[Indoctrinate U, a documentary by Evan Coyne Maloney on the state of intellectual freedom at American universities, premiered at the Kennedy Center in September 2007 and has screened in multiple locations since. Peter Berkowitz, writing in The Wall Street Journal, called Indoctrinate U a “riveting documentary about the war on free speech and individual rights waged by university faculty and administrators…” John K. Wilson, founder of The Institute for College Freedom, doesn’t think the film’s quite fair. He provided us a critique of Indoctrinate U and invited us to solicit Maloney’s response. Here is Wilson’s review, followed by Maloney’s thoughts. Indoctrinate U is screening at select campuses and theaters in the near future; check the film’s website for more information (and read our original review here.)]
By John K. Wilson
Evan Coyne Maloney’s new movie, Indoctrinate U, is probably the best documentary ever made about higher education. That fact makes the numerous biases, distortions, and omissions of his work all the more disappointing. But these errors aren’t all Maloney’s fault; instead, his documentary reflects the mistakes of right-wing critics who often promote false stories or provide one-sided analysis.
What makes Maloney’s movie so good is the application of Michael Moore’s techniques to the realm of free speech and colleges. Certainly, nobody has ever made such an entertaining documentary about higher education, as Maloney makes effective use of his sarcastic voiceover, fast pacing, and putting himself in front of the camera as he demands answers, in person, from wary administrators who, over and over again, refuse to speak with him.
Maloney even echoes Moore’s autobiographical tilt about Flint, Michigan in Roger and Me with his own story about being the son of activists who protested for campus liberty as part of the Free Speech Movement. Maloney concludes: “Somewhere along the way, the Campus Free Speech Movement got killed by university regulations.” Actually, the Free Speech Movement got started because of university repression, and the fight continues to this day, although many of the battles have been won. Maloney claims, “Academia today isn’t a marketplace at all. It’s a monopoly. But it wasn’t always like this.” All of Maloney’s nostalgia to the contrary (and it’s amusing to see conservatives embrace the campus liberatory movements of the 1960s), liberty on campus is far better protected today than it’s ever been.
Maloney is also guilty of some of Michael Moore’s flaws, such as using selective editing to mock those he disagrees with. He takes Noel Ignatiev’s theories about whiteness and reduces him to a series of two-second edited clips mangled together, trying to make him look foolish. It only makes Maloney look bad, since he seems unwilling to engage intellectually with a theory he doesn’t like and even appears to suggest that thinkers like Ignatiev should be banished from academia since Maloney is annoyed that such ideas are considered “completely legit.”
But the bulk of “Indoctrinate U” involves speaking with conservative critics of academia and some of the victims of repression on campus. The movie begins with a very odd example: David Clemens at Monterey Peninsula College complains about a form that asked professors to include a description of how course topics are treated to develop a knowledge and understanding of race, class and gender issues in a questionnaire about new classes submitted for approval. Clemens calls this an “affront to any notion of academic freedom.” Actually, it’s only an affront to the rather odd notion that academic freedom protects professors from questionnaires. Yes, it is silly to ask about diversity issues in a new math class. But silly questions on pointless forms aren’t exactly the height of repression on campuses. Approval for Clemens’ cinema class on future technology was delayed for a few weeks because he refused to fill out the question, but he was allowed to teach the class (along with another one bizarrely titled “Literature By and About Men”) without any censorship.
After this strange start, Maloney quickly finds solid ground with a series of disturbing examples of suppression of free speech on college campuses. There are many quite real cases of censorship profiled in Maloney’s film, such as Steve Hinkle, a student at Cal Poly who went through Orwellian trials for hanging flyers for a conservative speaker in the multicultural center, and eventually won a court ruling against the college. Maloney rightly criticizes obnoxious students at the University of Michigan during a speech by affirmative action critic Ward Connerly, pointing out that “throughout his speech, he was repeatedly shouted down.” Yet there is not one word about the movie about the numerous cases of left-wing speakers who have been shouted down, disinvited, or even banned from various campuses.
