Tag Archives: FIRE

How Diversity Came to Mean ‘Downgrade the West’

There was a time, within living memory, when the term multiculturalism was hardly known.  More than twenty years ago, Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and in late July speaker at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, wrote a book with fellow Stanford alum David Sacks called The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1995).

The book’s title refers to the pretense that embracing “diversity” actually promotes diversity of all types, a claim commonly heard to this day.  Thiel had been a student at Stanford when, in January 1987, demonstrators defending “the Rainbow Agenda” chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!”  This protest led to the infamous “revision” (i.e., suppression) of the Western Culture requirement at Stanford, replaced with a freshman sequence called Cultures, Ideas, and Values, mandating an emphasis on race, gender, and class.

In her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book, the well-known American historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese referred to Stanford as “a surreal world of social engineering and institutional arrogance” and highlighted the school’s efforts to wage a “campaign to reshape thought and behavior.”  She noted that while the term “affirmative action” had been replaced by “diversity,” the latter term, far from actually promoting intellectual diversity, rested on “a series of interlocking attitudes and practices.”

Furthermore, “multiculturalism” did not involve greater emphasis on mastering foreign languages or carefully studying cultures other than those of the English-speaking world.  Instead, work in literature and culture programs was (and still is) done increasingly in English and focused on contemporary writers.  Nor did multiculturalism, any more than the word diversity, mean familiarizing students with a diversity of views. Rather, as Fox-Genovese summarized it, it meant requiring students “to agree with or even applaud views and values that mock the values with which they have been reared.”  And all this, she observed, was being accompanied by rampant grade inflation.

Related: Hey, Stanford: Western Civ Has Gotta Grow

On the very first page of their book, Sacks and Thiel commented on the double entendre implicit in the Stanford protesters’ chant of “Western Culture’s got to go.”  It was not just the required Western Culture course that was being denounced, ostensibly because most of the books studied had been written by “dead white males,” a group that was by definition considered illegitimate. Rather, it was the Western tradition as a whole.

Such a move was both novel and extraordinary, Sacks and Thiel wrote, for it “attacked not the quality or historical significance of the great books, but rather the authors themselves – for being of the wrong race, gender, or class.”

The Diversity Myth noted the chilling potential consequences of such attacks, which are now entirely routine, hardly worth commenting on. “Whereas the Western Culture canon had been based upon a belief in universalism—the belief that the insights contained within the West’s great works were potentially available to everybody—the new curriculum embraced particularism: What one may know is determined by the circumstances of one’s birth.”

The assault wasn’t merely on the idea of universalism, which assumed that, as Sidney Hook explained in a 1989 essay that Sacks and Thiel summarize: “There exist truths that transcend the accidents of one’s birth, and these objective truths are in principle available to everyone—whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female, white or black.”  A distinct view of human nature was being proposed instead, one that rejected the belief that individuals, and indeed humanity as a whole, “are not trapped within a closed cultural space that predetermines what they may know.”  Sacks and Thiel warned that by this rejection, the Stanford protestors of 1987 “would pave the way for a very different kind of academy.”

Fast forward 20-some years and the “different kind of academy” is everywhere around us, proudly kowtowing to the demands of (certain) identity groups and wearing its heart on its sleeve about its profound commitment to, as the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst constantly reiterates, “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”  The pressures have intensified and grown more and more unabashedly political, as evidenced in UMass’s recently revised “cultural diversity” courses, which go well beyond the standard inclusion of particular identity groups.

Whereas in the past the university had concentrated on prohibiting offensive speech, via the sorts of “harassment” policies that exist to chill speech in virtually all universities today, UMass now also compels certain types of speech and attitudes.  The new version of  “cultural diversity” courses, of which all students are required to take two, must now explicitly critique inequalities and injustices, oppression and hegemony, in order to lead students to pursue change on behalf of “social justice,” yet another overused and vague term (see Patai and Silverglate).

Related: Race-baiting in the Name of Justice

At Yale University, to take another recent example, in 2016, in the context of the numerous protests across the nation that campuses were not addressing “systemic racism,” undergraduates in the English Department crafted a petition to “decolonize” (not just diversify) the department’s two-semester famed basic course sequence, Major English Poets, pre-1800/1900, which focused primarily on eight great poets.  In the petition, the students claimed that the absence of women, people of color, and queer folk from these two courses “actively harms all students, regardless of their identity” by creating “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

The existence of many courses in the department (and out of it) related to race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality was deemed insufficient, since these were mainly upper-level courses. The demand shows that the students’ motivation is not to make available to them courses including or devoted entirely to non-white-males (since such courses already exist), but rather to force other students to study what these student activists believe they should study.

The Yale Daily News account of this episode is followed by 20 comments critical, often scathingly so, of the petition. One of these quotes at length from W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk:

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of [the] stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

It is likely that most student protesters today are ignorant of this passage (and of so much else), or, if they knew of it, would merely sneer at its universalist underpinnings, or dismiss it as nothing but a “reinscribing” of dominant views.

As Sacks and Thiel foresaw in their book, the diversity myth has devolved into a host of additional myths rooted in identity politics and ideological policing, while the reality of a debased education, deliberately made subservient to present political passions, goes unaddressed. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, however, was still optimistic at the time she wrote her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book.

Stressing the alarming core argument of The Diversity Myth, she nonetheless believed that the book was “appearing at a moment of mounting public consciousness of the ways in which our educational system is failing our young people. We all know that we are doing something wrong.”

Related: A College Guide to Viewpoint Diversity

Such warnings, along with numerous similar ones, as it turned out, went unheeded, as the ever more extreme episodes of politically correct demands on college campuses over the past two decades indicate.  An ironic detail confirms this reality:  Just before their book was released, Sacks and Thiel published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (October 9, 1995) ridiculing the new curriculum as “mindless.”

This in turn inspired Stanford’s president to write in protest, labeling their op-ed “demagoguery” and accusing them of concocting a “cartoon” image of the new curriculum.  By now, sadly, it is hardly possible to satirize American universities, since even not-yet-dead white administrators rush to embrace perspectives that used to be held mostly by angry students.

Increasingly, students these days present their grievances as non-negotiable demands. In addition to the ever-expanding identity categories, in recent years we have seen both administrators and faculty members forced to resign for holding the “wrong” opinions or not capitulating rapidly enough to the demands of student protesters. In other words, what Sacks and Thiel argued very clearly more than two decades ago was on the mark. They saw that the real issues roiling universities had to do not with education or intellectual diversity or even equal opportunity (long since replaced by the demand for equal outcomes, “safe spaces,” and “comfort”), but rather with promoting particular aggrieved identity groups and their political views, in the classroom and out.

Stanford’s story doesn’t end with the curriculum revision thirty years ago, however.  As it happens, in 1987 Peter Thiel was a co-founder of the Stanford Review, created to promote campus debate beyond the perspectives that were rapidly acquiring the status of a new orthodoxy.  In the spring of 2016, the Stanford Review, still pursuing its contrarian mission, sponsored a ballot initiative to restore, as a requirement, a two-part freshmen course on the Western world.  The result – which ought to shock everyone but in fact surprised few people in the academic world – was that the initiative was roundly rejected, garnering less than 15% support from the student body.

The strict limitations, both political and cultural, that define multiculturalism and diversity are also displayed in the spate of disinvitations in recent years of Commencement speakers, lecturers, and other guests whose political views do not suit the petty tyrants on college campuses (see FIRE’s “Disinvitation Report 2014: A Disturbing 15-Year Trend”).

To take just one example, which also demonstrates that to campus ideologues, having the correct politics trumps even race and gender, consider the case of Somalian-born writer and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  In 2014, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to Hirsi Ali, who was to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. A campus petition objecting to the award, on the grounds of her impassioned criticisms of Islam, was signed by nearly 25% of Brandeis’s faculty and 6,000 others inside and outside Brandeis.

FIRE’s Disinvitation Report noted that the trend was growing, and that severely restrictive speech codes were typically found at those schools with the highest numbers of incidents of disinvitation. There is a sublime irony in the spectacle of self-righteous individuals at an elite university using the liberal values of free speech and open debate to denounce a fearless critic of female genital mutilation and other practices of violence that she experienced as part of the Islamic culture in which she grew up. This intolerance of “diverse” points of view is particularly telling at the present time, when Islamist terrorism is on the rise worldwide but, mysteriously, is seldom addressed on college campuses.

