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The Dangerous Rise of ‘The New Civics’

The following are excerpts from a report released January 10 by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) on MAKING CITIZENS: HOW AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES TEACH CIVICS. The full report includes case studies at the University of Colorado (Boulder), Colorado State University, University of Northern Colorado and the University of Wyoming.                                                                                   

National Findings: Traditional civic literacy is in deep decay in America. The New Civics, a movement devoted to progressive activism, has taken over civics education. “Service-learning” and “civic engagement” are the most common labels this movement uses, but it also calls itself global civics, deliberative democracy, and intercultural learning. The New Civics movement is national, and it extends far beyond the universities. The New Civics redefines “civic activity” as “progressive activism.” The New Civics redefines “civic activity” as channeling government funds toward progressive nonprofits. The New Civics has worked to divert government funds to progressive causes since its founding in the 1960s.

The New Civics redefines “volunteerism” as labor for progressive organizations and administration of the welfare state. The new measures to require “civic engagement” will make this volunteerism compulsory.  The New Civics replaces traditional liberal arts education with vocational training for community activists. The New Civics shifts authority within the university from the faculty to administrators, especially in offices of civic engagement, diversity, and sustainability, as well as among student affairs professionals. The New Civics also shifts the emphasis of a university education from curricula, drafted by faculty, to “co-curricular activities,” run by non-academic administrators. The New Civics movement aims to take over the entire university. The New Civics advocates want to make “civic engagement” part of every class, every tenure decision, and every extracurricular activity.

By Peter Wood, NAS President

What is most new about the New Civics is that while it claims the name of civics, it is really a form of anti-civics. Civics in the traditional American sense meant learning about how our republic governs itself.

The New Civics has very little to say about most of these matters. It focuses overwhelmingly on turning students into “activists.” Its largest preoccupation is getting students to engage in coordinated social action. Sometimes this involves political protest, but most commonly it involves volunteering for projects that promote progressive causes. Whatever one might think of these activities in their own right, they are a considerable distance away from what Americans used to mean by the word “civics.”

In issuing this report, the National Association of Scholars joins the growing number of critics who believe that some version of traditional civics needs to be restored to American education. This is a non-partisan concern. For America to function as a self-governing republic, Americans must possess a basic understanding of their government. That was one of the original purposes of public education and it has been the lodestar of higher education in our nation from the beginning.

The New Civics has diverted us from this basic obligation.

While many observers have expressed alarm about the disappearance of traditional civics education, very few have noticed that a primary cause of this disappearance has been the rise of the New Civics. This new mode of “civic” training is actively hostile to traditional civics, which it regards as a system of instruction that fosters loyalty to ideas and practices that are fundamentally unjust. The New Civics, claiming the mantle of the “social justice” movement, aims to sweep aside those old ideas and practices and replace them with something better.

Complications: New Civics has appropriated the name of an older subject, but not the content of that subject or its basic orientation to the world. Instead of trying to prepare students for adult participation in the self-governance of the nation, the New Civics tries to prepare students to become social and political activists who are grounded in broad antagonism towards America’s founding principles and its republican ethos.

But a casual observer of New Civics programs might well miss both the activist orientation and the antagonism. That’s for two reasons. First, the New Civics includes a great deal that is superficially wholesome. Second, the advocates of New Civics have adopted a camouflage vocabulary consisting of pleasant-sounding and often traditional terms. Taking these in turn:

Superficial wholesomeness. When New Civics advocates urge college students to volunteer to assist the elderly, to help the poor, to clean up litter, or to assist at pet shelters, the activities themselves really are wholesome. Why call this superficial? The elderly, the poor, the environment, and abandoned pets—to mention only a few of the good objects of student volunteering—truly do benefit from these efforts. The volunteering itself is not necessarily superficial or misguided. But, again, context matters. In the context of New Civics, student volunteering is not just calling on students to exercise their altruistic muscles. It is, rather, a way of drawing students into a system that combines some questionable beliefs with long-term commitments.

These seemingly innocent forms of volunteering, as organized by the patrons of New Civics, are considerably less “voluntary” than they often appear—especially since more and more colleges are turning such “volunteer” work into a graduation requirement. Some students even call them “voluntyranny,” given the heavy hand of the organizers in coercing students to participate. They submerge the individual into a collectivity. They ripen the students for more aggressive forms of community organization. And often they turn the students themselves into fledgling community organizers.

Camouflage vocabulary. The world of New Civics is rife with familiar words used in non-familiar ways. Democracy and civic engagement in New Civic-speak do not mean what they mean in ordinary English.

A Dictionary of Deception. This is exemplified in a catchphrase used by Syracuse University’s civic program: “Citizen isn’t just something you are. Citizen is something you do.” The idea is that students aren’t getting a full education just by reading books, listening to lectures, writing papers, speaking in class, debating with each other, and participating in the social life of the college community. They must also “learn by doing.” Another phrase for this is that students should “apply their academic learning” or “practice” it in the real world. “Active” always means “active in progressive political campaigns.”

The “aware” student is up to date with the progressive party line and knows the current list of oppressions that need to be righted. The “aware” student knows the true meaning of words: “academic freedom,” for example, is really “a hegemonic discourse that perpetuates the structural inequalities of white male power.” “Awareness” requires politically correct purchases and social interactions—reusable water bottles, fair-trade coffee, a diffident approach to pronouns—but it does not require active participation in a campaign of political advocacy.

Civic Learning: “Civic learning” is learning how to be properly civically engaged; civic learning, in other words, teaches students the content of progressives’ political beliefs, how to propagandize for them, and the means by which to enforce them on other people via the administrative state. New Civics advocates are trying to make progressive propaganda required for college students by calling “civic learning” an “essential learning outcome.” Civic learning is supposed to become “pervasive”—inescapable political education.

Loyalty to and Enthusiastic Participation In A Social Justice Cause: “Commitment” is an enthusiastic form of being “active.” It signals a student’s readiness to make a career as a progressive advocate in a “community organization,” university administration, or the government. It also signals to progressives entrusted to hire new personnel that a student is a trustworthy employee.

Tactics to Increase the Power of the Radical Left, Following the Strictures of Saul Alinsky: “Community organization” as a process refers to the Machiavellian tactics used by radical Saul Alinsky to forward radical leftist goals. New Civics advocates use community organization tactics against the university itself, as they try to seize control of its administration and budget; they also train students to act as community organizers in the outside world. “Community organization” as a noun refers to a group founded by Alinskyite progressives, with Alinskyite aims. Community organization signifies the most intelligent and dangerous component of the progressive coalition.

Consensus, a Loudly Shouted Progressive Opinion, Verified by Denying Disbelievers the Chance to Speak: Consensus means that everyone agrees. Progressives achieve the illusion of consensus by shouting their opinions, asserting that anyone who disagrees with them is evil, and preventing opponents from speaking—sometimes by denying them administrative permission to speak on a campus, sometimes literally by shouting them down

Critique, Dismantling Belief in the Traditions of Western Civilization and American Culture: To be critical, or to engage in critique, is to attack an established belief on the grounds that it is self-evidently a hypocritical prejudice established by the powerful to reinforce their rule, and believed by poor dupes clinging to their false consciousness. “Critical thought” sees through the deceptive appearance of freedom, justice, and happiness in American life and reveals the underlying structures of oppression—sexism, racism, class dominance, and so on. “Critique” works to dismantle these oppressive structures. “Critical thought” and “critique” is also meant to reinforce the ruling progressive prejudices of the universities; it is never to take these prejudices as their object.

Deliberative Democracy, Thoughtful, Rational Discussion of Political Issues That Ends Up With Progressive Conclusions: Deliberative democracy is a concept that political theorists have drawn from Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality. While formally about the procedures of democratic decision-making, it aligns with the idea of a transcendental, quasi-Marxist Truth, toward which rational decision-making inevitably leads. New Civics advocates in Rhetoric/Communications and Political Science departments frequently use “deliberative democracy” classes and centers as a way to forward progressive goals.

Progressive Policies Achieved by Arbitrary Rule And/Or The Threat Of Violence: New Civics advocates use “democracy” to mean “radical social and economic goals, corresponding to beliefs that range from John Dewey to Karl Marx.” They also use “democratic” to mean “disassembling all forms of law and procedure, whether in government, the university administration, or the classroom.” A democratic political decision overrides the law to achieve a progressive political goal; a democratic student rally intimidates a university administration into providing more money for a campus New Civics organization; a democratic class replaces a professor’s informed discussion with a student’s incoherent exposition of his unfounded opinion. A democracy in power issues arbitrary edicts to enforce progressive dogma and calls it freedom.

Lectures by Progressive Activists, Intended to Harangue Dissidents Into Silence: In “dialogue,” or “conversation,” students are supposed to listen carefully to a grievance speaker, usually a professional activist, and if possible echo what the speaker has to say. The dialogue is never between individuals, but between representatives of a race, a religion, a nationality, and so on. The structure of dialogue thus dehumanizes all participants by making them nothing more than mouthpieces for a group “identity.”

Diversity, Propaganda and Hiring Quotas in Favor of the Progressive Grievance Coalition: The Supreme Court used “diversity” as a rationale for sustaining the legality of quotas for racial minorities in higher education admissions, first in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and then in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). New Civics advocates use “democracy” to mean “radical social and economic goals, corresponding to beliefs that range from John Dewey to Karl Marx.”

Disaffection from American Citizenship in Favor of a Notional Membership in a Non-Existent Global State: “Global citizenship” is a way to combine civic engagement, study abroad, and disaffection from primary loyalty to and love of America. A global citizen favors progressive policies at home and abroad and is in favor of constraining the exercise of American power in the interest of American citizens. A global citizen is a contradiction in terms since he is loyal to a hypothetical abstraction, and not to an actual cives—a particular state with a particular history. A global citizen seeks to impose rule by an international bureaucratic elite upon the American government, and the beliefs of an international alliance of progressive nongovernmental organization upon the American people.

Putatively Non-Hierarchical Progressive Community Organizations: The “grassroots” have democratic authenticity—they’re not professional politicians claiming to speak for the people, and they aren’t made to conform to any sort of hierarchical authority. Real grassroots— citizens coming together to lobby legislators—is intrinsic to the American political system, but when progressives claim to speak for the grassroots, and they mean a drive funded by George Soros and organized by paid activists.  These activists declare that “consensus” has been reached by “the people” outside the formal structures of representative democracy. Since “consensus” is achieved by shouting down moderates, compromisers, and gentle souls, genuine progressive grassroots organizations make unaccountable ideological fanaticism the source of decision-making. See Black Lives Matter.

Interdependence: “Interdependence” universalizes the language of needs and rights, and therefore justifies the expansion of the progressive state to extend to every aspect of life.

The Idea That Every Component of the Progressive Left Must Support All Other Components of the Progressive Left: “Intersectionality” is a way to align progressives’ competing narratives of oppression and victimhood by making every purported victim of oppression support every other purported victim of oppression.

Pervasiveness, Making New Civics Inescapable at the University: The New Civics seeks to insert progressive advocacy into every aspect of higher education, inside and outside the college. A Crucible Moment summons higher education institutions to make civic learning “pervasive” rather than “peripheral.” “Pervasiveness” justifies the extension of progressive propaganda and advocacy by student affairs staff and other academic bureaucrats into residential life and “co-curricular activities”—everything students do voluntarily outside of class. It also justifies the insertion of progressive advocacy into every class, as well as making progressive activism a hiring and tenure requirement for faculty and staff.

“Pervasiveness” justifies the extension of progressive propaganda and advocacy by student affairs staff and other academic bureaucrats into residential life and “co-curricular activities”—everything students do voluntarily outside of class.

