A Conservative Defends UW Academic Freedom
Curtailing “whiteness” course isn’t the answer, more diversity in offerings at UW is.
“Whiteness studies” is a thing on campus. Viewed charitably, it begins with a set of reasonable propositions. Race has mattered in our country and it is reasonable to think that our interactions with each other continue to be affected by it. The historically disadvantaged social position of African-Americans is unlikely to be wholly irrelevant to where we are today. We may not always be aware of how race affects attitudes and actions.
In Sajnani’s class, students are to “learn” how white people “consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism and how this not only devastates communities of color but also perpetuates the oppression of most white folks along the lines of class and gender.” Students are to “consider” the notion that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”
Of course, it just may be that, in the 21st century, race plays out in a more complicated and less cartoonish manner. Perhaps the way out of our racial past is not to double down on race consciousness and polarization. But neither the course description nor reading list hints that such views will be explored or tolerated. It seems that indoctrination and not investigation is what is on offer. We must march, my darlings.
The matter has been aggravated by Sajnani’s twitter feed in which, among other things, he boasts of “enjoying” a song called “Officer Down” while watching coverage of the police shootings in Dallas this past summer. In response, state Rep. Dave Murphy (R-Greenville) has called for him to be fired. Both Murphy and state Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) have called for the class to be cancelled.
Nass and Murphy are well within their rights to criticize Sajnani. But we long ago decided that universities work best if both instructors and students are free to express themselves. The University of Wisconsin has long held itself out as committed to the “sifting” and “winnowing” of ideas. That can’t happen without a full and robust protection of academic freedom — even for ideas that we regard as juvenile, simple-minded and offensive.
Free speech recognizes human creativity. A marketplace of ideas is likely to generate new and better ways of thinking. It is rooted in epistemic humility.
The point is not that all ideas have value or that the truth is absolutely relative and unknowable. It is that no one of us (or even group of us) has the right to decide — or the capacity to know — which ideas have no value. This does not mean that we are powerless against bad ideas. But, save for some very narrow exceptions, we must fight those ideas through reason and not suppression.
The American academy — including and often especially the University of Wisconsin — has not itself been dedicated to an open and unflinching search for the truth. Particularly in the social sciences and humanities, our universities are some of the most intellectually homogenous and conformist places in the country. This is reflected both in the academy’s obsession with “safe spaces” and the absence of conservative voices on its faculties.
For too long, the idea of diversity on campus has consisted of professors hiring other professors who went to the same schools, held the same jobs, think the same way — but look different.
I think it is this lack of intellectual openness that is really motivating legislators such as Murphy and Nass. Professors like Damon Sajnani are thick on the ground at the University of Wisconsin. Legislators like Nass and Murphy might be more tolerant of what they have to say if there were countervailing voices on campus.
But the answer never can be to curtail academic freedom. We ought to focus on encouraging more speech and not less.
Rick Esenberg is the founder and current president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
This Op Ed was originally published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.