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William Voegeli on the Purpose of College and the Fight for Free Speech

William Voegeli, senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, wrote for Real Clear Politics yesterday to discuss the shift in why students go to college and how their focus hinders progress with respect to open and frank discussion on campus. He laments that for many young people, college is a means to an end; potential employers view a student’s admission to an elite college and ability to obtain a degree as indicators that that student is capable of a successful career, regardless of how much the student actually learns in college. Since the primary motivation for going to college is no longer learning, Voegeli says, civil rights advocates like FIRE cannot simply count on market forces to pressure schools into protecting students’ rights to free expression and freedom of conscience. We at FIRE, in contrast, are optimistic about the potential for change. Every day, we see students who are dedicated to making sure that their college or university is a “marketplace of ideas”—a place where they can freely express opinions and share thoughts. Many students have come to FIRE for help and even gone to court in order to ensure that their rights and the rights of their peers are protected. Of course, not all students and faculty are aware of the serious problem of campus censorship or of the ways they can fight it. But every day, FIRE brings attention to First Amendment violations, increases awareness of our work, and helps students improve policies on their campuses. Our successes are due not just to the legal rationales behind them but to the commendable efforts of students and faculty who enlist our help in these fights. Indeed, in his article, Voegeli reviews several of the victories for free speech that FIRE has helped effect: In 2007 the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) revealed that the University of Delaware's Office of Residence Life had embarked on an indoctrination program using techniques first employed, more gently, during Mao's Cultural Revolution. All 7,000 students living in university dormitories were required, as part of a commitment to sustainability, to report individually to resident advisors on their progress in a sequence of goals specified by the Office, including: Each student will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society. []Each student will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression. []Each student will be able to utilize their [sic] knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality. []Demonstrate civic engagement toward the development of a sustainable society. [] As Voegeli notes, “Within days after FIRE publicized it … the University of Delaware’s president suspended the program.” Public criticism contributed to a similar outcome more recently: Earlier this year … the Johns Hopkins University Student Government Association declined to recognize Voice for Life, an anti-abortion group, as an official student activity. (Students for Justice in Palestine received official recognition at the same meeting.) Hopkins "is a private university," one member of the Association explained it, "and as such, we have the right to protect our students from things that are uncomfortable." After a month of bad publicity, including a George F. Will column decrying Johns Hopkins's fervent but selective commitment to "inclusion," the university granted official recognition to Voice for Life. For Voegeli’s full discussion, including a broader historical look at college attendance and other factors affecting higher education today, check out the Real Clear Politics website.

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