Harvey Silverglate on Campus Isolation: ‘Tear Down this Wall’

September 13, 2007

FIRE co-founder and board chairman, Harvey Silverglate has written a truly insightful post on The Phoenix’s “Free for All” blog about the University of Vermont’s new mega-student center/administrative headquarters/hive complex in Burlington and what it says about the problems of modern campus culture:

The tendency of colleges—in Burlington, Cambridge, and just about everywhere else—to turn the campus into a company town of sorts, and keep the students penned in rather than out on the town, surely helps preserve the oddly isolated culture that has afflicted American campuses of higher education, where the values and practices of the “real world” grow more and more remote everyday. Only on a campus, after all, could limiting protests to one gazebo seem like a good idea. Only on a campus could the definition of the term “harassment” be watered down so much that it includes engaging in pure political speech, such as publishing unflattering facts about a world religion, or engaging in an anti-affirmative action bake sale that satirically illustrates its point by discounting prices to certain races. Only on a campus could a collection of Palestinian artwork be removed because it advocated only one side of a divisive issue.

Even at Harvard Law School, the apex of the American legal establishment, there is a speech code—dubbed “Sexual Harassment Guidelines”—that grew out of a 1990’s student parody of feminist legal theory. Today students may safely engage in parody or other “offensive” speech in Harvard Square (protected by the venerable First Amendment, after all) that would be punishable if spoken in Harvard Yard or Harvard Law School. A student may not, at Harvard, engage in the kind of parody we normal citizens freely watch every night on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show and “The Colbert Report.” Our campuses of higher education, once the freest places in our society, are now the second least free (outranked, still, by our maximum security prisons).

I’m not saying that providing a student on the campus with everything he or she needs is solely, or even largely responsible for the increasingly wide chasm between the campus and “the real world” that is characterized by the typical American urban street. (That’s a subject that my co-author and I tried to explore in our 1998 book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses). But I think that this isolation does facilitate the successful indoctrination of students with multicultural and gender-related sensitivity training, speech codes, and other aspects of the tendentious and nauseatingly politically correct modern academy that is at war with liberty, with truly liberal education, and with the greater society. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous speech aimed at then Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, it’s time to tear down this wall, or perhaps this student center. The increasing isolation of gown from town can bode nothing but ill for both society and higher education.

Right on, Harvey. FIRE’s case archive is replete with examples of how out of touch the academy has become with the rest of society. Marquette’s University’s decision to tear down a Ph.D. student’s Dave Barry quote immediately comes to mind as one example.  Add universities’ ever-increasing tendency to regulate students’ lives (both public and private), to the fact they often charge students more each year than the average American household makes in a year to attend, subtract due process protections, and can anyone wonder why there is such frustration with higher education these days?

Schools:  University of Vermont