How to Suppress Academic Freedom

On September 26, 2022 The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article under the heading of “academic freedom” that details the actions the University of Idaho has taken to silence educators when it comes to the issue of abortion. The article was written by Senior Reporter Nell Gluckman and is entitled; “’It’s Making Us Accomplices’: A University Tells Faculty to ‘Remain Neutral’ on Abortion Discussions in Class.”

The university references Idaho’s law and asks educators to “remain neutral” when it comes to conversations about abortion. The university also addresses the subject of contraception acknowledging that “the Idaho law was ‘not a model of clarity’ … with regards to contraception.”  As a result, the university’s general council’s  advice– with respect to contraception–was “to be conservative, …, the university should not provide birth control.”

Several affected faculty members expressed fear that their “viewpoint expression” could result in them committing a felony and see the new guidance as deeply troubling, a “breaching of the divide between religion and state,” and an infringement on academic freedom. Follow this link to read the entire article.

Preserving academic freedom and freedom of speech in our public universities is absolutely essential for a well-functioning democracy and actions like those taken by the University of Idaho raise alarm bells.   In an earlier conversation with Carolina professor Dr. William Sturkey, we asked him to  describe how  freedom of speech differs from academic freedom. As you can read and hear from his description, actions like those taken by the University of Idaho may infringe on both.
 How does freedom of speech differ from academic freedom and why would someone self-censor?
Freedom of speech, most importantly, in our country applies to the freedom of the press [and], freedom of assembly. These laws were enacted to make sure that tyrannical governments couldn’t tamp down [on] the press and political movements….It’s about the state suppressing freedom of speech. It’s about the state banning books. It’s about the state banning concepts or trying to ban ideas by using state power through the legislature. That’s what freedom of speech is really about.Now it can be expanded and there’s, you know, liberal ways that you can sort of play with that…. like I have free speech now because I’m speaking…. There’s a huge spectrum of what that might mean. But it really means when the state steps in to interfere with people’s exchange of ideas.Academic freedom, to me, is the ability to study and discuss what you want…. It’s [the] ability to draw conclusions on… their own merit, you know, using your own independent research, [and] not having, …, an administration or even a state government tell you what to research and ultimately what to find. That’s what freedom of speech and that’s what academic freedom mean…. It’s also crucial to understand, I think, that freedom of speech also allows for people to respond to your speech.…. [T]he term “safe spaces” is often thrown out, but also one of the things with this term “self-censorship” is that it almost seems like you don’t want people to have the freedom to respond to folks who are making points, the people…self-censor because they’re afraid of what other people have to say. And, you know, I think that we should all share our views provided that we’re convicted in those views, but everyone else has a right to respond to you as well.
Other News:
Another Chronicle of Higher Education article written by Jonathan Marks and entitled “Red Scare” explores the origins and stated mission versus actions of youth conservative group Turning Point USA.  In the piece Marks explores activism on college campuses, addresses the question of liberal versus conservative representation, and concludes that the activism of groups like Turning Point USA “bears an uncomfortable resemblance to McCarthyism.”  Rightwing activists often accuse colleges of trying to “indoctrinate” students to become more liberal.  What seems clear from this piece is that the colleges are not the ones doing the indoctrinating. As with similar finger pointing,  the accusation of indoctrination  appears to be more projection than reality. Follow this link to check out this very interesting piece.

Upcoming Free Speech Event at Carolina

NC Policy Watch reports that free-speech and self-censorship will be formally discussed at Carolina. “On Sept 13, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse will hold the university’s first student-centered discussion on the issue. ‘Can We Talk? Student Thoughts on Free Expression at UNC,’ was sparked by a series of surveys about free speech — surveys that themselves have become controversial.”

The NC Policy Watch piece shared a significant amount of the content we published In last week’s newsletter where we featured three video clips from Dr. William Sturkey.  The article  goes into significant detail on the issue and includes interviews with students who will share their perspectives on the panel.  Ironically, in a follow-up question, we had asked Dr. Sturkey to share his thoughts about how such talk of self-censorship is currently manifesting itself on campus and what possible solutions may be.

How is politicized rhetoric about speech and “self-censorship” manifesting itself on campus?

“…[O]ne of the things that I think this whole hysteria over free speech and indoctrination and self-censorship [amplified], that’s really…always been there, but it’s really picked up in the last six or seven years, one of the things I think this has done is convinced people who come in with a certain mindset to not take classes of a certain type or if taught by a certain type of faculty member.

