The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Greg Lukianoff. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: If you want to comment on this episode or just want to shoot the breeze, you can find me on Twitter at jim_rutt, that’s R-U-T-T. If you haven’t yet, be sure and check out the new game B film at gamebfilm.org. All right. That’s enough for shameless promotion today. Today’s guest is Greg Lukianoff, President of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education. You can find information about them at thefire.org. Welcome, Greg.
Greg: Thanks for having me.
Jim: Yeah, this should be a good conversation, extremely timely, as we’ll see as we get into it. In addition to being president of FIRE. Greg is also the author of some very interesting books, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, Freedom from Speech, and FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus. And most recently, he co-authored The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, with Jonathan Haidt. Yeah, I read that book right when it came out. I said, “Damn, that’s a good book.”
Greg: Thank you.
Jim: Also, as I often do, in full disclosure, I should make a note that FIRE has been very helpful to the MIT Free Speech Alliance, which I’m a co-founder, officer, and director. So with that, let’s jump into it, Greg. Why don’t we start out just sort of with the basic, what’s the mission of FIRE?
Greg: Sure. The mission of FIRE is to protect and sustain freedom of speech, academic freedom in higher education. That’s what we were founded to do in ’99. We’ve been around since 1999. I joined in 2001. But since then, partially because we realized we can’t really save higher ed without reaching more people, we started doing more K through 12 work. We started doing things like making documentaries about the threats to free speech and comedy, that was coming from some of the campus norms, what we called outrage culture at the time. Because it was 2015 and it didn’t have a name yet. We did a documentary called Mighty Ira about Ira Glasser, the old head of the ACLU, up until 2001. But we realize that we’re going to have to do a lot more public education, and it’s really explaining some of the most basic things about freedom of speech.
Greg: So to that end, we’ve been doing an advertising campaign that has included ads about … One tagline is, “cancel culture, cancels culture.” But another one, showing the March on Washington and saying without free speech there’s no, I Have a Dream, to make the point of the role of free speech in the Civil Rights Movement. But most excitingly, we had an ad that ran during the Olympics with Enes Kanter Freedom, talking about … He’s a basketball player, formally of the Celtics. About how important free speech is and how different it makes the US from his home country of Turkey. And we were able to run that during the Olympics, which felt pretty good because Enes is a pretty well-known critic of Xi and he was wearing a free Tibet t-shirt, when he was saying it.
Jim: Got to love that. One of the things I really like about you guys is that you’re nonpartisan. I periodically go through your case file to look at the cases that you’re dealing with and handling, and you definitely deal with censorship from the left as well as the right. And then I got kind of a chuckle out of some bits of it that I’d call non-political bureaucratic ass covering and defiance crushing. So you guys are neither tools of the left or the right, but you are straightforward advocates for free speech.
Greg: Yeah. Well, and I’m glad you mentioned that third category, too, because you could be forgiven if you pay too much to the sort of culture word discourse, either everything’s just political correctness run amuck and it’s just the left getting people in trouble. Or if you listen to the people who write articles, titled things like, Cancel Culture, Isn’t Even a Real Thing. They always argue that, “Well, cancel culture is a real thing. It just comes from the right, instead.” So they even contradict themselves. And there’s probably not a single case they mention in that, that happens on campus that they don’t know about because of us. But there’s this huge middle category of cases where it’s just, an administrator doesn’t like a professor or a particular student, doesn’t like the way a book or quote made the school look, and they go after the student or the faculty member, oftentimes for very petty reasons.
Jim: Yeah. There’s one university that keeps turning up for this kind of bullshit crapola, Tarleton, I think it is, someplace in Texas, seized the student newspaper and then claims it was never an independent paper. What the hell. Obviously somebody got their tail twisted and didn’t like it.
Greg: Yeah. We’ve seen some kind of funny repeat of offenders. The Rensselaer Polytechnic institute was a bit of a bummer, because it’s a fairly prestigious technical college in upstate New York. And they were trying to shut down the student union, as in the representative body of students. And when students were trying to protest on campus, they actually argued that they couldn’t protest on campus due to imminent domain. Which is one of those things like, “You really don’t understand what that term means at all, because that was a nonsense sentence.” So you really do see what I describe as kind of like the old fashioned, Dean Wormer type of censorship.
Jim: Yeah. It does actually bother us at the MIT Free Speech Alliance that the chair of the nomination committee for the MIT Corporation, which is our equivalent of a board of trustees, is the president of RPI.
Jim: Yikes, right? Fortunately she’s resigned from the presidency of RPI, I think effective this summer, and maybe she’ll retire from being head of our nominating committee, too. Because that is amazing how often RPI has managed to do something that’s just sort of grossly abusive.
