Greg Lukianoff Interview

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Greg Lukianoff is President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a political and legal advocacy group supporting the free-speech rights of students on America's college campuses. A self-described left-leaning liberal politically, Mr. Lukianoff worked for the ACLU (American Civil liberties Union) and OAR (Organization for Aid to Refugees), as well as for environmental advocacy groups, before joining the staff of FIRE in 2001. He has testified before Congress about censorship in U.S. higher education, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education, Huffington Post, and Wall Street Journal. His recent book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter Books, 2012), has been widely and positively reviewed. Mr. Lukianoff lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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TheBestSchools: Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed by Could we start with a bit of biography? When and where were you born? What is your family background? In what religious faith, if any, were you raised? What is your educational background? What were the most important intellectual influences on your journey to where you are today?

Greg Lukianoff: Before I get into my bio, I want to thank you for reading Unlearning Liberty and make a plug for this short video, which does a good job of explaining what the book is all about:

Also, for students at American colleges who need help, I cannot do much better than recommending FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus, which we offer to college students for free.

We also have a series of guides to due process on campus, freedom of religion, and freshman orientation, which I urge students, parents, and family to read before setting foot on the modern campus.

As for me, I was born in Manhattan in 1974. My mother, who came to this country as a nanny, is very proud of that fact, but it's more of a technicality. However, I grew up in Danbury, CT. My Father is Russian, but grew up in Yugoslavia, and my Mother is Irish, but grew up in England. Both are naturalized American citizens. I was raised in a nominally Catholic home, and went to a Catholic grade school and high school. I decided I was an atheist in seventh grade, but still had five more years of Catholic school ahead of me. I have always been thankful, in retrospect, for how tolerant the Catholic school I attended was towards me. When I tell other people who went to Catholic high school that I was a well-known atheist they always ask, “Did that get you kicked out?” That possibility never even occurred to me. I attended American University, in Washington, D.C., for undergraduate, and then on to Stanford Law School in California.

nabokov-lolitaMy early influences include Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, and an awful lot of comic books. My most formative experience, however, leading to my special interest in free speech and the First Amendment, was my work on the college newspaper in undergraduate at American University. You can't work in journalism for very long without quickly realizing that, no matter how much people claim to regard free speech, they are very quick to use any perceived exception to free speech to attack the press. People are endlessly creative in ways they can say, “I believe in free speech and all, but I draw the line at criticizing me.”

TBS: How did you first become involved with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)?

GL: A lot of law students are very interested in constitutional law, particularly the First Amendment. I was peculiar, however, by how much I focused on it in law school. I took every class Stanford offered on the First Amendment, and even did six additional credits of my own design on censorship during the Tudor dynasty. That may sound obscure, but American law is actually quite influenced by the licensing of printing presses begun under Henry VIII. Under that regime, in order to be a legal printing press in England, you had to get the permission of the crown. This “print licensing system” came to virtually define early ideas of impermissible censorship.

I worked for a patent law firm in Silicon Valley for a year, and then FIRE co-founder, Harvey Silverglate, tracked me down. Kathleen Sullivan, the Dean of Stanford Law School at the time, had recommended me to be the Director of Legal and Public Advocacy for this tiny, new non-profit in Philadelphia. It remains the greatest compliment I have ever received. My first day of work was October 2, 2001, which means I will have been with FIRE for 12 years this fall. I feel too young to have been at any job for 12 years . . . but that is precisely what an old person would say.

TBS: We found your new book, Unlearning Liberty, to be frankly inspiring. It not only documents a large number of astonishing abuses, it also models throughout what civility in public discourse ought to be---through its fairness, its scholarly care, and above all its calm and even tone, which is maintained throughout, even when rising occasionally to genuine eloquence.

Could you start by telling us what your chief aim was in writing the book?

GL: Thank you for your kind words about the book! I knew writing a book would be a challenge, but it was even more challenging than I expected.

gaggedI wrote the book for a number of reasons. First, I wanted a place to gather and relay a sampling of the shocking cases of censorship and violations of basic rights on campus I've seen in my decade with FIRE. I needed one place to demonstrate the scope and scale of the problem and, even though I only cover a tiny percentage of the cases I have seen over the years, I don't think any reader would say I was short on examples. Second, I aimed to explain why this matters, not only on campus, but also in how it affects our entire society. And finally, I wrote the book to raise awareness about the issue of censorship on college campuses and about FIRE. The kind of cases we deal with on a daily basis at FIRE should be well known in every household in the United States, but, sadly, they are not. Unfortunately, these days the media pay too little attention to stories of censorship that would have been front-page news to an earlier generation.

