We Have Been Here Before

“Controversial speakers on campus” is one of those stories that generates a kind of perpetual discovery of just-now-imminent threat.

That sort of discourse tends to drive historians nuts, because we look back and see that people have been saying something of the sort for decades, and yet seem unaware that they are perpetually foretelling a crisis that never arrives. That controversial speakers come and go on colleges–and sometimes do not get to speak because a college president or a faculty or student activists disinvite or impede their appearance–but for the most part academic institutions go on just as they have and the wider world of free speech and public discourse also endure.

And yet historians also hate the idea of an unchanging, perpetual phenomenon, because that is when ahistorical explanations start to take hold–that these controversies are the product of some eternal psychological need or of millennia of intergenerational struggle or something of that sort. That’s not right either, if for no other reason that the ubiquity and diversity of institutions of higher learning in the United States is distinctive to that country and is a development of the last 175 years, for the most part.

Speakers on college campuses (and also college professors speaking in other civic institutions) have been banned or disinvited or protested continuously since the late 1940s. Great historical work by scholars like Andrew Hartman and L.D. Burnett, among others, detail the way higher education has been a part of “culture wars” around speakers, curriculum and other issues.

It happened because of McCarthyism. The trustees at Ohio State University in 1951 instructed the president of the university to personally review all invitations to appear on campus to eliminate appearances by “subversives” or those “whose views do not contribute to the university’s educational program”. In 1951, the New York Times conducted a survey in which college students were found to be suffering from “various degrees of inhibition about speaking out on controversial issues” because of the pressures of McCarthyism. Clark Kerr in 1958 specifically revoked a ban on Communist speakers at the University of California and was immediately assaulted by legislators, including the House Un-American Activities Committee.

It happened because of pressure brought by Southern states against the civil rights movement and against leftists of any kind. In 1956, the University of Mississippi’s administration banned a white NAACP minister from speaking in a program about religion because he refused to promise to not discuss segregation. In 1963, the state legislature of North Carolina tried to compel the University of North Carolina to ban leftist speakers by passing a law that made administrators criminally liable if a Communist or person who had taken the Fifth about Communism spoke on campus–a rule that was relaxed in 1966, though Herbert Aptheker and Frank Wilkinson were still kept from speaking at UNC that year. It happened because social conservatives on campuses tried to block or impede speakers they perceived to be counter-cultural or leftist even after McCarthyism. The unorthodox Episcopal minister James A. Pike was the target of some who objected to his talk at UCLA in 1959. The UC regents tried to limit Eldridge Cleaver to a single appearance in 1968 rather than the ten lectures in an experimental student-run course that he had promised to give. It happened because straight faculty and administrators, or alumni and legislators, opposed allowing known homosexuals to speak on campus. And yes, as Ulrich Baer points out, it happened because left-wing students opposed speakers they believed to be reactionary or racist, all the way back into the 1960s–protests in the 1970s against William Shockley, for example, almost directly echo current protests against Charles Murray; Yale’s rescinding and then reinviting of George Wallace in 1963 almost exactly resembled Berkeley’s maneuvers with Coulter.

Even the wording of administrative statements about many controversies in the past seventy-odd years has been pretty invariant. The chancellor at UCLA who upheld Pike’s speech said it was in the “tradition of great universities for students to hear as many points of view as possible”. The president of Bucknell University in 1952 defended having controversial material in campus libraries, saying they need to have the “courage, honesty and intelligence to provide source material on both sides of conflicting arguments”, but also said that colleges should refuse to invite speakers who would “use the university’s good name…for advocating doctrines completely out of sympathy with the ideals and objectives of the university”. Conservatives in North Carolina who supported the 1963 legislation said, when told that UNC might lose accreditation, “then let accreditation go”. The philosopher Sidney Hook complained in 1965 about student activists and said, “Students, sometimes unfortunately abetted by junior faculty personnel, will occasionally try to break up meetings with speakers with whom they disagree. A self-respecting faculty cannot tolerate such activities.” He went on, “Small groups of students, zealots in some cause, will occasionally violate the rules of fair discussion and honest advocacy…A few students, for example, will organize a ‘Free Speech Forum’ or something else with a libertarian flavor. Their first speaker will be Lincoln Rockwell or someone of his kidney. Thereafter, as a ‘reply’ to Fascism will come a succession of Communist speakers, sometimes paid from general student or educational funds. The ‘educational point’ of the forum is to build up Communism in its various disguises”. Columbia President Grayson Kirk, after taking a dig in 1965 at student activists for their “eccentric personal hygiene”, said that while any speakers should be welcome on a college campus, neither should the university be regarded as an “ivy-festooned soapbox”. In 1964, Andrew Hacker defended academic freedom by arguing that there need be little fear that students would simplistically fall prey to any “siren song” of an outside speaker, and that administrators were mostly worried about their institutional image or about pressure from alumni donors and state legislators.

