‘We Shall See’

By on May 19, 2005

Moved by FIRE’s official fifth birthday, fast approaching, I have been revisiting the records of my prior involvements in the struggle for liberty and legal equality at America’s colleges and universities. Some fifteen and a half years ago, I wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal (October 12, 1989), expressing my dismay over campus speech codes, double standards, intrusions upon private conscience, administrative abuses of power, and the war against individual rights, individual conscience, and individual identity. I quoted from policies at my own university, and from an administrator who, in 1986, had justified such policies by noting, “We at the University of Pennsylvania have guaranteed students that they can live in a community free of sexism, racism, and homophobia.” I asked, “Who gets to define these evils and design this utopia?” In 1982, the Penn administration subjected the entire Office of Student Life to mandatory “racism awareness seminars,” with a follow-up questionnaire, requiring a signature, that asked a string of questions such as, “Now that you have completed the Racism Awareness Workshop…How much are you able to identify the indicators of American racism in a. The University? b. Your department/office?” I warned, “The subsidized activists, advocates, facilitators, and social engineers who work in ‘student life’ and support services are a powerful force in the academic world. They attend conferences together, and they testify to each other’s successes. They are the expertise that other activist officials call upon to justify their own programs. They share language and conceptual schemes.” Foremost among those schemes, I argued, was the definition of “‘diversity’…not as the coming together of diverse individuals, but as the recognition of the primacy of group-identity.”

What attracted the most attention in the editorial—indeed, it developed a life of its own in hundreds of citations—was an exchange between a student and an administrator who both were on the committee to design “diversity education.” In truth, I had encouraged this brave, female undergraduate both to join the committee with her own sense of a university and to speak her mind plainly. She wrote a memo to her colleagues about the emphasis on group, expressing “my deep regard for the individual and my desire to protect the freedoms of all members of society.” An administrator sent her memo back to her, with the word “individual” underlined, and writing, “This is a ‘RED FLAG’ phrase today, which is considered by many to be RACIST.”

That noxious tide of political correctness was rising throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. I wrote, in my editorial, of its strengths on campus, including “the radicals’ almost uncontested control of moral symbolism.” I also noted “its moral vulnerabilities”: “the Orwellian substitution of thought reform for behavioral sanctions; the desire for essential freedom of speech and expression….; the ability…to distinguish between authentic education and tendentious indoctrination; the unwillingness of administrators to defend intellectual repression under public scrutiny; and the manifest wickedness of imposing group-identities upon the universities of a nation where the right to individuate according to private conscience remains the authentic criterion of liberation.” I concluded, defiantly (but none too optimistically), “We shall see.”

Indeed. Before FIRE, there were isolated figures defending individual students (and faculty) on a case-by-case basis, unable to turn the “moral vulnerabilities” of coercive political correctness to the advantage of liberty and individual rights. How that has changed in five years. Read and re-read FIRE’s website and archives, and see what the work of this politically diverse group of men and women has accomplished. The staff of FIRE have produced systemic means of change, have redefined the public debate, have ended campus fatalism, and have seized the high moral ground on behalf of freedom, fairness, and legal equality. One does not accomplish anything for the good simply by wish or by complaint. One changes things by focused moral action. The staff of FIRE, collegial across a political spectrum that our campuses do not even approach (either in collegiality or in true pluralism) are redrawing the essential circumstance of individual rights in higher education, and the term “individual” is indeed a flag for them, but one on behalf of everyone’s dignity and equal rights. It has been a long struggle, and FIRE’s staff have infused it with an intelligence and principled purpose that are unequalled in this domain. I am privileged to be associated with them. In all the defiance of “We shall see,” I could not have envisaged FIRE and its success. FIRE’s staff think, “We shall understand, and we shall do.” They deserve your support.