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College Presidents Are Lying About Free Speech

I’ve been fighting for free speech at UC Berkeley. Here’s how our universities have gone wrong—and what can be done to fix them.

Julia Schaletzky
December 12, 2023

Original images: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Pushback against antisemitic mobs at U.S. universities is often countered with cries of “It’s free speech!” But the sudden converts to the cause of free speech, like the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT, who testified before Congress last week about not being able to define calls for genocide of Jews as actionable due to First Amendment concerns, are not engaging in good-faith debate. Having been part of several free speech-focused campus organizations at UC Berkeley, I know the law is clear: The right to free speech does not extend to threats and inciting violence. Harassment, death threats, and exclusion based on religion are not permitted in educational settings as a civil rights issue. Title IX and Title IV protect the rights of students to participate in campus activities without fear of aggression or harassment.

The discussion around free speech by campus presidents is misleading because the issue is not the law itself. Rather, college administrators have been weaponizing the First Amendment when it suits them, and blatantly disregarding it when it doesn’t. When the Proud Boys were threatening to have a presence during a protest recently, Berkeley brought the FBI to campus, just in case. For the pro-Palestine protesters too busy to do their coursework, we are being asked to use our “discretion to administer grace and flexibility” for grading so that they don’t fail their classes.

The rule of law requires that laws are enforced equally against all, so that we are not governed by the whims of the powerful but by a shared set of norms and rules that apply equally. Unfortunately, in the self-governing world of academic institutions, the rule of law is easily abandoned by like-minded ideologues working together to bring about what they call “social change,” which apparently requires that one group’s idea of the good must monopolize the entire space and mission of the university.

The technique these activists use has become a familiar one: Concepts cloaked in aspirational language such as “inclusion and belonging” are applied only to a few selected groups, while being denied to others, such as Jews, but also biological women, moderates, and conservatives. It is sobering to see that after more than $25 million has been invested in such initiatives at Berkeley annually we have created campuses that are in fact less welcoming and less inclusive than they were 10 years ago.

In positions of power, the administrators who run our new temples of conformity do not hesitate to use their positions to advance their own views and force them upon others. This sorry state of affairs reflects a short-sighted kind of moral selfishness. The selective enforcement of rules based on viewpoints is a kind of intellectual nepotism that destroys the possibilities for the very discussion and debate that were supposed to form the core of a university education. The principle of fairness has been lost. Instead, one side is clearly preferred.

What can we learn from the case of Ameer Hasan Loggins, a lecturer educated at Berkeley (B.Sc./M.Sc. in African American studies, 2007), who thought it appropriate to ask all his Jewish students at Stanford to stand in a corner to be berated as oppressors and colonizers? Who taught him this line of thinking? How did a person with this kind of abusive, totalitarian mentality come to be an educator at one of America’s leading universities?

The discussion around free speech by campus presidents is misleading because the issue is not the law itself. Rather, college administrators have been weaponizing the First Amendment when it suits them, and blatantly disregarding it when it doesn’t.

It should be obvious that self-governance can only be even-handed when different viewpoints can be heard. During Berkeley’s famous free speech protests of the 1960s, the university’s conservative administration pushed back, leading to the arrest of more than 700 activists on campus in a single day. Now, this is unthinkable—unless the protesters came from off-campus.

Universities have become monocultures of progressive liberalism and groupthink, and are no longer able to appropriately respond to crisis or to safeguard the interests of groups that do not immediately and reflexively parrot the party line of the progressive political vertical. But why?

First, a change in values. Universities used to be institutions focused on generating knowledge and scholarship, and on educating students to become critical thinkers who could make up their own minds on issues of the day. While some still work toward this goal, a competing view has taken hold that sees the university itself as a tool that should be instrumentalized to achieve progressive political goals. This is a deeply problematic position that has not been discussed or challenged on a broader scale, in part because academia has become a political monoculture, and in part because the governance system that is supposed to prevent the rise of a self-governing, self-interested academic monoculture has broken down.

Second, the selective enforcement of policies and laws along partisan lines has transformed our universities from incubators of knowledge to factories for ideologues. Major universities do little to disguise this purpose to their students: Instead, they make a point of rewarding “correct” political beliefs and viewpoints while punishing wrong ones, often through highly selective enforcement of institutional rules. For left, progressive causes, such as the opposition to Israeli “apartheid” or support for Black Lives Matter, the limits of permitted conduct have been aggressively extended and a blind eye has been turned toward hate crime, physical violence, and the destruction of property. Protests are seen as virtuous; dissenters are cast as bigots.

For moderate or conservative causes, or even for those who are just questioning campus orthodoxy, as scholars used to delight in doing, the gavel of enforcement is brought down swiftly and aggressively, often in violation of institutional traditions and constitutional rights. As a result, more faculty are feeling compelled to self-censor than during McCarthyism.

American campuses have become hotbeds of left political authoritarianism, withholding resources, selectively enforcing policies, and extending the protection of free speech to only those whom they agree with. While many faculty might lament such practices in private, they see no way to publicly voice their concerns without the fear of retaliation from the administrative bureaucracy as well as from their peers. After all, the academic system is built on peer evaluation—for promotions, publications and funding, which drives faculty to “go along to get along,” particularly when viewpoints are clearly prescribed.

