Opinion: The consequences of campus cancel culture

Jennifer Schubert-Akin
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

This month, Georgetown law professor Sandra Sellers was fired for saying in an accidentally-recorded private Zoom conversation that her Black students scored at the bottom of her class. The university also suspended the professor to whom she made the remark for not correcting her. He subsequently resigned.

These comments are controversial and offensive to many. To others — including those who have followed the research of noted Black scholars, such as Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams and Jason Riley, who have long argued that affirmative action programs at prestigious universities backfire — they are merely inartful.

While the substance of Sellers’ remark is debatable, her right to make it should not be. These Georgetown professors are just the latest victims of campus cancel culture, where faculty members are increasingly being silenced for uttering unpopular views. This censorship threatens academic freedom, scholarship and knowledge, from which we all benefit.

Colleges are held to a far higher free speech standard than other workplaces because professors are generally granted tenure, which protects them from dismissal stemming from their political positions. Tenure “serves society and the common good by protecting the quality of teaching and research and thus the integrity of institutions of higher education,” states the American Association of University Professors. “If faculty members can lose their positions for what they say in the classroom or for what they write in an article, they are unlikely to risk addressing controversial issues.”

The history of human thought and scientific breakthroughs proceed from minority viewpoints becoming increasingly popular. Imagine if the brave academics who challenged once-popular notions, such as racism, were silenced. Cancel culture threatens the advancement of minority scientific perspectives, because it kills nascent theories in their cradle before they can be studied and proliferated. Think how difficult it is for today’s academics to objectively study controversial topics, such as affirmative action or climate change.

The campus cancel culture trend is growing. In retaliation for similar comments about her Black students in 2018, University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Amy Wax was banned from teaching first-year students. Allan Josephson, a professor of psychology at the University of Louisville, was ousted in 2018 for expressing conservative transgender views. In 2019, Harvard Dean Ronald Sullivan was forced out after student backlash to his representation of Harvey Weinstein. In a particularly ridiculous example from last year, Greg Patton, a University of Southern California professor, was suspended for using the Chinese phrase “nei ga” because it sounds like the N-word.

In today’s political climate, conservative political opinions are silenced most often. Yet, leftist professors are not immune.

Jeff Klinzman, a college professor in Iowa, was fired in 2019 after admitting to belonging to antifa. And several years ago, University of Illinois incoming professor Steven Salaita was fired after making anti-Israel tweets.

“Universities are meant to be cauldrons of critical thinking,” said Professor Salaita in his defense. “They are meant to foster creative inquiry and, when at their best, challenge political, economic or social orthodoxy.”

For every professor who is overtly silenced, thousands more self-censor to avoid personal and professional repercussions, limiting academic freedom and scholarship on a vast scale.

Yet, even those who don’t believe in free speech for academics are entitled to it themselves. On Wednesday, The Steamboat Institute is hosting a debate and discussion in Denver between Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law professor emeritus, and Robert Post, Yale Law professor, titled “Making Space for Diversity of Ideas: Should the University Censor Speech and, if so, on What Basis?”

Proponents of limits on campus free speech might point out that, as with private businesses, colleges are under tremendous financial pressure, and they must act against employees whose actions hurt their reputations and revenues. They may also argue that rooting out perceived racism and bigotry is more important than free academic inquiry.

The best way to emphasize the importance of free speech in academia — or any issue, for that matter — is through robust and civil debate, using persuasion and critical thinking, as opposed to merely demeaning the other side’s perspective. In the words of John Stuart Mill, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

Jennifer Schubert-Akin is the CEO, chair and co-founder of The Steamboat Institute.

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