Harvey Silverglate on FIRE

Editor’s note: Harvey Silverglate is an attorney and one of the co-founders of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). 

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): Do you think faculty should have more say at Colleges?

Harvey Silverglate (HS): I think that what has been happening is that faculty have been edged out in terms of setting the agenda in American higher education. This role, which has been traditionally performed by faculty, has now been taken over by bureaucrats. Five or six years ago I understand that statistically the number of admins surpassed faculty for the first time in history. This is evidence of the trend of administrative takeover. At Harvard there are courses created by administrators, and taught by administrators on the useless topics like the adjustment to life. It would be a joke if it weren’t so serious. I wrote a piece recently about the Harvard Freshman Deans who put out a placemat that had written on it advice for freshman for when they went home on spring break and talked to their parents. Presumably, the parents would ask questions like “What have you been learning?” or “What is the school like?” It was recommending answers that the freshman could use to answer the parent’s questions on hot-button issues like “How they are dealing with some of the demands of BLM?” or the equity and inclusion insanity. Just in case the students didn’t know how to answer their parents, the Dean’s office was giving them an easy way to find answers. Now incidentally, there are two obvious reasons: First, the administration is sensitive to the things that they are teaching. Sane normal people don’t buy into the program. Second, they have nothing really to do at their jobs. Producing the placemat gave them something to do for the week. Lord knows that they had to collaborate to put out this idiotic placemat. It is very intrusive, to have a bureaucrat answer questions about Harvard. This is to be the lowest level to which an administrator can fall to.

TDR: Is there an end in sight to the recent trend of bloated bureaucracy and feckless administrators in higher education?

HS: I was very happy to read this recent issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly. It seems that they are having a turnaround. They have a sane president, who actually spoke about the importance of academic freedom in a cover story in the alumni mag. This is new. It wouldn’t have happened under the previous president who was as politically correct as they come. I mentioned before that I had been interviewed by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. I was interviewed because I had sent a critical letter to the editor and they invited me to be interviewed. They sent a reporter to my house in Cambridge and I had a long interview and the piece came out and my criticism of American higher education was in there, my criticism of Harvard was in it, Yale was there, Princeton wasn’t in there! It had been edited out. I called the writer; she lived in Cambridge also. She had written about the criticism of Princeton, but it had been edited out!

One of the co-founders of FIRE, Silverglate is an outspoken advocate of free speech on campus.

One of the co-founders of FIRE, Silverglate is an outspoken advocate of free speech on campus.

Anyways, so I actually have some hope of a turnaround, a sign of a backbone. Larry Summers of Harvard tried to have a backbone and he got tossed out. So the president of Princeton is showing some backbone, he’s got the support of the trustees; the trustees refuse to obliterate the name of Woodrow Wilson, whether or not they were for or against the man. He did some things that were good, he did some things that were horrible, he was a good president in some ways and a horrible president in other ways. The idea of taking his name off of a building, revising history, is something that fanatics do. It gets me nervous, its not the way a free people operate. So I thought it was a good sign that Princeton was resisting the call to strip the name. What is happening at Princeton, if I’m right is the beginning of a counter-revolution. It could affect Dartmouth. It’s totally ridiculous in this regard. In some ways I admire you guys for just being about to get up in the morning and go to classes having an administration that is so ridiculous. Harvard’s is just as bad, Yale’s is worse. Of course state universities are hopeless because in addition to the normal pressures you have in a private university for increasing the number of bureaucrats, at public universities, you have the additional pressures of having to put relatives of politicians into positions in the administration. They can’t teach, they’re not very smart, so you have this gigantic bloated administration in the state university. They are so expensive, in fact, that the universities are not hiring tenured professors, they are hiring teachers that teach on a short contract [adjuncts]. This is clearly lowering the quality of educations. Instead they are supporting absurd administrations and promoting ridiculous philosophical systems. I can tell you, but you actually probably already know this from being students, that a lot of students that I talk to don’t buy into this, they don’t think that that equity and inclusion are more important than intellectual achievement but they don’t say anything either, they just want to get their degree and get the hell out of the asylum.

