Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Free Speech in Higher Education": Not about Higher Education, and Not About Free Speech

Those of us in higher education got an earful about one particular bit of President Trump's CPAC speech, regarding his pledge to create an executive order restricting federal research funds to campuses that don't "protect free speech". Here's one story among many from the higher ed press:
Legal Scholars Don’t Know the Details of Trump’s Order on Campus Speech. But They Think It’s a Mistake.
This issue has been buzzing around the political sphere for while now, usually in discussions on the conservative or Republican side. Accusations have been flying about how there is a "crisis" in free speech in higher education.

Here's my take: there is no crisis. This isn't about higher education. And it isn't about free speech.

The poster child for this "crisis" of late has been Hayden Williams, an activist with an organization called Turning Point USA, a conservative group that recruits on college campuses. Williams was at an event on the UC-Berkeley campus last year when he was punched by another individual. The event was captured on camera and broadcast across the internet, where it quickly became fodder among conservative commentators as evidence of the "crisis of free speech" on campuses. The President brought Williams up on stage during his CPAC speech to illustrate the "crisis" he's trying to address.

I think the Williams case is actually the perfect example of the broader issue. Williams is not a student at UC-Berkeley - indeed, he has no affiliation with the university at all. He is a private citizen who came onto the campus from outside to use it as a platform for the message he wanted to promulgate.

The man who punched Williams was also not a student, nor affiliated with UC-Berkeley in any way. He was another private citizen who had come onto campus from outside, presumably to oppose or object to Williams' views. Or maybe he was just passing by.

So this isn't about higher education at all. This encounter could just as well have occurred in a public park, or on a street corner, or in the local post office. If it had, I doubt we would be talking about a "crisis in free speech in our public parks".

Moreover, Berkeley did exactly what any institution committed to free speech would do. It openly permitted Mr. Williams to come onto campus and speak and made no attempt to curtail or constrain that speech. Its police promptly arrested the man who threw the punch. Allowing that UC-Berkeley is a government entity, and that the right of free speech is a right to be free from government interference in speech, there was nothing about this incident that involved what we would consider constraints on free speech. The problem here was about civility, not government (or university) constraints on speech.

Finally, this is nowhere near the definition of a "crisis". There are between 3000 and 4000 institutions of higher education in this country. Every day, in every one of them, there are robust conversations about all sorts of things. If you were to add up all of the public incidents about "free speech" on college campuses over the past year, they wouldn't amount to more than a dozen or two, most involving small groups of students (if they involve students at all). Out of three million+ college students, a couple dozen is a rounding error, not a crisis.

Polls of the broader population show that large percentages of Republican-identifying adults believe that college professors are out to indoctrinate students with liberal ideas and suppress conservatives. These polls are meaningless, because they are asking these questions of a population that isn't actually in college and has no direct knowledge of what's going on on campuses. Moreover, well over 50% of that population has never been to college, so they don't even have their own past experiences to draw on. All these polls show is the power of media persuasion to get people to believe something in the absence of any direct evidence or experience.

So any executive order (if there is one, and if it is crafted to actually be implementable) will be a solution in search of a problem, a symbolic act designed for purposes that have nothing to do with what it's supposedly about. Which is a perfect statement about our politics today: angry, tribal symbolism disconnected from reality - at best, a distraction; at worst, an obstacle to us trying to build the society we really want to live in.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Not Every Victory is a Victory

The title of this piece was quoted to me by a friend. We were discussing a situation that seems common these days: a public negotiation that has become a game of Chicken.

For those not familiar with the game-theory construct of Chicken, it's a two-player game in which each side tries to get the other to concede first. The typical narrative is two cars racing towards each other head-on. The loser is the one that swerves out of the way first to avoid a collision. One "wins" at Chicken by convincing the other side that your side is willing to risk total destruction if you don't get your way. In game theory matrix terms, Chicken looks like this:

If one player swerves (gives in) and the other doesn't, there's a clear winner and a clear loser. If both swerve, there's a tie but neither wins anything. Both continuing straight ends in disaster.

The recent budget negotiation between Congress (in particular, Congressional Democrats) and the White House could be modeled this way. Indeed, many did characterize the period of the shutdown as just this kind of test of wills - who would "swerve" first? And it seems that both sides saw themselves as engaged in Chicken, as both engaged in various commitment behaviors to try to convince the other side of their willingness to risk a Crash.

In this narrative, the Democrats "won" and the President "lost", because he was seen as swerving first (by agreeing to reopen the government without border wall funding). This game may get replayed again in three weeks - we'll see what happens in the next round, if there is one.

On the local level, I've been watching a similar Chicken game at my former employer. Tenure-track faculty (represented by an AAUP chapter) have gone on strike against what they regard as an unfair, imposed contract (18 months of negotiations failed to produce an agreement). Both sides have dug in, although the last couple of days have seen negotiations that may bear fruit.

The problem with applying the Chicken game framework to real-world situations isn't that it doesn't capture the dynamics of the two sides. The artificial model misses out on important parts of reality. Two real-world dynamics, in particular, are missing from the matrix. And when we forget about these things, then what we might think of as a victory really isn't.

First, as with most game-theory constructs the Chicken payoff matrix is set up as a single-play game. The "racing cars" metaphor is a one-time event - players play, there's an outcome, you're done. But life is not a single-play game - life is an iterated game. In most cases, you will interact with the same people tomorrow that you interact with today. Regardless of the outcome of a particular game, the choice of game itself and the strategies in it impact the relationship.

