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Some University of Chicago Students Prove Lukewarm on Free Speech

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The University of Chicago is known as a bastion for, and important intellectual proponent of, free speech and academic freedom. Its “Chicago Statement,” released in 2015 and since adopted by over eighty academic institutions across the country, is considered the gold standard for university free speech policy statements. Yet a recent incident involving its student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, shows that a university’s commitment to free speech is only as robust as that of its members — including its students.

On January 26, 2022, the University of Chicago chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP UChicago) posted a call to boycott “Sh*tty Zionist Classes” on its Instagram page. Although the boycott included within its ambit any class at Chicago “on Israel or those taught by Israeli fellows,” it was apparently aimed at three particular classes, whose course descriptions the post reproduced along with critical annotations. “By attending these classes,” the post argued, “you are participating in a propaganda campaign that creates complicity in the continuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”

Almost a month later, the Maroon published an op-ed entitled “We Must Condemn the SJP’s Online Anti-Semitism.” Notably, its subheading inaccurately described SJP UChicago’s boycott as aimed at “Jewish-taught and -related classes.” The op-ed itself argued that based on the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, SJP UChicago had posted its boycott demand on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which the authors claimed “was done to isolate and alienate the Jewish population at UChicago and to interfere with a day of mourning.” It also claimed that “the targeting of classes taught specifically by Israeli fellows is xenophobic” and that because all of the courses singled out in the post were housed within the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, the post “furthers the trope that Jewish courses and professors work to contribute to propaganda for Israel.” Finally, it denounced SJP UChicago’s attempt to persuade students to avoid or drop certain classes as a violation of the university’s discrimination and harassment policies, since Israeli faculty were “directly discriminated against,” Jewish students were “indirectly” discriminated against, and the harassment policy “states that any organization that uses social media . . . in order to interfere with the education of students is harassment [sic].”

The op-ed’s first two arguments are fine as far as they go: substantively they’re thin gruel, but they’re firmly in line with the Chicago Statement’s view that the best antidote to “offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” speech is more speech. By contrast, the argument that the SJP UChicago boycott announcement violates the university’s discrimination and harassment policies was a blatant attempt by the authors to pressure the university into sanctioning other students for political speech under the flimsy pretext of “harassment” and “discrimination.” This is clearly contrary to the letter and spirit of the Statement, which states that

it is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments [about which ideas are offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed] themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

As a threshold matter, it’s unclear whether student choices concerning what classes to take, or speech directed at influencing such choices, fall within the scope of UChicago’s discrimination policy. Even if they do, SJP UChicago’s boycott demand was clearly based on the ideological content of the courses or the instructors’ institutional affiliations, not their national origins or religion. Assuming arguendo that the boycott announcement constituted or encouraged discrimination based on instructor national origin or faith, it could not constitute harassment unless, in addition to being based on a proscribed factor such as national origin, it unreasonably interfered with a person’s work performance or educational program participation or created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. Finally, because it plausibly occurred in “an academic context,” to qualify as harassment it also had to be directed at specific persons, constitute abuse, and serve no bona fide academic purpose. Clearly, SJP UChicago’s boycott announcement ticks none of these boxes.

If the op-ed itself didn’t excel in free speech terms, what happened next was no better and suggested that SJP UChicago and some editors at the Maroon would probably benefit from reading the Statement again.

On April 2 the editors of Viewpoints, the Maroon’s opinions page, decided to retract the op-ed, citing “factual inaccuracies.” In a long and rambling explanatory note, the editors said that these inaccuracies “flattened dialogue and perpetuated hate toward [SJP UChicago], Palestine Palestinian students, and those on campus who support the Palestinian liberation struggle,” and apologized to SJP UChicago and “all others affected by this decision.” However, the editors identified only four inaccuracies: the characterization of the boycott as targeting “Jewish-taught and -related classes,” which did not even appear in the op-ed itself but in its subheading; another description of the boycott as targeting classes “taught by Israeli professors,” rather than Israeli fellows affiliated with the Israel Institute; the claim that the post was deliberately published on Holocaust Remembrance Day; and the claim that SJP UChicago members had approached students on the quad about boycotting the classes. At key points, the editors appeared to rely upon information provided by SJP UChicago, rather than any independent reporting, to correct the op-ed’s claims. Notably, the retraction note included something like a disclaimer from the editor-in-chief and managing editor of the Maroon pointedly stating that “the following apology does not constitute an institutional perspective and represents only the views of the current Viewpoints Head Editors.”

Thus, apparently under pressure from SJP UChicago and its allies, the Viewpoints editors retracted the op-ed under a thin pretext of concern for four factual inaccuracies. One of these inaccuracies was not even the responsibility of the op-ed’s authors, while others were only inaccurate by the lights of SJP UChicago’s own account of events. Moreover, the Viewpoints editors had other, less dramatic options available to them to address what factual inaccuracies existed, such as publishing corrections or inviting a rebuttal from an SJP UChicago member.

Even if the factual inaccuracies were more significant, however, the crucial question the retraction raises is the extent to which a newspaper is responsible for the factual inaccuracies that appear in the opinion pieces it chooses to run.

On its face, it would seem that since the purpose of an opinions page is to provide a forum for community voices rather than news coverage, ensuring the factual accuracy of the former is a lesser priority. It is true that some factual inaccuracies may be so glaring that they either undermine an op-ed’s main claims or arguments or they amount to pernicious disinformation. In these cases, factual inaccuracies may sap an opinion piece of its value in fostering debate and discussion because they render the piece, in some important sense, irrelevant. That does not seem to be the case here.

In addition, the Viewpoints editors trotted out the specter of the “harm” caused by the op-ed to justify its retraction. The implication, it seems, is that speech must be harmless to be publishable. Some defenders of free speech tend to downplay the harm caused by it, arguing that belief in speech’s harmfulness is based on “cognitive distortions.” However, as I have argued before, the best argument for tolerating offensive, wrong-headed, hateful, or immoral speech is not that it is harmless. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court did not hold that journalists are immune from suit for negligent defamation of public officials because the latter are psychologically maladjusted snowflakes whose reputations are not really harmed by defamatory falsehoods broadcast about them by major news outlets. Instead, its rationale was that the costs of allowing journalists to be sued for negligent defamation — and in particular, the so-called “chilling effects” on politically important speech — substantially outweigh the benefits. By the same token, newspapers like the Maroon should publish potentially harmful speech at least partly because accepting the editorial principle that speech is publishable only if it cannot inflict any degree of harm upon any person at any time would have a devastating effect on a newspaper’s ability to serve as a forum for lively, relevant, and politically engaged debate and discussion.

If, as the original op-ed amply demonstrates, some are already tempted to use institutional discrimination and harassment policies to silence others’ speech, consider what a gift it would be to these censors manqué if everyone accepted that narrow principle of publishable speech.

The University of Chicago has much to be proud of in its record of defending free speech against the rising tide of illiberalism on both the right and left. But as Hannah Arendt reminded us, in every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them “children.” Among the most important duties of the university in a liberal society is to inculcate in each new class of undergraduates the disposition to critically evaluate deeply offensive speech without invoking some institutional lever to censor the speaker. Apparently, in this respect even UChicago can stand to do better.

Digital Degrees and Depersonalization

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In an article titled “A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection,” Beth McMurtie of the Chronicle of Higher Education analyzes the current state of student disengagement in higher education. The article solicits the personal experiences and observations of college and university faculty, as well as student-facing administrative officers and guidance counselors. Faculty members cite myriad causes of the general malaise they see among the students in their classes: classes switching back and forth between virtual and remote settings; global unrest and existential anxiety, stemming from COVID-19 and the recent war between Ukraine and Russia; interrupted high school years that leave young adults unprepared for the specific challenges and demands of college life; the social isolation of quarantines and lockdowns that filled nearly two years of their lives. Some of these circumstances are unavoidable (e.g., global unrest), while others seem to be improving (classroom uncertainty, lockdowns, and mask mandates). Still, student performance and mental health continues to suffer as badly as it did two years ago, and college enrollment is nearly as low as it was at the start of the pandemic.

McMurtie also takes the time to interview some college students on their experience. The students point to a common element that draws together all the previously-mentioned variables suspected of causing student disengagement: prolonged, almost unceasing, engagement with technology. One college junior quoted in the article describes her sophomore year as a blur, remembering only snippets of early morning Zoom classes, half-slept-through, with camera off, before falling back asleep. Each day seemed to consist in a flow between moments of sleep, internet browsing, and virtual classes. When COVID-19 restrictions subsided and classrooms returned to more of a traditional format, the excessive use of technology that had been mandatory for the past two years left an indelible psychological mark.

As she returned to the classroom, Lyman found that many professors had come to rely more heavily on technology, such as asking everyone to get online to do an activity. Nor do many of her courses have group activities or discussions, which has the effect of making them still seem virtual. ‘I want so badly to be active in my classroom, but everything just still feels, like, fake almost.’

Numerous scientific studies offer empirical support for the observation that more frequent virtual immersion is positively correlated with higher levels of depersonalization — a psychological condition characterized by the persistent or repeated feeling that “you’re observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both.” In an article published last month in Scientific Studies, researchers reported the following:

We found that increased use of digital media-based activities and online social e-meetings correlated with higher feelings of depersonalisation. We also found that the participants reporting higher experiences of depersonalisation, also reported enhanced vividness of negative emotions (as opposed to positive emotions).

They further remarked that the study “points to potential risks related to overly sedentary, and hyper-digitalized lifestyle habits that may induce feelings of living in one’s ‘head’ (mind), disconnected from one’s body, self and the world.” In short, spending more time online entails spending more time in one’s “head,” making a greater percentage of their life purely cerebral rather than physical. This can lead to a feeling of disconnect between the mind and the body, making all of one’s experiences feel exactly as the undergraduate student described her life during and after the pandemic: unreal.

If the increase and extreme utilization of technology in higher education is even partly to blame for the current student psychological disconnect, instructors and university administrators face a difficult dilemma: should we reduce the use of technology in classes, or not? The answer may at first appear to be an obvious “no”; after all, if such constant virtual existence is taking a psychological toll on college students, then it seems the right move would be to reduce the amount of online presence required to participate in the coursework. But the problem is complicated by the fact that depersonalization makes interacting with humans in the “real world” extremely psychologically taxing — far more taxing than interacting with others, or completing coursework, online. This fact illuminates the exponentially increasing demand over the past two years for online degrees and online course offerings, the decrease in class attendance for in-person classes, and the rising rates of anxiety and depression among young college students on campus. After being forced into a nearly continuous online existence (the average time spent on social media alone — not counting virtual classes — for young people in the United States is 9 hours per day) we feel wrenched out of the physical world, making reentering the world all the more exhausting. We prefer digital existence because the depersonalization has rendered us unable to process anything else.

Some philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum, refer to these kinds of preferences as “adaptive preferences” — things we begin to prefer as a way of adapting to some non-ideal circumstances. One of Nussbaum’s cases focuses on impoverished women in India who were routinely physically abused by their husbands, but preferred to stay married. Some of the women acknowledge that the abuse was “painful and bad, but, still, a part of women’s lot in life, just something women have to put up with as part of being a woman dependent on men.” Another philosopher, Jon Elster, calls these kinds of desires “sour grapes,” because a fox that originally desires grapes may convince himself the grapes he previously wanted were sour (and therefore not to be desired) if he finds himself unable to access them.

Are in-personal classes, social engagement, and physical existence on campus becoming “sour grapes” to us? If we have, to some extent, lost the ability to navigate these spaces with psychological ease, we may convince ourselves that these kinds of interactions are not valuable at all. But as we move further and further from regular (non-virtual) physical interactions with others, the depersonalization continues and deepens. It may be a self-perpetuating problem, with no clear path forward for either students or instructors. Should instructors prioritize meeting students where they are currently and providing virtual education as far as possible? Or should they prioritize moving away from virtual education with hope for long-term benefits? This is a question that higher education will likely continue to grapple with for many years to come.

Great Man Syndrome and the Social Bases of Self-Respect

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“Am I good enough?” “Was someone else smarter or more talented than me?” “Am I just lazy or incompetent?” You might find these thoughts familiar. It’s an anxiety that I have felt many times in graduate school, but I don’t think it’s a unique experience. It seems to show up in other activities, including applying for college and graduate school, pursuing a career in the arts, vying for a tenure-track academic job, and trying to secure grants for scientific research. This anxiety is a moral problem, because it can perpetuate imposter syndrome – feelings of failure and a sense of worthlessness, when none of these are warranted.

The source of this anxiety is something that I would like to call “great man syndrome.” The “great man” could be a man, woman, or non-binary person. What is important is the idea that there are some extra-capable individuals who can transcend the field through sheer force of innate ability or character. Gender, race, and other social categories matter for understanding social conceptions of who has innate ability and character, which can help to explain who is more likely to suffer from this angst, but “great man syndrome” can target people from any social class.

It functions primarily by conflating innate ability or character with professional success, where that professional success is hard to come by. For those of us whose self-conceptions are built around being academics, artists, scientists, or high achievers and whose professional success is uncertain, “great man syndrome” can generate uncertainty about our basic self-worth and identity. On the other hand, those who achieve professional success can easily start to think that they are inherently superior to others.

