It's Got Nothing to Do with Free Speech: Universities Should Not Hire Members of the Trump Administration

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It's Got Nothing to Do with Free Speech: Universities Should Not Hire Members of the Trump Administration

Last week, two distinguished historians resigned in protest from the University of Virginia’s prestigious Miller Center for Public Affairs over its offer of a yearlong paid fellowship to a former senior Trump administration official. The professors, William Hitchcock and Melvyn Leffler, explained their decision in a Washington Post op-ed, saying the new hire — former White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short — has “contributed to the erosion of civil discourse,” and his appointment “runs counter to the Center’s fundamental values of nonpartisanship, transparency, openness, a passion for truth and objectivity, and civility.”

William Antholis, director and CEO of the Miller Center—which specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history—defended the decision in a statement, saying, “As much as I respect the depth of feelings on this issue, the Miller Center’s core focus on the presidency, our commitment to nonpartisanship and our demonstrated ability to promote civil discourse must remain our principal responsibility, especially in trying times.”

You can imagine the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, etc. This controversy is the latest in a series of battles about academia’s relationship to the Trump administration. Months ago, Harvard’s Kennedy School Institute of Politics came under fire when it gave cush academic fellowships to former White House spokesperson Sean Spicer and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. More broadly, though, this argument is a product of longstanding and duplicitous conservative outrage about perceived liberal attacks on free speech on college campuses.

Conservatives try to shoehorn these debates into their gripe with what they perceive as the hypocrisy of liberal academia. And right on cue, the UVA chapter of the Young America’s Foundation said in response to the circulation of a petition demanding the Miller Center not hire Short that “administrators and faculty members who have signed this petition are making a statement that conservative ideas and perspectives are not welcome in the UVA community.” And broader still, that narrative itself is a function of duplicitous conservative outrage stemming from a dangerously warped understanding of free speech generally.

I’ll cut to it here: The Miller Center shouldn’t hire Short, and these professors were right to resign in protest. (To be clear, they resigned from the Miller Center but not from their faculty positions at the university.) This has nothing to do with silencing conservatives. Trump’s no more a Republican than he is a Christian, and the affiliation is nothing more than cynical exploitation. This is about denying air to a reprehensible and amoral strain of anti-democratic ideology.

And even if you insist it’s an affront to conservatives, major universities such as UVA host conservative speakers routinely, and the Miller Center specifically takes pains to hire faculty that represent voices across the political spectrum. The Trump administration, however, is unique in its pathological mendacity, contempt for human rights, and, most relevant here, its steady efforts to erode the tenets and institutions that form the basis of a functioning democracy. None of that is “conservative,” and if we’re being honest, none of it has partisan implications at all. American universities, and public policy schools in particular, only do harm to themselves and to the public interest when they offer positions of distinction and power to people who have promoted and defended such things, as Short has.

The constitution, of course, grants you the right to speak, but it doesn’t guarantee your right to attention, nor does it treat political officials as a special class of citizen, inoculated from the consequences of what they say and do. And it by no means gives you the right to a job, let alone a prestigious title or an aegis under which to rehabilitate the public image you tarnished by covering for the most despicable policies of an anti-constitutional administration.

I’m not done.

The Case Against Short

According to Antholis’s statement, Marc Short “brings a missing critical voice—one that represents members of Congress and the Republican Party who continue to support the president in large numbers.” But that raises difficult questions: What is the nature of that voice? Is it really missing? And if even if it is, is it worth listening to?

No. The National Review in its predictable whinging diatribe about the Miller Center resignations claimed erroneously that “Short is not being criticized for anything he actually did, whether in his private capacity or as a member of the Trump administration.” But this isn’t true: Short is being criticized for his actions. Though the two historians point out in their resignations that Short’s work with the White House makes him complicit in the administration’s deceit and cruelty, such as its ongoing campaign against the free press, Short has also actively and publicly defended the Trump administration even in its darkest moments. (And before you carp about my double-standard for protecting the press’s right to speech, the constitution makes explicit that the government shall not abridge the press; it doesn’t make explicit that universities must hire certain people, which, ironically enough, smacks of affirmative action, doesn’t it?)

Short’s disqualifying history includes peddling lies to justify separating asylum-seeking children from their parents at the border and putting them in cages. And particularly important at UVA, located in Charlottesville, Short backed Trump’s non-response to the Nazi terrorist attack that killed a woman there last year. After Trump said there were “some very fine people” on both sides of that rally (fact-check: One side was comprised of white supremacists and Nazis), Short offered “I think that the President has condemned the violence in Charlottesville, and I think that he was clear and outspoken in that.”

Indeed, it seems particularly insensitive, if not outright stupid, of the university to bring Short on board as we approach the one-year anniversary of that attack. Antholis said in his statement excusing the hire that Short has since “read and embraced” the Miller Center’s denunciation of those people, which of course he did — he’d be an idiot not to. Short has also recently said he’s “sympathetic to the pain in the community” and “I think we could have done a better job expressing sympathy for the victims and outrage at those who perpetrated this evil.”

However, when he was asked if he’d be willing to correct Trump’s “misstatements” he bitched out in bad faith: “Tell me specifically where you think there have been things stated that are not true.” Okay, here’s a list.

