Johns Hopkins University’s Free Expression Posturing

Johns Hopkins University’s Free Expression Posturing
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Founded in 1876, Johns Hopkins University—America’s first research university, currently 10th on U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings—numbers among the nation’s most prestigious higher-education institutions. Along with this blue-blood pedigree, however, Hopkins’ also boasts one of the nation’s more abysmal track records for free expression and diversity of thought.

For starters, the university holds the worst possible speech-code rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): a “red light” rating, awarded to institutions whose policies “both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.” Particularly egregious, for example, is Hopkins’ inherently-subjective, neo-Victorian “civility” policy—which declares in bolded italics, “Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.” While it may seem reasonable at first glance, in reality, this and other “zero-tolerance” policies are invariably used to silence heterodox speech rather than to inspire comity.

Johns Hopkins ranks in the bottom half of institutions on Heterodox Academy’s new “Guide to Colleges,” which scores schools on a scale from 0 to 100 for how likely they are to welcome viewpoint diversity and open discussion. Even after their rating was increased following the Agora Institute announcement, Hopkins still only receives a paltry score of 40. The guide cites a September 2016 study of faculty voter registration at 40 leading research universities that found a 35:1 Democrat-to-Republican ratio among Johns Hopkins’ faculty, making them one of the least politically diverse institutions surveyed.

Unsurprisingly, near-total ideological uniformity and sweeping strictures on speech make for a noxious combination. Just ask now-former Johns Hopkins professor Trent Bertrand, who was barred from his classroom without warning last December and suspended from teaching after three students (in a class of 68) complained that a joke he told created a “hostile learning environment.” Recounting his experience last month, Bertrand related how he’d been suspended before the investigation into the students’ complaints had even begun:

“I believe that the real reason I was barred from class and suspended was that in response to being informed two weeks earlier that a complaint had been made, I had noted the Orwellian characteristic of the [Office of Institutional Equity], quoting from their website but adding the italicized phrase in brackets: 'Johns Hopkins is dedicated to the world of ideas and that world expands exponentially as those with different experiences and points of view share their knowledge and interpretations with one another […unless of course those views diverge from the dominant groupthink protected under the banner of ‘political correctness’ or threaten the safe spaces and comfort of anyone else].'”

Hopkins’ treatment of Bertrand is not an isolated incident. In his scathing 2011 polemic, The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science and chair of the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, chronicles myriad instances of university administrators curtailing faculty speech and academic freedom. Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, then-Dean Stephen Szabo punished a Johns Hopkins professor of international relations for publicly advocating for aggressive military action against states that harbor terrorists. Szabo demanded a written apology and eliminated the professor’s position as director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (before later reversing the decision after substantial public criticism).

Nor is such speech repression limited to the professoriate. As FIRE’s case database reveals, Johns Hopkins first earned its “red light” status in 2006 after punishing a student for posting a satirical Halloween party invitation on Facebook the university deemed “offensive.” Though eventually reduced under public pressure, the student’s original punishment included, inter alia, “suspension from the university for a year, completion of 300 hours of community service, an assignment to read 12 books and to write a reflection paper on each, and mandatory attendance at a workshop on diversity and race relations.”

It’s ironic, then, that recently Johns Hopkins received a $150 million philanthropic gift to establish a new interdisciplinary research center focused on civic engagement and open discourse. According to the university press release, the new Agora Institute—inspired by the central marketplace and public square of ancient Greek city-states—“will reflect the open character of its namesake, encouraging broad participation and the free exchange of ideas.”

Architecture notwithstanding, however, Johns Hopkins’ promises of free expression and a marketplace of ideas should be taken with more than a few grains of salt. If Bertrand’s account is accurate, which Hopkins’ history of censorship seems to corroborate, then the crisis of free expression on the Baltimore campus is unlikely to be solved by breaking ground on a new building. Indeed, if Johns Hopkins is truly committed to facilitating “the restoration of open and inclusive discourse,” they should prove it by removing their institutional barriers around permitted speech. Instead of touting cosmetic initiatives, they should revisit an academic culture that tells students an off-color joke is tantamount to a “hostile environment”—and understand that a “free exchange of ideas” is meaningless without viewpoint diversity.

Over 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill penned his famous disquisition On Liberty, elucidating the necessity for protection “against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” Perhaps, with the $150 million they’ve just received, someone at Johns Hopkins University should purchase a copy or two.

Grant Addison is a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @jgrantaddison.

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