For her outspoken positions, Hirsi Ali is accused of “hate speech” and “Islamophobia” – even as equally adamant critics of, say, the U.S. or Israel are welcomed as speakers and faculty members, and universities and professional academic associations seek to enforce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.  In fact, as Andrew Anthony wrote in The Guardian (April 27, 2015), Hirsi Ali “is loathed not just by Islamic fundamentalists but by many western liberals, who find her rejection of Islam almost as objectionable as her embrace of western liberalism.”

Perhaps the students at these prestigious universities need to read the work of historian Niall Ferguson, who moved to Stanford’s Hoover Institution in 2016, after 12 years at Harvard.  Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) presents a thorough account of 500 years of Western civilization’s contributions to the world, in terms of such basic measures of well-being as health, economic prosperity, and civil and political rights.

No doubt all this counts for nothing among today’s student protesters, who are incapable of spotting anything other than racism, sexism, and imperialism in the West. Although these university students are among the very people who benefit the most from all that Western culture has achieved, they evidently lack the imagination to grasp what it would mean to actually live in a society that controls their speech and movements, deprives them of the right to be heard, and imposes a rigid political ideology (not the one they happen to support) on their education.  But to truly understand the values they so blithely reject, they’d probably need a course in Western culture.

A Champion of Free Speech Takes on the Muzzled Campus

Harvey Silverglate delivered these remarks upon receiving the Manhattan Institute’s Alexander Hamilton award Monday, May 9th at a dinner in New York City. Silverglate is a Cambridge attorney, a veteran defender of civil rights and civil liberties, and co-founder, along with University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

I have dedicated much of my career to two contests that are consuming our nation, the ramifications of which will impact generations to come as well as the health of the republic itself.

I am referring to, first, the capacity of the criminal law, especially federal law, to turn all of us into criminals, at the government’s whim, for engaging in what to us appear to be the most benign personal and professional actions or inactions.

And, second, the effort, well underway, to destroy the liberal arts university by replacing the quest for human knowledge with the indoctrination of students into truth as it is postulated by self-righteous fanatics who think they have a monopoly on human wisdom, when in fact all they really have monopolized are the levers of academic and administrative power.Harvey Silverglate

And, with respect to these two areas – due process and fairness in the criminal law, and free speech and thought and procedural fairness on college campuses – I have long taken comfort in the reliability of allies such as the Manhattan Institute. This is the reason that, despite my reputation for accepting rather few invitations, I gratefully accepted the Manhattan Institute’s invitation to venture to New York (where, by the way, I was born, so this is not foreign territory to me) to accept, along with my co-recipient the redoubtable Bruce Kovner, the Institute’s Alexander Hamilton Award.

Thank you, Manhattan Institute, and the Institute’s leadership – President Larry Mone in particular, and the entire Board – for this honor, but, even more important, for the Institute’s ceaseless support for civilization and sanity in my two areas of interest, the criminal law and our institutions of higher education.

Interestingly, I noticed that dangerous trends in each of these two areas accelerated around the same time –the mid-1980s. Might the explanation, I asked myself, be that suddenly the universities were accepting a more diverse student body? Rather than celebrate this liberalization of American society and academic culture, I wondered, perhaps the colleges, fearing that students of different racial, religious, and social backgrounds would clash with one another, expanded the student-life bureaucracies to, in their view, keep the peace.

Regardless of the justification, definitions of “harassment” were adopted that were so vague and broad so as to escalate the numbers of disciplinary proceedings, many of which were deemed confidential so that the outside world had no idea what was happening. Speech codes popped up that sought to prevent students from insulting or offending one another, but in practice the codes strangled the academic enterprise. Kangaroo courts were established to adjudicate the many violations of the new rules. Remember that we’re talking about liberal arts colleges, not prisons, not re-education camps!

At about the same time, I noted a proliferation of prosecutions in the federal courts that were ensnaring defendants who, it seemed to me, had conducted themselves, if not superbly, then at least within legal limits. This ensnaring was enabled by the greatly expanded use of inherently vague federal statutes, such as “fraud.” The concept of “fraud” suddenly meant whatever a United States Attorney wanted it to mean, with the target often being selected for the personal aggrandizement of the prosecutor’s reputation and future career prospects rather than for the protection of the public.

The bottom line was that I saw these major institutions – the college campuses and the federal courts – take a turn toward precepts and practices that furnished a nutrient-laden petri dish for an experiment in an authoritarianism that was very different from the America I was familiar and comfortable with.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s co-founders, University of Pennsylvania Professor Alan Charles Kors and I, established FIRE in 1999, a year after Professor Kors and I published our book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. That book followed Professor Kors’ representation, with some legal advice from me, of an undergraduate who was being persecuted in a Penn campus tribunal in the famous “water buffalo” case, where a well-meaning student named Eden Jacobowitz addressed a group of undergraduate women who were raucously celebrating their sorority’s anniversary just outside his dorm window as he was studying. He shouted “shut up, you water buffalo!” The women being African-Americans, this was deemed by them, and by student-life administrators, to constitute “racial harassment.”

It turned out, actually, that in the offending student’s first language, Hebrew, the common slang term behema reasonably translates into “water-buffalo” and refers to a rowdy or thoughtless person. Penn’s administrators, unaware of, and uninterested in, Jacobowitz’s cultural background, assumed that the water buffalo was native to Africa (it’s not), and from this they extrapolated their hate speech theory. In the face of derisive worldwide publicity, the campus bureaucrats backed down, but it turned out to be merely a strategic retreat, not a true surrender.

Sanity’s well-publicized victory in the water buffalo case triggered a flood of students seeking assistance from Professor Kors and me. These beleaguered individuals were suffering not only from unfair persecutions, but also were being cheated out of a genuine liberal arts education. The liberal arts are not readily compatible with censorship and mindless ideological persecution. It is impossible to teach, and to learn, in the liberal arts arena under such conditions of hypersensitivity and authoritarianism. Indoctrination was replacing true academic study. From the day students arrive as freshman they are subjected to “sensitivity training” engineered by burgeoning student life bureaucrats who intrude into their most intimate lives and thoughts. I recognized that students, and even dissenting faculty, were at the mercy of a new regime, something of a cross between Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Kafka’s The Trial.

Kors and I could not handle the volume, and so FIRE was born out of sheer necessity. I at the time had assumed that surely the ludicrousness of the campus persecutions would result in the phenomenon burning itself out within less than ten years. It was, I told myself, a momentary social panic. FIRE would be a temporary project. The burning of witches in Salem, after all, ended rather abruptly when the Supreme Court of Massachusetts decided that enough was enough and put an end to the trials in 1693. That scourge lasted but one year.

Well, FIRE is in its 17th year, with no end in sight. We are in trench warfare.

The success of The Shadow University triggered my next project.

I wrote a book about the decline of justice in the federal criminal system, which I titled Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. As you might intuit by the title, my thesis is, essentially, that the average American arguably commits three federal felonies in a typical day, but does not even realize it. All that is needed is an ambitious federal prosecutor, and a prosecution is born. One has to pray that his case is assigned to a judge who sees through the scam. Most do not. Like campus administrators, too many judges tend to be either cynics or true believers.

And, contrary to the way book projects are traditionally carried out, I went to sell the completed book to a publisher – no book proposal, but, rather, a full manuscript. The publisher of The Shadow University was unwilling to take on the project, perhaps, I wondered, for fear of the U.S. Department of Justice? Other publishers I contacted likewise turned me away.

Enter my dear friend Dorothy Rabinowitz, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist for The Wall Street Journal, who suggested that I send the manuscript to her friend Roger Kimball, the brilliant publisher at Encounter Books (who I see in the audience this evening, and who is on the Board of the Manhattan Institute).

Roger, who had seen some of his own friends get ensnared in the traps for the unwary strewn throughout the ocean of vague federal statutes and regulations, agreed to publish the book. Three Felonies’ has become somewhat of a handbook for the counter-revolution against tyranny. The book’s influence has been such that I recently acceded to Roger’s plea that I write a sequel that would focus on the proposed solutions. I’m nearly half done with the manuscript, and Conviction Machine is due out sometime next year.

In these two theaters of battle in which I find myself, reliable allies are highly valued. This is why the Manhattan Institute is so important: It recognizes the stakes, in terms of liberty and of civilization itself, in both the criminal justice arena and the education arena. I am proud, and buoyed, to have allies like MI. I know that FIRE likewise is grateful to have such a reliable cohort in the fight for restoration of liberty, fairness, and sanity on college campuses.

Together, and with all of the other groups across the political spectrum that see the reality of what is happening and are determined to do something about it, we will prevail.

