Colleges Should Protect Speech—or Lose Funds

Withhold federal research dollars from institutions that practice viewpoint discrimination.

 By Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison
 

Almost every week brings a new campus controversy: a college speech code that goes too far, an invited speaker shouted down by students, a professor investigated for wrongthink. While lamentations abound for the state of free inquiry at American universities, few have suggested substantive proposals for redress.

Here’s a straightforward idea that would be easy to put into practice: Require schools to assure free speech and inquiry as a condition of accepting federal research funding. In addition to subsidizing tuition and providing student loans, Washington disburses billions of dollars to colleges and universities for research—nearly $38 billion in fiscal 2015 alone.

ILLUSTRATION: BARBARA KELLEY

Those funds constitute about 60% of all support for university-based research, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Because universities build in usurious rates of overhead on this money—in some instances, upward of 50% goes to underwrite salaries and facilities—these are some of the most prized funds in academia. It would be easy for Washington to require schools to protect free speech before the cash can be disbursed.

Massive federal investment in higher education dates to World War II, when the U.S. purposely made universities a pillar of the nation’s approach to research and development. In a 1945 report, Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, insisted that “freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science.”

At the time this meant measures to protect university research from governmental interference. Today the threat to free inquiry on campus comes from within. In a studylast December, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reviewed 449 higher-education institutions—345 public and 104 private—and found that 92% had policies prohibiting certain categories of constitutionally protected speech.

 

Cross-referencing FIRE’s data with figures from the National Science Foundation illustrates a disheartening reality: Of the 30 higher-education institutions that collected the most federal research funds in fiscal 2015, 26 maintain formal policies restricting constitutionally protected speech. Six of them—Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, Harvard, Penn State, the University of Texas at Austin, and New York University—maintain policies FIRE categorizes as “substantially restricting freedom of speech.” These 26 colleges and universities took more than $14 billion in federal research funding in fiscal 2015, or nearly 40% of the total disbursed.

Academics used to understand that policies to stymie speech and expression are anathema to free inquiry. Consider the “General Declaration of Principles” issued in 1915 by the American Association of University Professors. The group asserted that the university should be “an inviolable refuge” from the tyranny of public opinion: “It is precisely this function of the university which is most injured by any restriction upon academic freedom.”

Prohibitions on what can be said or written inevitably favor certain questions, points of view, and lines of inquiry while discouraging or barring others. Speech codes, trigger warnings, bias-response teams and the like lead students and professors to self-censor. In a national survey this year by FIRE and YouGov, 54% of students said they “have stopped themselves from sharing an idea or opinion in class at some point since beginning college.” All to the detriment of a good education.

Leveraging federal money is one way to discourage campus speech restrictions. Federal research funds should come with contractual provisions that obligate the recipient schools to guarantee open discourse. Colleges should be required to offer assurances that their policies do not restrict constitutionally protected speech or expression and that they will commit to safeguarding open inquiry to the best of their ability. Violating such assurances would be grounds for loss of funds and render the school ineligible for future research dollars.

Further, colleges that receive research grants should be required to establish formal processes for investigating and appealing allegations of speech suppression or intellectual intimidation. Such machinery already exists to address other forms of research misconduct.

These provisions could be implemented by Congress, by presidential directive, or by individual grant-making agencies. Whatever the case, the move is entirely appropriate and wholly within the purview of the federal government. Taxpayer funds should not subsidize research at institutions where free inquiry is compromised.

Mr. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Mr. Addison is program manager for education policy. They are the authors of a new AEI report, “Free Inquiry and Federally Funded Research.”

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