Service-Learning, Free Student Labor for Progressive Organizations: “Service-learning” was invented in the 1960s by radicals as a way to use university resources to forward radical political goals. It aims to propagandize students (“raise their consciousness”), to use their labor and tuition money to support progressive organizations, and to train them for careers as progressive activists. It draws on educational theories from John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Mao’s China. Since the 1980s, “service-learning” has used the name “civic engagement” to provide a “civic” rationale for progressive political advocacy. Civic engagement, global learning, and so on, all are forms of service-learning.

Social Justice, Progressive Policies Justified by the Putative Sufferings of Designated Victim Groups: Social justice aims to redress putative wrongs suffered by designated victim groups. Unlike real justice, which seeks to deliver individuals the rights guaranteed to them by written law or established custom, social justice aims to provide arbitrary goods to collectivities of people defined by equally arbitrary identities. Social justice uses the language of law and justice to justify state redistribution of jobs and property to whomever progressives think deserve them

Service-learning aims to propagandize students (“raise their consciousness”), to use their labor and tuition money to support progressive organizations, and to train them for careers as progressive activists.

“Reciprocal” is a sign that progressive organizations have seized control of university funds.

21st Century Skills, Digital Media Skills Used to Forward the Progressive Agenda: The ability to use social media and graphic design for progressive propaganda and organization. The emphasis on “skills” generally argues that universities don’t need to teach any body of knowledge; the particular emphasis on “twenty-first-century skills” further argues that universities don’t need to teach anything discovered before the year 2000. Recent college graduates use “twenty-first-century skills” as an argument that they should be employed despite knowing nothing and having no work experience.

These definitions we have sketched voice our distrust of the New Civics movement. Its declarations about its aims and its avowals about its methods can seldom be taken at face value. This isn’t a minor point. Civics in a well-governed republic has to be grounded on clear speaking and transparency. A movement that goes to elaborate lengths to present a false front to the public is not properly civics at all, no matter what it calls itself.

We began this study in the hope of finding out how far the New Civics had succeeded in becoming part of American colleges and universities. We came to a mixed answer. New Civics is present to some degree at almost all colleges and universities, but it is much more fully developed and institutionalized at some than it is at others. In our study, the University of Colorado at Boulder stands as our example of a university where New Civics has become dominant. But even at universities where New Civics has not attained such prominence, it is a force to be reckoned with.

A movement that goes to elaborate lengths to present a false front to the public is not properly civics at all, no matter what it calls itself.

The word “civics” suggests that students will learn about the structures and functions of government in a classroom. Some do, but a major finding of our study is that there has been a shift of gravity within universities. New Civics finds its most congenial campus home in the offices devoted to student activities, such as the dean or vice president for students, the office of residence life, and the centers for service-learning. Nearly every campus also has some faculty advocates for New Civics, but the movement did not grow out of the interests and wishes of mainstream faculty members. A partial exception to this is schools of education, where many faculty members are fond of New Civics conceits.

The positioning of New Civics in student services has a variety of implications.

First, it means the initiative is directly under the control of central administration, which can appoint staff and allocate budget without worrying about faculty opinion or “shared governance.” Programs like this can become signature initiatives for college presidents, and few within the university, including boards of trustees, have any independent basis to examine whatever claims a college president makes on behalf of New Civics programs. In a word, such programs are unaccountable.

Second, the positioning of New Civics as parallel to the college’s actual curriculum frees advocates to make extravagant claims about its contributions to students’ general education. New Civics is full of hyperbole about what it accomplishes, and even so, it vaunts itself as deserving an even larger role in “transforming” students. Its goal is to be everywhere, in all the classes, and in that sense to subordinate the teaching faculty to the staff who run the student services programs.

Third, the New Civics placement in student services tends to blur the line between academic and extra-curricular. New Civics advocates may hold adjunct appointments on the faculty. Frequently they push for academic credit for various forms of student volunteering. In general, they treat the extra-curricular as “co-curricular,” which is rhetorical inflation.

New Civics is about seizing power in society, and the place nearest at hand is the university itself. New Civics mandarins are ambitious, and what starts in student services doesn’t stay there.

Did ‘Deplorable’ Prof Unmask Extreme PC Culture at NYU?

NYU has been in tumult over far-right tweeting by a self-declared “deplorable” professor who revealed himself last week as Michael Rectenwald, assistant clinical professor of liberal studies. Yesterday he made another revelation in a Washington Post op-ed: his alt-right burst of opinions was a pose, a “thought experiment” intended to provoke an authoritarian reaction at NYU. He was placed on paid leave, but his saga took yet another turn when NYU said the leave was purely voluntary.

In his op-ed, Rectenwald wrote, “I’m not a conservative, or an alt-righter. I find Donald Trump repugnant. But over the last couple of weeks, I’ve become a campus pariah to some (and a hero, perhaps, to a few) in my nontenured NYU faculty job, thanks to the humorless, Social Justice Warrior-brand of campus culture run amok and a misunderstanding about a Twitter account. Enmeshed in a conspiracy — thinly disguised as sympathy — of my colleagues’ design, I’ve lost my academic freedom and I potentially stand to lose my appointment.”

Rectenwald excoriated “the predictable, censorious responses of so-called progressives, self-appointed thought police at NYU and elsewhere who have, in the name of maintaining a culture of civility on campus, policed their little corner of the Twittersphere.”

His op-ed listed a few PC excesses: the suggestion at some colleges that students report to authorities on inappropriate Halloween costumes, and the disaster last year at Yale where a house master was as abused and threatened over a mild Halloween-costume suggestion by his wife (an assistant housemaster) while four Yale deans looked on and said nothing.

Though his opinion of Trump is low, he wrote, “The whole episode makes me reluctantly agree with Trump’s assertion that political correctness “has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship.”

The Daily Caller reported that NYU insisted his sudden departure on paid leave was purely voluntary. “It was not demanded by the University and is unconnected to his social media postings,” says chief spokesman John Beckham. “He requested the leave, and we look forward to having him back when he is ready. His leave has absolutely nothing to do with his Twitter account or his opinions on issues of the day.”

The editorial Board of Washington Square News, an independent NYU paper, said Rectenwald’s version of events “was quickly proven to be false when NYU released a copy of the email correspondence between Rectenwald and Liberal Studies Dean Fred Schwarzbach. The conversation revealed that his previous comments were inaccurate and that university officials had never forced him to take a leave of absence. … NYU officials have stated that they are ending his self-imposed leave and expect him to return to classes immediately.”

I Could Have Been Fired Without Ever Knowing Why—But I Had Tenure

I learned about the charges brought against me only after the findings were reached. My departmental chair called me into her office and at the direction of the college administration told me what I had to do to remedy the apparently awful situation I had known nothing about. I had to change my syllabus.

I teach geology at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY). And luckily I have tenure, an important protection in case of Kafka-like trials at a PC college. What had I done wrong? See for yourself. Here is the offending phrase from the grading portion of my syllabus: “Class deportment, effort etc……. 10% (applied only to select students when appropriate).”

Can you spot the alleged offense? I bet not. For reasons that escape me too, that phrase was perceived as a prelude to sexual harassment. And the phrase was so clearly problematic to the administration that they directed me to change it.

Related: How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

As it turns out, my syllabus almost crossed another invisible line of acceptability in the politically correct world at Brooklyn College. Here’s the problematic part:

“This classroom is an ‘unsafe space’ for those uncomfortable with viewpoints with which they may disagree: all constitutionally protected speech is welcome.” I had been using warning triangles sardonically instead of ordinary quote marks when referring to foolish PC terms. All my department chair would say is, “The triangles are the problem.” I never found out what made the triangles a problem. They were ready to act on a problem without saying what the problem was.

My guess is that some administrator thought the warning triangles were reminiscent of the pink triangles that the Nazis made gays wear. I wonder how long the administrators deliberated before deciding that the clip art street signs I’d included in my syllabus weren’t Nazi symbols.

Nothing in Writing

I think it’s fair to conclude that the phrases at issue in my syllabus were neither sexually harassing nor anti-gay. Would anyone not deeply versed in PC culture conjure up the alleged offenses in my syllabus?  Indeed, of all the excesses of the language police I’ve heard about, I can’t think of a more tortured interpretation of words.

Charges involving sexual harassment and anti-gay bias are serious matters that mandate thorough investigation. But because the charges are so serious, they also mandate due process for the accused. That this investigation was concluded, and a course of action recommended without my knowledge and without my having an opportunity for input, fails to meet that standard.

I thought it wise, given the possible damage to my reputation, that I learn what procedures had been used in my case and what records exist. So I started digging, first asking my chair to tell me which department had initially contacted her.

As a result of that inquiry, the college’s Director of Diversity Investigations and Title IX Enforcement —yes, Brooklyn College really has a Director of Diversity Investigations— emailed me and offered to meet. Given the seriousness of the charges, I declined that offer because I wanted all my communications with the administration to be documented.

In a series of emails, I asked the director to provide me with a copy of the complaint with names redacted, the names of the offices involved in the matter, a description of the procedures, and a description of all actions that were recommended as a result of the findings, among other things.

In response, the director claimed that there had been no charges filed against me and that his office had not investigated my syllabus. He again offered to meet in order to “clear up some apparent misconceptions and miscommunications.”

I certainly was confused at this point. If no charge had been filed, why was I directed to change my syllabus? If his office hadn’t investigated the issue, why did he contact me? If his office wasn’t involved, which office was?

To clear things up, I asked my chair for further explanation. What she told me made me realize why the director was so reluctant to put anything in writing or to share pertinent documents: despite his denial, it was the director’s office that had told her to have me change the phrasing in my syllabus.

Confronting the Director

When I confronted the director with my newly discovered information, he immediately shut down communications, saying, “My office considers the matter to be closed.”

I know that my case pales in comparison to others because the charges I faced were bizarre enough to be easily rebutted. But in seeking answers from the college administration over this issue, I revealed the college’s system for investigating charges of sex bias and sexual harassment to be thoroughly dysfunctional.

If the procedures used against me are typical, an accused person at Brooklyn College is 1) denied due process during the investigation and adjudication and 2) denied any documentation of the complaint, procedures, and findings after the fact.

It is also particularly troubling that the administrator in charge of the investigation of my syllabus became the gatekeeper regarding inquiries about the investigation. Who, then, would hold that administrator accountable for improprieties in investigations?

Brooklyn College is now on notice: the college’s system for investigating charges of sex bias and sexual harassment fails to meet requisite standards for due process, transparency, and accountability and needs to be fixed.

Have More Fun With PC—Enter This Contest

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is running a satirical subtitle contest, asking readers to suggest appropriate PC subtitles for classic books. Example: Tom Sawyer: Adventures in Whitewashing. The assignment for the first week: any book by Jane Austen. Pick an Austen book and share your new subtitle on Twitter, with the hashtag #PCSubtitle and the NAS Twitter handle @NASorg. You can also tag us on Facebook or fill out this form. Winners will add a subtitle that transforms the book into something today’s sensitive yet resentful students can’t resist.

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What Diversity Officers All Believe

Those of you who wonder what diversity officials do all day must listen to Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University. During first-year orientation, a baffled and tense freshperson asked if she could sing along with a carful of other white people when a song containing the N-word filled the air. “No,” said Marlowe, who applies diversity ethics for groups off campus as well as on.

Marlowe had other nuggets of advice: don’t ask an Asian student for help with your homework and don’t ask a black student if he plays basketball because these acts evoke stereotypes of Asian intellectual competence and black athleticism. Also never use the term “you guys” when addressing a group, because it could imply you are leaving out women.

There’s more: Marlowe thinks careless statements such as, “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough” are not just micro-aggressions but also micro-invalidations because they suggest that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes.