I think that people have to be active—that is absolutely essential. I think that Princeton must have received a ton of mail from alumni about the Woodrow Wilson idiocy, now let me remind you, you can dislike Woodrow Wilson, he is a very dislikable person, his notions of race were atrocious, but the idea of rewriting history by renaming buildings has antecedents in totalitarian societies. It is a very bad approach to history and so I think that there was a lot of adverse reaction from alumni, and I don’t only mean alumni form my class – I was the class of ’64 – I mean alumni from fifteen years ago, because the Princeton report was one that was worthy of an institute of higher learning, it was thoughtful, and it was not cowardly, they thoughtfully analyzed the problem, they had a clear eyed view of Wilson’s pluses and minuses and they decided that renaming history was not the way an institution should operate and I admired their decision. Do I think that it was entirely spontaneous? No I think that they saw that the alumni were up behind it and I don’t mean racist alumni, I mean alumni that were full of thought.

TDR: Do alumni have more power than students in effectuating this type of change?

HS: I think that alumni have more power to affect change, but I also think that students are essential too. The reason that alumni have more power is because of their wallets.  They have money that they donate.  They are independent and they can say what they want. Their degrees cannot be taken away from them. The problem students face is that they are subject to being victimized by mindless bureaucrats who don’t mind filing charges for every imagined transgression. The definition of harassment is so vague that every student can be charged with harassing or offending somebody. All you have to do is disagree with someone and yell a bit too loud. Or say to someone, which I do all the time, “You’re an idiot.” There is a dean or other administrator waiting to charge you with harassment. “You’ve hurt that person; you’ve demeaned that person.” Well you’re damned right, people who are really idiots should be demeaned. That is what a free society is all about. I can call the president of the United States an idiot, and not end up in a dungeon. What a great thing. Well the campus should be more free, not less free.

TDR: So, why do you think that student newspapers are so hesitant to attack school administrations?

HS: First of all, not all student newspapers have their own endowments; they are dependent on student activity fees. One of the favorite ploys of college presidents and deans who are afraid the student newspaper is saying too much, or is telling the outside world what an asylum the campus has become, they cut off the funds. So, a lot of the newspapers that are not independent, but are endowed, have more guts because they have more independence, and you get a lot of important, objective information from reading those papers. Up until four or five years ago, I read the Harvard Crimson every day, because it was truly independent, and does have an endowment, and the student journalists were quite brave in disclosing the various idiocies of the day at Harvard. The last four or five years, the Crimson has been much more pro administration. I attribute that to the fact that they have been brainwashed throughout elementary school and high school, and by the time they get to Harvard, they’re zombies in a lot of ways, so the Crimson is not as independent as it used to be. Every so often, there is a brave op-ed piece published by a student who doesn’t give a damn, and who is willing to tell the truth, but an awful lot of the gibberish you see at the Harvard about equity; anyone who adheres to the equity and inclusion line you know has drunk the Kool-Aid. Because if you are interested in the quality, and I am, and I think that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection law is one of the most important laws in the Constitution, after all we fought a civil war over it. But anybody who uses the phrase “equity and inclusion” is not serious, is parodying one of the least enlightening phrases in the modern language, it is meaningless, it is an excuse for hiring deans and assistant deans and deputy assistant deans. This whole bureaucracy has grown up over this phrase that no one really understands. They do no use for work, I can tell you. The sooner I’ll know that we’ve turned the corner when I no longer here multiple times a day, and you know I live in Cambridge in the “belly of the beast,” when I no longer open a newspaper or listen to a radio show, and hear someone speaking about the important of equity and inclusion. When those words are out of the vocabulary, we are getting serious about education and about, frankly, equality. You can’t have real equality without widespread education, and you can’t run an education system when bureaucrats are in charge, rather than academics. It’s a whole circle.