What does “great man syndrome” look like, psychologically? First, in order to continue pursuing professional success, it’s almost necessary to be prideful and think that because I’m inherently better than others in my field in some way, I can still achieve one of the few, sought-after positions. Second, the sheer difficulty and lack of control over being professionally recognized creates constant anxiety about not producing enough or not hitting all of the nigh-unattainable markers for “great-man-ness.” Third, these myths tie our sense of well-being to our work and professional success in a way that is antithetical to proper self-respect. This results in feelings of euphoria when we are recognized professionally, but deep shame and failure when we are not. “Great man syndrome” negatively impacts our flourishing.

My concept of “great man syndrome” is closely related to Thomas Carlyle’s 19th century “great man theory” of history, which posits that history is largely explained by the impacts of “great men,” who, by their superior innate qualities, were able to make a great impact on the world. There are several reasons to reject Carlyle’s theory: “great men” achieve success with the help of a large host of people whose contributions often go unrecognized; focusing on innate qualities prevents us from seeing how we can grow and improve; and there are multiple examples of successful individuals who do not have the qualities we would expect of “great men.”

Even if one rejects “great man theory,” it can still be easy to fall into “great man syndrome.” Why is this the case? The answer has to do with structural issues common to the fields and practices listed above. Each example I gave above — scientific enterprises, artistic achievement, higher educational attainment, and the academic job market — has the following features. First, each of these environments are highly competitive. Second, they contain members whose identities are tied up with that field of practice. Third, if one fails to land one of the scarce, sought-after positions, there are few alternative methods of gainful employment that allow one to maintain that social identity.

The underlying problem that generates “great man syndrome” isn’t really the competition or the fact that people’s identities are tied up with these pursuits; the problem is that there are only so many positions within those fields that ensure “the social bases of self-respect.” On John Rawls’s view, “the social bases of self-respect” are aspects of institutions that support individuals by providing adequate material means for personal independence and giving them a secure sense that their aims and pursuits are valuable. To be recognized as equal citizens, people need to be structurally and socially supported in ways that promote self-respect and respect from others.

This explains why “great man syndrome” strikes at our basic self-worth — there are only so many positions that provide “the social bases of self-respect.” So, most of the people involved in those pursuits will never achieve the basic conditions of social respect so long as they stay in their field. This can be especially troubling for members of social classes that are not commonly provided “the social bases of self-respect.” Furthermore, because these areas are intrinsically valuable and tied to identity, it can be very hard to leave. Leaving can feel like failing or giving up, and those who point out the structural problems are often labeled as pessimistic or failing to see the true value of the field.

How do we solve this problem? There are a few things that we as individuals can do, and that many people within these areas are already doing. We can change how we talk about the contributions of individuals to these fields and emphasize that we are first and foremost engaged in a collective enterprise which requires that we learn from and care for each other. We can reaffirm to each other that we are worthy of respect and love as human beings regardless of how well we perform under conditions of scarcity. We can also try to reach the halls of power ourselves to change the structures that fail to provide adequate material support for those pursuing these aims.

The difficulty with these solutions is that they do not fundamentally change the underlying institutional failures to provide “the social bases of self-respect.” Some change may be effected by individuals, especially those who attain positions of power, but it will not solve the core issue. To stably ensure that all members of our society have the institutional prerequisites needed for well-being, we need to collectively reaffirm our commitment to respecting each other and providing for each other’s material needs. Only then can we ensure that “the social bases of self-respect” will be preserved over time.

Collective action of this kind itself undermines the core myth of “great man syndrome,” as it shows that change rests in the power of organization and solidarity. In the end, we must build real political and economic power to ensure that everyone has access to “the social bases of self-respect,” and that is something we can only do together.

Academic Freedom and the Kershnar Case: A Partial Dissent

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American appellate court opinions often include one or more concurrences, where judges register their agreement with the majority or plurality’s decision but disagree in part or in whole with its reasoning. Judges are also free to concur with parts of the majority or plurality’s decision, but dissent to other parts. When this happens, it can be pretty unclear where the judge stands with respect to the majority or plurality opinion. As I read Rachel Robison-Greene’s excellent column about the Stephen Kershnar controversy, I felt something like this complicated patchwork of concurrence and dissent thread together in my mind. The following is an attempt to articulate these thoughts.

To quickly recap the controversy, late last month Kershnar, a philosophy professor at SUNY Fredonia, was interviewed for “Brain in a Vat,” a philosophy-themed podcast. In the interview, Kershnar claimed that adults having sex with children is not morally wrong. The argument he offered for this startling claim was fairly weak, as Robison-Greene shows in her column. Unfortunately, the interview has been removed from YouTube, which makes it difficult for people who haven’t watched it to evaluate the argument for themselves. In any case, clips of the interview went viral, and in response to the controversy, SUNY Fredonia barred Kershnar from campus or from contacting students pending the results of a formal investigation. Free speech advocacy organizations and not a few prominent academics have since protested SUNY Fredonia’s move on the grounds that it violates its own commitment to academic freedom, as well as First Amendment protections that apply to Kershnar as a state government employee.

Robison-Greene provides a clear summary of the academic freedom argument against sanctioning Kershnar, but I want to draw out a few strands that deserve closer attention. If society is actually committed to free inquiry in universities, it must be willing to tolerate academics questioning even its firmest convictions. Indeed, the case for academic freedom is arguably strongest with respect to those areas in which one viewpoint is overwhelmingly dominant, if not universal. It is here that a particular viewpoint comes to seem like the only possible viewpoint — where belief, claiming the mantle of self-evidence, petrifies into dogma. Examples from history are legion: the belief in the unsuitability of women for public life, or in the immorality of homosexuality.

It might be replied that surely, we know that pedophilic sex is wrong, just as we know that slavery is wrong. And even if we don’t know that these claims are true — and especially if, as some philosophers argue, these claims are not knowable, strictly speaking —why allow them to be publicly questioned given all of the deleterious effects that could result, as Robison-Greene plausibly argues? Here, I think, we come to the nub of the issue. The question is this: are the net benefits of allowing academics to freely inquire into the merits of any socially dominant opinion greater than the net benefits of requiring that someone — perhaps the academic herself, her academic department, or school administration officials — weigh up the costs and benefits of each line of inquiry ex ante before allowing it to proceed?

This is not an easy question to answer. Complicating matters is that some of the goods that can be obtained by free inquiry are arguably different in kind from those that can be obtained through censorship. But we can make a few general observations. First, it is very hard to know, ex ante, what the value of a line of inquiry is. It seems probable to me that questioning the moral wrongness of adult sex with children is, on net, a valueless or disvaluable line of inquiry. But my confidence that this is the case is too low to warrant quashing it ex ante. There are simply too many past examples of lines of inquiry that have seemed valueless or disvaluable ex ante to most people, but that have turned out to be enormously beneficial both epistemically and in terms of human welfare. Where the future is concerned, experience always seems to counsel humility.

Even if we were perfectly rational, the limitations on our knowledge would furnish a reason not to attempt to evaluate lines of inquiry ex ante. But we are not perfectly rational — far from it. In general, the more firmly held a belief is, the less disposed the believer is to entertain evidence that points to its falsity. This means that we are likely to systematically underrate the value of lines of inquiry that could threaten our deepest convictions. Thus, our knowledge of our own biases should make us even more skeptical of the possibility of accurately evaluating lines of inquiry ex ante. 

The argument so far assumes that academic censors would act in good faith — that they would not use their authority to advance their own political agendas by, for example, interpreting the rules in such a way that lines of inquiry they disfavor for political reasons would be proscribed. This is far from clear. Moreover, given the inherent unknowability of the future value of lines of inquiry, empowering people to make decisions about which ones ought to be allowed based on a prospective cost-benefit analysis seems particularly likely to lead to abuses.

There is also the problem of the so-called “Streisand Effect”: in liberal democracies with robust civil societies, attempts to censor opinions actually tend to amplify them. The vast majority of “Brain in a Vat” episodes have view counts in the hundreds. Now, thanks in part to SUNY Fredonia’s attempt to punish Kershnar, his ideas have been discussed in dozens of news articles and blog posts, and a far larger number of tweets. It is likely that had the podcast dropped without comment, thousands who now know about Kershnar’s views would have never heard of him. Authoritarian governments with much greater control over the production and distribution of information might be able to censor successfully, but it is doubtful that in the United States, depriving someone like Kershnar of his platform will make his ideas disappear. Censorship via de-platforming might not even be a viable strategy for quashing objectionable claims.

Robison-Greene writes that “the existence of so much support for [Kershnar’s] case by so many (mostly powerful male) [academics] is likely to make victims of childhood sexual assault feel unsupported and potentially unsafe.” This might be true, but I think it’s worth interrogating why. If victims feel less supported when other academics support Kershnar, it must be either because they think (a) that such support is tantamount to approval for Kershnar’s ideas or (b) that pedophiles view such support as tantamount to approval for Kershnar’s ideas, and the consequence of their viewing it this way is that they will be emboldened to satisfy their sexual desires. Either way, the key idea here is that opposition to punishing Kershnar for his ideas implies support for his ideas. There is, indeed, something highly counterintuitive about the idea of hating what Kershnar says but fighting for his right to say it; it produces the same dissonant sensation as hating the sin and loving the sinner, or appreciating the artistic genius of a moral monster. Human beings have a well-documented aversion to ambivalence; academic freedom and similar rights require us to be ambivalent. If society had a stronger commitment to free thought and free speech, it might be easier for people to accept that supporting a speaker’s right to speak does not imply approval of his ideas.

Robison-Greene reminds us that speech can do real harm, in this case by potentially “empower[ing] [pedophiles] in their conviction that their behavior isn’t actually morally wrong, it’s just commonly viewed that way by society.” Too often, free speech advocates seem to deny that speech harms at all. Given that most of them also point to the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence as a model for how to draw the boundaries of free speech rights, this is somewhat ironic. Even as it strengthened protections for speakers over the course of the last century, the Supreme Court never denied that speech can do serious harm. For example, if a state makes speakers potentially liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress because of what they say, that is fully compatible with the First Amendment. The Court has also held that the First Amendment does not bar liability for defamation. In carving out these exceptions from First Amendment protection, the Court tacitly acknowledged that speech can cause profound emotional and reputational damage.

At the same time, however, it’s important to recognize that when people exercise any of their important individual rights, harm to others frequently results. For example, criminal defendants have constitutional rights that, by making it harder for prosecutors to secure convictions, often harm crime victims. Unlike the citizens of some authoritarian states, Americans are free to move about the country and travel abroad. But this freedom comes at a cost: tens of thousands die on the roads every year, and travel produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Parents have extensive rights over their children, and this can cause enormous harm even when parents do not transgress the bounds of law.

Thus, a successful argument for constraining the right to freely inquire — incidentally, the right that SUNY Fredonia guarantees for all of its professors — must do more than show that exercising that right can cause harm. It must show, at minimum, that a policy of constraint both (a) is practically feasible and (b) would produce outcomes that are, on net, better than those that issue from permitting truly free inquiry. I think there are serious reasons to doubt both. That is why, although I agree in some sense with Robison-Greene that this is an “unfortunate case,” at the same time, the fact that our society supports someone who questions its deepest moral convictions is a profound collective achievement. And in the end, I do not think that cases like this pose a serious ethical challenge to our society’s commitment to academic freedom.

Testing the Limits of Academic Freedom

photograph of SUNY Fredonia sign at dusk

On January 30th, 2022, SUNY Fredonia professor Stephen Kershnar was interviewed for the podcast “Brain in a Vat” in an episode titled “Sexual Taboos.” In the interview, Kershnar claimed that adult sex with children is not morally wrong. When asked about the cutoff point for when adult sex with a child becomes impermissible, Kershnar did not concede that such activity was wrong even with a child as young as one year old. He responded to the question by saying, “The notion that it’s wrong, even with a one-year-old, is not quite obvious to me.” The argument that he articulated in the interview is that we let children make all sorts of decisions for themselves: they decide what to wear in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, etc. We don’t challenge their ability to give free and informed consent to those things. He argues that sex is no different and claims that there isn’t anything significant about sex that changes the standards for what counts as giving consent. Therefore, if a child seems to be a willing participant to a sex act with an adult, it is not morally wrong for the adult to engage in a sex act with the child.

A short clip from the video circulated on social media and the content of the interview soon got back to administrators at SUNY Fredonia. Kershnar was reassigned pending an investigation of the case. As part of an official statement, the President of SUNY Fredonia said the following,

SUNY Fredonia is aware of a video posted online involving one of its professors. The views expressed by the professor are reprehensible and do not represent the values of SUNY Fredonia in any way, shape or form. They are solely the professor’s views. The matter is being reviewed.

In response to the news that action might be taken against Kershnar, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) crafted an open letter in defense of Kershnar’s academic freedom. At the time of this writing, the letter has 115 signatories. A significant majority of the signatories are male and include such powerful and prominent figures as Peter Singer, Alex Byrne, and Brian Leiter.

The main argument in support of Kershnar is that the tenure system protects academic freedom, and such freedom is crucial to the functioning of democracy as well as to the give-and-take of reasons and evidence that knowledge attainment requires. The system depends on the broadly liberal idea that bad arguments and ideas are best addressed in open conflict with the articulation of other, more compelling arguments and ideas. It is only when people are free to express all ideas openly and without fear of reprisal that we can understand, as individuals and as communities of knowers, which conclusions the evidence or argument supports.