‘Uncomfortable’ Talk Censored at Williams

From FIRE’s site (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) 

Williams College has disinvited a second speaker from
its student-run “Uncomfortable Learning” speaker series, a program specifically developed to bring controversial viewpoints  to campus. Unlike the first disinvitation (Conservative writer Suzanne Venker), which came at the behest of the speaker series’ student organizers, this order came directly from the college president.

Williams President Adam Falk said in a statement to the university community this morning that he was canceling next Monday’s speech by writer John Derbyshire, whose views have previously been called racist and sexist.

Falk blamed “hate speech” for the disinvitation.

From Roger Kimball (PJ Media) Feb. 19:

Yesterday, Adam Falk, the president of Williams College, disgraced himself, the college that he leads, and the institution of free speech that he has claimed to support. He did this by disinviting John Derbyshire, the mathematician and commentator, from speaking at Williams for a student-run program called “Uncomfortable Learning,” a series specifically designed to bring serious but alternative points of view to the expensive (this year’s tab: $63,290) and coddled purlieus of Williamstown, Massachusetts, where nearly all the faculty are left-leaning and the students, with rare exceptions, are timid if irritable politically.

Exchange on Facebook Feb 19

John Leo: This problem is easily solved, Ask President Falk to compile a list of 5 people he disagrees with that he feels would not seriously damage the minds of Williams students, and just keep inviting those 5. Easy, no?

Facebook commenter: if you read Falk’s email, and as a parent I was sent a copy, he makes it clear that there are boundaries–and Derbyshire crosses that boundary. Derbyshire’s work has disappeared from reputable conservative publications and web-sites for the same reason that William F. Buckley, Jr. decided to ban Pat Buchanan from National Review– he is a racist. We should not be in the business of supporting racists– not politically correct reasons but as Falk points out there are bounds of decency that an educational institution should not cross– and Derbyshire, I agree, is on the other side.

John Leo: I know who Derbyshire is. I think universities should trust their students and not censor any speaker.

Facebook commenter: Fred Luecher, for example?

John Leo There are many terrible people I would not invite, but once invited by people with the right to choose, I wouldn”t censor. If you wonder what happens when censorship is encouraged, just look at the campuses today.

The U. of Chicago’s Flawed Support for Freedom of Expression

In January 2015 the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression issued a brief report which eloquently made a case for the importance of free speech as “an essential element of the University’s culture.”  I commented at the time in an approving manner.  Over the ensuing months, the Chicago statement has gathered more and more approval.  In April the faculty of Princeton University incorporated much of the Chicago statement into a statement of their own.   On September 28, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a national campaign asking colleges and universities to adopt the statement. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has also urged over 19,000 trustees to embrace it.

In an era when student activists on many campuses are attempting to silence expression of views they disagree with, the University of Chicago statement is a welcome counter-measure.  It is easy to see why principled scholars and organizations concerned about the integrity of the university are drawn to it.

Not the Whole Loaf

But I urge caution.  The Chicago statement is, in effect, half a loaf.  And sometimes half a loaf can be worse than none.  The basic problem with the statement is that it presents a context-free defense of freedom of expression. It does not offer any reason why such freedom is important and, in the absence of such a reason, it amounts to an endorsement of much of what is currently wrong with our colleges and universities.

To be sure, there is much in the statement that is attractive and endorsing it makes sense as a tactical move against “social justice warriors” who want to preempt important debates.  If the Chicago statement were to be understood as mainly a call for the university to respect the rights of outside speakers to have their say, regardless of viewpoint, it would be welcome without any serious reservations. But the statement does not contextualize itself to outside speakers and appears to apply equally to speech within the university.  The differences between outside speakers and speech within the university, however, are profoundly important.  The latter involve considerations that the Chicago committee ought to address but did not.

Four Flaws

In that light the statement has some serious flaws as an enunciation of general principles.  It is easy to imagine new circumstances where the positions laid forth in the Chicago statement would themselves become impediments to good education.  Indeed, some of these circumstances are already here.

There are four flaws. The statement ignores the need for true speech, wrongly elevates free speech over teaching, fails to say why free speech is important on college campuses, and is conducive to the further trivialization of the university.

First, the statement says “freedom of expression,” “freedom of inquiry,” and “freedom to debate” are “fundamental” to the university.  Surely they are.  The trouble is that other principles are no less fundamental.  One might think of the pursuit of truth; the obligation to distinguish the important from the trivial; integrity in research; respect for freedoms besides academic freedom; and genuine care for the welfare and educational prospects of students.

 The Pursuit of Truth

I grant that most of these do not spring readily to mind for faculty members who are not at the moment faced with a conflict, say, between freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth.  But such conflicts are never far off.  People lie, frequently.  Freedom of expression permits lies and misrepresentations and, up to a point, protects the liar in his exercise of the right.  The “fundamental” regard of the university for freedom of expression, however, is in direct tension with the fundamental regard the university must also have for the truth.  How does the Chicago statement handle this?  It is silent on the matter.  The statement does indeed say that “freedom to debate and discuss” is not absolute.  That freedom must bend in some cases:

The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.

Defamation, threats, harassment, and violations of privacy are out.  But on matters such as fabrication of data, perjury, deliberate historical misrepresentation, suppression of discrepant evidence, false testimony, plagiarism, and the like, the statement says nothing.

I would not infer from this that the University of Chicago Committee on Free Expression regards these as inconsequential matters.  Rather, it was charged with addressing the principle of freedom of expression and it did so, leaving various complications aside.

A Dangerous Mistake

Perhaps the University of Chicago is a community so well ordered that it could trust itself to deal with “freedom of expression” as an isolate—a fundamental that need not be considered in the company of other fundamentals.  Be that as it may, I think it is a dangerous mistake for colleges and universities across the country to adopt this statement as is, without creating a conceptual context in which other fundamentals are given due consideration and weight.

Let me acknowledge that extending the discussion in the direction of other such fundamentals may well prove difficult and frustrating.  A simple statement of principle—that freedom of expression is fundamental for a university—can be pure and inspiring.  Recognition of counterbalancing and sometimes contradictory principles that must somehow be made to mesh is less an occasion for rhetorical triumph.  But it returns us to the real world of higher education where flawed men and women struggle for achievement in a special kind of community.

Where’s the Word ‘Curriculum’?

Second, the Chicago statement treats freedom of expression as something unmoored by the curriculum.  Indeed the words “curriculum” and “course” (in the sense of an academic course) never appear in the statement.  The only example of freedom of expression that is cited is a Communist Party candidate invited to speak on campus by a student organization.  All of the other statements on academic freedom are hortatory declarations of the abstract principle.  But the reality is that colleges and universities must make practical choices to teach this subject, and not that one.

If they have—as the University of Chicago has—a core curriculum, they must decide which disciplines should be represented, and which not.  No university is so large that it can encompass every subject.  It must makes choices, just as the individual faculty member must makes exclusionary decisions in every syllabus and every time a class meets.  The license to make these choices is part of academic freedom but it is a particularly fraught aspect of academic freedom because it presents the question:  Who decides?

One approach maximizes the autonomy of the individual faculty member to teach what he wants to teach.  But even the university that leans far in this direction reserves the key power to approve a course or not.  And the best colleges and universities devote great care to the work of shaping their academic programs.

In short, the “fundamental” right of free expression is dramatically limited in the single most important context of higher education:  the college or university’s decisions about what should be taught.

What Should Be Taught

The Chicago statement in this regard sounds like a dream of faculty members reveling in the idea that free expression can be upheld as the governing principle of an institution that is in fact ruled by a dramatically contrary principle:  the need to provide students with a coherent education.

Third, the assertion of the “fundamental” value of freedom of expression sidesteps the underlying rationale for free expression.  The statement treats free expression as so integral to the university that no explanation is needed; just assertion.  Perhaps this reflects disagreement among the committee members on what the rationale for free expression should be, but the omission is odd.  In my view what makes free expression fundamental is that it prevents sleepwalking.

It treats every idea as open in principle to challenge, which means even the best ideas must be maintained by alert, intelligent, and informed people who are ready with good arguments and robust evidence, and who are also ready to put in the necessary time and effort to defend them.  Free expression exists as the antidote to intellectual complacency and the slumber of settled propositions.  It does not allow “consensus” or appeal to the authority of either the crowd or the expert to settle a dispute.

But if I am right about this rationale, free expression should lean towards these ends.  Free expression should not itself be a cover for mob rule (“consensus”), mere doctrine, or efforts to shut the door to further inquiry.  The rise of “studies” departments that are little more than ideological satrapies on campus does not jibe with free expression.  To hold a legitimate place in the community of higher education, a field of study must be willing to treat even its most basic ideas as hypotheses that are open in principle to challenge, not as matters of settled belief.

