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Before I get to the blog post I planned for today, I want to briefly acknowledge the impending retirement of Inside Higher Ed co-founder Scott Jaschik, who announced that he’ll be leaving the site at the end of this month to volunteer and travel.

Without Scott and Doug’s “big idea” (in Scott’s words), I wouldn’t have anything like the career I’m currently enjoying. I write often of the importance of institutions that empower individuals to realize their personal goals and for me, Inside Higher Ed has been that institution.

I can’t imagine anyone more engaged with and knowledgeable about the industry he covers than Scott. I had the pleasure to hear him speak to higher ed audiences of different stripes several times, and he always delivered insights with care and consideration.

So, thank you, Scott, for your hard work, and congratulations on starting your next chapter.

A recent incident at the University of Chicago, reported out by The New York Times, shows how an absolutist commitment to “free speech” will inevitably clash with the principles of academic freedom.

The Times article by Vimal Patel does a good job of summarizing the events, but to summarize the summary, Rebecca Journey, an untenured lecturer at UC planned an undergraduate anthropology seminar titled The Problem of Whiteness, covering “familiar territory of how the racial category ‘white’ has changed over time.”

UC student and conservative activist Daniel Schmidt objected to the proposed course, tweeting, “Anti-white hatred is now mainstream academic inquiry,” providing the course description and Journey’s publicly available photo and email contact information.

Her inbox was flooded with vitriol and threats. Disturbed by the response, Journey postponed the course and registered a formal complaint with UC, accusing Schmidt of doxing and harassment.

The university denied the complaints because there was no evidence that Schmidt personally harassed her, and according to university policies, speech could only be restricted when it “constitutes a genuine threat or harassment.”

The University of Chicago is famous for its “Chicago statement” on campus speech. The full statement is here, but to boil it down to the gist:

  • It is not the university’s role to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they “find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
  • Civility and mutual respect are good things, but their absence cannot be used as a justification for “closing off the discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable.”
  • The university may restrict speech that violates law, defames an individual, constitutes genuine threat or harassment, or reveals private information or interests of individuals.
  • The responsibility for engagement is dependent on individuals making judgments for themselves, and to respond in ways that adhere to the above principles, rather than seeking to constrain the speech of others. This includes attempts to obstruct expression of others.

While on the surface this seems to support a free-flowing exchange of ideas, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this statement is effectively neutral and the harassment of Journey proves it.

Writing in his book Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education, Brad Vivian described the Chicago statement as a “disciplinary or punitive approach to matters of free speech and dissent.” The statement was clearly meant to constrain potential actions of students from the left protesting in a way that might disrupt the order of the institution, despite the statement’s insistence that maintenance of civility was not grounds for constraining speech.

Into this loophole Schmidt drove a wedge, utilizing a well-established playbook of right wing campus culture war, a phenomenon studied by AAUP in 2021, which found that 40 percent of respondents had received threats of harm and/or attempts at intimidation after being targeted by the Campus Reform website, which picked up Journey’s story from Schmidt’s tweeting.

In a recent review essay at The New Republic, Claire Potter looks at Vivian’s book and another by Amy J. Binder and Jeffrey L. Kidder, The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today, observing that while by and large the narrative around warring factions of students is overstated—and in fact, groups are highly critical of their political allies as much as they are polarized—the political right “is better positioned to take advantage of the scandals” to drive a narrative of sowing doubt and distrust of higher education.

Following the postponement of Journey’s class, Schmidt declared “victory,” suggesting that his goal was indeed to silence Journey by seeing her class canceled.

After the course was reinstituted for a subsequent quarter, Schmidt went to TikTok, re-sharing Journey’s photo and email, bringing down another round of harassment.

The course did commence under increased security while Journey was subject to hundreds of harassing emails. Journey filed a fresh complaint, which was again dismissed.

Under the rules established by the Chicago statement, Schmidt could not be sanctioned even though his actions were a clear attempt to intimidate a faculty member from teaching a course.

It’s a good thing that the course was ultimately held, but it’s impossible to see this incident and not see a chilling of speech. Organizations like Heterodox Academy and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression claim that students feeling hesitation about speaking on certain topics on campus is an affront to free speech. If this is the case, what is a student ginning up an outrage campaign that requires additional security for a course to go off?

To its credit, in commenting on the initial incident in November of last year, FIRE recognized that canceling the course would be a violation of a professor’s academic freedom and suggested that the organization viewed Schmidt’s actions as harassment.

UC says they can’t punish Schmidt’s action. They never even spoke to him about his actions. UC law professor Geoffrey Stone, one of the driving forces behind the Chicago statement, responded with the equivalent of a shruggie emoticon, noting that while there was a case to be made that Schmidt was trying to intimidate Journey, he commented to the Times, “Do you really want to get into the business of trying to figure out what the purpose was?”

For my money, the answer is yes. In fact, I would argue institutions have a duty to investigate these things, and never even speaking to Schmidt is an abrogation of those duties. This doesn’t mean that Schmidt must necessarily be punished, but if the goal is to maintain an atmosphere truly safe for open discourse, you can’t repeatedly punt while hiding behind previously established bureaucracy.

As Isaac Kamola, one of the co-authors of the AAUP study, told the Times, policies like the Chicago statement assume that all parties are acting “in good faith and that people have an interest in engaging the ideas.”

Schmidt never took the course. He never engaged with any debate of substance. His campaign appears to be a largely solo effort, as the Times reports that he’s been kicked out of both the campus newspaper (for harassing a fellow columnist online) and been fired from a campus conservative publication. Schmidt is a young activist making his bones at the expense of his professor and institution, a bit of a cottage industry for young, ambitious people on the right dating back to William F. Buckley Jr.

There’s no reason to doubt that Schmidt personally had no intent to harm Journey, but there is also no doubt that his actions deliberately intended to inflame a (cyber, at least) mob against a specific target.

Consider this scenario in the context of a recent stabbing at the University of Waterloo by a student outraged about a course dealing with gender issues.

The old saw “Don’t be so open-minded that you let your brains fall out” comes to mind. The University of Chicago is so busy affirming its commitment to free speech (from the right anyway), that it is willing to allow a single person who does not share the values of the institution to tear the institution to pieces.

Watson Lubin, a student in Journey’s class, put his finger on it to the Times: “I’m worried that Daniel Schmidt actually formed something of a precedent here, where you can, under the auspices of free speech, more or less intimidate and harass a professor, and sic your incredible following on TikTok and Twitter on them for the purpose of chilling speech.”

What percentage of nontenured faculty would have the fortitude of Journey to carry on with the course? How many faculty members are rejiggering their courses in order to not run afoul of the Daniel Schmidts of the world?

Heck, I always hesitate to even write about these things even though I have no employer and no career inside of academia, because the emails I inevitably receive are annoying, if not worse.

Here we have a specific case where institutional neutrality mean sacrificing institutional values. I won’t argue that this is an easy dilemma to solve, but shrugging while pointing at a statement written in another time rather different from this one definitely isn’t a way forward.

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