Campus polarization

By February 15, 2007

Today, a small group of alumnae including myself and a student group are sponsoring a pro-life event at Barnard, featuring Serrin Foster of Feminists for Life who will speak on “The Feminist Case Against Abortion.”

With this event, we hope to find that “diversity” on a college campus can mean more than differences of race, socio-economic level, and gender and that academic freedom is alive and well at Barnard. For it seems that when it is ideas that diverge from the prevailing liberal mind-set on so many college campuses, diversity goes out the window.

Our small alumnae group does not represent any organization. And in fact, we didn’t know each other until a few months ago when we connected because of our alumnae magazine, Barnard.

In reading the spring 2006 issue, I came across an article described as “tied to” Barnard’s Difficult Dialogues project. This project is part of a Ford Foundation initiative to engage students in positive and respectful dialogue about difficult subjects, the goal being an open intellectual campus environment where academic freedom will thrive. The article caught my eye because I’d been following the diversity issue at my alma mater, since my next college-bound teen is a daughter.

The subject of this particular article was abortion, an issue apparently so difficult that the discussion reported on consisted of one side dialoguing with itself about how Barnard students can most effectively pass along their pro-abortion views to others. Planned Parenthood was on hand to facilitate the discussion, sponsored by Students for Choice.

The Barnard president, Judith Shapiro, responded to a letter that I wrote to her about the article’s bias, and she agreed that the piece could have been more objective. She also assured me that Barnard’s professors are not interested in promoting a liberal agenda.

But, I wonder. Barnard College itself received a negative rating on free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Barnard’s Difficult Dialogues project, which explores political and religious topics, is under the auspices of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, which celebrates feminist activism and scrutinizes everything from immigration to hip-hop through a gender lens.

It seems that the Barnard project, as does the wider Difficult Dialogues program, features the familiar diversity themes. Other Difficult Dialogues topics across the country include race and religion; religion and sexuality; Islamophobia; Hurricane Katrina as related to race, class, and power; sexual orientation; compulsory heterosexuality; affirmative action; the Theater of the Oppressed as related to community problem solving, and issues of multiculturalism that affect an ever-growing international campus population.

Creating an open campus environment for discussing difficult issues doesn’t require a grant from the Ford Foundation. It requires reversing a trend that academia has brought on itself. Colleges and universities founded on religious principles with the mission to educate in the classical tradition of the liberal arts have drifted from their moorings.

Today’s academic freedom usually means that self-identified liberal professors are free to direct curriculums and course content to follow political and cultural trends— multiculturalism and diversity—rather than to educate for the purpose of refining the intellect and discovering the good and the true. Dialogue is difficult when the keepers of the prevailing liberal ideology are reluctant to engage in reasoned debate and are quick to label opposing views as intolerant, narrow-minded, and judgmental. The “political polarization” and the “silence and distancing” that President Shapiro wrote about in my alumnae magazine are familiar phenomena to those of us who may have religious beliefs or political views not endorsed by the shapers of campus curriculums steeped in cultural relativism.

How are parents like myself to respond to the realization that, after our children jump through hoops to gain admission to college, they likely will enter a campus so diverse that it dismisses Western culture and is “open” only to those ideas that reflect the political correctness of the moment. How are alumni to respond when they find themselves reluctant to recommend their own alma mater to their children.

Obviously, parents can walk away from such schools and guide their children to those colleges where their values will be reinforced and where the required curriculums value the Western canon.

But after years of reading my alumnae magazine and simply putting it aside in resignation, I decided last spring to write a letter to the editor. One letter led to another and so to this week’s pro-life event. Like-minded individuals need to find ways to let our colleges and universities know that we know the word “diversity” applies to more than gender and skin color and that academic freedom applies to all of us.

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