Why Should Taxpayers Fund Campus Intolerance?

Higher education has certainly made an embarrassing name for itself over the last several weeks, as the list of graduation speakers felled by the loud and self-righteous has piled high. This should be upsetting to everyone, if for no other reason than America’s ivory tower is so self-congratulatory about its championing of open minds and the free exchange of ideas. It should be especially galling, though, because taxpayers subsidize higher ed to the tune of about $200 billion annually. The good news is that we may actually be getting closer to everyone saying enough is enough.

Over the last several decades it has been conservatives who have railed the loudest against higher ed, and it’s no wonder: while no one should have to subsidize anyone else’s speech, subsidizing academia means disproportionately subsidizing left-leaning speech. It seems, however, that now people on the left are increasingly turning against each other.

For instance, former University of California Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau dropped out of addressing Haverford College’s graduation when protestors attacked his handling of Occupy Wall Street unrest in 2011. That prompted former Princeton president William Bowen to rebuke the anti-Birgeneau protest when he filled in as Haverford’s graduation speaker. (Of course, Birgeneau has proposed that federal taxpayers directly subsidize a few public colleges such as Berkeley, so maybe he got what he deserved!) Similarly, when International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde – the first female head of the IMF – gave up on addressing Smith College’s graduation in the face of indignant opposition, many faculty members at left-leaning Smith publicly critiqued efforts to have her invitation rescinded. And then there was this Internet-amplified, profanity-laden spectacle at Portland State University, in which one leftist activist was prevented from speaking on a panel because, apparently, he suggested that some benefit of the doubt should be given to people accused of sexual assault.

As a basic matter of free-speech principle and logic, everyone, left or right, should object to subsidizing higher ed. Why? Perhaps Smith president Kathleen McCartney, as quoted by faculty members concerned about the action against Christine Lagarde, captured the reason best: "An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads. Such a test would preclude virtually anyone in public office or position of influence. Moreover, such a test would seem anathema to our core values of free thought and diversity of opinion."

Basically, every potential speaker will almost certainly have done or said something – likely many things – someone could object to. Which is precisely why no one should be forced by law to pay for any speaker: there will likely always be someone forced to pay for speech they find unacceptable. Yet apply such force is exactly what government does when it sends taxpayer money to the ivory tower.

Posted by: Neal McCluskey

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