Protecting free speech on campus


October 25, 2018 1:28PM

College campuses are supposed to serve as arenas of open inquiry so that the next generation can practice and master civil debate, critical thinking, and rigorous scholarship. If properly done, students graduate having learned the importance of treating opposing ideas as opportunities for learning and engagement, not as threats to be dismissed with ad hominem attacks and name-calling.

The academy certainly has not always lived up to this ideal. There is a dark history of Marxist professors (or professors accused of Marxism) being harassed for simply exploring, testing, or expressing their viewpoints. Despite the lessons learned from this harrowing experience, we still live in a world where the vast majority of college campuses lack basic free speech protections and, we see, even in modern times, speakers on both the left and right being harassed on their campuses. Given the concerning decrease in ideological diversity on college campuses, this is a particular concern for scholars on the right.

Data from the Higher Education Research Institute shows that faculty on the left are disproportionately represented on college campuses. Around 60 percent of faculty identify as being “Far Left / Liberal” while only 12 percent identify as being “Far Right / Conservative.” One wonders how the academy will continue to serve its primary role of exposing students to a wide range of contending ideas when it is becoming so one-sided that it is beginning to resemble an echo chamber.

This is a disservice to students on both the left and right because they are denied the challenge to find deeper theoretical, empirical, and philosophical justifications for their positions. As John Stuart Mill observed, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” Grappling with contending viewpoints is an essential part of an education.

The newly established Political Economy Research Institute will provide a unique opportunity to preserve and expand open inquiry, civil debate, and critical thinking at Middle Tennessee State University. Our mission is to engage students with faculty in research that will further our understanding of business and economic principles to uncover the policies that enhance human well-being. We will achieve this by expanding ideological diversity, promoting both student and faculty research, and providing programming for students, scholars, and the broader community. All of these initiatives will encourage students and faculty to explore a wide range of contending ideas. For instance, in November the PERI will host its first major event, a discussion on a selection of readings from contending texts in political economy, including Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

PERI will produce high quality and academically informed public policy research that is relevant to our communities, state, and nation. That is one of the many reasons I am particularly excited and honored to be affiliated with the Beacon Center of Tennessee as their Senior Fellow for Fiscal and Regulatory Policy.

PERI will advance the region, state, and nation by elevating the level and civility of discourse in political economy, helping produce more well-rounded and informed citizens.