Saturday, November 05, 2022

The Stanford Academic Freedom Conference, Day 2

By John K. Wilson

            The second day of the Stanford Academic Freedom conference is here on Nov. 5, 2022 (watch the videos, and read about Day 1 here). So far not much news coverage of the conference except the College Fix, but I would expect to see an Inside Higher Ed report on Monday.

            We begin with a panel on “Academic Freedom Applications: Climate Science and Biomedical Sciences” with Noah Diffenbaugh, Bjorn Lomborg, Jay Bhattacharya, and John Ioannidis. Noah Diffenbaugh is the token liberal invited, and he does a good job. He says, “I have not ever once seen a decision by the institution come down to viewpoint or speech.” He praises Stanford, noting how one time “I was being told by a funding agency that I could not publish based on the words in a manuscript” and “the university supported me vigorously.” He says, “Here at Stanford we have clear policies that have been adhered to.” As a climate editor for Geophysical Research Letters, he says,  “we published a lot of papers that were controversial” and “our emphasis was on public debate.” He argued, “The paper should be in the public domain” and “not stifled by confidential peer review.” 

Jay Bhattacharya makes the spirited attack on universities, saying that at Stanford, “When you take a position that is at odds with the scientific clerisy, your life becomes a living hell.” He adds, “Stanford prides itself on academic freedom, but does not actually have academic freedom.” When Bhattacharya attacked Covid lockdowns, “I started getting hate mail. I started getting death threats.” He complained that “the press has been used to do hit pieces on me.” 

Bhattacharya is particularly upset by a “poster campaign on campus” that was “blaming me for the deaths in Florida.” He says, “it felt like a physical threat. For two days, I did not come on campus.” No, it wasn’t a physical threat: Criticism is not a physical threat. But he complained about the administration, “they effectively did nothing” and he denounces them because they “permit this kind of hostile work environment to go on.” While Stanford’s president rejected censorship (“of course he had to say he didn’t” support censoring me), Bhattacharya apparently wanted him to walk around the campus and personally rip down all the flyers Bhattacharya didn’t like.

Bhattacharya wondered, “what if there had been open scientific debate on campus sponsored by the university about this?” But why does he think it’s the administration's job to sponsor a debate? Do you really want the president establishing the parameters of acceptable people to debate ideas? Nobody was stopping Bhattacharya from having a debate or expressing his views. Yet he concludes, “If university leaders do not stand up for it, then they do not deserve the positions they have.” Is Bhattacharya actually calling for the president to be fired because he didn’t censor Bhattacharya’s critics? Bhattacharya's invocation of the phrase “hostile work environment” seems to be a clear claim that he was a victim of harassment, and criticism of him needed to be suppressed. I think we need to keep repeating this crucial phrase until people understand it: Criticism is not harassment. Criticism is not harassment. Criticism is not harassment.

Ioannidis talks about his views on Covid leading to death threats, including against his family, “social media hoaxes,” and cancel campaigns (interestingly, he says “the most severe attack I received was from the right wing, in Greece”). He warns, “unless we incentivize the diligent, rigorous scientist, they will become extinct.”

Interestingly, Diffenbaugh reveals during the question period that he has also gotten death threats and attempts to have him fired, and “that has been part of the landscape as a climate scientist as well.” It’s an important corrective for anyone who thinks conservatives are the only ones on campus getting death threats.

Unfortunately, what’s missing in this whole conference is an analysis of what universities can do to stop illegitimate actions against anyone (such as death threats) while making sure that they do not ever punish protected speech (including mean flyers). I think it’s an important step for universities to stigmatize violent threats, and to pursue both legal and disciplinary action against those who make them. Instead, we get whiny conservatives saying they want the university to take their side and denounce and silence their critics. 

Next up is Jordan Peterson, but before his talk he asks a question at the morning panel and it makes Peterson sound like a raving lunatic. He talks about “reputation denigration and reputation savaging” and blames it on “a female anti-social personality type." What kind of idiot thinks this way? But I’m also disturbed by Peterson denouncing “Machiavellian psychopaths” and his concern about the danger “when societies don’t control the 3% of parasitic psychopaths.”

I know Peterson has taken a lot of abuse, but I definitely have an aversion to anyone who routinely refers to people whose views he doesn’t like as “parasitic psychopaths.” And I think we should worry about what he thinks the “control” of these “psychopaths” should be.

Peterson is talking with Douglas Murray, who is fond of making big claims that aren’t actually true, such as “America is in the process of destroying all its founding fathers” (since when is criticism “destroying”?) and “look at what they’ve done to all the philosophers of the enlightenment,” claiming, “John Stuart Mill, gone.” Gone? How is Mill gone?

Peterson again denounces “the narcissistic and psychopathic Machiavellians” who are “stealing the culture” and all that, but he says nothing of any significance, and certainly these two offer no insights whatsoever about academic freedom. I don’t think they even mention the phrase.

Finally, a really good panel: “Academic Freedom: What Is It and What Is It For?” with Greg Lukianoff, Nadine Strossen, Richard Shweder, and Hollis Robbins.

Lukianoff talks at a blistering pace, and he first condemns the anti-CRT laws and promises, “FIRE will sue, and we’re going to win.”

He says, “We’ve talked about a National Leonard Law within FIRE” and “I am increasingly in favor of it.” I have hated California’s Leonard Law for 30 years, and I oppose government laws forcing private colleges to obey free speech.

Lukianoff also talks about revoking qualified immunity for administrators, but worries that “insurance will cover those administrators” and says “they should no more do it than for someone accused of murder.” I’m not sure I think restricting free speech is equal to murder, and I don’t think trying to bankrupt college employees is the best path to protecting free speech.