Related: The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

This advice came in a New York Times article  yesterday by reporter Stephanie Saul, which added this concern about racism negatively affecting college attendance:

“Fresh on the minds of university officials are last year’s highly publicized episodes involving racist taunts at the University of Missouri in Columbia — which appear to have contributed to a precipitous decline in enrollment there this fall.”

This is an odd way of putting it, since we recall only two incidents of racist taunts (and one mysterious swastika) reported before the Mizzou protests, one from a passing car and thus probably not a good barometer of campus racial attitudes.

Most people think applications to the campus are down not because of the two or three incidents in or near a campus of 35,000 students, but because of the turbulent protests and the way they were handled — the abrupt resignation of the university president and chancellor, a hunger strike, the temporary paralysis of the campus and the now famous Melissa Click attempt to bar a photographer from covering events for the school paper.

Related: Finally, One Major Campus Condemns Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces

Reporter Saul adds a dark interpretation of resistance to the diversity tsunami: “Some graduates have curtailed donations and students have suggested that diversity training smacks of some sort of communist re-education program.

The backlash was exemplified recently in a widely publicized letter sent to incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago by the dean of students, John Ellison. The letter clearly rejected the need for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” for an adult student body that should be capable of hearing ideas and concepts contrary to their own.

A communist re-education program, quickly linked to the University of Chicago free-speech letter? Probably not. You would almost think that some reporters can’t resist adding their opinions to stories.

Pundit Wages War on Campus Correctness, 2001

The speech below was delivered on March 19, 2001, by then U.S. News & World Report columnist John Leo, who is the founder and editor of Minding the Campus. Leo has spent much of his career reporting on the vicissitudes of campus political correctness, many of them recorded in his latest book, “Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture.”

The following excerpts are from the speech Leo gave  at the National Press Club at a gathering sponsored by the Independent Women’s Forum. They were reprinted in The Washington Times and are published here with permission.

I want to say a few words on how I got interested in political correctness. I’ll start off with the famous Goya nude that was molesting and harassing the women at Penn State. It had been hanging on the wall for 10 or 20 years before it decided to molest this teacher and she made a big fuss about it. So the painting was moved.

Then there were stories like the columnist for the Boston Globe who was having a private conversation with another male about basketball and he used a vulgar synonym for being henpecked and a woman was walking by who was of course affronted. He was fined $1,200 by the Globe and suspended for weeks. I said, “What’s going on here?”

My favorite was the Beethoven story when the feminists in charge of trashing music by white males announced that most Western music was pelvic pounding. And that Beethoven’s Fifth symphony was the murderous rage of an impotent rapist. I thought, “College has changed a bit since I was there.”

I know we’re all concerned about racism and sexism, but this list of “-isms” started to get longer and longer and attract my attention. One was “ableism,” maybe not having a ramp in your home. “Homeism,” which is not treating homeless people with the same respect as people with homes; “adultism,” which is when your parents tell you what to do; “majoritarianism,” when it comes to a vote and you lose; “borealcentrism,” this was on “West Wing” last week– that’s when you have white nations at the top of the globe instead of the bottom of the globe.

One of the campuses said you could not exclude anyone in conversation, so conversational exclusionism became a campus sin. At Smith College, they had an explicit warning against “looksism,” which is creating a standard that some things and some people are more attractive than others, which doesn’t fly at Smith.

And there’s “faddism” and “faceism.” I looked this up and not only is there such a thing as “faceism,” it is legally banned in Santa Cruz, California. You simply cannot hire a pretty receptionist in Santa Cruz if a homely one is available.

I got this up to 75 “isms” and I wondered if there was such a thing as “breastism,” you know, the unwanted male gaze at a female upper torso. And sure enough, I checked Lexis and there was “breastism.” The total rose to 78 isms. So now I’m deep into PC.

My next step was to notice what happened to Linda Chavez. Now this was 10 years ago. Linda Chavez was canceled out of a speech at the University of Northern Colorado. Now why was she canceled? She was the wrong kind of Hispanic. How did they know? She had worked for a Republican president.

This was 1990. It proved for the first time that a small number of agitators could make the president of a university grovel and impose identity politics, and it’s become a pattern in the culture, at least the campus division. They said she wasn’t a real Hispanic because she didn’t speak Spanish. My father told me he was Irish, but he must have lied because he doesn’t speak Gaelic.

Then there was the Egypt business. The story was pervading the campuses that the pyramids weren’t built by Egyptians; they were built by sub-Saharan blacks. So, believing in the journalistic method, I thought it was a good idea to call seven Egyptologists and ask them who built the pyramids. And they all said, “Well, the Egyptians, of course.”

So I wrote that down. And then they all said, “Well, don’t use my name.” So here are these specialists in Egyptology who are afraid to say the Egyptians built the Egyptian pyramids. I thought that was pretty telling. It was the beginning of double bookkeeping in the academic world, where you have one reality you think is true and one you tell people because it is “correct.”

I was at Time Inc. before I came here and I noticed Time Inc. put out a poster to celebrate Black History Month and on the border [of the poster] were real achievements by blacks and in the center of the poster were the pyramids. I knew the guy who had put this out, so I called him up and said, “Michael, you just sent out a million posters saying the blacks built the pyramids?” And he said, “Yeah, I know.”

“Isn’t that wrong?” “Yeah, I know, but they felt so strongly about it.” So this means that if you feel strongly about it, you too can get credit for building the pyramids.

Next, I started to notice the itch to censor on college campuses. I started collecting these speech codes. At Colby College, any speech that caused a “loss of self-esteem or even a vague sense of danger” was illegal. At North Dakota State, it was “intentionally producing discomfort.” At Minnesota, “insensitivity to the experiences of women”; at West Virginia, “feelings about gays, which evolve into attitudes.” At Connecticut, it was “inconsiderate jokes.”

At Sarah Lawrence, it was “inappropriate laughter.” Someone called an ex-roommate, who was gay, a nasty word for gay. And this fellow snorted, whether out of nervousness or laughter, and he was brought up on snorting charges. And I think he got 100 hours of community service and he had to write an essay on homophobia.

The [American Civil Liberties Union], which has not been good on these cases, woke up and defended him and he got off.

At Michigan State, “eye contact or the lack of it.” That pretty much throws a damper on what you can do with your eyes at Michigan State. At the University of Maryland, it’s “licking lips or teeth; holding or eating food provocatively.”

This is the public face of a movement that pretends to be elevating us to the next stage of truth and justice. What’s behind PC is a therapeutic ethic. It wasn’t just about equality, women and minorities, it’s about feelings and how important those feelings are. When you criticize women or minorities, you do a great disservice, because their self-esteem is threatened. It’s very important to have mandatory niceness on campus.

A lot of this came from the beginning of sexual-harassment theory. Catharine McKinnon says rape is when a woman has sex and feels violated. As soon as you put it into the “feeling” category, you take it from sex that is an actual violation to sex that didn’t turn out well and you feel bad about the next day. The “feeling” of being violated is more important. Negative feeling creates and defines the offense. You abandon all communal standards and everything becomes subjective.

Sexual-harassment theory became the jackpot for the PC movement. It was a decisive turn away from anything objective. When [society] created the “hostile-work-environment climate” argument, it sprang loose from the traditional American approach in law that you had to prove something harmful; that something had happened. But once you talk about environmental things, you erode all common standards and the only standard becomes the subjective feeling of being hurt by the person attacking. So, on college campuses, the indictment became the conviction.

We are in the heyday of censorship. The PC culture says: We are right; our opponents are wrong. Why should we let them speak? Oppressors should have no rights, anyway. This is our college, these people are backward, so let’s just get rid of them. So there is no give and take in argument or debate. The PC job isn’t education. It’s simply to root out villains.

4 Well-Known Universities With No Integrity

In a Commentary essay earlier this spring, I argued that universities’ response to the 2015-2016 campus protests can be seen, in part, through the lens of faculty and administrators sharing the protesters’ diversity-obsessed goals, if not agreeing with them on tactics. A recent protest from Dartmouth confirmed the point.

Sometimes, campus speech issues are complicated. This one wasn’t. The Dartmouth College Republicans, following college rules, requested access to a bulletin board, where they posted items with the theme of “Blue Lives Matter.” The move coincided with National Police Week.

Related: DE PAUL FAILS FREE SPEECH AGAIN

In response, “Black Lives Matter” protesters tore down the Republicans’ posters, put up posters that reflected their political viewpoints, and “occupied” the area around the bulletin board to prevent the College Republicans from re-posting their original material. The College Republicans went to the administration throughout the day to ask for assistance in replacing their posters, but were rebuffed. The administration, apparently fearful of confronting the students engaged in a heckler’s veto, informed the Republicans they’d have to wait a day; when the building was shut down in the overnight hours, the hecklers’ posters would be removed. Dartmouth administrators followed up with a statement forcefully condemning the removal of the posters—but without any indication of punishment. Nor was there any indication of Dartmouth devoting additional resources to free speech. This type of non-effect would have been inconceivable if the “Blue Lives Matter” students had torn down the “Black Lives Matter” students’ poster.

The student activists remained defiant. In an open letter, they remarked, “We acknowledge that many of you are concerned about the question of free speech. However, one hundred students’ disapproval for ‘Blue Lives Matter’ does not constitute a disregard for free speech, nor does it condemn policemen who have died in the line of duty. What it does constitute is a concern for anti-blackness on this campus and nationwide.”

Related: TITLE IX TRAMPLES FREE SPEECH AND FAIRNESS, SO NOW WHAT?

Again: the student protesters took down posters with which they disagreed, and, on a bulletin board temporarily designated to the College Republicans, put up posters that reflected the protesters’ point of view. If that doesn’t “constitute a disregard for free speech,” it’s hard to imagine what could.

Missouri

The campus that triggered the fall protests was the University of Missouri, where the highest-profile defender of the protests, ex-Professor Melissa (“muscle”) Click was back in the news last week. The AAUP produced a report faulting the University of Missouri for its slipshod procedure in firing Click. I agree.

But then the AAUP offered the following conclusion: “[W]e doubt whether Professor Click’s actions, even when viewed in the most unfavorable light, were directly and substantially related to her professional fitness as a teacher or researcher.” This statement is astonishing. Recall, again, the context: on the campus quad—a public area of the university—Click called for “muscle” against a University of Missouri student. How could such conduct possibly not be directly related to her position as a teacher? And, again, imagine the unlikelihood of the AAUP in reaching this conclusion if the facts had been reversed—if, say, a white male professor, an advisor of the Mizzou Republicans, had called for “muscle” against a black student journalist.

Rutgers

One of the most perceptive analyses of the fall 2015 protests came from Robert Tracinski. Writing in The Federalist, Tracinski observed, “The more you read through the students’ demands, the more they look curiously like a full-employment program for the faculty who just happen to be egging on these naive youngsters.” The demands, he noted, read “less like a manifesto of student revolutionaries, and more like a particularly aggressive salary negotiation. But this is not about higher pay for all faculty members. Notice in the middle the emphasis on “specialty positions,” we are defined as “faculty who work on critical issues related to social justice.” So it’s a special sinecure for those with the correct political agenda.”

Tracinski’s observations came to mind when reading a Chronicle piece earlier this month involving a tenure case at Rutgers. The basics: Rutgers denied tenure to an African-American professor of communications, Jennifer Warren. Warren came up for tenure without a book. And her teaching evaluations had recently declined. According to the article, Warren seems to have blamed both developments on guidance she received from her department. But on paper, it hardly seems outrageous to see a quality research institution like Rutgers deny tenure to a professor without a book, and with falling evaluations in the classroom.

Related: IS YALE USING TITLE IX TO TRUMP FREE SPEECH?