Those defending Kershnar’s speech may well find it repugnant, but may defend it as a matter of procedure, not of substance. We have a history of harshly punishing people with ideas that diverge from the mainstream. On many occasions, those ideas have turned out to be accurate (or at least more accurate than the views that preceded them). Once we start picking and choosing the thought expressions that will be cause for punishment, the domain of the exchange of ideas falls under the control of whoever is in charge of the punishment. Everything may seem fine when one is in agreement with punishment norms, but winds shift, and one day it is likely that the norms will be controlled by very different people with very different values.

The current political context only makes defense of academic freedom more urgent. For example, seven states currently have laws on the books banning teaching Critical Race Theory in local schools. In an additional sixteen states, similar laws are working their way through the legislature. New waves of book bans are surging through the country. Many states are considering legislation designed to hold public school teachers and their lesson plans up to unprecedented levels of scrutiny, up to and including laws that require video cameras in the classroom and laws that allow for parents to sue teachers if they dislike the material teachers are presenting in their classrooms. At a time when education is under attack and the country is grappling with rampant anti-intellectualism, we can’t afford to whittle academic freedom away. Academic freedom is a bulwark against fascism.

Regardless of whether one finds the arguments for academic freedom compelling, it is clear that there are also strong arguments on the other side of the case. The first argument acknowledges the fact that academic freedom is under attack but raises a concern for how protecting Kershnar in this case might potentially make things much worse. Many states have significantly weakened the tenure system by making it easier to fire tenured professors and giving the power to do so to entities outside of the academic community. Some states are pursuing getting rid of tenure altogether. The tenure system is supposed to protect the free exchange of ideas, which sounds like a lofty goal until it is used as a justification to argue for the permissibility of child rape. When administrators defend even a case such as this on the grounds of academic freedom, it might weaken support for the whole concept among the population in general and may make getting rid of tenure politically easier for lawmakers who were already inclined in that direction. Contributing to the firepower in this regard is the fact that Kershnar seems to have made his career as a sophist, engaging in the kinds of pursuits — attempting to make the weaker argument the stronger — against which Socrates frequently and famously argued. People may simply fail to see the value of a system that protects such activity.

Second, the arguments that Kershnar is making in the podcast aren’t just bad arguments, they’re bad arguments in support of a repugnant and potentially dangerous conclusion. If people accept the conclusion on the basis of the arguments and were already inclined toward pedophilia to begin with, Kershnar’s claims may serve to empower them in their conviction that their behavior isn’t actually morally wrong, it’s just commonly viewed that way by society. This could potentially increase the number of children who are victims of sexual abuse.

Third, Kershnar’s argument, and the existence of so much support for his case by so many (mostly powerful male) signatories, is likely to make victims of childhood sexual assault feel unsupported and potentially unsafe. Beyond a doubt, some people who feel this way will be students and colleagues of Kershnar. The situation may create a toxic work environment for colleagues and a distracting and challenging learning environment for students. A significant number of people who feel uncomfortable in this environment will be women, since 1 in 9 women are victims of sexual abuse as children. The number of men who report being victims of sexual abuse as children is 1 in 53. There are reporting challenges here, but there is a legitimate concern that the circumstances created by Kershnar’s comments will be extremely uncomfortable for many female students and faculty members in particular. In the podcast, Kershnar explicitly challenges the idea that the risk of doing serious long term psychological harm is significant enough to make sex with children wrong. Students and colleagues will both feel misunderstood and be misunderstood, since Kershnar undermines the significant damage sexual abuse can do to a person’s life and well-being. All this is occurring in an environment which gave rise to the MeToo movement in response to concerns that sexual misconduct was not being taken seriously.

There are other cases with a similar distasteful flavor. In 2019, Indiana University Bloomington economics professor David Rasmussen was subjected to similar scrutiny for publicly arguing that women are destroying academia both in the capacity of students and professors. He argued that geniuses are overwhelmingly male, and that the production of geniuses is stifled as a result of women on campus. Some argue that cases like Kershnar’s and Rasmussen’s are ripe for critique as demonstrations of the shortcomings of Enlightenment Liberalism. A society that highly prizes individualistic values such as free speech and academic freedom above all others often does so at the expense of the well-being of traditionally oppressed groups like women and people of color. People frequently use their freedom of expression not only to make unconscionable generalizations about members of such groups, but also to advocate for policies that do active and substantive harm. The most vulnerable are left unprotected.

In the end, this is an unfortunate case with no easy answers.

October’s Harvest: Threats to Academic Freedom

photograph of narrow wood bridge surrounded by woods leading to open water

With the month of October barely underway, we have already seen two incidents at elite institutions of higher education that underscore the continuing threats to academic freedom from both the right and left. A Twitter mob convinced MIT to disinvite a distinguished professor of geophysics from speaking at the school due to his views about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies. And at Yale, a prominent history professor stepped down from leadership of a prestigious program when right-wing donors insisted on selecting members of a “board of visitors” that would advise on the appointments of program instructors.

After publicly announcing earlier this year that Professor Dorian Abbot, a geophysical scientist at the University of Chicago, would be delivering the prestigious John Carlson Lecture, MIT rescinded his invitation and cancelled the event. The reason? Abbot is a harsh critic of DEI policies, which encourage representation and participation of diverse groups of people in higher education, including through preferential hiring of faculty and evaluation of student applicants. In a recent Newsweek column, Abbot wrote that DEI “violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment” and “undermines the public’s trust in universities and their graduates.” Abbot proposed an alternative framework he called Merit, Fairness, and Equality whereby “university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.” Apparently, graduate students and faculty at both MIT and Chicago were so affronted by Abbot’s words that they organized a disinvitation campaign, which ultimately convinced the chair of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science to de-platform Abbot.

For MIT’s part, the school says that it merely disinvited Abbot from giving the Carlson Lecture, a public outreach talk aimed, in part, at engaging local high school students. The university says it invited Abbot to campus to address fellow climate scientists about his research instead. Apparently, Abbot’s views about DEI make his climate science research unfit for consumption by the general public, but not by his fellow academics.

There are a number of troubling aspects to this episode. First, Abbot’s views about DEI are decidedly mainstream. According to a recent Gallup poll, 74% of U.S. adults oppose preferential hiring or promotion of Blacks. The Republican Party’s platform includes this line: “Merit and hard work should determine advancement in our society, so we reject unfair preferences, quotas, and set-asides as forms of discrimination.” If the nation’s institutions of higher education are to remain effective as providers of civic education, forums for political debate, and incubators of novel policy ideas, the views of most Americans and one of the two major political parties cannot be made verboten. Note carefully that in saying Abbot’s views are mainstream, I am not saying they are right. Rather, I am claiming that if universities want to make a significant epistemic contribution to the larger society, they cannot seal themselves off from views that have wide currency in the general public.

Second, having determined that Abbot’s scholarship would make a valuable contribution to MIT and the local community — something which they have a plenary right to do — faculty and administrators should not have allowed objections to his political views to outweigh or override that initial determination. When the free exchange of ideas is obstructed by political actors — be they government officials or political activists — academic life suffers. The political views of a vocal minority are no justification for suppressing scholarly exchange. Those who object to Abbot’s ideas have every right to strenuously protest them, but not to try to exclude him from an academic community that has already validated his worth as a scholar.

Finally, rescinding the invitation will undoubtedly embolden activists who seek to harness the power of social media to silence speakers whose views they deem harmful or offensive. It would have been better if Abbot had not been invited at all, if the alternative was to truckle to the heckler’s veto.

That’s the view from the left. But recent events amply demonstrate that academia has something to fear from the political right, as well. The Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University takes a select group of two dozen students and immerses them in classic texts of history and statecraft while also introducing them to a raft of high-profile guest instructors. The program was until recently led by historian Beverly Gage, and is underwritten by large donations from Nicholas Brady, a former U.S. Treasury secretary under presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush, and Charles Johnson, a mutual fund billionaire and leading Republican donor. A week after the 2020 presidential election, a professor who teaches in the program published an opinion article titled “How to Protect America From the Next Donald Trump.” According to Gage, this led Brady and Johnson to demand the creation of a five-member “board of visitors” that would advise on the appointments of instructors, pursuant to a 2006 donor agreement that had until then not been followed. Worse, the donors insisted that they could choose the board. Again according to Gage, Yale president Peter Salovey and Pericles Lewis, vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives, ultimately caved to these demands. This caused Gage to resign, effective at the end of the year.

The day after The New York Times reported the story, Salovey released a letter to the faculty affirming Yale’s commitment to academic freedom and promising that he will give “new and careful consideration to how we can reinforce” that commitment. No word yet about plans for the board of visitors.

It is a foundational principle of academic freedom that scholars should be insulated from, to quote Fritz Machlup, those “fears and anxieties that may inhibit them from freely studying and investigating whatever they are interested in, and from freely discussing, teaching or publishing whatever opinions they have reached.” One source of such fears and anxieties is left-wing Twitter mobs; another is powerful donors who seek to steer teaching and research in a particular direction, often for ideological reasons. Freedom from political interference entails that faculty ought to be free to choose, in the absence of outside interference or pressure, both who gets to do teaching and research in the academic community and what they can research and teach. A board of visitors of the kind envisioned by Brady and Johnson, with members appointed by them and whose “advice” would be backed by the threat of pulling the fiscal plug on the program, is anathema to these principles.

Despite these stories, there is reason for optimism. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out, some surveys seem to indicate broad, and indeed increasing, American support for free speech, particularly among college graduates. This suggests that threats to free speech mostly stem from vocal or powerful minorities. But such compact, determined groups can wreak havoc. For example, the cause of prohibition was never supported by the majority of Americans, but the Anti-Saloon League and the voters it galvanized nevertheless managed to amend the Constitution to forbid the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” As the weather turns cold, faculty and administrators at our institutions of higher education must commit to thwarting a profounder chill.

Educating Professionals

photograph of graduation caps thrown in the air

Universities around the country have, in the last century, shifted their focus from a traditional liberal arts curriculum to an increasingly “practical” or vocational form of education. There is a popular conception that the purpose of higher education is some form of job-training. A cursory Google search will produce a number of articles asking whether college is a “sound investment,” or whether college graduates make more money than their peers who elect to forego college for work. Virtually every one of these articles defines the worth of a college degree in purely economic terms. There is little room to deny that, in our modern liberal democracy, making money is a practical necessity. Yet, I think there is something deeply confused about the attempt to reduce the value of education generally — and higher education specifically — to the economic gains that come from education. I have argued elsewhere that conflating the so-called “practicality” of education with the “vocationality” of education is a conceptual mistake, so I will not rehearse those arguments here.

Instead, I intend to discuss a related problem present in the ways we conceive of the nature, purpose, and value of higher education. Following the 2008 recession, there was a marked shift in students’ and educators’ priorities toward STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. People seem to see STEM fields as a means to a professional end — scientists, engineers, and folks in tech tend to make money, and that’s something people in a precarious economic environment want. We can see the need for economic stability reflected in every aspect of the university, including many college and university mission and vision statements.

It is not difficult to see the ways in which gaining technical proficiency in biology or engineering, for example, will prepare students for a career. However, what some students and educators fail to recognize is that even areas within sciences that most directly correlate to in-demand jobs need the humanities. In preparing a guest lecture on engineering ethics, I looked into the nature of professional ethics generally. This led me to think about the nature of a profession and why it is important that certain professions have ethical guidelines by which practitioners must abide. The word “profession” is derived from the late Latin professus, which roughly means “to profess one’s vows.” One might wonder what a profession of one’s vows has to do with a “profession” as we consider it today. The answer is surprisingly straightforward — in the monastic tradition, monks were asked to make a public declaration of their commitment to living a more just, ethical life in light of their training. Accordingly, they would profess their commitment to living according to this higher standard. Such dedications bled over into highly skilled and highly specialized trades — as jobs require increasingly specific training, it becomes increasingly important that the people who take on these skilled positions profess to self-govern according to higher standards, if only because the number of people who have the knowledge to provide a check on them has become vanishingly small. There can be little doubt that technicians at every level need to behave ethically, but with a larger peer group, there are more individuals, and more opportunities to recognize and correct potential abuse. As William F. May powerfully states, “if knowledge is power, then ignorance is powerlessness. Although it is possible to devise structures that limit the opportunities for abuse of specialized knowledge, ultimately one needs to cultivate virtue in those who wield that relatively inaccessible power.”

It is not difficult to see how we can take this idea of professionalism as tied with virtue and apply it to higher education today. Let’s take the example of our engineering students. Within the field of engineering, there are different fields of sub-specialization, the result of which is a (relatively) small number of professional peers — those with the specialized knowledge to recognize and correct potential problems before they become catastrophic. The fact that students in a senior-level engineering class already have narrowly defined expertise that differs from peers in the same class highlights the need for a curriculum that instills ethics early on.

This problem becomes more acute as students graduate and enter the profession. As the number of engineers who have the specific knowledge necessary to evaluate the choices made by any given engineer is so small, we must rely on the engineers themselves to abide by a higher standard — especially in light of the public-facing nature of the work engineers undertake. Engineering is a profession, and as such we need engineers who profess to, and actually do, live and work according to a higher standard. Such a profession requires more than mere compliance with a code of conduct. As Michael Pritchard notes, “professional codes of ethics are not static documents. But even if a code is relatively unchanging, it is not simply an algorithm for decision making. It must be applied – which calls for independent judgment on the part of the professional.” In light of this understanding of the nature and demands of professionalism, I propose that universities insist upon an increased emphasis on humanities — those fields whose value is less directly connected to vocational outcomes and are more easily connected to the development of character, person, and civic responsibility. Humanistic fields are just as valuable as more vocationally-directed fields, even to those vocational-directed fields themselves.

