Should Any Ideas Be 'Off the Table' in Campus Debates?

University leaders and observers discuss the intersection of student protests, free speech and academic freedom.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

In a Thursday debate titled “Academic Freedom, Safe Spaces, Dissent, and Dignity,” faculty or administrators from Yale, Wesleyan, Mizzou, and the University of Chicago discussed last semester’s student protests and their intersection with free speech. They shared the stage at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, with Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League; Kirsten Powers, author of The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech; and Greg Lukianoff, who leads the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg was the moderator.

The most interesting exchange involved Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale, and Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University.

Michael Middleton, Interim President at Mizzou, participated too.

Here is what they said, with some intervening comments by other panel members cut for the sake of focus. Just prior to their conversation the whole panel watched a short video about black student protesters at Yale University as they pushed to change the name of Calhoun College.

Stephen Carter: I have a lot of sympathy for these students, but it's not as though what you saw in the video happening at Yale is the only hate speech / free speech issue we confront. I had a student in my office talking to me earlier this year because she was upset that another professor at Yale had written a critique arguing that the data on campus rape were flawed. And she was furious. There was a petition at Yale law school objecting to this research, objecting to actually doing research. We've had this with climate change. Now, I know climate change is a big problem. Some people on campus disagree. Well, let them disagree. Why do we have to suddenly say we need all their emails and we need to know who's funding them? Those are all ways of trying to pressure and shut down speech. It's all the same thing.

I'm with my friend Jonathan Holloway (a dean at Yale) on this. I understand why the students are upset. You hear their stories and you can't help but be sympathetic.

However, I have a slightly different take on what happened. It is true that there's convulsion in the country and part of the racial aspect that we saw is a result of those convulsions.

But there are other factors at play as well.

One is the growth of administrators. There is an enormous amount of administrators on college campuses now, many of whom, most of whom, they're not trained historians, they don't come from a background of academic freedom, they come from a background of being trained in administration, their job is to damp down problems.

They have no sense of the mission of a university.

There's a huge problem, there are many schools where administration has grown faster than faculty.

The second problem is technology. It is much easier for students to contact one another when they are upset in a way that wouldn't have been true a few years ago. You have a preference cascade, where each student says, I feel that way too, I feel that way too. In some sense, that's a good thing because it gives students a sense that they are not alone. But on the other hand, it can ramp up emotions to the point where any concern about academic freedom becomes, as one student said in the video, it seems like an abstraction, like something that's not very important.

Academic freedom is enormously important, not just for Geoff Stone's reasons, because you're talking about the battle of ideas. You're talking about why The Aspen Institute is here. The notion that we're going to start taking ideas off the table because we don't like them is enormously dangerous and threatens the enterprise.

Jeffrey Goldberg:  Since you leveled a fairly serious critique of administrators let me ask an administrator, the president of Wesleyan, who also happens to be an academic, is that right? Is this a problem that's driven by administrators who simply don't understand academic freedom, but understand the needs of their alleged constituency?

Michael S. Roth: I think we agree on part of this. I think we have seen an extraordinary growth of administrators, many of whom have to do the work that faculty members no longer want to do, like advising students. And because of a tremendous amount of regulations from the federal and state governments. Mostly federal. But there is a corporatization of the university. So someone may say, you don't like my decision? You're fired. Which can happen in many places. And if you express disloyalty or insubordination it's a firing offense in many companies.

It shouldn't be, clearly, at a college or university. However, that is not academic freedom. Academic freedom is not the ability to do whatever the hell you want on campus because it's an academic place. Academic freedom is a professional freedom. It's about research and intellectual work. It's not about saying whatever you want.

And we never have had in this country all ideas on the table.

Even at the benighted Aspen Institute there are some things you don't put on the table. You will always have some things that you refuse to legitimate by calling a subject of debate. "Deep Dive: Are Jews Controlling the Media?" Really? Is the Aspen Institute going to do that deep dive?

Jeffrey Goldberg: I could moderate that one.

Michael S. Roth: You're always taking things off the table. And when you have a group of fairly homogenous people it's really easy to tell yourself nothing is off the table. Almost everything our students are concerned with are not things that are going to be on your tables, because your tables are well set, you're well fed and well cared for.

What we are experiencing today on college campuses, I think, and maybe I have a slight disagreement with my colleague at Yale, is that we have an extraordinary pressure from points of view that have been excluded at the university. It has happened with women. It has happened with low-income students. It has happened on the basis of race and ethnicity. And now, they're raising issues that we are less comfortable talking about. And some of us retreat to questions of free speech to limit the speech of students in some strange way.

So I do feel that there are serious problems on college campuses. Just before coming here I read the New York Times article this morning about a young man who was accused of two rapes and made a plea deal so that he would have a misdemeanor offense and not spend any time in jail. And I think on that campus, where women are raped everyday, or every other day if you don't like that first statistic, that is an extraordinary limitation on the freedom of women to get an education.

That to me is much more important than whether a Halloween costume poster somehow violates our liberal sensibilities.

Kirsten Powers: ...I think people should be able to wear any kind of Halloween costume they want and if you're offended you need to deal with it, but I'm not unsympathetic to the students and I do tend to place more emphasis on the administrators and frankly on some of the professors. If you look at some of the free speech infringements sometimes it's even the professors against the students...

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks you had a gender-studies professor who launched a complaint about a student newspaper against a female, African American editor there accusing her of sexual harassment for a satirical piece making fun of the women's studies department. At Marquette, a student brought up something about same sex marriage and was shut down in the classroom. So it's not just the students who are coming up with this on their own. I think they are learning it from other people. You had a professor at the University of Santa Barbara who ended up being arrested when she physically assaulted a pro-life student because she said she'd been triggered by a pro-life sign. Well, all her students watched her do this. And she wasn't apologetic, she felt her safety had been threatened, she was setting a moral example for her students, they stole a sign and destroyed it.