Lukianoff also wants to “ban political litmus tests” (he means diversity statements) and says, “we’ll probably need a law to flat out say that.” He adds, “I don’t think you should be allowed to do that at a private school.” I’m very disturbed at the idea of laws banning faculty from considering certain skills in hiring decisions.

Hollis Robbins, a dean at the University of Utah, says “I think things are going pretty well.” She says about deans, “We don’t always get training” about academic freedom and notes, ”I’ve never been through a training about how you tell the difference between a free speech question and an academic freedom question.” She calls for “training in supporting each other.”

Fortunately, Rick Schweder is here to denounce the idea of administrators telling faculty to “spend three hours on this training or that training.” He says, “I view academic freedom as the preeminent value in classical liberalism’s academy” and rejects the idea to “balance it against other values.” I agree with his complaint that the “IRB system puts all kinds of limits on research.” He offers a couple of small improvements: “reform the IRB system, they have gone way beyond what is required by law” and state that “we are open to all political viewpoints” in job ads.

Nadine Strossen declares, “I am a liberal, and I constantly crusading and evangelizing for free speech and academic freedom” and “constantly telling progressives” to embrace it. She added, “I have to tell my conservative allies the very same message” and “I hear a little too much rhetoric that is demonizing the liberals and progressives.”

Strossen argues that “most of the attacks are coming from the extremes” and “those being victimized are more moderate.” Actually, I don’t think that’s true. While there are often attacks from the right or left, and sometimes a moderate makes a slip, in reality most of the campus censorship is centrist administrators punishing those on the left or the right. The extremists may light the bonfires, but it’s administrators who decide to burn the witches.

Strossen says, “you forfeit the moral high ground if you are uneven in application” and she notes that about campus problems, “it pales in comparison to the danger of government censorship.” She also notes how the Stanford Law School Federalist Society filed a complaint against a student who made a satirical poster mocking them. According to Strossen, “We should be less about anti-woke, and much more about being for academic freedom.”

Lunch is with Scott Atlas on "Academia, Science, and Public Health: Will Trust Return?" Atlas devotes most of his time to blaming his enemies for “killing and harming millions” during Covid, and doesn’t say much about academic freedom. He does say, “There’s a lot of nuance to censorship” although he admits, “I have not been fired from my job. There is a value to tenure.”  

Atlas says he was “publicly defamed by other faculty members” and he attacks defamation law and the case of New York Times v. Sullivan: “That’s a problem, that decision.”  As he notes, “You have to ensure any kind of statement unless those statements are done with actual malice.” Atlas argues, “We cannot have an incentive to say whatever falsehood you want in the legal system.” But of course that’s an argument for censorship, which is ironic because when Atlas was attacked because people thought he was saying false things, it was free expression that protected him. It’s rather sad that the lesson Atlas has learned from efforts to censor him is to support more repression. 

The afternoon starts with Steven Pinker on “Rationality and Academic Freedom.” While Pinker goes after both sides and says “I don’t want to leave the right-wing off the hook,” he is mainly attacking the left, including his claim that there is “mutual unintelligibility between Enlightenment liberal science and postmodern critical wokeism.” I don’t think that’s true at all and this kind of choose one side or the other is antithetical to rational thinking.

Sometimes I think Pinker is guilty of wishful thinking: “When we suppress free speech, we are disabling our species’ only mechanism for getting to the truth.” I’d like to imagine that, but I just don’t think that’s true. I think free speech is the best mechanism for the truth, but it’s hardly the only possible way.

Pinker concludes, “Academic freedom should not be branded as a right-wing cause,” but not even the conservatives here believe in that. I don’t think Pinker really challenged the audience much at all. 

I love people mocking conspiracy theories and ESP, and I appreciate anyone who quotes George Carlin in an academic talk, but this is mostly a book talk about his book on rationality, and it’s a bit too up disconnected from academic freedom.

 I know it’s mean for me to keep saying that these keynote speakers aren’t saying anything about academic freedom, but they aren’t, and that’s supposed to be the focus of the conference. Just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t mean we should be enthralled by them giving their usual talks without bothering to address the actual important topic of the conference.

I don’t think Pinker grapples with the potential conflict between trust and academic freedom. Pinker argues that “the credibility and objectivity of rationality-promoting institutions must be safeguarded.” But what if protecting the academic freedom of some crackpot undermines the credibility of a university? Pinker calls for trust based on the “earned credibility of institutions” (such as “reputation for accuracy” and “open inquiry”) 

In fact, Pinker tends to distrust freedom. He dismisses Twitter as a place “where anyone can say anything.” So is being free to say anything good or bad? If academic freedom makes universities more like Twitter (where idiots who are wrong are not removed), should we trust universities less if they’re free?

If trust means I trust anyone at Stanford who says something, then academic freedom undermines trust, because it allows raving idiots at Stanford to say false things, and you obviously shouldn’t trust everything said by every academic (in fact, you can’t, because they often contradict each other). Trust in everyone at Stanford is only rational if Stanford strictly regulates its faculty to remove untrustworthy people. Academic freedom undermines trust.

But maybe that’s good. Maybe we shouldn’t trust Stanford or any other institutions. Perhaps we can only trust our own rationality–and we can’t really trust that, because of our biases, so we need dissent in order to enhance our own rationality.

The next panel is “Academic Freedom in Law and Legal Education” with Ilya Shapiro, Michael McConnell, and Eugene Volokh. Shapiro talk goes through his personal story. He says,  “This is the illiberal takeover” He notes the “explosion in the bureaucracy.” He says deans are not woke, but they are “spineless cowards,” which I think is often correct. Interestingly, he endorses the campaign to boycott Yale law clerks, which I believe is alarming example of cancel culture.