Nonetheless, the tenure denial triggered protests, holding signs with such sayings as “RU for Black Tenure.” (Imagine the outrage if students carried signs demanding “RU for White Tenure.”) And then, according to the Chronicle, “Several days after the students’ rally, Ms. Warren received good news: She had won her grievance hearing and would have another shot at tenure, in the spring of 2017.”

The article supplies no additional information regarding the contents of Warren’s grievance, or the substance of the appeals decision. This incomplete record leaves two options: (1) Warren’s department committed an unspecified major procedural error, and it fortunately was caught in a university appellate process. (2) After denying tenure to someone whose scholarly and teaching credentials the university had deemed insufficient, Rutgers reversed itself to appease the protesters. The statement from the head of the Rutgers faculty union didn’t inspire confidence: “Students are driven to involvement,” said he, “in a sense of desperation because they’re seeing that percentage go down in a microcosm. What they see in Jennifer Warren’s case is the black-faculty percentage falling instead of rising.”

That might well be true. But a decline in the percentage of black faculty doesn’t constitute a procedural violation.

Amherst

The New York Times has been all but hermetically sealed, ideologically, in covering campus events in recent years. Its one-sided approach to due process and campus sexual assault has matched its fawning, uncritical coverage of the 2015-2016 campus protests.

But even against that standard, a recent column from Frank Bruni stood out. It offered the administration of Amherst’s Biddy Martin as a model for other schools to follow in the quest for student diversity. That would be the same Biddy Martin whose administration has presided over what is likely the most egregious sexual assault trial since issuance of the Dear Colleague letter, and who proposed a new campus speech code modeled on the anti-due process approach Amherst has used for sexual assault. The idea that Amherst would be the model for anything is absurd.

Yet none of these controversies are mentioned by Bruni. He even gives column space to Martin to allow her to suggest her administration isn’t obsessed with only the usual types of campus diversity: “The college’s president told me that one of her current passions is to admit more military veterans, who bring to the campus abilities, experiences and outlooks that other students don’t possess.”

How many veterans has Amherst admitted in the past three years? Bruni can’t find the space to reveal the total.

THE NORMALIZATION OF BAD IDEAS

By Daphne Patai

While American education goes further down the tubes, lame-brained notions are raised to levels of respectability in academe that should shock any halfway reasonable person. What has happened is the normalization of bad ideas, thanks mostly to identity politics. We constantly hear that we live in a hopelessly racist and sexist society, but the truth is that we live in such a liberal atmosphere that identity-based complaints are always taken seriously. And rarely does a student shouting obscenities at a professor or administrator get told to just “shut up and study.”

It’s worth considering how we got from there to here. Below are a few highlights from my own decades in academe, during which identity politics have spread like a contagious disease.

Remaking the World of Sex

In response to the increasing publicity over date rape, Antioch College in 1993 adopted an oddball policy requiring verbal consent at every stage of sexual activities. After a slow start, such policies, perhaps owing to absurd claims about the high rate of sexual assault on campus, are now gaining traction throughout the country.

Underlying this demand are some disturbing implications that have trickled down from radical feminists decades ago: that women don’t really want (hetero)sex, that “consent” itself is manufactured by heteronormativity, that intercourse and rape are often indistinguishable, and that sexual harassment and assault (both having undergone ever expanding definitions) are what men routinely do to women.

Let’s call these ideas the MacKinnon-Dworkinite axis. When I wrote about this problem in a 1998 book called Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, the notion that heterosexual relations required verbal consent was still a marginal idea. Now a negative view of heterosex seems to be everywhere, resuscitating traditional views of women as needing constant protection from predatory males.

But that protection, these days, is to be provided by the state and its eager institutions, not by individual men.  It’s as if women have totally cornered the sexual market: they’re the providers (mostly reluctant), men the consumers (avidly hungry), and the entire interaction has to be orchestrated by administrators, following the guidelines of feminists. See Cathy Young’s column, in The Washington Post.

While feminists have used the term “rape culture” for years to characterize the United States, they rarely criticize or even comment on the high incidence of rape of black women by black men. The same silence surrounds the growing incidence of rape and sexual assault in European cities with large numbers of Muslim immigrants.

Race: Concentrating on Grievance

The grievance industries have taken control of the popular discourse on race, to the point that merely to call attention to this phenomenon is to expose oneself to nasty labels. It was in the early 1990s, at a meeting of the Women’s Studies faculty (which I had joined voluntarily a couple of years after receiving tenure in the Spanish and Portuguese Department), that I first heard a colleague bluntly state:  When Blacks say they have experienced racism, they are not to be challenged.

I objected that this made actual discussion of a problem or a charge impossible. Colleagues who agreed with me behind the scenes were nonetheless unwilling to say so publicly. At the same time, racial politics were so thoroughly gripping the program that when two graduate students presented a proposal for a new course they wished to teach on indigenous women, my colleagues accepted it despite the fact that the proposal was nothing but a list of indigenous identities of North and South America. I argued that the proposal needed to be a real proposal, not merely a list. My colleagues responded, “We can’t afford not to accept it,” by which they meant that with charges of racism flying thick and fast, they dared not insist on normal academic procedures.  These were among the episodes that led to my leaving Women’s Studies not long thereafter.

The Cult of Identity 

Clearly, identity politics had become a hydra, so out of control that Women’s Studies itself was in danger of seeming parochial for concentrating on “women.”  The first thing it did to bolster its position was, as described above, embrace a stance of mea culpa in relation to white identity.

So widespread is this today that we have such innovations as whiteness studies (i.e., studies of “white privilege” and its inherent racism), which have some up-to-the-minute incarnations, as in Whiteness History Month at Portland Community College, scheduled for April 2016.  And identity programs devoted to every conceivable variation of sexual and gender identity now abound. Acronyms are de rigueur.

And Let’s Not Forget ‘Class’

Early in the days of Women’s Studies, claims about “classism” were added to charges of racism and sexism, and “white middle-class women” were denounced as the illegitimate dominatrices of academic feminism.  The imperative was clear: adapt or die. As identities multiplied, the accompanying demand for appropriate “theorizing”  took the form of what academic feminists claimed was a new “integrated analysis,” by which various supposedly oppressed identities had to be incorporated into one package.

More recently, this has been renamed “intersectional analysis” (borrowing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use in a 1989 essay of the term “intersectionality”).  This is now an obligatory approach in Women’s Studies and other identity fields, designed to address the special marginalization suffered by people with multiple oppressed identities. Such an approach has the great advantage that new categories can always be added as they are discovered.

The Compulsion to Reinvent Oneself

Along with this came a change in the very name of Women’s Studies programs.  All over the country in the past decade these programs and departments retitled themselves as some variation of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  And indeed, sexuality – that is, the critique of heterosexuality and promotion of alternatives – became, along with racism and anti-capitalism, the predominant focus of academic feminism, as is evident today in course offerings and programmatic statements.

Befitting a postmodernist age, redefinitions of all categories prevailed:  Where originally gender identity was seen as socially constructed, and sexual identity was viewed as biological, biology itself came increasingly, if inconsistently, under attack.  Noretta Koertge and I called this development “biodenial” (see Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies), and noted how opportunistically the technique was used.

In a fascinating more recent development, it has become clear that while minority racial identity is so treasured that fraudulent claims (on grounds of biology, i.e., racial heritage!) are denounced, sexual identity has moved in an opposite direction, toward ever greater fluidity. Thus, for example, Smith College announced in May 2015 that, though reaffirming its “unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college,” its commitment to access and diversity required recognition that “concepts of female identity have evolved.”

Henceforth, Smith will consider applicants who “self-identify” as female, even if they “were assigned male at birth” — but not the reverse.  Thoughtfully, this policy “does not affect students who transition during their time at Smith.” Is this an abandonment or an intensification of identititis?

Firmly Stamping out Unwanted Speech

Of course, none of the above shifts could occur successfully without policing of everyday language. And as the very notion of discrimination (which was initially the legal basis for criminalizing “sexual harassment”) underwent extensive concept-stretching, demands for verbal conformity have intensified, proscribing certain terms and prescribing others.

Schools have sometimes tried to create lists of offensive and impermissible terms, and though these have no legal standing, such details don’t seem to have dissuaded many colleges.  But even where certain terms are not officially prohibited, conformity has been expected for decades now.

I remember a speaker in the early 1990s, at a Women’s Studies brown-bag lunch, in passing using the expression “to see” in the sense of “to understand.” A student in the audience interrupted her to say this was “ablest.” The speaker apologized.  As categories of oppression have multiplied, so, obviously, are the terms that must be avoided.  For several decades now, students and faculty have gotten into serious trouble for saying something perceived as offensive.

This creeping censorship was highlighted in the indispensable book by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998). Initially inspired by the famous “water buffalo” case at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, the book tracked the rapid multiplication of such instances throughout the 1990s.

The avalanche of cases Kors and Silverglate heard about in response to their book led them in 1999 to found FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (on whose Board I have served ever since).  FIRE has been instrumental in combatting speech codes on American campuses by insisting on reason and actual adherence to the First Amendment, and by holding universities to account.

The cases on the website, thefire.org, read like a parody of academic inanities – but the consequences to those charged with speech infractions have been all too real – thanks to the Departments of Education’s and Justice’s 2013 “blueprint” invoking unconstitutionally broad definitions of sexual harassment. For students and faculty, this usually means absence of due process.

FIRE has had to pursue free speech on a case-by-case basis, preferring suasion to lawsuits wherever possible.  But despite their numerous successes, the general atmosphere on campus has not improved. On the contrary, university administrators, as we have seen again in recent months, have become ever more craven conformists.

Recently, I received a mailing from FIRE about the case of a Colorado College student who was suspended and banned from campus for two years for having posted a six-word comment on Yik Yak.  FIRE’s intervention got the ban reduced to six months, and they are still fighting on his behalf.

And the struggle continues: On Jan 20, 2016, supported by FIRE, Professor Teresa Buchanan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Louisiana State University for infringement of her rights by firing her for profanity she used in class.

Creeping Totalitarianism

Over the past few decades, then, we have seen a massive normalization of bad ideas that were first promoted by identity programs such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies. This could not have been accomplished without academic institutions willingly, and by now enthusiastically, embracing what Lawrence Summers (and he should know) recently called academe’s “creeping totalitarianism.”  Far from embracing free debate of challenging ideas and the free speech necessary to pursue them, university life today is characterized by policies governing every aspect of college life, in the classroom and out, and offices to enforce them.

At the macro level, universities have adopted “social justice” as a supposed core mission, in the name of which policing of speech and behavior has become ever more intense.  Education itself may be more debased and less demanding, yet universities focus not on this extremely serious problem but on the level of comfort of those supersensitive souls who are empowered by identity politics.

With intrusive training and orientation sessions, often obligatory, along with endless expansion of administrative fiefdoms devoted to supposed justice, inclusivity, and equality, schools augment the problem by embracing and imposing rules and regulations, however blatantly unconstitutional and in defiance of their own stated commitments to free speech and academic freedom.

Instead, in the new world in which “oppression studies” (to use Alan Kors’ prescient phrase) rule, we find ever more hysterical searches for grievances, to the point that students now need to be protected from offenses or mere upset feelings yet to come, and thus demand “trigger warnings” about class material.  They learn how to apply the concept of “bullying,” the latest catch-all offense to watch for in the new kindergarten that the university has become.

It’s as if universities have been transformed from institutions dedicated to learning into holding tanks for fragile and shattered selves – not so fragile, however, that they’re unable to mobilize and scream until they get their way, all the while claiming to be silenced and abused.

We have reached the point today where the erosion of civil rights, along with the evaporation of common sense, is not only taken for granted but actively encouraged by many college administrators eager to demonstrate their commitment to a better (that is, more minutely controlled) society.  Or perhaps they are just eager to keep their jobs — a futile endeavor since, as they are learning the hard way, no one has an unassailable identity once identitarians get busy.

