On a panel at Friday’s Academia’s COVID Failures symposium, constitutional attorney Jonathan Turley, statistician Carlos Carvalho, law professor Todd Zywicki, and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Ilya Shapiro discussed the decline of free speech. Each identified the problem as being particularly unique and pressing to universities, with Turley claiming that “we may have to view public universities as the final line of defense.”
In introducing the panel, Turley described a fight that was “never resolved” on free speech. The “functionalist approach” that has “taken hold in academia,” in Turley’s opinion, allows free speech to be bartered, creating a paradigm that there exist “tradeoffs with free speech.” The “foundation of the anti-free speech movement,” argued Turley, was founded on this notion that the crusade of “avoid[ing] things that are untrue” entails the right to shut down speech perceived as untrue.
Zywicki later picked up on this, arguing that the woke “are attacking the underpinnings of free society and democracy.” He specifically attacked the bureaucrats and leaders of universities as “populated by scum” who emerge blameless because “nobody takes responsibility for anything.”
Furthermore, Zywicki linked speech codes and the lack of “academic values” to “bad people” populating university administrations. The fallout and ultimate end of the implementation of speech codes was “getting… students to internalize these beliefs about what is acceptable and unacceptable on the basis of politics.”
The response to the failures of university administrations, bureaucrats, and faculty was mixed across the panel, raising a point of contention between Carvalho and Shapiro.
According to Carvalho, the answer is twofold: defund departments and universities that teach beyond their mandate, and get “better people” as deans, provosts, and presidents. He cites Florida’s recent actions to cut funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a reason for optimism.
Carvalho justified his solution by asserting the tie-in between academic institutions and the state: Since “academia is 75 percent funded by government,” the issue is fundamentally a “public sector problem.” Therefore, Carvalho portrays a quintessentially public problem that must be fixed “with the public sector.”
Shapiro, deviating from Carvalho, attacked illiberal tendencies and DEI directly. He recounted his personal experience with illiberality while at Georgetown—specifically, when he was considered “unsafe” and consequently barred from campus.
In response to the illiberal mindset that Shapiro believes universities promulgate, he proposed numerous solutions, among them being a complete rejection of DEI sinecures and stringent oversight on funding. With so much public funding going to universities with strings already attached, he argued that there should be an inclusion of free speech principles in those qualifications.
Overall, the responses by each speaker varied in terms of academic freedom, state power, and pragmatic concerns, but all of them agreed that free speech and academic values are under attack and must be defended. Shapiro delivered broad closing remarks looking into the future that resonated with all of the panelists: “If [universities] are shown there’s a real cost to doing the wrong thing,” they’ll follow incentives.
The panelists’ collective opinion was that the status quo is untenable and that it is now necessary to look for solutions to combat the clear and undeniable siege against free speech within universities.