McConnell (a teacher of mine almost 30 years ago) is just as thoughtful and insightful as he was long ago. He notes, “I have made a point of defending academic freedom of persons whose policies I disagree with.” He says, “Both sides need to police their own team,” which I think is one of the most important ideas offered at this conference. He worries about “an intolerant monoculture” in classrooms where “certain subjects have been taken off the table” such as affirmative action or sexual assault, and a debate is “not going to happen”--not because of the professor, “it’s the other students” and a small minority of them: “they run the show”  and threaten “social reputations” and “friendship groups.” According to McConnell, “that is the greatest threat to academic freedom in the law school.” 

McConnell offers some practical solutions for “little things that might be done.” He advocates a “campus climate survey” (I’m always skeptical of their value–McConnell says, “when you count something, it becomes important” but that isn’t necessarily how it should be). McConnell also notes, “there’s not a single administrator at Stanford whose job it is to protect student or faculty speech” and advocates hiring “freedom of thought officers,” which I think is a very good idea. He calls for improving orientation to promote free speech, and says that “free speech policies ought to have a summary judgment procedure” to dismiss complaints without an investigation. He argues for a federal government imposed “cap on the percentage of expenses that are administrative” to receive federal funds, an idea that I think will promote more clever lying than effective reform.

Volokh gives an informative but not really provocative summary of the current law on free speech and academic freedom. A few interesting comments he makes: “I’ve very rarely seen universities try to punish students for libel”--I wonder if that may change as more colleges adopt the Chicago Principles, which explicitly mentions libel as a reason for punishment. Volokh says about the Leonard Law, “the skies haven’t fallen” in California (but he adds, “maybe it doesn’t matter that much”). Volokh did note that “the legislature is not going to be any good at these kinds of decisions.” He says, “I am very skeptical of micromanagement of the curriculum by legislators.”

The conference concludes with its most controversial figures, “The Cost of Academic Dissent” with Joshua Katz, Amy Wax, Elizabeth Weiss, and Frances Widdowson. Katz describes how he “actually did something wrong” by sleeping with his student, but he is defiant that he was the victim of “obvious double jeopardy” and a “pretext” for his criticism of campus racial politics. I have defended Katz and said he should not have been fired, but I think many of his claims are wrong. Katz turns in a very dark direction, saying about his former colleagues, “many of them are truly horrible people.” Katz says, “I confess that I am tired of standing on principle while watching the university sacked by visigoths.” He concludes, “This is war, and our job is to vanquish them.”

Amy Wax speaks about “the costs of dissent” and says “they are heavy indeed in the current environment.” Wax argues that “the university does not vilify or penalize faculty for their positions.” She complains that “my school has called me every name in the book.” According to Wax, “the goal of the progressive left today …is to destroy and demolish our legal system” and “send it back to Third World status.” Wax does not pretend to put on a moderate face. She says, “the elephant in the room at this conference is race.” She rejects the idea that racism causes group disparities, saying the racial differences are the real cause: “they have to face up to the fact that the meritocracy will produce different outcomes by group.”

Friday, November 04, 2022

The Stanford Academic Freedom Conference, Day 1

            By John K. Wilson    

            I wrote a post for AcademeBlog about the Stanford academic freedom conference this weekend (see the videos) and here is summary of some speakers at the event and my reactions from Day 1 (day 2 is here).

John Cochrane opened the conference quite pissed off at the criticism it’s gotten. He claimed that the Chronicle of Higher Education “declared this conference a threat to democracy.” That’s a bit too far from the facts. The Chronicle’s piece is titled, “A Conference Says Academic Freedom Is in Danger. Critics Say the Event Is Part of the Problem” with the subhead, “To some at Stanford, the event — starring Peter Thiel, Scott Atlas, Jordan Peterson, and Amy Wax — is alarming evidence that the elite university is fueling threats to democracy and public health.” I think the criticism of the conference is overblown and sometimes unfair, but I don’t think the reporting on this criticism is unfair. Cochrane complains that the absence of speakers on the other side is due to “refusal to participate, not lack of invitation.” However, I’m skeptical of that, since most of the reporting has been about several failed attempts to find a single liberal speaker to fill one slot on one panel about medical issues. I don’t think there was ever a plan to have contrary speakers on most panels but all of them refused to speak. A conference isn’t obligated to offer equal time, but let’s not pretend that this was an even-handed conference boycotted by leftists.

Some interesting things about the conference revealed by Cochrane: “several more withdrew” due to it being livestreamed. And the Hoover Institution (where Cochrane is based) declined to support it because it was “too political.” Cochrane delivers the key thesis of the conference: “the main threats to academic freedom inside the university…predominantly come from a left-wing ideology.”

And we’re off with a keynote by Jonathan Haidt. I have criticized Haidt’s theories before, and his speech is more of the same dubious theory: There was a revolution in the culture of colleges in 2014-16, caused by liberal students suffering anxiety and depression due to social media. In reality, there is no evidence of any revolution in academia at that moment, and no evidence that students were driving any of the minor changes at colleges. Haidt is still pushing trigger warnings and safe spaces as a dire threat to higher education, long after anyone stopped caring about it.

Haidt declares that there’s “more ideological diversity in the room today than in any room in any other top 100 university,” which seems as unlikely as many of his other unproven claims. There’s a lot about victimhood culture “brought into universities around 2014 by Gen Z” who were “demanding change, demanding that we not have the free flow of ideas.” According to Haidt, for the entire two-plus-millennial-long history of academia before 2014 (387 BCE to 2013, to be precise), everyone viewed “academic life as playful.” Haidt says, “you remember what it was like before 2013 when there was humor…” Haidt offers his usual careful analysis: “Social media is basically destroying our epistemic institutions.” Haidt complains that “administrators have Ph.D.s from education departments” (actually, that’s pretty rare) and adds with typical hyperbole that “the worst unit of any academic institution is the education department.” And of course Haidt complains that these leftists think “how evil the other side is,” without ever noticing how he is doing exactly that. No, I’m not impressed by this talk, and I’m not alone. Later in the day, Tyler Cowen says this about Haidt denouncing social media: “it’s stunning to me that our first big speaker closes with an attack on free speech.”

