Justin Li

Book Response: Unlearning Liberty by Greg Lukianoff


Greg Lukianoff's Unlearning Liberty is a somewhat horrifying account of how colleges and universities across the country are censoring or punishing students for saying particular things. Lukianoff's perspective is biased, but the book is more interesting because of it: he is the president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and is therefore aware of thousands of cases where the rights of students or faculty have been trampled. If nothing else, the book is worth reading just to sample the unbelievably-blatant ways that universities clamp down on certain activities. One representative policy that Lukianoff brings up is how many campuses have free speech zones - areas in which students can say whatever they want, with the implication that the rest of the campus is not such an area - and how students have to reserve these out-of-the-way spaces days in advance. Lukianoff's thesis, if there is one, is that students are getting used to such oppressive environments in college, and as a result think it's acceptable to enact similar policies when they grow up.

In general, I am sympathetic to Lukianoff's arguments: that institutions often go too far in suppressing speech. That said, I find that the book lacks a strong story for why this is occurring. About halfway through the book, Lukianoff starts talking about the growth of administrative staff relative to the stagnancy of the number of faculty. This is an observable trend across most higher education institutes - this table compares the number of administrators, faculty, and students in over 2400 institutions between 1987 and 2011. Lukianoff, however, then makes the claim that it is this growth in administration is responsible for the reduction in campus liberty. I quote:

Students are not paying for an exponential increase in the quality of their education, but rather for a massive increase in campus bureaucracy. [...] The administrative class is largely responsible for the hyper-regulation of students' lives, the lowering of due process standard for students accused of offices, the extension of administrative jurisdiction far off campus, the proliferation of speech codes, and outright attempts to impose ideological conformity.

To me, the jump in logic from the first sentence to the second is unwarranted. There is certainly correlation between the number of administrators and the number of free speech incidents, but I find it hard to believe that the former is causing the latter. Lukianoff suggests that "slashing the administrative bureaucracy... [would] leave fewer administrators who might attempt to justify their salaries by policing student speech." This explanation of motive seems to violate Hanlon's razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." I'm not saying that censorship is better explained by stupidity, only that the level of malice that Lukianoff attributes to the administration is unwarranted. I don't think administrators are evil enough to be attempting a grab for power, nor altruistic enough to want to protect students (from offensive speech, for example), nor dumb enough to think that suppressing speech would improve the school's image. You might say that I have a bland view of higher education administration, but then the majority of employees are bland, and I have no compelling reason to think that higher education is different.

Which begs the question: why do institutions enact these draconian policies? Assuming that there has been an increase in free speech issues over the last several decades, and assuming that administrators are not the cause (or at least, not the ultimate cause) of these policies, what is going on? Without any evidence, my theory is that the pressure is in fact societal - that there is a general trend towards being more particular about what could and could not be said. That is, the trend is in fact a result of increasing political correctness, and that administrators are reacting to pressures from parents and students. I will admit that it would be difficult to prove such a theory, outside of looking at whether universities have received more complaints about offensive speech over the years. Nonetheless, a story of administrators being caught between a rock (societal pressure to protect against offensive speech) and a hard place (free speech organizations like FIRE) is more believable to me than that of administrators trying to grab power.

There is, of course, a larger debate on how communities (anything from classrooms, to campuses, to societies at large) should deal with potentially offensive speech, even if the speech was not, in fact, offensive. I honestly don't know how I feel on that issue, so I will simply stop here.