TBS: You structure the book around an average college student's experience, first in applying to college, then in going through orientation week, and finally in taking classes. This was a great way to capture the reader's imagination. How did you come up with this idea?

first-amendment-areaGL: The goal was to put readers in the shoes of a modern student so they could see for themselves just how many bad lessons students get early on in their experiences on campus. It made sense to do it this way because the lessons students learn before they even begin their first day of classes are powerful. A big part of my larger thesis is that students are learning all the wrong lessons about what it means to live in a free society. Those bad lessons may start as early grade school, get worse in high school, and are then driven home by speech codes, heavy-handed orientation programs, unfair judiciaries, and, primarily, by the bad examples of administrators. There are bad lessons that take place in the classroom, of course; however, those come not only from professors who do not respect rights of free speech or individual conscience, but also from students' seeing professors being punished for what they say both in and outside of class.

TBS: We do not have space here to discuss all the different types of censorship you describe in detail in the book, but could you perhaps briefly relate to us a representative case, in order to give our readers a better idea of the sorts of things that are happening on America's college and university campuses today?

GL: I will let our videos do the talking here!

The first one is a video called "Silencing U," which includes five examples of terrible cases I highlighted in the book. These example include: a student who was kicked out of college for making a collage protesting a parking garage (I use that story to open up my book); a crazy orientation program that deserves the name brainwashing at the University of Delaware; a professor who stood up to a brazen political litmus test at Brooklyn College; a student who nearly saw his career end after he criticized a member of his school's administration; and, finally, a student who was found guilty of racial harassment just for publicly reading a book.

Also, here's another video about a colorful case involving a professor who saw his career threatened after he posted a quote from Joss Whedon's beloved but short-lived sci-fi classic, Firefly:

TBS: Wow! Some of the abuses described in these videos are truly outrageous---almost unbelievable. And the videos give an even more immediate sense than Unlearning Liberty does of what an indispensable role FIRE is playing in standing up for the free speech rights of individual students and professors in this country today. But if our readers want to know more, we urge them to buy your book, in which you discuss a great many more appalling cases of censorship with great flair, and which is as entertaining as it is troubling.

berkeley-free-speech-movementYour book is primarily intended to convey factual information about the phenomenon of campus censorship, not to analyze the reasons for it, but along the way you make many interesting observations, and we would like now to follow up on some of them. For example, in several places in the book you mention the ironic fact that contemporary university culture originated in the struggle for free speech back in the 1960s. It makes one wonder: How on earth did we get from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement to the tiny “free speech zones” of today? What do you think are the main factors responsible for this sea change in campus culture over the past half century?

GL: With regards to Berkeley and the free speech movement, I think it is sadly predictable that when people are on the outside of the establishment, they argue against it, but once they become the establishment, they try to expand the power and scope of the institution that they control.

Donald Downs does a great job covering this history in this video:

As does FIRE co-founder, Alan Charles Kors, here:

TBS: Another very interesting observation you make is the connection between the rise of campus censorship and the explosion of university administration over the past 30 years or so---to the point where administrators now outnumber faculty members on many campuses (pp. 70--75). You also mention the near tripling of college tuition over that same time period, and you make the point that what students (or their parents) are principally buying is not better education, but bloated bureaucracy.

Now, many economists would argue that what is driving this phenomenon is massive government intervention in the form of cheap student loans and other subsidies. Basically, the colleges are setting up the bureaucracies to capture as much of this gushing Federal spigot as they can while it lasts. Obviously, this makes them deeply beholden to Washington. You yourself mention the link between political correctness on campus and the directives handed down by the ED's Office for Civil Rights, which are directly linked to Federal subsidies (pp. 129--132). And in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, you noted “the hidden force that pushes schools to overreact to offensive, or merely dissenting, speech is fear of liability and the Federal government.”

federal-spigotBut then, aren't you---as a man of the left---caught in an awful dilemma here? On the one hand, you want the Federal loan programs in order to make higher education available to as many young people as possible. On the other hand, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” In other words, if the Feds pour money into higher education, then of course they're going to want something in return---namely, ideological control over America's colleges and universities. Do you see any way out of this dilemma?

