By David Davenport at Forbes
No wonder many Americans question the value of sending their kids to universities for four years. Oh wait, I better not say “Americans” since, at least at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), that is now a “problematic” word. The “Bias-Free Language Guide” at UNH also has problems with mothering, fathering, illegal alien, older people, rich person, poor person, etc. It’s a good thing I don’t teach there since, by now, I might well be charged with being an older rich American who has done his share of fathering.
Speech codes have been a problem on college campuses in recent years, with their direct clash with First Amendment rights to free speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education produces an annual report on the subject, finding most recently that 55% of 437 colleges and universities studied had such codes. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the University of New Hampshire guide is especially rich (oops, I should have said “an individual of material wealth”). Apparently a group of students and faculty, concerned with “the truths of hierarchy and oppression,” spent considerable time developing it. It was on the University’s official website in a section on “inclusive excellence” until it blew up in the media this week and the University removed it, or at least restricted access to it.
Although this particular “guide” was not a mandatory or enforceable speech code, it is nevertheless troubling. At the core, colleges and universities are supposed to be engaged in the difficult, and often messy, search for truth, as promoted with the motto “Veritas” at the entrance to Harvard University. Yale’s statement on “freedom of expression” captures this search well when it says students must be able to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” Acknowledging that students will encounter people who think differently than they do, at Yale everyone is expected “to honor their free expression, even when what they have to say seems wrong or offensive to you.” In a debate on immigration, for example, if I am not supposed to comment on the illegality of someone’s presence in the country, that rules out an essential portion of the debate.
But limiting the nature of substantive debate is precisely the effect, and arguably the underlying purpose, of such a guide. On the surface it purports to be a speech code about “awareness of any bias in our daily language,” but the guide goes on to say that it is also about the deeper questions of “hierarchy and oppression.” Since debates are about ideas, and ideas are expressed in language, limiting the language necessarily limits the debate. If students are not supposed to argue policies pertaining to the “rich” and “poor,” or should avoid talking about “Americans” or “illegal aliens,” obviously a lot of robust debate is lost. The chilling effect on free speech is precisely why the First Amendment guarantees it, and a government-run university is especially vulnerable to constitutional challenges to speech codes.
College stakeholders who read such a guide or policy would also wonder what in the world they are doing with all that time and taxpayer funding at UNH. The New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley quite reasonably said in response to the guide: “The University System of New Hampshire should concentrate on educating students to compete in the 21st century economy rather than taking political correctness to farcical levels.”
Colleges and universities are supposed to be the realm of ideas where students learn. Unfortunately they have become bastions of political correctness, championing seemingly every kind of diversity except the most important educational diversity of all: a diversity of ideas.
Schools: University of New Hampshire