Prognostications

How the free speech wars will end:

Scenario 1: The two sides talk themselves out. Alt-right groups will continue to invite controversial speakers to campus, alt-left protests will ensue, and the whole thing will get covered by the Wall Street Journal. Finally, the diminishing marginal utility of both forms of expression will become apparent: white supremacists, for example, will fail to achieve their goal of restoring white supremacy as the modus vivendi; critical race theorists will accept less than total reform of the whiteness-privileging nature of the university system. Historians a generation from now will struggle to understand why a lot of people had been convinced the sky was falling, and administrators will breathe easy.

Scenario 2: The sky doesn’t fall, but campuses remain proxy battlefields for American tribal conflict, constrained only by the change in tone resulting from the transfer of the Presidential torch to saner hands. University leaders continue to struggle with the Iron Triangle aspects of the free speech debate—ensuring that students of all political persuasions have access to open forums, while weighing the potentially high costs of doing so, while hoping that one way or the other, institutional reputation will not be compromised—instead of admitting in so many words that if they seem to be taking refuge in ambiguity, they are doing so consciously. Yet no Kingman Brewsters emerge, and if they do, it’s at small “outlier” colleges where it is possible to take refuge in irrelevance. Asked by historians a generation from now why they didn’t do more to stand up to the more toxic representatives of the alt-right, retired administrators will resort to variations on “You have to remember how the times were back then.”

Scenario 3: The sky falls. The triumph of Trumpism all but renders the political value of ambiguity obsolete, and “call ‘em like you see ‘em” becomes the razor of choice for academic ratiocination. Tweeting becomes normalized among scholars as an alternative to peer review. White Studies is already an undergraduate major at some colleges, even if in most cases it’s really just a slick remix of syllabi from Western Civ and English Lit courses, circa 1981. Ironically, many prospective WS majors ultimately find the course of study deeply boring and drop it just in time to begin accumulating the necessary credits for a B.S. in accounting or data analytics. Still more ironically, students who can’t stand the heat of uncivil face time with their cohort opt in larger and larger numbers for digital learning, which doesn’t lend itself to White Studies as effectively as it does for applied subjects, accelerating WS’s demise along with most other humanities subjects. It becomes so difficult to find qualified people willing to be a college or university president that the job is simply handed on to football coaches (who by nature call ‘em like they seem ‘em).

Scenario 4: After decades of civil war and reconciliation, the U.S. Constitution is amended by the requisite two-thirds majority. Amendment 28 provides for the creation of free national universities, one per state, offering fully accredited four-year degrees. Because they are directly supported by taxpayers, National U’s are prohibited from drafting speech codes, and mandated to accommodate all forms of speech without fear or favor, both in and out of the lecture hall. (The handful of elite privates and privatized former state flagships that survived the war years remain largely autonomous in how they craft and implement speech policy. The role of university president, a position long obsolete at all institutions, resides with the Board of Trustees, regents, etc.) Not surprisingly, spaces are limited at the National U’s and competition to enter is brutal, as are class discussions and campus life in general. But hey, it’s free, and if you want to leave there are a couple of hundred other people on a waiting list to take your spot.

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