Chicago vs. Yale

The Chicago statement veers away from any such understanding of freedom of expression.  As far as the statement goes, all expressions enjoy the same title to “freedom of expression.”  That’s a view that comports pretty well with the First Amendment, but comports very poorly with the reasons why higher education values freedom of expression.

As it happens, the Chicago statement can be usefully contrasted with an earlier statement of freedom of expression issued in December 1974 by Yale, as the result of the deliberations of a committee appointed by President Kingman Brewster.  The Yale statement is every bit as vigorous in its support for freedom of expression as the Chicago statement, but at 31 pages, it is longer than the Chicago statement (3 pages), more in-depth, and attentive to complications that the Chicago statement ignores.  Perhaps most importantly, the Yale statement explains why freedom of expression should matter to a university.  Its first sentence declares: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.”  There is nothing comparable to this in the Chicago statement.

Fourth, the Chicago statement rests easily with the post-modern and (ironically) the anti-foundationalist condition of the contemporary university.  In treating free expression as an end in itself and divorcing it from any concern about the processes that establish and dis-establish intellectual authority, the statement gives license to the forces that have brought on the regime of triviality, curricular incoherence, narcissistic teaching, and intellectual aimlessness that have beset so many colleges and universities.  Again, these conditions may not prevail at the University of Chicago, but when other colleges and universities emulate or adopt the Chicago statement, they are also giving their imprimatur to an education that endorses formless exploration over purposeful inquiry.

An Unmoored Freedom

These four flaws in the Chicago statement have a kindred character.  All four have to do with the superficiality of the statement, which leaves out essential things:  other fundamentals; the shaping of the curriculum which is necessarily guided by principles above and beyond freedom of expression; the purpose of the college to which freedom of expression is necessarily subordinate; and the tendency of an unmoored freedom of expression to perpetuate the intellectual weaknesses of the contemporary university.

There are, of course, competing views about the purposes of higher education, an institution that must somehow blend discovering new knowledge, transmitting existing knowledge, sustaining the legacy of civilization, shaping character, preparing students for productive lives, and teaching students how to live responsibly in freedom.   Free expression is a vital component of several of these ends, and none more so than the last.  We uphold freedom of expression in large part to teach students to become citizens who can govern themselves wisely in our representative democracy.  But that requires that we understand this freedom not as an end in itself but as purposeful—which in turn means that we must pay attention to its purposes.

I’d recommend that the University of Chicago continue the work of the committee that wrote the statement by asking and answering the follow-up questions:  Why is freedom of expression important?  How does it advance the education of students?

It is in the spirit of the Chicago statement to welcome debate.  As far as I can tell, there has been little or no debate over the statement itself.  I offer these four points for the consideration of any college or university that is considering FIRE’s invitation to endorse the Chicago statement.  And I offer them as well for the benefit of the University of Chicago, which would seem to welcome, to borrow President Robert M. Hutchins’ apercu, the kind of “free inquiry [that] is indispensable to the good life.”

Campus Censors—Here’s How to Fight Them

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus April 21, 2013.

It’s no longer a matter of much debate that America’s college campuses are not the beacons of free and open discussion in a democratic society that they were intended to be. In its 14 years of existence, our organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has documented hundreds of cases of gross abuses of students’ and faculty members’ fundamental rights. More than sixty percent of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges have speech codes that are either unconstitutional (at public universities) or directly contradict promises of free speech (at private universities).

The two authors of this piece come from very different political and personal perspectives. One is a liberal and an atheist (Lukianoff), the other a conservative evangelical Christian (Shibley). We are also FIRE’s president and senior vice president, respectively. But our combined decades of work at FIRE have convinced us that the groupthink and the pressure to conform, be silent, or talk solely to those with whom you already agree that is fostered by the culture and rules of the modern campus is destructive to students, our educational system, and our society as a whole. One of us wrote a book about it.

So what can people who recognize the importance of free speech on campus do about it? There are a number of possible measures that might be taken. FIRE is already doing some of them; others would require new large-scale and ambitious initiatives. Some are cultural. Some are political or legal. None are the silver bullet that a lot of us might like, and some have tradeoffs that might make them less desirable. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Feds Can Mandate Protections

Margaret Hagen, a professor at Boston University, recently proposed in National Review that Congress should use the power of the purse to force campuses to respect free speech. This would be a statutory effort that would tie the receipt of government funding to enacting policies and practices that respect free speech, much as colleges that receive government funding must provide access to military recruiters. Given our college funding system, this would apply to nearly every college in America, public or private, since “federal funding” includes not just direct subsidies (received mostly by state schools) but also research grants as well as student funds like Pell grants and Stafford loans. Virtually every college in the U.S. gets federal funding from at least one of these sources—indeed, FIRE knows of only three American colleges that don’t: Hillsdale College, Grove City College, and the College of the Ozarks. There are probably more, but not many.

The advantage of this plan is that with the stroke of a pen, Congress and the President could make every college in America sit up and take notice. Lawyers would be hired to ensure compliance and rewrite speech-restrictive policies that suddenly look a lot more expensive. Students would know that no matter where they go to school, they would be taking their rights with them. Vague genuflections towards free speech would suddenly have real meaning. A greater diversity of views expressed on campus would be almost guaranteed.

But there are philosophical problems with this approach. First, it would undoubtedly represent further government intervention in college administration. For those who believe that less government is better, this might be a hard sell. The counterargument to this is that colleges who did not want to be “burdened” with free speech would remain free to give up claims to government funding. While this is true in principle, and is obviously possible, there is a reason why so few colleges attempt to survive without any federally backed loans or support.

Second, this type of legislation could lead to unjustified complacency about rights on college campuses. After all, public colleges are already required to follow the Constitution and yet most don’t. Putting federal funding at risk would certainly give them greater incentive to do so, and give private colleges actual incentive to do so, but enforcement would rely on federal bureaucrats being willing to actually cut funding to schools that fail to comply. This might be politically impossible at big schools like Ohio State or prestigious schools like Harvard. Colleges are likely to know this and may be willing to take that gamble. Colleges are in a similar situation with regard to compliance with the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA (a deeply flawed law, but that is for another article). Noncompliance is unlawful and can be punished through the loss of federal funds, but this has literally never happened in the 39 years since its enactment, despite many abuses.

Third, religious schools or explicitly ideological schools would lose the ability they now have to regulate expression in keeping with their missions. FIRE recognizes the right of private schools to put other values above free speech as long as they are transparent about the rules before students enroll. Few actually do—out of the more than 400 schools FIRE rates, only nine explicitly place other values above free speech, and two of them are military academies. But a free, pluralistic society should allow the ability to establish and join private organizations that have their own set of values that may not agree with the mainstream. Imposing First Amendment standards on all institutions via legislation may be the quickest of all fixes, but it comes with some significant drawbacks.

No Harassment by Harassment Rules

Since the 1980s, the most common form of campus speech codes has been wildly overbroad or vague harassment codes. Poorly written or purposely broad harassment policies can silence huge swaths of protected speech. For example, Auburn University at Montgomery bans “jokes” about protected characteristics, as well as “making judgments,” managing to ban both Chris Rock and Sandra Day O’Connor from campus with a single policy.

Speaking of O’Connor, the Supreme Court has actually provided the solution to this problem, if only schools would listen. It comes from Justice O’Connor’s majority decision in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), in which the Supreme Court set out a standard for peer-on-peer harassment in the educational setting that protects free speech while preventing real discriminatory harassment. Under the Davis standard, behavior becomes punishable when it is (1) unwelcome, (2) discriminatory, (3) on the basis of gender or another protected class, such as race, (4) directed at an individual, and (5) “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”

The Davis standard is a definition that is serious and that correctly confines harassment to seriously discriminatory patterns of behavior. Such a specific definition is nothing like the countless campus codes that prohibit “inappropriate,” “demeaning,” or merely “offensive” speech. Adopting Davis would send a strong message that “harassment” can no longer be treated as code for a student’s or administrator’s supposed “right not to be offended.”

Colleges could adopt the Davis standard on their own, or the standard could be written into federal or state legislation. Since all schools receiving federal funding are already bound by Titles VI and IX to have rules against racial and sexual harassment, adding this standard to law would not result in further federal entanglement. Indeed, it would add much needed clarity to federal requirements that confuse nearly everyone involved. It is crucial, however, that the law state that the definition of harassment should be understood as “no more and no less than” the Davis standard, and that the Davis standard definition be the only acceptable definition of harassment in the educational context. Without such language, campuses would simply go back to their current practice of having an arguably constitutional definition of harassment in one part of their code coupled with comically unconstitutional definitions of harassment elsewhere.

