FIRE Board of Advisors member Christina Hoff Sommers has written an interesting article on the Larry Summers controversy at Harvard. While the bulk of the piece addresses the way in which the media have covered the underlying gender difference debate, the last paragraph resonated with FIRE’s experience and work:
Of course, offending feminist professors was not Summers’s only crime. He is outspoken, direct, and does not suffer fools gladly. Not only did he violate the holy dogma of social constructionism, he regularly violates a sacred commandment of modern education: Thou shalt be sensitive, nurturing, and protective of everyone’s self-esteem. Such “virtues” now count for more in an academic leader than integrity, intellectual vision, or a commitment to free inquiry and free expression. If Summers goes down at Harvard, it will seriously damage the standards and traditions of American higher education.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with being “sensitive” or “nurturing,” and it is sometimes appropriate to protect “self-esteem,” the problem is just as Sommers has described: these virtues are not just suggested in the modern academy—they are often commanded. If you look at FIRE’s case archive, you will see numerous cases in which students were punished simply because their remarks were insensitive or not sufficiently welcoming to all members of the academy. My favorite recent example is the now-legendary case of Tim Garneau at the University of New Hampshire, where a flyer that suggested women could lose weight by using the stairs earned Garneau an eviction from the dorms and a mandatory counseling session.
The more I look at the modern academy, the more it resembles the worst caricature of a religious institution, where virtues are mandated, dissent is blasphemy and nothing matters more than the spread of the faith—by any available means. Given the secular religion of the new academy, it should hardly be surprising that some of those who are least welcome are students of traditional or orthodox faith (see our Religious Liberty page for more on FIRE’s defense of religious freedom). To the modern university, students of faith are not welcome participants in a marketplace of ideas; they are instead despised competitors for the hearts and minds of the campus community.