Next up, a panel on “Academic Freedom in STEM” with Anna Krylov, Luana Maroja, Mimi St Johns, and Jerry Coyne. I’m a big fan of Coyne and his great blog Why Evolution Is True (read his defense of the conference), but not so much this talk. Coyne says “the academic freedom of biologists has been degraded and infiltrated by ideology.” He admits that “the ideological pollution has come from the right and the left” (and briefly refers to creationism and climate change denial), but his talk only goes into four examples from the left. He really ought to be challenging his conservative audience more. The cases are 1) “denial of discrete sexes”; 2) “males and females are biologically identical” mentally; 3) “evolutionary psychology is worthless as a discipline”; and 4) “race is purely a social construct with no biological content.” There’s nothing really controversial in what Coyne says, but no real evidence that these ideas are being banned on campus. His sole example is a professor at the University of Southern Maine, whom Coyne (incorrectly) says was removed from classes for teaching that sex is bimodal. Coyne worries that “there are things you can’t say” and expressing these views is “enough to get you called a racist.” He claims, “the moniker of ‘racist’ or ‘transphobe’ is horrifying and it makes you shut up.” But aren’t people free to say mean things about one another?

The real star of the show and the best speaker at the conference is Mimi St. Johns, a Stanford undergrad in computer science and editor of the right-wing Stanford Review. St. Johns attacks the “obsession with identity politics” and how DEI managers “weave a web of political correctness.” She complains that the “general culture of protest around certain industries” is a “distraction” for students who want to work in fossil fuels and defense, and bemoans the protests of CIA recruiters: “the recruiters might not be able to hand you a flyer on this campus without a protester getting in the way.” I’m not sure why she thinks that the right to protest should be limited to prevent conservatives from being distracted.

According to St. Johns, “DEI initiatives do little except destroy rational thinking on campus.” She asks, “how do we take on college administrators when they create a monoculture”? St. Johns brings a personal experience to these issues: “Some students won’t talk to you when they find out you’re on the right” and adds, “you might face backlash.” She notes that “A lot of conservative students are afraid to speak out” but adds, “I know it’s important to voice these opinions.” She advises, “don’t nail yourself on the cross, but it’s easier than you think to speak out.” St. Johns seems smarter and more eloquent than pretty much all the other conservatives speaking here, and it’s not hard to imagine her becoming a star on right-wing talk shows, if she wants to lower herself to that level.  

The next keynote is Peter Thiel, whom I debated about diversity on C-Span back in 1996. Throughout his talk, I kept thinking, “What does any of this have to do with academic freedom?”’ Thiel says that “the arguments are super-powerful on our side” and I instinctively distrust anyone who says their arguments are “super-powerful.” 

Thiel says that “the humanities we all know are ridiculous” but notes how some people will defend higher education by pointing to STEM subjects. So he devotes his speech to talking about science and technology, but he promises “not to strawman our opponents.” He breaks that promise a lot.

Thiel offers a lot of big, vague thoughts about “taking our civilization to the next level” and a few specific attacks on the left. Thiel claims that “This is the zeitgeist on the other side” that they think “we need to embrace a one-world totalitarian state right now.” (Of course, Thiel provides no evidence of anyone who actually thinks that.) Thiel makes grand declarations like, “However dangerous science and technology are, it seems to me totalitarianism is far more dangerous.” Well, duh. Thiel calls for us to be “a little more scared of the anti-Christ, and a little less scared of armageddon.” I guess he thinks that’s a good argument for deregulation or whatever he is trying to say.

Thiel wonders why there wasn’t a ticker tape parade for the MRNA vaccine scientists, and claims, “people are really uncomfortable with the MRNA vaccine” because it’s close to the gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. That, of course, is loony. We don’t celebrate the vaccine scientists because we don’t have a culture that celebrates science, and because we have a political system where lots of the Republicans that Thiel is supporting have pushed conspiracy theories about scientists and vaccines being evil.

Thiel also speaks about “uncomfortable entanglement that the US has with China” and his bizarre fear that as a result the US will adopt China’s “surveillance AI.” Yes, that’s a warning about surveillance tech from the founder of the surveillance tech firm Palantir, although he bizarre thinks US/China cooperation (?) is the threat rather than himself.

I’ll admit that I sometimes enjoy listening to Thiel talk, when he says fun oddball things like, “We’ve overdosed on psychology, we’ve overdosed on therapy, all this nonsense.” But this speech was way too incoherent and off-topic to add much of anything to the conference.

Next up: “Academic Freedom: Practical Solutions” with Richard Lowery, Dorian Abbot, John Hasnas, and Peter Arcidiacono.

Lowery argues that universities “need to be subject to some kind of bankruptcy” and advocates the “tobacco company treatment.” He wants to make it embarrassing to work for universities and “get the brand to look like Philip Morris” because “universities are only selling their reputations.

Dorian Abbot argues for the universities adopting the Chicago Principles, Kalven Report, and Shils Report. Interestingly, he says that “The Shils Report is keeping DEI statements out of University of Chicago hiring.” Abbot argues that “the woke stuff is super unpopular” and “the silent majority of students and faculty is on our side.” He notes, “If you look at what the woke people say, it’s insane most of the time” but they control universities because “the woke people work really hard.”

