On Political Correctness, Free Speech and Higher Education

This morning the Washington Post published the op-ed below in Valerie Strauss’s education blog, The Answer Sheet. I reproduce it here. 

It would be hard to find a period in peacetime when our government has made a more concerted effort to undermine freedom of inquiry and expression. These attacks start with the press and extend to education. Every week President Trump takes aim at journalists, calling them enemies of the people, or deriding sources he dislikes as “fake news.” As many have documented, his administration has engaged in an assault on the very notions of investigation and truth, doubling down on lies about Russian cyberattacks, economic markets and tariffs, and his own past behavior.

Along with attacks on the press have come attacks on colleges and universities. The link between them is the idea of being politically correct. President Trump made political correctness his personal bogeyman, so that when challenged about any variety of salacious improprieties, he would respond that he didn’t have time to be politically correct, or, put more stridently, “political correctness is killing our country.”

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined the gratuitous, overheated criticism of higher education — which remains one of the sectors of American culture and economy that has continued to attract respect and engagement from the best and brightest from around the world. Participating in the pile-on culture he claims to deride, Sessions attacked the usual caricatures in his speech to a gathering of conservative students: “Through ‘trigger warnings’ about ‘microaggressions,’ cry closets, ‘safe spaces,’ optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs. That is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do.”

In the wake of the awful cruelties and dramatic embarrassments of the Trump administration in regard to immigration and foreign policy, these kinds of attacks are nothing more than a political distraction. At a time when law enforcement is separating families and the racist rhetoric of “infestation” has become a regular part of national presidential discourse, we must recognize that criticizing pc culture is just a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

When confronted with scandal, conflicts of interest and the inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about threats to conservative activists on campus. I have argued before that many universities should do more to represent conservative points of view in their approaches to the humanities and social sciences. And there is plenty of room for improvement in our efforts to cultivate intellectual diversity. But it is downright unseemly to hear speakers trumpeting their own courage in “not being pc” as they attack especially vulnerable groups in society. As the midterm election battles develop, we should expect to see candidates rush to show they can stand up to this phantom force against speaking one’s mind. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on pc elitism.

When his audience of high school students began repeating the irresponsible, uninformed chant from the last campaign, “lock her up,” our nation’s foremost guardian of due process and law enforcement had an opportunity to educate them. Did he take that opportunity?  No, he smiled and joined in the groupthink, while also hypocritically calling for “the molding of a generation of mature and well-informed adults.” He went on to claim that colleges and universities “are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.” With the moral spinelessness and alliterative verve of Spiro Agnew, Jeff Session played to his base while championing openness to others.

Political correctness remains a scapegoat with strange powers to titillate liberal and conservative writers alike. Sure, there are campus groups that form around common values and ideas, and sometimes a group can be close-minded. But on my college campus and others I’ve visited, I also see vigorous discussion within the faculty about ideas that matter, and I hear plenty of students rebelling against the notion that young people all think alike. Campuses are challenging places when they cultivate diversity of perspective, a sense of belonging and a common devotion to rigorous inquiry. In an America where there is deep polarization and segregation, one might ask if there are other places today where these arguments are taking place among people from very different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.

While the president legitimates fatuous attacks on the press and education, on inquiry and truth telling, let’s recognize the constructive value of ongoing debate, intellectual diversity and rigorous inquiry. These have made American universities attractive to people from all over the world, while our government officials offer a spectacle of cruelty, pandering and corruption.

On “The Argus” and Freedom of Expression

With the recent WSA discussions concerning funding for The Argus, I have been asked several times about my views on the status of freedom of expression at Wesleyan. I have pulled together some earlier things I’ve written on the subject, and added some new thoughts on recent debates.