Maloney devotes a great deal of screen time to the case of Lydia Brodeur, who was a student at Michigan State harshly criticized in class by a professor because she wrote a letter to campus newspaper opposing affirmative action. But does Maloney propose to punish professors who dare to criticize the views of students? Does Maloney agree with Brodeur’s mother who says, “It wasn’t right in any way for me to pay for his political podium”?
In the movie, David French, formerly head of FIRE, cites a case at Indian River Community College where administrators refused to approve the showing of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ but failed to ban a theatrical production called “F**king for Jesus.” This story is meant to show a double standard against conservatives. In reality, it reflects the conservative censorship at many campuses which try to protect students from adult content by banning R-rated movies. Maloney doesn’t mention that the administration at first apologized by saying they would have banned the play if they had known of the content, before they finally agreed to protect free speech for everyone.
Maloney points out the case of Yale Free Press, one of many conservative newspapers that deals with leftist idiots who try to throw out copies of their publication. Yet Maloney never mentions that there are also cases of liberal newspapers facing censorship by theft without help from the administration. I’ve personally experienced a student who asked to look at the progressive newspaper I was holding, threw the newspapers in the trash, and announced that he and his friends had the right to throw out our newspapers anytime they wanted, after which he spelled his name for me. The administration did nothing about it. We need to defend all newspapers against censorship, but it’s simply dishonest to suggest that only conservative ideas face repression.
Maloney shows Brooklyn College professor K C Johnson, who says, “I was attacked for teaching fields that are perceived as conservative” such as diplomacy and intellectual history. But that’s far from the whole story. Johnson was wrongly denied tenure (before being reinstated by the trustees), but the cause was “collegiality,” not ideology. The key factor, I believe, was that he publicly exposed the sexism of his chair who wrote about wanting to hire “some women we can live with, who are not whiners from the word go or who need therapy as much as they need a job.”
Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) tells Maloney about a survey they did of college students: “A significant percentage of students complained that politics was being introduced into their classroom… 49% of the students said that politics was introduced in class even when it had nothing to do with the subject.” But ACTA never asked students about their personal experiences; instead, students were asked to speculate on whether “some classes” on their campus had political views presented. Aside from Anne Neal’s inability to understand survey research, there’s a bigger issue here: There’s nothing necessarily wrong with introducing politics in class. Does Maloney support the idea of thought police monitoring classes to ban any views deemed “political” from being expressed?
The documentary features a Kuwaiti student at Foothill College, Ahmad al-Qloushi, who claimed that because he wrote “a pro-American essay,” he was called into his professor’s office, berated for defending America, and told to seek psychological counseling. But Maloney doesn’t mention that the professor has completely denied this rather implausible charge, and gives a much more believable story: the student failed to turn in the mid-term on time, failed to address the assigned question in his final exam essay, and then discussed his worries as an excuse, upon which the professor reports recommending that he get some counseling. Even conservatives such as James Joyner who read the “pro-American essay” said that it was “an incredibly poorly written, error-ridden, pabulum-filled essay that essentially ignores the question put forth by the instructor.”
Maloney doesn’t mention the case of Michael Wiesner, a liberal student at Foothill College who believes that a conservative professor gave him a bad grade for his views and then retaliated against him further by lowering his grade from a D to an F because Wiesner filed a complaint about the grade. The professor wrote to Wiesner sarcastically, “Thank you also for bringing this to the attention of the Dean.” It’s the height of deceptive filmmaking when an implausible story of left-wing political bias at a college is pushed without contrary views while a highly plausible story of right-wing bias at the same college is ignored.
The story of al-Qloushi is even more troubling, because Maloney actually complains that the college failed to censor a flyer criticizing him: “Clearly, Foothill College wasn’t going to do anything about these flyers.” Maloney is trying to draw a contrast with cases such as DePaul University, where the College Republicans were wrongly banned from posting flyers against Ward Churchill. But he doesn’t mention all of the cases like Hampton University, where the administration actually punished students for handing out anti-war flyers on campus. Does Maloney want censorship at Foothill College? One of the lines spoken by Maloney in this documentary needs to be directed back at him and the conservative movement: “Maybe they only wanted freedom for their own speech.”