On the Kalven Report, Abbot says he has been fighting a “two year battle to get these statements removed” that various departments have made. He says, “we’ve started getting these statements taken down” and reports 100% success. I’m very disturbed at Abbot’s belief that silencing statements is some kind of victory for free speech. 

Abbot’s ideas get much worse, though, when he turns to “ways the government could get involved.” He recommends government imposition of the Chicago Trifecta: “you could tie federal funding to adopting and enforcing these doctrines.” And “you could enable lawyers to file class action lawsuits if you could prove that a university was not following these” doctrines, with a class action lawsuit to get tuition refunded if a university makes a statement about something, apparently. Abbot says he has filed eight Title VI and Title IX complaints against the University of Chicago, and says, “Let the lawyers go at it like sharks.” It’s a remarkably scary scenario of government control and litigation, and it will get worse later in the day at this conference.

John Hasnas talks about “conquering the climate of fear.” There are two fears: “being sanctioned by the university” and “fear of the reaction of your fellow students or colleagues.” He focuses on the first. He notes that “universities are committed to freedom of speech”  but “the commitment is not enforced.” He says there is “no incentive for enforcement” and we need to “change the incentives.” Interestingly, Hasnas notes that deans “are certainly not ideologues” but are responding to incentives. Hasnas calls for a “safe harbor clause” in policies that “will summarily dismiss” complaints “if based solely upon” religious or political viewpoints, make that “legally binding on the university.” Hasnas says, “the last thing you want is the government making the rules” but he does advocate litigation, to “empower individuals to enforce the laws themselves.”  

In the Q&A, Amy Wax makes her first appearance, saying “there is potential for the government to take action.” She says, “the only legislators are Republicans” because “Democrats are not your friend here.” She says, “the model here is Title VI,” and say federal funds “can’t discriminate on the basis of” “additional requirements. She also says to “adopt First Amendment principles” into faculty handbooks. Wax says, “of course we don’t like bureaucracy” but says she’s fine with them enforcing this.  

Eric Kaufmann says, “we’ve really got to get government and legislation involved” and adds, “without getting government involved, I don’t see how we can crack this nut.”

During the panel, Peter Arcidiacono invokes his watchwords of “courage, compassion, community.” He seems very nice, and says “my relationships with people who disagree with me” allowed him to survive despite his views. He adds, “I end up learning a ton because my arguments actually get challenged.” Arcidiacono speaks out against the “demonization of the other side” and says, “I disagree with the mockery.”

Well, Lee Jussim loves the mockery. He’s the next keynote speaker, and he chortles his way through his talk, laughing hysterically at various left-wing journal articles he thought were so stupid. He decries the “rise of this authoritarian cancel culture on the left”  radicalization of academia. He makes three points: 1) academics are “massively, massively left of the American mainstream”  2) “you can make almost any claim no matter how virulent, bizarre or unjustified” if done in the name of social justice; 3) if you criticize social justice, “you are at increased risk of being punished or suffering reputational damage.” He describes DEI statements as “affirmative action on steroids” and “professionally compelled speech.” Jussim calls for forming new organizations since “most of academia is mostly lost.” It’s a common theme of the day, that the keynote addresses are weakest speeches with little worth engaging about.

After lunch, a panel on “Are the Humanities Liberal?” with Solveig Gold, Joseph H. Manson, and John Rose. Gold goes after the classics, Manson goes after anthropology and suggests “the case for letting anthropology burn.” He blames “the rapid spread of the religion of wokeism.” He calls it “a religion of fanatics” and says “you can’t expect to talk people out of their beliefs.” According to Manson, this makes “repair from within institutions close to impossible.” At least he does note that “abolishing tenure would make things even worse.” Amusingly, Manson tosses off some gossip trashing the one university glorified by all at this conference: “I heard something disturbing about the University of Austin from one of you this morning.” Disturbingly, Manson says that the problem for new institutions is “how to prevent them from being infiltrated” by the wrong kind of people, and he admits it is ”morally rather thorny” to engage in “exclusion” in order “to keep some people out.”

John Rose, on the other hand, offers “a message of hope”: “I’m not ready to give up on the humanities.” He reports that 2/3rds of his students say they self-censor, and says, “if you want to create a culture of free speech on campus, it needs to start with the students in the classroom.” Rose says, “Students aren’t the problem in my view, they’re the solution.” It’s a refreshing break from Haidt’s hate students mantra of the morning. He describes how “students discuss hot–button topics in a civil manner” and “the classes have been a success.”

I’m a little troubled by some of the things Rose does in his class, in telling students what they can’t say: “Students are required to assume good will,”  “no bullying in your speech,” and “No attributing phobias that people don’t claim to have.” He also says, “I actively recruit students into my class who will promote intellectual diversity” (by which he means conservatives and religious students) and claims (which I doubt) that “I teach from a politically neutral position.” But these are minor quibbles. He sounds like a fine teacher, even if we are just getting his side of it. It’s hard to criticize anyone urging virtue, curiosity, and charity. Rose does worry that after hearing Arcidiacono’s talk earlier, “the two guys from Duke are going to sound like the lovey-dovey ones.” They do sound completely out of place in a conference full of people trying to figure out how to destroy the evil woke ones.

Jennifer Burns is the rare moderator here who says anything interesting, raising the important issue about “conditions of academic labor” and dwindling of tenure, noting that “as job security has changed, conformity has increased.”

“The Economics of Academic Freedom” panel features Niall Ferguson, John H. Cochrane, and Tyler Cowen. Ferguson is enjoyable in proclaiming what academics want, “I wish you would just leave me alone to do my effing work.” Ferguson likes being a bit contrarian: “In the university, we’re supposed to be protected from the market.”

