President Trump recently signed an executive order that would supposedly protect free speech and open inquiry on campus.
The order will require colleges and universities — mainly public — to make an effort to safeguard these foundational values, lest they lose federal funding. Trump’s reasoning for issuing this directive is essentially what conservatives have been alleging about academia in recent years: American campuses are openly hostile towards viewpoints that don’t conform to left-wing ideology. What’s interesting to note here is that, about a year ago, Trump literally dismissed the idea of a “free speech crisis” on campus. So what’s this maneuver really about?
To be clear, this perception of a campus free-speech crisis does command some merit. At Middlebury College, protesters shut down a speech by conservative scholar Charles Murray and sent professor Allison Stanger to the hospital. In 2017, a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California Berkeley ignited a riot, resulting in damages upwards of $100,000. Currently, student activists at Sarah Lawrence College are demanding the administration fire a conservative-leaning professor for pointing out the lack of ideological diversity in college administrations in an op-ed for the New York Times.
These are just a few highly publicized cases. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit concerned with First Amendment issues in higher education, keeps a record of these kinds of cases. It’s also reserved judgment about Trump’s federal orders and argues that it “does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance.”
This executive order is unnecessary, despite its good intentions. Of course, colleges and universities should vigorously uphold free speech and academic freedom. And guess what? Most higher-education institutions abide by First Amendment guidelines or, in the case of private colleges and universities, remain voluntarily committed to those values.
I tend to see these free-speech controversies as a cultural problem rather than an institutional one. On one hand, you have narcissistic left-wing student activists who legitimately believe that conservative ideas pose a lethal threat to minority students. Therefore, speakers who express such views should be prevented from coming to campus, even if that necessitates violence. Ironically, conservative students borrow the exact same language from these activists and fashion themselves as victims of fascistic social justice warriors. In other words, both ends of the political spectrum, which tend to be the loudest in these debates, think they are ideologically oppressing one another and self-victimize.
Because this problem is overwhelmingly cultural, I doubt it can be addressed through changes in federal policy. Also, weren’t conservatives the same people who chastised Obama for his Title IX directives on sexual misconduct? Apparently, he overstepped his authority by attempting to address campus rape, but Trump’s plan to scrutinize colleges and universities for a problem that, according to research, is actually dwindling, is entirely appropriate.
At this time, there isn’t much to say about the likely impact this executive order will have on campuses across the country. But I doubt this flexing will achieve much, considering the fact that Trump’s order can easily be overturned by a democratic administration.