The Nobility of Freedom: An Interview with Donald Downs

Jul 6, 2022 | Opinion & Commentary

The Nobility of Freedom: An Interview with Donald Downs

Conducted and edited by Olivia Glunz

What led you to become a proponent of academic freedom?

A turning point in my life was going to the movie Dr. Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece book of that title, when I was a senior in high school. I saw the danger of the Marxist and similar commitment to equality without concern for liberty. After watching that movie, I suddenly believed in liberal democracy and freedom. It was also the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Russian literature.

When I got to Cornell the next year, I started studying these ideas and had professors who were committed to freedom, not only academically but also in principle, actual commitment, and in relation to the pressures on campus that were developing with the 60s rebellion against certain American values, against the war in Vietnam, et cetera. Midway through my undergraduate career at Cornell, there was a major academic freedom conflict over race that involved a takeover of the student union with guns and creating a kind of uniformity of thought that was coerced in many quarters. Several famous faculty members resigned over the concessions made by the faculty and the administration in the face of serious threats of violence, and I had been a student of some of those people. I eventually wrote a book about the events entitled Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University. Cornell, in some ways, was a foreshadowing, a synecdoche, of everything that was to come in future decades. Academic freedom was at the heart of the dispute, in conflict with radical claims for racial justice. Thoughtful critics certainly supported racial justice, and many of the faculty who resigned or left Cornell in the aftermath had supported and even fought for a new program to address race and the American experience. But they opposed the resort to violent threats and coercion as antithetical to the first principles of the university and freedom of thought. The intensity of that conflict and the professors who taught me how important it was to stand for academic freedom started my interest in and commitment to the issue.

But my position on free speech in general was more limited. The book that got me going in my academic career was about the Nazi demonstration in Skokie, IL back in the late 70s, in which a Chicago-based Nazi group fought legally to hold a rally in a town with hundreds of Holocaust survivors. In my book, I argued for a doctrine of censorship that I no longer accept because of what I learned from my experiences later on. What you experience—it brings these issues alive to you. We’re not purely cerebral creatures; we’re also emotional creatures, and we act on our experiences. So over time, given my experiences with teaching, research, and free speech on campus, my commitment to academic freedom became a commitment to free speech and freedom more broadly understood. It was a combination of little awakenings along the way: working through the idea of freedom, realizing that the university is one of the major bastions for practicing and inculcating intellectual freedom, and gaining a critically due appreciation of academic freedom. That also means an appreciation of its limits, because there are limits to everything. If you say everything is free and there can’t be any kind of constraints on anything, then people end up disrespecting that position, too. Understanding the proper limits, which are there for a principled reason, does not detract from freedom itself.

What is the difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom, and what are the limits of those?

The two are very related, obviously, but academic freedom is more bounded. Under the First Amendment, the government can’t compel speech. But I taught at a state university where the First Amendment applies, and I could compel speech all the time from my students—you have to take this test, you have to give a talk, et cetera.

According to the Supreme Court, there’s no such thing as a bad—or even false—idea under the First Amendment. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bad and false ideas, or tons of them out there. One of them we’re talking about today: doing away with or compromising academic freedom. But under the First Amendment, those ideas are protected. For the purposes of free speech jurisprudence, we may not limit speech for its content, except in special contexts, like libel, threats to people, direct incitement, speech integral to illegal activity—classic First Amendment exceptions.

In academia, we create ideas all the time, and there is such a thing as a bad idea, a wrong idea, or an untruthful idea. We don’t teach astrology, we teach astronomy. We don’t teach witchcraft—we might teach about it, but we don’t teach it as truth. John Rawls writes that there are no experts when it comes to liberalism and free speech because we are all our own experts. That’s freedom. But when it comes to academic life, of course there are experts. We hire people that know what they’re talking about, and we train students to become ongoing experts in the areas that they study.

You can’t claim that anything goes in the classroom. You have a right to bring up your idea, but you don’t have a right not to have it challenged. The whole point of the university enterprise is to question each other and arrive at what you think is the truth or the best idea in the situation. You have to make judgments constantly, but those judgments should not be narrow-minded or biased. It’s one thing to shut someone up. It’s another thing to say, here’s why you’re wrong. If we don’t challenge and debate, the university becomes like a smorgasbord: here’s this idea over here—it’s the salad—and this idea over there—it’s the dessert— and this idea—it’s the main course… Instead, we’re supposed to come together in a collective effort to move towards truth, to grope towards truth. This process necessarily means rejecting some ideas as wrong. But the right to express them must remain because no one has a monopoly on truth, and all ideas, even well-established ones, are open to challenge.

