Many presidents of universities, including my own, have committed their institutions to supporting the Grand Coalition on Climate Change. The founding statement of the Coalition criticizes President’s Trump decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and offers support for various policies by state and local governments to pursue the objectives of that agreement.
It is a serious mistake for universities as institutions to criticize or support controversial political initiatives, let alone become part of political coalitions. Universities must stay of out of politics and refrain from policy endorsements that are by their nature political. By maintaining their institutional neutrality they can best foster debate and further the progress of knowledge about controversial issues of the day. Universities are brokers of knowledge. To be honest brokers, they must eschew politics.
Wading into politics imposes two kinds of costs. The first is a chilling effect on debate and free inquiry within the university.
My friend Heather Mac Donald is the latest speaker to be prevented from presenting on a college campus—this time at Claremont McKenna. Heather’s talk was to show how policing saves citizens’ lives, including those of African-Americans. Heather is the one of the most eloquent speakers I know. It is outrageous that some students prevented her from speaking. But perhaps not surprising: they fear that she may persuade their fellow students that it is some of their preferred policies, not the police, that are the greater danger to minority communities.
After the suppression of Heather’s talk a Vice-President at Claremont voiced bureaucratic regret in the manner that has become familiar after similar such incidents across the country. But it is generally a mistake to believe that university administrators at these universities or many others will do what it takes to defend free speech and thus free inquiry at their institutions of learning. The best evidence of the low priority they place is that students who prevent talks are almost never disciplined, let alone expelled or prosecuted for their interference. As Robert George reminds us every day, no has yet been held accountable for the assault on Charles Murray and his host that occurred at Middlebury. No one has yet been disciplined for the recent violence at Berkeley over a speaker either.
Three reasons combine to make actual protection of free speech a low priority on colleges campuses. The first is the tendency to treat students as simple consumers rather than as participants in the university community with duties that are no less important than professors.