By Leslie Spencer
Nadine Strossen, a liberal feminist and civil liberties activist, led the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 to 2008, the first woman to do so. She is the author of Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, and was until 2019 a professor at New York Law School. “I stopped teaching to devote all my time to advocating for free speech and academic freedom, it’s just so important right now,” she says.
Most days now she can be found traveling to speaking engagements at college campuses and elsewhere throughout the country, often in her new role as senior fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). At 72 she shows no signs of slowing down, making over 250 appearance a year.
Wherever she goes, a central thread of her message is clear: Free speech and academic freedom are for EVERYBODY. “I am constantly telling liberals and progressives, contrary to what they believe, free speech and academic freedom are not only or primarily to protect conservatives and libertarians, and I have to tell my conservative and libertarian allies the very same message,” she says, to drive home her non-partisan imperative.
For her taste, there is a bit too much demonization of liberals and progressives by many conservatives, who often claim it is only their views that are being suppressed. “Unfortunately, this is not true,” she says, pointing to the many instances catalogued in a FIRE database showing that of the 800 instances of documented attempted retaliation against professors for exercising constitutionally protected speech nationwide (a shocking 60 percent of which have been successful), 40 percent of these attacks have come from the right, 60 percent from the left. Most important, of these attacks, by far the most come from extremes on both sides, with the victims representing the moderates.
She articulates a principled as well as a strategic reason to make common cause across the ideological spectrum. “It is essential that the moral high ground be maintained. You forfeit this if you are uneven in your application of principles,” she says.
For the second time this academic year, Strossen will appear at Princeton. On March 21 at 7 pm in Arthur Lewis Auditorium, she will be in conversation with Princeton legal scholar and political philosopher Robert P. George on the topic Civil Liberties, On Campus and Beyond. Strossen and George both serve on the Advisory Counsel of Heterodox Academy, whose mission is to promote viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in higher education, and which currently boasts 5,000 members from 49 states and 65 countries. Their conversation is sure to demonstrate how two people with widely divergent beliefs and ideologies can agree and disagree on a variety of subjects and remain civil while doing so.
Last November’s two-day mega-conference on Academic Freedom at Stanford University gave a hint of Strossen’s passion for instilling free speech values in the next generation. She appeared as moderator and a speaker on the panel “Academic Freedom: What Is It and What Is It For?” She started her segment by giving a shout-out to the students in attendance, which included Princeton’s Abigail Anthony and Myles McKnight, both graduating this spring. Particular praise however, was reserved for Mimi St. Johns, the sole undergraduate speaker, who is a junior in computer science at Stanford.
St. Johns was one of four on a panel called “Academic Freedom in STEM.” The other three panelists were nationally recognized, widely published scientists and scholars: Luana Majora is Chair of the Biochemistry department at Williams College, an immigrant from Brazil and author of a 2019 Atlantic Monthly article “Self-Censorship on Campus is Bad for Science.” Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago emeritus professor of evolutionary biology, is a prominent left-of-center free speech advocate and author of the book, Why Evolution is True, which is also the name of his popular blog. Anna Krylof, a Ukrainian-born professor of Chemistry at University of Southern California, is a multiple award-winning specialist in theoretical and computational quantum chemistry. An active promoter of gender equality in STEM and a developer of educational materials to promote scientific literacy, she is also a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance. It would be hard to bring together a greater diversity of background, ethnicity, gender and point of view on a panel of four, not to mention pre-eminence in their respective fields -- except for St. Johns, who has still to earn her bachelor’s degree in computer science, so needs a bit more time.
Unabashed, St. Johns reflected on how being a Stanford student in STEM is “getting more and more restrictive in terms of what you can and cannot say, and also in the types of problems and subjects that students feel comfortable working on.” She did not mince words as she described what she considers Stanford’s “obsession with identity politics” that has created a “monoculture among faculty and students” that leaves little room for heterodox views or any substantive dissent.
“If you think that climate change is a real and vital issue, you would think a priority in the engineering school would be to devote as much time and resources as possible to it,” she speculated. Instead, St. Johns pointed to the continual “distraction” made by the “web of political correctness” that stifles all debate and infiltrates the curriculum, as well as a “general culture of protest” against certain fields. “If you want to do petroleum engineering or work in defense, both are fields that arguably have real problems that need to be solved, but you are going to be ostracized, there will be social pressure to avoid those industries.”
Does the infiltration of “leftist orthodoxy,” as she calls it, impact quality and outcomes? She sees “stagnation” in academic quality at Stanford’s engineering school. “The mission of engineering and computer science is to solve concrete problems, not be bombarded with questions of social justice and critical theory.”
She described engineering as a “results oriented field” in contrast to DEI which, she observed, “surprisingly, is not.” To illustrate this contrast, she pointed to the ever-increasing numbers of DEI bureaucrats in the engineering school, juxtaposed against the school’s diversity statistics. Their own data shows that black and latino student numbers are underrepresented in computer science, and roughly proportional in engineering overall, a reality which has not changed in over a decade.
She pointed to data showing that DEI managers have a relatively lucrative gig, earning median salaries significantly above the median earned by software engineers in Santa Clara County.
St. Johns, who is black, endorses efforts that do the hard work of providing training to students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But instead, Stanford spends millions of dollars on “nonsensical” DEI initiatives that “do little except destroy rational intellectual engagement on campus.” To support her case that a decline in academic quality results, she turned to course selection: “If you look at the electives in engineering at Stanford, you find courses on the subject of how to be an engineer that explore the intersectionality of who is an engineer instead of actually doing the concrete math and programming.”
Moved by the student’s courage to report her impressions of life as a computer science major at Stanford, Strossen launched the question time from the floor with a special salute to St. Johns, and a gentle rebuke to the tenured professoriate. “We have so many colleagues who are tenured and who do not speak up the way you do. What advice can you give to other students? What more can we do as professors and administrators to empower more students to speak up?”
“I’d say don’t be afraid,” St. Johns replied. “I know students worry about career prospects, but there are a lot of kind people around you who will not turn their backs on you for saying something heterodox, people who question the general narrative of universities like Stanford. ... Try to express your opinions, pose questions if you see something that’s really wrong, and go after it. Don’t nail yourself on a cross, but it is easier than you think to speak out.” And she reminded students that “for every one of you who does speak up, there are 10 more behind you who think similarly to you and who are asking the same questions and are generally skeptical of all the woke nonsense.”
Her specific advice on how faculty can help students is this: Take on the administration. “When [administrators] hire more and more DEI bureaucrats, when they want you to insert discussion of anti-racism into your courses, and identity politics into your syllabi, when they require that anti-racist rhetoric be included in your field’s safety guidelines, resist all that. … If you consistently fight back against this sort of thing, then students will become more encouraged.”
At Princeton, senior Adam Hoffman has joined Mimi St. Johns among the intrepid undergraduates who are speaking up. His March 1, 2023 essay in the New York Times, “My Liberal Campus is Pushing Freethinkers to the Right,” makes the case that the puritanical, progressive monoculture at Princeton and other elite institutions alienates and radicalizes those conservative, moderate and heterodox thinkers who, until not long ago, held a respected place on campus, and served to enrich debate. He laments the change: “All students should welcome challenges to their most cherished beliefs, but from what I’ve seen on campus, students are not invited to debate; they are expected to conform.”
Let’s hope that Hoffman and many more Princeton students attend the March 21st event, speak up, and from whatever perspective they have, make Nadine Strossen proud.
Leslie Spencer ’79, a former journalist, is a member of the Princetonians for Free Speech Executive Committee.