The hypocrisy and one-sided nature of Indoctrinate U is most evident in this mention of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill: “While Ward Churchill is raking it in on the collegiate speaking circuit, not everyone who visits campus finds it nearly as welcoming.” It’s rather odd for Maloney to cite Churchill, since he’s suffered far more punishment than any of the conservatives cited in the movie. Churchill was targeted for firing by leading politicians, had his tenure and job revoked, and was banned from speaking at Hamilton College, Wheaton College in Massachusetts, the University of Oregon, and Eastern Washington University. The Wisconsin legislature even ordered the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater not to allow Churchill to speak. Is this Maloney’s idea of “welcoming”?
Maloney claims, “With the help of their professors, student protests are driving military recruiters off campus and are shutting down training programs like ROTC.” Maloney is right to criticize three cases of vandalism against ROTC buildings and a military recruiter’s car. And he’s right to ask, “don’t the rest of the students have the right to seek employment wherever they choose?” Yes, but don’t students have a right to engage in protest against military recruiters? That’s been in question at George Mason University, Holyoke Community College, City College of New York, where students have been arrested for peaceful protest against military recruiters. In one case, Maloney gets the story wrong: Maloney reports that at San Francisco State, there was “a student mob” at a job fair and “the entire job fair was shut down,” complaining that “the administration did not intervene.” In reality, students protested peacefully but loudly at the job fair, as was their right, and the administration banned the protest, arresting 10 students without warning and then banning them from campus without a hearing.
Maloney cites real cases at Lehigh University, Arizona State, and Central Michigan University where administrators after 9-11 wrongly objected to the display of the American flag out of some bizarre fear of offending foreign students. But he doesn’t mention that in every case, the decision was quickly reversed. Nor does he mention that antiwar activists got in trouble for hanging their own American flags upside-down as a sign of distress. At Wheaton College in Massachusetts, students received death threats, a brick through their window, and a small fire on their lawn. At Yale University, conservative students tried to break into the dorm room of a student with an upside-down flag. At Grinnell College, two students were threatened with arrest for the upside-down flag in their dormitory window. Missouri legislators even cut $500,000 from the University of Missouri budget in retaliation for a campus-based TV station where the news director told newscasters not to wear any patriotic ribbons or other symbols during newscasts. Once again, Maloney only tells part of the story on campus.
Maloney points out, “No university administrators were harmed in the making of this film.” That’s not quite true: Maloney has harmed their credibility by exposing the bad decision-making and repressive tendencies that emerge from unchecked power. In this, his movie does a valuable service, warning us of the danger of unaccountable administrators who suppress free expression on campus. But when he tries to present these highly-paid managers as the forces of left-wing radicals, Maloney misses the story completely by simply ignoring all of the evidence contrary to his position.
With Indoctrinate U, Maloney has produced an entertaining, thoughtful, and most of all accurate depiction of the conservative critique of academia. And that’s what should be so alarming to us, for two reasons. First, the refusal of conservatives to acknowledge the repression of liberal views on campus is worrisome, all the more so because so many on the right are leading the campaign to expand campus censorship. It’s not clear if Maloney doesn’t care about these efforts to banish political speech, or if he actually endorses them.
But we should be equally concerned about the failure of so many liberal academics to acknowledge the real suppression of conservative (and other) ideas that does occur on college campuses. Too many opponents of the right-wing attacks on academic freedom seem to think that the best way to defend campuses is to deny (or avoid talking about) repression on campus. And some on the far left are as bad as their right-wing counterparts in urging censorship for ideas they don’t like.
Maloney is right when he concludes the movie with a call for “a movement to support intellectual diversity and genuine tolerance.” The question is, does Maloney mean a movement supporting intellectual freedom for all, or does he embrace certain conservatives who want to silence left-wing views they disagree with? The failure of “Indoctrinate U” to answer this fundamental query is perhaps its greatest flaw.