Meanwhile, universities recklessly follow the spread of inventive concepts such as “micro-aggression.” This term was coined in 1970 by professor and psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, but was not widely used until the last few years. Why might that be? Perhaps because there were more important battles to be fought then.  But, let’s face it, micro-aggression is becoming hackneyed, for it is only the more overt form of those ubiquitous and diabolical — because ever less visible — offenses that so plague our society.  No one should be content to stop there.

Can nano-aggression be far behind?


 

Daphne Patai is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Struggling to Get Past ‘Master’

By Harvey Silverglate

Harvard College appears locked into one of those momentous transformational challenges that from time to time roils the eminently roil-able undergraduate campus: What title should replace the sobriquet “House Master?”

While the term “House Master” has been used for generations to denote the faculty members who reside in, and oversee, the student residential houses at Harvard, it has apparently become associated, by some, for reasons not entirely obvious, with the notion of slave masters. It is unclear whether the push to abolish the master title arose because students became upset that a position of honor and responsibility might be conflated with a historically abhorrent concept, or whether the mere mention of the word “master” causes some angst via the now-fashionable fear of traumatization in the absence of timely “trigger warnings.”

The search for a titular replacement by the 12 residential masters, who had unanimously agreed to change their title back in December, has encountered unexpected delays, as reported by The Harvard Crimson on January 26th. Despite an announcement in December by Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana that the masters would announce their replacement title sometime early in 2016, progress “has been slow going.”

Indeed, when asked whether deliberations among the masters had even begun, Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., the co-master of Winthrop House, simply replied, “No.” (One does wonder, hopefully, without becoming too cynical about yet another capitulation by the adults to the tantrums of the children, just how urgent the masters deem the need to remove this irritant in the lives of the college’s highly sensitive students.)

This delay has occurred despite the fact that the entire re-naming enterprise began late last semester, when, according to the Crimson, “a group of Harvard Latino students issued a set of demands to University President Drew G. Faust, one of which requested changing the existing nomenclature.” To emphasize the overriding importance of this initiative in the life of the College, one co-master wrote, “This change is a meaningful and important illustration of the sensitivity and the caring of those of us who are the heads of the Harvard Houses.” Dean Khurana, who is also a co-master of a house, was careful to assure the Crimson that he, too, was “personally uncomfortable” with the title.

Reflecting the extraordinary recent expansion of the cadre of student life administrators at Harvard College – a phenomenon mirrored on virtually every campus throughout the nation – the Crimson had a plethora of administrators to whom to turn in order to get the “story” of the status of this momentous change-to-be. Rachel Dane, described as a “College spokesperson,” is reported to have “confirmed that no decision on a new name has been made yet.” Masters of four of the houses – Winthrop, Mather, Eliot, and Adams – were also unable to say much in the way of progress of the selection process, although he did reveal that it was “slow going.” The Adams House co-master was reported to be less than excited by one suggested new title – “leader” – as being “too boring a title,” though if “Dear Leader” is good enough for the master of North Korea, one would think it should not be too boring for Harvard.

To those of us who wonder how and why it is that student life bureaucracies at Harvard and elsewhere have grown so rapidly in recent years, we now can see that administrators are required for a wide variety of undertakings to soothe the ruffled feathers of the sensitive beings who populate our college student bodies today. Out in the real world, we have master electricians and mechanics, chess masters, masters of the universe, taskmasters of all kinds, and other such varieties of positions and titles connoting particular skill, knowledge or authority. Only on college campuses, it seems, is the title so disturbing as to require a cast of a dozen, plus support staff, to remove this source of anxiety among students who see themselves (and are widely seen) as the future leaders of the nation.

One gasps at the very idea.


 

Harvey Silverglate is a Boston lawyer and co-founder and Board member of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

How Political Correctness Corrupted the Colleges

How can it be that, in the face of daily news of murders, grotesque punishments, and open oppression by radicals abroad, here at home American college students, who have grown up with degrees of freedom and autonomy virtually unknown in most times and places, agitate for restrictions on their own campuses, demand rules, regulations, and censorship in the name of their versions of justice?

I don’t think the answer to this question is that “this generation” of American college students is just more authoritarian in their way of thinking than their predecessors, or more impassioned about their political commitments. Nor do I think that they have been brainwashed by their families or school teachers – though this too plays a role.

Related: Limp Administrators Let the Angry Few Take Over

What has happened is that over the past couple of decades “political correctness” became mainstreamed: it went from characterizing only certain parts of the university (above all “identity” programs, such as women’s studies, openly committed to particular kinds of social change and intolerant of divergent views) to enjoying an obligatory and sincere endorsement by many faculty and administrators. This involves a massive redefinition of what higher education is and ought to be.

All the Dread Isms

Not that this is news. In the early 1990s, when I was still in women’s studies, some professors required their white students to disclose their first experience with blacks, and, if they declined to do so, the recalcitrant students were accused of being “in denial”  about their own racism.  Charges of racism were proving very effective in shutting down discussion and leaving even people who knew better speechless.

What has changed since is that charges of racism, sexism, and other dreaded –isms have become ever more commonplace, so that entire institutions, not just individual professors and administrators, live in fear of having such charges lobbed their way. Thus, today, it is common for universities to have orientation programs for first-year students that explicitly aim to indoctrinate them about the attitudes and words considered not just rude or thoughtless but actionable. And to have speech codes and harassment policies that all too often are in clear violation of the Constitution.

Related: The Modern Campus as North Korea

The brouhaha at the University of Missouri and at Yale, for example, perfectly illustrates the shift: what a heady feeling, to be able to push administrators and faculty into resigning, with or without official self-abnegation. And with proliferating protective measures undertaken by universities (with their ever-expanding corps of administrators), is it any wonder that the supposed adults in academe become more disempowered, more fearful of being charged with one of the stigmatizing –isms?

Somehow, in America, the more students in fact enter universities, the more “flexible” our course offerings and activities, the easier it is to get a degree, the more aggrieved students feel by the persistence of complexity in their social environment. And the unsurprising result for students who know little history and less world politics is clear: what is being demanded by protesting students is a kind of control over others that would seem to have no place in a free society. But how are they to know this, if they have little knowledge and simple views of their own society and its place in the world?

The situation is not helped by the readiness with which what used to be serious intellectual venues now join in the fray. In The New Yorker, on Nov. 10, 2015, for example, Jelani Cobb has an article whose very title lays out the parameters of acceptable speech.  It is called “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion.” Such a juxtaposition both dismisses free speech and delegitimizes concerns about it at the outset.

Related: What Students Are Demanding Now

It’s hard to believe Americans would be so quick to adopt such a cavalier attitude toward one of our most valuable rights if they had actual experience of the repressive dictatorships that existed and still exist in various parts of the world. But the worst part is that these angry students and their academic abettors know and understand the First Amendment. Yet, they actively and open blatantly oppose it, believing that only the speech they approve of should be protected. The same attitudes prevail with rights of due process, routinely violated on college campuses. Why should those accused of using a racist slur or engaging in an unwanted touch or tasteless joke have any rights? Why shouldn’t they at once be punished? Forced to apologize, to grovel, to resign? This is the climate of vigilantism and instant (in) justice that prevails. And it should surprise no one that students will use whatever weapons come their way.

The Oppression Sweepstakes

Way back in 1994, Noretta Koertge, a philosopher of science and I used the term “oppression sweepstakes” in our book Professing Feminism to describe the unseemly competition in academe (though not only there) for most oppressed status. We lamented that young women were opportunistically embracing the rhetoric of victimhood. Students were also learning to spot “sexual harassment” everywhere around them, thanks to regulations that became ever broader and looser, the better to catch any offending word, look, innuendo, or gesture. Due process, like First Amendment rights, became just another quaint notion to be despised by campus justice warriors.

I remember the first time that a student asked me (in class) to give “trigger warnings” about material I was assigning.  That was perhaps ten years ago. Now that term, too, is commonplace.  Since then, hypersensitivity and the search for grievances have only intensified. As big problems disappear, little ones are forced into their place, and so we get “micro-aggression,” a sublime new term by which victim groups can keep complaining when the main sources of complaint have all but disappeared. Imagine the difficulty if one had to give up victimhood.

What are the implications of the fact that accusations of racism and sexism are so popular?  One obvious one is that, far from being a society riddled with social injustice, the U.S. has made so much progress that such charges are cast routinely and fearlessly for they prove amazingly effective in delegitimizing others. A neat one-up move that has effortlessly worked its way into our culture.

Being called a racist automatically cripples (excuse the ableist language) the accused, since any response is immediately cast as evidence that one is simply in denial and trying to protect one’s privilege. And having “privilege” has itself become a slur, another tool in the arsenal designed to impede opposing, or even just differing, points of views. Scores of dystopian fictions, films, and realities have done little to dissuade these campus rebels from a belief that their version of equality and justice can be imposed by fiat, with no serious negative consequences to themselves.

It’s Who Says It, Not What’s Said

Identity politics, rooted in race, gender, sexual orientation (and an ever-expanding list of other protected categories), creates a climate in which the key element is not what one says but who says it. The result: only certain people have the right to say certain things.  And since identity in fact does not tell us all we need to know about a person’s views, beliefs, commitments, or actions,  many additional terms have been created to curtail the speech and attack the legitimacy of those with dissenting views, terms like “Uncle Tom,”  “Oreo,”  “not a real woman,”  or “heteronormativity.”    Thus, identity politics has morphed from actually requiring evidence of discrimination to merely verbalizing the claim to a supposedly oppressed identity and constantly hurt feelings.

When truth and falsity are determined by who speaks, not what is said or what relationship it bears to reality, we’re in free fall, and one can expect that those who yell loudest and claim the greatest oppression will rule. Not a pretty picture, and certainly not the way a democracy is supposed to function. Bertrand Russell referred to this many years ago with his ironic phrase regarding “the superior virtue of the oppressed.”

Intolerance with Moral Superiority

But this snapshot of some of the most popular gotcha games of our time does not suggest to me that students want to be treated like children, or that they genuinely want university administrators to protect them from unpleasantness and discomfort.

That is far too innocent a view of their energetic protests.  Their actions suggest more worldly aims:  they want to be tyrants, able to impose their will while disguising that drive with claims of moral superiority to those around them.

And a good deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs rests with faculty and administrators.  Universities are not the only places attacking liberal values and the Western tradition, but what is perhaps surprising is that they’re not even willing to defend themselves as places where serious learning intellectual efforts are supposed to go on. What else does their desperate commitment to so-called social justice, community activism, and all the rest of the litany amount to? Having long ago abdicated intellectual leadership in favor of feel-good phony politics and self-defeating new definitions of their missions, these agents of the university are hardly in a position to protest students’ endless pursuits of these selfsame goals, which must rest on grievances and slights, real or imagined.

But, alas, when professors stop defending their academic endeavors  in intellectual terms and opt instead for ersatz politics, they are rapidly outclassed by young people who can do that better: with more energy, more time, more anger. Hence, unable to compete, professors instead attempt to ingratiate ourselves with students, hoping (not very effectively, it turns out) to avoid getting caught up in their attacks.

Related: A Targeted Teacher at Yale Quits

Why, then, be surprised when students use turn against those very administrators and faculty who have been capitulating to them for years?  And so students demand respect without earning it, status without achievement, and instantaneous action against the offenses they ferret out all around them.

Like other tyrants, petty or not, students engaging in phony revolutionary claims, these students just want to have their own way, impose their ideas, and be done with it.  Hence they shout down speakers, get invitations rescinded, and disrupt campus activities.

