By Jesse Robert Lovejoy
Recently I heard from guy I knew as an undergrad at Yale in the 1960s. He’s been at work collecting several thousand signatures from alumni in order to get on the ballot for next year’s election of alumni trustees. He’s an impressive guy with an impressive career, and would like to see more openness in the university’s governance process. If he gets the signatures, he will run against the candidates that are selected by the university administrators. Those candidates will be prohibited by Yale from stating their positions on any relevant topics and from granting any interviews. Nobody will know where they stand on anything. The number of votes received by the various candidates will never be released. This is selling a pig in a poke.
For decades elite universities, led by the Ivies, have campaigned to increase the control wielded by their administrations and faculties and to reduce the influence of just about everybody else. Through this process they have increased institutional autonomy and vastly increased their personal paychecks.
The first steps were to build endowments (which now total over $100 billion) and limit the size of incoming classes to the point where the universities could admit applicants regardless of their ability to pay (“need-blind” admissions). With their generous gifts, the alumni unwittingly helped to disenfranchise themselves. Keeping class sizes from growing with demand, the institutions bragged about the diminishing percentage of applicants they admitted every year. They said this showed their increasingly elite status, rather than their failure to grow with the expanding pool of qualified applicants.
Once they got to where they could offer need-blind admissions, the universities no longer had to listen to alums or other outside constituencies. They could set their own prices, select their own customers, pay for their own products, set their own salaries and give themselves vacations. They could raise prices (and salaries) as much as they wanted to and adopt whatever compensation structure appealed to them. Tuition went from $3,000 a year in the 1960s to $75,000 a year today. That’s three times the rate of inflation. What do we think happened to salaries?
For generations, the eight Ivy League colleges exemplified the liberal arts tradition in America. Now, significant areas are off limits to discussion and academic inquiry. Objectionable speakers are disinvited, shouted down and silenced. There’s a whiff of something rotting in the ivory tower.
The Ivies’ financial success is undeniable. In spite of the cost, there are a dozen applicants for every place. Social values have progressed as well, with admissions policies driving equality of the sexes and inclusion of minorities and multiple nationalities, races, religions and sexual orientations.
With all this success, why are these institutions finding it so difficult to support freedom of speech? Doesn’t “diversity” require a range of opinions? Isn’t tolerance of “objectionable” speech the whole idea? And does a university that protects young people from inconsistent and even wrong-headed thinking effectively prepare them for the messy world into which they will proceed after graduating?
In return for their public and private support, American universities are supposed to prepare talented young Americans for roles in global leadership, and to support the constitutional values of the country. However, the Ivies in recent years have experienced damaging campus disruptions aimed at silencing speech by people who are deemed objectionable, dangerous, and offensive.
In response, the University of Chicago published a statement of principles of freedom of speech, clarifying its “overarching commitment to free, robust and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” The responsibility of a university is to maintain a climate of civility and mutual respect, but not to prevent discussion of ideas, even if most members of the community find them “disagreeable, offensive, immoral or wrong-headed.”
Many prominent universities have adopted the Chicago principles. Of the eight Ivies, only Princeton has signed on. All the Ivies should state their strong support. Doing so would signify their commitment to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Granting freedom of speech to candidates for roles in university governance would be a great place to start. That would give my friend a whole lot better chance of getting elected.
Jesse Robert Lovejoy, a lifelong New Yorker, practiced law at Davis Polk & Wardwell and worked at Lazard and other financial services firms for over 50 years in Manhattan. He now operates a personal consulting practice. He holds a B.A. from Yale and a J.D. cum laude from Columbia.
THE IVY LEAGUE: An “A” for wealth and privilege, an “F” for freedom. The Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College, a member of the Ivy League. Photo credit: Dartmouth.edu.