Academic freedom also requires relevance in the classroom. An adjunct professor in Canada recently wanted to turn his physics class into a class on how to politically organize. When the university objected that he was hired to teach physics, he claimed academic freedom. They terminated him after that, and rightfully so—germaneness of the subject matters. That said, relevance and germaneness may be construed broadly. The more I taught, the more I would start bringing in tangents because I’d see things as being unified or related to each other. Still, we generally recognize when a tangent is not relevant anymore.

Another key distinction is professional competence in the classroom, in research, and in professional gatherings. That’s what I wrote about in my last book and others have written about as well. Campus has different domains of freedom. One is the professional domain, where standards and intellectually valid limits on freedom exist based on competence and academic standards; the better the university, the higher those standards are going to be.

Another domain is the public forum. On public school campuses, the principles of the First Amendment apply by law in the forum, and most private schools that want to be considered of academic significance have policies that guarantee the same free speech rights. So campus typically has a public forum, where anything within the constitutionally established limits of free speech goes.

In my book, I add a third dimension, the everyday interactions of campus life. I refer to Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the famous case where a girl wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War and was told to take it off because it could be disruptive. The Supreme Court ruled that Tinker’s speech was protected—First Amendment rights don’t stop “at the schoolhouse gate.” The Court also stressed the everyday discussion that students have on campus. In my experience, students’ talking about and debating what’s going on in class and elsewhere is really important. It’s part of the general discourse of the university that takes place beyond the public forum and the classroom. To me, it’s a third domain. And that is getting suffocated by a lot of new bureaucratic policies.

So, free speech and academic freedom, which are deeply related, but also distinct, have their proper places. I portray them as having a dialectical and dynamic relationship with each other. I know I’ve learned from students—I might say something that a smart student will check or question, and, of course, I will do the same thing with students. That’s certainly part of education. Can you really have meaningful education without that third domain, where informal Socratic discussion can take place? This is one domain in which young people can start spreading their intellectual wings. The formal academic and informal dimensions of campus life interact in a way that makes up what I call “the intellectual polis.” Unfortunately, political correctness—putting certain topics off-limits—and the repressive mentality that often animates it are crushing the intellectual spirit, the spirit of the university, in the name of politicization and improper moral censure. That's death to an institution of learning.

Talk about a time that you encountered a person, book, or idea that challenged your beliefs. What did you learn from this experience?

There are many examples, so let me pick one that stands out for me.

I was a TA at Berkeley in a course on 20th-century Marxism. I’ve always been against totalitarianism, so that was a tough course for me to do. Still, I learned a lot in it. I got to know what I was disposed not to like, and I realized even more why I didn’t like it. That’s learning too, right? Still, it’s hard to say that somebody like Marx had nothing worthwhile to offer. Marx’s and particularly Hegel’s dialectical way of thinking helped me understand that the human world is driven by a dynamic of change and conflict. That idea influences me all the time. It hasn’t changed my politics, but it’s changed my intellectual approach to the world.

But there are also permanent truths and values, so the dialectic also entails thinking about the relationship and tension between permanence and change. The dialectic must be dialectical about itself. This tension opens up a lot of doors that are existential, political, and philosophical. In a very real sense, the debate over academic and intellectual freedom today is a debate over how to preserve permanent truths and rights—e.g., academic freedom—in the midst of historical change without undermining those truths and rights in the process. A similar question applies to constitutional interpretation, by the way. In a book on criminal law, syndrome defenses, and domestic violence I actually used this type of thinking in attempting to adapt self-defense law to the question of gender justice.

In teaching, too, I loved students from different backgrounds. I recruited a diverse array of students to my seminars, which led to a really good mix. I had students in my seminars who were my public enemies in campus free speech debates; one student was even involved in hostile phone calls to me and then became a member of my seminar. We found some common ground and became close, and I think he was ashamed of what he had done. This goes back to the idea of the university. You bring different viewpoints together and create a community based on a common mission of intellectual pursuit. It really becomes a special kind of community unto itself. I had one class where my single most radical student politically and my single most conservative student became lifelong friends. That doesn’t always happen; so be it. Still, in my class, I tried at least to create that common commitment to intellectual pursuit that rose above differences. Difference and commonality, particularity and universality—other tensions related to permanence and change.