The Power of Litigation

Public colleges and universities that maintain unconstitutional speech codes are, of course, breaking the law. Yet at least 61.6% of the public colleges rated by FIRE have speech codes that we deem to be blatantly unconstitutional. FIRE’s Speech Code Litigation Project helps students file lawsuits against such unconstitutional speech codes, usually at the rate of about one per year. The project has a 100% success rate, aided by the “target-rich” environment and our expertise in constitutional law. FIRE has also repeatedly provided college administrators with “actual notice” about their unlawful codes through massive certified mailings, making liability for maintaining those codes easier to establish.

Our efforts to highlight speech codes with our annual Spotlight reports and targeted litigation have helped. Five years ago, 75% of schools had speech codes that violate First Amendment principles. This year, it was only 62%. We’ve spent 14 years working to roll back speech codes while avoiding truly widespread litigation. Yet with more resources targeted towards litigation, there’s no doubt that this number could be driven lower as schools realize the risks of maintaining speech codes that are frankly indefensible in a court of law.

Campus speech codes and unclear federal policies currently give campus administrators an excuse to overreact to speech. Indeed, university attorneys have some basis for believing that it may be safer, from a liability standpoint, to overreact. This kind of legal ambiguity—which can leave administrators wondering if they can be sued for not violating the Constitution—sends the problem of politically correct administrators into overdrive. Litigation on a large scale may be the only way to rebalance this perverse incentive structure by creating a real and substantial risk to colleges that currently find it safer and easier to censor first and ask questions later.

Act for Disclosure Legislation

Knowledge is power, which makes disclosure rules a popular form of providing transparency in many sectors of our economy. Lawyers, stockbrokers, accountants, and many others are used to disclosing pertinent information in the course of business. But there’s no rule that says universities must disclose whether they protect students’ fundamental rights, despite the fact that they are treated like autonomous city-states with little oversight or accountability in this area. Congress could add a provision to federal law that would require public colleges to annually certify that they have reviewed their policies and that they comply with the First Amendment. The legislation would also require private institutions to declare whether they offer their students free speech rights equivalent to those enjoyed by students on public campuses. These submissions would be posted in a searchable online database, so the information would be publicly available.

While the law would not have to involve penalizing universities for not protecting speech (although public universities would court disastrous lawsuits if they admitted they didn’t follow the First Amendment), they would have to carefully consider their answers. Even private universities that aren’t bound by the Constitution would likely find it difficult to tell students and faculty members that they don’t have anything like full First Amendment rights, since the vast majority of institutions do pay at least lip service to free speech. Promising free speech in your glossy materials while burying the bad news under hundreds of pages of bureaucrat-speak is one thing. Telling the feds and public “no, we don’t care about First Amendment principles” is entirely another.

Carrots for Good Colleges

FIRE has ensured that administrators who refuse to address speech problems on their campuses face possible legal action, expenses, the loss of qualified immunity, and negative publicity. However, simple negative reinforcement is not enough. Colleges must also have “carrots”—positive incentives for reform—to go along with the metaphorical sticks. FIRE works hard to provide positive publicity for those schools that do cooperate and reform their policies. Schools that earn a “green light” rating from FIRE, such as recent examples Eastern Kentucky University, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, receive public praise, a reward that encourages other schools to follow suit. FIRE has also begun publishing an annual list of the best schools for freedom of speech in The Huffington Post.

Perhaps most valuable, though, is FIRE’s willingness to work with universities to avoid the circumstances that lead to bad publicity. FIRE attends multiple college administrator conferences every year to let them know what the law says about free speech and to make sure they know that FIRE is ready to collaborate with colleges in crafting policies that meet their needs without compromising essential freedoms. Rather than pay tens of thousands of dollars to “risk management” consultants who are more concerned with avoiding liability than they are with the Constitution, colleges can work with FIRE—for free, of course—to devise policies that have the greatest protection possible: a basis in reason and principle.

There is a huge opportunity here for other organizations to help, as well. The higher ed sector is vast, and schools are hungry for ways to distinguish themselves. Those who care about liberty on campus—including other nonprofits, journalists, politicians, and private citizens—should not stint on their praise for institutions that do the right thing, and should award carrots of their own.

Change  the Culture

FIRE and our allies have been fighting the culture of censorship on campus for decades—and we win our battles over and over again. But progress is slow and resistance is high. So it’s essential to talk about ways to try to spark a meaningful cultural transformation that will push back against the tide of illiberal behavior on campus. In order to truly promote the right to free speech and dissent on campus, we must act on more than a case-by-case basis and look for systematic solutions.

First, K-12 civics education fails to provide students the foundation in the First Amendment and the overall principles of a free society that they need to understand their rights once they get to college. While students know that America protects freedom of speech, and they care about that, most can’t articulate the underlying principles or explain why freedom of speech, dissent, thought experimentation, and devil’s advocacy are important. And colleges are hardly helping students learn these valuable lessons. FIRE and others have been working on this problem, and we are increasingly aiming at reaching high school students before they arrive on campus and providing them with tools they need to defend their liberties and advocate for change. For instance, FIRE’s “Freedom in Academia” high school essay contest has elicited over 13,000 submissions since it first began and continues to grow. This year, we’re also partnering with the Bill of Rights Institute to develop a curriculum package for high school seniors with a FIRE video and a step-by-step lesson plan.

Another small-scale idea that could have a big impact on campus would be a “boot camp” program for American high schoolers. These boot camps would be small-group events for college-bound high school students interested in learning more about their rights and the democratic ideal of free expression. Beginning in large cities such as New York and Philadelphia, advocates could host sessions focusing on the challenges on campus and how students can fight back against censorship and attempts to clamp down on free and independent thought. Armed with the knowledge and tools necessary not only to advocate for the First Amendment, but to understand the importance of meaty, meaningful debate, these students will arrive on campus ready to defend their rights and the rights of their fellow students. While the K-12 sector is so large that it dwarfs even higher ed, not every student must be fully educated on the First Amendment. Even a single student with knowledge of free speech and the power of dissent has the potential to make a difference on campus, since in FIRE’s experience, it often takes only one student who won’t be silenced to shake up an otherwise complacent university.

Alumni also offer a powerful but difficult-to-mobilize constituency. Over the last decade, we’ve seen that legal pressure and public attention can have a huge impact on campus. That pressure is all the more difficult to resist when it comes from alumni. After all, few colleges or universities will risk losing millions in alumni support that they could retain by reforming their policies or reversing rights violations. Money talks, and if we can educate alumni on just how serious censorship is at their alma mater, their voices will be heard loud and clear by administrators.

Finally, and most broadly, we must seek ways to overcome the “echo chamber” effect that is prevalent in academia and increasingly in our society at large. This is not something that Congress or lawyers can fix: the change must necessarily be cultural. But if a way can be found to promote the idea that truly educated people seek out discussions with smart people with whom they disagree, it could go a long way to overcoming groupthink both on and off campus.

Too often, people succumb to the temptation to dismiss their political and cultural opponents as ignorant or stupid. And there are many ignorant and/or stupid people out there in all walks of life. If you’re looking for one to take on in order to make yourself feel better about your beliefs, you’ll find one. But nearly every idea in American discourse that is not utterly fringe has hundreds or thousands of advocates who are perfectly capable of making solid cases for their beliefs. The fact is, if you can’t find a person who is capable of making rational arguments on behalf of the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, you didn’t really try, especially in the age of the Internet.

But you might not get this impression on a college campus. As Penn professor Diana C. Mutz discussed in her 2006 book Hearing the Other Side, the more education you have, the less likely you are to have exposure to people with different points of view. This is asking for (and delivering) massive problems of “confirmation bias” that spill over into society at large. One might hope that colleges would be aware of this problem and would be working overtime to correct it; it is, after all, their job to ensure their students are being trained to use the tools of reason and critical thinking. But there’s little indication that this is the case on the scale necessary to make a difference.

That’s why promoting a cultural norm that advocates seeking out those people and testing one’s beliefs would advance dialogue more than we can now imagine is possible. Debate series like Intelligence Squared, websites like Bloggingheads.tv, and others are doing great work towards this goal off campus, and similar programs exist on campus as well. But this shouldn’t be just an optional program on campuses—it should be a core goal of the university. Failing that, teaching students that debate is actually fun as opposed to fraught with the risk of offense, that seeking out opposing viewpoints is what smart people do, that too much agreement may not mean that you are right but that you are caught in a self-affirming clique, and that thought experimentation leads to better ideas could do a lot to help students poke their heads out of the echo chambers campus censorship helps create.