According to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many institutions were ill-prepared to handle the influx of people looking for STEM degrees following the 2008 recession. The BLS additionally cautions that the pandemic is likely to cause another STEM surge, offering us another opportunity to shape industries and mold the next wave of future professionals. In considering how to do this, and how to do it well, it should be clear from what I’ve said that we need to emphasize the connections between the humanities and STEM fields. While we often like to think of science as purely descriptive and divorced from considerations of value (moral, aesthetic, or otherwise), that is simply not an accurate, or at any rate a complete picture. The ultimate aims of science are, I suggest, intrinsically value-laden. I don’t have room here to defend this claim, but for a careful discussion, see Heather Douglas’ Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal (especially chapters 4, 5, and 8). For now, let’s return to our example of engineering students. In my discussions with students, many report that they went into engineering with high-minded goals about improving the quality of life for those around them. They see the end for the sake of which they pursue STEM not as mere financial stability, but for the betterment of human lives; yet most report that they have had little or no formal education in ethics or value theory. The narrow scope of their education illustrates that colleges and universities are not doing enough to truly prepare students for the non-technical aspects of their chosen profession. The solution, I propose, is to return to a more well-rounded form of education; one that emphasizes humanities and integrates humanistic education with STEM fields.

We do not need technically proficient but ethically unimaginative or inflexible workers to fill the needs of our consumer economy; rather, we need professionals understood in the broad sense I’ve described. We need to cultivate and encourage our students to commit to living according to the highest standards of moral virtue. As Rena Beatrice Goldstein argues,

“Virtue enables a person to navigate challenging human encounters in many spheres, and virtue curricula can help students learn to navigate well by practicing virtue in different environments. It takes time to develop virtues like open-mindedness. Indeed, being open-minded with strangers in the civic domain may require different motivations than being open-minded with one’s peers, family, or friends. Practicing virtues in a variety of domains can help students develop the right motivations, which may be different in different domains.”

I propose that we see the next STEM push as an opportunity to re-emphasize our commitment to all of the core values of higher education: personal growth, civic responsibility, and professional excellence. When we consider “professional excellence,” we must build into that concept a healthy understanding of, and respect for, the stable virtues cultivated through sustained humanistic study.

The Ethics of Cancelling Student Loan Debt

image of graduation cap icon filled with shiny coins

Since Joe Biden’s election, the public has been waiting to see how the new administration plans to tackle one of the biggest campaign issues: student debt. Biden’s platform contained some measures for debt relief for students, and he has pledged $10,000 in student loan forgiveness. However, that promise has not sat well with members of his own party, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Senate Majority Leader Schumer, who have called on the president to forgive a much greater amount of student debt. This debate over differing policy proposals has exposed a number of moral issues and concerns regarding debt forgiveness.

It is estimated that about 65% of all jobs in the United States require a post-secondary degree. About 43 million people owe 1.6 trillion dollars in federal student loans. The amount of debt has skyrocketed by over 600% since 2004 following years of rising costs of education. Student loans are now the second largest form of household debt after mortgages. Following the Great Recession, it has become more difficult to pay off greater amounts of debt. More than 30% of student loan borrowers are in default, and that number has increased steadily compared to default rates in the 1990s. Now with the pandemic, it is likely to become even more difficult for recent graduates to be able to find work and pay down their loans.

Part of the problem with this massive amount of student loan debt is that it has a larger social impact. Students who take on debt are more likely to put off larger purchases later in life. Millennials, who have the lowest credit scores of any generation, are reportedly more likely to delay life decisions that can affect debt such as having children, getting married, or buying a house. Many who struggle to pay also experience significant mental health problems. With less disposable income, this can create a drag on the economy which means that the issue affects everyone, not just students. This has led many to call the debt issue a crisis. As Daniel M. Johnson of the Harvard Business Review reports, “By almost any definition, this is a crisis: It is certainly a crisis for those with student loan debt…it is also a crisis for lenders…a crisis for the federation government…[and] many argue that it is also a crisis for our nation’s economy.”

This brings us to the various proposals made to ameliorate the problem. In addition to Biden’s pledge to cancel $10,000 per person as a response to the COVID crisis, Biden has also taken steps to pause loan payments until October. His Democratic colleagues have called for him to cancel $50,000 of debt per person using the Higher Education Act of 1965. (Biden’s initial opposition to this proposal was that based on not having the authority to do so without Congress.) However, several experts, including 17 state Attorney’s General believe otherwise and have called on Biden to act (Biden has referred the matter to the DOJ). More recently, Biden has shifted his opposition to the proposal on the grounds that not everyone deserves the relief, recently arguing that people who went to Harvard, Yale, and Pennsylvania do not need that kind of relief.

Indeed, one of the arguments against cancelling student debt is that it rewards people who will be better off and earn more with their degree. People with at least a bachelor’s degree are on average going to earn over $25,000 per year more than someone with a high school diploma (a PhD holder will earn $59,000 more per year). So, the argument goes, why should taxpayers, particularly those who did not attempt post-secondary education, be on the hook for other people’s debts, particularly if they are likely to earn more money anyways?

Of course, if there is one thing that the pandemic should teach us it is that things that might not obviously affect us can eventually have a huge impact on everyone. Despite their qualifications, grads often settle for lower paying jobs in order to start paying off their debt faster. Large debts also disincentivize many from pursuing higher education at all. A sluggish economy post-COVID will also exacerbate the issue of finding employment. If student debt continues to be a problem, it could be a source of economic drag, eventually limiting the revenue from future taxpayers.

According to Kate Padgett Walsh of Iowa State University, another argument against debt forgiveness is that it would seem to violate the Kantian deontological moral principle that one should keep their promises. Reneging on such promises is disrespectful to you and to others. On the other hand, one doesn’t renege on a promise if the promisee is released from the promise from the promisor. Also, it is in the nature of Kant’s moral thinking to disregard consequences and context for the sake of universality. The massive surge in debt, the potential risk to the economy, and the state of things following COVID become irrelevant to a Kantian moral take on the situation. The moral question then remains for us whether they should be relevant.

There are additional moral issues pertaining to justice and equity which are pertinent as well. Studies have shown that Black and brown Americans face a racial pay gap, and will likely owe more debt, meaning that it is more difficult for them to service their debt. According to Elissa Nadworny of NPR, “Many Black and Latino families have missed out on ways to build wealth in the past…due to racist policies. Researchers who study and talk to student loan borrowers say student debt is a primary factor holding them back now.”

This is in addition to, as mentioned, the physical and mental health issues that having so much debt can have. However, even if we accept that there should be some debt relief, there is still the question of how much. While some may argue that $10,000 is not sufficient, the facts suggest that not only is a significant amount of student debt less than $10,000, but that these are the loans which are most difficult to pay off. For example, many of these people went to college but did not finish. Thus, not only do they now owe money, but they likely make less than they would have. Meanwhile, more than a third of student debt is owed by the top 20% of income holders. This suggests $10,000 of forgiveness may have a more significant impact than cancelling another $40,000 on top of it. Thus, the problem may be that many will receive relief but not need it. There are several of these factors which affect the relative equity provided by each debt relief figure, and this makes the argument between $10,000 and $50,000 more complicated than it may first appear.

There is also the larger moral concern about tackling the cost of post-secondary education in the first place. This includes education cuts, rising tuition in public schools, as well as the growth of private schools which have resulted in a higher average debt burden. While debt relief may be a treatment, it doesn’t address the underlying sickness. Given that more jobs than ever require post-secondary education, and as a result enrollment has also skyrocketed, perhaps we should recognize that access to post-secondary education is a social need, and that the current university system as a whole, created and developed as it was before such need was felt, needs to be rethought.

Zoom, Academic Freedom, and the No Endorsement Principle

photograph of empty auditorium hall

It was bound to be controversial: an American university sponsoring an event featuring Leila Khaled, a leader of the U.S.-designated terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), who participated in two hijackings in the early 1970’s. But San Francisco State University’s September webinar has gained notoriety for something else: it was the first time that the commercial technology company Zoom censored an academic event. It would not be the last.

In November, faculty at the University of Hawaii and New York University organized webinars again featuring Khaled, ironically to protest the censoring of her September event. But Zoom deleted the links to these events as well.

Zoom has said that the webinars violated the company’s terms of service, which prohibit “engaging in or promoting acts on behalf of a terrorist organization or violent extremist groups.” However, it appears that the real explanation for Zoom’s actions is fear of possible legal exposure. Prior to the September event, the Jewish rights group Lawfare Project sent a letter to Zoom claiming that giving a platform to Khaled would violate a U.S. law prohibiting the provision of material support for terrorist groups. San Francisco State gave assurances to Zoom that she was not being compensated for her talk or was in any way representing the PFLP, but a 2009 Supreme Court decision appears to support Lawfare’s broad interpretation of the law. In any case, the Khaled incidents highlight the perils of higher education’s coronavirus-induced dependence upon private companies like Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube.

The response to Zoom’s actions from academia has been unequivocal denunciation on academic freedom grounds. San Francisco State’s president, Lynn Mahoney, released a statement affirming “the right of faculty to conduct their scholarship and teaching free of censorship.” The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to NYU’s president calling on him to make a statement “denouncing this action as a violation of academic freedom.” And John K. Wilson wrote on Academe magazine’s blog that “for those on the left who demand that tech companies censor speech they think are wrong or offensive, this is a chilling reminder that censorship is a dangerous weapon that can be turned against progressives.”

How do Zoom’s actions violate academic freedom? Fritz Machlup wrote that,

“Academic freedom consists in the absence of, or protection from, such restraints or pressures…as are designed to create in minds of academic scholars…fears and anxieties that may inhibit them from freely studying and investigating whatever they are interested in, and from freely discussing, teaching or publishing whatever opinions they have reached.”

On this view, academic freedom is not the same as free speech: instead of being the freedom to say anything you like, it is the freedom to determine what speech is valuable or acceptable to be taught or discussed in an academic context. By shutting down the Khaled events, the argument goes, Zoom violated academic freedom by usurping the role of faculty in determining what content is acceptable or valuable in that context.

While there is surely good reason for Zoom to respect the value of academic freedom, it is also understandable that it would prioritize avoiding legal exposure. As Steven Lubet writes, “as [a] publicly traded compan[y], with fiduciary duties to shareholders, [Zoom was]…playing it safe in a volatile and unprecedented situation.” Businesses will inevitably be little inclined to take to the ramparts to defend academic freedom, particularly as compared to institutions of higher education explicitly committed to that value and held accountable by their faculty for failing to uphold it. The relative reluctance of technology companies to defend academic freedom is one important reason why in-person instruction must remain the standard for higher education, at least post-COVID.

A less remarked upon but equally important principle underlying the objections to Zoom’s actions is that giving speakers an academic platform is not tantamount to endorsing or promoting their views. Call this the “no-endorsement” principle. It is this idea that underwrites the moral and, perhaps, legal justifiability of inviting former terrorists and other controversial figures to speak on campus. It was explicitly denied in a letter signed by over eighty-six Pro-Israel and Jewish organizations protesting SFSU’s September event. The letter rhetorically asks, “what if an invitation to speak to a class—in fact an entire event—is an endorsement of a point of view and a political cause?” As Wilson noted, if that’s true, then freedom of expression on campus will be destroyed: “if every speaker on a college campus is the endorsement of a point of view by the administration, then only positions endorsed by the administration are allowed.”

Quite recently, the philosopher Neil Levy has added some intellectual heft to the denial of the “no-endorsement” principle. Levy writes that “an invitation to speak at a university campus…is evidence that the speaker is credible; that she has an opinion deserving of a respectful hearing.” Levy argues that in some cases, this evidence can be misleading, and that “when we have good reason to think that the position advocated by a potential speaker is wrong, we have an epistemic reason in favor of no-platforming.” Levy makes a good point: inviting a speaker on campus means something — it sends a message that the university views the speaker as worth listening to. But Levy seems to conflate being worth listening to and being credible. Even views that are deeply wrong can be worth listening to for a variety of reasons. For example, they might contain a part of the truth while being mostly wrong; they might be highly relevant because they are espoused by important figures or groups or a large proportion of citizens; and they might be epistemically useful in presenting a compelling if wrongheaded challenge to true views. For these reasons, the class of views that are worth listening to is surely much larger than the class of true views. Thus, it is not necessarily misleading to invite onto campus a speaker whose views one knows to be wrong.

The use of Zoom and similar technology in higher education contexts is unlikely to completely cease following the post-COVID return of some semblance of normalcy. But the Khaled incidents should make us think carefully about using communications technology provided by private companies to deliver education. In addition, the notion that giving a person a platform is not tantamount to endorsing their views must be defended against those who wish to limit academic discourse to those views held to be acceptable by university administrators.