Greg: Yeah. No, it’s interesting. Although a lot of times the schools that get our Lifetime Achievement Award for violations of freedom of speech, we do that every year, are schools that maybe aren’t as big of a name, like DePaul University really earned theirs. Syracuse, better known, but definitely earned theirs like crazy. This year, it was actually Yale. When I was doing an evaluation of a lot of the cases we’d had, partially after we wrote the piece on MIT, which you can find at thefire.org, we decided to also do a comprehensive piece on Yale, because there was a new case that people hadn’t heard of. And in the process of doing that, I’m like, “Wow, there’s been a really serious case pretty much every year since 2015. And there were like three bad ones last year.” So they are the proud recipient of FIRE’s much coveted Lifetime Achievement and Censorship Award.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve been following the brouhaha about the Yale law school and some of the ridiculous goings on there.
Greg: Yeah. I mean, there was a time when we could think that law schools were a little better insulated from this, for reasons that are kind of similar to the sciences. In law, you’re supposed to be able to argue both sides of an argument, or all sides of an argument. You’re supposed to be able to not be too easily offended, because a lot of time, different kinds of law can be pretty grizzly affairs. But seeing some of the exaggerated nonsense we’ve seen going on in the Yale Law School over the past couple of years, it genuinely worries me.
Jim: Yeah. And that actually brings me to my next point. As I was going through your recent cases, one that hopped out at me for exactly the reason you just enunciated, that, huh, at a law school? Emory University School of Law, the student government denied recognition to a free speech group.
Greg: I’m actually pretty used to that. So if you’re free speech, I’ve been hearing lots of really bad stories lately about when even just the phrase free speech gets mentioned, even if it’s the title of a book, the reaction is immediately, “Oh, these people are pro-hate speech.” And it’s like, “Wow.” This is what I call a slow-motion train wreck. I was in law school from ’97 to 2000. And I worked at the ACLU of Northern California, while I was there, as an intern. And you could already see this happening, that essentially, there was an attempt to … The Free Speech Movement started in Berkeley in 1964. Around 1974 is when you started getting like the real big prominent victories for free speech on campus for the rights of students, in addition to the rights of professors.
Greg: But then by 1984, the real 1984, you started having schools start passing speech codes, restricting speech if it was considered to be racist or sexist or otherwise offensive. These, of course, were all defeated in the courts of law. These were all laughed at, off campus, by liberals and conservatives like for being ridiculous. But nonetheless, even though these were decided as being completely unconstitutional, when we started looking into it in the early 2000s, that a lot of these schools had speech codes. About 79% of them had ridiculously bad speech codes. So knowing that history, you could see the slow-motion train wreck of eventually, the campuses, which had been once so pro-free speech starting to change the argument around it. So eventually, it was pretty clear even back then, that the argument was going to be led by people like Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda to dismiss free speech as a right-wing argument, because they spent decades trying to turn it into that.
Jim: Yeah. It’s pretty scary. Your summary of the case says, “Despite the Emory University Law School’s group fulfilling all criteria for recognition, the body, the SBA, refused recognition criticizing the nature of this group.” I.e. being about free speech, which has become a bugabear in some circles. And because of the harm that could result from discussions of race and gender. What the hell? We’ll get to this absurd idea of harm in a few minutes, but this just strikes me as, “What the heck. I mean, this could be in The Onion.” A law school says no to free speech of the harm that could result from discussion. I mean, what the hell kind of lawyers are these going to be? Right?
Greg: Yeah. Now, if you told me it would’ve gotten this bad, this fast, say back in 2010 … And I’d already been working on campuses defending truly ludicrous attempts at censorship since 2001 at that point. But how bad it’s gotten just over the past three or four years, is something that I never would’ve expected.
Jim: Yeah, it does seem to be accelerating. So let’s do a little digression here, it’s actually part of the same story, into the book you wrote with Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind. And to this Emory case, this concept of harm, what the hell’s going on with this modern concept of harm, which includes a theoretical discussion at a law school.
Greg: Yeah. Well, the funny thing about the harm idea, that speech can be harmful, is that students tend to present this as if it’s this new kind of more sensitive or sophisticated idea. And professors who are anti-free speech, tend to use it as kind of like a new rationalization. And whenever I talk about this, I’m like, “No, no. This is a really old idea, that essentially there’s no meaningful distinction between the harm or hurt caused by words as that caused by actual physical action.” Now of course, when it comes to actual intensity, I would argue that being punched in the face hurts a lot more than most people who have never been punched in the face actually think. But nonetheless, absolutely, of course words can break your heart. Words can be very sharp. But as I always have to point out, it’s not a surprise that words can be sharp or hurt, because free speech was one of our ways of replacing the way we traditionally, as a species, solved a lot of disputes, which is through coercion and violence.