Wesleyan students have long been concerned with issues of “freedom of expression,” and since 1991 the topic has been the focus of our annual Hugo Black Lecture. Several years ago Justice Scalia was our speaker, two years ago it was Aharon Barak, President of Israel’s Supreme Court, and this year it was scholar Stanley Fish. For several months free speech issues have been vigorously debated on our campus centering on questions about the role of the student newspaper The Argus. The immediate catalyst for these discussions was an op-ed written by a student, Bryan Stascavage, raising critical questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. I trust the editors thought that Bryan’s essay would spark real conversations — the kind that make newspapers a vital part of so many communities’ cultural ecology. The editors got more than they bargained for. Some students argued that the essay was racist (I don’t think it was), or at least that it participated in systems of racist domination. They made the important point that opinion pieces like these facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population, and they angrily accused The Argus of contributing to that marginalization.

I’m very glad these important issues were made public — sometimes quite forcefully. Those who think they favor free speech but call for civility in all discussions should remember that battles for freedom of expression are seldom conducted in a privileged atmosphere of upper-class decorum.

Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper. Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression. Many students (I think the great majority) quickly realized this. They also realized that funding a single newspaper for the campus raised all kinds of issues about representativeness and inclusion, but also about editorial autonomy and freedom of expression. Students are trying to figure out how to bring more perspectives to the public with digital platforms, and I am confident they can do this without undermining The Argus. More recently, the Wesleyan Student Assembly used a standard accounting measure to redistribute funds among student groups as the end of the academic year gets closer. Argus supporters were afraid this was an attempt to take away donated dollars that might be necessary in the future should they lose some funding. Again, students are meeting to discuss their concerns together, and I am confident that they will find a vehicle that protects editorial autonomy without just writing the newspaper a blank check. A resolution recently passed by the student government attempts to do just this.

Unfortunately, many of the student discussions this year have taken place under the harsh spotlight of the national press. As once major newspapers and magazines are remade just to attract “more eyeballs,” as budgets for investigative journalism are slashed, journalists around the country have gotten all lathered up about The Argus. While economic freedom and political participation are evaporating into the new normal of radical inequality, while legislators call for arming college students to make them safer, we see lots of attention given to the dangers of political correctness on campuses. But are efforts to fight discrimination and marginalization at universities really the most important threats to free expression? I fear that this focus only diverts attention from far more dangerous threats.

Students, faculty and administrators want our campuses to be free and safe, but we also acknowledge that the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. A campus free from violence is an absolute necessity for a true education, but a campus free from challenge and confrontation would be anathema to it. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be ready to give offense so as to create new opportunities for thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, because there is so much intense discussion these days, campuses can be challenging places. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and sexual assault, about jobs and the shrinking middle class…all these topics stimulate strong emotions, intense language, and, sometimes, bruised feelings. Sure, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they don’t want to be “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of a lack of free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage.

Debates on campus can get nasty, but compared to what one sees on the national political stage, I feel pretty good about our community’s ability to tolerate conflict. I hope there are other places in America today where arguments about important issues are taking place among people from different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance. However painful this may be at times, I am proud these conversations are happening on our campuses.

Education worthy of the name is risky — not safe. Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs. On today’s campuses, this may come from deeper investigation of conservative and religious traditions – from bodies of thought and modes of inquiry that challenge the status quo. This may come from recognizing how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.

I applaud the students, faculty and staff who have been engaged in discussions of how to maintain, even enhance, a campus newspaper’s editorial autonomy while ensuring that it continues as an organization open to publishing a variety of views and engaging writers from diverse segments of the student body. I have every confidence that the newspaper will have the funding it needs to remain an effective platform for news and opinion.

Freedom of Expression

I am in Washington, D.C. today, where I gave a talk on “why liberal education matters” to the faculty, students and guests of American University. Most of the audience had been in conference sessions all morning while I sat glued to the TV watching events unfold in Paris. I lived in Paris for a few years, and I looked with horror at these familiar streets as they filled with the almost familiar sight of terrorism response teams. At another level, I was anxious for the Wesleyan students (and their families) who’d just arrived for their study abroad semester. A city I love was under siege.

The attacks in Paris remind us that those willing to destroy freedom of expression in the name of their own totalitarian commitments can wreck havoc in a society determined to maintain openness and tolerance within the rule of law. I feel immense sadness for those who were slain by the terrorists, and I also feel admiration for those who have taken to the streets of Paris to express their compassion, solidarity and courage.

