Campus Marginalization – A Permanent Threat

Every few weeks or so a new marginalized group is discovered on campus, requiring new bursts of emotional inclusion and sometimes a demand for special housing and curriculum change as well. At Cornell the latest people revealed to be suffering discomfort are transfer students. “Study Finds Transfers Feel Marginalized on Campus,” said the headline in the Cornell Sun. As is often the case in marginalization reports, evidence is scant. Cornell, for some reason, once grouped all transfers together in one house, but now this form of transfer togetherness is gone and the constituency is scattered. A survey of transfer students who never lived in the special housing shows that 63.3 percent feel positive or somewhat positive about their first year at Cornell and 27.9 percent feel negative or somewhat negative. This is probably close to the positive-negative experiences of most freshmen on most campuses. Even so, many students at Cornell think there is a serious issue here, with snobbish and privileged non-transfers looking down on transfers as second-class citizens. Surely, they think, it is time for subtle, institutionalized transfer bias to be addressed.
Atheists are also an emerging marginalized group on campus. An article last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Kathleen Goodman and John Mueller, depicted campus atheists as cringing and fearful, reluctant to talk about their non-belief and in great need of help from college administrations. In fact, atheism today is a militant and confident movement, producing a series of best-selling books and creating many argumentative Web sites including Secular Left and Secular Right. But marginalization status on campus requires a more defensive and beleaguered profile. Goodman and Mueller make the conventional recommendations for therapeutic intervention in marginalization cases. They call for administrations to create a welcoming environment, urge colleges to include atheism in student programming, ensure that atheists are able to explore their inner development, and, of course, “create safe spaces that are ‘atheists only’ for students.” This must mean some sort of atheist student center or housing where nonbelievers can relax in safety with their own kind, without having to mix with all those bullying Christians, Muslims and Jews. Cornell set up a transfer house, so why not an atheist house, or even a transferring-atheists house? But Secular Discrimination Report an atheist Web site, sees dark days ahead: “Unfortunately, it is likely that any institutionalized attempts to make atheists feel the least bit welcome on campus will be fought tooth and nail by those with an irrational hatred and fear of those who do not share their beliefs, or any beliefs.” This is a standard view on campus these days– separatist, victim-oriented and sure that religious and mainstream Americans are bigots at heart. It’s time for students and administrators alike to acknowledge that not all groups needs to be coddled and protected in order to thrive. Quivering sensitivity may play well in campus politics, but it surely infantilizes many and ill prepares them for the real world.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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