before committing to speaking on campus, knowing that administrators will not have free speech’s back.
The primary function of higher education is the advancement of knowledge, from which a million other benefits are derived. To facilitate this compelling purpose, scholars, teachers and students should be free to consider all ideas, even if most prove useless and even if some are obnoxious or offensive.
The most destructive idea on any campus is “conformist.” The most bracing is intellectually transgressive.” The only people less valuable on our campuses than conformists are those who use their power to turn young people into conformists. That’s precisely what too many academic administrators are doing: While these presidents and deans are harming the free thinkers on their campuses first and foremost, they’re also contributing to a growing intolerance throughout our society.
This article has been adapted from “Our Emersonian First Amendment,” published on the Grand Valley State University Koeze Business Ethics Initiative website, and from written testimony submitted to the Ohio House of Representatives’ Higher Education Committee.