Robert George on Harvard: Today’s Universities Are Incubators of Competing Visions, Social Justice vs. Classical

Published Date: January 4, 2024 | Topics: Civil Rights and Liberties, Politics and Current Affairs, Reviews and Commentaries

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INTERVIEW: In his conversation with the Register, Professor George examined the essential role of free speech and academic freedom in the mission of U.S. universities, also noting that many elite institutions are grappling with two competing visions of academic life.

Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned Jan. 3, following criticism of her response to anti-Israel protests at Harvard and multiple allegations of plagiarism. 

On Dec. 5, Gay and two other university presidents defended their handling of antisemitic incidents on their campuses in testimony before Congress, but their legalistic explanations provoked widespread condemnation, with donors and alums demanding their resignations. Free-speech advocates further contended that these elite universities operated under a double standard, tolerating the harassment of pro-Israel students while punishing those who challenged progressive orthodoxies. This year the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) rated Harvard as the worst school for free speech in the nation.

The Harvard Corp. stood by Gay as a slew of plagiarism allegations further eroded her public standing and damaged the university’s reputation. On the day after Gay stepped down, Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond spoke with Robert George about the significance of her resignation and the lessons learned for higher education in the United States. 

A leading Catholic public intellectual, George serves as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. A staunch defender of free speech and academic freedom and inquiry, George had closely followed the developing controversy at Harvard and weighed in on X, formerly Twitter. 

In the past, he has addressed similar debates provoked by censorship issues at Catholic universities, like Georgetown. In 2022, after Georgetown Law Center dismissed Ilya Shapiro for a tweet that was judged by some students to be racist, George backed Shapiro’s right to express his views. 

“Absent strong protections of, and a robust culture of free speech, education — especially in law — cannot happen,” wrote George in a series of tweets

In his conversation with the Register, he examined the essential role of free speech and academic freedom in the mission of U.S. universities. But he also noted that many elite institutions are grappling with two competing visions of academic life: the “social-justice model” that endorses progressive values and the “classical, truth-seeking” model. 

What’s your reaction to the news of Claudine Gay’s resignation? As a free-speech advocate, do you applaud it?

We’re a nation with a history. And that history includes many glories, but it also includes things that we’re not proud of: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation. We’ve struggled as a nation to overcome those evils and their legacy in the name of the founding principles of our country, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 

To a very impressive degree, we have been successful in overcoming the legacies of racial injustice. So when a Black person achieves something profoundly notable, we naturally and rightly applaud it. 

When Claudine Gay was appointed president of Harvard, some questioned whether her record of achievement was strong enough. But most people, even if they had some qualms, applauded the fact that we had a Black president at our nation’s most famous and distinguished university, and most people wanted her to succeed. I certainly did. That she has resigned under circumstances that, at a minimum, call into question her academic integrity is a tragedy, and nobody should be celebrating it. 

It’s truly sad, not only for her as an individual, but in view of our history as a nation. It’s sad for Harvard, the academic world and for the country. I hope that Harvard, and now professor Gay, can rebound from this. 

But having said all that, and, based on what I know — and I don’t know the whole story — it looks like [Gay’s resignation was the] right decision.

Didn’t the plagiarism allegations also raise concerns about a double standard applying to students and administrators facing similar accusations?

The plagiarism issues were serious. I did not conduct a detailed examination of all the cases of alleged plagiarism. But I saw enough to reach the conclusion that had a Harvard or Princeton undergraduate engaged in similar acts, they would have been in serious disciplinary jeopardy. We simply cannot have double standards in academic life of the sort that you would have if the president, or another senior university administrator, were not held to the same standard of intellectual and academic integrity to which we hold our undergraduate students. 

Yet however critical we are [of Gay’s actions or legacy] we shouldn’t treat her as just an emblem or a symbol. She is a human being. And every human being is a person of profound worth and dignity. 

Let’s take a closer look at Gay’s exchange with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., during the Dec. 5 congressional hearing that examined how top universities responded to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the resulting protests on their campuses. Stefanik asked Gay whether “calling for the genocide of Jews [would] violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?” Gay said, “It can be, depending on the context.” Her response, which went viral on social media, was attacked as overly legalistic. What’s your assessment? 

To some extent, all congressional hearings are political theater. But Stefanik’s question was not out of bounds. It was a fair question because the debate over the scope and limits of free speech on university campuses is really important. We all have a stake in what happens at places like Harvard and MIT. 

Some who criticized Gay’s answers said the problem was not her legalistic focus on “context,” but her failure to acknowledge viewpoint discrimination at Harvard. 

Here’s the interesting thing: Claudine Gay, and the other two university presidents, gave answers that were technically correct. The problem was that everybody in that hearing, even the three presidents themselves, knew that in rightly invoking free-speech concerns as placing limitations on what university officials can do about antisemitic  speech, those presidents failed to ’fess up to the fact that their own institutions had violated the free-speech rights of students and faculty with impunity. By failing to admit to this record, the three university presidents looked like hypocrites. 

And they were hypocrites.  

What does this episode reveal about the role of free speech and academic freedom in higher education, or at least the role they should play? 

