Features Australia

Cancel culture on campus

Don’t fund universities that don’t respect free speech

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

Let me give readers more to worry about when it comes to today’s rampant cancel culture, a phenomenon that seems massively more likely to hit those on the right side of the political divide. Take this instance, yet again from the realm of universities. Northwestern University, just outside Chicago, is ranked in the top ten American unis by the US News and World Report. (As an aside, I hasten to add that all the myriad rankings of universities around the world are thoroughly gamed, force the building of huge internal university bureaucracies to play the ranking game and do the gaming, are almost always misleading to students setting off to do an undergraduate degree, and rarely tell us anything that was not blatantly obvious to anyone who worked in a university for a few years – say, that the old, established, wealthier universities will rank higher than the newer ones in most disciplines. Worse, often the information such rankings throw up is close to meaningless. Universities, however, prefer meaningless ranking information over no data at all.)

At the end of last year, an emeritus lecturer at Northwestern University, Joseph Epstein, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that criticised using the honorific ‘doctor’ if you’re not the medical sort. Epstein started his criticism by focussing on Jill Biden who has a doctorate, a Ph.D., in education. The gist of his point here was that if you lack a medical degree you have to be a bit tone-deaf to call yourself – and insist on others calling you – ‘doctor’ these days. But Epstein didn’t stop there. He pointed out that Ph.D.s themselves have lost a good deal of their value as the number of those who have this qualification has exploded – and exploded it has. In Australian law schools all lecturers and professors are expected to have one, an expectation that I have long railed against as being idiotic, blind mimicry of the science disciplines in the universities, harmful to law schools themselves as it acts as a barrier to practitioners becoming full-time faculty, and part of ‘credentialism run mad’. Epstein also pointed out that the status of honorary doctorates, the sort given out at graduation ceremonies and which – unbelievably – some recipients take as a licence to be called ‘doctor’, has declined even more precipitously. These honorary doctorates were once the sole preserve of distinguished scholars and statesmen with a smattering of artists and scientists. Then, as Epstein noted, ‘rich men entered the lists, usually in the hope that they would donate money to the schools that had granted them their honorary degrees’. Then it was famous entertainers. Then political correctness and the supposed demands of ‘diversity’ kicked in so that these honorary degrees often now have the same worth as that product people fight over in grocery stores at the first sign of a supposed pandemic.

I pretty much agree with Epstein but in the old days those who didn’t used to write a rebuttal op-ed arguing why he was wrong and why calling yourself a ‘doctor’ when you have a Ph.D. or an honorary doctorate – and asking others to address you that way – was perfectly fine. Not anymore. Not if the target of your disagreement looks to have views that might plausibly be right-leaning and different to the ‘orthodox, left-leaning, university consensus’ views that pervade virtually all Anglosphere universities. In that case you attack and aim to destroy your opponent.

And so, it was at Northwestern. The writer’s English department attacked him. The departmental Chair said Epstein’s writing had made people ‘livid’ for a long time. (That’s an ad hominem attack but these days, they’re seen as perfectly fine.) The upper echelons of the university then chimed in, noting that Northwestern ‘is firmly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, and strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views. They don’t say why they disagree. They offer no evidence for why Epstein is misogynistic unless any and all criticisms of any woman, anywhere, for anything, qualifies one for that opprobrium. It was the typical, pathetic, university response. Northwestern then opted to drop Epstein from its university website as an emeritus lecturer, despite this being in the gift of the Board of Trustees. There was also a brief boilerplate assurance that Northwestern ‘firmly supported’ academic freedom. Yeah, right. Of course, they do. Doesn’t that remind you of James Cook University’s assurance of its commitment to free speech – more honoured in the breach than the observance as some white, Western male once said? And when a few brave professors wrote to the provost to complain about Northwestern’s patent violation of free speech, what happened? They didn’t even receive a reply.

This is cancel culture on steroids. Epstein’s arguments are strong and powerful. I would say they’re wholly persuasive. But for those who differ nothing stops them from marshalling their arguments and writing a rebuttal. Instead, they attack the man and aim to remove him from polite society.

And here’s the kicker. If Melania Trump had done exactly what Jill Biden did, does anyone believe there would be any criticisms of an alter ego Epstein writing the same piece? No. The cancel culture desire to wipe certain views and people out of polite society is a one-way street. And anyone who thinks this is just an American phenomenon, not present in Australia, is delusional. I work in a G8 university. I know.

The American legal scholar Professor John McGinnis, after recently writing about this at length, pointed to a glimmer of hope. The University of Chicago had a similar brouhaha when a professor of theirs attacked all ‘diversity and inclusion’ programs.  (Again, I’m broadly sympathetic.) Activist students and some faculty demanded the professor be removed from all sorts of roles. The University of Chicago president and top administrators declined to do so. They pointed to their commitment to the Chicago Principles on free speech and did nothing. The furore dissipated in a short time.

And yet the Morrison government refuses to do anything about our universities. As I’ve long said, even the French recommendations are too weak. Tell all Aussie universities to adopt the Chicago Principles on free speech (which is good enough for Princeton and Chicago Universities) or lose massive amounts of funding. This would end whole swathes of cancel culture on our campuses overnight. Instead, Team Morrison (and eight years of Coalition governments) do nothing.

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