I used to have more diverse political views in my classes when I first started here at UNC Chapel Hill. That has largely gone away. I think one of the things that the self-censorship and the free speech hysteria has done is it has …. convinced people–and it’s probably designed to do this—that {they] should not take a certain type of class. [They] shouldn’t take a class about the 1960s or a class about the civil rights movement. Even if [they’re] interested in those areas, [because] … the professor is of a certain identity. The professor might be young, or a woman, or black. And [they] don’t think that [they] could have a fair opportunity in that class because of all the hysteria that we’ve heard about self-censorship and free speech…. It’s actually pulling students out of those debates in the first place It’s making students ‘self-censor’ more… and making them more predisposed to believing that faculty and other students are going to come down on them….They might not take a class in the first place. They might not expose themselves to new ideas in the first place, because they’ve been preconditioned by these discussions that they will be attacked because of what they believe….But at the end of the day, what’s the solution? There’s no solution proposed.”

Dr. Sturkey ended his comments with  the words, “there’s no solution proposed”.  It now appears that at least one proposed solution is for students to talk about their “perceptions” in an upcoming panel discussion.

Talking, sharing and having open dialogue about issues is generally a very good thing.  However, in today’s highly charged political environment, one of the students interviewed by NC Policy Watch pointed out how diversity is being somewhat redefined and a new term “viewpoint diversity’ has grown in popularity.  We asked Dr. Sturkey to explain “viewpoint diversity”.

What is viewpoint diversity and why should we care?

“So, viewpoint diversity is a very sloppy term that really is just being repurposed for modern debates. Your viewpoint, your point of view is informed by any number of different things from where you grew up to the job that your parents did to your religion, to your race, whatever. That’s your point of view. That’s fine. Now, a lot of people are conflating that with your political identity. Okay. We live in this tribalistic world where you’re supposed to either be a Democrat or Republican. And it’s almost like you’re born that way. In a more healthy, functioning democracy, you would have a variety of different viewpoints, some of which resonated with Democratic policies, some of which resonated with Republican policies. And then ultimately you would, vote for the party that most closely reflected your own diverse viewpoints.

But now we’re seeing viewpoint diversity being used as being Republican or Democrat, as if we’re all just living in these two separate spheres. Right. So that if there are people that disagree about something, it must mean that they’re either Republican or Democrat. The fact of the matter is, is that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has more diverse viewpoints than any other organization or institution in the state of North Carolina, by far.

We have people that are born in Australia, in Ghana, in China, South Carolina, North Carolina, Montana, Alaska, where people are Native American, whatever … that might be. There’s no organization or institution in this state that can come remotely close to matching the diversity of views that we have at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

And if there are any, then guess what? It’s NC State or UNCG or another institution of higher education. So, what the viewpoint diversity is being used, though, is to say it’s to say that we should have more “conservative” views. Right. If you accept the premise that we’re in these two different camps, that’s the argument that’s being made. Right, that we need to have more conservative views and that therefore that would protect viewpoint diversity.”

One of the potential dangers of so-called “viewpoint diversity” is that unproven assumptions and perspectives might be given the same weight as truth and facts.  Dr. Sturkey addressed this possibility.

How is campus life being impacted by so called “viewpoint diversity”?

“I think one of the dangers about so much of our political discourse leaking into university settings is that lies and truth are given the same space. …So, [for] a lot of people, even when you refute lies, they think that you’re just doing that because you have a political viewpoint or they think you’re doing that to attack their political viewpoint . And they feel… aggravated because you’ve refuted one of their lies.

For example, Donald Trump did not get more votes in the last presidential election than Joe Biden…and that’s just a fact. But if you say that in a classroom setting, then you’re perceived as being somebody who’s attacking someone’s political point of view. But that political point of view is based on a quantifiable lie.  So, [perhaps] another thing that … causes people to self-censor is maybe they know that these things can’t be backed up, or maybe they know they can’t go find the evidence….And at the end of the day, we need to go back to facts. And I think what happens is that people that don’t have facts just simply say: “well, that person is a liberal, Democrat, Republican, whatever, and that’s why they disagree with me, not because their argument holds merit, but because my side says one thing and their side says to the other. So, what we need is more people on the campus who say what I say, because that’s what I see on cable television or on the Internet or back in my family home.”

In the name of Lux Libertas, we are delighted that students are talking about the issues related to speech, debate and self-censorship at the upcoming event on September 13th.  It is our hope that, like the survey, such open dialogue will dispel some of the myths about politicization on campus that are driving ill-informed governance solutions that are harming our beloved Carolina.

Dr. William Sturkey: Speech? Debate? Self-Censor?

The Coalition reached out to UNC Chapel Hill history professor Dr. William Sturkey to get his perspective about speech on campus.  We discussed recently passed resolutions,  the meaning of academic freedom, “viewpoint” diversity and more.

Below are a few video excerpts from our conversation about a recent student survey and calls for more “conservative” speech on campus. 

What are your thoughts about a recent survey that some trustees say is proof that “conservative’ students “self-censor”?

