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A close-up photo of Columbia University President Minouche Shafik during her testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce during a hearing focused on antisemitism on campus.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week about antisemitism on campus.

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

The recurring drama is now well-worn. The president of a leading university is subpoenaed before a legislative body and faces fierce, politically motivated questioning from members of Congress. They are forced to answer to charges that their venerable institution—one of the world’s finest—has fallen prey to ideological takeover, the rot of which is so profound that it can no longer meet its mission of teaching, learning and spreading truth. Such corrosion and decay demand government intervention.

But this scene unfolds differently than the doom loop we seem to be experiencing in our own times. Against government regulation of what is said and taught at universities, this university leader articulates a time-tested truth. “The policy of repression of ideas cannot work and has never worked. The alternative to it is the long, difficult road of education.”

Thus was the testimony of University of Chicago Chancellor Robert M. Hutchins in 1949 at the start of the McCarthy era, a time that ensnared many on suspicions of communism and disloyalty to the state, including academics like Harvard Professor Helen Wendler Markham and, as Christopher Nolan recently reminded us, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Now, the frontal attack on higher education alleges antisemitism run amok and the failures of current diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The question behind the contemporary inquisition remains the same: Will aggressive state and federal intervention destroy higher education in the supposed effort to save it?

It is true that some of the ways in which DEI initiatives operate on campuses have corroded free inquiry. Despite good intentions, they have inhibited a legitimate array of viewpoints and opinions that a truly diverse academic community should prize. But just as in the era of anti-Red paranoia, government as such should restrain itself from squelching intellectual diversity, intimidating higher education leaders, and chilling the range of ideas and discourse that institutions dedicated to seeking truth and knowledge ought to keep sacrosanct. The sought-after solutions to the speech-stultifying problems of certain DEI initiatives are neither found in Congress nor in state legislatures, but within campuses themselves.

Antisemitism—and its sibling Islamophobia—are serious problems on college campuses right now. The integration of diversity and inclusion values in a manner that enhances the core knowledge-based mission of higher education is also a serious challenge. Both concerns directly intersect with free inquiry and expression—the first practical principle of any serious academic enterprise—and merit careful, nuanced approaches if we are to successfully meet the moment.

While last week’s Congressional hearing focused on antisemitism at Columbia University, state legislative proposals predominantly target DEI. The extent is staggering: 84 bills have been introduced in 28 states and the U.S. Congress since the start of last year. Twelve have been passed into law, in Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. A key force in making this happen is the Manhattan Institute, which has written savvy model legislation focused on ending DEI offices and staff, eliminating mandatory DEI training and diversity statements, and ending admissions and hiring preferences based on identity. This strategy carefully differs from Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s “Stop Woke” act, which would have directly violated the free speech rights of faculty, a naked frontal assault on academic freedom.

That approach has, for now, failed—blocked by an injunction from a district court in November 2022. Judge Mark E. Walker was unsparing in his order, quoting George Orwell’s 1984 and pointing out the patent absurdities of the DeSantis position. “Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy ‘academic freedom’ so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian.”

The conservative truism that state regulation will do more harm than good has somehow become uncomfortable for much of the political right. Not that long ago, the University of Chicago’s last president, Robert Zimmer, was lucid on this. In opposing former President Trump’s then-anticipated 2019 executive order on campus free speech, and in prior testimony before the U.S. Senate, he warned of the dangers of establishing any precedent furnishing the state with a role in regulating campus speech policies and the inevitable government bureaucracy that would follow. Such a bureaucracy around campus speech would be at least as detrimental to dissenting viewpoints as any in-house university speech committee—arguably more so as an instrument of official government. It leads directly to the Orwellian situation Judge Walker saw clearly.

Similarly, the irony is thick when the motivation to create a more inclusive campus climate leads to policies and practices that effectively squash diversity and open inquiry. Beyond legally unprotected speech such as the incitement of imminent violence, harassment, or that which would satisfy legal standards for creating a hostile environment, expression should not be compelled by requesting or requiring diversity statements of job candidates, restricted through speech codes, or chilled in academic discussion by dissuading the use of terms deemed harmful.

When faculty morally disapprove of terms that 99.9 percent of Americans would find completely innocuous, expressly discouraging the use of such terms, they suppress the free and open discourse that should thrive in the classroom. To the extent such practices proliferate, they further alienate higher education by fostering campus cultures that are bizarre and virtually unrecognizable against the experience of everyday Americans. Over-the-top examples I have personally encountered involved dissuading terms including “poor people,” “blindspot,” “landlord,” and “America.” Leading political philosopher Danielle Allen gets it right in stating that “DEI bureaucracies have been responsible for numerous assaults on common sense.”

But Allen is also right that these observations in no way erode the necessity of diversity and inclusion as fundamental values of educational institutions. Robust engagement of diverse viewpoints in a climate in which all are encouraged and equipped to participate is an essential accelerant in the determination of good ideas from bad ones—a task that lies at the heart of any great university’s mission. However, this issue is not for the state to solve. Ultimately it is the responsibility of higher education leaders to stand up for true principles of free inquiry and expression. Doing so would defuse the temptations of government overreach. That is the higher principle on which we must stand.

The Oscar-winning film Oppenheimer captures the fundamental tragedy of Robert J. Oppenheimer’s life. Among them is the sad reality that he was unable to successfully appeal to any higher principle at all when testifying before the Atomic Energy Commission. For those charged with leading universities, it’s worth asking ourselves why Hutchins succeeded where we currently fail. The University of Chicago did not fall to communist ideological takeover, nor was it subjected to government infringement. Hutchins stood his ground on the principle of free and open inquiry—a principle at the heart of what higher education is and should remain. It is well worth fighting for. Are we up for it?

Tony Banout is inaugural executive director of the University of Chicago Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression, and co-editor of The Chicago Canon on Free Inquiry and Expression, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press this fall.

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