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OPINION

A welcome alternative to the lack of academic freedom on college campuses

I asked my 10 students: How many of you have withheld a social or political opinion at your campus for fear of ostracism or retribution? Nine raised their hands. It was apparent that they desired an academic environment that prioritizes freedom of expression and open inquiry.

A security guard confronts a protester as former vice president Mike Pence speaks during the Advancing Freedom Lecture Series at Stanford University on Feb. 17.Justin Sullivan/Getty

Nearly a quarter of US academics in the social sciences or humanities support the removal of a colleague for having an opposing opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration or gender differences. Four out of five American PhD students are willing to discriminate against right-leaning scholars. In North America and Britain, younger academics are by far the most willing to endorse the removal of controversial staff, even when controlling for political ideology, according to a report prepared by Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

Perhaps this academic climate explains why 83 percent of undergraduates in 2021 reported engaging in self-censorship, a sharp uptick from only 60 percent in 2020.

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In response to the stifling atmosphere of many American universities, a group of academics, journalists, artists, philanthropists, and public intellectuals recently united to found a new institution: The University of Austin. This experiment in higher education is intended to foster an environment of open debate and the fearless pursuit of truth.

In June, UATX offered its inaugural “Forbidden Courses,” a noncredit summer program intended to cultivate spirited discussion about provocative questions. It featured instructors and workshop leaders including author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, historian Niall Ferguson, economist Deirdre McCloskey, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet, as well as others who object to the increasingly censorious culture in higher education.

I was selected to be an instructor for this program, because of my own unusual background and experience in higher education.

I was born into poverty and grew up in foster homes in Los Angeles and all around California. At 17, I fled, enlisting in the military right after high school. In 2015, I entered Yale on the GI Bill, and discovered that college was much different than what I’d anticipated. Hundreds of campus demonstrators demanded that two professors, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, be fired for defending freedom of expression. Maybe, I thought, that was just a one-off incident. But then I arrived at Cambridge University as a PhD student, and, in 2019, observed as protesters succeeded in disinviting Jordan Peterson as a visiting fellow from the university.

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I described these experiences to my class at UATX, and several students slowly nodded their heads in recognition of the prevailing campus culture. I then asked the 10 students: How many of you have withheld a social or political opinion at your campus for fear of ostracism or retribution? Nine raised their hands.

It was apparent that, like me, these young students desired an academic environment that prioritizes freedom of expression and open inquiry. The course I taught centered on social class and the role of money, education, and culture in America’s status system. I tried to foster the kind of environment I wished I’d had as an undergraduate.

During a discussion about social class, I posed a simple question to my students that I would never have uttered at Yale or Cambridge: “Do some poor people deserve to be poor?” This sparked immediate pushback from students, who replied that nobody “deserves” deprivation.

I then rephrased by asking, “Are some people more responsible for their own economic misfortunes than others?” Even this I would not ask students during a seminar in an elite college.

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I asked this question about responsibility to my students — whose home institutions included Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Columbia, among others — to help them understand their role as future leaders. Research indicates that graduates of such colleges are the most responsible for shaping politics and culture and customs. As Pano Kanelos, the president of UATX, has written, “Universities are places where society does its thinking, where the habits and mores of our citizens are shaped.”

I explained to my class that if those who sit at or near the apex of society ignore the importance of individual agency, then this undercuts the dignity of people in deprived and dysfunctional environments who are trying to improve their lives.

One student responded, “What about people who try to desperately improve their lives but are arrested for it, like drug dealers?”

An excellent question. I explained that the majority of poor people do not commit crimes and are never arrested. I was disheartened to see that the students were surprised by this fact. The students and I spoke about how the people who influence culture and shape policies oftentimes come from elite educational backgrounds and seldom have contact with people who don’t attend selective colleges like themselves.

We discussed how, oftentimes, the only impoverished individuals who educated people are exposed to are those who break the law, whether in the media or in pop culture. TV shows often expose affluent viewers to low-income people who turn to crime, because that makes for a more interesting story than characters who work steady jobs to take care of their loved ones, which is how most poor and working class people live. One student observed that those who write and portray lawbreaking characters tend to come from relatively affluent backgrounds.

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My goal in asking this provocative question wasn’t to pressure students to agree with me. It was to get them thinking critically about a point of view they might not ordinarily encounter. In the end, they might come to a different conclusion than I have — and that would be perfectly fine.

I’d never seen a class so intellectually engaged in a conversation before. At the end of the program, one student stated, “Our discussions didn’t get heated, in the emotional sense. They were very critical, in the best possible way. We were genuinely engaging with each other’s ideas even while disagreeing.”

For a fledgling university, testimonials don’t get much better than that. Eager to obtain intellectual nourishment, those involved in UATX — most notably its students — have already begun to cultivate the atmosphere of truth-seeking that older institutions promised. After years of self-censoring at Yale and Cambridge, I have renewed hope for the future of higher education.

Rob Henderson is a founding faculty fellow at the University of Austin and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter @robkhenderson.