I began my talk at American University by acknowledging the victims of these heinous attacks. There can be no liberal education today worthy of the name without freedom of expression, without open-ended inquiry and the potential for aversive thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that will often rub some people the wrong way — it will seem to some people “disrespectful” and “uncivil.” That’s the kind of thinking we must protect — even more, that we must stimulate.

Let us cultivate the spirit of satire and of critique, but also of reverence and of affection, in ways that challenge the conventions of the moment. Let us remember the journalists, police and other brave souls who were killed by those who could not abide difference and challenge without resorting to murder.

Let us be worthy of the freedom of expression that came under attack this week in France.



Je Suis Charlie

We are less than a week into 2015, and terror has already raised its ugly head. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of expression, a vicious act aimed to destroy the possibilities for a culture with a place for provocation. Without the spaces cleared by provocative writers and artists, none of us would have the freedom to read, write, view or listen. The killings in Paris today were meant to terrorize those who would challenge the status quo with their drawings and words. Instead, this shameful act should inspire us to cherish freedom of speech and to support the artists and writers courageous enough to challenge us.

As writer Neil Gaiman tweeted today: “How important are free speech and satire? Important enough that people will murder others to silence the kind of speech they don’t like.”

Je Suis Charlie
Je Suis Charlie

Thoughts on Future of Education as a New Year Begins

In conjunction with the publication of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, I’ve been having conversations with groups around the country on the future of higher education. We will continue these conversations with an event in Memorial Chapel at Wesleyan on the evening of February 3.

The assault on education has been brutal in many parts of the world — especially education for girls and women. In our own country, the effort to deny a broad, contextual education to large segments of the population is a symptom of growing economic inequality — not a viable response to it. People are afraid of education when they want to defend the status quo, or so I argued in this brief talk at the Social Good Summit in New York.

Later in the fall semester, Ruth Simmons HON ’10 and I had a public conversation at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Dr. Simmons is the former president of Smith College and Brown University, and she offers a stirring defense of the value of a college education.


Education makes sense when you believe in empowerment through learning. Education makes sense when you believe that inquiry and communication can lead to positive change in the world.

Now more than ever, liberal education is our cause. THIS IS WHY.

Black Lives Matter March

We are preparing for finals, writing exams, grading them…. These are important things. But all around the country people are speaking out against the outrageous injustices that people of color face on a regular basis. We must acknowledge these issues. The time to speak out is now.

The following notice appeared on the faculty list-serve tonight.

On Monday, December 8th, at 3 pm, students of Wesleyan University will be marching in response to the police brutality and systemic racism that led to the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other people of color in recent times. The state must be held accountable for the prejudicial treatment of these individuals. Our movement must start from the ground-up. I am emailing you to ask for your support and solidarity, and invite you to march alongside us students for this cause. We will be gathering at Exley Science Center at 265 Church St.

At Wesleyan we affirm that we are an institution that values boldness, rigor and practical idealism. One doesn’t have to be an idealist to recognize that change is necessary, and that we must demand it.

Join us. This is Why.


Learning, Not Violence

What a summer it has been! Around the world there has been an escalation of hatred and violence — vitriol is flowing in all corners of the globe. Aggressive Russian action against Ukraine continues, and the reactions of the West, however tepid, may be leading to a new Cold War. In the Middle East the killing continues at an accelerated pace. Rockets fired by Hamas fighters from Gaza (sometimes from behind schools and hospitals) into Israel has led to a brutal response that seems only to further reduce the chances for a peace settlement. It is heartbreaking to see the destruction wrought by Israeli strikes, particularly those that have hit the university, shelters and schools. Images of the wounded children burn in my mind.

In Syria the death toll now approaches 200,000, and the mayhem in this failing state is having reverberations throughout the region. ISIS fighters have slaughtered countless civilians who don’t share their particular religious commitments. The horrific beheading of journalist James Foley can stand for so many unspeakable acts. American military activity will certainly be increasing in the coming weeks, who knows with what results?

