Statement of Commitment to Academic Freedom and to Intellectual Merit
Addressed to the George Mason University (GMU) community and the public at large
Though I’m a harsh critic of our education system, American higher education has long held two admirable ideals. The first is academic freedom: commitment to the right of faculty and students to speak and write whatever they wish, hopeful that in the marketplace of ideas, truth will ultimately prevail. The second is intellectual meritocracy: commitment to admitting students and hiring faculty for intelligence and creativity alone, hopeful that the best and the brightest will make academic freedom live up to its promise.
At risk of understatement, these ideals have never been perfectly observed, but they were once widespread and at least enjoyed lip service. Over the last two decades, however, even lip service in favor of academic freedom and intellectual meritocracy has come under harsh attack, almost always from the “woke” side of the left. Since wokeness is absurdly overrepresented on university campuses, especially among younger faculty, the ideals of academic freedom and intellectual meritocracy really could easily evaporate in one more generation.
Last semester I was part of a GMU Economics Department Committee to write a statement in defense of these ideals. Originally, the statement was solely about academic freedom, but I successfully pushed the committee to stand up for intellectual meritocracy as well. The following statement is a group effort, so it’s not exactly what I would have written myself. But under the leadership of Dan Klein, 19 GMU econ faculty have signed it. Fellow GMU econ bloggers Robin Hanson, Alex Tabarrok, and Don Boudreaux are publicizing it, too. Enjoy - and share.
,The undersigned members of the GMU Department of Economics express their commitment to academic freedom and to intellectual merit.
American universities have professed allegiance to two ideals. First, the ideal of academic freedom – the right of students and faculty to express any idea in speech or writing, without fear of university punishment, and secure in the knowledge that the university will protect dissenters from threats and violence on campus.
Second, the ideal of intellectual merit – the right and duty of academic departments to hire and promote the most brilliant, creative, and productive faculty in their fields, and admit the most intellectually promising students, without pressures from the administration.
These ideals are the cornerstones of liberal education. They protect faculty and students who hold views unpopular on university campuses. Academic freedom protects existing students and faculty who dissent from current dominant academic opinion and ideology. No matter how unpopular their views, they know the university will protect them. As stated in the University of Chicago Statement on freedom of expression and as quoted in GMU’s “Free Speech at Mason” Statement:
[We must hold a fundamental commitment to] the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.
Intellectual merit protects prospective students and faculty who speak and write against current dominant viewpoints. No matter how unpopular their views, they know that university administration will not obstruct or prejudice their admission, hiring, or promotion.
Recently, both of these ideals have come under attack. Pressure for conformity has intensified and universities have increasingly interfered with departments’ personnel decisions. For example, at some universities, one of the more egregious new practices is the requiring of written “diversity” statements by prospective students, staff, or faculty, then used to discriminate among candidates, often by quarters of the university with interests other than those of the department or unit. Such methods recall arrogations of the past, such as The Levering Act of 1950, used against radicals.
We strongly believe the attacks on academic freedom and intellectual merit are deeply mistaken. The classic rationales in favor of these ideals are sound. To protect them, viewpoint diversity must be celebrated and academic departments must maintain their ability to select, hire, and promote students and personnel based on intellectual merit. We insist that the degree of institutional autonomy that the GMU Department of Economics has traditionally enjoyed is vital to the health of viewpoint diversity not only within the university but within the academy writ large.
It is vital that every department in a university enjoys independence, so it can dare to be different and keep viewpoint diversity alive. George Mason University has excelled in supporting viewpoint diversity with a variety of diverse departments, centers and organizations. Viewpoint diversity at George Mason has benefited the university, the United States, and the wider intellectual world.
Indeed, some of the Department's chief contributions have taught that all forms of authority can exert power to excess, and that guarding against such excess calls for the very ideals affirmed here, respect for dissent and intellectual merit.
We, the undersigned members of the GMU Department of Economics, look forward to continuing our independence to do good economics according to our judgment, guided by the ideals of academic freedom and intellectual merit.
Signed by the following GMU Department of Economics faculty (full-time & emeritus):
1. Jonathan P. Beauchamp
2. James T. Bennett
3. Donald J. Boudreaux
4. Bryan D. Caplan
5. Vincent J. Geloso
6. Timothy Groseclose
7. Robin D. Hanson
8. Garett Jones
9. Daniel B. Klein
10. Mark Koyama
11. David M. Levy
12. Cesar A. Martinelli
13. John V.C. Nye
14. Thomas C. Rustici
15. Vernon L. Smith
16. Alex T. Tabarrok
17. Karen I. Vaughn
18. Richard E. Wagner
19. Lawrence H. White
Why didn’t Tyler Cowen sign it? How many others didn’t sign?