Is Canceling All Student Debt Fair? Yes. Here’s Why.

photograph of college graduation cap laying on top of pile of cash

In a recent interview, president-elect Joe Biden explicitly stated he intends to tackle student debt by proposing some relief to the borrowers. This statement gave progressives renewed hope of achieving one of their most dear and more radical objectives: canceling all student debt. But this possibility has reignited debate with arguments both for and against it.

“It’s Regressive”

Some argue that a reason against canceling student debt is that it’s regressive — meaning, it would disproportionately help the rich. Critics allege that “students from rich families tend to borrow more than students from poor families, since wealthy students disproportionately choose expensive private colleges where even rich families must resort to borrowing.” But this argument is not as clear-cut as it sounds, for three reasons.

It’s Misrepresentative

To start, as others have argued, “information on outstanding debt is based on where borrowers are after they have financed their college education, not where they started out.” In other words, the amount of debt that one takes counts as part of one’s own financial reserves. So of course if one takes on higher loans, then if this figures as part of one’s own wealth, then they will appear as richer. Think about home ownership: when one buys a home, the home counts as part of one’s own financial assets. If the home is worth 1 million dollars, then it will appear that the owner is worth 1 million dollars. This is the case even if the owner has a mortgage (which is debt). So, technically, the owner still does not own the house (if they are paying the mortgage) but the house nevertheless counts as part of their wealth. From this is clear that the regressive argument does not hold up, and is possibly misrepresentative.

It Lacks Context

But even if the regressive argument was on the right track (it is not, but let’s assume that it is), it seems to lack context as these arguments tend to discount the meaning that money (and consequently, debt) has depending on which economic community one belongs to. In this sense, canceling all student debt will undoubtedly benefit low-income communities. Saying that it will benefit the rich more is not a good reason for setting aside the policy, and confuses the current situation. Which leads me to the last point:

It’s Misleading 

There is something to say about the term ‘regressive’. To say that a policy is regressive usually indicates that not only it will give an advantage to people who are well-off but that it will be also punitive towards people that are not well-off. Taxing cigarettes for example is regressive because it primarily targets, and disadvantages, low-income communities which are the ones, as it has been pointed out, that tend to smoke the most. But canceling student loans would not hurt low-income communities, if anything, it will benefit them. So saying that the initiative is regressive is misleading.

“It Won’t Help the Economy Recover”

One reason to erase all student debt, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has pointed out, is that it will stimulate the economy. However, some have suggested that canceling student debt will not necessarily yield that desired result. The reason why is that “forgiving student loans spreads stimulus out over time instead of pushing it all out at once because it eliminates a monthly payment. A borrower who owes $200 a month would get the same amount of relief this month, in the middle of an economic downturn, as they would when the crisis is over.” I take it that the rationale behind this claim is that it would be better to receive a substantive stimulus once, rather than receiving a smaller debt forgiveness spread over time. While the former will make a difference in people’s lives in terms of whether they spend it, a small debt forgiveness will not necessarily do that. If we are concerned about long-term solutions this argument seems right: better more money now then less money over time. But it is not clear that student debt forgiveness will yield less money. For example, a stimulus, let’s say $1200, received once will be outweighed by a smaller debt forgiveness that spreads out over years as it will eventually amount to more money.    

Personal Responsibility vs Structural Causes

Many of these claims are motivated by a misunderstanding as arguments against canceling student debt seem to hinge on the sharp contrast drawn between personal responsibility and structural causes. As others have rightly pointed out, those in favor of canceling student debt often attribute the crisis to “societal factors”, while those who side against erasing student debt often cite reasons that pertain to personal responsibility. The latter argument tends to emphasize that if one chooses to go to college and to take a loan, then it is one’s responsibility to pay off such a loan. Yet, this claim does not take into consideration that even granting that one does choose to go to college, societal factors – which go beyond individuals’ control – have dangerously evolved in ways that have shaped the student debt crisis. Among these factors are disproportionate tuition fees that do not reflect inflation, instead rising at twice the rate. This fact alone counts against the personal responsibility argument, as individuals themselves can hardly bend the inflation rate to their needs, but college cost is not the only thing that got more expensive. Healthcare premiums as well as housing costs rose, and that adds to the societal causes that have contributed to making student debt a crisis.

Finally, it’s also worth reflecting on how the opportunities that college education provides have evolved. In a society where more and more jobs require college education for jobs that did not before, it’s fair to question how “free” the choice to attend college is given that the lack of a degree rules out so many more opportunities than it did in the past.

“Don’t Get Loans You Cannot Repay”

But even if one is somewhat obliged to go to college in order to have the degree needed to do the job, another argument goes, then it is one’s own personal responsibility not to take loans one knows it will struggle to repay. Yet this line of reasoning, much like the one on personal responsibility above, discounts the role that predatory lending practices have played in shaping current circumstances. Those who take on student loans do not have access to the same escapes that those who are in debt usually have. One example is that, contrary to debt incurred due to medical bills for instance, the rules for easing student debt are considerably more restrictive. For example, in order to declare bankruptcy to ease student debt, borrowers are required to prove that repaying the debt poses an “undue struggle” on them and their dependents. If that was not bad enough, some loan providers exert predatory schemes that put students in particularly precarious financial positions. In 2017, for example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused loan provider Navient of giving out subprime loans to borrowers that in some instances the company predicted to have “as high as 92%” chance of defaulting. One cannot blame the students for not being vigilant enough to fall into the traps of predatory lending as this would be akin to victim-blaming. The students, even if not vigilant, do not commit any unlawful activity in taking on debts that they cannot sustain. Predatory lenders instead do. Thus, the attention should not be on the borrowed, but rather on the company themselves that should be held accountable for their irresponsible conduct.

Why Now?

But even admitting that student debt can and should be canceled, why should it be our priority now? As Carson Lappetito, president of Sunwest Bank, has claimed, our efforts should be targeting “the restaurants, hotels, front-line workers that are being most heavily impacted” by the pandemic. But canceling student debt of course does not imply that one should not help those communities that have been severely disadvantaged by pandemic; it simply means that, if anything, one should focus on both: impacted hotels, restaurants, front-line workers, and those whose lives continue to be upended by debt. The implication should be that by giving to one we are not taking from others.

One reason for easing student debt now is that there is a president-elect who is open to the possibility, and could do so simply through executive order. Even though some have pointed out that easing student debt through an executive order might not be ideal policy because it would “would invite a deluge of lawsuits,” the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School carefully examined the issue and defended its legality, concluding that the “broad or categorical debt cancellation would be a lawful and permissible exercise of the Secretary’s authority under existing law.”

Canceling all student debt is an idea that is not new, nor it is the first time being debated. There are many arguments that speak in favor of it, and those against canceling all student debt are not, on reflection, as solid as they may seem. From a moral standpoint, as Roxane Gay as argued, “[a]s a public, we owe a debt to one another — the debt of belonging to a community. It’s time that debt was paid.”

The Morality of the Arts vs. Science Distinction

image of child architect with hard hat standing in front of sketch of city skyline

If one pursues post-secondary education, is it better to study the arts or focus on the sciences? Given the career opportunities and prestige, it has become a common source of mockery that someone would choose to pursue the arts rather than the sciences. But what makes the arts different from the sciences? Do how and why we make such distinctions have ethical ramifications?

What is the difference between the liberal arts and the sciences? The concept of “the arts” stretches back to antiquity where ‘art’ designated a human skill. These skills were used to make things that are artificial (human made), an artifact. Later, the concept of the liberal arts was used to designate the kind of education required for a free citizen (the term “liberal” designating freedom rather than a political ideology) to take part in civil life. Today, the arts may refer to fine arts (like painting or music) as well as liberal arts such as various humanities (philosophy, history, literature, linguistics, etc.) and social sciences (like sociology, economics, or political science). These are now held in contrast to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

The distinction made between the arts and the sciences takes on a moral character when the conversion drifts towards what kinds of education we think is important for meeting the needs of modern society. The distinction goes beyond merely what governments or universities claim the difference is, for is also a distinction that is made by potential students, parents, taxpayers, employers, and society at large. How does society make that distinction? A quick internet search for the relevant distinctions suggests a tendency to emphasize the objective nature of science and the subjective nature of the arts. Science is about finding truth about the world, whereas the arts focus on finding subjective representations according to cultural and historical influences. The sciences are technical, precise, and quantitative. The arts are qualitative, vague, and focus less on right or wrong answers, and thus are thought to lack the rigor of the sciences.

These kinds of sharp distinctions reinforce the idea that liberal arts are not really worth pursuing, that higher education should be about gaining the skills needed for the workforce and securing high-paying jobs. To add to this, the distinction has been a flashpoint of an ongoing culture war as the large number of liberal arts memes and critical comments on the internet will testify to. The result has been severe cuts in liberal arts education, the elimination of staff and services, and even the elimination of majors. To some this may be progress. If the liberal arts and humanities are subjective, if there is little objective truth to be discovered, then they may not be worth saving.

Justin Stover of the University of Edinburgh, for example, believes that there is no case to be made for the humanities. While defenders of the humanities may argue that they are means of improving and expressing our ideas, that they provide skills that are relevant and transferable to other fields and pursuits, or that they are a search for values, Stover believes that these benefits are hollow. He points out that study in the humanities isn’t necessary for actual artistic expression. While studies in obscure languages or cultures may foster useful skills for careers outside of the academy, these are mere by-products of study and not something that makes a strong case for their study.

In addressing the matter of value, Stover notes,

“’values’ is a hard thing to put in a long diachronic frame because it is not clear that there is any analogous notion in any culture besides our own. Values can hardly be a necessary component of the humanities — much less the central core — if there was no notion of them for most of the humanities’ history […] values might have a lot to do with Golden Age Spanish literature; but what have they to do with historical linguistics?”

Stover suggests alternatively that studies in the humanities fulfills a social function by creating a prestigious class of people who share certain tastes and manners of judgment but that ultimately there is no non question-begging justification for the humanities. He notes, “The humanities do not need to make a case within the university because the humanities are the heart of the university.” One cannot justify the importance of the humanities from outside of the perspective of the humanities.

The moral concern on this issue is less about the morality of defending a liberal arts education compared to a science education, but rather about how we are making the distinction itself. Are we talking about methods? Disciplinary norms? The texts? The teaching? Stover’s argument relies on understanding the humanities as an essentially different thing from the sciences. But are there actually good reasons to make these distinctions? Anyone who has studied logic, linguistics, or economics knows how technical those fields can be. By the same token, several studies of the sciences reveal the importance that aesthetic taste can have not only on individual scientists, but on whole scientific communities. The response of scientific communities to the COVID-19 pandemic — disagreements about treatment protocols, publication concerns about observations of the disease, and so on — reveals that the notion that science is a purely objective affair while the arts are purely more subjective is more of a slogan than a reality.

Values are not a mere “notion” of university professors and academics. While Stover doesn’t clarify what he means by values, I would suggest that values are at the heart of the liberal arts and humanities — a ‘value’ at its core simply denotes what people take to be important and worth pursuing. My morning coffee is important to me, I pursue it, I prize it, it has value. The humanities have always been a matter of addressing the issues that humans consider important. So, the answer to the question of what do values have to do with historical linguistics is “a lot.” Languages change over time to reflect the problems, interests, and desires that humans have; linguistic change is a reflection of what is important, what is valued by a society and why.

But if this is the case, then science and the many STEM fields are not immune from this either. What we choose to focus on in science, technology, and engineering reveals what we care about, what we value (knowledge of climate change, for example, has changed how we value the environment). The notion that the humanities can only aspire to the subjective with only secondary benefits in other areas is a moral failure in thinking. Science is not isolated from society, nor should it be. By the same token, a method and style that focuses on empirical verification and experimentation over subjective elements can improve what the humanities can produce and help us focus on what is important.

In addressing the cross section of human interest and scientific method, philosopher John Dewey notes,

“Science through its physical technological consequences is now determining the relations which human beings, severally and in groups, sustain to one another. If it is incapable of developing moral techniques which will also determine these relations, the split in modern culture goes so deep that not only democracy but all civilized values are doomed.”

The distinction between the arts and the sciences is not essential or absolute, but one of our own creation that reflects our own limited thinking. Any art, just like science, can aspire towards critical, experimental, objectivity of some degree just like any scientific and engineering pursuit should be understood in terms of its role in the larger human project. The more we try to separate them, the more detrimental it will be to both. The problem regarding whether there is a case to be made for the arts disappears once we drop the notion that there is complete separation — the more important and interesting moral problem becomes how we might best improve our methods of inquiry that are vital for both.

Against Abstinence-Based COVID-19 Policies

black-and-white photograph of group of students studying outside

There are at least two things that are true about abstinence from sexual activity:

  1. If one wishes to avoid pregnancy and STD-transmission, abstinence is the most effective choice, and
  2. Abstinence is insufficient as a policy category if policy-makers wish to effectively promote pregnancy-avoidance and to prevent STD-transmission within a population.

I take it that (1) is straightforward: if someone wishes to avoid the risks of an activity (including sex), then abstention from that activity is the best way to do so. By (2), I simply mean that prescribing abstinence from sexual activity (and championing its effectiveness) is often not enough to convince people to actually choose to avoid sex. For example, the data on the relative effectiveness of various sex-education programs is consistent and clear: those programs that prioritize (primarily or exclusively) abstinence-only lessons about sex are regularly the least effective programs for actually reducing teen pregnancies and the like. Instead, pragmatic approaches to sex education that comprehensively discuss abstinence alongside topics like contraceptive-use are demonstrably more effective at limiting many of the most negative potential outcomes of sexual activity. Of course, some might argue in response that, even if they are less effective, abstinence-only programs are nevertheless preferable on moral grounds, given that they emphasize moral decision-making for their students.