Here in the United States we have been facing our own crisis because of police acts that evoke long histories of racism and violence. The recent deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles and of Michael Brown in Missouri  — all unarmed black men — remind us of the struggle that remains to achieve anything like “equal protection under the law.”

And let us not forget the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in the spring. We tweeted “bring our girls home,” but the heinous activities of the barbaric group continue unabated. Education for girls remains a right we must struggle to protect.

Why rehearse these horrors as we prepare to begin the academic year? I am thinking about them as a reminder to myself how fortunate I am to be part of a community where disagreement, even intense disagreement, can lead to learning — and not violence. At Wesleyan we will engage issues, and we will do so in order to understand ourselves and the world a little more clearly. The point of this understanding is to be empowered to act more effectively and responsibly beyond the university. Our learning community is one that values inquiry, and, of course, inquiry can often be upsetting, even destabilizing. But we should know that our campus is a place that refuses violence and cultivates care. Our willingness, our responsibility, to look out for one another is one of the qualities that make alma mater such a vital place.

As summer winds down and students, faculty and staff get set to begin the academic year, let us be aware of the work we still have to do to make Wesleyan a more equitable, inclusive and positive community. And let us also be thankful that it is already a place at which we can learn from one another, disagree with one another, and know that we do so within an ethos of peace and respect.

Dialogue on African-American Studies

Yesterday a group of students marched to South College to demand more resources for the African-American Studies major. The program has struggled in recent years, and it recently suffered a blow when two wonderful professors, Leah Wright and Sarah Mahurin, decided to move on to other institutions. Both Leah and Sarah are extraordinary scholar-teachers, and I am very sorry that they are leaving. Given the problems that were already afflicting the program, students are rightly concerned about the fate of Af-Am at Wesleyan.

Almost 100 concerned students met with Provost Ruth Weissman and me late in the afternoon yesterday. We were mostly in a listening mode, as students described to us what they saw as long-term weakness in African-American studies here. Although there was real anger in the room at times, I also heard some interesting ideas from students about potential directions we might take in the future. I was very sorry to hear the frustration in the students’ voices, and their real concern that this field had been allowed to fall into disarray at Wesleyan.

Some of the questions that came up include: What is the relation of African-Studies to recruiting and retaining students of color? How can we bring more disciplines into AF-Am? What connections should there be between American Studies and AF-Am? Between African studies and our program? How can cross-listing classes from various departments help provide the depth and breadth that a strong major requires?

There are many more questions, to be sure, and we will be discussing them with administrators, faculty and students. Together we will find ways to develop the intellectual energy and range of courses that will best serve our program and our university.




No Boycott of Israeli Universities!

This morning the Los Angeles Times published my op-ed rejecting the American Studies Association’s resolution to boycott Israeli Universities. I am sharing it here.

Boycott of Israeli universities: A repugnant attack on academic freedom

Academic institutions should not be declared off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The American Studies Assn. recently passed a resolution that “endorses and … honor[s] the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The action was taken, the group explained, because “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation,” and because “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”

But the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The ASA has not gone on record against the universities in any other country in the world: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender. No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?

The 820-plus ASA members who voted for the resolution are sanctioning universities and their faculties because of their government’s policies. Many Israeli professors, like many other citizens, oppose the policies of the current government. But these schools have now run afoul of the ASA and are subject to boycott.

The ASA makes clear it thinks the United States enables the Israeli policies that it finds most objectionable. Did its leadership consider boycotting American universities too?

Not all those in academia agree with the ASA’s action, of course. Here’s what the American Assn. of University Professors, for example, has to say about the importance of unfettered interaction among scholars:

“Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been committed to preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics irrespective of governmental policies and however unpalatable those policies may be viewed. We reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues, and we reaffirm the paramount importance of the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas.”

There is plenty of debate among Israeli scholars about the policies of their government, and there is plenty of debate among Israeli, Palestinian and other scholars about a reasonable path forward in the Middle East. As a citizen of the United States, I have supported efforts to develop new approaches to achieving peace in the Middle East. As a Jew, I have argued against the policies of the current Israeli government, many of which I find abhorrent.

