In a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, interfaith leader Eboo Patel recounted his experience at a 2019 “Difference in Dialogue” program at Sarah Lawrence College, where I teach and where he was a panelist for an event entitled “Diversity is Not Just the Differences You Like.” At the time of the event, a student group called the Diaspora Coalition was in the midst of a campus protest, putting issues of identity politics and equity front and center. Sadly, the event itself was disrupted by a group of “Sixty students [who] stood up as a collective, raised their fists in the air, and declared that they were taking over the space. One by one, they began reading statements of protest from their smartphones. Each statement followed the same formula.”
Patel spoke with some students after the disrupted event and chronicled something that is far too common among leftists: a tendency to demand ideological purity, which essentially forces conformity and self-censorship. One student protestor told Patel that the Diaspora Coalition did not fully represent her in both substance and style and that in her attempts to support minority identities, she had taken part in “things that violate [her] own identity, including rudeness to teachers and other educational leaders.” When Patel asked why students supported the Diaspora Coalition’s manifesto even if they did not feel correctly represented, the student said that there “was a strong culture of talking about minority identities on campus…but only in ways that emphasized one’s marginalization. And there was a palpable fear of breaking the mold.” Moreover, if they challenged or questioned the approach, students “risked being ‘Sarah Lawrenced’ — a particular form of cancellation on the college campus.”
The fear of cancellation that Patel chronicled is not unique to Sarah Lawrence. Numerous reports have found that students are afraid to challenge their peers due to reputational consequences. This incident underscores the fact that it’s not just conservative students who feel compelled to keep quiet; leftists also feel bullied and threatened into silence. Indeed, a recent study found that students of all persuasions censor themselves out of concern not just for their reputation, but their grades as well. It is time for the nation to recognize the depths of repression that have emerged across the ideological spectrum and the fact that everyone now worries about cancellation and bullying.
Consider, for instance, the 2021 FIRE survey which collected over 37,000 undergraduate opinions from students enrolled full-time in four-year degree programs at 159 American colleges and universities. The results on speech and expression are sobering. When asked about how comfortable they would be expressing their views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion, almost half (48 percent of all undergraduates) reported that they would be either somewhat or very uncomfortable doing so. This is a frightening percentage of the overall student body. Among conservative students, the figure rises to about six in ten (61 percent) who state they are uncomfortable expressing their views in a classroom discussion. Notably, while conservative students have long felt discomfort, over half (54 percent) of students today who say they are moderate or have not thought much about their political leanings are also not comfortable sharing their views in class. And among students who identify as liberal, the figure is a lower, but still very troubling, 42 percent.
Self-censorship is also common outside the classroom, in common campus spaces such as a quad, dining hall, or lounge. While the numbers in these places are marginally better, they are still deeply concerning: 39 percent of all students report that they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable sharing their views on a controversial political topic with other students and peers. The numbers are worse for conservative students (52 percent) but still high for moderate students (47 percent). About a third (32 percent) of liberal students report being uncomfortable expressing their ideas in social settings outside the classroom. While this figure is appreciably lower than their conservative counterparts, the fact that over three in ten liberal students do not feel that they can openly share their views should send chills down the spine of anyone who works in or cares about higher education.
Patel is correct in noting that the entire protest arc and list of demands had a disconnected tone of elitism and entitlement—an ongoing problem for the activist Left. But I want to push his observation further by noting the tragic and powerfully disturbing instance of liberal students self-censoring—a common yet under-reported fact of collegiate life today. Much of the commentary on campus climate emphasizes how those on the right are self-censoring in the face of leftist mobs, but those very mobs, like the Diaspora Coalition, are often rarely as open, inclusive, and diverse as they claimed to be. But the problem is graver: students across the political spectrum are afraid to speak. The self-censorship seen in the Diaspora Coalition and the quashing of dissent poses an existential threat to the very foundation of higher education. Students and Americans of all ideological leanings should be concerned and demand better.
At Sarah Lawrence, narrow-minded forces and non-inclusive groups have been permitted to constrict open discourse. They undermine one of the College’s own core goals of instilling in students “a lifelong intellectual curiosity and nimbleness.” College should be upsetting on occasion, and dialogue concerning different, difficult, and new ideas is essential to student learning. Many of my students are curious and open-minded—they reject this illiberalism and want space to question and debate, but the narrow-minded activists continue to dominate much of the discourse. That must stop. It is imperative that other schools pay heed and do not allow what transpired at Sarah Lawrence to happen on their campuses.
Image: Jakayla Toney, Public Domain