It is an open question whether or not policy-makers should try to impose their own moral beliefs onto the people affected by their policies, just as it is debatable that good policy-making could somehow produce good people, but the importance of policy making based on evidence is inarguable. And the evidence strongly suggests that abstinence-based sex education does not accomplish the goals typically laid out by sex education programs. Regarding such courses, Laura Lindberg — co-author of a 2017 report in the Journal of Adolescent Health on the impact of “Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage” (AOUM) sex ed programs in the US — argues that such an approach is “not just unrealistic…[but]…violates medical ethics and harms young people.”

In this article, I’m interested less in questions of sex education than I am in questions of responsibility for the outcomes of ineffective public policies. I think it’s uncontroversial to say that, in many cases of pregnancy, the people most responsible for creating a pregnancy (that results from sexual activity) are the sexual partners themselves. However, it also seems right to think that authority figures who knowingly enact policies that are severely unlikely to effectively prevent some undesirable outcome carry at least some responsibility for that resulting outcome (if it’s true that the outcome would have probably been prevented if the officials had implemented a different policy). I take it that this concern is ultimately what fuels both Lindberg’s criticism of AOUM programs and the widespread support for comprehensive sex-education methods.

Consider now the contemporary situation facing colleges and universities in the United States: despite the persistent spread of the coronavirus pandemic over the previous several months, many institutions of higher education have elected to resume face-to-face instruction in at least some capacity this fall. Across the country, university administrators have developed intricate policies to ensure the safety and security of their campus communities that could, in theory, prevent a need to eventually shift entirely to remote instructional methods. From mask mandates to on-campus testing and temperature checks to limited class sizes to hybrid course delivery models and more, colleges have demonstrated no shortage of creativity in crafting policies to preserve some semblance of normalcy this semester.

But these policies are failing — and we should not be surprised that this is so.

After only a week or two of courses resuming, many campuses (and the communities surrounding them) are already seeing spikes of COVID-19 cases and several universities have already been forced to alter their previous operating plans in response. After one week of classes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill abruptly decided to shift to fully-remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, a decision mirrored by Michigan State University, and (at least temporarily, as of this writing) Notre Dame and Temple University. Others like the University of Iowa, the University of South Carolina, and the Ohio State University have simply pushed ahead with their initial plans, regardless of the rise in positive cases, but the feasible longevity of such an option is bleak. Indeed, as the semester continues to progress, it seems clear that many more colleges will be disrupted by a mid-semester shift, regardless of the policies that they had previously developed to prevent one.

This is, of course, unsurprising, given the realities of life on a college campus. Dormitories, dining halls, and Greek life houses are designed to encourage social gatherings and interactions of precisely the sort that coronavirus-prevention recommendations forbid. Furthermore, the expectations of many college students (fueled explicitly by official university marketing techniques) is that such social functions are a key element of the “college experience.” (And, of course, this is aggravated all the more by the general fearlessness commonly evidenced by 18-25 year-olds that provoke them into generally more risky behavior than other age groups.) Regardless of how many signs are put up in classrooms reminding people to wear masks and no matter the number of patronizing emails sent to chastise students (or local businesses) into “acting responsibly,” it is, at best, naive of university administrators to expect their student bodies to suddenly enter a pandemic-preventing mindset (at least at the compliance rates that would be necessary to actually protect the community as a whole).

Basically, on the whole, colleges have pursued COVID-19-prevention policies based on the irrational hope that their students would exercise precisely the sort of abstinence that college administrators know better than to expect (and, for years leading up to this spring, actively discouraged). As with abstinence-based sex education, two things are true here also:

  1. If one wishes to avoid spreading the coronavirus, constantly wearing masks, washing hands, and avoiding social gathering are crucial behavioral choices, and
  2. Recommending (and even requiring upon pain of punishment) the behaviors described in (1) is insufficient as a policy category if university administrators wish to effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus on their campuses.

We are already seeing the unfortunate truth of (2) grow more salient by the day.

And, as with sex education, on one level we can rightfully blame college students (and their choices to attend parties or to not wear masks) for these outbreaks on college campuses. But the administrators and other officials who insisted on opening those campuses in the first place cannot sensibly avoid responsibility for those choices or their consequences either. Just as with abstinence-only sex education programs, it seems right to hold officials responsible for policies whose implementation is wildly unlikely, no matter how effective those fanciful policies might be if people were to just follow the rules.

This seems especially true in this case given the (in one sense) higher stakes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the coronavirus is transmitted far more quickly and easily than STDs or pregnancies, it is even more crucial to create prevention strategies that are more likely to be successful; in a related way, it also makes tracking responsibility for the spread of the virus far more complicated. At least with a pregnancy, one can point to the people who chose to have sex as shouldering much of the responsibilty for the pregnancy itself; with COVID-19, a particular college student could follow every university policy perfectly and, nevertheless, contract the virus by simply coming into contact with a classmate who has not. In such a case, it seems like the responsible student can rightfully blame both her irresponsible classmate and the institution which created the conditions of her exposure by insisting that their campus open for business while knowingly opting for unrealistic policies.

Put differently: imagine how different sex education might look like if you could “catch” a pregnancy literally just by walking too close to other people. In such a world, simply preaching “abstinence!” would be even less defensible than it already is; nevertheless, that approach is not far from the current state of many COVID-19-prevention policies on college campuses. The only thing this kind of rhetoric ultimately protects is the institution’s legal liability (and even that is up for debate).

In early July, the University of Southern California announced that it would offer no in-person classes for its fall semester, electing instead for entirely remote course-delivery options. At the time, some responded to this announcement with ridicule, suggesting that it was a costly overreaction. Nevertheless, USC’s choice to ensure that its students, staff, and faculty be protected by barriers of distance has meant not only that its semester has been able to proceed as planned, but that the university has not been linked to the same level of case spikes as other institutions (though, even with such a move, outbreaks are bubbling).

As with so much about the novel coronavirus, it remains to be seen what the full extent of its spread will look like. But one thing is clear already: treating irresponsible college students as scapegoats for poorly-conceived policies that justified the risky move of opening (or mostly-opening) campuses is transparently wrong. It oversimplifies the complicated relationship of policy-makers and constituents, even as it misrepresents the nature of moral responsibility for public action, particularly on the part of those in charge. The adults choosing to attend college parties are indeed to blame for doing so, but those parties wouldn’t be happening at all if other adults had made different choices about what this semester was going to look like in the first place.

In short, if college administrators really expect abstinence to be an effective tool to combat COVID-19, then they should be the ones to use it by canceling events, closing campuses, and wrapping up this semester (and, potentially, the next) online.

ICE Ruling and Universities’ Autonomy

photograph of Princeton University's campus

Educational groups across the country are releasing statements that denounce the ICE policy requiring international students to leave the US if their classes are fully online. These statements focus on the cruelty of it, the complexity and lack of clarity, and even the economic devastation.

Harvard and MIT are suing to block the rule claiming that it violates the Administrative Procedures Act which requires administrative agencies like ICE to offer a reasonable basis justifying the policy and give public notice to provide opportunity to comment on it.

But beyond these complaints there is another deeply pernicious aspect to this ruling. ICE’s policy represents a significant encroachment on universities’ autonomy to determine how best to educate their students. The federal government has made two false assumptions about education that no college likely accepts:

  1. Education at colleges only happens in the classroom
  2. When courses happen online, the students can be anywhere in the world and still get an education that is as effective.

Both of these are false. There is all sorts of learning that happens on a college campus outside of class time that might still happen face-to-face even when instruction takes place online. For example, professors might meet one-on-one outdoors with students and they might even prioritize meeting with international students who could face cultural or linguistic barriers. I, for instance, tend to hold extra office hours for students who might need extra assistance or guidance with respect to their coursework, and my international students are often the students who take me up on that.

Even if a student takes their classes online, there will likely be a wide-range of face-to-face activities that provide opportunity to meet an institution’s educational goals. Co-curricular activities could happen in socially-distanced settings. Students might be organized into smaller bubbles that could meet face-to-face for the purposes of study or group projects. Students might also join student clubs and organizations where genuine learning happens in safe, manageable settings.

Another part of the educational experience that ICE ignores is the value of studying in another country/cultural setting. Most liberal arts colleges boast on how big their study abroad programs are. Last year, DePauw ranked 4th among four-year baccalaureate institutions for affording its students the opportunity to study abroad. Why is this boastworthy? Because it is widely agreed that there is significant educational value in academic experiences in other environments (and that this value goes beyond what you learn in the classroom). That’s what international students come here for. A 21st-century liberal arts education basically requires that students learn about other countries and cultures, and international students see significant value in learning more about America and participating in that culture. Even without face-to-face instruction, students can still realize many of their educational goals by residing in America when they take their classes online.

The ICE decision is an affront to the autonomy and rights of educational institutions to determine what their learning goals are and what the best methods are at their disposal to deliver on their promise to help students achieve them. We should be appalled by the cruelty and harm of this ruling for international students. We should also be appalled at this assault on the freedom of institutions of higher education. ICE has no business deciding what constitutes genuine learning. That is a decision that should be left up to the institutions of learning.

Universities and the Burdens of Risk

photograph of exterior of classroom building at Harvard

To bring students back to the university is to knowingly expose them to risk of a dangerous disease when such exposure is avoidable. This is morally objectionable on a variety of fronts. The risk of contracting COVID-19 and the seriousness of its potential health outcomes make it very different from the realities we typically accept by engaging in other everyday activities. It is clear that COVID-19 poses a higher risk of death than other coronaviruses. A variety of underlying conditions can lead to deadly outcomes, and we do not have a comprehensive understanding of the conditions that may lead to the virus’ lethality. Even when the virus does not cause death, the respiratory impact of contracting it has put a significant burden on patient’s long term health, and can lead to the need for hospitalization and incubation for breathing support. The long-term effects of the illness even for those lucky enough to avoid these outcomes are still unknown, but appear to persist past initial recovery and seem to include lung damage and potential stroke and brain complications.

One of the most concerning things, given these serious outcomes of the virus, is how contagious it is. Because of this, there have been efforts to distance members of societies affected by the virus across the globe (with the US notoriously falling behind).

Despite the serious issues involved in contracting the virus, in order to keep society safe and healthy, multiple segments of society need to continue to interact with one another and the public. There are, of course risks for pharmacists, doctors, grocery store workers, and the essential workers that produce and distribute the necessary products that keep a society running.

When there are necessary risks, there is a responsibility of a society to support those people that are exposing themselves to these risks on the behalf of the members of society that require their services to continue in health and safety. When someone takes on a burden in order to keep you safe and healthy, we typically think either a moral obligation is formed, or, more minimally, it would be appropriate to be grateful, or, in compromise, to be obligated not to put people in a scenario where they must accrue further risks in order to maintain your safety.

We can consider non-pandemic scenarios that support these intuitions. An extreme case would if you chose to sky-dive (knowingly taking on a risk) with a tandem guide. The partner is jumping with you, exposing themselves to risk to keep you safe. As a beginner, you rely on the tandem partner for your safety. It would be morally wrong of you to act so as to put the tandem partner at further risk.

In circumstances where others are placing themselves at risk for your benefit and you knowing accept that relationship, it is wrong to exacerbate that exchange of burdens (their risk) and benefits (the service they are offering at their sacrifice).

This minimization of risk exposure supports the narrowing of operations and functioning of businesses activities in our society until we can mitigate the risk to one another that gathering together would pose. By opening your doors for business, you are posing a risk to your employees, and by frequenting the business, you are posing a risk to the fellow patrons and employees of the business. With risks like those associated with COVID-19, this threat is significant enough that such behavior, when it is avoidable and unnecessary, is morally problematic.

When a group of people comes together for activities like taking a cruise, or attending a university, the moral assessment of risk is different than for these essential operations. Universities expose students, faculty, and staff to a high risk of contracting the disease because, like cruise ships, the amount of personnel required to keep food, board, courses, and administration functioning is immense and it all occurs in relatively small areas, every day. These are specialized activities that are voluntary, and so they significantly differ from the necessary operations that provide food and services to a society to keep people safe and healthy.

Universities have acknowledged the liability issues in the Fall, perhaps most obviously by seeking legal shields or waivers from students returning to campus. However, at the end of May, according to a survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, over 2/3 of universities planned to bring students back to campus for the upcoming term. This strategy attempts to redirect the institutional burdens of risk assessment and decision-making back onto individuals.

This parallels the situation where individual businesses are placed when there is a lack of governmental or higher legislation regarding managing risk. Without a policy dictating when it is permissible to have non-essential services enter back into the risk-exchange of societal functioning, individual businesses are left to weigh the risk of their employees, their impact on societal spread, etc. Government oversight makes the decision on the basis of overall risk that society faces, which is the level at which the risk of disease exists. When individuals need to determine what risks they are willing to bear against other priorities, their choices become coercive – the cost of businesses closing due to lack of government assistance, the pressure to open when other businesses are doing so and thereby losing competition in the market, etc. By changing the systemic problem of the risk to society into individual problems of how to navigate that risk based on individual priorities, privileges, and disadvantages, we face structural injustice.

