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A Note to University Administrators

Don't worry, be happy.

Stanley Fish is the presidential scholar in residence at New College, Florida. He is author most recently of Law at the Movies: Turning Legal Doctrine into Art (Oxford, 2024).

University administrators faced with sit-ins, tent encampments, and other forms of protest continue to betray an inability to understand their situations. A prominent (and even poignant) case in point is Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, who began a recent statement by acknowledging the obvious: “There is a terrible conflict raging in the Middle East with devastating consequences.” She then notes that many on her campus “are experiencing deep moral distress and want Columbia to help alleviate this by taking action.” Her next sentence falls off the cliff. “We should be having serious conversations about how Columbia can contribute.”

No, no, no! What she should have said is this: “Intervening in a political crisis is not within our job description; it’s not something we are either equipped to do or assigned to do. Our job is to introduce students to the materials and histories of various academic disciplines and to provide those same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to proceed on their own after a course is over.” That’s it, nothing else. Any “contribution” we as members of the academy might make to the solving of society’s problems would be indirect. Some legislator or cabinet secretary or C.E.O. could pick up an analysis or a theorem we have produced and put it to his own purposes, but our purposes would remain as they are, limited to instruction and the advancement of knowledge in the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences and computer sciences.

Nothing in our charters, employment contracts, or compliance requirements directs us or authorizes us to play a role on the world’s stage. No applicant for a position is asked to produce political credentials; the credentials you must produce are academic. What training have you had in the field in which you propose to teach? What writings of yours have been accepted at leading journals? What new paths of research do you intend to go down? Those are the questions, not what rallies do you pledge to attend or what causes do you promise to fight for? An interviewer wants to know if you will be a competent academic performer, not if you will be a good person on the right side or on any side.

If this account of what institutions of higher learning appropriately do—they don’t do everything, they do the academic thing—is accepted, a conclusion (no doubt counterintuitive to many) immediately follows: colleges and universities have no obligation to foster or even allow political protests on campus. Indeed, it is quite the reverse, for if the overriding and defining imperative is to ensure the flourishing of the academic enterprise—classes being taught, research being conducted, procedures being followed—administrators have a positive duty to remove any impediments to that flourishing, including tent encampments, sit-ins, obstacles to exits and entries, building occupations, forcing the cancellation of classes and a host of other things now occurring.

But what about free speech? The question seems relevant because protest is a form of speech, allied with the right of assembly, and is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. But protest is a political right deemed essential to the workings of a democracy where every voice merits a hearing. The university is not a democracy, and within its precincts the voices that are heard are those that have survived a rigorous process of vetting and credentialing. You don’t get to speak in a university setting just because you have a mouth and an opinion; you get to speak in a university because your peers have judged you capable of participating in the conversation, a judgement that follows a period of training (graduate school and the earning of a Ph.D.), apprenticeship in the trade, and performances (articles, books, juried awards) that mark you as someone worth listening to.

More are silenced than are given a platform, and when you are granted a platform, you are expected to produce speech that contributes in a significant way to the practice that has accepted you as a member. This is not free speech, but speech constrained by the norms and protocols that define and monitor the profession. As with any other practice, it is always possible, and indeed mandatory, to say of something offered, “That’s not the kind of thing we do around here.” In the academy political protest is not the kind of thing we do around here; it is not part of the core mission, although universities can decide to permit a bit of it in designated places on the model of a Hyde Park corner. But once the permitted political speech gets out of hand and threatens to undermine the main business of the enterprise—instructing students and advancing the state of knowledge—it must be curbed and even silenced.

The legal basis for this position is to be found in a Vietnam War-era Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Students opposing the war came to class wearing black armbands as a sign of protest. They were sent home by school authorities. They then brought an action citing the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The court decided for the students, but with a caveat. First it said (in a formulation everyone remembers) that “students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.” In short, political protest of the kind represented by the armbands is protected speech, unless—and this is the part people tend to forget—the otherwise protected expression “intrudes upon the work of the school or the rights of other students.” In this case, the court notes, the armband-wearing students “were not disruptive,” but, in general, expressive conduct which “materially disrupts classwork or includes substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.”

What the Court recognizes, as many who cry “free speech, free speech” do not, is that colleges and universities are not in the free speech business or the democracy business. They are in the education business; and while institutions of higher education may decide to allow a certain amount of political speech on their campuses, they are not required to do so. They are, however, required to silence that same speech once it enters the stage of interference and disruption.

“Required” is a strong word and it hearkens back to my earlier phrase “positive duty.” Some administrators see themselves as torn between the obligation to support free speech and the obligation to maintain a secure and safe campus. But they can dispense with their moral dilemmas (a hard thing for academics to do) and the hand-wringing that accompanies them once they remember that they were hired to administer an enterprise, not to be constitutional watchdogs or guardians of democracy. Removing obstacles to the functioning of the academic process (even by calling in the police) is not something they should apologize for, but something that follows from the office they hold. Apologies would be in order only if they were to substitute for the chief imperative of that office—keep it going and keep it healthy—the seductive and self-inflationary imperative of saving the world. President Shafik is said to be in danger of losing her job. If that happens, it will be because she doesn’t know what it is.