Ferguson complains that academic work is “concentrated in the hands of committees dominated by today’s secular orthodoxy.” He says “academic freedom is only available now to card-carrying liberals” and “conservatives can’t have academic freedom because they can’t get a job.” 

The solution, Ferguson says, is “the creation of new institutions” such as the University of Austin: “there is no other way to do this.” He says, “The existing institutions will not fix themselves.” 

Ferguson says “the only way in fact to have true academic freedom is to have true financial independence.” He claims, “Wage slaves don’t really get that much freedom” and “the only person who really has academic freedom at this conference is Peter Thiel.”

John Cochrane denounces the leftists “capturing the institutions of society” and says “they desire totalitarian power to tell us what to do.” Cochrane says “Institutions do not get reformed, they get replaced” and says “every destroyed institution is an opportunity.”

Cochrane calls higher education “one of the least competitive industries around” and blames “involvement of the government.” He adds, “I’d like to just get rid of nonprofit status.” 

Cochrane says, “The real danger is the things not seen”--the people driven out, the knowledge not gained. He says to “build alternative institutions”--not just universities, but examples like the Federalist Society, FIRE, AFA: “You can create centers, you can create thinktanks.” Interestingly, Cochrane does denounce the bans on CRT as “profoundly bad” and even praises “faculty unions” in Canada for protecting faculty. 

Tyler Cowen offers some personal advice, starting with “be nice.” He bemoans that “in the universities, we’ve lost the battle.” He does offer some very good advice: “Don’t let the free speech crusade turn you into an opponent of free speech.” And he adds: “But I see in here, people all the time, they go overboard,...” and mentions his critique of Haidt’s talk.

The day concludes on some very ominous notes in “The State of Higher Education: USA, UK, Canada” with John M. Ellis, Gad Saad, and Eric Kaufmann

Gad Saad says that In Canada they have the “indigenization of the university” claiming that there are “other ways of knowing” such as “indigenous astronomy.” Saad says, “No, there isn’t.” According to Saad, “Everybody needs to learn to speak with this kind of boldness.”

Ellis and Kaufmann go well beyond boldness to advocating repression. 

Ellis calls for “replacing the wrong kind of people in higher education with the right kind, and nothing short of that will have much effect.” He says about the left, “Their control of the campus is virtually complete.” And he claims, “You can’t really persuade people whose values have nothing common with yours.” According to Ellis, “The radicals know they’re safe because they control all of the campus enforcement mechanisms.”

Faced with these “irretrievably corrupt institutions” Ellis says, “some good news is that the public is already beginning to vote with its feet.” They see that “college is no longer worth the cost” and Ellis hopes, “Let’s hope more do so soon.”

Kaufmann declares that “cultural socialism has managed to become hegemonic.” To cure this, “government has a very important role to play” and he is an advocate of the UK Higher Education Freedom bill.

Kaufmann argues that an “atmosphere of punishment and political discrimination” creates “a massive effect of self-censorship.” Kaufmann says, “Just having these high minded statements does nothing.” He argues for an “academic freedom directorate” that will have a “chilling effect on universities and their ability to censor.” It will give allow victims of censorship “immediate recourse around their universities” unlike lawsuits which are “costly, uncertain in its outcome, and takes time.” Kaufmann wants the government “breathing down the necks of universities in real time.” That creepy metaphor is his model for freedom in higher education.

Kaufmann also embraces a very broad version of the Kalven Report as a requirement on all universities, declaring that “universities cannot be taking political positions.” He says “we have to start to define things” much more broadly, such as calling an effort at “decolonizing the curriculum” as “political” and “therefore in violation” of the Kalven Report.

This has been a very angry conference, marked by a sense of despair and hostility to the left (with a few kinder, gentler exceptions). It’s also very much an activist conference, aimed at the solutions to the problem of leftist control over higher education. It’s interesting that the reformist impulse of protecting academic freedom principles that might have dominated conservatives in the past has all but been abandoned now, with only two alternatives offered: Destroy the left with competition by creating right-wing colleges like the University of Austin, or destroy the left by government control over higher education. And sadly the latter response reflected many of the speakers today, arguing that we must restrict freedom in order to protect it. As Kaufmann put it at the end, “You really need this government regulation, intrusive regulation” to “force them to promote academic freedom.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Freedom of the Press on Campus

Today is the release of my report about freedom of the press on campus from the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. I will be part of a National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement conversation with student journalist Sydney Charles, Student Press Law Center Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean, and Advocacy Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists Courtney Radsch on “The State of Press Freedom on Campus and Around the World” held on Thursday, July 30 at 2pm ET. Here is the full report:

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Bari Weiss and Coward Culture