Dr. William Sturkey shares thoughts on recent UNC-CH student survey

The one thing that was very striking about the survey … was how few students actually took it. So, a very, very small minority of students actually responded to the survey. If this was a major crisis on our campuses, I imagine that more than 11 [or] 12% of students across the system would have actually responded to the survey. The other thing was that the survey really corrected a lot of misconceptions. Students overwhelmingly said that professors don’t take hard political stance in classes…We often accused of on cable news and the Internet people constantly talking about indoctrination on our college campuses. I think that what people have really latched on to, now that this indoctrination issue has been disproven, is that students self-censor.

And, what I really struggle with, with that, is that of course, they self-censor. We all self-censor in virtually every single interaction with other human beings…we all self-censor to some regard. And that’s not just out of respect for other people’s views, but that’s out of worrying about what the consequences of saying whatever pops into your head [is] going to have on your social standing. And so, I just think it’s really bizarre that we take a very common social practice and we say that this is a crisis in higher education when it’s something that we do in every walk of life, in every institution, every organization in our society. You should not say every single thing that pops up into your mind.

And if you have a very unpopular opinion, then maybe you don’t want to share that because you want to get invited to the party on Friday night or whatever. But the other thing is, I don’t know why we’re always putting the onus on the university itself. Why don’t the students come prepared to defend their views? I’ve been that student who had an unpopular opinion in class and argued with conviction, even though I had 13, 14, 15 people telling me I was wrong. And yeah, you’re not the most popular person that day, but at the same time, I didn’t necessarily blame them because I couldn’t go share my views. You know, I think that it’s a bizarre thing that we don’t allow students to openly debate in middle school, in high school, or in their churches or in their family room, you know, their family dining room tables. And then all of a sudden, we expect colleges to open this realm of open debate. It makes no sense at all. I would love for some of these ideas to be applied to private high schools and churches, and even family settings, and then ask people, how often do you self-censor in those settings? Because I bet it’s just as much, if not a lot more than institutions of higher education, like the University of North Carolina.

What do you think needs to happen as a result of this survey? Do faculty need more training? What about students? 

With this recent survey, one of the things I would love to see happen is not necessarily faculty training [because] the students say that faculty explores all sides of different debates.  That’s what the survey results bore out.  But, I think one of the things that we could do is train students to be more engaged.

… I will also observe that our classes are getting bigger. There are other policies that we think might be separate from this whole issue of expression, and free speech, and all of this, that are actually directly connected. Because when you’re in a class of 125 students, you don’t get to talk at all. Forget about self-censoring….It might be a couple of people get to …. speak per class. But even when you’re in a class of 35 students, you’re less likely to speak than when you are in a class of 15 students. If we want to encourage students to develop debate skills or the ability to express themselves verbally, we need smaller classes. We also need to then take the onus off of the institution….and actually train students to think critically and independently…. We need more humanities courses. We need more courses that teach students to think critically even when that critical thinking runs up against some of the ideas that they’ve been indoctrinated with since before they got to campus. I think those are some of the things that we need to do.   And we need to also listen to the people in our own community.

[I say this with respect to]…some of the policies that … [have recently passed]…. I’ve been reading the news coverage, and there was an example where a member of the board of trustees referenced some sort of cocktail party or something that he heard about third or fourth hand. I mean, we are full of talented faculty who interact with students every single day. Why are we hearing about what’s happening on our campus from somebody’s parent who heard it from their kid about a cocktail party or …something….? … [L]etting feelings, anecdotes and rumors dictate policy instead of actually using the talent and the passionate faculty and leaders that we have on the campus.

What are your thoughts about accusations that “conservative voices” are not represented among the faculty or are being silenced?

We’ve heard for a long time now …how there should be more “conservatives” on campus…. [W]hy is it always framed in that way? Why isn’t it that the conservative party doesn’t try to attract more academics and researchers and scientists? …it wasn’t always that way. Perhaps something has changed in conservative movements or conservative circles in recent years. But, to respond more directly to that point, the fact of the matter is, we don’t check voter registration status when we’re hiring people, when we’re interviewing people. We just simply don’t. That stuff doesn’t even come up.

The stuff that we study on campus, we study the whole world, right? We study ideas about even other worlds, literature, physics. Right? You don’t stop and ask somebody whether they registered as a Republican or Democrat. So, if we were ever to try and boost the number of “conservative” faculty on campus, One, I would say that the “conservative” party, the Republican Party, needs to expand its tent so that it can actually appeal to researchers and scientists and nonwhite people that have PhDs. That would be the very first thing you could do that would enhance the number of Republican folks teaching on the campus. The second thing, is really that you would have to then target people based on their political views, which we currently do not do. You would have to actually actively look up people’s voter registration…

So, … I guess my answer really is to try and toss that question back to the “conservatives” and ask them; why…so few people with advanced degrees follow the Republican Party?