The late Kenneth Minogue was a forceful advocate of universities being and remaining peculiar institutions. Their peculiarity should include independence and pluralism for universities to become the instrument of ideological homogeneity, or of political power generally speaking, meant to become something other than what they traditionally were and were meant to be.
In these days, the newspapers are paying much attention to what is happening in Hungary, where the government passed a law aimed to change the requirements for foreign universities operating in that country. Such a move is by and large considered an attempt to shut down the Central European University, set up by George Soros in the early Nineties to help the development of a new Hungarian intellectual elite. The President and rector of the university is a distinguished scholar, Michael Ignatieff.
Bloomberg points out that the Orban government has also "filed a separate bill to force civil society groups funded from abroad to be labeled as "foreign" agents. That bill mimics a 2012 law in Russia that was the first step in an exodus of U.S.-based and other non-governmental organizations there. It aims to "stigmatize" groups and to silence criticism, according to Soros's Open Society Foundations, which has given $400 million since the 1980s to Hungarian civil society groups.
A group of classical liberal/ conservative think tankers signed a letter protesting against these new rules a few weeks ago. I am sure few of them have sympathies with most of the initiatives George Soros funds, but they all recognize the importance of a free, pluralistic and competitive public debate.
But to have a public debate worth of its name, you should begin with a belief in the fact other people may have something to say which is worth listening too.
What is so tragic of attempts to shut independent universities, or think tanks for that matter, is the fact that societies renounce sources of possible new wisdom, information, and ideas. Answers (and questions!) that may be worth listening to.
Attending the APEE annual meeting recently, I learned of the initiatives of a group aiming to "unKoch your campus". I shall confess I didn't pay much attention to their activities before. The more I learned, the more I was shocked. Check out this article, particularly the little bit devoted to Ed Lopez, a scholar and educator who has been at the center of a smearing campaign.
These people purport to reveal whatever "inconvenient" truth about the Koch family's donations to universities and the alleged strings attached to them (you know, they may actually suggest students read Ayn Rand...), and to counter the influence exerted by these arch-libertarian billionaires. The Koch brothers have long been important donors to libertarian organizations:* think tanks, grassroots groups, university centers. They operate like many other foundations which support research programs that they consider promising in addressing questions they consider important. Whatever their influence, they are far from having any hegemony in the academic world, which is predominantly hostile to limited government and free market ideas. On the background of this anti-Koch protests, you should really read this great piece by Phil Magness.
These "unKoch my campus" people think differently and they think they're unveiling a terrible conspiracy.
But make no mistake. What these people are trying to is not "unKoch my campus" but, in the case of Western Carolina University, to "unLopez" it. It sounds much better to say "refuse that money" than "fire that professor" but at the end of the day the two things are appallingly similar.
In the case of CEU, we have a government declaring war on a private university and attempting to close it down. The enemies of a certain ideological perspective, and of certain people, have been able to resort to coercion and law making. This is certainly bad.
In the case of "UnKoch My Campus", we see an organised grassroots organisation putting pressure on a local university NOT to allow some people to teach, not because they are not competent, but simply because they do not share a certain ideological perspective. Here we see a "bottom up" rather than "top down" censorship attempt. In a free society, we shall accept that people organise in institutions which are akin when it comes to entry rules, akin to clubs; they may decide whom they want in and whom they don't want. And yet academic freedom, which is a concept so crucial to the very idea of the university, requires these clubs to be different than others: to allow in their bylaws, so to say, for pluralism and difference of opinion.
Both the Hungarian government and the "unKoch" people are aiming at striking down the university's independence - independence from government, politics, and a unique set of ideology. These are attempt to reduce ideological pluralism, but on campuses and in society at large.
I hope that, like conservative/libertarian think tankers had no problem in siding with freedom of speech and inquiry in Hungary for people whose ideas they don't like, at some point some socialist/left wing intellectuals will pen a letter supporting teachers and researchers whose ideas they don't like but think deserve nonetheless to be part of the debate.
Voltaire is credited for having said: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". That's very much the spirit of the enlightenment, and of a healthy public discussion. One hopes this should be a common denominator of people on the right and on the left that care deeply about a civilised, serious public debates. Hopes are not always fulfilled.
*The present author has never been funded by any organization related with the Koch brothers. At the same time, he thinks he has profoundly benefited from knowledge and research generated by Koch-ounded programs over the years.