For all its flaws, Indoctrinate U deserves a wide showing on college campuses. Every college should show this movie to its administrators, faculty, and students, and use it as the start (but not the end) of a conversation about the state of freedom on campus.
John K. Wilson is the founder of the Institute for College Freedom (collegefreedom.org) and the author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies (Paradigm Publishers, 2008).
By Evan Coyne Maloney
I appreciate the thorough and thoughtful analysis of my film Indoctrinate U by John K. Wilson. It is good to be having this discussion about the state of academia, and one of my hopes in making this film was that it would bring this debate to a much wider audience. Academic insiders are already aware of these issues, but the public at large is not.
Mr. Wilson has some strong critiques of my work, and I must say that given his perspective as someone who’s been involved in academic battles himself, I can understand some of his complaints. But where I have a fundamental disagreement is that he makes some rather broad assumptions about why I covered certain things and not others.
In effect, Wilson seems to be criticizing me for not making the film he would like see about academia. What’s worse, without understanding my rationale for choosing the footage I did, he accuses me of making a film with “numerous biases, distortions and omissions.”
If I’m being charged with having a bias, then I plead guilty. Like anyone else, I have my own perspective that colors the way in which I see the world. And when I convey my view of the world (or anything in it) to other people, my communication will by definition be infused with my own biases. There is simply no way around this; any message carries with it something personal, something reflective of its originator.
But I believe being up front and honest with people about my personal perspective is preferable to the hiding behind the cloak of claimed objectivity. In the name of objectivity, media outlets require reporters to be evasive, telling them to refrain from making political contributions or revealing too much about their own views. Of course, acting this way does not mean that a reporter has no opinions; it just means that those opinions are hidden from the public, making it harder to consume a journalist’s work with full awareness of the worldview that influenced the creation of that work.
So, in the interest of full disclosure, it is true that I consider myself a libertarian-style conservative. That is my personal bias.
But Wilson’s implication that I deliberately distorted facts in order to deceive viewers is not only completely without merit, it’s not even supported by Wilson’s own claims.
First, he states that “liberty on campus is far better protected today than it’s ever been.” This is a rather astonishing statement that Wilson makes without citing any evidence at all. If this assertion reflects Mr. Wilson’s own personal view, then it explains his overall take on my film.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends students and professors against infringements on their free speech and free thought rights, receives hundreds upon hundreds of reports each year in which those rights have been trampled. And an overwhelming percentage of schools surveyed by FIRE have “speech codes” on the books that can be – and often are – used to punish rather tame speech.
To whatever extent liberty on campus is protected at all, it is usually by people who refuse to be pushed around and through the vigilant action of external groups like FIRE. Go to FIRE’s website and you’ll see new cases cropping up regularly.
Wilson also says, “[Maloney] takes Noel Ignatiev’s theories about whiteness and reduces him to a series of two-second edited clips mangled together, trying to make him look foolish. It only makes Maloney look bad, since he seems unwilling to engage intellectually with a theory he doesn’t like and even appears to suggest that thinkers like Ignatiev should be banished from academia since Maloney is annoyed that such ideas are considered ‘completely legit.”
In no way did I suggest that Professor Ignatiev should be banished from academia. Mr. Wilson should know better than to charge something he knows he can’t back up. In fact, when Professor Ward Churchill came under fire for comments that I personally found quite reprehensible, I publicly argued in favor of his free speech rights, saying that his statements should not cause him to lose tenure. A quick web search would have revealed that fact, but Wilson seems to prefer assuming he knows how I think rather than actually finding out.
It is true that Churchill ultimately lost his job, but his firing was due to the impressive volume of academic fraud he committed. I recognize that this fraud may never have been uncovered if it weren’t for the attention generated by his controversial comments. But that doesn’t prove Churchill was fired for his statements, it just proves that if you’re engaging in wholesale fraud, it would be wise not to call too much attention to yourself.
Wilson’s assumptions about why Professor Ignatiev’s footage was included in the film are also wrong. Ignatiev himself notes that, despite a career of making controversial statements like “my concern is doing away with whiteness,” he “can’t think of any examples where [his statements have] provoked political censorship.”