It’s actually kind of astonishing how little the basic structures of argument, the tropes and figures of speech, the particular positions, have changed. Aaron Hanlon’s New Republic essay in the last week could have the names and some of the lingo replaced by 1960s-1970s era references and it might well pass for something from that era. I don’t mean that as a knock. As I skimmed quickly through past debates about speakers on campus, I recognized many sentiments that I’ve voiced myself, sometimes from speakers that I’m not altogether that eager to resemble. I’ve also made the point that the university is a place with a limited and particular purpose that might properly make some speakers less appropriate than others. Like Hanlon, I’ve pointed out that an exclusion from a 14-week syllabus is not censorship, it’s just me making prudent decisions about how to use limited resources in the best way; similarly, why not insist that a campus is a place where invited speakers have to meet some kind of standard of usefulness? But I get uncomfortable seeing, as I look back, that those arguments were at times used to keep speakers off campus who were undeniably relevant, inspiring or interesting.

I’m also fascinated at how stable the architecture of these conflicts is: state legislators have been trying to force universities to ban speakers (sometimes the same kinds of speakers then as now!) since the 1950s. (And maybe before? I don’t know much about how this looks in the 1920s-1930s.) Alumni have been disappointed, threatening to withdraw donations, pressuring college presidents. Administrators have been playing a balancing game. Faculty have been reluctantly accepting of controversial speakers in public, privately engaging in vicious in-fighting against colleagues that they believe to have conspired to bring an unwanted speaker into the mix, or sometimes, for having disrupted the appearance of such a speaker. (Look at Hook knocking “junior faculty personnel” and tell me that a department meeting with him in 1965 wouldn’t be nearly identical to certain meetings today where a senior colleague with a strong ideological predisposition of varying kinds was exacting a price for an invitation–or for protesting an invitation.) Students have been alternatively enraged by speakers they believe should not have appeared and the denial of speakers they want to appear.


So what has changed? One of the primary shifts between the McCarthy and segregation era is that the political power of government over academia has changed to some degree, but that increasingly seems like a minor shift at best, given how aggressively state legislatures are trying to punish public and private universities for their decisions about speakers and curricula (and now the US President has gotten into the act with his threats to Berkeley).

The particular ideologies that are being contended over are different. Academic freedom is a more established principle, but in a profession that’s been badly damaged by changes in labor practices, that’s not as relevant as it was in the 1980s.

I think the big difference is something that happened at the end of the 1960s and then really took hold in the 1970s: students established a right to control their own associations and groups on campus, and gained access to some budgetary resources that were independent of the main budgetary authority of universities and colleges. In a 1968 article in the New York Times, an anonymous agent who used to book lecturers in higher education complained that students had become the primary people who booked more prominent speaker. He said, “These kids are sensation-mad. What’s worse, the university administration has abdicated.”

I feel as if I’ve been living with this particular aspect of the struggle over campus speakers most of my life. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, I served on the student budget committee. The year I was elected, 1984, the African-American student group Ujamaa invited Louis Farrakhan to speak. Many students on campus objected strongly to the invitation, particularly Jewish students. the position I took then–which lost in the initial vote of the budget committee–was that if Ujamaa wanted him, it was their choice to make, not ours, even though I personally would rather they didn’t invite him. That argument won out, begrudgingly, in a later compromise that forced Ujamaa to collect revenue to cover some of the cost.

The students of Ujamaa pointed out at the time that there had been other controversial speakers on campus who had been tolerated. They also echoed my point: that if they were to have their own group, then it was their choices that mattered, not the choices of a mostly-white group of student government representatives or of the college administration.

I still think this is basically true. That once you stop having faculty advisors and administrative control over student groups, that you have to leave them to make their own decisions. Yes, that’s been a gate into the university that wealthy right-wing groups have been using aggressively since the 1980s and that the AEI is using today in backing talks by Charles Murray. But the students in any of those groups aren’t paid provocateurs. They’re admitted students who have the same standing as any other student once they arrive.

The major difference in the last few years that affects this shift is that some faculty are moving back towards a more patrimonial view of student decision-making and and some students are encouraging them to do that. That is, if and when it suits those students, generally on an ideological basis. You can find some student activists wanting administrations and faculty to act to foreclose or forbid some kinds of agency by other students while also feeling that their own student demands or preferences should have authority over administrative or faculty governance.

In the end, I still feel much as I did at Wesleyan. I still feel it is my prerogative as a member of a community with governance responsibilities to express a critical view of what some student groups decide for themselves about speakers, or for that matter, what they decide to do as activists. I still feel it is my obligation as a member of a community to accept the right of a duly constituted group of students (or faculty or administrators or alumni) to make those kinds of decisions for themselves, without any whisper of a desire to use my authority as a faculty member to override them. I still feel that it is my pedagogical duty to try and advise students about the implications of the actions they are contemplating or undertaking–and my pedagogical duty to support them in the making of the choices they feel strongly committed to, whatever those are.