It reveals that there are terrible double standards that the public was largely unaware of, or only dimly aware of. 

There should be one standard, applied equally to everybody in a content-neutral way. The same free-speech standards that protect pro-Palestinian demonstrators, when they chant, “From the river to the sea,” need to protect students or faculty members who question transgender ideology, or racial preferences in hiring and admissions, or support marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife. 

University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill resigned shortly after her congressional testimony, removing her university from further public scrutiny. Harvard’s decision to stand by Gay led to an extensive examination of her academic qualifications, the role her race played in her appointment as president, and the problems posed by Harvard’s embrace of diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring and admissions. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens contends  that Gay stood for a “social-justice model of higher education, currently centered on diversity, equity and inclusion, to the detriment of the excellence model centered on the idea of intellectual merit, and chiefly concerned with knowledge, discovery, and the free and vigorous contest of ideas.” Your thoughts?

There are two competing visions of why we have universities and what their objective is. The newer one — I sometimes call it the “revisionist vision” — is of the university as an engine for promoting progressive ideology, or what is sometimes referred to by its proponents as “social justice.” 

The older vision, let’s call it “the classical vision,” understood the university as a truth-seeking institution. Its mission is to be the advancement of knowledge across the arts and sciences and in the learned professions. The goal of the social-justice university is to produce activists and leaders in the cause of social change in a progressive direction. The goal of the university that embraces the classical vision is to produce students who will be determined truth-seekers and courageous truth-speakers and lifelong learners. 

Depending on which vision you embrace, you’re going to reach very different conclusions about a lot of campus policies, as well as the principles that should govern campus life. For advocates of the classical vision of the university, like myself, and I gather Bret Stephens, free speech is critically important and must be very broad [because it] advances the truth-seeking mission of the institution. 

You need the clash of ideas. You need faculty and students to feel free to question any idea, any orthodoxy, any value, no matter how deeply we cherish it. [This is how we test] whether or not an idea can stand up under the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny. Academic freedom is not an end in itself, and freedom of speech is not an end in itself. They are conditions for the seeking of truth.

But there are also limits on free speech.

Yes, but those limits are very narrow. 

At Princeton, we have adopted the University of Chicago’s free-speech principles, and that means you cannot be disciplined for the content of any idea you advance. But having said that, we do not permit intimidation, actual threats, or incitement to imminent violence.

I completely agree with this policy. I’m not arguing for Peter Singer, my colleague at Princeton, to be fired because he advances the belief in the moral permissibility of infanticide. I think infanticide is a terrible injustice, a grave evil. But I actually defend his right to advocate it and to challenge my belief in the sanctity of all human life. 

But if your view of what universities are and what they’re for is the social-justice vision, then basically you believe that they should adopt a progressive orthodoxy, with all the beliefs that constitute that view — transgender ideology, abortion, all the beliefs pertaining to how to deal with racial issues. And you also believe that people must conform to this orthodoxy as a condition of being part of the community. That’s effectively what you have in many academic institutions today. 

Aren’t Catholic universities facing similar challenges right now?

Yes, in many cases, you have the same problems. But [the goals of] Catholic universities and religious universities generally differ in some not insignificant ways from the mission of nonsectarian universities, whether they’re public or private.

I have made my career both as a student and as a faculty member in the nonsectarian university world. Yet I also believe in the mission of religiously affiliated universities.

But whether religiously affiliated or nonsectarian, the fundamental mission of a university is to seek the truth. And that is going to require very broad protection of free speech on campus for every institution of higher education. 

The norms for free speech at Notre Dame or Brigham Young should be much more like than unlike the norms that rightly obtainat Harvard or the University of North Carolina. But there will be some differences. It’s entirely appropriate for religiously affiliated universities to require their faculties to be either members of the faith of the sponsoring university, or at least  supportive of its moral teachings. Likewise, these universities need to run their institutions on the principles of their faith. 

But when it comes to instruction, even on moral issues, any serious professor wants to make sure their students are exposed to critics of the moral views and other teachings of the hosting institution. 

Does that create the risk that the student’s faith will be shaken? Absolutely. But if you’re a truth-seeking person, and if you want your institution to be a truth-seeking institution, that risk is one that you are willing to take for the sake of forming your students as determined truth-seekers and courageous truth-speakers and lifelong learners. 

Claudine Gay’s resignation marks an era of growing mistrust in elite institutions like Harvard. Is there reason to hope that true reform is possible? 

The debate about the purpose and mission of universities has been going on within these institutions for quite some time. What’s key about the current moment is that the public is in on the debate now. Alumni are aware of what is going on. Donors are engaged in the discussion. 

[They have] questions about the future of universities, questions about their mission — what we want them to be and why they are worth supporting; what the money that goes into them is for. All of that is now before the public and the public is in a position to influence the resolution of the matter. 

I don’t know how it will come out. But I certainly hope it will lead to universities moving in the direction of the classical vision. But it’s no longer just a contest among professors. The broader public is involved now.

Desmond, Joan Frawley: (c) 2023 EWTN News, Inc. Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register – http://www.ncregister.com

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