Well, contrast that with the other people in the film who engaged in much more mild speech, and you’ll understand why Ignatiev’s statements were included: not to criticize his views, but to illustrate the double-standard in academia.
Mr. Wilson’s commentary is rife with similar misunderstandings. The film begins with Professor David Clemens, who describes a (since rescinded) requirement that every course at his school must include discussions of race, class and gender.
Clemens explains that this applied to classes in all subjects – math, physics and even ornamental horticulture – and criticizes the requirement as “an affront to any notion of academic freedom.” The affront is obvious: in effect, the school was saying, “you’re free to teach whatever and however you want, as long as you somehow relate it to race, class and gender politics.” Even classes about plants!
Because of this requirement, professors proposing new classes had to fill out forms indicating how such topics would be brought up in class. This is where Wilson completely misses the point. Instead of addressing the fact that professors were required to inject into their courses political topics that had absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter, Wilson casts it as merely an issue of paperwork, stating, “Actually, it’s only an affront to the rather odd notion that academic freedom protects professors from questionnaires.”
The paperwork wasn’t the issue, the course requirements were. But Wilson’s convenient obtuseness allows him to ignore that point altogether.
Similarly, Wilson misconstrues comments by Professor K C Johnson in which the professor refers to a “purge” in his department at Brooklyn College. Wilson is mistaken in thinking that Professor Johnson’s tenure battle can be reduced to the one issue he cites, which wasn’t the issue I was raising in the first place.
A number of things happened in Professor Johnson’s department over the years, one of which was an attempt to purge students from his classes.
Professor Johnson’s history classes were popular with students, but they were more traditionally-focused than those of his colleagues. Johnson, you see, is another one of those radicals who believes that there are other ways of looking at the world than through the ever- present lens of race, class and gender.
After Johnson’s differences with his colleagues became problematic, people in his department figured out a way to retaliate against Johnson using his students as pawns. If enough students could be removed from Johnson’s classes, his classes could be shut down.
Prerequisite requirements that hadn’t been enforced for years were suddenly being enforced against Professor Johnson’s students – and only Professor Johnson’s students – forcing those students to drop his class and lose the necessary credit for the semester. This political battle among professors ended up putting students in jeopardy of not graduating.
Dan Weininger, one of Professor Johnson’s former students who appears in Indoctrinate U, described this purge in great detail during our interview, but it didn’t make the final cut of the film. Nonetheless, when you look at all the facets of Professor Johnson’s battles at Brooklyn College, you see that the “uncollegiality” charge was just a legal fig-leaf.
Thanks to advice from an attorney within the college, Professor Johnson’s antagonists soon realized that the cleanest way to get rid of him would be to accuse him of uncollegiality, a charge so nebulous that it’s impossible to defend against. Ultimately, it worked, and Professor Johnson was denied tenure.
But the evidence showed that it was Professor Johnson’s critics who acted uncollegially, something the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York clearly recognized. As the controlling entity of Brooklyn College, the Trustees saw the injustice done to Professor Johnson, and took the unusual step of reversing his denial of tenure, an action the Trustees hadn’t taken in decades.
Wilson also talks about the case of Ahmad al-Qoloushi and argues that the paper he submitted to his professor was deficient. That may be; the film made no claims about the quality of his work. But even if he handed in the most poorly-written paper in the history of mankind, it should not result in the professor doing what al-Qoloushi alleges. There are proper academic remedies for poor work, and ordering a student to see a school psychologist under the threat of losing his visa and being thrown out of the country is not one of them.
Later in his commentary, Wilson characterizes protesters at San Francisco State as behaving “peacefully” in an incident shown in the film. Yet, a number of times in this scene, students can be seen throwing objects at recruiters for the Army Corps of Engineers. If this footage looks “peaceful” to Mr. Wilson, then I wonder what his idea of a riot is.
Also, while other protests at SFSU may have led to arrests – San Francisco State is one of the more radical campuses in the country – nobody was arrested during the protest shown in the film. Although, given what is captured on camera, I think a few arrests would have been entirely justified.