TDR: Can you recall any examples of Administrators blatantly tampering with student newspapers?

HS: I had a remarkable experience a few years ago. Harvard Law School has one independent student edited newspaper. It’s been around forever. When I was a student there from 1964-67, it was put out in newsprint every week, the Harvard Law Record, student written and student edited. It was not paid for by the administration and they had no control over it. During the deanship of Elena Kagan, who is now on the Supreme Court, there were seven publications by the administration of Harvard Law School, touting the administration’s line. These were not the creation of Dean Kagan, these long preceded her. She has this great advantage; she is able to control the message because there were seven in-house published journals. The only independent voice was the Harvard Law Record, which was very critical of some of the things going on in the law school, as it should have been. During Kagan’s deanship, she announces that they are starting a new in-house edited publication, and I think it’s called Harvard Law Today, or something like that, you know one of these “good feeling” names. And they made a deal. Historically, the Harvard Law Record was funded by alumni contributions. How? If you were a member of the Harvard Law School Alumni Association, part of your dues went to pay for a subscription to the Harvard Law Record, so the majority of Harvard Law graduates belonged to the alumni association, as it is a very loyal bunch, and they pay dues, their checks clear, and part of the dues would go back for subscriptions to the Record. And the Record sent, every issue, to every alum who was a member of the Alumni Association, this independent, student voice, of Harvard Law School. Kagan’s administration makes a deal with the Alumni Association, that instead of the dues going to the Harvard Law Record for automatic subscription to the Record, the administration will give every alumnus who is a member of the Alumni Association a free subscription to the new magazine, the glossy magazine. The Harvard Law Record was not very sexy: it was printed on newsprint. This is a glossy, full-color, propaganda sheet, basically. All of the sudden, the Harvard Law Record is faced with extinction, because the only income it had were these dues, forked over by the Alumni Association, and the Alumni Association was trying to save money, because they got these free, Harvard Law School publications that they were getting. Now, if you read the new glossy, you realize that there is never any criticism of the administration. Oh, what a surprise! Now, the alumni are cut off from the only source of objective information about what’s going on. So I complained to Kagan, and I said, “Why did you do this? You’re supposedly a First Amendment fan, you love free speech, so why is it that you allowed this to happen under your watch?” And her answer was absolutely chilling. Kagan said, “Well, the administration is entitled to have its point of view out there too.” Oh, are seven publications not enough! You need eight, and the eighth puts the Law Record out of business. And that’s what happened; however, there was a denouement. Ralph Nader made a gift to the Harvard Law Record of whatever they needed to put out the Record, and he now funds [it]; the Harvard Law Record is still in business because of Ralph Nader. He was offended, I suppose, as the same way I was offended. And he has a number of foundations, and they have enough money, so Nader funds the independent Harvard Law Record, which is still a thorn in the side of the administration. I cheer the Harvard Law Record; I cheer Ralph Nader for doing this. But I couldn’t say I was very impressed with Elena Kagan, and it was a terrible thing that happened under her watch. I am hoping that she is more loyal to the First Amendment as a Supreme Court Justice than she was as a dean.

TDR: FIRE has a list of schools, and you rate each school on how they treat freedom of speech. Can you discuss why Dartmouth was recently downgraded, and what it is doing currently and what it can do to improve?

