Has academia become so politicized that teaching good economics, and using politically sensitive illustrations, can lead to threats, fines, penalties, demotion and worse? It certainly seemed so in early February when Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a leading student of Murray Rothbard and senior fellow of the Mises Institute, received an egregious letter from the Provost of his university.
It seems that last year, a student had become upset at an illustration Hoppe used in class. The Provost sided with the student, and thereby blasted Hoppe for creating a “hostile learning environment” and further demanded that Hoppe “cease mischaracterizing opinion as objective fact.” Throughout the ordeal, Hoppe was under constant investigation and harassment, but prevented from responding.
This attack on him not only represented a violation of the contract with the University but also impinges on a sacrosanct principle of Western university life: academic freedom. As Mises said in a 1962 lecture: even though European universities were owned and controlled by the government, no one dared to interfere with what was taught in the classroom. The point is crucial to the development of the liberal idea because it permitted economists and social scientists to criticize the state and advance a body of ideas in defense of freedom.
But what European universities never dared to do, American universities are increasingly doing as a matter of habit: badger professors into adopting the latest political fashion as integral to their classroom presentations. That is why the attack on Hoppe threatens more than the interests of one intellectual; it threatens the rights and freedoms of everyone in the academic community, and of the idea of freedom itself.
Due to national and international coverage of the case—written about on the wire services and in the Chronicle of Higher Education—the entire scholarly world is watching to see how this case is resolved.
Hoppe is a world-renowned economist, author, and speaker, as well as a pioneer in the libertarian tradition of political economy. An adherent of the Austrian school of economics (leading Austrian school economist F.A. Hayek won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974), he earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and his Habilitation degree in Sociology and Economics, both from the Goethe-Universität in Germany. He taught at several German universities as well as at the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center for Advanced International Studies, Bologna, Italy. In 1986, Hoppe joined UNLV’s economics department and has been a tenured full professor since 1992.
Constantly in demand for speaking engagements around the world, Hoppe is author of dozens of scholarly books and articles. His scholarly work covers areas such as money and banking, the methodology of the social sciences, comparative systems, European economic history, political ethics, the market for security, the theory of ownership and property rights, and economic institutions generally.
He is a radical thinker and a system builder of the sort that academia should treasure, for his ideas offer a relentless challenge to students and colleagues. Because Professor Hoppe enjoys an international reputation—his books and essays have been translated and published in Korean, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Chinese, French, Danish, German, and eight other languages—his case has benefited from an outpouring of support, especially from students who have studied under him both in the US and abroad.
The controversy surrounds comments made during two money and banking class lectures in March 2004, during which Professor Hoppe discussed the concept of “time preference.” Time preference is an important notion in economics, and particularly in the Austrian school of economics, because it draws attention to the importance of time in the market process, identifying individuals’ varying degrees of willingness to defer the immediate consumption of goods in favor of saving and investment.
In his lecture, Hoppe explained by way of illustration that certain demographic groups that might tend not to have children, such as homosexuals, generally do not adopt as long an economic time horizon as those that do have children. The same is true, he said, of other groups such as the very young and very old, ceteris paribus. Individuals with higher time preference such as homosexuals, he continued, might engage in riskier behaviors. Agree or disagree with his illustration of an economic principle, an illustration which is certainly subject to empirical investigation, his comments were within bounds of the topic in question.
This was the lecture that led to the complaint and the subsequent international uproar against the UNLV administration for failing to defend Hoppe’s freedom to teach. Instead of dismissing the student’s complaint, the University launched a series of menacing investigations which culminated in the February 9, 2005 letter that declared that Professor Hoppe had created a “hostile learning environment.” The letter goes on to instruct the professor to “cease mischaracterizing opinion as objective fact.”
The decision by the UNLV administration is an unfortunate and significant erosion of the academic freedom guaranteed by the University’s own bylaws, which state, in pertinent part:
“Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and is applicable to both teaching and research. Freedom in teaching is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student in learning. … A member of the faculty has freedom and an obligation, in the classroom or in research, to discuss and pursue the faculty member’s subject with candor and integrity, even when the subject requires consideration of topics which may be politically, socially or scientifically controversial.”
The letter sent by the Provost directly contradicts this iron-clad promise of protection for the freedom to teach. It also establishes a fact-opinion dichotomy that is untenable in a university setting. An attempt to enforce it universally would lead to a shutdown of classroom life as it has been known in the whole history of academia. Professors themselves would be reduced to mere transmitters of received and accepted facts, thereby robbing the students of a serious education and an opportunity to have ideas presented and judged on their own merits. No serious university can operate under such strictures. Clearly, as the University’s own bylaws acknowledge, academic freedom permits and even obliges faculty to discuss controversial matters at variance with “common wisdom.”
The implications of the University’s new policy are made clear by comments by the complaining student, an economics major who graduated from the University last. In published newspaper accounts, Knight claimed: “When the door closes and the lecture began, he needs to make sure he is remaining as politically correct as possible.”
At stake is more than the reputation of an individual scholar, or the standing of a university that has failed to live by its by-laws which promise to protect the freedom to teach “even when topics are politically, socially or scientifically controversial.” What is at stake is the integrity of the university learning environment itself. The incident politicizes the classroom environment to the point that neither students nor teachers can pursue science and truth without fear of political reprisal.
Especially now that this case has garnered international attention, it is crucial that it be resolved in favor of open debate and the free exchange of ideas. If justice is to prevail in this case, the University should end the harassment of Professor Hoppe, retract the “letter of instruction,” and restore anew its commitment to academic freedom.