Greg: So yes, of course, we replaced something that was literally violent with something that is deciding how we run our society. You shouldn’t be surprised it’s going to at times be kind of intense. But this new form of the argument will say things, with a straight face, that are … and I’ve seen this in a couple different articles. We used to say that sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you. But we now know that words can hurt. And they can be stressful. They can cause a stress response. All this kind of stuff where it’s like, okay, first of all, sticks and stones is a mantra you teach children in order to help them deal with the fact that words can sometimes hurt. The mantra wouldn’t even make any sense, if words could never hurt. That would be nonsensical. But more importantly, the sort of arrogance to assume that what John Stuart Mill, a complete and utter genius, a savant, he didn’t get that words can sometimes hurt. That’s nonsensical, it’s rewriting the past as if everybody who came before you is an idiot. But what we do consider, speech as this way of settling disputes without reference to actual physical violence.
Jim: Yeah. So what do you think is causing this? I mean, again, when I was a kid … I’m a old geezer, born in 1953. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you was something we always said. And yes, you are right, it might hurt your feelings or you get dumped by your 5th grade girlfriend, you might have a good five-minute cry or something. But the idea that a sharp word, or even not even a sharp word, but just a word you intellectually disagreed with, produces harm in some real sense, strikes me as just a bit loony.
Greg: Well, I wrote a short book in 2014, called Freedom from Speech. And in that I was just commenting on the sudden, intense uptick in these particularly ridiculous student-led cases that were just starting up, in earnest, around 2013, 2014. And in that I talked about what I call “problems of comfort”, which in Coddling the American Mind, my later book, I’ve referred to as “problems of progress”. And the point was that Steven Pinker is ultimately right, that a lot of things are improving as history goes on. We’re much more comfortable, much more options for consuming art or food or all of these things. But there’s a category of the kind of things that tend to get worse precisely because everything else is getting better. And one of those, as you get more comfortable, as you are able to avoid more pain and avoid more discomfort, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that people become less comfortable with something as difficult as freedom of speech done correctly.
Greg: So I definitely thought that, unless you have cultural pushback, it shouldn’t be surprising that we become less tolerant of free speech as time goes by. So to a degree, I feel like there’s some amount of regression to the mean. Free speech wasn’t that well protected prior to, I’d say, the mid 20th century in the world. There’s also this problem of progress idea that, as a lot of other things get better, there’s a tendency to become somewhat less tolerant. But then there’s also just the fact that higher ed and K through 12 are incredibly ideologically monolithic. They lean very much to the left in K through 12. In higher ed, just having done this long piece for Reason Magazine, only 3% of Harvard faculty, for example, self identify as any kind of conservative. And the administrative classes, even more monolithic, at these schools. Even less politically diverse.
Greg: Why does that matter? It matters because if you have too many people who agree on too much, it can lead to a sort of sacralized community, a kind of idea that all decent, good thinking people think this way. Which can lead to a kind of closed mindedness and tribalism, that can then kind of think of anybody who dissents from this as being a heretic or a blasphemer. So I do think the lack of viewpoint diversity in higher ed, both among administrators and among teachers, has made things a lot worse.
Jim: Yeah. That’s a reasonable argument, though I wonder how sincere it is or is it a passive aggressive political power game, played by wannabe Jacobin. Because they now have this vocabulary of harm, which they can wave like a shrunken head and say, “No, you can’t talk about anything, because that could cause harm.” When in reality, that’s just a passive aggressive way of trying to suppress viewpoints other than their own, which was, of course, the tactic of a Robespierran-style Jacobin.
Greg: Yeah. I think very early on in my first book, Unlearning Liberty, I talk about how as a general rule, I don’t believe in single motivations. I tend to think that most things human beings do are from mixed motivations. So I do try to talk about historical trends and about backsliding in some different directions. And the well-intentioned aspect of it is always important to nod to. But a lot of this is also just, “You’re giving me a rhetorical advantage over everybody else. I can actually get this professor, who I don’t like, who has opinions I don’t like, I can ruin them, given the new rules. And I’m going to run with that.” There are a lot of mixed motivations, as a rule. And there’s also just some genuine bad faith behavior.
Greg: And that’s one of the reasons why … I just had Komi German, who does our scholars database for FIRE. We started collecting examples of attempts to get professors, for lack of a better word, canceled. We could only go back reliably to about 2015 for a variety of reasons. And from 2015 on up, and 2015 was already … Things had already turned a lot worse in 2015. 2014 was really when we started seeing the big downward trends. We have seen something like 540 attempts to get professors fired or get their careers ruined. About two thirds of those result in some kind of punishment against the professor. They are a combination, by the way, of right and left and none of the above, but more attempts coming from the left, unsurprisingly, given that’s what campuses are dominated by. Then you even have people who will look at that and go, “Well, that’s a tiny number. There are”, I think someone said, There’s something like, “2 million teachers in the world.”
Greg: And I have literally no idea where this number came from, but to put it in perspective, we’re like, “Yeah, that 66% of the top 100 US News schools had at least one of these incidents. And the top 10 schools in the country average about seven since 2015. Stanford, my alma mater has 20. Harvard had a dozen, even though they only have 3% conservatives. They’re obviously going to have to go to non-conservatives to try to get them to conform, as well. And these are just things that happen to professors that we know about. This doesn’t include students. So it’s gotten very bad, very fast, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Jim: Yeah. And 540, over a relatively short period of time. Compare that to something which is considered, and rightfully, a dark period in American free speech, which was the Hollywood blacklist, which was a hundred people, maybe 200 at the most. And so the scale of this is considerably greater than that. Why the folks that will criticize the blacklist don’t realize the significance of this, I’m just not sure.
Greg: Yeah. I think only 10 people went to jail under the Sedition Act. And I think only about 20, 22 people were even brought up in charges of the 1798 Sedition Act. And it’s correct that we look back on that with shame. The lack of appreciation for the scale of numbers … And when I’m feeling particularly not nice about it, I end up explaining it, it’s like the Salem witch trials, that was 19 people were executed after that. And then, pointing out that Dreyfus was just one dude and Sacco and Vanzetti were two. And we consider these shameful for a reason.
Jim: Indeed. And I think this is another very important point. And, truthfully I was, out of the left corner of my eye following this, knew it was not a good thing. But recently, as I’ve gotten involved with the MIT Free Speech Alliance, I have been digging into this and found that what does not appear in the actual official statistics is probably even more disturbing than what does. The event that got me radicalized was the cancellation of Dorian Abbot’s speech at MIT, the Carlson Lecture, which was a prestigious invited lecture, which he’d been invited to give. And it’s about a very nerdy, as you’d expect from MIT, exotic topic, which is how to study the atmosphere of planets around stars, other than our sun, for the purpose of determining whether they might be suitable habitats for life. It’s hard to find a more truly scientific topic that has no relationship to anything going on here on Earth, at least on a everyday basis.
Jim: And because he, with a co-author, had written a essay in Newsweek magazine, arguing against current implementations of the so-called Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program and had proposed his alternative, Merit, Fairness and Equality, a Twitter cancel mob formed up, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And very, very foolishly, the chairman of the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences Department with, as we have determined, the support of at least the provost and probably the president, too, canceled Abbot’s speech.
Jim: And this got a lot of publicity, an egregious case where someone who was talking about nothing that had to do with politics at all, an invited lecturer, prestigious invited lecturer, was canceled because of a political view and not one that’s outside the American mainstream. One of the things I discovered when I was doing our research, is that there was a recent Pew poll, which showed that 74% of Americans say the best person should always be hired for the job, irrespective of the impact on diversity. And Abbot’s work was mostly about academic hiring, only later did he talk a little bit about undergraduate selection, et cetera.
Jim: And so, the main part of his argument is supported by 74% of people. So whether you agree with him or not, you got to say that it’s well within the American mainstream. And so that was a really, really disturbing event to a whole bunch of us. And we’ve formed the MIT Free Speech Alliance in reaction that. And by the way, you can pick it up at mitfreespeech.org and see what we’re talking about. And that was bad enough. I mean, get your reaction to that and then I’ll go on to what we found when we dug deeper.
Greg: Sure. Yeah. Well, we have an article up called What Does MIT Stand For? We have it at thefire.org. We also have an audio version of it. We’ve been trying to do more of that. It’s written, like I said by Komi German. And it tries to put all of this stuff in perspective. And the thing that it was kind of … I mean, I was really pleased that the Dorian Abbot situation was getting so much attention. And I definitely think my friends at the Academic Freedom Alliance did a lot with that early on. Partially because in a very real sense, it’s just not that remarkable of a case. We’ve seen disinvitation attempts at pretty much every other school, Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins, Cal Poly, all the technical schools, with the commendable exception of Cal Tech, in situations where, just like Dorian Abbot, what a professor was going to that campus to speak about wasn’t even the same thing as what got them canceled. So in some senses, like the MIT case, it’s good because it’s increased awareness of how common this problem is. And seeing how shocked people were to discover this stuff was happening. Hopefully they’re even more shocked to find out that this stuff happens all the of time.
Jim: Yeah. I think part of the shockingness was, this is MIT, supposedly the home of rational discourse, right?
Greg: And MIT has been, generally, better behaved than most of the other schools, but not entirely. And certainly, given how bad things have been at places like Harvard and, again, Stanford and Yale, it’s something that should be a wake-up call to everybody who cares about some of our most storied institutions of higher ed.
