A conversation about free speech, academic freedom at Boise State
These headlines — from the Weekly Standard, the Washington Examiner and The National Review — were among those that Attorney General Jeff Sessions or his staff must have seen this summer and fall when Sessions surprised us all by singling out Boise State as a poster child for attacks on free speech and academic freedom.
When Fred Birnbaum of the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation wrote last month for the Statesman criticizing Boise State for some of the same issues, I asked Corey Cook, dean of the School of Public Service, if he would write in response.
Instead, he asked: How about a conversation?
“Frankly what we’re telling our students is, ‘Listen to people with viewpoints you disagree with and have a conversation,’” Cook said. “I can write something, but we’ll probably end up speaking past each other. It makes a lot more sense to sit down and talk.”
So we sat down and talked.
First, a little background.
Political science Professor Scott Yenor published two academic articles with the conservative Heritage Foundation, but also wrote shorter, more provocative blog posts that appeared in The Daily Signal with less-than-academic-style headlines: “What Liberals Get Wrong About the Family,” and “How Radical Feminism Sowed the Seeds of Our Transgender Moment.”
When Boise State noted, as it does, the faculty work on its website and Facebook pages, critics were unhappy and vocal, and things went viral. Commenters said Yenor should lose his job, that his work should be removed from the university website, and demanded he be fired or disciplined for academic malpractice.
Cook and his fellow administrators also took criticism for the things Yenor’s critics and attackers wrote, posted or circulated on campus.
So Cook’s caution is understandable. He got pummeled first from the left, and then from the right. News coverage didn’t reflect what he believed was an honest effort to protect fundamental campus freedoms. Instead, individuals and websites used the controversy to make their pre-determined political points.
What I heard from Cook: The school tried to do the right thing and took unfair criticism from people who weren’t informed or didn’t care to get the truth. Speech and academic freedom are not well understood — even (or especially) on college campuses. And social media is a poor place to have nuanced conversations about complicated, emotional, painful subjects.
What I heard Birnbaum say: Conservatives often don’t feel welcome or included on college campuses, or free to express their opinions. This episode only illustrates and amplifies that. Diversity on college campuses often doesn’t extend to diversity of thought or ideology.
The two men didn’t end our 90-minute conversation setting aside their differences, but I think each came away seeing some validity in the other’s arguments and thinking the time was well spent. Here’s the heart of our conversation, condensed for clarity and brevity.
Corey Cook: We stand by (Scott Yenor’s) speech. It is informed by his scholarship, therefore it is academic freedom. We stand fully behind all of our faculty’s academic freedom, regardless of political perspective or ideology or anything else. We said publicly and in writing we will not censor him or censure him in any way, and he’s thanked me for that.
Fred Birnbaum: I don’t think Professor Yenor’s speech is threatened. But I do think, and what Sessions was referring to, and I have talked to Professor Yenor myself, and what bothers him isn’t specifically how he’s treated. It’s people who don’t have tenure, who aren’t full professors, there’s a chilling effect, there’s a hostile environment on campuses that is directed toward conservatives.
If you’re an untenured professor and you want to say something that is controversial, and you see these sort of attacks, I could easily see that having a chilling effect. One, you’re worried about getting tenure and, two, just the approach and relationship you have with other colleagues.
Cook: I think that is a totally valid point. We met with our untenured faculty after that. We’re telling our faculty: Engage in these debates, because this is useful for the state. Better than writing in obscure journals, do work that actually provides greater value with the state. So when this happens, not just conservative faculty, but all faculty, say “Are you sure?” Because they see the backlash, from both sides.
He’s a serious scholar. The result of the national heightened focus has been to portray him as an intentionally provocative person. Whether you agree or disagree with his ideas, they’re ideas worth taking seriously. They’re relevant. They’re important. We promoted him and gave him tenure because of his writing about these things. We tell our junior faculty: You should be confident, you should be comfortable, writing in these areas. I had a number of faculty who said: Look at the outcry. Why should I feel comfortable? (We told faculty): We will defend you. Absolutely, without question, period.
Bill Manny: But there’s got to be some line beyond which you won’t defend somebody, or if their research is irresponsible?
Cook: Well, yes and no. Academic freedom (means) you are using your scholarly work. A lot of the critique that was directed at me was “This isn’t scholarship.” But it is grounded in his scholarship. Period. Absolute.
