The Good and The Bad (Plus Some Ugly)

October 11, 2004

Today’s college campus is a study in contrasts. Professors and administrators cling to their grotesque orthodoxies, but students seem to be getting saner by the year. What follows are five of the most outrageous campus incidents of the last academic year, then five of the most heartening acts of courage.

The conservative-speaker double standard is almost an academic institution. At Bucknell University, administrators refused a student group’s request to invite Republican congressman and Senate hopeful Pat Toomey to give a speech, arguing that his appearance would violate a school policy against electioneering on campus. Meanwhile, Bucknell paid presidential candidate Ralph Nader $13,000 to give the school’s commencement address.

In an environment that rewards and even reveres victimhood, some people will do anything to prove themselves worthy. In 2001, for example, a Muslim student at Arizona State falsely claimed — twice — that he’d been assaulted after September 11. Two years later, a black student at San Francisco State scratched “NIGG” on a dorm-room door and wrote the same on a note to herself. Last spring, Claremont McKenna professor Kerri Dunn reported that her car had been vandalized — tires slashed, windows broken, racist and anti-Semitic slogans spray-painted on — after she’d given a lecture on racism. The campus predictably responded with outrage; classes were cancelled and pro-diversity events held. But Dunn’s credibility soon began to erode, and witnesses testified they’d seen her vandalizing the car herself. You know you’re living in interesting times when those who make fighting intolerance their life’s work feel the need to create it.

Each year, the Collegiate Network selects five campus outrages for a special award. This year, one “winner” was the University of California-Santa Barbara, where the multicultural center, as part of its “Race Matters Series,” sponsored a presentation by a Chicano Studies major called “F*$%ing with Stereotypes: Gay Men of Color in Porn.” The student showed clips from porn films and led a discussion about how stereotypes of minorities in gay pornography negatively affect the men who watch it. The student’s work — part of his senior thesis — received praise from administrators. One dean said the student “had done a lot of good work in this area, I appreciated his scholarship . . .”; another administrator called the project an “intellectual exploration” and said, “I was pleased. It showed that we’d be willing to explore difficult dialogues at this university.”

Here’s another example of what can happen when the bounds of tolerance are stretched too far — in this case, in the desperate search for Muslim reformers. Notre Dame appointed Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan to a tenured professorship in “religion, conflict, and peacebuilding.” Ramadan has always projected moderation to the West (as scholars of Islam go). But in July, just before he was to head for the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security revoked his work visa for security reasons. The department hasn’t revealed the basis for its decision, but some — in particular Daniel Pipes — have pointed to Ramadan’s alleged ties to Islamist terrorists. Nevertheless, Ramadan may still make it to Notre Dame: The university is looking into alternatives, and our very own State Department has suggested he apply for another kind of visa.

Why aren’t there more conservatives in academia? According to Robert Brandon, chairman of the philosophy department at Duke, it’s because all the smart people are liberals. “We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. . . . Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too.” Has Brandon’s contempt for conservatives hampered his logical-reasoning ability? Even if most stupid people are Republicans, this tells us nothing about the percentage of Republicans among smart people. Mill was careful to make the distinction: “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.” So why aren’t there more Republicans in academia? Maybe it’s because even the capable ones have been kept out, by the likes of Robert Brandon.

Enough lowlights, now for the highlights.

Sometimes, when the sensitivity police strike, students strike back, and even win. Steve Hinkle, a member of the College Republicans at California Polytechnic State University, was in the campus multicultural center one day posting a flier about a speech by Mason Weaver, author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation. Students in the center were apparently offended by the word “plantation” and told Hinkle to leave; then they called the police. Accused of “disruption,” Hinkle was found guilty by the university’s Judicial Affairs Office and told to write a letter of apology to the students or face severe disciplinary measures. Hinkle refused, and instead turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit group that focuses on infringements of liberty on campuses. When FIRE’s letter-writing and publicity campaign failed, the group filed a lawsuit on Hinkle’s behalf together with the Center for Individual Rights, the public-interest law firm. The university eventually settled, agreeing to expunge Hinkle’s disciplinary record and pay $40,000 in attorney’s fees.

Campus “nondiscrimination” policies are notorious for discriminating against the religious. But at Purdue, a women’s group stood firm against a policy that would have forced it to ignore matters of faith when choosing members. The Stewart Cooperative, a Christian women’s housing group, knowingly faced eviction rather than agree to admit non-Christians. The group contacted FIRE, which wrote a letter to university president Martin Jischke. To Jischke’s credit — or FIRE’s, for making the religious-discrimination issue known — he decided that the cooperative and other religious groups would be considered exempt from the policy.

After years of exile, the Reserve Officers Training Corps may be poised for a comeback at Columbia, thanks in part to undergraduate Sean Wilkes, a founder of Advocates for Columbia ROTC. As a result of the group’s efforts, Columbia now provides information to students about the ROTC program at neighboring Fordham, and lists courses from that program on students’ transcripts. Even more important, one of the university’s main governing bodies has agreed to set up a task force to consider the possibility of ROTC’s return.

Carolina Students for Life, an anti-abortion group at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, was intentionally excluded from activities planned by the campus Women’s Center, which also refused to post a link to the group’s website. So group president Stephanie Evans sent a stern but measured letter to the center and copied it to UNC trustees and administrators. In response (to the letter and the media attention that followed), members of the group were invited to a meeting with a high-level administrator and the Women’s Center director. They got a link on the website. The center also posted links to a pregnancy-support service and a site promoting abstinence. Finally, Carolina Students for Life was invited to participate in future abortion-related events. “I don’t think we struck any extraordinary deal,” says Evans. “I think we got what we deserved and what every other student group had gotten.”

One big-league hero who’s done a great deal for campus freedom is David Horowitz. Horowitz’s group, Students for Academic Freedom, achieved an important victory in Colorado with its Academic Bill of Rights. The purpose of the “bill” is to “protect the principle of intellectual diversity” from, among other things, partisan hiring and grading practices, selective funding of groups and speakers, and preventable ideological bias in the classroom. Horowitz reports that after a political struggle, which included several hearings in the Colorado state legislature, University of Colorado administrators acknowledged that intellectual diversity was in trouble on their campuses. They agreed to adopt provisions of the Academic Bill of Rights not covered by existing regulations, and several schools within the Colorado system have already done so.

May sanity prevail.

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Schools: Duke University University of California, Santa Barbara Bucknell University California Polytechnic State University University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Purdue University Cases: Purdue University: Refusal to Allow Christian Women’s Group to Require Christian Membership California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly): Use of Disruption Claim to Suppress Free Speech