Bret Stephens: What does a university owe to democracy?

An undiluted and unapologetic commitment to intellectual excellence.

(Cody O'Loughlin | The New York Times) An entry to a building on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. on Aug. 23, 2019. Bret Stephens, a New York Times opinion columnist writes "in August, Abbot and a co-writer published an op-ed in Newsweek making the case that diversity, equity and inclusion policies violate 'the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment.' " This led to MIT cancelling a scheduled speech by Abbot.

Last November, Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, posted a series of slide presentations on YouTube making a case against the use of group identity as a primary criterion in selection processes. He was immediately targeted for cancellation.

So Robert Zimmer, Chicago’s magnificent president (now chancellor), stepped in with a clear statement of support for academic freedom. The controversy evaporated.

Then, in August, Abbot and a co-writer published an op-ed in Newsweek making the case that diversity, equity and inclusion policies violate “the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment.” It led to another cancellation campaign, this time in protest of his invitation to deliver the prestigious Carlson Lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was going to speak about “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets.”

This time, the campaign worked. As Abbot has detailed, a department chair called to tell him the school would be canceling the lecture “in order to avoid controversy.”

The two episodes are a stark illustration of the difference between the culture of intellectual courage nurtured by Zimmer and the Coward Culture at work at MIT and other institutions ostensibly invested in the cause of free expression.

It’s also a reminder that our universities are failing at the task of educating students in the habits of a free mind. Instead, they are becoming islands of illiberal ideology and factories of moral certitude, more often at war with the values of liberal democracy than in their service.

I’ve been thinking about all this while reading “What Universities Owe Democracy” by Johns Hopkins University’s president, Ronald Daniels. Full disclosure: I’m on the board of overseers of Hopkins’ SNF Agora Institute, and he is a personal friend. Don’t hold it too much against him: This is an exceptionally important, insistently reasonable, delightfully readable book, even if his views sometimes differ from mine.

Daniels’ core point is that, at their best, universities serve as escalators for social mobility, educators for democratic citizenship, stewards of fact and expertise, and forums for “purposeful pluralism” — the expression and contest of ideas. That’s the role higher ed has played for generations, helping to fulfill George Washington’s dream of schooling that would “assemble the youth of every part under such circumstances, as will, by the freedom of intercourse and collision of sentiment, give to their minds the direction of truth, philanthropy and mutual conciliation.”

Yet on each point, Daniels correctly argues, higher education now falls short. Legacy preferences in admissions perpetuate a system of class privilege at the expense of less-pedigreed applicants. Academic specialization has left universities increasingly indifferent to questions of civics. A reproducibility crisis — i.e., an explosion of junk science — has helped produce a crisis of faith in the trustworthiness of scientific experts and their conclusions.

And, perhaps most serious of all, “an unmistakable pulse of dogmatism has surfaced on campus.” Though Daniels doesn’t think there’s a full-blown speech crisis on campus, he recognizes that something is badly amiss when, according to a 2020 Knight Foundation survey, 63% of college students feel “the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”

It’s hard to argue with Daniels’ solutions. End, once and for all, legacy admissions. Institute a “democracy requirement” in school curricula. Enhance openness in science and reform the peer-review process. Curb self-segregation in university housing. Create spaces for engagement and foster the practices of reasoned disagreement and energetic debate.

All essential proposals — and all the more necessary in an era of right-wing populism and left-wing illiberalism. Still, I’d add two items to Daniels’ list of what universities owe democracy.

The first is an undiluted and unapologetic commitment to intellectual excellence. What spurred Dorian Abbot to action was a comment from a colleague that “if you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem.” But if universities aren’t putting excellence above every other consideration, they aren’t helping democracy. They are weakening it by contributing to the democratic tendency toward groupthink and the mediocrity that can come from trying to please the majority.

The second is courage. Most university administrators, I suspect, would happily subscribe on paper to principles such as free expression. Their problem, as in Abraham Lincoln’s parable of a runaway soldier, isn’t with their intentions. “I have as brave a heart as Julius Caesar ever had,” says the soldier of Lincoln’s telling, “but, somehow or other, whenever danger approaches, my cowardly legs will run away with it.” Right now, we have an epidemic of cowardly legs.

Courage isn’t a virtue that’s easily taught, especially in universities, but sometimes it can be modeled. After Abbot’s talk was canceled at MIT, conservative Princeton University professor Robert George offered to host the lecture instead; it is scheduled for Oct. 21 on Zoom.

Courage begins with de-cancellation. Wisdom, thanks to books such as Daniels’, can then take wing.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.

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