UVa: a Giant Among Free-Speech Pygmies

By Walter Smith

According to the most recent survey from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the University of Virginia ranked 6th highest for free speech. Before you puff up with pride for the alma mater, please be aware that UVA’s score was 68 out of 100. Once upon a time, before grade inflation set in, that was known as an “F.”

And UVA’s score is really too generous. While FIRE gives UVa credit for its “unequivocal” support for free speech in formal written documents, the side quotes illustrating what students actually think they can say show quite the opposite. Talk is cheap.

In place of Jim Ryan’s quasi-religious manifesto (Great and Good), the Board of Visitors should set as a goal that UVA be recognized as the #1 school for free speech. How could any person who claims to love UVa and respect its Jeffersonian legacy object?

In a recent defensive action, 15 universities signed on to the “Campus Call for Free Expression,” which purported to highlight their commitment to free speech. Twelve of those institutions, ranging from a high of #26 (James Madison University!) in FIRE rankings to #212 (Cornell), belong, like the Jefferson Council, to the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA) where alumni see free speech under threat.

The Campus Call is weak tea – even weaker than UVA’s Statement on Free Expression and Free Inquiry. But it reflects thinking that seems to be widespread at Mr. Jefferson’s University. It rehashes Great and Good rhetoric in a collection of high-minded bromides while subtly justifying indoctrination in place of education. If I were to enumerate all of the deceptive platitudes here, I would end up quoting the whole thing! Please read it yourself.

I’ll emphasize two points.

First, the Campus Call institutions say they “aim to develop students who pursue knowledge beyond their comfort zone, challenging existing beliefs and assumptions.”

Whose “existing believes and assumptions” are to be challenged? Does this dictum include contesting the beliefs and assumptions that underpin “woke” orthodoxy? Not likely. We know the truth: Only traditional beliefs are to be scrutinized and deconstructed.

Second, the Campus Call sounds more like a threat to free speech than a ringing endorsement of it. “Express ideas freely,” it says, “but recognize that doing so doesn’t guarantee approval or immunity from consequences.” You mean consequences like “direct action” by Antifa thugs, shaming by Twitter mobs, or social ostracism of non-conforming conservatives?

As in UVA’s adoption of its “unequivocal” free speech statement, JMU and Cornell signed the Campus Call as a PR gesture. UVA didn’t really mean it, and neither do JMU, Cornell or any of the signatories. What does it really say about higher education in America that UVA is ranked #6 for free speech in such company?

I subscribe to UVA’s daily propaganda – UVA Pravda Today. I suspect the administrations of JMU and Cornell control “the message” similarly. Great and Good is not an educational doctrine. It is about transformation of students into “global citizens.” “Campus Call” reads the same to me. I have not examined the political donations of Cornell’s employees. However, more than 90% (mid-90s) of JMU and UVA employees who contribute to political campaigns tip their donations to Democrats – in a Commonwealth where the electorate splits their votes 50/50.

Until academia drops its “diversity” delusion and its Stalinist “equity and inclusion” thought control, the schools will function as indoctrination factories, actually harming student brainwashees by crippling independent thinking, awarding degrees of negative value, and saddling them with debt that delays the launch of adult life, like a job, a house, marriage, and family.

As the people in charge will not willingly cede their “transformative” power, a return to the universities’ educational mission must be imposed. Until then, the institutions of higher learning are actively harming society. The “Kalven Principles” – university employees may think and advocate as they please but the institutions themselves must remain political neutrality – should become the standard. Teaching students “how” to think, not “what” to think should become the aspiration.

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7 months ago

Excellent article, Walter. You nailed it.

Isn’t it ironic that UVA has an honor system yet the Administration is allowed to perpetrate the hoax that true intellectual diversity is treasured?

I believe Morgan Bettinger would be to differ.

Geoffrey Close
Geoffrey Close
7 months ago

Actually a 68 would be a C- or a D+ (Don’t shoot your eye out kid!)

Walter smith
Walter smith
7 months ago
Reply to  Geoffrey Close

I guess you didn’t read the article too closely, which maybe, kinda proves the point about grade inflation. You can find slides showing the move to the 10 point scale where 70 was the cutoff for D. I was from the scale prior where 75 was the cutoff.
You work for Jim Ryan? You think 68 is “and Good” or “Great?”
so you quibble whether 68 is a D+ versus an F.
It is pitiful. Even worse at the school established by free speech’s truest of true believers.

7 months ago

Spot on again, Walter. And you are right when you say, “UVA didn’t really mean it” as actual implementation of free speech only serves to encourage truth which is ultimately anathema to leftists and to be treated with sarcasm. Pravda indeed.

It must be understood who we in fact are dealing with. Leftist, not liberals who as a group actually do adhere to the tenets of free speech but they comprise smaller and smaller populations in university faculties. To their credit they too are pushing back against leftists on issues of free speech and encouragement of robust debate by way of allowance of viewpoint diversity. The Heterodox Academy is evidence of their efforts.

With what you relate in this article I can only conclude Ryan’s free speech statements are in fact sure enough lip service as they are not consistent with what students are actually being subjected to. True to leftist form words and statements are manipulated to appear on the surface to be in favor of free speech but the underlying end goal is to impose control over “free speech” in order to effect a groupthink monoculture(i.e. brainwashed sheep).

In a fascinating speech sponsored by the Heterodox Academy last week Mark Edmundson, a popular English professor for over 40 years at UVA, related his current experience that when he opens a subject to student discussion the theme will be set by the first student to speak from which no one who follows will waiver. Conform and be civil the overarching dynamic which he further noted they believe will assure future professional success. Whether in the classroom or outside as in social media settings he notes a marked anxiety level directly attributable to this unspoken expectation. The anxiety indeed as you note creates societal harm. Ergo the concomitant high use of anti-anxiety and powerful anti-psychotic drugs with all the deleterious side effects.

So from the classroom on to an event open to the general public at the Miller Center where I encountered this same over arching not so subtle conform and be civil dynamic by way of manipulating the Q&A after the panel discussion. In the past microphones were given to audience members to ask pertinent and authentic questions. Currently you are to submit a question on a card to then be chosen before presentation to the panel. Except last week none were given to the panel from those in the sparse audience but instead a question supposedly originating from an unknown online entity. Of course a softball question over the very controversial headlining topic of affirmative action in higher education. Barbara Perry, the moderator then quickly adjourned the event with a smile and effusive praise for yes the civility she gleefully noted. There was a time just a few years ago when events such as this one were sold out, the auditorium was overflowing and extra TV monitors and seating were brought in to the foyer and anteroom. No longer. Students are a captive audience, The general public not so much and, evidently as to the sparse attendance, they voted with their feet and stayed away. Pointless to attend.

So next stop on the civility as applied to free speech tour at UVA, might as well head to the very top of the UVA community. That being the Rose speech to the BOV. Works quite well at the lower levels as Ryan et al have noticed. So I am sure he said, “damn why not try it on the BOV?”

Walter, your question hits the nail on the head as to whether the BOV is satisfied with a #6 rating as to free speech, as apparently “Great and Good” Ryan is, or will they act as Jefferson envisioned over 200 years ago as to being rightfully #1? That will be the tell as to this current BOV and whether they take their role seriously.