There have been recent controversies and scandals in higher education in the United States. Many contributors and readers of this blog have (Irish) university connections.
Is there a discussion needed about the relevance, or not, to Ireland of these issues, which concern the question of free speech, variously interpreted? Probably so, since free speech does not defend itself, our history is hardly one of free speech, and our new (so-called) hate speech law is an undeniable, and indeed intentional, diminution of free speech. In Ireland, as elsewhere, diversity and inclusion policies do not seem to extend to viewpoint diversity.
There is intense discussion currently in the US on these matters. Steven Pinker has trenchantly set out five principles in the Boston Globe; free speech, institutional neutrality, nonviolence, viewpoint diversity, and DEI disempowerment. Harvard Medical School’s Jeffrey Flier has summarised them as follows:
1. Develop a clearly stated new policy on academic freedom, applied to all schools, addressing some of the ways HU failed to live up to these principles in recent years, using real cases to illustrate.
2. Adopt a new policy on institutional neutrality as relates to political and social issues, apart from those directly related to the function of the university.
3. Better define policies to rule out use of violence and intimidation within classrooms and public spaces, and establish meaningful consequences for their violation, with due process coupled with enhanced efficiency.
4. Conduct a serious, data-driven review of DEI policies and administration to clarify those elements that reflect initial and widely supported goals to appropriately promote and achieve diversity and inclusion along many dimensions, while identifying those areas where programs have failed to meet identified and valid objectives, or may have lost their way, by excessively promoting identitarian thinking and action, and casting a pall on free expression.
5. Take a deep and serious look at the extent and consequences of diminished intellectual and political viewpoint diversity within the university, and what might be done to address this while fully respecting academic freedom.
Some but not all of these recommendations seem pertinent to Irish education and indeed Ireland generally. Others are risks we should definitely guard against.