If the instructor is trying to accomplish that kind of mission, then he or she will establish the kind of groundwork of trust upon which students will feel comfortable to express themselves with intellectual honesty. Intellectual honesty is a term not talked about enough—it’s speaking your mind frankly. Charles Krauthammer once said, “You’re betraying your whole life if you don’t say what you think—and you don’t say it honestly and bluntly.” If you fudge it, then essentially, you’re lying. You might preserve your popularity, but you’ve just said something you didn’t truly believe, which means that you lied. You tarnished your intellectual soul. I remember a time I let students silence a student whose views were considered politically incorrect. I still feel lousy about that. It is hard to practice what you preach, but one must learn from mistakes—a free speech lesson in itself.

What are some of the biggest threats to academic freedom, and what cultural trends have contributed to these phenomena?

Back in 1966, a famous Freudian sociologist named Philip Rieff wrote a book called The Triumph of the Therapeutic, in which he argued that we're moving into a therapeutic age. Therapy definitely has its place in the world, but issues arise when that ethic becomes part of society at large. When feelings become predominant, people feel threatened or need to have their hands held through all sorts of situations, and words start being seen as actions. There are certain contexts in which words are actions—such as direct incitement of illegal activity and threats—but nonetheless, there’s a fundamental distinction between speech and action.

In this therapeutic ethic, people want to be overly taken care of or are overly sensitive to challenge and conflict. 20 years ago, Dinesh D’Souza spoke at Madison, and after his speech a student stood up and said, “You have traumatized me so much with your speech, I will not be able to study for a week. And when I tell my family back home what you had to say, they will not be able to carry out normal functions.” After the talk, others noted how absurd that comment was. I agreed, but I also recognized that this was a harbinger of what was to come.

In his book What’s Happened to The University?, Frank Furedi explains that college students now are being treated like primary students were in the past. But in order for the pursuit of truth and intellectual freedom to advance, people have to be sufficiently adult to handle the stress of intellectual differences and challenges.

Another influence is postmodern theory. Postmodernism is a complex phenomenon, and the perspectivism it entails is an important point that has to be dealt with. My own view is that a lot of postmodernism would point to more freedom of speech rather than less. But there’s a strand of postmodernism, coming out of Foucault, that looks at discursive power and sees words themselves as an inherent part of systems of domination. Consequently, speech that is detrimental to certain groups in society that are less powerful must be censored. The problem is, this logic is not limited to what we would have traditionally considered clear forms of domination through speech. The threshold for domination has been lowered to such an extent that merely expressing, say, an unwelcome idea can be seen as a form of domination regardless of its context. Interestingly, the censors don't contextualize because this new way of thinking can be applied to domains the thinking tends to ignore. A group that is dominated in some contexts can be dominant in others. So called systemic thinking has its place, but it can also obscure what is going on in more local contexts. Hence, a university that sees itself as a refuge from dominance in the outer world can become its own little fiefdom of domination in which ideas hostile to the regime are silenced.

Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance” marks the beginning of this mentality. Before that time, free speech and the drive toward equality were considered necessary companions. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, was a great champion of freedom of speech because he saw it as necessary to further the civil rights movement. The gay rights movement, too, rode the back of free speech, as did modern feminism. But now, it seems that progressivism in the drive toward equality is antithetical to free speech in many situations. Free speech is now a crisis for the Left, which is historically a new phenomenon.

These are, I think, the major threats: the conflation of speech and action related to the discourse of power and the therapeutic ethic.

Another possible factor is institutions’ becoming more cosmopolitan than American. There are different motives for the internationalization of a university. One is simply that it’s an interconnected world. America has always had a global aspect, and because of modern technology and international markets, we live in an especially global environment today. In constitutional scholar Philip Bobbitt’s terms, states are now more like “market states” than constitutional or nation states. A global understanding is indeed a necessary part of a liberal education. But the second motive for some globalists is the idea that we need something better than America. America certainly needs to improve, but that’s different from saying America needs to be supplanted—there’s almost an implicit denigration of American institutions in that drive. So perhaps there’s a link between the internationalization of a university and its lowered commitment to the rights in the American Constitution, such as free speech, due process, and equal treatment under the law for all individuals and groups. If globalization becomes the main emphasis, that might downgrade or diminish the significance of the American experiment—including our Constitution. The dialectical idea comes in again: What is the relationship between the cosmopolitan university and the American university? Is there a way that we can find a constructive dialogue between the two?

What role do administrators play in encouraging or hampering academic freedom?

