Three Dirty Academic Words Ending in ‘Ity’

September 15, 2014

By Richard Vedder at  Forbes

UPDATE: Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke to Yale last night without significant interruption or disturbance according to the Yale Daily News, and received a standing ovation. 

A decade ago, the favorite word out of university presidents’ mouths was “diversity.” A few years later, the cool word to use was “sustainability.” Today, the new mot du jour is “civility.” Universities have ruined all three of these once perfectly good words. For the record, I am against “diversity,” “sustainability,” and “civility” –at least as they are misused by university apparatchiks.

“Diversity” came to mean evaluating people not on their intellectual merit, the strength of their character, or other legitimate means, but rather by some biological group characteristic, such as the color of their skin or their gender. The maddening thing about the term was the Orwellian dimension of it all –universities were bragging about their commitment to “diversity” meaning skin color and other such genetically determined characteristics, when they were becoming increasingly contemptuous and even hostile to meaningful, good diversity — a wide range of different ideas and opinions. According to Harry Enten, who analyzed the politics of commencement speakers at top 30 universities for 2013 and 2014, 25 Democratic political figures were invited to speak, but no Republicans. Where is the diversity there?

Then came “sustainability.” To this day, I am not sure what it is. But most of what is called “sustainable” activity is to my mind truly ignorant, wasteful, inefficient behavior in any meaningful economic sense. Colleges will spend $30 million on solar panels that lower electric bills by $1 million a year, for a low rate of return of 3.3 percent –and that does not account for depreciation and maintenance costs, making the investment completely non-economic by any sensible measure. Students would get a better value from better uses of university resources. Sustainability coordinators will urge the university food czars and czarinas to “buy local foods,” when it is often far more costly to do so. The law of comparative advantage says the wealth of nations is thwarted if people fail to trade over long distances.  The same people who say global warming is going to hurt us soon despite 15 years of continuous global cooling are convincing universities to waste monies and raise tuition fees to promote bad policies that are costly.

Now, there’s “civility,” the most dangerous word of all. It is a code word that means that people on campus should express themselves in a way that offends no one. It is a form of censorship. It is anti-freedom of speech, the antithesis of what a great university is all about.  Universities increasingly are trying to muzzle freedom of expression. To be sure, there are a few limits on speech that are legitimate –persons who threaten to kill persons who disagree with them are going too far. At my university, the Student Senate president recently condemned Israel in a strident fashion, which while arguably moronic and wrong, was legitimate speech, but when she implied she might be speaking for both the student body and the university as a whole, she went too far, and the university president was correct in condemning that claim.

The latest episode in the free speech wars is occurring now at Yale. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is speaking there. This is the woman to whom Brandeis withdrew an invitation to speech at its commencement. Muslim students at Yale protested her visit, but President Peter Solovey issued a good statement defining Ali’s right to speak. But then, with approval apparently from the university, the school’s chaplain, Sharon Kugler, said “We are deeply concerned by Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s long record of disparaging, and arguably hateful comments about Muslims and Islam.” She proposed the Buckley Program that sponsored Ali’s visit add some anti-Ali speakers.

This is outrageous on multiple grounds. First of all, as one who has read Ali’s writings, listened to her speak, and conversed at some length with her personally, Ali may be speaking “hurtful” things to some Muslims –but they appear to be the truth. She has fought genital mutilation and other offenses against women. She has pointed out passages from the Koran that are not particularly in keeping with modern views on right and wrong. She has told the truth as she knows it. She has exposed barbaric practices. She is doing exactly what persons like her should be doing on university campuses. Should her sponsors be forced to offer alternative speakers? No. Absolutely not. What those disagreeing with Ms. Ali should do is offer alternative speakers themselves with different perspectives, not try to stop Ms. Ali’s appearance. And Yale should repudiate the chaplain’s use of the word “we” to imply she is speaking for an entire university community.

A good very brief new book on the “civility” charade comes from Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Freedom from Speech, which picks up on other campus pathologies, such as speech codes and the new rather inane concept of “trigger warnings” to alert our tender little minds that someone might say something with which some might strongly disagree.

A person who tries to stop another person from speaking peacefully is intolerant. Why aren’t universities spending more time talking about tolerance, and less about talking about “civility,” a code word for suppression of ideas, including some “inconvenient truths?”

Schools: Yale University Cases: Nationwide: Colleges Across the Country Disinvite Commencement Speakers