We seem to be in the midst of a backlash against much of the woke, DEI induced madness that has become so prevalent at American universities. While it’s heartening to see people becoming more and more willing to point out the emperor’s state of undress, one must also be on guard to make sure the backlash doesn’t take on excesses of its own. One such overreaction, in my judgment, comes from Yoram Hazony, who argues the idea “of the university as a ‘neutral’ forum is too far removed from reality to be feasible. Instead, anti-Marxist liberals and conservatives should be defending a theory of the university as an educational institution that has no choice but to uphold at least minimal standards of substantive decency.” 

While I share Hazony’s horror at the cases of anti-Semitism seen on universities and I also recoil at the woke orthodoxy that has entrenched itself at so many institutions, I find his analysis fundamentally flawed. I don’t think the issues we see are a result of universities practicing some kind of excessive, over the top commitment to free speech. For good reasons, Harvard University has been considered an emblematic example of how things have gone wrong. But it’s worth pointing out that Harvard, also for good reasons, has for years been near the bottom of and currently sits dead last on free speech ratings by the civil rights organization FIRE. The fact that the university that most embodies the problems that concern Hazony also happens to be the university that performs the worst at upholding free speech certainly seems noteworthy. Whatever the source of the problems at Harvard that concern Hazony might be, an absolutist commitment to free speech just isn’t it – and as a committed empiricist, Hazony hasn’t done enough to grapple with that point in my opinion. 

But another critical appraisal of Hazony’s take comes from his fellow conservative Robert P. George. There are many aspects to George’s argument, and I won’t unpack them all here. But one thing George does that really nails the issue is to ask the right question:

Imagine if university administrators were called upon to determine which views are simply unacceptable and should therefore make the student or faculty member who expressed them subject to suspension or termination. Yoram laments, as do I, that a certain ideology (it happens to be left-wing “woke” ideology) is dominant on most university campuses. For years now, we’ve been hearing from partisans of this ideology the allegation that there is a “trans genocide” in this country. Do we want to empower university administrators—presidents, deans, and diversity, equity and inclusion officers—to decide which viewpoints on gender and sexuality constitute “hate speech” or the advocacy of genocide, triggering revocation of faculty tenure or the expulsion of students? That is a question that, it seems to me, answers itself.

… If we were to adopt Yoram’s call for censorship in areas where I am calling for freedom of speech, I invite him—and you, gentle reader—to consider the following question: Would the result be anything other than the further entrenchment of current campus orthodoxies, and the further weakening of protection for dissent and dissenters? 

Hazony’s solution falls into the body snatcher problem I’ve discussed before. If you think alien body snatchers have taken over the CIA as part of a plot to conquer the world, it would be self-defeating to try to solve the problem by putting more power and resources into the hands of the alien-controlled CIA. If you think corporations control the government, it’s self-defeating to try to solve that problem by increasing the power of the corporation-controlled government. And if you think the administration of universities have been taken over by woke ideology, it’s self-defeating to try to solve that problem by putting still more power into the hands of the woke-controlled university administrators. 

I wrote previously that “Government shouldn’t have the level of power that would best enable good work to be done by wise and trustworthy public servants – government should only have as much power as you would be comfortable being held by someone who is your worst political nightmare. Because, one day, someone that nightmarish will actually get elected, and they will gladly pick up any of the tools made available to them.” In the same way, and for the same reasons, university administrators should only have as much power as you’d be comfortable being held by someone who is your worst ideological nightmare. Right now, many university administrators uphold an ideology that Hazony, George, and I all find repugnant – but I agree with Robert George that the solution to this is to lessen, rather than strengthen, the power of administrators to control speech.