Manny: So you don’t make a judgment, as a dean, that a professor’s research is either responsible, or reflective of their scholarship? Or do you just say, ‘Hey, it’s scholarship. It’s OK.’ ?
Cook: There’s a tenure promotion guide. There’s a process by which their scholarship is evaluated. That’s not what I do at all.
Academia is about a search for the truth, which requires us to invite multiple perspectives. I really believe in the marketplace of ideas. That’s when academia works well. My view was, you defend the faculty speech and you leave it up and you invite conversation.
Birnbaum: I guess the concern I would express that Dean Cook didn’t was what other people on campus did. (He noted critical social media posts by Boise State staff and posters and a flier that said “Fire Scott Yenor, he has blood on his hands.”) So I worry about the environment that’s created on campuses where students are thinking very differently than you. So are we really creating an environment where students are embracing free speech? It wouldn’t appear that way.
Cook: You’re absolutely right, but that’s not a Boise State problem. You’ve probably seen the studies: Students across the country don’t understand the First Amendment. I had students call me, alumni call and say, “This is hate speech.” It’s protected speech. There is no such thing as hate speech.
Birnbaum: There is no hate speech defined in law.
Cook: And the Supreme Court is unanimous on that. I’ve met with a lot of students, who have directed a lot of anger my way. We treat it as a learning point. Our students, across the country, don’t know what the First Amendment is. We’re doing some work this semester, some panels and things on the First Amendment.
What I’ve found, from both sides, is their definition of freedom of speech is “Only the speech I like, and shut off the speech I don’t like.” My view is, we need to encourage robust discourse of all speech and that does not include selective silencing of those we disagree with.
Manny: What Fred is saying is that cases like this squelch that free expression. So what is the university’s responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen, or make sure the folks who are the targets of that response don’t, essentially, have their free speech rights taken away?
Cook: I’ve met with a ton of student groups. I think this is an educational opportunity for our students and, again, not just at Boise State. (Cook recounted talking to students who circulated a petition demanding Yenor be fired.) You have a right to do that. You need to know that will not result in an action against him. But if that is the way you want to express yourself, that’s fine. That is not going to yield what you want. If you want to talk to him about the ideas, we will create an environment for you to do that.
Birnbaum: I do see an asymmetry here. Can you find somebody who is a conservative who would actually (attack) a liberal scholar who wrote something defending Marxism, or something like that? Diversity and inclusion seems to be a one-way street. (Talk about diversity and inclusion) actually means exclusion, or creating a sense of victimized groups — ‘You’ve been marginalized, you’ve been oppressed, we’re here to validate that.’ It’s very Orwellian. I think it’s actually the opposite of what it says it is.
Cook: I can assure you I did not mean it in any Orwellian sense. Again, I think we are talking past each other on a lot of these issues. I had students who complained, who said (Yenor’s writing) made them feel less safe on campus. I heard you. I understand that. We still defend his speech.
Manny: But this is not the first time you’ve heard diversity advocates sometimes accused of being intolerant?
Cook: Absolutely, and I’ve seen that on other campuses. I was surprised that using the word diversity at all (in Cook’s Facebook post) was being interpreted that way. It never occurred to me. That was a fairly widespread comment I got in emails.
Birnbaum: I think the perception is certainly grounded in the reality that people see. (The shortage of conservative faculty) is the piece of diversity we haven’t addressed here.
Cook: Higher ed needs to be more ideologically diverse, period, I would grant that point. What I wouldn’t grant is that we’re not being critical, or that students are not getting a good education. I have never once in my career been accused of political (slant) at all. Never once, left, right or otherwise. Because I’m a careful teacher. I think, frankly, Scott Yenor is a careful teacher.
Birnbaum: You do have an image, optics, problem. If 80 percent of that faculty leans left, why isn’t in this state the public university system more reflective of the values of the voters and the taxpayers?
Cook: There’s absolutely that perception, I wouldn’t disagree with that. All I can say is let me demonstrate we can do work of value to you, that we’re not putting our thumb on the scale. Our mission as a college is to do policy-relevant work for the people of Idaho. If we cannot demonstrate objectivity and value to the communities of Idaho, we won’t exist.
Manny: Part me thinks: Fred, what are you complaining about? You’ve got your way. You’ve got every member of the congressional delegation. Republicans dominate state offices, politics in this state.
