May 11, 2005: A moment with...
Harvey Silverglate ’64
Since freshman year, Harvey Silverglate ’64 and Alan Kors ’64 have been “inseparable ... best friends, writing and plotting together,” says Silverglate. After graduation they roomed together at Harvard, Kors getting his Ph.D. in history and becoming a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Silverglate getting a law degree and founding a firm in Cambridge, Mass. In 1998 they drew on their academic and legal experience to write The Shadow University, which outlined what they saw as the betrayal of civil liberties on college campuses, and soon after that founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Silverglate spoke with Kathryn Beaumont ’96 about free speech and intellectual diversity.
How did you and Alan become involved in issues of free speech in higher education?
I did student disciplinary work since the beginning of my law practice. I represented the students who took over Uni-versity Hall at Harvard during the anti-Vietnam War protests, and in the late 1960s I represented all kinds of student radicals. Alan, in his role as professor, also would represent students in campus tribunals. We noticed in the mid-1980s that there was a disturbing shift in the nature of the charges being brought against students. Previously, students would be charged for what they did, and suddenly, we noticed students were being charged for what they said. As the years went on, this trend got worse, and we decided to look into it. We discovered the proliferation all over the country of speech codes. You could be punished for something on a college campus that is absolutely constitutionally protected outside the gates of the university.
Does this mean that universities are averse to debate?
They are still hosting debate, but not debate that bothers anybody. Never where it hurts what they call a sense of community, or where it offends anybody in any group that they would call historically disadvantaged. Whether you’re talking about blue states or red states, universities are these little islands unto themselves of totalitarianism in a sea of liberty and free speech.
Why has this happened?
In the 1980s, campuses became more diverse. When universities began to really diversify, including Princeton, administrators didn’t want students from these newly enfranchised groups on campus — women, blacks, Arabs, Hispanics, and, more recently, gays — to feel estranged. Rather than relying on the natural ability of students to make it through by themselves, administrators instituted various programs and behavior codes to protect these disadvantaged groups.
What about Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who compared 9/11 victims to “little Eichmanns”?
Ward Churchill is an aberration and an example in this sense. From the 1980s until 9/11, the repression of speech has been by the left against the right — when I say the “left,” I mean the academic left. Inevitably, though, the political winds were going to shift, and the left was going to be sorry because these speech codes were going to be turned against it. So even though constitutionally and also by virtue of contract Ward Churchill can’t be fired for saying what he said, someone will find a way to fire him. The way those on the left have handled academic freedom — instituting speech codes and insisting on hiring only people who agree with them — it has weakened the institutions that support liberty, free speech, academic freedom, and free debate.
Can you comment about the uproar among the faculty at Harvard in response to President Larry Summers’ remarks about women in science?
In the short run, Larry Summers has been beaten. And the cause of free speech and free inquiry on campuses has been beaten. In the long run, however, the left at Harvard is going to be very sorry that it launched this assault because what it has done is focused the attention of the rest of the country on the sickness in the university campuses.
But doesn’t the role of a university president differ from that of an outspoken academic?
It is more of an obligation of the president to raise such issues than for an academic to raise them. The notion that because he is president, he should stick to just raising funds is an insult. It’s time that our college presidents went back to becoming leaders and thinking outside the box.
How does this apply to someone controversial at Princeton, such as Peter Singer?
Academia is always the place for someone like Peter Singer. The Peter Singers of the world are very valuable to us. They outrage us, but they get us thinking. However, in academia, when you are outraged by someone from the right, it’s a different attitude than when you are outraged from the left. There’s a double standard. And I don’t think you can have double standards in academia. Liberty has to transcend political viewpoints or it’s meaningless, it’s worthless.