Yale Alumni Stage an Intervention

Yale Alumni Stage an Intervention
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

When a somber-looking group of family and friends tell you to sit down because it’s time for a serious heart-to-heart conversation about your drug addiction or some other destructive behavior, we call it an intervention. Imagine you are Yale University, and the man telling you to sit down is Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz. Behind him are a host of other concerned alumni, each wearing the look of tough love. 

Rosenkranz is currently campaigning for a seat on the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing body. Backed by a grassroots effort of alumni, his campaign comes in the wake of several high-profile controversies at Yale in the areas of racial politics, free speech, and academic freedom. Perhaps the best known of these controversies resulted in Nicholas Christakis, a prominent member of the Yale faculty, resigning his position as a college master after becoming the target of an angry student protest over views he and his wife expressed on the censorship of Halloween costumes. Mr. Rosenkranz agreed to a brief email interview with RealClearEducation to discuss his bid to become a Yale trustee, his ideas for reform at Yale, and his vision for higher education more broadly. 

Can you tell readers a little about yourself, your career, and your interest in higher education? 

I teach constitutional law at Georgetown. For many years, my primary extracurricular activity has been my work to support free speech and intellectual diversity at American universities. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is the preeminent defender of free speech on campus, and on the Board of Directors of the Federalist Society, which is the leading proponent of intellectual diversity and debate in legal education. In 2015, Jonathan Haidt and I co-founded Heterodox Academy, which promotes intellectual diversity of university faculty and unfettered debate on university campuses.

Why did you decide to run for a seat on the Yale Corporation?

Well, this was not my idea. A group of alumni, Alumni for Excellence at Yale, approached me and asked if they could put my name forward to be a possible trustee at Yale. They share a lot of my concerns, and I am honored that they want me to be the voice for these concerns. So I said yes, and now they are actively trying to get my name on the ballot. They need to gather 4266 signatures for their petition by October 1.

In a statement on the Alumni for Excellence website, you call Yale the “undisputed Ivy League heavyweight champ of bureaucracy.” Why is bureaucratic bloat a problem at Yale or at other institutions?

Bureaucratic bloat is a problem for several reasons. First, it diverts resources from the core academic mission of a university. Second, the bureaucratic perspective is not always consistent with this core academic mission; for example, diversity and inclusion bureaucrats may focus single-mindedly on diversity and inclusion (which are, to be sure, important values), while giving short shrift to central academic values like freedom of speech. Third, academic bureaucrats tend to be even more monolithically left-wing than faculties, so the lack of intellectual diversity on campus is, if anything, exacerbated by a bloated bureaucracy.

You also point out that alumni giving at Yale is second lowest among all of its Ivy League peers. Do you think that reflects general dissatisfaction with the university among alumni?

I suspect that the Halloween costume controversy of 2015 was a bit of a wake-up call to Yale alumni. The shocking video of that episode (which was shot by my friend Greg Lukianoff of FIRE) persuaded many alumni that the culture at Yale had become unrecognizable, and that it is no longer an institution worthy of their support. I myself have never given up on Yale; indeed, we have recently announced the Rosenkranz Originalism Conference at Yale Law School. But I certainly understand the perspective of alumni who have stopped giving, and I hope to give them a reason to give again.

At its best, what role do you think a leading university like Yale could or should be playing in society?

I think, above all, an institution like Yale must be dedicated to the search for truth. If the history of ideas has shown anything, it has shown that the quest for truth is best advanced in a climate of unfettered inquiry, via the clash of different arguments. So a great university like Yale can and should serve a secondary social purpose too: it should serve as a model of civil discourse and reasoned debate.

You cofounded an organization, along with Jonathan Haidt, called Heterodox Academy. Can you tell the readers a bit about your involvement in that organization, its mission, and how it connects to your current campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation?

In 2014, Jonathan Haidt co-authored a paper entitled, “Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science.” I had been thinking along the same lines, and I had recently published a short essay called “Intellectual Diversity in the Legal Academy.” He and I had both noticed that our respective fields had very little intellectual diversity among faculty, and that, as a result, several pathologies had crept into the scholarship. As our fields were dominated by a rigid liberal orthodoxy, many premises went unquestioned and many fundamental questions went unasked. Inevitably, with no dissenting voices to challenge the conventional wisdom, the work has gotten less and less rigorous as it takes on the character of preaching to the choir. We founded Heterodox Academy to promote intellectual diversity in universities. Unfortunately, it is safe to say that we have not yet succeeded at Yale. To give just a few examples, in the psychology department at Yale, there is one registered Republican out of 37; in the history department, there are three out of 55; in the economics department, there are zero out of 25.

You attended Yale both as an undergraduate and later at the law school. How do your experiences as a student inform your vision for reform at the university?

I love Yale. I loved it as a student, and I still love it today. But when I was a student, Yale still held fast, for the most part, to the principles of its magnificent Woodward Report:

The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.

I am afraid that in recent years, Yale has lost sight of this principle. But this is still Yale’s official policy, and it should give all alumni hope. Whether this campaign succeeds or fails, I hope, if nothing else, it will remind Yale of its own professed commitment to freedom of speech.

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