Last November, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, posted on YouTube a series of slide presentations opposing the use of group identity as a primary criterion in selection processes. He was immediately targeted for cancellation.
So Robert Zimmer, the magnificent President of Chicago (now Chancellor), intervened with a clear statement of support for academic freedom. The controversy has evaporated.
Then, in August, Abbot and a co-author ran an op-ed in Newsweek claiming that diversity, equity and inclusion policies violate “the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment.” This led to another cancellation campaign, this time to protest his invitation to deliver the prestigious Carlson Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he would speak about “the climate and the potential for life on other planets.”
This time the campaign worked. As Abbot detailed, a department head called to tell him the school would cancel the conference “in order to avoid controversy.”
Both episodes are a vivid illustration of the difference between the culture of intellectual courage nurtured by Zimmer and the cowardly culture at work at MIT and other institutions ostensibly committed to the cause of free expression.
It is also a reminder that our universities are failing in the task of educating students in the habits of a free spirit. Instead, they become islands of illiberal ideology and factories of moral certainty, more often at war with the values of liberal democracy than in their service.
I reflected on all of this while reading “What Universities Owe Democracy” by Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels. Full Disclosure: I’m a board member of SNF Agora Institute in Hopkins, and he’s a personal friend. Don’t blame him too much: this is an exceptionally important book, with reasonable emphasis, delightfully readable, even if his opinions sometimes differ from mine.
Daniels’ central point is that, at best, universities serve as stairs for social mobility, educators for democratic citizenship, keepers of facts and expertise, and forums for “intentional pluralism” – the expression and the competition of ideas. This is the role that higher education has played for generations in helping to realize George Washington’s dream of an education that “would bring young people from all sides together in such circumstances, as will. freedom of relationships and collision of feelings, give their minds a sense of truth, philanthropy and mutual reconciliation.
Yet on every point, Daniels rightly argues, higher education is now insufficient. Inherited preferences in admissions perpetuate a system of class privileges at the expense of less qualified applicants. Academic specialization has left universities increasingly indifferent to civic issues. A reproducibility crisis, i.e. an explosion of undesirable science, has helped produce a crisis of confidence in the reliability of scientific experts and their conclusions.
And, perhaps most serious of all, “an unmistakable impulse of dogmatism has surfaced on campus.” While Daniels doesn’t think there is a full-blown speech crisis on campus, he recognizes that something is really wrong when, according to a 2020 Knight Foundation survey, 63% of students think that “The climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.
Daniels’ solutions are hard to dispute. End legacy admissions once and for all. Institute a “demand for democracy” in school curricula. Improve the openness of science and reform the peer review process. Curb self-segregation in university accommodation. Create spaces for engagement and promote practices of reasoned disagreement and energetic debate.
So many essential proposals – and all the more necessary in the era of right-wing populism and left-wing illiberalism. Yet I would add two items to Daniels’ list of what universities owe democracy.
The first is a pure and unabashed commitment to intellectual excellence. What prompted Dorian Abbot to act was a colleague’s comment that “if you only hire the best people, you are part of the problem”. But if universities don’t put excellence above all else, they don’t help democracy. They weaken it by contributing to the democratic tendency towards group thinking and the mediocrity that can arise from wanting to please the majority.
The second is courage. I guess most university administrators would readily subscribe on paper to principles such as free speech. Their problem, as in Abraham Lincoln’s parable of a fugitive soldier, is not with their intentions. “I have a heart as brave as Julius Caesar never had,” said Lincoln’s soldier, “but somehow every time danger approaches my legs loose. will run away with it. ” Right now we have a loose legs epidemic.
Courage is not an easily learned virtue, especially in universities, but it can sometimes be molded. After Abbot’s lecture at MIT was canceled, Princeton University conservative professor Robert George offered to host the lecture instead; it is scheduled for October 21 on Zoom.
Courage begins with cancellation. Wisdom, thanks to books like Daniels’s, can then take flight.