Why I Cover Campus Controversies

Should journalists care about the speech wars in the era of Donald Trump?

College student holding "On Strike for Free Speech" sign at protest
Bettman Archive / Getty Images

Each fall semester, America’s long-running debate about campus politics begins again. And I’ll take part this year as I have in years past, especially when the debate concerns matters of free speech.

Critics say my energies are misplaced.

There is no free speech-crisis on campus, they insist––and I agree. A crisis is a discrete period of anomalous trouble or danger. As I see it, free speech is perennially under attack. It always requires liberals in every era to aggressively protect and defend it, against governments to safeguard the First Amendment, and against nongovernment censors when they have power to do harm.

Nowhere is this never-ending project more vital than in higher education. Campus-speech restrictions jeopardize society’s ability to seek truth and advance knowledge in the very institutions ostensibly dedicated to those pursuits, even as they tend to undermine justice and equity. “Let them talk,” Henry Louis Gates advised in a masterful 1991 essay of that title, where he discussed how the campus speech codes adopted in that era disproportionately oppressed people of color.

Today’s campus speech debates exist in a very different political context, which is shaping how some prominent progressive thinkers regard them.

They feel embattled by Donald Trump’s rise. And with Trumpism ascendant, they have trouble grasping why anyone other than a fascist or a useful idiot would spend time or effort talking about campus excesses.

That critique is worth taking seriously.

The Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, the author of How Fascism Works, thinks the entire West is under attack from a fascistic right that gains power in part by demagogically attacking academics.

Stoking false narratives about tenured radicals is one way those fascists pander to prejudice against intellectuals, Jews, and diversity; undermine the structurally liberalizing force of academic freedom; and consolidate support among authoritarians. Abroad, Stanley notes Viktor Orbán’s successful effort to oust Central European University from Hungary. He draws a connection between that situation and the fact that conservative legislators in red states are slashing funds for public university systems. And he believes that populist-right media outlets are mining the unrepresentative behavior of powerless undergraduates as fuel for cynical, sinister propaganda.

“The attack on the universities for being stacked with liberals was a central part of the Trump campaign and will be in 2020,” he wrote this week. “The idea that universities are ‘crushing free speech’ and supposedly promoting liberalism while suppressing other voices, has been central not just to the Trump campaign, but to Republican politics in many states. To ignore the political effects of this message is duplicitous.” Citing recent public-opinion data from Pew, he added that “the recent divide on attitudes to universities, because of the well-funded attack on them, has become one of the larger partisan divides in the United States. In short: since 2015 it has become a partisan political issue.” And, he warned, “Don’t trust anyone who discusses ‘liberal indoctrination in universities,’ or ‘suppression of free speech and religious liberty,’ who evades the issue that this is one of the major recent political success strategies of the Republican Party.”

Stanley regards public conversation about higher education as a proxy war between liberals and authoritarians. And he urges everyone sympathetic to liberalism to avoid giving unintentional assistance to a fascistic right that critiques universities to sow the seeds of their destruction.

Like Stanley, I am an opponent of Trumpism and right-wing efforts to weaken higher education. And I agree that there are intellectually dishonest actors on the right who seize on campus controversies in cynical gambits to undermine their ideological opponents and liberalism more generally.

So why don’t I shut up about what I see as academia’s flaws?

Calls to do so remind me of the period directly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A sizable, earnest cohort on the right correctly perceived the rise of Islamofascist terrorist groups bent on destroying the West––and had trouble understanding why anyone other than a fellow traveler or a useful idiot would spend time or effort criticizing the excesses of Western foreign policy or the mistreatment of American Muslims, knowing that such efforts could be manipulated by propagandists and recruiters.

Frighteningly illiberal forces really were exaggerating and at times fabricating flaws in American society to advance their murderous cause. Nevertheless, it was vital for Americans to be openly self-critical, doubling down on a vital strength of free societies rather than abandoning it in fear. I’ve yet to witness an emergency that warranted the suspension of open, uncensored, truth-seeking discourse about vital institutions. And higher education is vitally important.

No matter who is president, universities deserve to be scrutinized by those who care about them as the country’s most influential incubators of scientific research and social ideas that tend to spread into business, media, and art. They warrant critical scrutiny as centers of training for every era’s power-wielding elites, as places of civil acculturation, as corporations with sizable assets, as huge recipients of taxpayer money, as hotbeds of political activism for good and ill, and as a good that some prominent politicians want to provide free to everyone at great cost to the treasury.

I’ve never understood how liberals or universities would benefit from ceding more of the public conversation about academia’s flaws to the subset of critics who would rather destroy higher education than see it improve.

That is not to defend every journalistic treatment of the subject. What happens on college campuses is sometimes distorted, misrepresented, blown out of proportion, or twisted to advance pernicious ideological agendas. And while I try to avoid those shortcomings, my approach surely has room for improvement.

I solicited questions about my work on college speech some months ago, on social media. Readers offered thoughtful questions, but too few to generate an article. Now I am soliciting more responses from you. Ask me anything about particular articles I’ve written on higher education, my coverage generally, or any related matter. Or offer your thoughts on how the subject ought to be covered.