They may be infantile in their yelling and screaming, but that doesn’t mean they are actually seeking adult guidance. Not at all — they’re trying to intimidate their elders into further subjection and are achieving marked success. And they bravely do this in the comfy atmosphere of the modern university.

Isn’t it time for faculty to say:  How you feel is your own affair. Feelings get hurt; that’s life. People can be unpleasant, true.  But what matters here is what you do. You’re here to learn, to develop intellectually, and that requires effort and commitment, not moments of high drama and self-exaltation. Not every slight is an assault, every unkind word an instance of discrimination.

You want to know about inequality and pain? Just travel around the world and see what the absence of liberal values and functioning civil rights leads to, and then come back and see if continuing to complain about the horrendous inequities of your university is still your best bet for creating a better world.

Wesleyan: Total PC All the Time

It’s now a trifecta of political correctness at the expense of sanity—and also justice—at Wesleyan University.

The very latest was the “Halloween Checklist,” a poster that invited students at the elite liberal-arts college in Middletown, Conn., to ask themselves: “Is your costume offensive?” The answer was “yes” if the costume tended to “mock religious or cultural symbols such as dreadlocks, headdresses, afros, bindis, etc.,” or it attempted to “represent an entire culture or ethnicity,” or to “trivialize human suffering, oppression, and marginalization such as portraying a person who is homeless, imprisoned, a person with disabilities, or a person with mental illness.” Students wondering if it was OK for Halloween to wear an orange jumpsuit (not nice to prisoners) or Tyrolean lederhosen (a slur on Austrians) were advised to call one of six different campus counselors, ranging from the diversity office to Residence Life for advice on how not to tread on sensitive toes.

The checklist followed on the heels of a unanimous Oct. 18 vote by Wesleyan’s student government to cut funding for the Argus, the college’s primary student newspaper. In September the Argus had published a column by a conservative staffer criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, not for its opposition to perceived police brutality to blacks, but for some of its members’ rhetoric that seemed to encourage anti-cop violence. The $17,000 budget cut to the paper, which already publishes only twice a week to begin with, followed demands by Black Lives Matter and other progressive student groups for mandatory re-education classes for Argus staffers and threats by those groups to “recycle”—that is, destroy–copies of the paper if the Argus failed to comply with their demands.

Shortly before that, Wesleyan succeeded in getting rid of all three of its fraternity houses, decertifying them as approved campus housing for undergraduates. One of the Greek houses, Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), had resisted (and is currently suing over) the administration’s September 2014 mandate requiring the houses to admit women members, which DKE maintains would violate its national charter and also its historic all-male identity. Wesleyan suspended the other two frats, Beta Theta Pi and Psi Upsilon, after an apparently intoxicated female fell out of an upper-story window at the Beta house in 2014 and allegations of drug-dealing surfaced at the Psi U house this past summer.

So—no more fraternities, a crippled student newspaper, and draconian guidelines intended to curb the slightest manifestation of irreverent humor at Halloween. Wesleyan has checked all the boxes for political correctness, and may be checking out as a major university.

Yik Yak—Latest Target of the Anti-Free-Speech Left

Last Wednesday, 72 left-wing groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, American Association of University Women, and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, asked federal civil-rights officials to crack down on anonymous politically-incorrect speech on campus, which they claim violates federal civil-rights laws such as Title IX. They claim they are concerned about “harassment” on anonymous social media applications like Yik Yak, as the Chronicle of Higher Education notes in the article “Women’s Groups Urge Colleges and Government to Rein in Yik Yak.”

Related: Divestors—No Free Speech for Opponents

But their October 21 letter to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights makes clear that their real goal is to restrict free speech, not just “harassment,” since the letter explicitly labels constitutionally-protected speech as “race-based harassment.” It seems their real goal is to silence dissent on campus by eliminating students’ ability to express their opinions anonymously. The ability to speak anonymously gives moderate and conservative students a chance to speak without vilified or punished by left-wing campus administrators or bullied by student government officials (who sometimes defund campus newspapers for having the temerity to print a moderate or conservative viewpoint about a racial or sexual issue.).

As their letter puts it, “Anonymous race-based harassment through Yik Yak is also pervasive on college campuses. At American University in Washington, DC, for example, Yakkers posted successive invidious comments targeting African-Americans, such as ‘Their entire culture just isn’t conducive to a life of success. It just isn’t. The outfits. The attitudes. The behavior.’”  Whether or not this sentiment is racist, it certainly is not “harassment.”  Indeed, even black newspaper columnists and entertainers regularly lament cultural impediments to success in the black community. Moreover, there is no “racism” exception to the First Amendment.  In 1993, a federal appeals court cited the First Amendment to overturn a fraternity’s discipline for a racist, sexist “ugly woman” skit, in Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University.  And calling racist viewpoints “harassment” does not change this, because as another federal appeals court explained in DeJohn v. Temple University (2008), “there is no ‘harassment exception’” to free speech about racial and sexual issues on campus.

Related: Is Yale Using Title IX to Trump Free Speech?

Requiring colleges to punish what is perceived to be “race-based” speech would endanger even viewpoints that are mainstream positions in society at large, but are disapproved of by politically-correct college campus administrators. Under campus hate speech and “harassment” codes, students have been subjected to campus disciplinary proceedings, in violation of the First Amendment, merely for expressing commonplace opinions about sexual and racial issues, such as criticizing feminism or affirmative action, or discussing homosexuality or the role of race in the criminal justice system.

Wesleyan University in Connecticut provides a recent example of how even mainstream conservative viewpoints are targeted for suppression on campus, in a saga so extreme that it drew criticism from the generally liberal Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell:

In September, sophomore Bryan Stascavage — a 30-year-old Iraq veteran and self-described “moderate conservative” — wrote a column for the Wesleyan Argus. In it, he criticized the Black Lives Matter movement — not the movement’s mission or motivations, but its tactics and messaging, particularly those of its more anti-cop fringe elements.

The essay was provocative, but it contained neither name-calling nor racial stereotypes. It was no more radical than the conservative commentary you might see on mainstream op-ed pages such as this one. That didn’t stop all hell from breaking loose.

Within 24 hours of publication, students were stealing and reportedly destroying newspapers around campus. In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage through tears, declaring that he had “stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore,” Stascavage told me in a phone interview. Over the following days, he said, others muttered “racist” under their breath as he passed by.

The Argus’s editors published a groveling apology on the front page. They said they’d “failed the community” by publishing the op-ed without a counterpoint and said it “twist(ed) facts.” They promised to make the paper “a safe space for the student of color community.” This self-flagellation proved insufficient; students circulated a petition to defund the newspaper.

The Wesleyan student government has now voted to effectively cut the newspaper’s funding.

Related: A New Age of Campus Censorship

In their October 21 letter, the left-wing groups essentially ask the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to repeal the First Amendment as to internet speech and anonymous speech, complaining that colleges have cited “vague First Amendment concerns” in refusing to crack down on such speech.  (The Supreme Court ruled that anonymous speech is generally protected by the First Amendment in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995)).

As they note, the Office for Civil Rights has already pressured colleges to adopt what are effectively campus speech codes in its recent “Dear Colleague” letters to the nation’s school officials, which label certain kinds of speech as probative of racial or sexual harassment: “In its October 2010 Dear Colleague Letter, OCR clarified that prohibited harassment may take many forms, including  . . graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet . . OCR should also make clear that the First Amendment does not prevent schools from taking action” to restrict such speech, whether it “occurs in-person or online.”

It asks OCR to force colleges to take actions such as investigating “all” complaints of “online harassment,” whether or not the speaker is “anonymous”; bringing “campus disciplinary proceedings against” such “individuals”; blocking or “geo-fencing of anonymous social media applications that are used to . . . harass students”; and “barring the use of campus wi-fi to view or post to these applications.” Thus, it seeks to ban entire applications from campus based on the speech of some of their users, and to keep students from even seeing what is posted on them, keeping them in the dark about their content.  (The Supreme Court has described such blanket bans as being as foolish and harmful as “burning the house to roast the pig,” in its 1997 decision striking down a ban on indecent internet speech.)

But there is no “internet” exception to free speech about racial or sexual issues (or a blanket “hostile environment” exception, for that matter). That’s why the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit based on a “hostile environment” that it assumed was created by a white professor’s anti-immigration emails. In that decision, Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College (2010), it relied on the First Amendment to quash a racial harassment suit against the professor for sending those emails, which a college’s Hispanic faculty claimed created a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C 1983.

Some of the letter’s demands are probably too extreme to be endorsed by the Office for Civil Rights.  But in the past, it has sometimes shown a disregard for the First Amendment and limits on its statutory jurisdiction.  As I noted earlier in The Wall Street Journal, “the Education Department, where I used to work,” is

“pressuring colleges to adopt unconstitutional speech codes in the name of fighting sexual harassment. It has disregarded many court rulings in doing so.

“For example, the Education Department has wrongly ordered schools to regulate off-campus speech and conduct. That contributed to the harassment charges against Prof. Laura Kipnis, who was accused over a politically incorrect essay she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education and statements she made on Twitter. Court rulings like Roe v. Saint Louis University (2014) reject Title IX claims over off-campus conduct, but the Education Department ignores them. It also ignores court rulings like Klein v. Smith (1986) emphasizing that the First Amendment usually bars public schools from restricting off-campus speech. For example, the Education Department told schools to regulate comments ‘on the Internet’ in an October 2010 letter. In 2014, it demanded that Harvard regulate off-campus conduct more.”

The Office for Civil Rights should nevertheless keep in mind that it — and individual OCR officials — can be sued for enforcing the civil-rights laws in a way that violate the First Amendment. OCR’s demands under the civil-rights laws were once held to have violated the First Amendment in Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board (1978). A chapter of the Klan had sought to meet together during non-school hours in an empty classroom, the way other groups were permitted to do by the school district. But it was barred from doing so by the school district, acting under pressure from the Office for Civil Rights, which argued that its presence would be illegal racial discrimination. A federal appeals court ruled that the school district and OCR had violated the Klan’s free-speech rights, which could not be overridden by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or OCR’s requirements.

Similarly, another federal appeals court ruled that individual federal civil-rights officials could be sued for restricting speech in White v. Lee (2000).  That ruling emphasized that speech can’t be punished just because it incites illegal discrimination. It also ruled that federal officials could be sued for threatening citizens with civil fines for speaking out against a minority housing project, even if the speech persuaded a city to delay a housing project that would house members of a protected minority group. That decision also indicated that the restrictions on speech found in workplace racial or sexual harassment rules cannot be applied to society generally under non-workplace discrimination laws.

The Coming Ideological Takeover of Music

It has been nearly 30 years since Jesse Jackson led a group of protesters around the Stanford University campus chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has gotta go!”

The target back then was patriarchal Eurocentric content, the books, art, words, and ideas of Dead White Males.  The solution was a more multicultural syllabus, plus more non-white-male professors, the advocates said.  I went on the job market in 1987, the same year, and the word at the time in English was that it was going to be an all-female hiring season.

Once we had a revised syllabus, students would leave college with a wider sense of history and culture, not just Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner, but Cather, Hurston, and Ellison, too.  The High Modernism of Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Proust, would come down from the exclusive pinnacle of literary art and join other styles on a diverse plateau of interesting objects. The multiculturalists never said, “Don’t read James and Stevens.” They just wanted (so they claimed) equal time, and no more, “You MUST read James and Stevens.”  They didn’t even argue much for the excellence of new names added to the syllabus.  Sheer diversification was enough.

And so one Western Civ requirement after another has fallen out of the higher ed curriculum.  One recent episode unfolds in the work of a task force created by the College Music Society a consortium of post-secondary musicians and teachers housed in Missoula, Montana. The project was started in 2013 as a process to review the teaching of music theory and performance in the United States. The first draft of the report is the topic of a thoughtful essay at the Pope Center web site by Andrew Balio, which neatly points out the ideological nature of it.