I am not that far from what Andrew Hacker said in 1964. The worst talk by the worst person on a campus can be endured, even by the people whom it hurts. In part because colleges are not bubbles or pocket utopias, any more than homes are castles or fortresses. If there is a bad person out there, then the call is already coming from inside the room. But it is also always worth saying to anyone who would think they wanted to hear the worst talk by the worst person that they should think again, for the exact same reason. That causing pain now in the belief that you need to do that in order to explore your own freedoms is a kind of gateway drug. That there’s almost always a way to hear and see and think about the things you’re interested in from someone more thoughtful, more genuine, more careful, more respectful. So I suppose in that sense that I sound even a bit like Hook or Kirk or any number of other stentorian establishment liberals who thought and said, “You could do better than inviting that person into a community that has higher and nobler aspirations”. The humbling thing about the history of controversies over speakers-on-campus is that sometimes we’ve shown that kind of disdain towards people whom we should have embraced, towards people who were in fact colleagues or peers, towards people who were more thoughtful or important than we knew, or towards people who were frankly kind of trivial and unworthy of any exertion by anybody.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we’ve given that withering advice about people who really had no business being on a university campus–or in being part of the life of a just and democratic society. It’s hard to muster much sympathy for the idea of giving William Shockley a fair hearing in the 1970s, and easy to feel sympathy for those at Yale who decided that they were essentially being concern trolled by people who had no interest in defending free speech per se but just in trying to provoke Yale into seeming to be against it. It’s also easy now–as it was then–to sympathize with the dissent of Kenneth J. Barnes in the 1974 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale” in which he concludes, “that free expression is an important value, which we must cherish and protect. But it is not the only value which we uphold”. My only certainty in all this is that if students now have, as they ought, the agency to decide for themselves whom they want to hear from, then we cannot make them agree with that proposition. They have to come to it themselves, and that may sometimes require making their own mistakes in their own ways.

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5 Responses to We Have Been Here Before

  1. Tim Lacy says:

    Thanks for this, Tim. I really do appreciate it. Where did you find your historical information on campus speakers? Is it from memory of your own research, or in a particular article/book? – TL

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    The Ulrich Baer piece reminded me about Shockley and Wallace at Yale, and then I spent this morning looking up old cases in the NYT. I hadn’t ever read the Hacker or Hook essays before, and those were absorbing. (And in the case of Hook, pretty damn annoying–he is 100% what Garry Wills so beautifully indicted in Nixon Agonistes.

  3. Tim Lacy says:

    Thanks! Your piece has helped me, a lot, in thinking about an article I may write in the next 6 months-year (for an edited academic collection). – TL

  4. Bart Simon says:

    Amazing post… thanks Tim. I think I find myself essentially agreeing with your position here even though I also sense that our positions are far too liberal. The trick is in wondering whether wholesale structural change requires the kind of revolutionary appropriation of resources and authors that some student groups seem to advocate.

    Is our position not the equivalent of “let a thousand speakers bloom”? let the students do their thing, faculty will do theirs and so on. Or do the historical times require a structural intervention based on lessons learnt from the past in accordance with some collectively identified ethic?


  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you can argue, as Tim Lacy does, that the time is right to come up with some more custodial/shared structure, in line with many other changes taking place in how universities have slowly stepped back into an in loco parentis role, sometimes at the demand of their own students. The difficulty there, and I despair a little sometimes in talking with current students about this, is that some of them believe that they can situationally demand that custodial involvement when they want it and reject it completely when they don’t. The letter some Pomona students sent about Alice Goffman is a bit of an example of that–wanting to be able to demand an outcome, without conversation or negotiation, when they want it, and otherwise be uninvolved when they don’t. You’re either partners in governance all the time, with the same heavy sense of responsibility for the consequences of your agency, or you’re not; you can’t just be in charge when you don’t like the outcome of someone else using their agency or judgment and then leave it to someone else when the outcomes suit you.

    So if we make a structural change, I think that students, faculty and admins working together to approve speakers will find they haven’t escaped the contours of the issues as they’ve developed since 1950, especially not at public universities. Even working together, they’d find for one that the hostility of conservative legislators will still be there to be reckoned with. The problem of creating a shared standard that would not just amount to “conservatives bad, leftists good” would still be there. The degree to which a shared committee would likely fall into a risk-averse, duller, more mainstream sensibility strikes me as an immediate issue. I also think you’d find that such a panel or structure would immediately be rent by divisional and disciplinary rivalries that students would either get held hostage to or be partisans within.

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