The 7 Habits of Freedom Loving Academics
by Alan Wolan
On November 4th and 5th of this year, I attended the Stanford University Academic Freedom Conference.
Over 150 professors from universities all over the world gathered at Stanford that weekend to discuss a disturbing trend in academia to suppress free speech and free inquiry.
There were many speakers from a wide range of disciplines, including some world-renowned public intellectuals such as Steven Pinker, Jordan Petersen, Douglas Murray, Peter Thiel, Gad Saad and many, many more. You can find the full speaker list HERE as well as an outline of the various conference sessions.
I was there neither as an academic nor as a world famous personality, but rather simply as a lowly podcaster who had talked his way into a highly coveted invitation to attend, mostly as an observer.
I didn’t ask any questions when I was there because I was intimidated by the credentials of all the others who stood up to ask questions: “I’m so-and-so, professor of such-and-such at XYZ university (insert top tier university name here) and I have a question for Steven Pinker.”
What was I going to say, “I’m Alan Wolan and, uh, I’m not affiliated with any institution, it’s just me.” That kind of lacks a certain gravitas, you know what I mean?
But maybe not asking any questions was a benefit in a way because I got to just listen and take it all in, without having to worry about sounding smart.
And listen I did.
Not only did I attend all the sessions live in person, but when I got home from the conference, I watched all 14+ hours of videos of the sessions and I was listening really carefully because I had given myself the job of culling the best clips from the conference for a podcast I was producing about the event.
My goal for this podcast episode was to give people who were not able to attend the conference in person the feeling that they had been there live. I not only played some of the best clips from the conference, but I also interjected between the clips to talk about them and give my thoughts. So the listener might have the feeling that they attended the conference with me and that we were discussing what was happening over coffee between the sessions.
If you’d like to have the full audio podcast experience, you can find it HERE.
But if you don’t have 100 minutes to spare, read on my friend because in this essay I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you the 7 solutions these public intellectuals proposed at the conference to address the problems with academic freedom.
It’s easy to complain about the problem, and there was a certain amount of that going on at the conference. But there was no wallowing, in my opinion. Instead, people were laying out the problems in full detail so that better solutions could be found.
Overall, I feel there were 7 major solutions offered:
1. Pursuing legal options and using the courts and government to protect and advance academic freedom. Greg Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual rights deploys an army of pro bono attorneys to defend professors from the suppression of free speech by their universities. Amy Wax from Penn Law suggested withholding federal funds from universities which don’t adopt 1st amendment principles into their charters in analogy with Titles VI and IX.
2. Creating alternative institutions dedicated to open inquiry and academic freedom. Niall Ferguson from Hoover argued passionately that it was only through the creation of alternative institutions that academic freedom could be protected, and he touted the new University of Austin, at which he is a founding member, as one of the institutions paving the way. Lee Jussim from Rutgers made the case with graphs, charts and data that academia is pretty much lost to progressive ideology and that only alternative institutions stand a chance; what he calls “islands of academic freedom and scientific integrity.”
3. Educating the public at large about these issues and convincing more and more parents to pull their children from mainstream institutions. John Ellis from the University of California made the case that the customers of universities, i.e., the parents who are paying the tuition, must be shown that what they are funding is not an education for their children but rather an indoctrination into political activism.
4. Training students in the habits of open inquiry. This is a more bottom up approach. John Rose from Duke University leads a program there about open inquiry, political polarization and conservatism, which has proven to be immensely popular with students. He believes that students want free and open inquiry and that this natural tendency should be encouraged and developed.
5. Restructuring the university to embed a sort of “judicial branch” within the administration whose main purpose is to adjudicate questions relating to freedom of speech and thought. Tyler Cowen from George Mason and Niall Ferguson from Hoover discussed why universities must have such a “3rd branch” whose main purpose is to defend the boundaries of free inquiry from the encroachments of both students and faculty.
6. Twitter, Podcasts, Youtube and all the other ways we can express ourselves freely using the internet. Tyler Cowan made a passionate and persuasive case that academics today enjoy more freedom of speech than ever before, but only if they are willing to take their ideas outside of the university and into the wider world via social media and other platforms such as Substack. It’s not always easy to do, and their are pitfalls, but it’s worth the effort. The Substack you are reading right now is a perfect example of this.
7. Mustering personal courage and fighting the good fight. Jordan Peterson talked about the importance of speaking up for yourself as a way of avoiding internal resentment which results from keeping your mouth shut. Gad Saad admonished his fellow attendees to speak up with boldness: if we all did that, the problem would go away quickly. Amy Wax laid out her case for being disagreeable, for being contrarian, for being willing to question everything, for not being conflict avoidant, for having a high tolerance for pain and insult, and for having a willingness to make new friends.
So those are the 7 possible solutions offered at the conference that I could discern. Which one is the best?
In my humble opinion, we’re going to need all 7 solutions to make this work. There is rarely just one solution to a complex problem and this problem is so big and so complicated that we’re going to have to attack it from every possible angle.
You know the riddle about the 800 pound gorilla?
Where does an 800 pound gorilla sit?
Answer: anywhere it wants to.
An 800 pound gorilla is a metaphor for a person or organization so powerful that it can act without regard to the rights of others or the law.
The so-called “captured institutions” of the West is our generation's 800 pound gorilla. It’s our King Kong.
And I’m happy to say I met quite a few Godzillas at the Stanford conference in November.
Host, The Genius of Thomas Sowell Podcast