This is unsatisfying and a distraction from the real problem, of course, which is that in his professional capacity — the professional experience and “missing critical voice” that the Miller Center is hiring him for in the first place — Short defended Trump’s statement. Simply put, this isn’t the kind of expertise and moral orientation that institutions such as the Miller Center should value, legitimize, or, most egregious of all, promote by offering not just a platform but a school-sanctioned position. They’re literally paying for this.

Further, to say that not hiring Short would be an attack on conservative values is dishonest. Even if you were to grant the dubious claim that the Trump administration are “conservative” ambassadors simply by dint of Trump’s bad-faith, opportunistic Republican affiliation, an institution doesn’t need to take the step of hiring members of the administration in order to give them a voice, engage honestly with their views, effect a democratic dialogue, and construct a fair critique of, as Antholis put it, “how the presidency, Congress, and political polarization are combining to create policy and legislative gridlock.” Conservative political scholar Nicole Hemmer, writing in Vox, put this pretty well: “They are our subjects, not our colleagues. Who gets invited to join our communities in respectable positions is quite a different question.”

Hemmer goes on to show that the Miller Center, far from ignoring or silencing conservative voices, has been notably open to them:

The Miller Center has given positions to Republican foreign policy specialists including Eric Edelman (George W. Bush’s ambassador to Turkey and an undersecretary for defense), Philip Zelikow (who served on the National Security Council under George H.W. Bush and at the State Department for George W. Bush), and John Negroponte (the younger Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and Iraq, as well as the first director of national intelligence); indeed, Zelikow was director of the center for several years.

And when it comes to right-wing speakers, for better or worse, the center can pass the right-wing litmus test: Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve; Heather Mac Donald, who has been critical of aspects of the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter; and John Yoo, the Berkeley professor and Bush administration “torture memo” author, have all spoken here.

And universities don’t have to go so far as to put a hiring freeze on Trump officials, a policy many people would rightly point out as blindly discriminatory. Several Trump appointees — such as H.R. McMaster, General James Mattis, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and Ambassadors Nikki Haley and Jon Huntsman — demonstrate a level of scholarship and, more importantly, a level of morality that would merit appointments at leading schools. But people like Marc Short, Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski, and the overwhelming majority of the countless flunkies, liars, apologists, and enablers of this dangerous administration have, unfortunately, given American universities plenty of valid and concrete reasons for their summary rejection.

Big Ban on Campus

So yes, we can draw that line. But here’s the rub: The values listed by the UVA professors in their resignation letters — values that are pillars not only of the academic community but of democratic governance generally — have recently become a real pain in the ass. They contain implicit paradoxes: Does “openness” include openness to exclusionary and racist policies? Are the uncivil entitled to civility? Should “a passion for truth” countenance pernicious lies if enough people perceive those lies to be true? Any liberal attempt to resolve these paradoxes is met with accusations of hypocrisy.

By now the problem is familiar, though still vexing, and especially so on college campuses. At what point does academia, in its effort to champion democratic ideals, cross the line from abetting healthy debate about democracy to abetting anti-democratic ideals themselves? Can liberals (or anyone) claim to value tolerance, inclusivity, and honest inquiry while at the same time refusing to hand the mic to demagogues, or people who serve as vehicles for demagoguery?

But to me it’s much simpler than this fretful intellectualizing makes it: Being liberal and a champion of tolerance doesn’t mean you have to be tolerant. We can aspire to it, sure, but it’s just as imperfect as other abstractions, such as the imperfect union that we’re called upon to improve. I’m a member of the left, and I embrace debate, but I’m also openly and proudly intolerant of this administration and its supporters, and I know exactly where and why I’m comfortable in justifying that intolerance. Our institutions must make the same distinctions: After all, values exist on a single continuum, and though the arrival of the Trump administration has shuttled us to one extreme and grim terminal of that line, it’s still the same line. The line doesn’t break unless we break it, and the rise of Trump has forced us to address that question and square it with our democratic values. Lucky for us, it’s easy to choose to protect democracy when the alternative is to empower the people who want to dismantle it.

Finally, I need to address one last argument in support of the call to hire Short, and this one comes from the left: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. But if it’s not yet clear to you after these last few years that mere exposure and open debate don’t, as is often argued, kill bad ideas, you’ve been living in an abstract world and haven’t been paying attention to reality. The extensive air time, debate, and publicity we’ve afforded these cretins has done nothing to stop them, and indeed seems only to have amplified their cause and increased their numbers. As writer and academic Elizabeth Picciuto put it, “We’ve all seen lately that sometimes people DGAF about exposed scandals. Sometimes bad ideas spread. That’s not an argument against valuing of free speech. Rather, it’s saying this shouldn’t be the reason to support it.”

So no, the Miller Center shouldn’t hire Short, and the professors were right to resign in protest. His appointment is little more than a paid sabbatical that affords him the opportunity to use the renowned institution to launder his reputation, which he dirtied all by himself. Along these same lines, media platforms are right to ban hate speech and the ragged throats that scream it, such as just happened with Alex Jones’s InfoWars on several platforms. Hemmer in her piece draws a parallel to CNN’s onboarding of Corey Lewandowski as an opinion contributor. “There’s a big difference,” she says, “between Jake Tapper questioning Corey Lewandowski and CNN hiring him (a difference CNN failed to grasp).”

You have a right to speak, but you don’t have the right to be heard. And you certainly don’t have the right to get honored, or paid, for being dishonorable.