Shutting Down the Immigration Debate

New NAS report looks at intolerance on campus

By John Wahala on January 13, 2021

The National Association of Scholars recently hosted an online discussion about debating immigration and border security on campus. The focus was a new report by George La Noue, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which attempts to rebalance an immigration narrative that has become thoughtlessly monolithic. The report was discussed in the broader context of a university environment that is increasingly intolerant of dissent.

La Noue explains that ordinarily it would be difficult to generalize about "higher education" given that there are more than 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States that are operated by a variety of public and private sponsors and overseen by scores of associations. Astoundingly, however, in this massive and complex network of scholars there exists little or no diversity of opinion on immigration. The imposing edifice of higher education believes in ever increasing levels of immigration. It is a position that has become an immutable value of the academy, one that goes unchallenged by any social, economic, or national security concern.

La Noue has examined higher education's testimony before Congress, public policy statements, and sponsored events and finds near unanimous opposition to any immigration restrictions or enforcement. From 2014 to 2015, he found only one debate and one forum that even included divergent viewpoints on immigration in a stratified sample across 24 policy areas at the top 97 campuses and 28 law schools in the country, a group of institutions enrolling almost a million students.

In a free society, how is such unanimity of thought even possible? The first reason is that higher education may be the least ideologically diverse place on the planet. Professors teach and research in a stultifying echo chamber. The legitimacy of their beliefs is constantly being reinforced by their peers. One tangible, though imperfect, measurement of this is political party affiliation. National surveys show dramatically lopsided affiliations among faculty, including departments at elite schools that do not have a single Republican or skew Democrat at rates as high as 60 to 1.

Academia usually influences politics, not the other way around. Ideas coming out of elite social science departments eventually make their way into the public discourse. In this way, higher education has become the vanguard of the Democratic Party, espousing the radicalism that is championed by the next generation of leaders. Calls to abolish borders and dissolve national sovereignty were commonplace in academia long before Democrats in Congress started pushing for the effective repeal of immigration law. Not that many years have passed since prominent Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama defended deportation efforts. But fervent and unified opposition to such policies has been the norm in higher education for some time.

La Noue quotes Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, from a speech in which she urged professors to teach students how to be global citizens because national borders are just accidents of history. This widely held belief is not just the result of ideological conformity. It is a rational position taken by higher education in its own financial interest. Foreign students pay full freight and as the number enrolled has grown exponentially many institutions have become addicted. According to research cited by La Noue and our own at CIS, universities have compromised academic standards and accreditation requirements to recruit ever more numbers of students from overseas. According to the Chamber of Commerce, foreign students contributed $39.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016.

La Noue believes that universities need to consider what they owe the United States, a country that has provided them the cultural and civic context in which they have flourished. But since a lucrative payoff is the result of a self-righteous conviction, their position is not likely to be open for debate. The refusal of those at the highest levels of scholarship to debate one of the biggest and most critical policy issues of our time is a tragedy for the public discourse. And the tactics that are being used to shut down the immigration debate reveal a larger, fundamental shift away from the liberal arts tradition.

La Noue acknowledges that "Sponsoring debates about contentious and complex subjects in higher education is not impossible." But university administrators, who have proven themselves pusillanimous in the face of controversy, do not want to upset their lucrative apple cart. But what caused this fear of violating political correctness in the first place?

The other panelists in the National Association of Scholars discussion describe a repressive college environment where the fear of offending has supplanted the freedom of academic expression. Students, who have been trained to be reticent with their own opinions, are encouraged to help maintain a "safety first" culture by reporting peers whose speech might make fellow classmates uncomfortable. Nicole Neily, president of a group called Speech First, reports that self-censorship in universities is terrifying and that everyone is doing it — students, faculty, and administrators. Offending persons must stand before disciplinary panels, often staffed by high-ranking university officials, to face sanction. Punishment for heterodoxy may jeopardize their jobs, continued education, or future employment prospects.

This toxic environment accomplishes one of two things. First, it keeps students ignorant and incurious. As panelist Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, explains, censorship means that young people get no practice engaging in civil discourse. They are not introduced to controversial or competing ideas in the classroom setting, where a good professor can lead them through a dialectic that fosters growth and maturity. Neily knows one professor who is actually being investigated for employing the Socratic Method.

Facing social ostracism if they object to this environment, most students will keep their heads down and focus on obtaining a cheapened degree in the hopes of moving on to a similarly repressive workplace. But a small, courageous faction will raise their voices in protest. Unfortunately, these protests usually take the form of crass or inarticulate acts of vandalism, like scrawling graffiti in common areas for all to see. In the context of the immigration debate, phrases like "Build a Wall" or "Deport Illegals" have been spray painted on university property.

Of course these acts of desperation are offensive and illegal. But they are just the kind of actions you would expect from outspoken but disillusioned students whose institutions have chosen to propagandize rather than educate them. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, concurs that indoctrination has become the mission of higher education. It is a sad and destructive departure from the original purpose of the university when it was established in the high middle ages. The Scholastics took the best traditions of Greek thought and married them to an unflinching belief in truth. As philosopher Peter Kreeft explains, they took debating seriously. It was not a subjective exercise in sharing opinions. It was a rigorously logical process that took everything into account in an attempt to find objective answers. Along the way, there was no concern for hurt feelings. Students were accorded their God-given freedom and dignity to discover reality as it actually is, not a sanitized ideological version.

As western philosophers moved away from these traditions, they began to doubt truth itself. Finding answers was eventually replaced with semantic arguments about power dynamics. In such an environment, censorship seems reasonable or even just. Academic freedom is so threatened today because it is no longer seen as desirable. This is a grave epistemological problem. Young people are being trained in a cancel culture, never obtaining the ability to logically articulate their beliefs or respect their opponents. C.S. Lewis's line from his classic The Abolition of Man poetically summarizes our dilemma, "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

It is not a surprise then that we are now seeing this cancel culture take over politics and the private sector. In the immigration context, for example, we should not be shocked that those who support enforcement of the law are branded ignorant racists or xenophobes. The congressmen and pundits hurling these slurs in an effort to marginalize their opponents were probably the best students at their respective universities. While they never learned to debate, they certainly imbibed the academic culture.

To remedy this problem, La Noue suggests a return to the basics. He recommends reintroducing medieval forms of debate into the immigration discussion, complex questions formed in yes or no questions that can be the starting point for dialogue: Are national borders legitimate? Should assimilation be pursued? If higher education can once again address these foundational questions in a civil and intellectual manner then students and faculty can move on to more nuanced problems: How many Americans should there be? What sanctions should there be for violating immigration law? Groups like the National Association of Scholars and the Center for Immigration Studies can help foster these debates.

At present, however, this goal seems a long way off, as the public discourse is moving startlingly fast in the other direction. La Noue admits that "Students are increasingly questioning the concept of free speech." And so are politicians, journalists, and CEOs. Such illiberality is inimical to the original purpose of the university. It is also inimical to self-government.

Topics: Education