Time to Reconsider Academic Freedom


Sunday, March 5, 2023

Conservatives are gaining ground in the culture. Christopher Rufo, a DeSantis-appointed New College Trustee whom I praised for his plan to combat woke indoctrination, has gained popularity on the right for his advocacy to abolish DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) bureaucracies in public universities. With the transformation of New College of Florida last month and continued calls to dismantle DEI bureaucracies across the country, conservatives should feel optimistic about the future of academia. 

Nonetheless, the cultural victories of Rufo and DeSantis have not gone without criticism. Two anti-woke professors lambasted the Rufo strategy as “profoundly illiberal” and contended that it ought to be “roundly rejected by everyone who believes in the powers of persuasion and the virtues of academic freedom.” The notion of academic freedom, that academia should impose no standards or value judgments, has been embraced by many on the right. However, there is nothing conservative about defending DEI on those grounds.

Conservatives ought to recall that our movement began when a then-25 year old William F. Buckley wrote a book debunking the notion of “academic freedom.” In God and Man at Yale, Buckley writes, “I should be interested to know how long a person who revealed himself as a racist [] would last at Yale? My prediction is that the next full moon would see him looking elsewhere for a job.” Perhaps some libertarian-minded conservatives would defend the right of the racist professor to spew such filth in the classroom, but I do not count myself among them. 

It is not illiberal for institutions to have standards. Education, by its very nature, inculcates standards. To teach that two plus two equals four is to teach that it does not make five. It is not only necessary to teach that racism is evil, but for a university to do otherwise would be to forsake its mission and inadequately prepare students for their lives after college. And DEI is racism, as it demands that everyone be recognized according to their identity groups. In saner times, it would not be tolerated in a classroom except to be disproved. 

Yet, the thought of institutional standards is rebuffed by a segment of the right. In response to Governor DeSantis’s STOP Woke Act in 2021, David French warned conservatives that “two can play the ban game.” In reality, the left has been playing the ban game against conservatives for decades. It was precisely the refusal of leftists to allow dissent that ultimately led to state intervention in Florida.

Despite campus censorship, conservatives who advocate for a boycott of the universities are equally shortsighted. The Daily Wire’s CEO and co-founder, Jeremy Boreing, who himself did not go to college, opined, “Virtually no one should send their kids there.” But the numbers don’t lie. Americans with a bachelor’s degree make an average of 65% more than Americans with only a high school diploma, and Americans with a master’s degree make an average of 18% more than Americans with only a bachelor’s degree. While college may be practically unnecessary for many jobs, a college degree is still, for many, a necessary step on the path to economic prosperity. 

For better or worse, higher education is here to stay and is still an invitation to financial freedom for millions of Americans. In God and Man at Yale, Bill Buckley wrote, “One thing is clear: it is time that honest and discerning scholars cease to manipulate the term academic freedom for their own ends and in such fashion as to deny the rights of individuals.” 

The academy today is faced with a threat not unlike what Buckley observed in 1951. Universities have forsaken their mission by espousing leftist ideals that flagrantly violate civil rights law and mandate discrimination based on group identity. The only viable solution is to reform the institutions. If the layoffs of DEI jobs in the private sector are any indication, the tide is turning in favor of conservatives. If conservatives follow the guidance of William F. Buckley, academia could be next. 

Russell Kitsis is a Jewish conservative student at Babson College. Russell is studying finance and hopes to work in investment banking upon graduation.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Russell Kitsis

Russell Kitsis is a Jewish conservative student at Babson College. Russell is studying finance and hopes to work in investment banking upon graduation.

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