Colleges Need A Reality Check On Cancel Culture

Cancel culture is seemingly rampant and omnipresent in our nation’s colleges and universities. These days, examples surface so often that they don’t even make the news as they once did at places like Yale, Sarah Lawrence, and Middlebury. Nonetheless, students of all ideological backgrounds report that they regularly self-censor and limit what they say due to a fear of reputational or scholastic damage, and many faculty—including on the left but predominately on the right—hide their views and change their behaviors due to very real concerns about hiring, promotion, grants, publications, and professional standing. And a recent blow-up at Smith College reveals what can happen to an administrator who questions the extreme-progressive monoculture of higher ed’s administrative apparatus.

Despite this less-than-ideal picture of our institutions of higher education—supposedly bastions of viewpoint diversity, healthy disagreement, debate, and discourse—the mob-like cancel culture on campus is not as widely appreciated among those who live off campus in the real world. While cancel culture is real and dangerous, despite regular press reports of this woke tactic, the tolerance among the American polity may be overstated.

According to a new survey from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and eighteen92 looking at 800 residents of Illinois, a diverse state resembling much of the nation demographically, economically, and geo-spatially, the poisonous cancel culture on our campuses is not admired.

For instance, when asked if one supports efforts to prevent speakers from expressing opinions that some members of the campus find offensive, only 20% of Illinoisans are in favor, while the overwhelming majority of 59% oppose trying to limit speakers and their ideas. Breaking this down further, younger Americans are not much more likely to believe in cancel culture compared to older generations. Just 20% of those between the ages of 18 and 30 support limiting expression, compared to 19% of those 65 and older. Nor do education level or race affect the results.

Where there is a difference is ideological lean. A slim majority (50%) of liberals oppose efforts to silence speech, compared to a notably majority of moderates (63%) and conservatives (73%).Put differently, about a quarter of liberals (28%) support efforts to shut down speech—the number drops to just 17% of moderates and 14% of conservatives. So, while there are notable differences by ideology, there are still few who actually believe speakers should be silenced. This is good news.

Relatedly, it seems that hardly a month goes by without a college or university launching a commission or task force of some kind to study its ethically mixed past and reconsider various names and legacies present on campus. While contextualizing the past is absolutely essential, and there are some figures that have no place of regard on our buildings and in the quasi-public square of many collegiate settings, the fact is that, unlike students and college communities, only 39% of Illinois residents support efforts to rename buildings on college campuses if they are named after historical figures who held opinions considered racist by today’s standard. 45% oppose these impulses and another 16% are unsure at the moment. This is not a mandate whatsoever.

There are some cases where real variance of opinion on building renaming emerges—one example is race. While a majority of whites oppose such actions (52%), a thin majority of blacks (55%) and Hispanics (53%) support these efforts, and numerous examples—like that at the University of Richmond—make the rounds regularly. Moreover, ideological differences on this question are fairly extreme. 68% of liberal identifiers support these moves to change building names, but that figure plummets to 37% for moderates and drops even lower to 14% for conservative identifiers. These are huge differences, but it is also important to note that liberals do not make up most people in Illinois. In fact, about a third of the respondents (35%) describe their political views as moderate, with about a quarter (28%) describing themselves as liberal, another quarter (25%) as conservative, and nearly 12 percent unsure. This suggests that the liberal view is far more extreme and out of step with where most residents in the Land of Lincoln see the issue of name changes.

Finally, in recent months, woke impulses have moved beyond college campuses into many other facets of American society. Progressive mobs have attacked free speech and the historical legacy of particular individuals whose names adorn K-12 school buildings, such as the recent mess in San Francisco, when its school board sought to change the names of 44 schools with alleged ties to racism, sexism, or slavery, including Lincoln, Washington, and Senator Diane Feinstein.

There was a strong outcry by even liberal outlets and pushback by the mayor, London Breed, such that the re-naming plan was scrapped. This outcry reflects the reality of public opinion on the powerful, illiberal currents on campuses toward silencing speech and cancel culture; colleges and universities tolerate cancel culture, but real Illinois citizens and Americans, by extension, reject these totalitarian impulses. Our colleges and universities should be the sacred places of debate, discourse, and speech and the very sites where we wrestle with history, context, and the legacy of the past. Cancel culture is a distortion of the mission of higher education, and the new data here make it clear that most Americans simply do not accept these cancellation impulses that are too prominent on our nation’s campuses.


Image: Dori, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States license, cropped.

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

2 thoughts on “Colleges Need A Reality Check On Cancel Culture

  1. What is encouraging though are the efforts by various state legislatures to use the power of their purses to restore a measure of sanity to their state universities.

    Tennessee is requiring its public institutions to end ties with the Confucius Institute, Florida is banning Critical Race Theory, and Idaho has not only cut the budget in response to foolishness, but also (reportedly) forced the mid-semester suspension of a mandatory diversity course at Boise State.

    The latter is reportedly because the legislature got ahold of a disturbing video from said mandatory diversity course — and that’s the advantage of modern technology. If enough sane legislators get actual documentation of what is actually being taught, they either will act because they want to or because an outraged population forces them to.

    That’s the lesson of “fistgate” in Massachusetts — even in Prussian-Blue Massachusetts, when a tape recording describing what was actually being taught in Massachusetts K-12 schools came out, it not only made national news but forced the Commonwealth to backpedal, at least a little. See: https://www.massresistance.org/docs/issues/fistgate/index.html

    And when parents find out about this craziness, they stop sending their kids. Evergreen State’s enrollment has dropped from 4,089 to 2,291 and Miszzou suffered a 35% decline in just the first two years after it’s days of infamy. See: https://thefederalist.com/2017/07/12/student-riots-slashed-mizzou-enrollment-35-percent-two-years/

    If there is hope for higher education, it’s going to come from legislators and parents saying “we ain’t gonna take it anymore.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xmckWVPRaI Yes, that’s the ROTC instructor from the movie _Animal House_ — and now it *us* “fighting the powers that be”….

  2. As to Smith College, they were doing the same sort of thing way back in the early ’90s when Jodi Shaw was a student there, although she likely didn’t know about it. And I’m being a bit vague here because (a) it isn’t my place to give the specific details and (b) it *was* 30 years ago…

    Well, t seems that Smith College had a policy that every White heterosexual student was *required* to have a roommate who was either a person of color or a lesbian. Now this particular student didn’t care that her roommate was a lesbian but she very much did object to the fact that she was borrowing & wearing her clothes without even asking permission — which is something that even a fair-minded lesbian can understanding a woman objecting to. And there were other issues, I forget what.

    It was a roommate conflict, and a normal person would have dealt with it as such, usually by permitting one of the students to move to another room.

    But not Smith — they accused her of homophobia and at one point, weren’t going to permit her to graduate. When her father tried to advocate on her behalf, Smith attempted to get him fired. (Like I said, what they did to Ms. Shaw is nothing new.)

    In the end, the good guys won — she was permitted to graduate and her father kept his job — but I don’t think it would turn out that way today. And it wouldn’t have then had not some decent people done the things they did, people who are no longer with us.

    And as outrageous as what happened to Jodi Shaw was, sadly, it’s nothing new for Smith College — or, sadly, far too many other once-great institutions.

    I often wonder if higher education is even worth trying to salvage…

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