Bari Weiss is a coward.
That claim may seem incredible to those who have read the fulsome praise from conservatives about Weiss’ decision last week to quit her job as an op-ed editor and writer at the New York Times, and her open resignation letter.
Newt Gingrich tweeted, “Bari Weiss’s Letter to the publisher of the new york times is the definitive explanation of the replacement of the news media with the propaganda media. Everyone watching the lies about covid should remember weiss and understand we are being fed baloney to beat President Trump.” Lindsey Graham tweeted, “Unfortunately, it is not breaking news that the @nytimes is an intolerant media outlet.” Brent Bozell declared, “The resignation of Bari Weiss should send shockwaves through the world of journalism.” James O’Keefe (an expert on journalistic ethics) tweeted about the New York Times in response to Weiss’ letter, “Their culture ignores journalistic ethics and moral values.” Josh Hammer at the Forward called Weiss “a casualty of the Left’s woke culture war.”
Rush Limbaugh (who was so clueless he thought Weiss was the Times op-ed editor who took over from James Bennet) devoted an hour of his show to reading Weiss’ letter and concluded, “The New York Times has become the epitome of tyranny and authoritarianism. You’re not allowed to have any other point of view if you read the paper. You must conform to the opinions in the news stories or you’re not even welcome as a subscriber.”
David French last year wrote a piece for National Review called “Courage is the Cure for Political Correctness,” where he argued that “the prevalence of conservative timidity is both worrisome and self-reinforcing” and “truly confronting illiberal political correctness requires personal courage.” Sadly, French responded to Weiss’ resignation by praising her “courage.” In reality, there’s nothing courageous about quitting a job because you’re criticized.
Weiss herself praised her own courage in her own letter: “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.” That’s true. And it doesn’t.
Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller (legendary for helping the Bush Administration spread the false story of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) reported about Weiss (falsely) at Fox News: “Weiss was apparently stripped of her role as editor, and not immediately offered another position; the implication that she was no longer welcome was clear.”
It’s easy to understand how Miller might have made this incompetent mistake and falsely assumed that Weiss was stripped of her role as editor. After all, Weiss’ whining letter and the doting expressions of sympathy from across the internet for her oppression all made little sense if Weiss had simply quit her job. But Weiss did, in fact, simply quit her job and was not “stripped of her role as editor.”
Why did Weiss quit? In her letter, Weiss tries to suggest that she was forced to leave and makes some unsubstantiated legal threats about “unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge.” But the key part of the letter is this paragraph:
“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.’ Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.”
So what “appropriate action” was Weiss demanding? Should her critics be summarily fired, or merely censored by the bosses at the Times?
Weiss has not provided any evidence for her allegations, and I would prefer to have proof and context before commenting; Weiss has many talents, but the neutral and objective recitation of facts is not her strong suit. But let’s assume that what Weiss says is true. Suppose she was called a racist, a Nazi, and had people urge her firing on the Times internal gossip network. That is mean behavior, but it is not repression. (By contrast, Weiss’ demand that her critics be silenced by the bosses is a form of repression.)
One of the key charges Weiss made in her letter was that her colleagues had publicly called her a liar, and she complained that the bosses had failed to silence her co-workers who disagreed with her. This is apparently a reference to an internal meeting in June, when Weiss tweeted about a generational “civil war” at the New York Times where the younger New Guard staffers all believe in “safetyism,” a creed “in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.” Other staffers in the same meeting responded on Twitter that Weiss’ account wasn’t accurate, and therefore Weiss complains they were calling her a liar.
The irony here is that Weiss is the one demanding safetyism for herself, where her emotional security from being criticized trumps the free speech of other staffers. Coward Culture merges with Cancel Culture when someone like Weiss demands the silencing of others. The fear of being criticized turns into the demand not to be criticized. To Weiss, she needs to have a “safe space” (that space being her entire workplace and also all public commentary about the work and opinions by co-workers) or she is being “bullied.”
One of the crucial slogans of Coward Culture is “bullying,” and Weiss makes full use of it in her resignation letter: “My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.” Weiss thinks bullying is a terrible crime. She told Vanity Fair, “I hate bullies. In college I protested bullying professors who used their classrooms to promote propaganda and to silence opposing views. Now I criticize bullying students…”
For Weiss, defining her critics as “bullying” her entitles her to demand that they be censored. The almighty free speech that Weiss pretends to love doesn’t apply to bullies, of course. Bullying is a term of infantilization. We think free speech doesn’t apply to bullying because bullying is what children do to one another, and free speech doesn’t apply when we’re protecting someone from bullying. As I have argued in the Journal of Academic Freedom, bullying is a dangerous concept to apply to adults. It’s especially dangerous to apply to the discussions about the New York Times op-ed writings.
Like many people who crusade against bullies, Weiss is a bully herself. After freelance writer Erin Biba used the F word on Twitter in 2018, Weiss wrote on Twitter to several magazines that had published Biba’s freelance articles, apparently trying to get her fired: “What kind of social media etiquette do @BBCScienceNews, @Newsweek, @sciam expect from their freelancers?” Nothing embodies right-wing Cancel Culture more than someone like Weiss who thinks freelance writers should be punished for violating nonexistent “etiquette” rules on their personal social media.
Weiss launched her career as a right-wing pundit in 2006 as a student at Columbia demanding the investigation and punishment of professors who criticized the Israeli government, with Weiss denouncing “the racism of these professors.” As Glenn Greenwald noted about Weiss, “her whole career was literally built on ugly campaigns to attack, stigmatize, and punish Arab professors who criticize Israel.”
Although Weiss was angry when Columbia refused to punish the professors she disliked, her efforts at censorship still had a powerful impact. To appease pro-Israel critics like Weiss, Columbia enacted one of the most repressive speech codes against faculty in America, a speech code that still exists, allowing formal complaints and penalties against any professors who “advocate any political or social cause” in a class.
Weiss’ personal hypocrisy on free speech may be noteworthy since she was one of the signers of the infamous Harper’s letter on justice and open debate.But there’s a bigger story here in the reaction to her resignation letter. Weiss herself provides the best testimony proving the hypocrisy of the cries about Cancel Culture. A Vanity Fair profile of Weiss noted how she was censored by the right-wing Wall Street Journal when she worked there: “During the campaign, she tried to sound the alarm about Steve Bannon but was told that she ‘didn’t have the standing.’ She wanted to write about Melania Trump’s hypocrisy with her cyber-bullying issue but wasn’t allowed to.” Weiss told a Reason podcast, “all of a sudden I was being told that I didn’t, you know, have the standing to write about these things, or that they were too anti-Trump.”
This is a remarkable story. Weiss says she was censored by the Wall Street Journal because her views were too liberal, yet this fact never generated any outrage about right-wing Cancel Culture. By contrast, Weiss was never censored by the New York Times, but simply complained about co-workers who dared to criticize her, and yet the Times became the embodiment of Cancel Culture repression in this public debate. As Weiss has realized, there’s a lot more attention and celebrity status to be gained from calling out a fictional version of left-wing Cancel Culture rather than the real pro-Trump Cancel Culture that actually prevails.
After reading all this, you might be surprised to learn that I have nothing against Bari Weiss. I can’t judge her work as an editor because that’s not visible to a reader. Based on my very limited exposure to her writing, while it is occasionally factually flawed, it seems mostly adequate and sometimes is very good (such as her piece on defamation in Australia).
I don’t think Weiss should have been fired, and I would have been upset if her political views or ability to anger people would have led to her dismissal. But when people quit their jobs, that’s on them. Weiss is under no obligation to stay at a job she doesn’t like. But she shouldn’t be celebrated for bravery in leaving it. Being harshly criticized at work might be disturbing in some occupations, but it should be part of the job description at the New York Times op-ed section.
There are real victims of Cancel Culture on the left and the right, and real dangers to our discourse when people are afraid to speak freely. Quitting your job and then playing the victim card is not a case of Cancel Culture. What Weiss did is Coward Culture, and we must reject this celebration of Weiss’ cowardice as a tool to demand censorship of her critics.
Crossposted from AcademeBlog.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Problem with Princeton’s Racism Committee Proposal

