Universities Abandoning Political Neutrality Harm Free Inquiry

Many presidents of universities, including my own, have committed their institutions to supporting the Grand Coalition on Climate Change.  The founding statement of the Coalition criticizes President’s Trump decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and offers support for various policies by state and local governments to pursue the objectives of that agreement.

It is a serious mistake for universities as institutions to criticize or support controversial political initiatives, let alone become part of political coalitions.  Universities must stay of out of politics and refrain from policy endorsements that are by their nature political. By maintaining their institutional neutrality they can best foster debate and further the progress of knowledge about controversial issues of the day. Universities are brokers of knowledge. To be honest brokers, they must eschew politics.

Wading into politics imposes two kinds of costs.  The first is a chilling effect on debate and free inquiry within the university.

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Bringing an End to Weak Sister Constitutionalism

man showing fist to his big boss

The particular genius of Marbury v. Madison was John Marshall’s act of jujitsu. President Jefferson wanted William Marbury kept off the federal bench and let it be known he would defy any Supreme Court order to the contrary, so Marshall delivered that outcome while seizing the larger prize of judicial review. Two centuries on, President Jefferson’s successor Donald Trump is reduced not to defying the Court but rather to tweeting ruefully that the judiciary’s consideration of his travel ban is “slow and political.”

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An Independent Counsel for Civil Violations

In the past, I have written a significant number of posts about how the independent counsel procedure might be improved and employed.  See, e.g. here and here.  Here is another one. One problem with the independent counsel is that it focuses on criminal violations.  The IC focuses on whether an individual violated the criminal law, should be prosecuted, and imprisoned.  Sure some people violate criminal statutes and should be punished.  But it is often more important to determine whether laws were violated than to put a politician in jail.  Yet, the IC does not investigate the former. There is a way that…

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Machiavelli, the Great Alternative to Plato: A Conversation with Catherine Zuckert

Professor Catherine Zuckert is one of America’s preeminent political theorists. The Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame University has written award-winning books including Natural Right and the American Imagination (1990) and Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (2009). Zuckert has edited the Review of Politics for 13 years, and she has contributed scholarly articles to other journals like the Review of Metaphysics, History of Political Thought, and the Journal of the International Plato Symposium.

Zuckert’s new book, Machiavelli’s Politics, is just out from the University of Chicago Press. For this first installment of Conversations, a new feature at Law and Liberty, Associate Editor Lauren Weiner recently put questions to Professor Zuckert about it. Here is our Q and A.

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To Give “Good Government” to the People

Trend, Crowd of people runs in one direction

The Constitution’s aim to limit the influence of factions and passion gets the lion’s share of attention among modern readers of The Federalist. To be sure, these are critical aspirations, as much or more so today as they were in the 1780s. These aspects of the Constitution’s underlying theory, however, so dominate discussion that students often overlook another theme developed throughout The Federalist, the significance of knowledge and information in policy making, and how constitutional structure can elicit more rather than less knowledge and information.

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How Liberal Universities Could Liberate Speech

Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, is concerned about the plight of free speech on college campuses and hers in particular.  She says all the right words about the importance of free speech to a university. But her suggestions about how to secure it are vague  and anodyne. For instance, Faust exhorts  those at the university to be “generous listeners.”  For a college President, that is a bit like a preacher exhorting his congregation to oppose sin.

It is easy to be a generous listener when you are listening to people who agree you with you.  But the ideological and partisan homogeneity of Harvard makes generous listening to sharply dissenting views harder, because it is easier to regard them as irrational or evil when none of your friends and colleagues share them. The problem is a structural and institutional one and cannot be solved by sermons.

Thus, if Faust were serious about free speech and free inquiry on campus she would announce some initiatives to make sure that conservative and libertarian voices punctured the campus bubble. A school as wealthy as Harvard could announce a speaker series to bring in a serious conservative or libertarian scholar once a week to speak to the entire university on an issue of public policy or political philosophy.

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Witness to George Will’s Flight from Politics

In his latest column, George Will laments that conservatism has been “hijacked” by “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” A conservatism that once cheerfully and unapologetically embraced “high culture” has been overtaken by a vulgar populism, which defends main-street values against elite liberal cosmopolitans, but which increasingly embodies not intellectual argument but rather, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as ideas.

To rise above this, Will writes, we should draw lessons from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, according to Will, needed to evolve from his early judgments favoring isolationism, among other juvenile statements, and his “ebullience, decency, and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.”

Chronicling Buckley’s moral, personal, and political growth, the book shows, in Felzenberg’s words, how “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism.” Alas, Will notes, Buckley could not reconcile the dissonant notes they struck. And now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s death, conservatism “soiled by scowling primitives.”

But what was conservatism before “vulgarians hijacked it”? Why was conservatism, in Will’s thinking, “susceptible to hijacking”?

Surprisingly, Will blames Whittaker Chambers:

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We Will Always Have Paris

The President’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord has caused international hyperventilation, and a minor rift in the Greve family. We all agree on three propositions: The U.S. should never agree to an international instrument that is called an “accord”: too French. A je suis d’accord that purports to save the planet by saying, vee all civilized nations may do what we may want to do by, say, 2030 or maybe later and if we don’t you can’t make us; and which then admits that even full compliance with its targets won’t make one whit of difference to…

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Original Methods Originalism Part III: The Minimization of the Construction Zone Thesis

In this third post on Original Methods Originalism, I want to conclude by explaining how original methods has the potential for signficantly limiting the discretion that judges exercise under an originalist approach. One of the key issues in recent originalist theory involves the distinction between interpretation and construction.  For my purposes, it is not the distinction between interpretation and construction, but the distinction between interpretation and the construction zone that is important.  Interpretation involves the process for determining the actual meaning of a constitutional provision.  After applying the interpretive process, it is possible that the original meaning may not decide the…

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Politico’s Lame Hair-Splitting about the Liberal Media

press briefing

H.L. Mencken, one of the great journalists of the 20th century, once said that “Half the sorrows of the world, I suppose, are caused by making false assumptions.”

Look no further than a recent article in Politico for proof that the Sage of Baltimore was right. Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty, two reporters for the web site, have crunched a lot of numbers to come up with a thesis.

It goes like this: Media bias is caused not by how people think, or the fact that reporters get hired based on pre-existing ideology; it’s caused by the atmosphere in which reporters are enveloped. That is, reporters are liberal because of the ambient liberalism of the cities in which most of them live and work. Like soldiers stumbling under a mustard gas attack, writers go to New York or D.C. as freethinkers, only to turn into political hacks and cultural ideologues.

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