A stream of often right-wing media coverage regularly alerts the U.S. public to new instances of left-wing excess at American universities and colleges. Individual examples certainly abound of campuses where dissent from “woke” social-justice orthodoxy is either explicitly punished or implicitly stigmatized. But is higher education as unfriendly to heterodox or conservative ideas as media portrayals can suggest?

Jeffrey Sachs argues that there are indeed serious threats to free expression in U.S. higher education, but media coverage tends to misrepresent where they actually lie. While Sachs—a lecturer in Politics at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada—acknowledges the liberal-to-left bent of faculty and students on campuses, he thinks that the sources of campus self-censorship are predominantly non-political, as with threats to campus budgets or to the institution of tenure itself. For Sachs, concerns about campus wokeness and its chilling effect on free speech aren’t entirely misplaced, but they focus on relatively minor issues that can distract from larger ones—including, now, proposed Republican legislation in a number of states that would forbid the promotion or even teaching of obliquely defined schools of thought, such as “critical race theory.” Viewpoint diversity and free expression are at risk, and at times under attack, in the contemporary academy, Sachs says, but mainstream approaches to protecting them are mostly off-target.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Is either the left or the right currently a bigger threat than the other to free speech, or academic freedom, on American college campuses?

Jeffrey Sachs: I reject the idea that we should evaluate which side is worse on this topic. The greatest threats to campus free speech have no obvious political identity. Typically, when faculty or students [self-] censor, they do so for apolitical reasons, because maybe they’re careerist, and they don’t want to frustrate their boss, or they want to fit in with a departmental culture, unrelated to politics. When students self-censor, they tend to do it because they want to be popular. They want to look smart in the non-political sense of the term. The largest threats [to viewpoint diversity and free expression on campus] are probably not political in nature.

Clearly, there are political threats. Both the left and the right do pose them. Threats that tend to arise off-campus are more often from the right, [and] those that arise on campus are usually from the left. I think that probably is due to the disproportionate influence that the left has managed to wield on campuses.

Bovy: You recently mentioned several instances of “the Right’s assault on academic freedom” and have written about more about them for Arc Digital. Is there an instance that you find especially striking?

Sachs: State legislators, typically in red states, [are proposing bills] that would attempt to prohibit the expression of certain ideas, or discussion of ideas in certain venues, on campus. These bills typically target “divisive concepts” that focus on race and sex. The language is lifted more or less word for word from the Trump administration’s executive order last fall that prohibited certain kinds of training modules in government agencies. These bills have taken this language and are trying to apply it to speech and pedagogy on campuses.

For subscribers

Join to read on and have full access to The Signal, including all articles, art, and our entire archive.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in