Jim: Yeah. And then, as I said, the case itself was bad enough. But as we formed our organization and started digging in and we started finding informants, shall we say, we discovered things were way worse than we would’ve ever guessed. For instance, an anonymous faculty poll, in a couple of ad hoc faculty meetings, which a significant percentage, but not all, of the faculty attended. This is a direct quote from the anonymous poll that was done at the meeting. Do you feel on an everyday basis, every day basis, that your voice or the voices of your colleagues are constrained at MIT? More than 50% responded yes. That’s mind boggling to me that in a modern university, particularly one dedicated to truth like MIT, 50% of the faculty would feel on an everyday basis that their voice or their colleagues’ are constrained and then even more amazing. Are you worried given the current atmosphere in society that your voice or your colleagues’ voices are increasingly in jeopardy? 80% responded yes to that. I mean, holy moly, that is frankly just a very disturbing set of statistics.
Greg: And when you balance it up against the lack of viewpoint diversity on campus, when you see the fact that it’s 80%, that also includes people who by any measure would be considered pretty politically doctrinaire by the administration. Because sometimes when you see these, you wonder what’s going on with that 20%. Well, in some cases it’s people who have no fear ever getting in trouble because they don’t have the kind of opinions that the administration would ever be on the lookout for. But the gap between that number and the lack of viewpoint diversity, it means that there are a lot of people who once might have thought of themselves as very uncontroversial, left of center professors who have pretty popular opinions on campus. Even they’re getting canceled.
Jim: And because, again, traditional American liberalism is no longer considered tolerable by the cancel culture people. Right? They’re the enemy.
Greg: I have been glad that the people who are not so great on free speech, or actually that’s an understatement, have increasingly called themselves progressives instead of liberals. I mean, I still think of myself as a liberal, but if you don’t believe in any form of human freedom, you shouldn’t use a word that means freedom.
Jim: Yeah. Very good point. And I still consider myself in many domains, a political progressive. I actually worked for the Bernie campaign in 2016. On the other hand, I am even more a liberal in the spirit of John Stewart Mill, et cetera. And so I’m just feeling this incredible personal cognitive dissonance at a very strong level that the people that I am sort of on the same team of politically in one domain, I’m absolutely opposed to. And I believe that they’re not just wrong, but they’re on a dangerous proto-totalitarian road. And as I’ve talked to people at MIT, I find there’s lots of other people like this who are certainly left of center in the traditional dimensions. Yes, I’m in favor of higher tax rate, people. I’m a high income person, tax the hell out of me. I’m in favor of more regulation of banking and finance, under certain well thought out circumstances. But I’ll be damned if I’m in favor of suppression of free speech. And that’s just a bright line. This is the road to hell kind of thing. This is not something that we argue about. This is something that’s a fundamental value of Western civilization.
Greg: Yeah. And watching that be among the fault lines, it just … There’s no better word for it, it’s scary. And the intensity with which it’s picked up, since Coddling the American Mind came out … Because when the book came out in 2018, we thought that things were pretty bad. But 2020 and 2021 were, by far, the worst years we had ever seen.
Jim: Indeed. Now another recent case, which you guys have written about, Ilya Shapiro at Georgetown. Want you to tell us about that one.
Greg: Yeah. The Ilya Shapiro case is definitely something of a Rorschach test. So Ilya Shapiro, he’s a libertarian conservative thinker from the Cato Institute in DC, very reliably libertarian, not reflexively conservative by any means. He’s a great constitutional thinker. I’ve known him for a very long time. And he just got hired by Georgetown. He left his great gig at Cato to go to Georgetown, to be the executive director of their constitutional law program there. And to teach there as well.
Greg: After Breyer stepped down, announced that he was retiring, Biden announced that he was going to nominate a Black woman to Breyer’s position on the Supreme court. And this was something that, you’ve seen people react somewhat negatively to that. Even people who aren’t necessarily on the right side of the spectrum. And Ilya wrote something saying he actually thought a Indian- American professor judge should actually get the spot. And saying that what’s going to happen from this point on is since they know it was limited only to Black women, that the position is necessarily going to end up not having the best person in that position. And therefore, it’s going to go to, and this is where he really got in trouble, a lesser Black woman, is the way he put it.
Greg: But in context, it’s really clear what he’s saying is that he thinks that it was wrong of President Biden to limit the pool that he was going to draw from to, I guess that’d be about 6 or 7% of the population. And that by doing that, you’re even sort of undermining the qualifications of the person you nominate. And then, he also recommended a progressive Indian American judge that he thought would be better. And one of the reasons why that bears repeating is because people went very quickly as this comment on campus to accuse Ilya of white supremacy, a term that is pretty badly abused on campus these days. And it doesn’t make a great deal of sense that someone who was recommending a progressive Indian- American for the position is actually a white supremacist. But the inartfulness of the Tweet led Ilya to apologize and to take it down and try to explain where he is coming from.