HS: First of all, you are talking about the red light, yellow light, green light system. One of the most important things that we use as a guide for the system is the speech codes. Mind you, we don’t like any speech codes, and we don’t understand why there should be any speech codes at all. What we have done is, we have used a First Amendment standard as determined by the latest Supreme Court case law. And if a school’s speech code would not be found in violation of the First Amendment by a federal court, we consider that to be a green light school. If the truth be known, colleges should offer more protection than the Supreme Court offers American citizens, because in theory you should be able to have freer speech on campus than out on “Main Street.” But we’re satisfied if you have as much freedom of speech on a campus as you have out in the real world. We will green light that school. If there are vague restrictions, but not terribly restricting, we will yellow light you. And if you have real serious limitations on what you can say without getting in trouble, we red light you. And in addition to the speech codes, of which many are quite stupid: you can’t say something that insults somebody because of their looks. I mean for God’s sake, you can’t say to somebody that they’re as ugly as their thoughts are. You know, not a nice comment, but that’s harassment? Give me a break! They have many truly moronic codes that only an administrator could think of. But, there are other incidents that [FIRE] will use to judge a code. For example, if there was a recent example of harassment of a student newspaper because it did an editorial that was criticizing the administration. Something like that, even if there was nothing in a speech code that allows that to happen, if the administration harasses the independent student newspaper, we consider that a serious violation and we will red light the school even if their handbook doesn’t indicate that it is a totalitarian enclave. So that’s how we get a lot of sources of information; we have very good sources of what’s going on the campuses. We especially value students who are students currently, who tell us what’s going on. There’s no substitute for having a couple of spies in a student body. It really puts us in touch with the realities. You can’t get the reality by reading what the administration puts out.

TDR: You discussed in your first book how Cornell and UMass have all black dormitories in which white students are forbidden from living.

HS: There’s a word for that. It’s called segregation.

TDR: We have an Asian community, and Cutter Shabbaz, which is basically an all black residential community. But they’re not restricted from people of other races.

HS: I’m all in favor of free association. If students feel they have something in common—whether it’s religion, whether it’s politics, whether it’s race, an interest in literary endeavors, an interest in golf—I believe in free association. It happens to be guaranteed by the constitution. The Supreme Court has decided some very important freedom of association cases unanimously. It’s not controversial. If people want to associate among themselves based on any commonality they have, they should be allowed to do that. I believe, however, that it is social engineering for a university to try to influence or direct those kinds of associations. And if it’s free association, I’m fine. Whatever your interest is. But not to have the administration operating to socially engineer. The thing about administrators is, they can’t help themselves.

When they have a title like “Dean of Diversity and Inclusion,” they have all kinds of wacko ideas as to what that means, because of course the truth is that it’s meaningless. Whatever you see in it is what it is. It is terribly insulting to students’ intelligence to be socially engineering them. But if people want to live together on the basis of race, voluntarily, that’s not segregation, that’s free association. And I’m okay with it. Would I like if my child or grandchild did it? No, I want that child to get a broader picture of the world than associating only with people like himself or who think or look like him.

I think higher education is the opportunity to see a broader world than you did when you were in fifth grade. But if a student wants to do that, it’s what this country is about. It’s called freedom. That’s what freedom is all about. So I think it is very bad for schools to engineer these kinds of living situations. I’ve always wanted to see the kind of neighborhoods that these deans live in, I can just imagine that everyone thinks alike, looks alike, has the same kind of bank account, but maybe I’m too cynical after too many years in dealing with these people.

TDR: You’ve worked with the Review in the past?

HS: That must have been about ten years ago. It was the early days of FIRE, but what it was—Jim Wright was the president of Dartmouth—and he was trying to get rid of the Review. The Review was a gigantic pain in the neck to him, because it reported things that didn’t make him look good. And the reason they didn’t make him look good was he wasn’t a very good president. He was insufferably politically correct, insufferably! And he wanted the Review off his case and willing to do anything to try and get rid of it. So we fought like banshees against the administration, and we eventually prevailed. It was a little too raw for a liberal arts university president to be too obvious in wanting to get rid of the student newspaper. It eventually developed a stench. It hurt his reputation, and for good reason!

So it ended up not going down as one of Dartmouth’s proudest moments, in a lot of people’s books, but the Review is still around. You guys have a lot of staying power, so I admire that.

TDR: Do you have any conception of how Dartmouth has changed since then?