The faculty need to be the core of the university in terms of power because they are the producers of the university; the product is knowledge and the process of striving for truth. The beneficiaries are the students and the polity as a whole—when the faculty do their job right. The administration is simply there to create an environment for these student-faculty interactions to happen. Administrators are necessary, and they often understand what a university is for and contribute to its proper mission. But in recent decades, the number of administrators has burgeoned, far outpacing the growth in faculty. Today, many of them are not part of and don’t have the background for pedagogical life; many also bring their own agendas to bear. Consequently, faculty power has been compromised in a serious way. Imagine a scenario in which several students complain to an administrator about a professor. This administrator has never dealt with the classroom, so taking the side of the students is the default position. If you think about it, that’s an astonishing situation and a recipe for lowering the quality of the university.

What’s more, the whole incentive structure for administrations has changed. They’re tied to national organizations now, so it’s all a network. As a result, administrators, just like faculty and students, risk a lot when they speak out. But they don’t necessarily need to speak out, write a book, or give a public speech. They just need to do the right thing.

You have been a long-time advocate for academic freedom. Have you found any tactics or steps particularly successful in promoting academic freedom on campus?

The first thing you have to do is be aware of the problem. Then, you have to prioritize the problem because, even in a place that takes free speech seriously, there are often other agendas that can conflict with free speech. Many universities, even those that do value free speech, will defer to pressures for speech codes and other repressive policies because they feel more beholden to groups looking to restrict speech. While those groups are often quite vocal, free speech lacks a constituency—it is either taken for granted, or its supporters are afraid to speak out because they’ll be labeled. In the worst cases, such supporters either don’t exist or are too few.

To address this problem, you need people with credibility to speak out in favor of free speech. Then, those individuals need to build a like-minded group and develop a public presence. Throughout it all, the free speech and academic freedom agenda needs to be prioritized, or it will fail. This is a university, not a social club or a community group—from a normative perspective, free speech and academic freedom are the most important things. And from a practical standpoint, they need to be prioritized, or they’ll be marginalized, even forgotten.

Back in the 90s, we started an independent group at Wisconsin called the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights after learning about some egregious free speech, due process, and academic freedom violations that had occurred because of Wisconsin's then faculty speech code. We organized and made those cases known publicly; we showed people that there are actual victims of censorship who have been seriously harmed because of investigations. We then developed a group to defend people that were improperly charged with speech crimes, and over 20 years, we won all our cases or settled them to our satisfaction. In 1999, our committee led the Faculty Senate to abolish the faculty speech code. After the speech code victory, we also got involved in policy in previously unexpected and fruitful ways.

Forming a group like this is harder to do now than ever. We were lucky—we had the right people and couldn’t be dismissed as a fringe group. We were taken seriously, including by the administration and the press. At many other campuses, supporters of academic freedom are often stranded or alone. They might feel that the cost of engagement is too great—they could lose their reputations and be ostracized. Meanwhile, new faculty are often less committed to academic freedom. Recent studies have shown that ideological agreement on campus is growing ever stronger; less political diversity typically indicates less intellectual diversity and less cognizance that an echo chamber is forming.

As a result, the Wisconsin Model hasn’t been replicated in many places; most people just don’t have the kind of tools for mobilization that we had. That makes outside resources or institutions like FIRE and AFA, who are great companions, all the more necessary. At AFA, we work to help faculty in three ways: through legal defense; through pressuring administrations with letters and publicization; and through providing emotional and personal support—we show them, you are not alone. Personal support is critical.

A further point: if you’re not going to win, you’re better off going down with your boots on. You fought the good fight, and the best thing you can do is to keep the word alive. Refusing to bow is also the right thing to do in itself regardless of its utilitarian outcome. Of course, we’re looking for the utilitarian outcome—we want people to succeed; we want things to change. But if they don’t, there’s still intrinsic value just in standing up for what’s right.

I’m not the most courageous person in the world; I have thin skin in some ways, too. But sometimes, you have to sit and think: Can you live with yourself if you constantly cower to the mob, or to the conventional way of thinking, or because you don’t want somebody to think you’re different? It’s a question of self-reliance and self-respect. I have read reports of student affairs administrators and others who have claimed that “individualism” and “responsibility” are oppressive words that should be tabooed—check “micro-aggression” lists. But it just so happens that these principles are bedrocks of liberal democracy and free societies. Every day on campus, little incidents arise where you have a choice to speak honestly or to retreat. I’m not saying you shouldn’t occasionally retreat because of the situation, but your presumption should be no, you’re not going to when it matters. You can’t live in a state of self- denial.

Octavio Paz, a Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet and great defender of liberal democracy was once asked by a young fledgling writer how to become a great author. He replied, “The writer must know how to swim against the tide.” His meaning: use your own mind. You should always be open to learning, new experiences, and disagreement, but in the end, it’s your voice, your vision. Don’t be afraid of the tides coming the other way. Right now in higher education, we are riding tides in the name of virtue. But where’s the diversity of thought? Where’s the disagreement? It could be argued that the 1950s had less conformity than we’re seeing now, especially in elite institutions, places that should be the opposite of monolithic. That’s letting everybody down.

This relates to another societal trend: people feeling guilt for something they didn’t do, feeling guilty for their society. Can the American republic prevail in the long run if we’re not honest about our past? No, we need to face our sins. But we also need to put things in the right perspective of the great things that have happened in this country, the promises of liberty that we have been expanding over time through dialectical struggle. But if you’re constantly cowering in guilt, then you’re living in a state of self- flagellation, self-denial. We need to have nobility in the things we do and in the freedom that we exercise; cowering is not that. Can you have freedom without a sense of nobility? I don’t think so.

Why do you value education?

Two quick responses. First, to make people more thoughtful, which is good for them and good for the polity. It makes us better and more reasonable citizens. Second, because education is an end in itself. Opening the mind through knowledge and its pursuit enriches life. Hannah Arendt called thinking “a conversation with oneself.” But you are also conversing with the high-level thinking of predecessors, which is both uplifting and adventurous. It makes us closer to all humanity.

My father was a great believer in education. After he fought in World War II in the Canadian army, he enrolled for a few years at the University of Chicago as a graduate student though he had never attended college. Various things came up, and he wasn’t able to finish; still, he always talked about the importance of education, what it does for your mind and your life. In college, I found out that my dad was right; these things matter. You’re not just reading ideas in a book; the great authors and political theorists didn’t just sit down and write—they were embedded in struggle themselves, and their works were often responses to that. They were universalizing what was particular in their personal experiences. That’s the right way to approach political theory, great literature, and even the messy and agonistic process of scientific discovery: these are not just ideas floating around in the ether. They are transcendent, but only because their origin is grounded in the struggle of living. But given the therapeutic ethic and related forces today, students are being taught to avoid struggle.

I taught a First Amendment class with the hope of having an impact on campus; I tried to teach students to react thoughtfully rather than simply jerking their knees. Once, when I was teaching that class, I left campus for a few days for a conference. While I was gone, someone put up a big picture of an aborted fetus in front of the student union as a protest against abortion. My students started emailing me asking me what to do about this gesture that deeply offended many of them. I simply told them to apply what we were learning in class. Even when they came to different conclusions, the students went through the same basic mental process: rising above their prejudices and passions and really thinking through the situation. That’s what education is supposed to teach us: Be more thoughtful and rigorous in dealing with pressing matters. I should have retired right then—that was mission accomplished.

Education also should be an adventure. Nietzsche, quoting a warrior before battle, writes, “You tremble, oh my heart? You would tremble a lot more if you knew where I was taking you.” That’s the adventure of a really good class. I remember one class like that in grad school—I didn’t really agree with the professor, but I would come out of his class with my mind spinning, trying to reach and understand what he was saying. I could concretely feel the gap between what I could really understand and fully grasp and where that truth was that was out there. That was really exciting. It took me beyond myself. It made me feel humble.

In short, it’s important to expose students to new ideas. I learned this all the way back at Cornell—if I hadn’t been exposed to the professors who resigned after the academic freedom crisis, I would have a different view from the one I ended up having, which ultimately led to my career. Serendipitous things can change your life—that’s why being open is important. You can’t only take courses from professors with whom you agree or with whom you feel comfortable. You never know; you might find someone who will open your eyes to new ideas and possibly alter the course of your life.

How might you persuade a skeptic that academic freedom is indeed the best policy?

When it comes to promoting academic freedom, there’s a time to be shrill or aggressive and a time to be more persuasive. If someone’s talking about canceling a person, rather than yelling at them that they’re wrong, provide a reason why that isn’t the right solution. You might say, “Isn’t it better to engage with her? Maybe you’ll change her mind, and maybe you’ll learn something in the process.” The objective isn’t necessarily to compel everyone to agree with you but to persuade them to open the door to inclusiveness of thought. While there’s certainly a time for battle, you should generally try to phrase your opposition in a more constructive way.

We typically don’t change minds by getting mad at people. Harvard Business School has done studies on diversity training in corporate life, and they find that the way it is done is utterly counterproductive. It gets preachy, ornery, and quasi-coercive. And then normal people just rebel against it. Thank God, they do—otherwise they’re humiliating themselves, putting their tail between their legs, going back into their shell… They’re denying their own humanity.

Will you deny your own humanity? You owe it to yourself not to.

Learn More About the Academic Freedom Alliance

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