Greg: But again, in context, you have to be pretty uncharitable to try to read that he was actually saying, as some of the people who were against him said, it’s like, “Well, this is saying that all Black women are lesser.” You really can’t, in all honesty, look at that tweet and come away sure that that’s actually what Ilya was saying. But so, we’ve been fighting this, almost since he first took down the Tweet, because he contacted us at FIRE almost immediately, because he knew his job was on the line. We were able to organize a signing campaign for professors all over the country. We got several hundred signatures of prominent professors, including people like Paul Bloom, and Eugene Volokh, and I think Steve Pinker, for example, to say he should not be fired.
Greg: I wrote something in the Washington Post about this. And I did make the point, in the Washington Post article, that 76% of people polled didn’t particularly like that Biden framed it that way and thought that the job should be open to anybody. And that’s also like 54% of Democrats thought that. So, you always have to plug that in these days, because lot of the things that are considered completely beyond the pale on campus can be relatively mainstream positions in the rest of the country. And the public needs to understand that things that you wouldn’t bat an eye at off-campus are treated as if they’re completely blasphemous on campus.
Greg: So there’s no resolution there, yet. They did suspend him and they’re looking into what they should do about it. I think that if there wasn’t enough pushback, he would definitely be out of a job, but we’ve been able to help bring a lot of pushback. We’re helping him in a variety of ways. But we’ll see what Georgetown finally decides. Hopefully, once things have calmed down a little bit, they’ll be able to say, “Okay, we probably shouldn’t have suspended you.” But we’ll see. I thought things were going to go in the right direction, previously, and been terribly disappointed. So the move is now to Georgetown.
Jim: Yeah. I looked into it when it hit the wires and I said, “Yeah, that was an inelegant expression.” A lesser Black woman, probably not the wisest phraseology. But if you look at the full context, it’s absurd to fire someone over what is, at worst, an inelegant phraseology. I mean, what the fuck is wrong people to even think that. I mean, it’s just like these people are nuts.
Greg: Yeah. The thing is, there’s a weird combination of, it’s one, a lot of students today and a lot of professors, even, have been around an environment where there’s such a high premium on not offending anyone, but particularly offending anybody who might be considered part of a victim group. This is something that my co-author Jonathan Haidt pointed out, was that increasingly on the left, there’s a sort of focus on one aspect of morality, which is just not to be offensive or not to do anything that could be considered not showing care towards people in underserved minority groups. And that a lot of modern lefty morality can be pretty well explained by that. So they do have a little bit of this. Unfortunately, this is the way I think people are coming up currently. But there’s also the cynical part of it that there were surely plenty of people who didn’t want a new conservative being added to the faculty at Georgetown, so they saw an opening.
Jim: Yep. Again, I mentioned that earlier, as a person who always thinks in terms of strategy and tactics, I go, “Hmm. If I had that tactic, I might abuse it, too.” And that’s the problem of essentially having this doctrine that wrong think is a means to get rid of people. A lot of people we don’t like, but we don’t go after them because of the way they think. But that is not the new doctrine.
Jim: Now moving out a little bit from the charter of FIRE, which is education. It’s also true, I would say, in the wider culture, particularly from people on the progressive side, but also on the right, too. But I would say a lot of the most obnoxious ones are on the left these days, that there’s just a decline in support for free speech, more widely. When I remind people of what American free speech actually, legally entails … What’s the famous case with the Klansman in Ohio?
Greg: Brandenburg v. Ohio. Yeah.
Jim: Yeah. Very famous case. I posted that on Twitter and people go, “What? How could this possibly be?” And I also pointed out to them, while a unanimous ruling, it appears that [inaudible 00:35:27], the principal architects, were Fortas, Douglas and Black, three strong progressives. So here was a strong, progressive position for extremely radical free speech and not that long ago. And now, when people even realize that’s the current state of the law, they just can’t believe it.
Greg: Yeah. Well, and there’s a case that your listeners might not know about called Papish. It’s a 1973 case defending Barbara Papish, who was kicked out of her school for having a cartoon, when she thought some police officers got off the hook for what she thought was police brutality. So she ran a cartoon that showed police officers raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice. And that was ultimately the thing that got her kicked out of school. And I bring this up here, when I’m on campus, making the point that if you were to show that cartoon on campus, that would probably be a FIRE case. It would only be the framing of saying, “No, this is what the Supreme Court says is protected on campus.” And there, it really shows how much our thinking has flipped on free speech.
Greg: The argument from the Supreme Court is the one when I was growing up was the popular one that if anything, free speech should be more protected on campus, because there’s a presumption of, one, you’re all adults. And two, that the whole function of here is to think harder, so being provoked actually can help that sometimes. That you being offended is irrelevant to whether or not something is true. So all of these reasons, it was actually supposed to be considered even more protective of free speech. But over the past couple of decades, that mentality is changed, so that now professors and deans and administrators will take for granted that, of course, speech is not as protected on campus as it is off, because we have to protect the sensibilities of our students.
