I am old enough to remember when America’s colleges and universities seemed to be our society’s most open-minded and intellectually rigorous institutions. Today, something very much like the opposite is true: America’s colleges and universities have become, and have been for some decades, the most closed-minded and intellectually dishonest institutions in our society.
Colleges and universities today almost universally have speech codes, which prohibit speech deemed hurtful by others, particularly those deemed to be minorities (including women, who are a majority on most campuses these days).
They are enforced unequally so no one gets punished when students take copies of conservative alternative campus newspapers left for free distribution and dump them in the trash. But should a conservative student call some female students “water buffaloes,” he is sentenced to take sensitivity training — the campus version of communist re-education camps. The message comes through loud and clear. Some kinds of speech are protected, while others are punished.
Where did speech codes come from? There certainly weren’t many when I was in college or law school. So far as I can tell, they originated after college and university administrators began using racial quotas and preferences to admit students — starting with blacks, now including Hispanics and perhaps others — who did not meet ordinary standards. They were instituted, it seems, to prevent those students from feeling insulted and to free administrators from criticism for preferential treatment — treatment that arguably violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (although Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing vote in the 2003 Supreme Court case on the subject, said they could continue another 25 years).
Racial quotas and preferences continue to be used, as a recent article on the University of California-Los Angeles makes clear, despite state laws forbidding them. University administrators seem to derive much of their psychic income from their supposed generosity in employing these preferences, though evidence compiled by UCLA Professor Richard Sander suggests they produce worse educational outcomes for their intended beneficiaries and Justice Clarence Thomas makes a persuasive case in his book “My Grandfather’s Son” that they cast a stigma of inferiority on them.
Of course, college and university administrators insist they aren’t actually using quotas when in fact they are, as Justice O’Connor’s decisive opinion in 2003 invited them to do. The result is that one indispensable requirement for being a college or university administrator is intellectual dishonesty. You have to be willing to lie about what you consider one of your most important duties. So much for open inquiry and intellectual rigor.
This is not the only way the colleges and universities fall far short of what were once their standards. Sometime in the 1960s, they abandoned their role as advocates of American values — critical advocates who tried to advance freedom and equality further than Americans had yet succeeded in doing — and took on the role of adversaries of society.
The students who were exempted from serving their country during the Vietnam War condemned not themselves but their country, and many sought tenured positions in academe to undermine what they considered a militaristic, imperialist, racist, exploitative, sexist, homophobic — the list of complaints grew over time — country.
English departments have been packed by deconstructionists who insist Shakespeare is no better than rap music, and history departments with multiculturalists who insist all societies are morally equal except our own, which is morally inferior.
Economics departments and the hard sciences have mostly resisted such deterioration. But when Lawrence Summers, first-class economist and president of Harvard, suggested more men than women may have the capacity to be first-rate scientists — which is what the hard data showed — then, off with his head.
This regnant campus culture helps to explain why Columbia University, which bars ROTC from campus on the grounds that the military bars open homosexuals from service, welcomed Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose government publicly executes homosexuals. It explains why Hofstra’s law school invites to speak on legal ethics Lynn Stewart, a lawyer convicted of aiding and abetting a terrorist client and sentenced to 28 months in jail.
It doesn’t explain why the rest of society is willing to support such institutions by paying huge tuitions, providing tax exemptions and making generous gifts. Suppression of campus speech has been admirably documented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The promotion of bogus scholarship and idea-free propagandizing has been admirably documented by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. It’s too bad the rest of America is not paying more attention.
Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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