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A way out of the campus free speech wars

If administrators won’t stand up for professors who take on challenging topics, maybe colleges need a new escape valve: the ‘ideological withdrawal.’

The campus of Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. Art history lecturer Erika López Prater lost her job after she showed an image of the Prophet Muhammad in class. She had warned students the image would be shown and gave them an opportunity to leave.JENN ACKERMAN/NYT

Free speech has always required active defense because so many powerful people and institutions are threatened by it. But the new threat to free speech is anyone who is offended and has a taste for retribution. Professors who would normally engage in free speech and inquiry in their classes are holding back, out of fear that they will lose their jobs. These campus culture wars are increasingly high-stakes and seem intractable, but I have a simple idea that might protect students, administrators, and faculty.

In recent months an adjunct professor of art history was let go at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. She showed students a famous 14th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad. A few students complained that it was offensive, and the administration immediately sided with the students, claiming that students’ feelings “superseded academic freedom.” Never mind that Hamline administrators were adopting one narrow fundamentalist version of Islam and treating that iconoclastic school as the totality of Islamic thought. That’s a huge problem, but even more worrying is the idea that anyone of any ideology can use their subjective feelings to threaten the jobs and livelihoods of their professors — people who were hired to expose students to complex issues that sometimes unintentionally offend sensibilities.

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A couple of months before the Hamline incident, a University of Michigan professor who taught the history of underground comics was made the subject of an “equity investigation” because students complained of “curriculum-based trauma.” The edgy images and stories of the hundred-year-old “comix” tradition made some students feel uncomfortable.

Students are becoming an anti-intellectual tone police because administrators at many institutions are afraid of them. It’s a moral panic, and professors are caught in the middle. This is not just a problem of the left or the right. Liberal students in Stanford’s student government voted against funding a Mike Pence lecture, citing COVID concerns. But audiotapes revealed that the refusal was because of fears that Pence would “affect the health and well-being — emotionally, physically, and mentally — of students.” Meanwhile, administrators at Boise State canceled many diversity courses on the grounds that a white student was demonized in a class. An investigation revealed no such thing had happened.

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For those of us who teach controversial subjects, these moral panics are unsettling. I teach philosophy. In my classes we talk about God’s existence, determinism, the soul, personal identity, abortion, euthanasia, drugs, sex, and every other triggering topic imaginable. Recently I had a student approach me after the first week of class and tell me that she was having a hard time in our class because she doesn’t like to hear about or think about death, and I was “talking too much about death.” I had to gently break it to her that death was kind of a big topic for philosophers. Studying the human condition requires us to think about death. She went away angry, and I wondered if I’d be called in on some harassment investigation. During another semester a student complained to the administration that I used sarcasm and irony while I taught, and the administration suggested I retranslate all irony into literal language. I asked them to provide me with an irony translator instead.

The recent chill spreading through the halls of academia is not the fault of students per se. They will always challenge every norm and rebel against every “fact” — as they should. The problem is pusillanimous, fearful administrations who have forgotten that learning and knowledge acquisition are occasionally uncomfortable and that classroom dissent is vital and survivable.

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Will my administration stand behind me when I teach a classic argument against the existence of God and a religious student complains of feeling discomfort? Will they stand behind me when (on the very next day) I give a classic argument for the existence of God and an atheist student gets offended?

Socrates explains in his famous “Myth of the Cave” that all learning is a little bit painful because it requires an uncomfortable examination of one’s beliefs. That uncomfortable transformation is not a bug in the system we call “learning.” It is the system itself.

Nonetheless, I see a simple fix for the current tension in academia. If a student hears ideas or sees images that make them so uncomfortable they cannot endure the course anymore, they should be given the option of a no-fault “Ideological Withdrawal” — an IW. At many institutions, students can take a withdrawal for any reason during the first half of their course and get a tuition refund. If colleges modified this policy by extending the refund until the last week of classes, they could confidently offer it to any outraged or offended student who might otherwise be in a panic about their GPA. Every incensed student seeking the defenestration of their professor could be calmly shown the IW door. No drama, no destruction of teachers’ livelihoods, and an immediate end to whatever trauma the student thinks they’re enduring. Would a student occasionally abuse the policy by partying all semester and then save their GPA with a last-minute IW? Sure, but the numbers would be very small because IWs wouldn’t help a student complete any of their required course work.

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College administrators need to avoid the quagmire of moral policing. They are currently being drawn into a disastrous role in which they try to enact the ethical demands of the loudest members of their student body. The problem with this should be obvious. In my inner-city college, those voices will be far-left progressives, but at my brother’s college in the far suburbs, they will be far-right conservatives. If colleges fire their heterodox professors, then there will be no alternative viewpoints to save colleges from becoming ideological echo chambers. And the partisan media is already showing how disastrous that can be for democracy.

When I lived and taught in Beijing for a year on a Fulbright Scholarship, I went to the occasional philosophy department event, thinking it would be like a Western departmental meeting — lots of disagreements and arguments, and then refreshments and laughter afterward. But no, the philosophy department in many Chinese universities was where you went to memorize communist ideology. There was no disagreement or discussion of alternative thinking. This is not an Orwellian fiction, but a real-world example of what can happen to colleges. So, let us keep trying to follow Socrates out of the cave, no matter how uncomfortable the climb.

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Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago, is the author of 10 books, including “The Evolution of Imagination.”