GL: I must confess, it somewhat saddens me that to some people, both on the right and left, one of the most interesting things about the book is that I identify myself as a liberal. When I was a kid there was no tension between being politically liberal and being pro-free-speech. I also don't think people fell back on political descriptions quite as much to explain the entire universe. As I talk a lot about in my book, however, I do think education is at best not making this political polarization any better, but is likely, in fact, making it much worse.

I have absolutely zero problem saying we have been funding higher education in a way that is virtually bound to jack up costs, increase bloat, and--especially when you tack on increasing Federal demands, like the Department of Education's new “blueprint”--you all but guarantee a huge expansion of the administrative class. And, of course, that administrative class is responsible for so many of the abuses we see at FIRE.

Do I feel guilty that people on “my side” of the spectrum are responsible for a lot of these problems? Not really, and for the same reason why I chastise people for when they lump all people on the right side of the spectrum together. It's not as simple as right vs. left, and campuses exist on a spectrum entirely of their own.

TBS: There is another aspect to the Federal student loan imbroglio---an economic, but at the same time a moral, one. As you mention in the book, an unfortunate result of the unsustainable bubble we are experiencing in Federal spending on higher education is likely to be armies of students saddled with enormous, undischargeable debts (p. 71). What do you think should be done about this? In what ways would you like to see the current system reformed?

student-loan-bubbleGL: I think we need some low-cost, high-rigor models to compete with the current standard for higher education. The problem is that in the United States we have gotten much too used to what I call the “city-state model” of higher education: that is, in order to be taken seriously to recruit students to attend them, universities have to be part-educational, part-resort, and have administrators and regulations for virtually every aspect of student life. Just look at recent Federal regulations coming out of the Office for Civil Rights in the Department Education. They presume that universities have large administrative staff, large internal judiciary bodies, health services, a police force, and even assume a massive budget for training, legal compliance, “risk management” and, almost implicitly, lobbying. Not every college need be a self-contained city in its own right, and there are lots of downsides associated with the city-state model, not the least of which is a promotion of the idea that universities are the personal fiefdoms of top administrators (I refer you back to the case of Hayden Barnes at Valdosta State).

My hope is that low-cost competing models will incorporate rigorous debate, writing, and readings skills as the underpinning of education. I believe this can be achieved and I think that we are coming to a saturation point when the consumer (students and parents) will start to very closely examine the cost and quality of the product which they are offered by higher education, and will start concluding that other alternatives are more attractive. I have a lot of ideas on what competing models could look like and I think about it often, and I believe that universities will need the threat of competing models in order to get their act together. There is also irony in this, of course, because I do love what college can be at its best, but without competing options universities have no incentive to get their act together.

TBS: While reading your book, we were dogged by the terrible thought that the battle for freedom of speech may have already been lost---in the hearts and minds of today's students. What do you think?

GL: Great question, and I am haunted by this all the time. I list so many examples of truly outrageous violations of students' free speech and due process rights in Unlearning Liberty, but the fact that disturbs me the most is that even in the most egregious cases, it is very rare that either students or professors come to the aid of a friend or colleague whose rights have been violated. The Hayden Barnes case is not just outrageous because the student was kicked out of college for a collage, it's outrageous because, as best I can tell, virtually none of his fellow students or professors raised a finger to help.

not-interestedAnd there is scary evidence that a whole generation's attitude about free speech is getting worse. Here is a snippet of my most recent Huffington Post article analyzing trends in free speech on campus over the past 10 years:

This summer, the First Amendment Center unveiled its annual survey of attitudes about free speech and found that a startling 47% of young people believe that the First Amendment "goes too far." While I hope that this is an anomalous fluctuation, it seems almost inevitable that if campuses show at best impatience with, and at worst outright hostility to, free speech, it would eventually produce students who take free speech for granted and even show support for "enlightened" censors.

TBS: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with

GL: It was my pleasure! For anyone who wants to know more, please check out the book and check out the FIRE web site (

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