Third, ideological hiring practices have transformed American universities from homes for those who are intellectually curious to those who toe the party line, leaving students with a dearth of viewpoints. When conservative scholars retire out of the system, they tend to be replaced with ideologically vetted candidates committed to the right kind of social change. Entire departments have been transformed into something unrecognizable.

For students, “holistic” admissions without SAT metrics enable selection of freshmen according to views and commitments expressed in personal statements; there are tutors who will tell students exactly what issues to focus on in order to succeed. For staff, every job description includes mandated language stating that candidates that do not align with Berkeley “values” should not apply. For faculty, political litmus tests have been administered under the guise of DEI statements, although pushback against that is increasing. In addition, there is a rewriting of policies that redefine excellence for faculty hiring, giving search commissions more latitude to hire candidates with “lived experience” instead of academic qualifications.

Fourth, universities have become homes to activist gaslighting performed by specific administrative units and departments who see their job as generating and enforcing party-line thought. Under the guise of a forward-thinking investment in “diversity, equity and inclusion” and “critical social theory,” we have generated units that actively promote anti-Zionism, “anti-colonialism” and cast entire groups of university students and faculty as oppressors. Those units operate with little faculty involvement; instead, they perform their self-appointed functions in direct interaction with top campus leadership and release public statements on behalf of the university. Despite Berkeley students coming from all over the world, Palestine is the only territory with a dedicated chancellor’s advisory committee to make sure that the chancellor is always apprised of pro-Palestine viewpoints and demands. Critical thinkers are labeled bigots, and the questioning of orthodoxies—a key element of scientific inquiry—is suddenly no longer welcomed at institutions founded on allegiance to the scientific method.

American campuses have become hotbeds of left political authoritarianism, withholding resources, selectively enforcing policies, and extending the protection of free speech to only those whom they agree with.

It is particularly concerning to see that even views that Americans broadly agree with, such as the binary of biological sex in humans, the need for meritocratic admissions, and the need for individual agency in education, are not acceptable to a significant portion of campus administrators. It’s highly concerning that the academic monoculture has led to a shift of the Overton window so far left that mainstream views in America are now considered “fringe” in higher education and sideswiped as bigoted views of the uneducated masses. This divides higher education more and more from the Americans it is supposed to serve. Not surprisingly, trust in educational institutions is at an all-time low—which should broadly be of concern to institutions that are largely dependent on public funding to cover their spiraling costs.

Like a parent with a favorite child, it is not surprising that the favoritism that universities show to approved-of political viewpoints and the administrators, faculty, and students who hold them leads to a loss of trust and breeds resentment in the student body. A large number of students “mask” and are careful to not express their views, in order to not upset others, according to a recent poll conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. In turn, students on the “right side” of the political line are empowered to act like bullies. Seventy percent of Berkeley students stated that it is appropriate to “shout down” and heckle a campus speaker they don’t agree with. I would not be surprised if the constant need to self-censor is connected to the growing mental health crisis among students.

At the same time, improvement is possible. Antisemitism on campuses has woken up many to the fact that we have tolerated the erosion of free speech for far too long. The silent majority on campuses is beginning to wake up.

So what needs to happen to restore the institutional integrity of America’s universities?

First, universities need firm governance that will break the noxious spell of ideologues and restore open-minded teaching and research to its proper place at the top of our institutional priorities. Administrators must be directed to reverse policies and guidelines that enable ideology-based hiring at the expense of merit-based hiring. If 7 out of 10 new art professors have to sprinkle critical social theory terms across their application materials in order to get hired, that needs to raise an eyebrow, not be celebrated. Clear merit-based criteria have to be formulated and upheld.

Second, we need to audit campus processes determining resource allocation and policy enforcement to ensure that it is even-handed and nondiscriminatory. Campus leadership and administrators should be taught how to resist ideological capture. They must understand why it is not appropriate to force one’s viewpoint on others through the selective allocation of resources and enforcement of policies. An effort should be made to define the vision for a university for the 21st century: Are we supposed to be social activists, leveraging our power for the change we personally want to see, including the power to indoctrinate? Or are we educators who should educate students to be able to have productive discussions, be critical thinkers, and make up their own minds? Put differently, the question is which do we value more, conformity or autonomy?

Lastly, universities must ensure—like a fair parent—that when siblings fight, we can come to an even-handed solution instead of playing favorites. For now, the minimum we can do is rigorously apply Title IX and Title IV, as well as the code of student conduct to all students who generate a hostile learning environment for others, whether by calling for the genocide of Jews, making antisemitic statements, shutting down lectures, attacking classrooms and fellow students, or trying to silence viewpoints that they disagree with. If universities aren’t homes for free inquiry, or places where good citizenship and intellectually healthy habits of thought and behavior are cultivated and instilled in young minds, we risk losing the integrity of one of our greatest institutions and undermining the bedrock of democracy. It might then be worth considering whether we should continue asking parents and taxpayers to support them.

Dr. Julia Schaletzky is the Executive Director for the Center of Emerging and Neglected Diseases and professional faculty at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a founding member of Heterodox Academy Berkeley and part of the Berkeley Initiative for Free Inquiry.