HS: I don’t know much about the culture of Dartmouth, but I’ve dealt with the administration, I’ve dealt with the speech codes. My most educational experience regarding Dartmouth was dealing with this group of insurgent candidates for the board. Dartmouth has a certain number of seats on its board that are not self-perpetuating, they’re not filled by a majority vote of the board; they’re filled by the vote of the alumni. And there’s an historical reason for that.

Dartmouth was almost broke, and a group of alumni offered to save it by forking over money, provided that the Board of Trustees have a certain number of alumni elected members. And the Administration, realizing they were facing bankruptcy, succumbed and agreed. So historically, Dartmouth’s Board has a certain number of alumni-elected representation on it. Alumni can petition candidates, and the candidates can run the board. Dartmouth was trying to torpedo that little annoyance, and we went to court to try to enforce, as a matter of contract, the provision guaranteeing the Alumni Association a certain number of seats on the Dartmouth Board. And we were winning that litigation, Dartmouth moved to dismiss, and the judge refused to dismiss. And he wrote an opinion, it’s a published opinion on this, the judge said that we were right, that this was a matter of historic contract, the contract was still valid, and that the Alumni Association could run candidates for the seats on the Board.

And we were on the verge of this huge victory, and the Administration struck back, and what they did, was they engineered an election of the Board of the Alumni Association that put on that Board only administration-approved candidates. And as soon as that election took place and these people took over the Alumni Association, the next day they voted to withdraw the lawsuit, and the lawsuit got closed down, and it occurred to me that the worst that Dartmouth has done, of all the horrible things it’s done, was defeating alumni democracy by taking over the Alumni Association in order to get dismissed a lawsuit which was meant to guarantee some alumni influence on the Board of Trustees. That’s my worst Dartmouth story.

Stuff that happened to you guys, you survived, but Dartmouth has been very much injured by the failure of that initiative to put some sane, independent people on the Board of Trustees who are not controlled by the administration. And what you see happening today, the proliferation of bureaucrats, the restrictions on speech, and the nefarious influence on the academic level. You’ve got some politically correct courses that you look at and shake your head, thinking, “How does a course like this get into a liberal arts college?” It’s total idiocy, the professor’s an idiot, the reading list is idiotic, how does this happen? The answer is that the Board that would have performed its fiduciary duty to not let that happen to Dartmouth got defeated by trick.                  

  • 1st Amend.

    HS is an American hero.

  • ShadrachSmith

    In short, academe has been taken over by a nearly hereditary aristocracy that use students as a renewable resource to grow their number and comfort.

    I thought everybody wanted that. How else could the alumni let it happen?

    • piper60

      The elimination of direct influence by the alumiin college policy was central to the establishment of the ‘modern” US college or University! The european model made ever graduate a voting member of “the corporation’which chose senior officials. That much democracy was inconvenient to the ‘reformers”who wants to remold colleges into ideological hot-houses to spread their own attitudes first in the 20’s and 30’s, then in the 50’s and 60’s.Therefore it was ‘reformed’ out of existancein favor of self-perpetuating Boards of Trustees and the endless churn-and0burn of junior faculty!

  • piper60

    100 years ago college Presidents could virtually whatever they wanted on or to their campi, be it ever so arbitrary or capricious, as long as they retained the support of the”Board”. Changing that was a long and painful struggle. Now that things have calmed down, Administrations are busily beavering away to re-establish that sort of authoritarianism, jst they have worked to destroy the progress the students made during the 60’s!

  • piper60

    Could be worse. Gonzaga gave itself a vice President of Diversity, handsome and articulate Native American who was supposed to recruit some more actual minority students to a school that had the American NAZIParty as a near neighbor, whose home city had only a mibicule black community-and they expected him to do it without a budget! Evidently the Jesuits believed in the Great God Diversity, but not in ‘buying students”. The students used to joke that the young black man seen, occasionally, walking about on campus with a stack of books under his arm was not a student, but an actor paid to decorate the campus!