“Safety” is a much abused term on campus, often invoked lightly to refer to a generalized right for students to feel emotionally unchallenged. That kind of “safety” is a more appropriate goal for K-8 education, and even there it has likely already been taken too far—eighth graders understand a whole lot about disagreement. But there is a kind of safety for which advocates of reform in higher education must press: campuses need to be places where it is safe to disagree at a fundamental level, safe to question and even satirize the university’s sacred cows, safe to question the conventional wisdom, and safe even to be wrong, to provoke, and (gasp) to joke. While there has been much talk in the last decade that higher education is moving on to some next level, little progress can be made within the existing models as long as students and faculty can and do still get in trouble for merely stating opinions that administrators dislike.

FIRE Singes the Censors


How time flies. In 1987, a new breed of speech and harassment codes and student indoctrination were unleashed on college campuses across the land. Thus, what Allan Kors
and Harvey Silverglate famously labeled the “shadow university”–the university
dedicated to censorship and politically correct paternalism–is
now at least 25 years old.

The public recognized the consequences
of the new censorship early on. Noteworthy authors began writing articles and books
about the mounting suppression of free speech, academic freedom, and due
process on campus, culminating in the in-depth chronicling of the dark state of
higher education in The Shadow University
in 1998. 
By the end of the 1990s, however, many observers predicted that the repression would eventually run out of steam as the
passions driving political correctness waned with age. And in many respects,
political correctness often did appear to mellow out. More skeptical
observers claimed that it was not disappearing, but metastasizing. Who
was right?

Greg Lukianoff adresses this question in his outstanding new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Encounter Books).  Lukianoff is the president of the Philadelphia based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, popularly known by its telling acronym, FIRE. Unlearning Liberty is based on cases with which FIRE has dealt over the years.

Continue reading FIRE Singes the Censors

Six Organizations Every Conservative College Student Should Know

To the student tired of politically correct speech, whose soul longs for the free pursuit of truth, take heart! There are support networks that bring together like-minded students around conferences, seminars, reading groups, scholarships, and grants. Take a look at a sampling below.

  1. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute inspires students to discover, embrace, and advance the principles and virtues that make America free and prosperous. ISI-supported Reading Groups receive free books and help in bringing speakers to campus, while the Collegiate Network supports liberty-minded student newspapers and campus publications. The ISI Honors Program brings 50 undergraduates to an all-expenses-paid week-long conference and numerous colloquia, offers free books and resources, and pairs each Honors Fellow with an academic mentor. ISI also offers grants and fellowships to graduate students and sponsors essay contests.
  2. The Foundation for Economic Education‘s mission is to offer the most consistent case for the “first principles” of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion. FEE hosts seminars for both high-school and undergraduate students (most expenses paid), and FEE’s online library provides video and audio lectures.
  3. The Institute for Humane Studies seeks to advance liberty by supporting undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in individual freedom. While the institute is based at George Mason University, registration is free and open to all students. Each year, IHS awards over $750,000 in scholarships, in addition to sponsoring seminars and fellowships for graduate students and outstanding juniors and seniors. With the Koch Foundation, IHS also offers paid internships in journalism and public policy.
  4. Hertog Political Studies Program, held in D.C., is a six-week seminar investigating political theory and public policy, with a subsequent two-week fellowship that delves deeper into a particular topic. Each session is guided by an academic scholar or policy expert. Students receive a stipend to cover all expenses.
  5. The Publius Fellowship, sponsored by the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, is awarded yearly to college seniors, recent graduates, and graduate students pursuing careers in politics, scholarship, or journalism. For two weeks, Publius Fellows meet to read and discuss great works of political philosophy. The fellowship includes a stipend, travel expenses, and housing.
  6. FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) seeks to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities, including freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience. FIRE works with college administrators to ensure that school policies protect and do not violate individual rights, using media campaigns and, when necessary, legal means. Through FIRE’s website, students can submit reports on violations of individual freedom.

A Peculiar Performance by the Chronicle

The mainstream media seem to be studiously ignoring Naomi Schaefer Riley’s summary banishment on May 7 as a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education. She had written a post severely criticizing black studies programs at universities and suggesting that they be eliminated. But some media people who cover the media online, though they are political liberals out of sync with Riley, are just as outraged at the firing as Riley’s supporters. Betsy Rothstein, editor of Fishbowl DC, a widely read media-news website, and Brad Phillips, who writes the MrMediaTraining blog, excoriated the Chronicle’s editor, Liz McMillen, for caving to pressure from–and apologizing profusely to–Chronicle’s college-professor readers who had been screaming racism and demanding Riley’s head for several days. This despite the fact that Riley’s 500-word post for the Chronicle blog Brainstorm, had contained nothing that could be construed as a personal attack, libelous, or factually incorrect.

Continue reading A Peculiar Performance by the Chronicle

Why Universities Can’t Grant Religious Liberty

vanderbilt university.jpgFrom the site of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Not long ago, the university was seen as a world apart–an idyllic enclave where our studious youth learned the virtues of citizenship, cheered hard for the football team, and read the great classics of Western thought. The “ivory tower” was more an observation than the insult the term has become, an almost monastic reference to a place where thought was free and knowledge ruled.

Nostalgia, of course, is deceptive–life was rarely as good (or bad)
as we remember. However, nearly everyone will agree that our
universities have changed in the past four decades, educating millions
on vast campuses that my friend Greg Lukianoff, president of the
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has compared to “small
European countries.”

Continue reading Why Universities Can’t Grant Religious Liberty

The New VAWA–A Threat to College Students

Cross-posted from Open Market.

Provisions are being added to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act that could undermine due process on campus and in criminal cases, as civil liberties groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and civil libertarians like former ACLU board member Wendy Kaminer have noted. The changes are contained in a reauthorization of the Act that is likely to pass the Senate over objections from some Republican senators like Charles Grassley of Iowa, who has also objected to the lack of safeguards against fraud in the law and the misuse of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. (Even if the Senate’s reauthorization does not pass the House, programs set up by the 1994 law will continue to operate.)

Continue reading The New VAWA–A Threat to College Students

FERPA and a Student Who Might Make a Professor Cringe

In a case highlighted by FIRE,
Oakland University in Michigan issued a three-semester suspension to a student
named Joseph Corlett, allegedly in response to some of Corlett’s in-class
writings that passed well beyond the bounds of good taste (in a writing journal, he ruminated on the sexual attractiveness of his female professors) and to Corbett’s stated position in favor of allowing guns on campus, which some at Oakland seem to have interpreted as threatening. Interpreting the material about the case in the light most favorable to Corlett, he seems like the type of student whose name would cause a professor to cringe if he or she saw it on the class roster. Nonetheless, as FIRE’s Adam Kissel pointed out, “It is not against the law to be–or to be perceived as–a creep.”

Continue reading FERPA and a Student Who Might Make a Professor Cringe

The Times Vilifies Another Athlete, Presenting No Evidence

Over the past year, FIRE has led a campaign of civil liberties
organizations against the Obama administration’s infamous “Dear Colleague”
letter, which ordered colleges and universities to lower the burden of proof in
their on-campus judicial proceedings. The letter demanded that all universities
receiving federal funds employ a “preponderance of the evidence” standard (in
other words, a 50.1 percent degree of certainty) to determine guilt on
allegations of sexual assault.

Given that campus judicial procedures already are tilted,
often wildly so, in favor of sexual-complaint accusers, the letter has produced
a guilty-unless-proven-innocent standard for accused students. In at least one
case, that of Caleb Warner at
the University of North Dakota
, the standard (before FIRE’s involvement)
amounted to guilty even when proved innocent by the local police.

Continue reading The Times Vilifies Another Athlete, Presenting No Evidence

Let’s Not Turn Satire and Criticism into Discriminatory Harassment

(the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has attracted
important support for its open letter asking the Department of Education
to define harassment
narrowly enough to allow genuinely free speech on campus. Many colleges
and universities ban expression that might be considered “offensive” or
cause “embarrassment” or “ridicule.” The January 6 letter, sent to
Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights
in the Education Department, has been signed by, among others, the
National Association of Scholars, the Alliance Defense Fund Center for
Academic Freedom, Feminists for Free Expression and ACTA, the American
Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Let’s Make Sure Those RA Brains are Properly Washed

The writer is a student and former residential assistant at DePauw University and a summer intern at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Her comments here are excerpted from a FIRE fund-raising letter – JL


During the week-long series of RA training events, my fellow RAs and I were lectured repeatedly about white privilege, racism, sexism, and every other “ism.” My peers who questioned the information were silenced immediately or heckled for their refusal to accept the dogmatic views of our superiors.We were told that “human” was not a suitable identity, but that instead we were first “black,” “white,” or “Asian”; “male” or “female”; and, perhaps most alarming of all, “heterosexual” or “queer.” We were forced to act like bigots and spout off stereotypes while being told that that was what we were really thinking deep down. I was appalled, and I hadn’t even been forced to drag my residents through the same thing … yet.

