Harvey Silverglate: Can We Change the Campus Culture?

By October 16, 2008

FIRE has won battle after battle in the fight for liberty on campus, defending students and faculty members who have had their basic rights infringed. But one question we continually ask ourselves is this: How can we change the culture of campuses to one where these essential rights are no longer disdained but are universally understood and respected? FIRE’s co-founder, Harvey Silverglate, answers this question in an article published this week in Minding the Campus. He writes:

So, how are we to accomplish this Herculean task?

For one thing, it is essential that more of the goings-on in higher education reach the general public. Parents who pay these huge tuitions need to understand that their money is largely wasted if their children are educated into obedience and thought-reform rather than in the thinking process that characterizes the liberal arts correctly understood.

FIRE exposes the abuses against liberty at universities by alerting the media to cases that have happened in their backyards in the form of press releases, radio and TV interviews, targeted advertisements (such as our U.S. News & World Report ad), and video and audio podcasts. When administrators realize that they cannot hide from the public what they do in private, they usually retract their punishments and issue statements about how they are committed to upholding the rights guaranteed by the Constitution or their own promises.

But FIRE has been thinking bigger lately. Winning one battle at a time is only part of a general solution:

Alumni need to band together to find ways of learning what’s really happening. Perhaps more of them should read the independently-edited student newspaper, if there is one, rather than relying on the school’s official alumni rag. Perhaps they should speak with students and with the occasional dissident faculty member. Perhaps organizations concerned with the campus culture should pay more attention to communicating with alumni than with their already-convinced members and supporters.

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Students need to organize among themselves to fight for their right to be educated rather than indoctrinated. Students have to recognize that they are entitled to their own views as to what constitutes the moral and ethical life.

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Boards of trustees need to step up to the plate and accept their responsibility for changing the culture. It’s about time they undertake the vital obligation of restoring a true academic culture a culture that values teaching and learning, rather than political indoctrination to their, and our, campuses. In order to harness the intelligence, energy, good faith and enormous potential influence of boards of directors, such boards have to hear from students and alumni, as well as from advocacy organizations loudly, clearly, and often.

Harvey has other great suggestions for influencing the culture of the university campus, which you can read about in the complete article and in Harvey’s piece in the most recent edition of The FIRE Quarterly.