The subtitle of the report sets the tone: “A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of English Majors.”  You know what’s coming next.  The “creative and expressive dimensions of music have been progressing rapidly over the past several decades,” and academia hasn’t followed suit.  Instead, the “academy has remained isolated, resistant to change, and too frequently regressive rather than progressive in its approach to undergraduate education.”  This resistance is no virtue.  Indeed, the document takes entirely for granted the progressive premise that if the world changes the classroom must keep pace.

The authors add to the charge of hide bounded-ness the worry that enrollments may soon drop as “sophisticated high school students seek music career development outside the often rarefied environments and curricula” of U.S. colleges.

The solution, the authors say, is to change the focus.  Teachers need to shift away from “the prevailing model of training performers in the interpretation of older works.”  An “experience” should take its place: “in a global society, students must experience, through study and direct participation, music of diverse cultures, generations, and social contexts, and that the primary locus for cultivation of a genuine, cross-cultural musical and social awareness is the infusion of diverse influences in the creative artistic voice.”  The documents emphasize especially African-derived music.

All of this is so familiar and routine that it feels like a waste of time even to point out the many tendentious assumptions and biased aims in the statement. Balio quotes one of the most fatuous lines from the text:

A strong argument can also be made that the transformed model of music study advanced by TFUMM will shape a new generation of artists/visionaries who will transmit their broad and transformative wisdom to society and positively impact many of the most pressing issues of our times. Ecological crises, poverty, famine, disease, violence against women, child abuse, ideological and extremist tensions...

As he notes, a “laughably tall order.”  But it probably takes this kind of moral puffery to justify the changes on order.  After all, we read, the organization regards “the culturally narrow horizons of music study as nothing short of a social justice crisis.”  And the emphasis on the “European classical repertory” is more than just an overly narrow education. It is a denial of “genuine global artistic identity,” a hindrance to “responsible citizenship.”   It is “notably out of step with this broader reality.”

Reading these sentences is a dreary process.  There are no surprises along the way, the progressive agenda so scripted and witless that anybody can rehearse it.  Successful academics have learned how to play this game quite well.  Balio provides a good example in the official description of the new head of a state university music school.

An ethnomusicologist, her research interests include African American music, feminist theories, queer studies in music and the social sciences, and race in American popular culture. [She] pursues these interests in…a study that tracks the emergence of black feminist consciousness in women’s music. The latter is a network that emerged from a subculture of lesbian feminism in the early 1970s…. Her] research into the interactions of race, gender and sexuality concerning African American music cultures is complemented by her personal and professional advocacy on behalf of women, people of color, and other underrepresented constituencies in departments and schools of music. 

Note, as Balio does, that there is nothing here about her musical accomplishments.  That’s not what counts.  Instead, we have the race-gender-sexuality dance, along with a testament of her activism.  This is no armchair identity politician–she really means it!  The language is so worn and clichéd (“interactions of race, gender and sexuality,” “constituencies”) that you can’t even satirize it.  One could attach it to hundreds of other professors and administrators with no change, and the effect would be the same.  This is the right person for the job.

Young people just coming up in the academic profession don’t know that this routine went stale more than 25 years ago.  But it’s still the going habit, and (usually) it has to be carried out if hiring and advancement are to happen.  But if they expect this turn to relevance and diversity is going to boos enrollments, they should look at English and see if those very turns have made the discipline more popular and prestigious.

Why Tenure Makes Teaching Better

It’s impossible not to notice a contradiction on the pages of Minding the Campus. My friend Bill Voegeli seems to be saying that tenure makes teaching in our colleges and universities worse (“Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University,” June 22). The shameful goings on at Northwestern over Kipnis show that tenure doesn’t really protect the intellectual freedom of professors from the tyrannical political correctness emanating from administrators. And so tenure has been exposed as nothing but a job protection racket.

Bill has been writing in support of Governor Scott Walker’s scheme to end tenure in the Wisconsin state system. That would give administrators better control over the self-indulgent behavior of the tenured, allowing them, for example, to force lazy teachers to teach more and surrender the “release time” they received for their trivial articles and books that no one reads and no one in the free market actually would pay for. Let’s make professors work 40-hour weeks! And let’s fire them if they’re not serious and effective in their primary responsibility of teaching. The closer our campuses come to the “right-to-fire” situation we find in our more entrepreneurial states, the better.

Offend No Student

The invariably astute George Leef shows us (“Student Ratings Bait Profs into Lowering Standards,” June 24), although that surely wasn’t his main intention, that tenure makes teaching better. He makes the point that untenured faculty–that includes those on a tenure tack, temporaries, and adjuncts–have little choice but to be pretty obsessive when it comes to getting good student evaluations. Given our administrators’ misguided (but deeply rooted) tendency to identify “the good” with “the measurable,” a good set of evaluations has become one on which virtually every student gives the instructor the highest possible scores. So “being good” means to have produced no evidence that any student was offended or disturbed or unduly burdened by the instructor.

This situation seduces faculty into being more entertaining, more affirming, and less challenging than concerned about student learning or even student habituation (say, for the 21st century global competitive marketplace). It seems cruel (and contrary to everything we learn from the science of economics) to blame faculty for the way they’re being incentivized. Faculty would rather not suck up to the students, but what real choice do they have if they want to remain on the faculty?

Student evaluations can’t be made much better by experts trying to refine them with subtle questions that allegedly actually measure student effort and student learning. The more questions there are–and the more complicated they are–the less likely it is that students will actually read them. And as Leef rather wittily reminds us, the real goal of the faculty member is that students not read them at all, but automatically assign the highest score all the way down the line. That’s why (and I’ve noticed this first-hand) there’s an emerging science of getting students in a euphoric mood on evaluation day, to get them to surrender their critical faculties on a doughnut high or through a feel-good exercise in collective self-affirmation. After all, even if a student realizes that he or she has learned much, had a transformative emotional/intellectual experience, and feels the love and respect from a particular instructor, it’s very unlikely, if he or she deploys his or her critical faculties, that the result would be top marks all the way down the line.  The untenured faculty member wants the student to be feeling (feeling good, of course), not thinking, when evaluating.

Students Free to Choose

The incentive here, as Leef says, is to get the student to fill out the evaluation quickly and happily and without taking time to write comments. The numbers do the talking, the thought is, and the comments are bound to be ambiguous and subjective. Now, at my college, there’s a kind of doubling down on this incentivizing by an administrative concern. Our students are free to fill out the evaluations online whenever they please in a two-week period.  Left to their own devices, even with numerous emails of encouragement, a clear majority of them choose not to bother. For myself, I think they should be free to choose, and there might be some honor in refusing to evaluate someone anonymously.

It seems the administration is too consumer sensitive to develop some mechanism to compel compliance. So the burden falls on faculty (with, in principle, our accreditation on the line!) to get students to fill them out. And the one and only time I was judged by some administrator to be deficient on my evaluations is when my turnout was pretty low, and it was suggested to me that there was the rumor out there that I tell students the evaluation process is stupid. (I actually do say, when teaching the Republic, that Socrates says that a weakness of democracy is that it’s so relativistic that students even get to evaluate teachers. But I now add that we live in a democracy so you can’t blame Berry College, do your duty as a democratic citizen and fill the bleepin’ thing out.)

The trouble with low turnout for untenured faculty, of course, is that either it can become a reason to discount their high scores or leave their scores too much to chance by allowing the negative feedback of one disgruntled customer to count too much.  It also can curtail their academic freedom, at least a little, by keeping them from turning student evaluations into a teachable moment about a great text. One method faculty use to increase turnout is to have all the students pull out their smart phones (or tablets and laptops, but at Berry most students don’t bring computers to classrooms–yet another reason why your kids should come here) and fill out the evaluations in class. Well, talk about a comment-suppressing method! Nobody likes to type on those touchy keyboards.

A More Reliable Guide

I never do that. But when I did remind those in my con law class to man up (in the nonsexist sense) and do their evaluative duty, one woman five minutes later thanked me for the reminder and told me she had just filled out the evaluations for all five of her classes.  I’m guessing there were a bunch of fives (the highest score) and no comments, as she is a classy and charitable person.

The truth is that the comments, although far from foolproof, are a much more reliable guide to the quality of instruction. From my view, a really impressive set of evaluations has comments about what was actually learned, complaints (mostly ironic or appreciative) about the amount of work required, some feeling of love, in many cases, for the books read, and a good deal of affirmation of how smart, hard-working, informed, and fair the instructor is.

Comments that are somewhat hostile about the irksome requirements or strange perspectives of the class should also be regarded as positive.  And much better than a vaguely positive vibe from everyone is lots of evidence that some students really loved the class for the right reasons, but not all of them and maybe far from all of them. So there is, in truth, only a loose correlation between genuinely excellent evaluations and really high numbers. One reason is that there’s no denying that some faculty become adept at generating the numbers by prioritizing them over the learning.

The untenured faculty member, especially at a fairly large institution, can’t count on anyone reading the comments with the appropriate discernment and rightly fears being unpopular or even controversial for any reason. So he or she operates with the cynicism that accompanies the observation that virtue is not rewarded.

Virtuous Un-cynical Teachers

That means tenured faculty members typically have more incentive to be good–that is, authentically virtuous and un-cynical–teachers. They have less reason to be concerned about blips in evaluation numbers and often become confident that their reputation as teachers, developed over the years, trumps the quantitative data. It’s true that tenure protects some cynical teachers too, but it does less than the absence of tenure to facilitate excessively consumer-sensitive behavior.

Now there are some who say that if we got rid of tenure, we could break what many experts perceive as the corrupt bargain between students and faculty that leads to both grade inflation and very high scores on the evaluation. I’ll give you high marks for no good reason if you do the same for me. The main priority could be firing instructors who don’t grade with the measurable intention of whipping inflation now. But, to instructively over-generalize, we can see that the main priority of most of our institutions is enrollment and retention, and the main fact, especially among residential colleges, is the almost cutthroat competition for the increasingly scarce resource of the student.

When Princeton, for example, decided to get a little tougher (to improve its reputation) in its grading (getting the average GPA below 3.5!), it quickly decided that that point of distinction was an unacceptable competitive hindrance in the marketplace for the best and the brightest. So at most places most of the time, there’s not nearly enough reason for untenured faculty to risk low or even mediocre evaluations by getting tougher. That’s the type of experiment that might more reasonably be performed after tenure.

Let me conclude by mentioning the most inconvenient truth for those who oppose tenure.  At most of our colleges and universities (most private residential colleges and regional state universities), the teaching load is pretty demanding and salaries aren’t so great. Anyone who dedicates his or her life to teaching in such a place is a sucker–a sucker we should believe in.

It’s said that a downside of tenure is that it keeps faculty from being entrepreneurial by making them feel too secure.  The value of a good teacher in the marketplace goes down over time, and that’s one reason for the (probably somewhat avoidable) salary compression. Everyone really in the know knows that excellent teaching is nearly impossible to measure–or at least that the people doing the measuring don’t know what they’re doing. Not only that, teaching excellence is, in part, contextual–a teacher can flourish one place but not another for a variety of reasons. So when an experienced teacher looks for another job, he or she finds out that all the devoted and effective teaching he or she has done doesn’t count for much.

What does count in the marketplace (far more than it should at the undergraduate level) is publication.  The kind of excellence displayed in publication is easy to see and for many even easy to quantify. So the entrepreneurial professor at a small college has the incentive to get the teaching on the kind of auto-pilot that reliably generates the scores on the evaluation and spend most quality time on publishing. Tenure provides the kind of security (if often not the kind of money) that discourages that kind of behavior.