Wilson spends the rest of his piece citing anecdotes showing that left- of-center folks sometimes have their rights suppressed in academia. This is undoubtedly true, and it is a point that is explicitly stated in the film.
Wilson claims evidence of a student who was apparently graded poorly because of his viewpoints. We stayed away from delving into grade dispute cases because assigning grades is a subjective process and proving malfeasance on the part of the professor is difficult.
If Wilson’s point with these anecdotes is that liberal students and professors are sometimes mistreated in academia, then he’s right. It happens, and when it does, it isn’t fair, and I don’t like it. But if that’s Wilson’s point, then he’s rebutting an argument I never made.
Ultimately, these counter-anecdotes do nothing to refute my actual argument, which is that there’s an overwhelming double-standard regarding speech on campus, and most often (but not always) right-of- center thinkers are the ones who have their rights curtailed.
The problem with Wilson’s argument is that its intent seems to be to convince the reader that there is no ideological slant in academia. You’d have to ignore an awful lot of evidence–only a tiny subset of which I present in the film – to reach that conclusion. And to ignore the ideological slant that causes the selective application of justice on campus would be to distort the truth in the very way that Wilson accuses me of doing. Pretending that campuses reflect the 50/50 red/blue split of the rest of the country, which is what Wilson seems to want me to do, would be the biggest distortion of all.
Near the end of his piece, Wilson asks, “does Maloney [support] intellectual freedom for all, or does he embrace certain conservatives who want to silence left-wing views they disagree with?” Why Mr. Wilson believes I only favor free speech for folks I agree with is beyond me. The film is quite clear. In fact, Wilson obviously recognizes my support for free speech in the abstract: the film cites (the non-violent aspects of) the 1960s campus free speech movement in a positive light, but Wilson minimizes this, saying “it’s amusing to see conservatives embrace the campus liberatory movements of the 1960s.”
So I find it odd that Wilson ends his piece wondering if I’m actually “supporting intellectual freedom for all” when in his third paragraph, he acknowledges – but mocks as “amusing” – an indication of my support for that very thing. I didn’t think it was at all ambiguous, but perhaps I can be more clear: suppression of ideas and attacks against free thought are tyrannical, and it is something I would oppose regardless of whether the ideas are ones I believe myself. And if campuses were dominated by folks who only agreed with me, the problems in academia would probably be about the same, just with a different set of targets. The real enemy is groupthink, and the tendency to succumb to groupthink is a human failing that’s not limited to any particular point on the political spectrum.
Which is exactly why free speech in the abstract is so important. Even if your favored group is in power now, you should remember that change is the only constant through human history. Every monopoly eventually crumbles, and some day, people who disagree with you will end up with power. So, if only out of pure self-interest, do everything you can to foster and preserve respect for free speech. Because if you sanction an environment in which speech and thought can be punished, you empower censors who may some day use that power against you.
Recently, I worked with FIRE and fellow documentarian Andrew Marcus to produce a video covering the case of Hayden Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University who was expelled for protesting the environmental impact of a planned parking garage on campus. (The video is available here. Also, Hayden’s expulsion has since been overturned, thanks in no small part to FIRE and their work on his behalf.)
Hayden and I come from very different places on the ideological spectrum, but I respect him for not backing down when his rights were violated. I wanted to highlight his fight so that it may inspire others, and I was happy to lend a hand in covering his case precisely because the principle of free speech is so important.
Despite the shaky arguments against my film, I enjoyed reading Wilson’s commentary. And I certainly can’t complain too loudly about someone who says Indoctrinate U “is probably the best documentary ever made about higher education,” that it “deserves a wide showing on college campuses,” or that “[e]very college should show this movie to its administrators, faculty, and students.” I completely agree!
If anything, I’m just disappointed that he so badly misread my message. And as the filmmaker, part of the blame for that must rest with me.
Evan Coyne Maloney is an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in New York City. “Indoctrinate U”, his first feature-length film, premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC last September. The film was recently released to the public and is available online at indoctrinate-u.com. Maloney is a 1994 graduate of Bucknell University where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration.