[this also appeared in the Washington Examiner]
Last week’s withdrawal of a speaking invitation to Lawrence Summers by the University of California’s Board of Regents placed the spotlight on a central member of the radical campus constituency – the administrator. Recent spats over radical professors have obscured this corner of the university – where the most solidly-entrenched threats to academic rights and the free expression of ideas can be found. In his new documentary, Indoctrinate U, Evan Coyne Maloney, sheds incisive light on university administrators. Maloney’s worthy film offers a brisk tour of the political afflictions of the modern academy, displaying repressive speech codes, expectations of minority behavior, and political imbalances and intolerance. As Indoctrinate U makes clear, the wild-eyed radical professor might be contained within their classroom; it’s the nondescript university bureaucrats that race to enforce their friendly dictums that pose the far-reaching threat to all students.
Widespread ideas of diversity have given rise to women’s centers, minority centers, and an assortment of items designed to advance particular, progressive causes. Most of these seem fuzzily nice, yet those questioning their utility are typically subject to swift punishment. Those who vocally disagree with these projects, making light of sacred doctrines of affirmative action, political correctness, or feminist politicking require a harsh lesson in civility, according to prevailing mores of college administrations. Indoctrinate U documents many such cases; a student at California Polytechnic was threatened with expulsion for circulating a poster for a black conservative’s lecture which read “It’s ok to leave the plantation.” This was labeled “harassment.” After months of pressure and legal threats, the university dropped its case. It never had much of one to begin with, but colleges never lose enthusiasm for quashing “objectionable” speech.
Indoctrinate U makes very clear how inept most university disciplinary efforts are – all tend to be ham-fisted and blatantly unconstitutional at once. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which provides legal aid to many of those students under threat, has an astonishingly high success rate. Universities never seem deterred though, racing to suppress speech anew every few months. The truths of campus censorship continue to ring true – in May the Tufts conservative paper The Primary Source, was censured and forced to cease the use of unsigned editorials for running an Affirmative Action parody in Christmas Carol form. What did the university call it? Why “harassment” of course.
University administrations eager to leap upon student speech might have attracted greater attention, you’d think. Well, perhaps if they were suppressing all kinds of student speech; but in fact, they are enforcing an orthodoxy. The strict attention and draconian punishments dealt to “unacceptable” thinkers, are paralleled elegantly by the cursory punishments, if not direct encouragement given to left-minded students. Minority groups, women’s centers, and radical professors operate on the side of the (multicultural) angels. There is a blind eye cast upon liberal disruptions – you won’t find students disciplined for shouting down Ward Connerly or storming Army recruitment booths. As we can see in the “punishment” of those who stopped the Columbia Minuteman speech, there’s no lasting penalty for those with the “right” ideas.
However much Ward Churchill and his ilk might have hoped for the uniform discouragement of some ideas and encouragement of others, they never held the means of enforcement. It’s college administrators who have given teeth to all of this – rigidly prosecuting any offenses to progressive norms and pieties, and overlooking the actions of preferred groups. Radical professors would prove a more tolerable force if administrators weren’t racing to implement their orthodoxies, and instead striving to ensure free debate and fairness. While victories of the past year against over-politicized professors are encouraging, they should not obscure the most pressing need for reform – that of college administrations themselves. As Indoctrinate U eloquently demonstrates, what students and professors most urgently require is the assurance of a fair playing field – and only even-handed administrations can provide one.