When my residents arrived, I was required to escort them through a mandatory interactive live performance, “Tunnel of Oppression.” As we walked through the halls of the house in which the performance was held, we were taught different lessons by inference through the “realistic” demonstrations in each room, including “religious parents hate their gay children,” “Muslims will find no friends on a predominantly white campus,” “white people believe all black women are ‘welfare mamas,'” “all overweight women have eating disorders,” “gays and lesbians should fear being ‘outed’ by their partners if they leave an abusive relationship,” and so on. I looked at my residents and saw some students realizing the stereotypes they would have to fight, and others of various minority groups feeling hopeless and ashamed of their place on the campus they were about to call home for four of the most formative years of their lives.

I was enraged. Not only did this brainwashing program go against DePauw’s own promise of freedom of conscience, it promoted an environment where there is a “right” and a “wrong” way of thinking. But more than just telling us what to think, DePauw told us what we should believe deep down. Instead of inspiring students by fostering free and open debate, DePauw was–and still is–indoctrinating its students.

A Hard Case—Are FIRE and NAS Wrong about Jennifer Keeton?

KEETONX390.jpgHard cases make bad law. Nowhere is that legal maxim clearer than the case of former Augusta State counseling student Jennifer Keeton, who was removed from the counseling program because of her rather extreme anti-gay views. A lower-court judge upheld the university’s actions. FIRE and NAS have filed a powerful amicus brief, penned by Eugene Volokh, spelling out the potentially damaging—extremely damaging—effects if this decision is upheld. At the same time, however, the evidence presented in the case strongly suggests that Keeton doesn’t belong as a counselor.
The university’s response to Keeton reflects the same sort of behavior seen in many education departments in the dispositions controversy—i.e., Orwellian re-education efforts to punish students whose views on controversial contemporary political or social issues conflict with those of the academic majority.
Keeton, a student in ASU’s Counseling Education M.A. program, repeatedly expressed anti-gay views, both in and out of class. (These views were quite extreme; they included Keeton’s support for “conversion therapy,” and, according to the lower-court decision in the case, her admission that she would find it difficult to counsel gay or lesbian clients.) In response, as the FIRE/NAS brief notes, the Counseling department designed a “remediation” program for Keeton, which required her “attending three workshops, reading ten peer-reviewed articles, attending an unspecified number of activities such as the Gay Pride Parade(!), and writing a two-page paper each month.” Perhaps most chilling, she also had to meet with her advisor each month to discuss the effect of these activities on her “beliefs.”

Continue reading A Hard Case—Are FIRE and NAS Wrong about Jennifer Keeton?

Free Speech at UVA

Congratulations to FIRE for inducing the University of Virginia to drop four policies that restricted the speech of students and faculty. One policy had prohibited Internet messages that are “inappropriate” or “vilify” others. The campus women’s center backed down from two unusually preposterous policies that listed “teasing,” “jokes of a sexual nature” and “innuendo” as examples of sexual harassment and warned that simple flirting or causing a woman to feel disrespected could be harassment as well. The university also reformed “Just Report It!” a “bias reporting” system, promising that protected speech will not be subject to University disciplinary action or formal investigation. FIRE praised University president Teresa Sullivan for making these changes within three months of taking office.

Psychology: The Latest Threat to Campus Free Speech?

Steven Pinker, noted Harvard psychologist and linguist delivered an address to mark Boston’s Ford Hall Forum’s presentation of their Louis P. and Evelyn Smith First Amendment Award to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Pinker’s speech draws valuably upon two of Pinker’s hats – as psychologist and FIRE adviser in offering a sharp analysis of the threat that rising notions of psychology pose to free speech. Pinker outlines the subconscious force of the “psychology of taboo”, and the theoretically innocuous speculations, such as the price of betrayal or infidelity, that “in fact are corrosive because they require people to think exactly the kind of thoughts that they should not think if they are committed friends, allies, family members.” Recognize that taboo? I’m sure. Individually, it’s a taboo that’s hardwired; the problem rises when institutions larger than the individual, such as academia “which is, at least nominally devoted to pursuing the truth no matter how uncomfortable it makes people emotionally” begins to buttress the taboo with institutional force, banning speech and inquiry of sorts that might cause discomfort, and squarely quashing first amendment rights in the process. This is the path that leads to the University of Northern Iowa seeking to ban “unwelcome electronic communications” and it’s a frightening one for sure. Read the speech to find out more.

Criminal, Not Hurtful

Our good friend Harvey Silverglate, co-founder of FIRE and co-author of The Shadow University, just sent a brief protest—more like a bellow—in reaction to the New York Times’s handling of the Rutgers story. A front-page Times report today said it was “hurtful” for the two Rutgers students to videotape a gay sex act by another student and put that tape on the Internet. Silverglate is incensed because “hurtful” is PC-speak and doesn’t tell the story—“It’s crime!,” he wrote. “Hurtful is one of those newly-minted words in the academy used mostly by politically correct deans trying to control student life.” We wanted to run his email here, but he offered it to his editors at the Boston Phoenix, where he has been a columnist for 40 years. We will link to it as soon as the Phoenix posts it.
Update: Here’s the piece.

How to Fight for Free Speech on Our ‘Sensitive’ Campuses

About fifty undergraduates from around the country gathered outside of Philadelphia, on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, between July 15 and 17th, to discuss the struggle for free speech on American campuses. The event was the third annual Campus Freedom Network (CFN) conference organized by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Teaching as I do at the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, affectionately known by some as the People’s Republic of Amherst, I considered it a rare treat to encounter in one place so many impassioned and curious young people eager to defend their First Amendment rights against the encroachment of overzealous college administrators and others. Horror stories were recounted (about which more anon), but laughter, outrage, smart comebacks, and strategizing were in ample supply.
Since FIRE’s founding in 1999 by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, co-authors of the 1998 book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, the non-partisan non-profit organization has battled speech codes and other assaults on First Amendment rights on campuses from coast to coast. More interested in suasion than in litigation (which, when necessary, is done by FIRE’s many lawyer friends and allies), FIRE is by now a well-established outfit with headquarters in Philadelphia, a satellite office in Manhattan, and a total staff of 17. It has been remarkably successful in bringing sunlight and good sense to blinkered administrators, as can readily be attested by a glance at its website, which archives the organization’s activities, including its blog, The Torch, its constantly growing list of schools whose speech codes and policies FIRE has rigorously analyzed and classified, and offers free downloads of its five short “Guides to Student Rights on Campus” — each book focusing on one crucial area: free speech, religious freedom, due process, student fees, and first-year orientation/thought reform efforts on campus

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Duke’s Mixed News

In the past few days, Duke announced resolutions of two disputes that had bedeviled the university. First, in response to a protest from FIRE, the university overruled the Women’s Center’s refusal to host an exhibition sponsored by a Duke pro-life organization. In a perfect irony, announcement of the reversal came from Women’s Center Director Ada Gregory, last heard from hypothesizing about the danger that Duke’s female students face because they go to school with smart male students: “The higher IQ, the more manipulative they are, the more cunning they are . . . imagine the sex offenders we have here at Duke—cream of the crop.”
Then, Duke settled a lawsuit filed by former lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. Pressler was an early victim of Duke’s Alice-in-Wonderland approach to the lacrosse case—he was fired, and only then did the university conduct an investigation of his conduct. (That investigation concluded he had done nothing wrong, and had responded appropriately every time an administrator raised the issue with him of behavior by his players.) Even then, Pressler sued only when—days before AG Roy Cooper declared the falsely accused players innocent—he was attacked, in print, by Duke’s then-director of public relations.
Duke tried to have Pressler’s lawsuit thrown out on technical grounds, but lost that argument—meaning that depositions would have to go forward, and then the case would go to trial. Perhaps the University would have won at trial, perhaps not. But regardless of the verdict, subjecting key Duke administrators to cross-examination under oath would have risked a public relations nightmare for Duke.

