Interview on Safe Enough Spaces

This week, Inside Higher Education published an email interview I did with its editor on my new book (out August 20th), Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale Press). I’m hoping some find the book useful as they consider various debates about the politics of higher education. I’ll try to live up to the positions articulated in this slim volume, or modify those positions as a result of conversations with students, faculty and staff.

As president of Wesleyan University since 2007, Michael S. Roth is no stranger to the debates that have consumed American higher education. He has defended invitations to controversial speakers, generally those who are on the right. He’s called for institutions like Wesleyan to be as welcoming to conservative students as to liberals. In a new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale University Press), Roth talks about how to defend free speech and campus values of inclusion — and also touches on issues of affirmative action.

Q: You write that “wherever one stands on issues of affirmative action, most can agree that diversity isn’t just about admissions — it’s about the educational culture created by a university.” But given the debates about getting in, do you think universities do a good job with affirmative action?

A: There are at least three different debates going on about access to universities in the United States. The first is a debate about how to make college more affordable, more accessible, to more young people across the country. This is a crucial conversation that depends on shoring up public support for community colleges and public universities — schools that enroll the majority of those enrolled in higher education. And we don’t just have to figure out how to provide access to these schools; we need to improve completion rates while reducing debt levels. Free college for everyone may make for a popular stump speech, but what we really need is affordable college for those with financial need. This will take massive public investment.

The other “debate about getting in” has to do with how people are chosen for admission to highly selective colleges and universities. This will always be fraught because there are many, many more qualified applicants than there are spots available at highly selective schools. I don’t think admissions should be based on a single exam or group of exams, and in a holistic process, there will always be the possibility of some controversy. (And even with exams, controversy follows from perceived scarcity.) There will always be complaints that someone had an unfair advantage in the process (and some do). Still, part of the responsibility of college admissions departments is to bring in a class that makes it possible for all students to benefit from a diverse student body; the responsibility of the institution is to create an environment in which people can learn with/from folks different from themselves. The colleges and universities that I know work very hard to build equitable diversity through admissions; the even greater challenge these days is creating equitable inclusion for all students after they matriculate. I address this subject in the first section of Safe Enough Spaces.

There is a third debate I should mention regarding elite schools, and that is around the question of whether they are cementing inequality or providing paths for social mobility. The data recently analyzed by Raj Chetty and his colleagues show that the former is often the case. Although many schools have made progress in diversifying their student bodies, it is still true that in many of the most selective institutions more undergraduates come from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than from the bottom 60 percent. It is clear that inequality in America has long affected elementary and high schools, and that it is increasingly difficult for low-income families to find educational opportunities that will result in their students being college-ready at age 17. Colleges can’t themselves correct for this systemic problem in K-12 education.

Richard V. Reeves has described “opportunity hoarding” by the wealthiest fifth of the American population. The upper middle class has focused on securing special privileges for its children, he writes, adding that “education has … become the main mechanism for the reproduction of upper-middle-class status across generations.” As inequality has gotten worse, the benefit of having a college diploma has gotten greater. Still, at many elite schools we continue to privilege the privileged — whether through admissions offices that give alumni relatives an advantage, or through geographically based marketing plans that aim recruiting messages at those already most likely to succeed because of the advantages they already have. Some schools have made significant changes, but providing more opportunity for deep learning among the most marginalized populations remains a challenge. This is an important priority for us at Wesleyan University, and we have created strong partnerships with community-based organizations to make economically sustainable progress in this regard. What would it take for all schools to think of this as a civic responsibility essential to their mission?

Q: What do you make of the criticisms from academe of Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein?

A: Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein had different political positions on many topics, but they shared the notion that multiculturalism on American university campuses had become a sterile orthodoxy.The Closing of the American Mind (1987) didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. Now, Bloom was interested not in the average college student but in students who wound up at America’s very best colleges and universities. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. The prejudice with which these students had been inculcated since they were schoolchildren, he asserted, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth (or later, their own passion). We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right.

Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue appeared at the height of the 1990s PC frenzy, when the multiculturalism Bloom derided seemed to have become an enforceable dogma. Bernstein saw a commitment to inclusivity and equality as having become a demand for moral purity. He was dismayed that the doctrine of assimilation, in which his own forebears had trusted when they came to this country, had been replaced by a celebration of difference. Almost 30 years ago, Bernstein argued that we no longer needed strong programs to remove barriers to integration for those who had been discriminated against or marginalized in earlier times. He seemed to believe that his own family’s assimilationist success story meant that “strident anti-immigration sentiments” and “organized nativism” were things of the past. Today, the rise of neo-fascist policies and rhetoric at the highest levels of government makes Bernstein’s claims seem naïve, but his prediction that excessive efforts to expose the negative dimensions of American history would produce a backlash to “make America great again” turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Q: What do you make of the term “politically correct”?

A: Safe Enough Spaces charts the cultural complaints that resulted in the popularity of the label “politically correct.” Among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be “politically incorrect” or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness was not atypical banter. By the 1990s, though, accusations of “political correctness” would become a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse, especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy. Setting the stage for this was philosopher Bloom’s bestseller. With Closing of the American Mind, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to bestselling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it.

Many who whine bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself. But how to tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African Americans oversensitive about stop and frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out misgendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling or assuming the status of the victimized are among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. And that’s why I argue that students, faculty and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both callout culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees, and not just about abstract issues like whether we have become unconscious relativists. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and sexual assault, about jobs and the shrinking middle class … all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language and, sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get “called out” for their supposed racism or general privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage — for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best “on the ground” refutation of the “PC” charge.

Q: You talk of mostly supporting free speech on campus. Who would be justifiably barred by a (private) campus?

A: The libertarian or marketplace approach to free speech often claims that if anyone is excluded from speaking, we are on a slippery slope to pernicious censorship. Drawing on the work of several other scholars, I argue that if there is a slippery slope, we are always already on it. Defenses of free speech always exclude something. As Stanley Fish has often reminded us, for the poet John Milton (a favorite of free speech absolutists), Catholics were excluded from free speech protections. For us today, child pornography or incitements to violence would usually be considered beyond the pale. Typically, the exclusions can be enforced informally by social or professional pressure (appeals to civility, ostracism), but borders for acceptable speech also get codified in rules and regulations. And there are always borders.

That said, I don’t have a formula for excluding speakers or performers from campus. In Safe Enough Spaces, I do point out that we do not have to provide a platform for those whose principal goal is the intimidation or persecution of others. Sometimes, a group of people may say they feel assaulted by someone else’s ideas, but we should have a very high threshold for accepting that someone’s ideas are too disturbing for us to even try to refute them. However, to say that a university is a marketplace of ideas where we must entertain all provocateurs is neither an accurate description of higher education nor a legitimate principle on which to build policy.

When markets are unregulated, real pollution, real harm, occurs — and those who are hurt tend to be those who historically have been vulnerable. In the last several years, the pollution on campus has often come from right-wing provocateurs who come to speak at institutions of higher learning to add credence and energy to racist, homophobic and sexist attitudes and practices. This dynamic increases in intensity as harmful effects are repeated. When those in positions of authority insist that this is not real harm because it’s not physical violence, or when First Amendment fundamentalists opine that “all of us” sometimes feel marginalized, it is no wonder that many students have learned to see the ideology of market deregulation at the heart of free speech dogmatism. They have learned this because they have experienced that power matters in regard to speech as well as other things. University leaders must be conscious of this as they work within their particular campus cultures to expand intellectual diversity and to promote the engagement with difference. We must not let the absolutist doctrine of “more speech” become as unhealthy for universities as the doctrine of deregulation has been for the environment.

Q: How do you see the issues differently on public campuses?

A: I have spent my career at private institutions, and I don’t pretend to have any expertise about public universities. That said, every campus — public or private — has its own distinctive culture, regulations and relationship to the political sphere. Navigating the various constituencies of those cultures so as to promote a richer education for all is the task of administrative and faculty leadership. At public institutions one has the added burden of dealing with state legislatures that often are reluctant to fund quality research and teaching, and these same officials often create conditions for the operation of public campuses that may have little to do with their educative purposes. However, the task of expanding intellectual diversity while cultivating inclusion for the sake of deeper learning is common to us all — as is the task of making a case for this learning and the research which makes it possible.

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