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Giving a speech on a college campus is easy, if the adults are in charge.
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I was apprehensive as I flew to Boston on Wednesday. Protests were being organized for the lecture I was to give at Harvard that evening, and the intel made me think that another Middlebury might be in the works. Many of Harvard’s undergraduates are infected by the same virus that’s been going around elsewhere (“There’s no right to free speech for evil people, and we know who’s evil.”) And there were the guys in ski masks to worry about. Surely Antifa and Black Bloc have flourishing chapters in a place like Cambridge.
Getting beaten up wasn’t a concern. At Middlebury, Professor Allison Stanger did get beaten up, badly, as we struggled to get to the car, and that did not go unnoticed by college administrators. Since then, every campus I have visited has made sure that I got lots of police protection. But I did think it was likely that the students would be chanting and wouldn’t stop, fire alarms would be set off, and I wouldn’t be able to speak.
For that to have happened at Harvard would have been a disaster. If a nerdy, inoffensive speaker like me, lecturing on themes from Coming Apart (not a controversial book), could be shouted down at Harvard, we would be faced with a scary new normal. If not even Harvard, with all its resources, would protect free speech against the mob, then why would less exalted institutions be expected to do so? If a small minority of students gets to decide who is allowed to speak even at Harvard, what institution would hold the line?
But happily, my lecture went off without a hitch. The audience was attentive, or at least quiet. About ten minutes in, a dozen students, a few holding signs, got up and left, but they made no attempt to disrupt the lecture. There was half an hour of Q&A, with no holds barred on the questions I was asked and no holding back on my answers—just as a Q&A should be.
How did Harvard do it? First, Harvard has an impressively professional police department. Everything about the security arrangements betokened a team that does this kind of thing all time for everyone from prime ministers to visitors like me, and they know exactly how to do it right. But, crucially, Harvard also has an explicit policy about acceptable behavior in a lecture hall.
A student who disrupts will be warned. Continued disruption will result in expulsion from the hall, forcibly if necessary. And there was every reason for the students to believe that’s exactly what would happen. Some members of the Harvard Police Department, including the chief, stood quietly at the back of the hall, looking at once benevolent and completely willing to do whatever was necessary to enforce the rules.
What would have happened if a Middlebury situation arose in which a hundred or so students stood up simultaneously and started chanting in unison? I don’t know. My impression is that Harvard had communicated to its student body that doing so would have consequences, such as suspension or expulsion, and that it’s a safe bet that students truly don’t want to tell Mom and Dad that they’ve just gotten kicked out of Harvard. That’s only my impression; maybe Harvard just got lucky. But the whole evening had the feeling that the adults were in charge, that they knew they were in charge, and that—crucially—the students knew the adults were in charge, too.
I’m not an expert on the ethoses of American colleges in 2017, so take this as no more than a hypothesis that’s worth considering: At many universities, the problem is simply that adults aren’t in charge. The adults are scared of their students, the students know it, and they correctly conclude that they can get away with almost anything without consequences.
The Halloween Affair at Yale two years ago is a case in point. A Yale lecturer, Erika Christakis, wrote an email about Halloween costumes, mildly suggesting that people lighten up about cultural appropriation. She and her husband were subjected to sustained attacks that eventually led them to resign their positions as Master and Associate Master of Silliman College. The adults at Yale manifestly did not act as if they were in charge. The president of Yale, Peter Salovey pronounced that “No one has been silenced or punished for speaking their minds, nor will they be,” thereby treating the obscene, threatening physical confrontations initiated by students against Erika and Nicholas Christakis as indistinguishable from the thoughtful, nuanced, elaborately considerate email that triggered the episode.
Another indication that adults aren’t acting as if they are in charge is that only one school, Claremont-McKenna, has suspended or expelled students who have shut down speeches, participated in violent riots, or physically threatened speakers over the last few years.
During that period, Harvard hasn’t been put to the test posed by large demonstrations. And it’s not the case that Harvard’s faculty members are all stalwart defenders of free intellectual inquiry. Go back to 2005 and the faculty meetings when Larry Summers was being excoriated for his moderate, empirically-based speculations about why women are underrepresented in science and engineering. Professors Harvey Mansfield and Steven Pinker and a handful of others were willing to point out that he had done nothing wrong, but that’s about it, set against many Harvard faculty members who seemed to want Summers sent to a reeducation camp.
It’s also not the case that Harvard’s administration is exempt from PC orthodoxy. Witness President Faust’s enthusiasm for ridding Harvard of its ancient male-only social clubs. And yet, and yet . . .
Last Wednesday, it felt to me as though my alma mater, august Harvard, was making a statement that it takes freedom of academic discourse seriously and that students who interfere with that freedom do so at their peril. I’m doubtless too optimistic, but I like to think that this is the simple, and quintessential, solution to a great deal of the perniciousness on campuses today.
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