Birnbaum: A lot of people don’t know what it means to be quote unquote a conservative. Just because the Legislature is 84 percent Republican isn’t what’s important. It’s do they do the right public policy things? They will say they are conservative, but they will vote a different way.
Manny: Then you guys are defining what conservative is.
Birnbaum: Fair enough. We would point out there is a Republican Party platform that says many of the same things we do — limited government, free markets. It’s not necessarily us defining it. We are trying to promote what we could call conservative ideas that are consistent with what the Republican Party says they are for.
Cook: (Noting that Birnbaum’s Statesman article urged the Legislature to deny a request for money from the School of Public Service, which Cook said would penalize academics like Yenor, rather than Yenor’s attackers.) It is logically inconsistent to say we should not be funded when our college defended the guy who’s in our college. His travel and research budget is part of what is in our allocation.
(Our conversation returned to the Facebook post Cook wrote in response to criticism of Yenor).
Birnbaum: The way I looked at it was you put (the post) up, and then kind of stood back.
Cook: I had colleagues say, “You should take this down as a violation of our core values.” I said I hear you saying that. I will not denounce him. I will not censor him. I will not take it down.
Birnbaum: After you wrote what you wrote, there was a torrent of abuse as you know directed at him, including “The blood on his hands…”
Cook: I’ll be honest, there was a torrent of abuse directed to me too.
Birnbaum: Yeah, but it probably wasn’t quite like this. I don’t know if anyone said you were a neo-Nazi. You could have said … “What is not consistent with our core values whatsoever are the attacks and attempts to get him fired.”
Cook: I can assure you I have said that. But that is not what Facebook is for. That is what teaching is for. That is what conferences with students are for. And I get where you’re coming from, because I haven’t said that to you, I haven’t said that to the National Review. This is a teachable moment for our students. I can assure you I sat down with them and told them exactly that. But I am not going to call them out on Facebook. That will inflame things and result in something that is not appropriate.
Birnbaum: That’s a fair point. But when you are looking at the optics from an outside viewpoint, and that’s why I wrote what I did, there are people who break up a fight, there are people who encourage a fight and there are people who stand back and watch the fight.
Cook: Is it not clear which role I am playing in this?
Birnbaum: Well it wasn’t at the time. I’ll accept your point at this particular juncture. After this was published, there was a torrent of abuse directed his way. In the larger university community there weren’t a lot of people saying “What’s been directed toward Professor Yenor, the climate that’s been created, is inappropriate for a university setting.”
Manny: But let me push back on that, because is it the university’s job to protect a faculty member from what they write? It’s their job to protect his right to publish it. But is it their job to protect him from people who disagree, even vociferously?
Birnbaum: No. I guess the overarching point ... is what I saw was people not rallying around, but people stepping back or, in the faculty senate, in the main, condemning Yenor, not saying “We don’t really agree with what he said, but it’s absolutely imperative that everyone knows the university is not going to be bullied by a bunch of students.”
Cook: I think you and I probably don’t see the role of the university that differently, or the challenges in higher ed. I don’t find any of the writing (about Yenor) in the National Review or, frankly the piece that you wrote, to be accurate reflections of what actually happened within the university, because that is not what I experienced.
I don’t know, frankly, how to have that conversation then, right? Because we didn’t step back from Scott in any way. We haven’t told students “Just keep protesting, and you’ll get what you want.” What we’ve told student is, “You don’t understand the First Amendment, so we’re going to do some work around that.”
Higher ed isn’t about coddling students, it’s not about protecting them from uncomfortable ideas. It is about listening to each other. … A lot of the critiques I got from my piece was because I said we’re going to let this stand, because we believe in discourse and debate. (Critics responded to Cook:) “Well I can’t debate that; what he wrote is indefensible and undebatable.” It’s not. “I can’t debate it, tear it down.” No, that’s not what we do.
But I think it’s fair to say we don’t necessarily have all the right mechanisms to have those conversations. We see this across the country. Because there is a national discourse that speaks past each other, the expectation on campus is that shouting equals debate and discourse. Whether you agree or disagree with what Scott wrote, he was actually trying to engage a substantive issue that to me merits consideration and debate. And if his ideas are the best ideas they should rise. If they’re the worst ideas they should fall. That’s what academia is, right?