Jim: And this goes back to this Coddling of the American Mind, where I was a business guy for 25, almost 30 years. Hey, you basically tried to give your customer what you want. I’ve had some folks, including Jonathan Haidt, tell me that he believes that many of the university presidents aren’t nearly as woke as they act, but are frankly just appealing to their clientele.
Greg: Yep. No. Agreed. And that’s something that does drive me nuts about a lot of university presidents these days. The schools that actually have been comparatively good about free speech. It always has to come from the top, ultimately. So President Zimmer of Chicago was a real leader in terms of free speech and academic freedom. Mitch Daniels is at Purdue. The president of Arizona State University has been really great on this. But it seems like most other presidents have kind of left themselves off the hook, saying like, “Well, we saw what happened to Larry Summers, back in 2006. So we won’t try to wade into controversy. We won’t really try to lead from the top on this stuff. And if someone wants to go after a professor for saying something obnoxious, we might say something if we really, really have to.”
Greg: And meanwhile, for the first 10 years of my career, 2001 to 2010, it was not uncommon for a university president to put an end to a push to get a professor or student punished by simply going on the record and saying, “Listen.” I remember one happening at Penn State with the university president saying like, “Listen, we thought that this … There was a party, where the whole goal was to be intentionally offensive. And he talks about how some of these images were deeply offensive, but you absolutely have a first amendment right to be offensive. I wish more university presidents would be willing to do that. They could actually save themselves longer term headaches if they always follow that and follow that consistently. But too many presidents are scared of losing their, oftentimes more than 1 million dollar jobs.
Jim: Yep. I made the point in a letter I wrote to the MIT president, which is, you’re just setting yourself up for endless battles when you bend the knee to these woke mobs on Twitter. If you just say, “We’re not doing that”, in the way Zimmer did at University of Chicago, when Dorian Abbot came under fire there, it just shuts the whole thing down. You’re not constantly in these bullshit fights if you just say, “That’s not our job. We don’t do that. We are a free-speech honoring institution.” And in fact, one of our demands at the MIT Free Speech Alliance is that MIT adopt Chicago’s principles, which are a very well thought through and nuanced statement of what a university ought to do and not do with respect to free speech.
Greg: That’s one of the things that FIRE recommends. We’ve helped encourage almost 80 schools adopt Chicago statement. But I have a full list of like five things that every president can do to make their environment better for free speech, which you can find on the FIRE website. But just very quickly, they’re stand up for faculty and students early and often, dump your speech codes, which FIRE can help you with. A lot of schools still have them. Adopt the Chicago statement or something like it. And then the other two are explain freedom of speech and inquiry during orientation. And amazingly, most schools don’t do this. I think Chicago and Purdue do this now, but they’re the only two. And poll them. Poll your students and professors to see what the atmosphere on campus is like.
Greg: And so people can get so cynical about the situation on campus, but I’m like, “Okay, before you’re allowed to be cynical at all, if you haven’t done the following five things or asked your alma mater president to do these following five things, you have no right to complain.” I have, however, increasingly been saying a sixth thing, which is also invest in innovative workarounds that can identify the best and brightest, without having to go to traditional college in the first place. I think that any meaningful competition with the major fancy schools in the country, could get them to clean up their act surprisingly quickly.
Jim: And what’s the new one down there in Austin? What’s the name of that one?
Greg: Just University of Austin.
Jim: Yeah, University of Austin. A great attempt to turn the tables a little bit on the elite education scam.
Greg: A worthwhile experiment if there ever was one. I remember, I was actually invited on Jane Coaston’s New York Times podcast to talk about it. I thought it was funny, because there was definitely a little bit of like a, will this work? Won’t this just end up like a different kind of echo chamber? And it’s like, “Yeah, could it? Sure. But we should all be pulling for it.” Because even just on expensiveness alone, even just on hyper [inaudible 00:41:56] and administrative bloat, and tuition, even if those were the only issues facing college, you should still be trying alternatives. Add rigor to that and it gets even more serious. And then add to the fact that the ideological intolerance and the harm that I think that’s having to our overall society. I think the argument for trying every form of experimentation with new educational models is the way to go.
Jim: Yeah. I think it makes a lot of sense to me. I was a working class kid. My dad was a Washington DC cop. I was the first person to go to college in our family tree. And when I went to MIT in 1971, 4 years living on campus, total expense, $16,000, people. Today, it’s almost $300,000. And I checked it with respect to inflation and it’s now 4X as expensive, 4X as expensive to go to MIT, after you control for inflation, than it was 1971 to ’75. And while the only other category that’s exploded like that is medicine, at least in medicine they can do lots of new things. As far as I can tell by every objective measure, the education people are getting in elite colleges today is no better and probably worse than they were getting in 1975.