Boycotts don’t serve these debates; they seek to cut them off by declaring certain academic institutions and their faculty off-limits. This tactic, in the words of Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor here at Wesleyan University, “is wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest and morally obtuse.”

As president of Wesleyan, and as a historian, I deplore this politically retrograde resolution of the American Studies Assn. Under the guise of phony progressivism, the group has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.

Inclusion, Religion and Politics: Building a Culture of Generative Discomfort

In my previous two posts, I’ve written about obstacles to and opportunities for inclusion on campus, focusing first on race and then on gender. In this third post on inclusion, I’d like briefly to consider obstacles and opportunities we face in regard to to religious belief and political conviction.

When I began my presidency, I came upon some lame poll announcing that Wes was one of the best universities for atheists in the country. This was meant to suggest that although one might study religion at Wesleyan, one wouldn’t have to get to know and work with people of strong religious faith. Not long after reading this, I met with a group of students and faculty from different faiths, many of whom were working on projects together. Not yet being entirely familiar with the particular culture of our university, I expressed surprise that people whose specific theological tenets were in conflict could join forces so readily. What a mistake on my part! Students and professors pointed out to me the long history of inter-faith cooperation at Wesleyan (and other campuses) and the general recognition here of the importance of diverse cultural traditions as springboards for education and civic engagement.

Since that time I’ve met with various groups here organized around faith, religion and spiritual practices. These groups often join together, or with secular organizations with whom they share similar interests – from environmental concerns to health care. The office of Religious and Spiritual Life offers support and guidance, as do many staff and faculty members, to students who want to integrate religion into their lives on campus. These students tend to thrive at Wesleyan insofar as they refuse dogmatism and are open to the heterogeneity of belief in the rest of the community.

Openness to heterogeneity of religious belief is essential for all those who really seek to learn from others. Wesleyan remains a great place to be an atheist, but that’s in large part because one doesn’t get to interact only with secular people.

Another label that frequently gets applied to Wesleyan (and, truth be told, to almost all other highly selective schools) is that we are too homogeneously “liberal” – by which is meant the faculty and students are either too far to the left or too politically correct. There is much evidence that shows the leftward tilt of higher education generally. Most professors are somewhere on the left of the political spectrum in the United States, and that seems to have been the case at least since the 1940s. One general explanation for this is that since the late 19th century universities have increasingly become places of inquiry rather than reverence, and this has attracted people open to changing the status quo. Whatever the reason, surveys indicate that professors at highly selective schools these days rarely vote for conservative candidates.

But it would be a mistake to think that on our campus everyone supports the same kind of politics. Some of the most interesting, thoughtful and energetic students I’ve met over the last seven years have identified themselves as conservatives. (Some of them also have thought they were contributing to “keeping Wesleyan weird.”) They have been challenging received opinion at Wesleyan, and as an educational institution we must ensure that we make room for those challenges. Surveys show that faculty recognize this and see the need for greater political diversity in their own ranks.

Rejection of political dogmatism and openness to the heterogeneity of political belief are essential for all those who really seek to learn from others. Wesleyan should be a great place to be a conservative, as it has been a great place to be a radical, precisely because you interact with people who may not share your assumptions.

One of the basic elements of campus culture should be to help students cultivate the willingness and ability to learn from material and people they might otherwise reject out of hand or ignore. Undoubtedly, this will often surprise students and sometimes upset them. When someone says “the professor, or the material, made me uncomfortable,” we should not immediately see this as a problem that needs fixing. Being made uncomfortable is a necessary component of a broad, open-ended  education devoted to increasing one’s capacities. Of course, a climate of respect and non-violence is also crucial to learning, but if we truly value diversity, we should expect at some points to be made uncomfortable – because a real education forces us to re-examine our commitments, our beliefs. Re-examining, of course, does not always mean changing; sometimes those commitments and beliefs are reaffirmed in deeper ways.

Atheists and religious people, conservatives and liberals should all be engaged in building a culture of generative discomfort. Creating a campus culture that values the desire to learn from unexpected and uncomfortable sources in a climate of support and respect is a key aspect of what it means to pursue our mission: “to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”