This is where Chicken is particularly problematic, because Chicken destroys relationships. In order to be willing to play Chicken at all, you have to take the position that you would rather die (or suffer horrifically bad consequences) than let the other side win. Once you make that statement, the other side will likely never trust you again. Playing this game at all - regardless of the outcome - largely closes off future opportunities for cooperation, because who would cooperate with someone with that value structure?

The second problem with Chicken in the real world is that, unlike in the game metaphor, the consequences of the game aren't borne by the players. Playing Chicken in a public environment doesn't mean being willing to absorb punishment oneself so much as being willing to inflict harm on bystanders that aren't in the game at all.

The Federal government shutdown was a classic example of this. 800,000 federal workers, and perhaps more than 1,000,000 contractors, went without paychecks for a month. The latter group will never recoup that lost money. Regardless of who "won", those people all lost. And that's not counting the ripple effects throughout the economy, as spending dropped and families became anxious. Standard & Poor's estimated that the shutdown evaporated about $6 billion from the US economy.

A faculty strike has the same dynamics. Yes, faculty who strike do suffer (unless the union has built up a Strike Fund, they go without pay for some period of time), as does the administration (which must scramble to figure out how to cover or substitute classes). But the real losers are the students. If you take seriously that what faculty do in the classroom matters, then some number of students are being robbed of the educational opportunity for which they have paid and arranged their lives. The longer the strike goes on (it's now into its second week as of this writing), the greater that cost is. A "crash" scenario means that some could lose the entire semester, setting their lives back by six months at least.

This is why even the "winners" in Chicken aren't really winners. There are no heroes in this game, only tragic victims and fools. As the movie War Games put it so many year ago:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

What Do You Believe?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about belief lately, and the ways in which beliefs shape our lives and our behavior. What we believe tends to drive what we do - whether we know it or not.

During the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton famously criticized Barack Obama's "Hope and Change" slogan with the zingy one-liner, "Hope is not a strategy." The attack failed, of course, and Obama went on to win both the primaries and the election.

Electoral history aside, the important thing here is that Clinton's critique missed the entire point. People don't seek hope in place of a strategy or a how-to manual. People are drawn to hope because they believe in something. Belief is necessary, and then strategy follows. One quote (variously attributed to different sources) puts it this way:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Our beliefs and desires are what really motivate us. Everything else is details.

We live in an increasingly belief-free age - or one in which our beliefs are becoming smaller and smaller. On the political stage, "1000 Points of Light" and "Yes We Can" (beliefs in America meant, however imperfectly, for everyone) have been replaced with "Make America Great Again" (with a decidedly smaller and less inclusive "America").

We don't believe our politicians anymore (for many good reasons). We also don't believe in corporations, or religious institutions, or government, or indeed very much else. Polls about Americans' trust in various groups and institutions are usually referenced with regard to what is higher or lower than what, but the overall trend of trust - of belief that someone or something will be good - is down.

Given how politicians, and corporations, and religious leaders, and just about everyone else in the public eye have behaved over the past couple of decades, this decline in belief in understandable. It's hard to believe in things that disappoint or betray you.

But it's also hard to live without belief. Most of us do, in fact, believe some things about the world, though we may not be aware of those beliefs. If we believe that other people are fundamentally untrustworthy, we will act accordingly. If we believe that institutions cannot be trusted, we will not trust them. If we believe that some people ("them") are worth less than others ("us"), we will treat them worse.

I see this in professional life as well. I have worked for a number of colleges and universities over time. Those that have tended to do best, or at least those that have tended to be the most enjoyable to work for, were those where people both in leadership and throughout the organization believed in the institution and its work. People who believe in a place act like as if the institution is both good and capable of being better. People who don't act as if it's lousy and can't get any better.

The problem with a decline in belief is that things get worse for everyone. People trust less and distrust more; listen less and filter information more; cooperate less and attack more.

For all its simplicity, Prisoner's Dilemma still has a lot to teach us. I think its enduring power is because the PD dynamic captures something fundamental about life. In nearly all arenas, and certainly in all communities, we are all collectively better off when we cooperate and we are all collectively worse off when we defect. The more we defect, the poorer (socially, economically, emotionally, and spiritually) we all become.

What can be done? Here, the PD model does offer some hope. The best strategy over the long haul in PD is Tit-for-Tat (TFT). A lot of folks think of TFT in terms of its reactive nature - when someone else defects on me, I defect back at them. That's the part of TFT that our cynical age can get behind.

But the real power of TFT is the opening move, which is always to cooperate. When we begin with cooperation, good things happen. Not every time, and not perfectly. But in the end, it's the only choice that will make things any better.

We cooperate when we share something in common - interests, values, goals, beliefs. When we long for the sea together, we will figure out how to build a ship together, because the sea is our goal. When we believe that our community, or our company, or our nation can be made better - and (crucially) when we agree on what "better" means - then we will find a way to work towards that end. We don't cooperate because cooperation is good for us, we cooperate because we want to accomplish something.

In too many places, we have stopped having conversations about what we believe in, or what we hope for. In a cynical age, we see belief as something for "suckers", for "losers", for people who "don't get it". And so we believe in nothing, or we fall back on unexamined beliefs that often reflect our fears and insecurities rather than our better angels.

These are the conversations we need to have. We need to talk again about belief as if belief were something worth having. We need to talk about hope as if hope were a real thing.

We are far more powerful than we realize in this way: when we believe that hope is dead, then our belief becomes true. But if we believe that hope is alive and worth nourishing, then it becomes so immediately.

I know which world I want to live in. And so, I believe.