Contrary to Voegeli’s suggestion, a really good way to have a topflight undergraduate teaching institution is to make sure that most faculty have tenure, so that most faculty are devoted to spending most of their time helping students get what they most need. Tenure certainly discourages a career deformed by the behavior of mechanically generating marginal articles just to produce a more marketable resume, a behavior Voegeli rightly outed as often a trivial pursuit not worthy of support by either the taxpayers or the student’s tuition dollars.

 

I think it’s easy to see that the best teaching is going on at small colleges where most faculty are tenured and almost all are tenure track. Send your kids to one of them! The faculty members at my college are remarkably un-cynical about the secure career the institution offers good teachers, whatever they might think about other administrative initiatives. But nationwide, the number of credit hours generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty shrinks as the number generated by adjuncts and temporary faculty explodes. I hope nobody really believes that it’s good for genuinely higher education that our “instructional workforce” takes on many of the qualities of a proletariat. It’s not even good for cost control, but that’s an issue for another day.

How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

Hungry for love and it’s feeding time, Alice Cooper wrote in his 1991 classic song, “Feed My Frankenstein.” Academia has created its own Frankenstein with its speech codes, groupthink enforcement, and discouraging of dissent. This Frankenstein isn’t hungry for love – it’s hungry for power.  And academics themselves have belatedly discovered that they’re on the menu.

The most recent to find himself not the last up against the wall in this anti-free speech revolution is “Edward Schlosser,” a professor writing under a pseudonym at Vox, for reasons that become apparent almost immediately. Schlosser admits that he lives in fear of students who share his political point of view, and has to change his curriculum continuously to keep from running afoul of their potential for hurt feelings.

The relationship between students and teachers has changed, he says, thanks to the same hypersensitivity that Academia uses to silence dissent and debate. “The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that’s simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective,” Schlosser writes, “giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher’s formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.”

In the past, students complaints focused on actual teaching or bias in the classroom, issues which deal with the teacher’s actions and can at least form the basis of coherent criticism of behavior or teaching methods. Now, Schlosser knows that complaints can have little to with objective reality but with how the student perceives it.

He worries that an accusation will involve a lack of sensitivity to one individual’s “feelings,” or as Schlosser puts it, “some simple act of indelicacy that’s considered tantamount to physical assault … center[ed] solely on how my teaching affected the student’s emotional state.” Even if the instruction delivered is “absolutely appropriate and respectful,” any wounded emotions will “get a teacher in serious trouble” on today’s college campuses.

The only way to avoid the inevitable wounded-snowflake syndrome, Schlosser concludes, is to anodize the curricula so that no possible challenge to student worldviews sneaks into “higher education.” After watching a colleague lose his position over complaints that he had exposed them to Edward Said and Mark Twain, Schlosser began the clean-up project that continues to this day. Instead of challenging his students to learn, Schlosser felt compelled “to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik.” Schlosser said he wasn’t alone in that effort.

Laura Kipnis, a tenured professor at Northwestern University, agrees. She wrote an essay in February criticizing the “sexual paranoia” on college campuses regarding Title IX issues. Based on the essay, which appeared in the Chronicle Review, two students filed harassment charges against Kipnis, saying that her essay had “’a chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct .” Northwestern investigated Kipnis essentially for criticizing Title IX, finally clearing her late last month.

“What’s being lost, along with job security, is the liberty to publish ideas that might go against the grain or to take on risky subjects in the first place,” Kipnis concluded, noting that her tenure made it more difficult for Northwestern to get rid of her. “But even those with tenure fear getting caught up in some horrendous disciplinary process with ad hoc rules and outcomes,” Kipnis noted. “Pretty much everyone now self-censors accordingly.”

What created this problem? Schlosser considers but dismisses the speech-hostile policies on campuses. The issue is “a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice,” he concludes. Combined with intense competition for teaching jobs in higher education, academics now feel intimidated into limiting themselves essentially to telling students what they want to hear, and not just in class but anywhere on campus or even in publications unaffiliated with their institutions at all. Ironically, academics find themselves deprived of any free-speech zones at all.

This has little to do with feelings, as Schlosser and others in academia are belatedly discovering.  The purpose is to impose each individual’s concept of social justice without actually doing any work traditionally associated with the concept. It’s easier to demand the cancellation of “an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it” than it is to work to harmonize different cultures in the same space. It’s about enforcing identity over ideas, or entirely replacing ideas with blizzards of ever-changing boundary lines of victim constituencies.

Schlosser’s conclusion conveniently fails to follow through with the obvious next question. If students have “a stifling conception of social justice” that leans heavily on silencing dissent and policing speech and thought rather than engage on ideas, where did they learn it? The answer, for anyone who has attended either college, or paid attention to the proliferation of speech codes, development of “safe rooms and speech zones,” and the use of “triggers” to accuse people of harassment for what used to be rational debate, is pretty clear.

This is a stalking horse for censorship, not coincidentally of the same kind that college campuses have either encouraged or imposed for more than a generation on their students. The next generation will now experience “higher education” as an echo chamber, one in which teachers ensure that no cognitive dissonance enter the lives of those going into deep debt to experience what can only be considered an intellectual day-care, run by the toddlers. Those students have now become the masters. The academics created this monster, and now it has come for them. And us.

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Towson adjunct professor fired for racial remark in class
articles.baltimoresun.com/…/bal-md.towson03mar03_1_racial-slur-dever…Mar 3, 2010 – A Towson University adjunct professor was fired last week after using a racially insensitive term in his art class. Allen Zaruba, a local artist who …

NYU Professor Resigns Over Tweets Critical of Lara Logan …nymag.com/…/nyu_professor_resigns_over_twe.ht…New York Magazine
Feb 16, 2011 – As his Twitter followers attacked him for his insensitivity, he fired back. “It’s always wrong, obviously, but I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention

Duke professor, attacked for ‘noxious’ racial comments …www.washingtonpost.com/…/duke-professor-attacked…
The Washington Post
May 18, 2015 – During the past week, the Duke politics professor has come under … [Principal criticized for making racial remark at graduation has been fired, NAACP says] … “The more we have emphasized sensitivity in recent years, the …

UCLA Professor Called Racist For What He Did To A Black …
www.thefederalistpapers.org/…/this-ucla-professor-called-racist-for-the-h…
A UCLA professor was called racist and guilty of a “micro-aggression” for correcting students’ grammar…..he was the target of the protestors for what they feel was racial insensitivity. …… used to have three liberal Professors in the department, they fired two and the third one quit.

Insensitive, yes, but cause for firing? — Contrary Blog
blog.contrarymagazine.com/2012/08/insensitive-yes-but-cause-for-firing/
Aug 17, 2012 – A professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, has been suspended from his job teaching humanities on account.

Professor’s Creepy Comments The Least of Duke’s Worries …www.thedailybeast.com/…/professor-s-creepy-comments-…May 17, 2015 – A Duke professor thinks “the Asians” have integrated better than “the blacks. … “I don’t see why that is insensitive or racist,” Hough added. ….. be denied life-saving healthcare by many insurers and fired based on their identity.

Firing Professor McAdams: When a Catholic university …www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3147
Feb 18, 2015 – Firing Professor McAdams: When a Catholic university collides with political … Since then, the mandatory sessions have focused on “sensitivity.

N.J. sociology professor posted racially insensitive cartoons …www.nj.com/…/south_jersey_college_prof_blindsided_by_accus…
Jan 7, 2015 – A South Jersey college professor apologized this week after someone claiming to be a former student sent copies of racially insensitive.

Is Professor’s ‘Hi, Sweetie’ Comment Sexual Harassment …
www.diversityinc.com › Diversity & Inclusion
Jan 20, 2012 – Diversity and inclusion sensitivity caused a university to overreact by firing chin-chucking professor for harassment. A state appeals court ruled.

College professor facing heat for sharing racially-insensitive …
deathbysocialmedia.com/…/college-professor-facing-heat-sharing-raciall…
Jan 9, 2015 – Sociology professor Nancy Reeves says that she shared the images because of their wordplay, not … Tweet gets teen fired before first day of job.

So You Want to Be a Professor?: A Handbook for Graduate …
https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0761918973 P. Aarne Vesilind – 2000 – ‎Business & Economics. In 1900 at Stanford University, Professor Edward Ross was fired from the … had also made some incredibly insensitive racist remarks about Asian immigration.

Bolman fired after criticism of HSU | Mad River Union
madriverunion.com › Featured
Jan 28, 2015 – The firing touched off a series of student protests and … treatment of Bolman “also shows real cultural insensitivity, for many reasons. … In a private email last Oct. 14, long-time Chemistry Professor Robert Zoellner told Zorn, …

For a fired Roosevelt adjunct, the joke isn’t funny anymore …
www.chicagoreader.com/…/firedprof-robert…/Chicago Reader
Dec 8, 2011 – Professor Robert Klein Engler is suing both the school and the … one about the Roosevelt University professor who was fired for telling a joke in class? …. strong arguments that it was racially or at least ethnically insensitive.

The Mangling of American History

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The evolution of the historical profession in the United States in the last fifty years provides much reason for celebration.  It provides even more reason for unhappiness and dread.  Never before has the profession seemed so intellectually vibrant.  An unprecedented amount of scholarship and teaching is being devoted to regions outside of the traditional American concentration on itself and Europe. New subjects of enquiry — gender, race and ethnicity — have developed.  Never have historians been so influenced by the methodology and contributions of other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology.  

At the same time, never has the historical profession been so threatened.  Political correctness has both narrowed and distorted enquiry. Traditional fields demanding intellectual rigor, such as economic and intellectual history, are in decline.  Even worse, education about Western civilization and the Enlightenment, that font of American liberties, and the foundation of modern industrial, scientific and liberal world civilization, has come to be treated with increasing disdain at colleges and universities.  

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Tawdry Sex and the Decline of Yale

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My new book, Sex & God at Yale, covers many of the shabby low points of sex at the university: Live nudity in the classroom, oral sex seminars, masturbation how-tos and other examples of dedicated folly. But it’s important to focus on  the underlying problem I address in the book. Simply put:  Yale, along with other leading universities, has used academic freedom as an excuse for abandoning academic standards.  

I’m not the first to level this charge. In God & Man at Yale. William F. Buckley famously accused his alma mater of hiding behind “the superstitions of academic freedom.” That was more the sixty years ago. World War II was a recent memory. Buckley was upset that Yale employed professors who busied themselves promoting atheism and communism–ideologies which, he suggested, undermined the liberty that enabled Yale’s academic enterprise to carry on in the first place.

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The Hidden Impact Of Political Correctness

It’s easy to think of Universities as a circus for wacky professors; their semi-monthly comparisons of Bush to Hitler or indictments of inherent American racism are hard to miss. Universities’ deviations from traditional education are far more serious than a few zany radicals, though. Something far more significant overshadows this ranting, namely how PC invisibly sanitizes instruction to avoid “offending” certain easy-to-anger students. This is the dog that does not bark – “safe lecturing” to use the STD vocabulary – and seldom recognized since it concerns what is not taught, and as such deprives students of a genuine education.

Let me offer some observations from my 35-year academic career but these undoubtedly apply more generally. Some facts. First, today’s students, especially in lecture courses, display rather desultory academic habits. Many arrive late, leave early, doze off, regularly skip classes, eat, drink or listen to iPods, gossip and otherwise ignore the dispensed pearls of wisdom. Even stellar teachers cast pearls. Dreary test results confirm that lectures are disregarded and assignments go unread. Sad to say, many African-American students who should be expending extra efforts to surmount academic deficiencies are particularly guilty though expressing this plain-to-see reality is verboten.

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