Universities face this very problem in determining the just distribution of systemic risk. Should they pursue universal policies to protect everyone regardless of privileges, priorities, or disadvantages, or should they leave individuals to navigate these decisions themselves. Giving individuals the opportunity to choose a remote-learning track does not mitigate the moral burden of universities offering face-to-face (on-campus) learning. In offering this choice, universities have simply transformed an institutional obstacle into a problem for individuals to navigate on their own. But this choice offered individuals cannot be read as an assumption of risk; these choices are not commensurable. University systems were designed for those able and willing to opt for on-campus, f2f learning, signaled by the university to be optimal.

The instructors that have opted for f2f learning have created a difference in course delivery that puts a burden on students who would ideally choose not to return to campus in their selection of courses. The disparity in support services that are optimally delivered while on-campus would also create distance between those students who return and those that cannot or would choose to avoid the risk of returning to campuses that admit the risk to which they are exposing all present.

A statement from the American Anthropological Association emphasized how the default f2f policies undermined the equitable access to education that would result for minority and underserved populations:

“Given the disproportionate representation of COVID-19 infection and death in Black and brown communities, university policies and practices that emphasize in-person work and teaching run the risk of compounding the impact of racial inequity. These policies also risk endangering already-marginalized members of university communities, including staff and contingent faculty, who are less likely to have the option to take time away from work. As a matter of equity and ethics, while we acknowledge the financial challenges colleges and universities face because of the pandemic, we encourage university administrators to keep the health and safety of marginalized people at the forefront of their decisions.”

Finally, there is the question of liability on the part of universities for allowing students back on their campuses. As noted above, some universities are seeking “liability shields” for the health risks facing their students, staff, and instructors this Fall. Despite taking precautions against the contagious virus, there are no foolproof measures that can be taken against contracting this illness, especially at a campus with students living, eating, and studying in such close proximity. It is difficult to imagine such a group acting in ways outside of the classroom that would significantly reduce the spread of the virus when research has shown that, among the young, this disease has not been taken very seriously since its very onset.

But these failings do not absolve the universities of liability for what happens on their campus. What students do in their lives has a different legal status than what they do in sanctioned activities and conditions condoned by an institution. Further, by acknowledging the likelihood of risky behavior on the part of students, a university also acknowledges that it is putting staff and instructors at greater risk than if they did not return to campus.

There is a legal and moral responsibility to provide a working environment that is safe to employees. The risk of contracting this virus is significant, due to its rate of contagion and health outcomes. With this risk of contracting a serious illness, and the coercive environment created by the justice issues raised above, universities do not satisfy this condition of safe work environments by having students, staff, and instructors return to campus. At a time when we have a moral obligation to behave in ways to mitigate the spread of the virus, or at the very least not exacerbate its spread, 2/3 of universities are taking steps to actively put students, staff, and instructors in positions that make them more vulnerable to contracting and spreading this illness.

The Value of Socialization in College

photograph of college students in class

What initiatives enacted as an emergency response to the pandemic will be permanent and become the new norm? Among the many possible legacies is a change in the perceived value of traditional college learning. Colleges and universities whose campuses are now closed will have a responsibility to execute the transition to distance learning effectively so that they can ensure there is not a substantial dip in the quality of education. But by doing so, will they inadvertently degrade the value of in-person learning?

If these colleges fail to execute the transition online well–and some teachers from the even most prestigious schools are ill-equipped for distance learningthey may reveal the value of face-to-face learning. They may show what is lost when students and professors are not interacting together in a classroom and on a campus. But if the colleges do execute the transition well, they reveal that the value of face-to-face learning may be overrated. Some college students have begun asking themselves, if what is accomplished in the classroom can be accomplished online, why incur high tuition and housing costs to go to school?

A 2015 survey found that nearly half of online college students cited affordability as the reason for enrolling in their program. A surprising 78% of respondents indicated that the academic quality of their online learning experiences were comparable to or better than their classroom experiences. Suppose that the quality of education is comparableeven though there are innumerable benefits to in-person learning, what then can traditional colleges offer that learning from one’s laptop cannot?

Colleges are currently struggling to answer that question. Beyond the growing challenge of the online alternative, many “brick and mortar” institutions were already facing severe financial concerns before the pandemic caused them to close their campuses. An analysis by Forbes last Fall found that the financial well-being of private not-for-profit colleges “has deteriorated and many are in danger of closing or merging.” The pandemic and the resulting transition to distance learning has only made the threat more pronounced and immediate, and less dismissable and abstract.

The transition is a threat to the existence of small liberal arts colleges in particular. “Schools are facing unexpected costs as they try to switch their entire classroom instruction apparatus to online-only,” David Jesse reports in USA Today. “That’s a particular challenge for small liberal arts colleges, whose calling cards are face-to-face relationships between faculty and students.”

To stay afloat, institutions without the luxury of deep pockets and long-standing reputations may need to stress the value of the social component of going to school and living on a campus, i.e. experiences that cannot be had through online learning. Indeed, the challenge for residential and liberal arts colleges will be to quantify the rather intangible and ineffable value of socialization in education.

K-12 education is a primary vehicle of socialization. According to the Department of Education, children in the U.S. spend approximately seven hours a day, 180 days a year in the classroom. There students learn socially-desirable behaviors such as teamwork, following schedules, and engaging with others in a respectful manner. They learn how to participate in society.

The same could be said of the college experience, which typically occurs at a formative time in a student’s life. Young people go to college, where they live in a community of similarly-aged individuals and participate in Greek life, sports, student government, and many other social groups. Some extra- and co-curricular activities, such as Ethics Bowl, provide intellectual stimulation alongside opportunities to socialize.

In the unique setting of a college campus, students are exposed to, live with, and befriend people from different regions, with different customs and worldviews. Ideally, this experience teaches them how to interact with other members of society after graduation. Former Ivy League professor Louis Menand argues that college “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.” In short, it transforms these very different individuals into a unique class.

Going to college also thrusts most students into a new world of independence, characterized by a constant flurry of adult decisions and responsibilities. For the first time in many of their lives, students must set their own schedules, manage their own finances, and learn how to navigate relationships without the comfort of being under their parents’ roof. They are given a test run of their adult life. As Anne Rondeau, president of College of DuPage, writes, “students are in an environment that challenges them to make important decisions every day.” And those decisions and challenges are not confined solely to their academic pursuits.

Residential and liberal arts colleges are as much an academic experience as they are a social one. While the process of socialization could be achieved elsewherein one’s job or active participation in one’s communityit certainly could not occur via distance learning. The nature of distance learning hampers the students’ ability to socialize, limiting everything from spontaneous, casual conversation with professors to opportunities to forge lasting relationships with other students. And in order to succeed, those struggling traditional institutions may need to highlight just that. They need to be equipped to answer the questions that many prospective students and their parents are asking right now: What is the value of your institution’s social experience? And is it worth the cost you are asking?

If those institutions fail to effectively convince families of the value of their social experience and justify the tuition and housing cost, their end may be near. Without residential colleges, prospective students lose one of the most important and successful means of learning how to be members of society.  Of course, that assumes those students will still feel comfortable sharing close spaces on a campus after months of social distancing.

University Divestment from Fossil Fuels

photograph of campus building at McGill University

This month, tenured McGill University Philosophy professor Gregory Mikkelson resigned from his position. Mikkelson explained that he could no longer work for an institution that professes a commitment to a reduction to its carbon footprint, all the while continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Mikkelson argued further that the university board’s continued refusal to divest from fossil fuels is in opposition to the democratic mandate in favor of divestment that has developed across the campus.

Mikkelson’s actions make a powerful statement in a general academic climate in which divestment from fossil fuels has strong support among faculty and students. Some universities have taken action in response. In September 2019, the University of California system announced that they would be cutting fossil fuels from their over $80 billion dollar investment portfolio, citing financial risk as a major motivating factor. The University of California system is the largest educational system in the country, so this move sets an important precedent for other universities under pressure to do the same thing.

Many prominent schools across the country are resisting pressure to divest. On January 3rd, students of Harvard and Yale Universities staged a protest of their respective universities’ continued support for the fossil fuel industry by storming the field of the annual football game between Harvard and Yale, delaying the game by almost an hour. This is only one such protest; there have been many others over a span of almost a decade. Students, faculty members, and staff have occupied the offices of administrators, held sit-ins, and conducted rallies.

Those who wish to defend continued investment in the fossil fuel industry make the argument that universities have a fiduciary obligation to students, faculty, and staff. As a result, they need to maintain the most promising investment portfolio possible. They need financial security in order to continue to provide a thriving learning environment. This involves investing in the market that actually exists rather than an idealized market that doesn’t. A portfolio that includes diversified investments in sustainable renewable sources of energy would be ideal, but many think that the current political climate provides little evidence that this approach would be a wise investment strategy. President Trump can be relied upon to thwart the advance of renewable energy at every turn. At this point, it is unclear how many more years universities will need to make investment decisions that take into account the political realities of living under this administration. Those who make this argument contend that the primary obligation of a university—first and foremost—is to provide education to students. Universities can fulfill this obligation if and only if they are financially secure.

Relatedly, some argue that, in keeping with universities’ general fiduciary responsibilities, institutions should avoid making investment decisions that are overly political. Investments that look like political statements could deter future donors, which would limit the potential services the university could provide. In response to this argument, critics are quick to point out that continued investment in fossil fuels is a political statement. Crucially, it is a political statement with which the heart and soul of the university—faculty, staff, and students—tend to strenuously disagree.

Those who want to defend continued investment in the fossil fuel industry argue further that investors are in a better position to change the behavior of fossil fuel companies because they have voting powers on crucial issues. Shareholders are in a position to vote directors and even entire boards out of their jobs if they do not acknowledge and take meaningful action on climate change. Shareholders are in a position to force transparency when it comes to publishing substantive emissions data. When fossil fuel industries are forced to acknowledge the threat that they pose, they may lead the transition to renewables from within.

Many critics are dubious about the authenticity of this proposal. Even if we take it at face value, we don’t have much reason to believe that this approach is motivating the fossil fuel industry at anything approaching the rate we would need to see in order to achieve the necessary change in the right timeframe. To ward off, or, at the very least, minimize, the threat posed by climate change, we need to take significant meaningful action now, rather than waiting the indeterminate amount of time it might take for the fossil fuel industry to make internal changes that seem to be decidedly against their own interests.

Many disagree with the claim that continued investment in fossil fuels provides a university with financial security. In fact, the entire University of California system disagrees. The reasons the UC system offered for their decision to divest were financial rather than ethical. Their argument is that abandoning investment in fossil fuels now in favor of developing a portfolio of sustainable renewable resources cuts their losses later and is consistent with the inevitable green path forward. It simply isn’t possible to continue in the direction we’re headed. We will inevitably change course.

When academic institutions refuse to divest, faculty and students are put in an uncomfortable position—it is difficult for a person who is concerned about climate change to continue in their role at such an institution while avoiding the charge of personal hypocrisy. Students work hard to earn their spots at universities, and they pay dearly for them. The academic job market is notoriously competitive, and professor positions are extremely hard to come by. Many find Mikkelson’s actions admirable, but recognize that they are not in a position to follow in his footsteps.

Divestment sends a powerful message—institutions of higher education will no longer provide financial support to industries that contribute to climate change. The very nature and mission of universities cast such institutions in pivotal roles to usher in a new, healthier, greener future. Far from shying away from this role, universities should embrace it as a natural fit—after all, they ideally prepare young citizens to design, and thrive in, a promising future. Mikkelson recognized that refusal on the part of higher education to divest from fossil fuels is hypocrisy on the part of the university itself—it is antithetical to the goals of excellence in innovation, empathy and compassion toward our fellow living beings and respect for the ecosystems in which we live, as well as clear, rigorous critical thinking that includes the ability to give appropriate weight to supporting evidence.

What’s more, fossil fuel companies have intentionally obfuscated the facts when it comes to the harms posed by climate change. This practice of putting significant roadblocks in the pathway to knowledge about critical issues is not consistent with the pursuit of knowledge that characterizes a college or university. If an academic institution is to act with integrity, it should not continue to support campaigns of misinformation, especially when the stakes are so high.

Freedom of Speech and Sexist Tweets

photograph of Indiana University campus

On November 7th, 2019, Indiana University Bloomington economics professor Eric Rasmusen tweeted a link to an article titled, “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.” In his tweet, Rasmusen pulled out one quote in particular as worthy of special emphasis, “geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.” Among other things, the article claims that 1) the inclusion of women as students in universities has led to the deterioration of rigor in those institutions because emotion has replaced the cold, unemotional evaluation of facts and arguments, 2) women are highly prone to “Neuroticism,” precluding them from logical thought, 3) the presence of women in academia reduces the production of the “genius type,” a type which is overwhelmingly male, and 4) female academics are too high in agreeableness but low in I.Q. to adequately nurture the mind of the male genius. Thus, the article claims, the inclusion of females in academia both as students and as professors, is harmful to male education and has a chilling effect on the number of geniuses produced by universities.

