November 6, 2012 2:53PM

Academics’ Freedom vs. Everyone Else’s

A significant interest of mine is how public elementary and secondary schools---government schools---force diverse people into conflict rather than, as the gauzy mythology tells us, bringing them together. After all, unless people are prepared to ditch deeply held values and opinions about what's best for their kids, they have no choice but to engage in political (and sometimes actual) combat. And whether it's over evolution or "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," engage they do.

There is a corollary to this in higher education. All taxpayers are compelled to support colleges and universities, whether through direct aid to institutions or to students. As a result, either taxpayers are forced to support all academic speech---including speech they may find abhorrent---or government must deem some academic speech unacceptable. Either way, government impinges on individual liberty.

The negative consequences of this are not nearly as apparent as in K-12, where values-based conflicts make headlines almost every day. The reason such headlines aren't nearly as prevalent in higher ed may be because far fewer people have strong connections to the ivory tower.

This is not to say that collisions of taxpayer funding and academic freedom never make a loud bang. When the Ward Churchill "little Eichmanns" situation blew up in 2005, Colorado Governor Bill Owens immediately seized on the compelled-support angle, stating that "no one wants to infringe on Mr. Churchill's right to express himself. But we are not compelled to accept his pro-terrorist views at state taxpayer subsidy nor under the banner of the University of Colorado."

Colorado taxpayers, however, were technically required to pay for Churchill's "pro-terrorist views." While academic impropriety---not his 9/11 essay---officially got Churchill canned, the academic accusations were almost certainly brought to the fore by Churchill's essay-delivered infamy. Indeed, in 2009 a Colorado court concluded that Churchill had, de facto, been improperly let go due to his 9/11 essay, and awarded him $1 in damages. Just this past April, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that Churchill was neither entitled to back pay nor reinstatement.

Did you follow the clear principles guiding all those decisions, by the way? Me neither, but such is the malodorous hash you get when you try to reconcile the irreconcilable.

It is not individual cases, though, through which the death match between taxpayers' and professors' rights is most readily revealed. No, it is manifested most concretely in the seemingly endless war between conservatives and the politically correct academy.

There is little question that academia is a battleship of the left. Indeed, as the Higher Education Research Institute just found, its port-side tilt has recently gotten even worse. Conservatives, reasonably, find having to pay for their intellectual enemies disquieting. But the solution often proffered for this---achieving intellectual "balance" or "diversity"---is little better than the status quo.

For one thing, who would be the arbiter of proper balance, especially understanding that peoples' views are not monolithically liberal or conservative? And even if brilliantly proportioned ideological representation could be achieved, on what grounds could the apolitical be compelled to subsidize it?

The only fully satisfactory solution to the compelled-support problem is to, well, end compelled support of higher education. But there are good, better, and best options for reducing the problem short of complete government withdrawal.

Good: End government subsidies that go directly to schools. These are pure compulsion, with no individual choice involved. It's basically how we fund elementary and secondary education, the hottest of all culture-war battlefields.

Better: Connect all money to students, though in the form of loans, not grants. That would add a heck of a lot more choice---students would freely choose where to attend---and the decision would ultimately be paid for by the consumer. Of course, taxpayers would have no ability to choose recipients of the loans, so appreciable compulsion would remain.

Best: Move entirely to tax credits for individuals and corporations that donate to organizations providing scholarships---or perhaps even loans---to students at all levels. Donors would choose to donate and students would choose schools. There would still be government influence---your only choices would be to donate or pay taxes---but taxpayers would have the option not to subsidize higher ed at all.

Academic freedom is fantastic if it means academics have freedom from government coercion. But freedom for all is even better, and that requires ending subsidies for higher ed.

Cross-posted from