By John K. Wilson
More than 100 professors at Princeton have signed a letter proposing reforms in the wake of Black Lives Matter. The letter contains a lot of good ideas (which I suspect is what the signers support), but unfortunately it also has one particularly bad idea: “Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.”
This is not a difficult call. The proposed rule is a terrible idea, and a clear violation of academic freedom. Regulations of racist publications (and, even broader, “incidents”) are a real threat to free expression, even when faculty are the ones assigned to endanger academic freedom.
Andrew Cole, a professor of English at Princeton, wrote a defense of the letter and offered his analysis of academic freedom. Cole argues: “In free speech, you can say most anything. In academic freedom, you can’t. It’s not anything goes, and it’s baffling that so many conflate ‘free speech’ with ‘academic freedom’ — because the University itself certainly doesn’t. It regards research to be a matter of faculty conduct and, where appropriate, disciplinary response: ‘Members of the Princeton community have a duty to foster a climate that encourages ethical conduct of scholarly research. They also have a responsibility to report if ever they encounter serious indications of misconduct in research.’”
Unfortunately, the belief that free speech and academic freedom are radically different concepts is a common mistake, even within the AAUP. In reality, academic freedom and free speech are very close cousins. Academic freedom is the application of free speech principles to the academic context, and academic freedom protects an enormous amount of free speech for faculty. As Cole correctly points out, “serious indications of misconduct” can be investigated and punished. But except for that rare occurrence, research is protected by a very broad understanding of academic freedom. Expressing bad ideas in research (or what someone thinks is racist) is not punishable unless it meets the strict terms of research misconduct. You can be evaluated for bad research during hiring and promotion decisions, but not punished for bad research in a disciplinary decision. That’s an absolutely crucial distinction that Cole ignores.
Cole claims that racist research counts as research misconduct: “The University is also clear to describe as ‘misconduct’ research that is, to take one example, ‘a threat to public health.’” He goes on to point out that “racism is factually a “‘threat to public health,’” including “murderous policing” and racial disparities in longevity.
The mistake Cole makes here is contending that any research with bad ideas is therefore misconduct. The logic Cole uses is this: Professor X argues for Idea Y. I think Idea Y is harmful to public health. Therefore, Professor X’s research is harmful to public health and a form of misconduct.
Clearly, the intent of the “misconduct” rule on threats to health is to prevent dangerous research when the research study causes direct harm to the subjects. It was never meant to apply to research which expresses support for political views that someone thinks are bad and will therefore harm people.
If Cole’s interpretation of misconduct were true, it would pose a severe threat to public health by discouraging research on issues of public health. Suppose someone did research on defunding the police. If they support defunding, someone can bring them up on charges of misconduct because defunding police leads to higher murder rates. If they oppose defunding, they can be blamed for supporting “murderous policing.” Either position could be a threat to public health, depending on your beliefs. Who will get fired? Maybe the one with unpopular views.
It’s also noteworthy that the proposal Cole defends is not limited to racist ideas that harm people. It applies to all research deemed racist, even if it’s a study of literature with no conceivable threat to public health.
Cole claims, “is anti-Black research or anti-Latinx publication “ethical”? The University must pose this question.” No, the University must not pose this question. By declaring that only research deemed “racist” is subjected to special scrutiny, Princeton would be creating an indefensible standard. Why not also ban “sexist” or “homophobic” research? Indeed, why not just make it universal and ban “wrong” research with “bad” effects?
The whole point of academic freedom is to reject this approach. If you punish all “racist” or “bad” research, it will inevitably have a chilling effect on professors who want to challenge the status quo. Even if the faculty evaluating these cases are thoughtful and reasonable, how many professors want to be brought up before the “racism” committee and have their thoughts investigated for possible racism?
Cole may find it tempting to say that racist research is evil, and he doesn’t mind if it gets silenced. But who gets to define racism? Plenty of critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism and racism, and they could quite easily occupy most of the complaints to a “racism committee.” Even if the committee never punishes them, the label of being “racist” could be used against innocent professors and silence important research about race. Supporters of Black Lives Matter are commonly accused of anti-white racism, and it is possible that the racism committee would be occupied with complaints about their views.
We already have a way to punish racist research: Criticism. Everyone is free to denounce everyone else for their racist ideas. If you don’t like racist research, call it out and convince others that you’re right. But a separate system to punish faculty for racism is an awful idea that threatens academic freedom.
Crossposted from AcademeBlog.