This isn’t the first time that this professor has made headlines for his tweets. In 2003, Rasmusen came under fire for his comments on the fitness of male homosexuals to serve as teachers. In a response to this ongoing controversy, he re-affirms that position,

“I am on record as saying that homosexuals should not teach grade and high school. I don’t think they should be Catholic priests or Boy Scout leaders either. Back in that kerfuffle when I was widely attacked for saying that, I was careful to say that academia was different. Professors prey on students too, so there is a danger, but the students are older and better able to protect themselves, and there is more reason to accept the risk of a brilliant but immoral teacher.”

In response to the most recent tweet, people immediately began to call on the university to terminate Rasmusen’s employment. Lauren Robel, Executive Vice President and Provost of Indiana University Bloomington issued a statement condemning Rasmusen’s actions as “stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.” She also makes it perfectly clear that the university cannot fire Rasmusen for his comments because the First Amendment protects them.

The university did take some corrective action in response to Rasmusen’s behavior. In her statement, Robel provided the details of the steps the university is taking. First, no class offered by Rasmusen will be mandatory. In this way, students can avoid taking classes from him entirely. Second, grading of students in Rasmusen’s classes will be blind to avoid the bias that might be present. This means that assignments will be set up in such a way that Rasmusen will not know which student’s paper he is grading when he is grading it. If the nature of certain assignments is such that they cannot be graded in this way, a different faculty member will grade those assignments. With these measures in place, students can avoid any potential bias that they might expect from someone who has expressed the kinds of ideas that Rasmusen has expressed.

The public response to the incident involves some confusion about why exactly it is that Rasmusen can’t be fired. Some people view this incident as an indictment of the tenure system. It is not Rasmusen’s tenured status that makes it the case that he can’t be fired over this issue. Indiana University Bloomington is a public, state institution, funded by taxpayer dollars. As such, they cannot fire a professor for the content of the speech he or she engages in as a private citizen, and on his twitter account, Rasmusen was speaking as a private citizen.

Legal protections aside, there are compelling moral reasons that speak in favor of this position. It is valuable, both as a matter of personal liberty and for the good of society, for ideas to be expressed and evaluated. It is important to the aims of democracy that people can speak truth to power. In some cases, the speech involved will be very ugly, but the general practice is so important that we must be committed to it come what may. Punishing speech on the basis of content may seem to make good sense under certain conditions, but good, well-intentioned people don’t always have the final say in what “makes good sense.” To protect our basic liberties, we might sometimes have to be content with procedural justice, even when it seems to fly in the face of substantive justice.

Even if Rasmusen were not speaking as a private citizen, it is possible that his claims should still be protected because of the value of academic freedom. Courts have consistently ruled that academic speech—speech related to teaching and scholarship—is deserving of special protections. There are compelling moral reasons for this position as well. The practice of putting forward ideas that are then critically evaluated by peers is essential to the pursuit of truth and justice. When only the dominant view can be expressed without consequences, that dominant view becomes dogma. Its adherents believe it, not as the result of patient and diligent investigation, but because they would be punished for pursuing alternatives.

On the other hand, there are some real moral costs associated with keeping Rasmusen on the faculty. He seems to be sympathetic to the idea that the presence of women diminishes the quality of a college education. In light of this, it would probably be rather difficult to feel comfortable as a female student in Rasmusen’s classes. His female colleagues are also likely to find the climate he has created very unpleasant. In addition, to treat the ideas expressed by Rasmusen as if they are just as likely to be true as any other competing idea ignores the fact that we have made significant progress on these issues in recent decades. It encourages the conclusion that there is no such thing as a settled moral issue. The crusade for women’s rights was predicated on the idea that, to borrow a phrase from Jean Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence.” The attitudes that other people have about a woman’s “function,” shouldn’t construct limitations on who she can become. Autonomy is generally viewed as tremendously valuable, in part because of the role that it plays in self-creation. When views like Rasmusen’s are treated as if they are deserving of protection, the result is discouraging (to say the least) for women, particularly young college women who are just beginning to craft their own lives.

Finally, there is the issue of moral character. Rasmusen’s behavior on social media demonstrates either a misunderstanding of or disrespect for the role that he plays as an educator. The article focuses on the role that universities play in creating “geniuses.” Geniuses are rare, and genius isn’t obviously valuable for its own sake, its value depends on how it is used. This isn’t even close to the primary role of a public university. The role of a professor at such a university is to assist in developing a well-rounded, educated citizenry. Ideally, professors should be preparing students to live productive and meaningful lives. Good teaching requires empathy for students, and a genuine desire to understand the conditions under which they are apt to learn. Professors should remember that they are public figures. This means that before posting on social media, professors should reflect on the question of whether what they are posting will contribute to a negative classroom environment that might make it more difficult for certain students to learn.

Morality is a social enterprise, and young people look to adults in positions of authority to determine how they ought to behave. It may seem unfair that public figures carry more of a burden than others to conduct themselves reasonably and with dignity on social media platforms. Ideally, a person who has achieved a certain high level of influence values virtue and has worked hard to develop a strong moral character. People who care about character are the kinds of people who deserve to be in these positions in the first place. On social media and elsewhere, public figures should think carefully about the implications of their messages.

The DOJ vs. NACAC: Autonomy and Paternalism in Higher Ed

black and white photograph of graduation

Last month, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) voted to remove three provisions from their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. These changes will now allow schools to offer early-decisions applicants special considerations like priority housing and advanced course registration. Schools are also now allowed to “poach” students already committed to other institutions. And, finally, the May 1st National Candidates’ Reply deadline will no longer mark the end of the admissions process, as schools can continue to recruit into the summer. Together, these changes threaten to drastically alter the college recruitment landscape, and it’s unclear whether those changes will be positive or even who the beneficiaries might be.

NACAC’s move to strike these provisions was motivated by a two-year inquiry by the Department of Justice into antitrust claims. The prohibition on universities offering incentives to early-decision students and wooing already-committed recruits was deemed anti-competitive and a restraint of trade. NACAC was given a straightforward ultimatum: strike the provisions or engage in a legal battle whose only likely outcome would be being dissolved by court order.

As Jim Jump suggests, the DOJ appears to see NACAC as a “cartel” — coordinating behavior, fixing prices, and cooperating so as to insulate themselves from risk. From the DOJ’s point of view, NACAC is merely acting in the best interests of institutions, and prevents students from getting the best economic deal possible on their education. By prohibiting certain kinds of recruiting and incentives, NACAC limits competition between institutions for the industry’s gain and students’ loss.

The DOJ’s perspective is purely economic: The price of attending college has been increasing eight times faster than wages. Demand for education is at an all-time high, the need for student services is ever-increasing, and state-funding hasn’t been responsive to growing student numbers and institutions’ swelling size. Rather than increase government subsidy of higher education, the hope is that increasing competition between providers may drive costs down for consumers. The DOJ’s position is simple: “when colleges have to compete more openly, students will benefit.”

In response to these allegations, NACAC supporters claim that the rules are designed to safeguard students’ autonomy. By prohibiting institutions from poaching or offering better early-decision incentives, NACAC’s provisions shield impressionable high-schoolers from manipulation and coercion. Should colleges be permitted to offer priority housing or advanced course registration to early applicants, over-stressed teenagers will only be more likely to make their college choices prematurely. Should universities be allowed to court newly-matriculated students only just adjusting to college life, susceptible youths will always be swayed by the promise of greener pastures. In the end, these paternalistic measures are intended merely to preserve the possibility of effective student agency.

But, to many, treating prospective college students as vulnerable on the one hand, and competent and self-sufficient on the other, seems disingenuous. The average student debt is $38,000; if applicants are old enough to incur such large financial burdens, then surely they are old enough to navigate the difficult choices between competing financial and educational offers. As consumers of such high-priced and valuable goods, it should not be within others’ purview to doubt the truth, rationality, or sincerity of prospective students’ expressed preferences.

What the DOJ ruling may be missing, however, is the particular value for sale that makes the marketplace for colleges unique. As DePauw’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, Robert Andrews, argues, “There are real drawbacks to making your educational decisions like you would make your purchasing decisions around less-intricate commodities.” By reducing a college education to a simple dollar amount, we ignore the larger value a college education and the formative role it can play in students’ lives. It’s difficult to accurately assess in retrospect, (and certainly predict beforehand,) the meaning “an undergraduate education and the developmental experiences that occur when 18-22 year-olds live and learn on a college campus” will have, as well as all the factors that made that experience possible. As such, relative cost should perhaps not be billed as the crucial factor. Unfortunately, Andrews argues, striking these NACAC guidelines, prioritizes the wrong thing:

“Students may be enticed by larger scholarship and financial aid packages and choose a school they had previously ruled out for very valid reasons, (i.e. size, academic offerings, availability of student services, etc.) thus putting their successful educational experience in serious jeopardy. Will saving $5,000 more per year mean anything if it takes a student 5-6 years to graduate when they could have made it out in 4 at the “previous” institution?”

At bottom, the disagreement between the DOJ and NACAC centers on whether consumers know best their own interests. In particular, the question is whether NACAC is better-positioned to anticipate students’ needs than the students themselves. Folk wisdom claims that “You cannot harm someone by giving them an option,” and we must decide whether prospective college students represent a vulnerable population that needs to be protected from choice. Is the very possibility of new financial and educational incentives enough to undermine and override students’ true preferences? Does a policy of general prohibition on financial incentives support or frustrate those core preferences?

As of yet, whether the removal of NACAC’s guidelines will deliver positive or negative consequences for students, institutions, and higher education in general can’t be seen. Prophecies are in no short supply, and college administrators are desperately trying to anticipate how the new “Wild West” will play out.

University Administrations, Private Governments, and Denise Bennett

Photograph of the stone facade of the University of Idaho Library

On Wednesday, January 30th, administrators at the University of Idaho triggered the college’s emergency text alert system designed to notify students of impending threats to the campus. According to the message, Denise Bennett, a tenured journalism professor, had been banned from campus for “admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms” and, if seen, students were directed to call 911. Despite the message’s implication, Bennett was not near campus at the time and had not been arrested (or even detained) by police; instead, this incident was part of a complicated drama between Bennett and her employer that merits a brief overview.

For some time, Bennett has been an outspoken critic of the administration headed by University President Chuck Staben, a saga that was elevated to a new height when Bennett was abruptly placed on indefinite administrative leave in mid-January following a profanity-laden email she sent to several administrators voicing her concerns over how grant money had been mishandled. When students began to organize protests and other public action groups to express their anger about the university’s treatment of Bennett, the school appeared to respond by issuing the text alert in a move now being criticized as an “unconscionable and unnecessarily cruel and manipulative step” by the administration to “seize the narrative” concerning Bennett’s employment. The text alert came roughly 70 minutes before the start of a planned student rally in support of Bennett.

The conflict between Bennett and her employer might be a good example of what philosopher Elizabeth Anderson describes in her recent work Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) as an asymmetrical power relationship not unlike a dictatorship. Comprising the Tanner Lectures she delivered at Princeton in 2015, as well as a series of critical responses, Anderson’s book lays bare a series of problematic features about the false dichotomy between free and state-controlled markets: in reality, Anderson argues, late-market capitalism has produced a third operating paradigm where private institutions are able to “impose controls on workers that are unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” Whereas public governments are required to (at least in theory) listen to constituent concerns and advocate for the public’s best interests, private governments answer only to the behest of the market restricted by the loosest possible interpretation of labor laws. In this work, Anderson issues an important rallying cry for political and moral philosophers to attend to a relatively new area of concern within the discipline: the power granted to non-governmental organizations to control the private lives of their employees, even when those employees are ‘off the clock.’

In Bennett’s case, her employer – the University of Idaho – appears to be risking legal charges of defamation against its employee by continuing to release seemingly irrelevant information about Bennett’s character. The university’s official statement on the matter admits that the text alert contained “an unusual level of detail for such a communication,” but insists that it possessed information at the time which “raised concerns about the safety of our campus community.” It is impossible to assess the truth value of this claim from this side of the wall around the private government of the UI, but the information clearly serves to upset the supposedly-voluntary labor negotiation Bennett is currently in with her boss. Insofar as this is true, Bennett appears to be a good candidate for a case study of Anderson’s concluding observation that “The vast majority [of workers] are subject to private, authoritarian government, not through their own choice, but through laws that have handed nearly all authority to their employers.” And although it remains to be seen how Bennett’s story will end, this will hardly be the last example of a 21st-century worker helplessly conflicting with the laws of her private governance; if Anderson is right, then the public discourse must become aware of the “the costs to workers’ freedom and dignity that private government imposes on them” if justice can realistically be pursued.

The Limited Value of Taxing University Endowments

"Stanford University" by Jeff Pence liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Last Thursday, Senate Republicans released their tax overhaul plan that they believe will create a simpler and fairer tax system. The proposed plan caused an unsettling amount of worry for some academic institutions because of a certain endowment tax included in the tax reform. This 1.4 percent tax on investment income will affect private universities and colleges with over 500 students and endowment assets of over $100,000 per student. It will not include public institutions. What has spurred such a radical position on private institutions is the stereotype that these universities are “ivory towers” of tax havens. Unfortunately, this label may hold some truth, and a deeper analysis of the behaviors of well-endowed universities is necessary.

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Student Loan Debt’s Enforcement Problem

The prospect of student loan debt is often enough to scare any college graduate. For many, such fear is all too common; according to the Wall Street Journal, 71% of the Class of 2015 graduated with student loan debt. For many of these graduates, the amount owed is scary enough, in itself. What happens, then, when heavily-armed members of law enforcement are thrown into the mix?

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