Greg: Yeah. Well, in terms of the amount of hours that people spend studying, I’m sure that MIT is somewhat better than other schools, but the trend is overwhelmingly down. It is kind of disheartening. And when you look at the majors that have the lowest amount of time spent studying, one of them is actually education schools, which is particularly distressing because education schools are the places that produce a lot of our K12 teachers. But also a lot of the campus administrators disproportionately come from education schools. So they’re sort of a key part of the problem. And they also have one of the biggest problems with lack of rigor and grade inflation.
Jim: Yeah, indeed. Another thing I’d like to call out here is, we talked about college presidents being part of the problem. And perhaps in some cases just cynically, because they’re appealing to their customers or to their faculty. But there’s a countervailing force, which is alumni. Many colleges are dependent on alumni giving. And the MIT Free Speech Alliance turned out to just be a spontaneously generated alumni-led that would include some faculty and some students. And we quickly discovered that there was a broader organization called the Alumni Free Speech Alliance. You can check them out at alumnifreespeechalliance.com and as always the link to their website will be on our episode page at jimruttshow.com. And this is a really interesting and useful group. MIT, when we formed up, I think there was five universities already a member. We became sixth or seventh and now it includes Cornell, Davidson, Lafayette, MIT, Princeton, The University of North Carolina, University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute, Washington and Lee, Wofford, and Yale. All first rate schools, proud to say three of them in my state of Virginia, where I live. And the people at AFSA, as we call them, the Alumni Free Speech Association, say they’ve had inbound inquiries from over a hundred other alumni groups associated with universities that want to start their own free speech Alliance.
Jim: So if you feel that your alma mater has gone to hell in the area of protecting free speech, free inquiry, and viewpoint diversity, see if you can find some of your friends to get together and see what the Alumni Free Speech Alliance is about. And perhaps you can set up an organization to try to turn things around at your school.
Greg: Your listeners can also contact thefire.org. We’ve been working with the alumni group as well, and we have our own people trying to make campuses better for free speech on multiple levels, as well.
Jim: Cool. Well, last thing here before we roll out, in Coddling of the American Mind, you talk about K to 12 education. Parents are raising children. What should parents be doing in helping their children develop a stronger realization of the importance of free speech to basically everything about our civilization? Are you a parent, by the way?
Greg: I am. I have a four year old boy named Maxwell, for James Clerk Maxwell, and a six year old boy named Benjamin, for Benjamin Franklin.
Jim: All right, that’s got great references. I’ve got a daughter and I now have a granddaughter. So this is a real question. What would you advise parents in how to treat these issues?
Greg: Well, funnily enough, I think any amount of fostering childhood resilience and independence can help with this. I think that one of the most surprising things in writing Coddling the American Mind, we weren’t expecting it to become quite so much of a parenting book. As we did more research, we realized, as we’ve realized even more recently, that a lot of the anxiety among young kids is partially … It comes from their parents being so anxious, particularly about getting them into a fancy school and making sure that do everything right. It can be really exhausting staying in the American upper classes can be challenging. There’s a great book called The Meritocracy Trap about this. And making sure that they have unstructured play time was also surprising, but that’s getting stronger and stronger. That the pushing academics down to even preschool is disastrous. This is not good for kids. You’re just going to end up diagnosing usually more boys with ADHD, if you try to get them to sit in chairs. They’re just not meant to sit in chairs and study stuff at that age.
Greg: So there’s lots of stuff you can do from early on. When it comes to, specifically for freedom of speech, I mean, practice it. Have discussions in your own house. Most of all, try to foster curiosity about what other people think. Because yes, free speech is counterintuitive in a very real sense. When I say this, people go, “Wait, no. I can intuit my right to free speech.” It’s like, “Right, your right to free speech.” Everybody understands why they should have free speech, but the human mind is incredibly adept at coming up with arguments about why that person over there shouldn’t have it.
Greg: So curiosity is one of the great antidotes to this kind of stuff and also to what’s going on on campus. Genuinely wanting to know where people are coming from, even if it’s quote unquote bad, even if it’s troubling, is actually a great intellectual habit. I wish every student did debate at some point in school. And I wish they actually made a point of taking the opposite side from what they actually believe, in at least some arguments. And by school, I mean, high school. FIRE also does a lot of … we have our curriculum for K through 12 teachers. We’re trying to set up a kind of bootcamp kind of thing for before people head off to college. But yeah, I mean, introducing them to the habit of being curious about what people think and being able to argue with people with whom they disagree, but productively, you can start that at a pretty early age.
Jim: Well, that’s really good advice. I want to thank you, Greg. Greg Lukianoff from FIRE. That’s thefire.org for a really good and enlightening conversation about these issues.
Greg: Thanks so much for having me, Jim.