So the students are learning this.

They're learning that they have a right to protect themselves from speech. And it's up to professors to teach them that the way you respond when offended is to argue and make your case.

Jeffrey Goldberg: [At Wesleyan, one student told me] one of the things that's a joke about all of the protests about sensitivity––there was a reference to the Halloween costume incident at Yale––was that we axiomatically, by being members of the Wesleyan community, one of the best colleges in America, are in the top 1 percent of lucky people in the history of the universe. And this particular person was getting a little tired of complaining about things while the Syrian genocide is going on, while there's mass flows of refugees across the world, where there's Ferguson, while there's a whole bunch of other stuff––talking about sensitivity issues on campus seems almost inappropriate. Is that legitimate discourse?

Michael Middleton: That's been said. By many donors and legislators and parents and other students. But the student response is that I don't hate Mizzou. I'm trying to make Mizzou better. I love Mizzou. But this is how I'm feeling. This is how I'm being treated here. And we can be better. So it's not like love it or leave it, like they used to tell me when I was protesting. It’s I love it and I want it to be better.

There's also the assertion that students are too coddled nowadays, that they need to toughen up. And there's something to that. I grew up in Mississippi in the 1940s and 1950s. I developed a pretty thick skin pretty early in life, and the things that these students are experiencing today would roll off my back because I learned that I had to let it roll off my back or I might be hung somewhere. These students haven't had to learn that. They haven't had to have that harsh an upbringing.

And so very simply, they are experiencing what I experienced, what Jonathan Holloway experienced, what every African American, what many Jewish people in recent years, have been experiencing on these campuses. We are experiencing this and it needs to be fixed. And administration needs to pay attention. Because administration has told us that we've created this wonderful family. We had this huge campaign, called One Mizzou, with a song and a video, it was “We Are the World. “The marginalized students laughed at that. They said this is not One Mizzou, and we are here to tell you that it is not, and that it should be. So yes, that position has some validity, but it isn't everything.

And can I say something about the speech issue? I get the sense that we're making light of Halloween costumes and that kind of thing. But what happens, I mean, I have an obligation as a university administrator to protect my students against harassment, a hostile environment. What happens when the Klan wants to march on the quadrangle everyday and shout the n-word at my African American students? Am I infringing on their free speech rights when I try to limit that? They're not actually threatened. It's not a true threat. Do I then have to listen to that?

Greg Lukianoff: As far as the law is concerned, that comes up in a real example––because I've never heard the Klan example––with street preachers. This happens all over the country. Street preachers have an area on campus, a free speech zone. The rules that apply to people who aren't students or faculty members can be different for people who aren't already there legally. So you can actually say that this is the designated area.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Can I just come back to this point of coddling? Because this is what comes up in the mainstream discourse about this. Do students need to be tougher? Is that something that needs to happen? Or are they trying to make the world a safer space?

Stephen Carter: Those aren't inconsistent. I mean, it could be that they have to be tougher, which I do believe, but I also believe for the most part that they act with sincerity of motive.

Let me tell you a story to make an earlier point.  I don't hate outrageous speech. I think it's very important. I was an undergraduate at Stanford when William Shockley, the Nobel laureate in physics, was expounding his theories about the racial inferiority of black people. I, of course, was a black person at Stanford. This is a time when he would travel around the country and get shut down on various campuses. People would protest. There were people who were boycotting him at Stanford and trying to get him fired. And I was among a minority of students who thought that was an absurd reaction--that the right reaction is, listen to the guy's arguments.

I was the editor of the campus newspaper and we had him come in for a lunch with the editorial board where he freely answered all the questions that we had. And then a campus debate was arranged. And there was Shockley debating a world-renowned geneticist, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, and this was a very important moment, because Shockley by-and-large when he had been debated, he had debated activists, who were student activists or professors who were activists.

And he always talked circles around them. They made him look good by the lack of seriousness––and I mean professional, academic seriousness––with which they treated the conversations.

The geneticist just sliced up his argument bit by bit by bit.

And after that Shockley was basically finished. He was finished not because he had been boycotted, not because he had been kept from speaking, but precisely because he had not just been allowed to speak, but had a serious debate with a serious person. And by the way, Cavalli-Sforza was not rude to him, he wasn't making snide remarks, he simply talked about the biology and the statistics. That was all.

So when people sit where I sit on campus say that we're First Amendment absolutists, which I pretty much am, when we say the cure for speech is more speech, it's not a slogan, it's not a way of escaping hard issues, it's a way of embracing hard issues, it's a way of saying, if this is really so terrible, that's exactly the reason to talk about it.

Michael S. Roth: Some of us up here apparently have a very, very deep faith that the way social change happens is that you have a civil discussion, a reasoned debate, and that people through more speech get closer to the truth. And I think as a historian that's crazy.

That's not how social change happens.

Stephen Carter: That's not at all what I said. And that's not what I think. I think on a university campus, the way that you teach, the way that you learn, the way that you progress, is through conversation. People have to take to the streets sometimes.

I agree with you entirely.

But we're talking about what happens on campus, not the rest of the world.

Michael S. Roth: Protests have been an important part of how campuses have changed, as you well know.

Stephen Carter: And I've been a protester.

Michael S. Roth: As have I. So I think almost all the time it's good to error on the side of speech. But there are some times when students rightly say, you've been erring on the side of speech for 60 years. And we are noticing that the same thing happened to you, the same thing is happening again, and what you want to do is talk about it. And we think, okay, off campus change happens because we do something. We don't just talk about it. So I think they're quite reasonable to sometimes take the action which will change the nature of the conversation.

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