Continue reading Duke’s Mixed News

Duke’s Mixed News

In the past few days, Duke announced resolutions of two disputes that had bedeviled the university. First, in response to a protest from FIRE, the university overruled the Women’s Center’s refusal to host an exhibition sponsored by a Duke pro-life organization. In a perfect irony, announcement of the reversal came from Women’s Center Director Ada Gregory, last heard from hypothesizing about the danger that Duke’s female students face because they go to school with smart male students: “The higher IQ, the more manipulative they are, the more cunning they are . . . imagine the sex offenders we have here at Duke—cream of the crop.”
Then, Duke settled a lawsuit filed by former lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. Pressler was an early victim of Duke’s Alice-in-Wonderland approach to the lacrosse case—he was fired, and only then did the university conduct an investigation of his conduct. (That investigation concluded he had done nothing wrong, and had responded appropriately every time an administrator raised the issue with him of behavior by his players.) Even then, Pressler sued only when—days before AG Roy Cooper declared the falsely accused players innocent—he was attacked, in print, by Duke’s then-director of public relations.
Duke tried to have Pressler’s lawsuit thrown out on technical grounds, but lost that argument—meaning that depositions would have to go forward, and then the case would go to trial. Perhaps the University would have won at trial, perhaps not. But regardless of the verdict, subjecting key Duke administrators to cross-examination under oath would have risked a public relations nightmare for Duke.
The settlement of the Pressler lawsuit doubtless previews how the University might handle the far more serious lawsuit that Duke faces—the civil motion filed by 38 members of the 2006 men’s lacrosse team, along with several of their parents.
As in the Pressler lawsuit, Duke has aggressively sought to have the suit dismissed before the discovery phase, employing some creative legal arguments in the process. My favorites: (1) the assertion that the university doesn’t consider itself legally bound by the terms of the Student Handbook, which among other things precludes discrimination; and (2) these “anti-harassment policies must be balanced against principles of academic freedom” (or when race/class/gender professors choose to go after their own students to advance their pedagogical agenda, such actions should fall under the definition of “academic freedom”).
Neither claim, I should note, appear in Duke’s promotional materials or on its admissions department webpage. Apparently Duke isn’t eager to inform prospective parents that the University’s promises that faculty will treat students with respect aren’t worth the scrap of paper on which they’re printed.
Duke’s motion for summary judgment remains pending. If the University loses, it will face a highly unappealing choice—settle before trial; or allow many of its key administrators from 2006 not only to be deposed, but to hand over internal administration e-mails from spring 2006. The public relations damage from such a move would be horrifying for any institution, much less one eager to remain among the nation’s elite.
By the way, I noted there was mixed news for Duke: on the “good news” front, benefiting from a quite easy draw, the men’s basketball team reached the Final Four.

The Times Does San Diego

Regulars at FIRE’s must-read blog, The Torch, already know the ugly details of events at California-San Diego. A fraternity held an off-campus party that was at best tasteless and at worst racist. Appearing on a student-run TV station (which is funded by the student government through student fees), a student satirical organization defended the party in language, The Torch drily noted, “that many persons on campus found highly offensive.”
The university response, however, was nothing short of extraordinary. UCSD president Marye Anne Fox—acting under pressure from various California state legislators—has threatened disciplinary actions against the students involved in planning the party. (That Fox’s administration has elected to use a judicial code that was modified because its overly broad nature appears not to have worried the UCSD powers that be.) Even more incredibly, the student government president—working in concert with the university’s counsel and other university administrators—has frozen funding to all student media organizations. This assault on the First Amendment drew public rebuke from both FIRE and the ACLU, but appears not to have troubled either Fox or her defenders.
The general outlines of the UCSD case should come as little surprise to close observers of contemporary higher education. Regardless of how offensive the student conduct was (and, in this case, it was pretty offensive), the abusive reaction of those with power at the university is far, far more troubling. In the name of promoting “diversity,” Fox and her administration seem intent on massively violating due process for her own institution’s students and ignoring the requirements that the First Amendment imposes on any public college or university.
Saturday, the New York Times brought its attention to events at the San Diego campus. The First Amendment issue received one sentence in reporter Randal Archibold’s article: “The student association has suspended financing to all campus media while it studies what to do about the program about the party.” The article ignored the protests against this draconian action. Likewise the Times saw fit to gloss over the civil liberties angle, blandly observing, “The administration is still investigating the Compton Cookout, and whether students can or should be sanctioned.”

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The AAUP Strikes Out . . . Again

The AAUP recently produced a new journal devoted to exploring the state of academic freedom on today’s college campuses. As customary with anything from the AAUP in recent years, the publication was as notable for what it didn’t contain as what it did, in that it offered no mention of the internal threat to academic freedom coming from the ideological and pedagogical majority on most college campuses.
That said, the essays did provide an occasional surprise. As Erica Goldberg at The Torch pointed out, the article by Delaware professor Jan Blits (who opposed the university’s infamous residence hall indoctrination program) provided an example of an area in which all friends of academic freedom should agree—that increasing the power of administrators, especially residential life administrators, over curricular and other academic matters poses a grave threat to academic freedom.
The other essays in the journal, alas, didn’t rise to Blits’ level. Robert Engvall produced a screed against merit pay—even as he conceded that “some people oppose merit pay because they aren’t that good at what they do.” Nonetheless, he illogically maintained, “opposing merit pay in the university setting is absolutely vital to protecting the essence and quality of that setting.” We should go to the barricades, apparently, for the tenured radical who, upon receiving tenure, stops producing any scholarship.

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Why Free Speech Advocates Are Angry

Sometimes people who don’t work in academia wonder why colleges are often the object of debates over free speech. Sure, some observers know that campuses are liberal enclaves, and they regard professors and administrators as easily intimidated by identity politics. But most people remember their college days as pretty much apolitical, and they continue to put the ideological elements in a small box.

That’s why it’s important to go back to the sources and hold them up to public scrutiny. Take campus speech codes. They have a bad name in public life, but they stand firm in student handbooks and campus policies in black and white. Here is a list of some of them, all taken from the list assembled by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). (Some of them may have been altered by now, but the fact that they ever existed is sufficient cause for response.)

At Ohio University we have this definition of harassment: “Nonsexual verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility toward another because of the person’s gender can be the basis for a hostile, offensive, or intimidating environment claim. Gender based conduct can take the form of abusive written or graphic material; epithets; sexist slurs; negative stereotyping; jokes; or threatening, intimidating, or hostile acts.”

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Further Thoughts on the Rotenberg Letter

KC Johnson beat me to the punch in registering doubts and concerns about the letter University of Minnesota General Counsel Mark B. Rotenberg has written to Adam Kissel at FIRE regarding the education department’s review of the curriculum. Kissel and FIRE are to be praised for having wrought out of the university a letter assuring that the university will never “mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with ‘wrong beliefs’ from the University.” But, as KC observes, other statements in Rotenberg’s response cloud that pledge. As with ed school dean Jean Quam’s explanation of the review process a few weeks ago in the Star-Tribune, Rotenberg’s letter recasts several coercive and biased opinions about race, class, etc. into liberal, open-ended, broad-minded explorations of those matters.
The conversion happens in Rotenberg’s description of the process. Whereas the Task Group for Race, Culture, Class, and Gender offered a set of tendentious “Outcomes” such as “Future teachers will recognize & demonstrate understanding of white privilege,” and asked students to engage in “self-discovery” assignments in which they were to reveal attitudes they hold that damage other groups and identities, Rotenberg pictures a group of “creative thinking” faculty members “re-exploring the designs of our teacher education programs.” For support, he cites Dean Quan chractertizing the process as “faculty brainstorming.” In his version, the demands of the task force turn into a marketplace-of-ideas climate in which nothing is prescribed but everything is entertained.
KC cites the sentence that follows Rotenberg’s assurance that the university will not mandate beliefs (“To the contrary . . .”). The following sentence is equally misleading, and deserves attention as well. It says that the ed school’s “commitment” to liberal education “was recognized by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in its 2006 evaluation of the College, which praised CEHD for ‘exposing candidates to a diversity of ideas and viewpoints,’ and for ‘respecting the variability of race/ethnicity, nationality, culture, language, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability status, and human potential.'”
Note, once again, the mendacious softening of language. Rotenberg defends the process as one aimed merely at “exposing” students to diverse viewpoints, and for teaching them to “respect” human variations. Would anybody reading the task group’s recommendations conclude that they allow students who have been exposed to “white privilege” argument to dispute them? Does the group allow students to read about “institutional racism” and decide that it isn’t all that important to the algebra classroom?

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