As discussed in this space a few weeks back, the federal government is pushing a new “blueprint” ordering universities to open the way to wider complaints over unwelcome speech. Although the U.S. Department of Education quickly retreated to a seemingly less extreme interpretation of the law, the dangers remain that the field offices of its Office for Civil Rights will arm-twist academic institutions into stacked disciplinary methods and new curbs on speech. I’m in the July Commentary with an article bringing the controversy up to date.
Two points worth noting: first, while the Obama administration has pushed the new plan hard, the wider trend of gradually stepped-up federal supervision over university life has been going on for decades under Republicans and Democrats alike. There’s not much resistance: university officials and organized professors are relatively half-hearted about sticking up for their own institutional autonomy. Indeed, the federal prescriptions represent in some ways a consolidation of power by already-powerful elements within the academy, as opposed to a perceived hostile takeover from the outside. In the same issue of Commentary, Philip Hamburger has an excellent article outlining how university researchers have for decades now tamely submitted to federally prescribed controls — overseen by so-called IRBs, or institutional review boards — over such relatively innocuous forms of “human-subjects research” as interviewing politicians and observing passersby in public places. In 2007, David Hyman wrote for Cato’s Regulation magazine on “The Pathologies of Institutional Review Boards.” (adapted from a post at Overlawyered).