June 5 2014
Bloomberg Stands Up for Academic Freedom
Rachel DiCarlo Currie
It was a commencement address that needed to be delivered, and preferably by a non-conservative. Speaking at Harvard last week, Mike Bloomberg rose to the occasion.
In case you missed it, the former New York City mayor gave a remarkable speech that defended academic freedom and assailed liberal “McCarthyism” on campus. As Bloomberg himself acknowledged, it was “not a typical commencement speech, but there is no easy time to say hard things.”
Repressing free expression is a natural human weakness, and it is up to us to fight it at every turn. Intolerance of ideas -- whether liberal or conservative -- is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship.
There is an idea floating around college campuses -- including here at Harvard -- that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.
Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League.
In the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data, 96% of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama.
Ninety-six percent. There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors.
That statistic should give us pause -- and I say that as someone who endorsed President Obama for re-election -- because let me tell you, neither party has a monopoly on truth or God on its side.
When 96% of Ivy League donors prefer one candidate to another, you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a great university should offer.
Diversity of gender, ethnicity, and orientation is important. But a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous. In fact, the whole purpose of granting tenure to professors is to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms.
When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms.
Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms. Otherwise, university research -- and the professors who conduct it -- will lose credibility.
Great universities must not become predictably partisan. And a liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.
The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues -- without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.
Bloomberg went on to cite recent events at Brandeis, Rutgers, Smith, and Haverford, where the planned commencement speaker for 2014 was either disinvited or forced to withdraw amid campus protests. Similar incidents marred the 2013 commencement preparations at Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins (Bloomberg’s undergraduate alma mater). The former mayor expressed his disgust:
In each case, liberals silenced a voice -- and denied an honorary degree -- to individuals they deemed politically objectionable. That is an outrage and we must not let it continue.
If a university thinks twice before inviting a commencement speaker because of his or her politics, censorship and conformity -- the mortal enemies of freedom -- win out.
And sadly, it is not just commencement season when speakers are censored.
Last fall, when I was still in City Hall, our Police Commissioner was invited to deliver a lecture at another Ivy League institution -- but he was unable to do so because students shouted him down.
Isn’t the purpose of a university to stir discussion, not silence it? What were the students afraid of hearing? Why did administrators not step in to prevent the mob from silencing speech? And did anyone consider that it is morally and pedagogically wrong to deprive other students the chance to hear the speech?
. . . As a former chairman of Johns Hopkins, I strongly believe that a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.
If the faculty fails to do this, then it is the responsibility of the administration and governing body to step in and make it a priority. If they do not, if students graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society.
Bloomberg’s entire Harvard commencement address can be seen here.