What about Larry?
The saga of controversial liberal law professor Erwin Chemerinsky’s on-again, off-again deanship at the new UC Irvine law school was highly unusual in two ways. First, the pressure to enforce political orthodoxy at Chemerinsky’s expense came from the right, not the left, and second, academic freedom and 1st Amendment values won a resounding victory when Chemerinsky was ultimately rehired. A more typicalexample of how academic freedom remains in jeopardy across the country is the UC Board of Regents’ treatment of Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard University.
The regents had invited Summers to be the keynote speaker at a dinner tonight in Sacramento. They then uninvited him last week after some UC faculty protested that “inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the university community and to the people of California.”
What did Summers, a distinguished economist and a liberal Democrat who served in the Clinton administration, do to deserve such obloquy? In 2005, he suggested that it’s worth researching whether, among other factors, innate differences between men and women may play a role in the greater prominence of men in the sciences -- a hypothesis that has some support in the relevant scientific literature.
Summers desperately tried to make amends, issuing an abject apology for even raising the subject. Nevertheless, and despite strong support for him among Harvard students, he was drummed out of the Harvard presidency by the Cambridge academic equivalent of a lynch mob.
Apparently his sins against feminist orthodoxy were so grave that he’s still not welcome to give so much as a dinner speech to the UC Board of Regents more than two years later.
The hostility to Summers reflects the growing influence of professors who see their primary mission not as advancing human knowledge but as promoting a “progressive” political agenda.
Entire academic departments are often overtly ideological and politicized, even at schools not normally thought of as hotbeds of activism. Loyola Marymount’s women’s studies department, for example, proclaims as its mission “to call attention to the androcentric nature of society, propose alternatives and strategies that honor women’s human rights, and promote a vision of society where gender hierarchy, as well as other forms of social injustice, are eliminated.” In universities across the United States, conservative scholars are about as welcome, and as rare, in women’s studies programs as Nazis in B’nai B’rith.
Students also suffer from academic intolerance. Undergraduates frequently report to researchers that they feel intimidated into endorsing the political positions advanced by their professors. Many U.S. universities, though banned by the courts from enacting overt “speech codes,” nevertheless enforce severe restrictions on freedom of expression under the guise of “anti-harassment” policies. UC Santa Cruz, for example, bans any speech or writing that “maligns another individual or group of individuals on the basis of age, creed, ethnicity, race, gender, gender identity, physical ability, political views, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or other differences.”
Primarily because of such policies, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that promotes civil liberties in higher education, has ranked 16 of the 19 California state colleges it measured “red” -- the lowest rank -- for freedom of expression.
Students who criticize the wisdom, utility or morality of the massive racial preferences prevalent in university admissions are especially likely to face hostility from the powers that be. University administrators at many campuses, including UC Irvine, have shut down satirical “affirmative action bake sales,” at which customers are charged differing amounts based on their race or sex. Only the fear of lawsuits keeps such censorship somewhat in check.
The Chemerinsky episode, disturbing though it was, should not distract us from the primary challenge facing academic freedom in American universities: the rise of an academic far-left establishment that seeks to use universities as a base for political activism, and is perfectly willing to violate accepted standards of academic freedom to achieve that goal. Anyone concerned with the future of American higher education has the duty to defend the values of scholarship and open debate against authoritarian political correctness. Unfortunately, by disinviting Summers, the UC regents failed miserably.
David E. Bernstein is a professor at the George Mason University School of Law and author of “You Can’t Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws.” He blogs at volokh.com.
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