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.

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.

Podcast on Intellectual Diversity and Free Speech

Yesterday I was very pleased to hear the pointed, smart questions posed to lecturer Mark Bauerlein, who was meant to be making arguments about non-conformity and political correctness. Students pointed out that his so-called non-conformity or anti-political correctness has also been a cover for mobs energized by misogyny, racist hatred and resentment. Others emphasized that intellectual diversity shouldn’t only be about adding conservative voices to the campus mix, it should also be about adding perspectives outside of the technocratic, liberal mainstream (and this student didn’t mean more Trump supporters). Wesleyan students and faculty certainly were able to listen and respond to the speaker with critical perspectives from which everyone learned, myself included.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed at Wesleyan about related issues. Here is our conversation about free speech and intellectual diversity, this time in podcast form.

From ‘Unruly Hearts’ to Open Minds

Inside Higher Ed asked me for a response to the new Pew survey results regarding colleges, and I wrote the following op-ed, which was published this morning. 

 

Commencement was over, and we had awarded diplomas to the more than 800 graduates in a timely way. I had made remarks, as I always do, connecting the education they had received with events in the world at large, especially the combination of corruption and inertia in Washington. While marching across the stage, a few dozen graduates managed to express their disappointment that the administration in general and the president (me) in particular weren’t as progressive as they would like on issues such as sexual assault, divestment from fossil fuels and support for underrepresented groups.

The commencement address at Wesleyan University this year was given by the MacArthur grant-winning poet Claudia Rankine. As president and master of ceremonies, I admit I was focused on the way she engaged the students — no easy task. The address was political, as antiracism speeches must be, and it was smart, funny and moving by turns. She concluded by expressing, “Love to each of you and love to your bad behavior in the boardroom, on juries, in the office, on the street, at your dinner tables in all and every space that believes it can hold racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric and on and on. Love to you and your wild and unruly hearts imagining our world again.”

As families milled about after the ceremonies, taking pictures, sharing hugs and high fives, I was suddenly called out by an angry voice: “You annihilated my existence,” yelled a middle-aged man. Taken aback, I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “You annihilated my existence,” he repeated and went on to say that the ceremony had left him out and was an example of why people hate closed-minded universities today. Evidently, he did not feel included in the poet’s reference to unruly hearts.

I was surprised by this outburst, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I had recently encountered pushback from some on the other end of the political spectrum when I published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for an affirmative action program for conservative ideas on campuses. Noting the tilt to the left in many humanities and social-science divisions at selective colleges, I argued that it was not enough to take a free-market approach to intellectual diversity. Being unruly at a Northeastern university these days should include making a special effort to enhance the study of conservative (religious and libertarian) traditions, broadly conceived. We should avoid the hate-filled provocateurs of the alt-right and instead encourage the serious study of ideas outside the progressive consensus.

Many students and colleagues who think of themselves as being on the left, as I do, worked themselves into a position of outrage, even victimization, after hearing about my short essay. A young alumna returning to campus for her reunion told me that I had made it more difficult for people like her to get an education because I was claiming that this education should contain ideas contrary to her own. She didn’t say I had “annihilated her existence” but seemed to feel that way.

What’s going on?

Survey data released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts have given me a better feel for the intensity of such reactions. It is clear that many national institutions with hitherto broad public support are now viewed very differently depending on one’s ideological position. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Republicans and right-leaning independents have a far more positive view of churches and a more negative view of labor unions than do Democrats and left-leaning independents. Although the media’s popularity among those tilting left has grown over the last year, that doesn’t offset the steep decline among Americans on the right who think the national media is having a positive impact on the country. Interestingly, one can’t find a majority who think favorably about banks and financial institutions, though Republicans are more positive (46 percent) than Democrats (only 33 percent positive).

The sharpest partisan divisions appear when people are asked whether colleges are “having a positive or negative impact on the way things are going in the country.” Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and their ideological friends now say that colleges are having a negative impact, while 72 percent of Democrats and their comrades see colleges as positive. This gap has widened significantly in recent years. In 2015, a majority of GOPers thought positively about higher education; in fact, the decline among those who lean to the right is close to 20 percent! The views of colleges of those who fall toward the left have been pretty stable.

Colleges and universities have long been the screens upon which groups project their own fears and anxieties. Older people wonder what the next generation is coming to, or worry that their children are having their lives distorted by a professoriate not part of their “real world.” In the past two years, the fantasy of political correctness on college campuses has been a catch-all for a range of people angry about the world, especially those concerned about their status in our age of rapidly growing inequality. The PC campus bogeyman has an important function — it pumps up the myth that our biggest problems stem from a lack of tolerance for ideas friendly to the status quo. When fraternity brothers are disturbed by university restrictions on how they organize parties, they find a new rallying cry in bemoaning “political correctness.” When middle-aged veterans of college protests of yesteryear no longer see their own battles and slogans repeated by today’s students, they complain about PC culture undermining free speech. When men, even elected officials, are caught bragging about sexual assault, they punch back at political correctness.

As I noted in the run-up to the presidential election, there just isn’t any downside to attacking this imaginary monster of groupthink, and so people friendly to the status quo will continue to trumpet their own courage in “not being PC” as they attack society’s most vulnerable groups. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on PC elitism.

At the same time, those attacked as PC shouldn’t take the bait and content themselves with labeling anyone who attacks them as racist. Those who point out the dangers of big government, emphasize the needs of national security in an age of terrorism, extol the virtues of family and religion, or defend free speech deserve intellectual engagement — not insult and irony. Those who support a progressive campus culture make a big mistake if they think they are protecting that culture by insulating it from ideas that come from conservative, libertarian and religious traditions.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and lately it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information — be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news — that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. When they are confronted with disagreement, they may feel their “existence is annihilated” or that the person with whom they disagree wants “to make it harder for people like themselves to get on in the world.”

So those on the left and on the right surveyed by the Pew Foundation may actually share the same picture of colleges but just evaluate it differently. Democratish survey respondents may be imagining campuses as places where they would find people who hold views like their own, and Republicanish respondents may be thinking that people like them would simply be called nasty names were they to speak out there. Both groups may be imagining colleges in blue states and red states as places where like-minded people go to become more alike.

This is a disastrous view of colleges and universities, one that we who work on campuses must do our best to dispel. We must highlight and enhance the ways that students and faculty members consider alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses. By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to the campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

Even when colleges and universities are seen as places to engage with ideas and inquiry that break a consensus rather than support it, when students and faculty are seen as capable of trying out ideas without fear of reprisal, not everyone will say that colleges are having “a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” If we are doing our jobs, some should always object to what happens on campus. But when we are getting objections (and support) from people who hold a variety of perspectives, then we can be more confident that we are fostering the intellectual diversity essential for higher education’s role in this country.

On Intellectual Diversity

Some weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed arguing that the free-market approach to freedom of speech (often identified with the University of Chicago) is inadequate for bringing more intellectual diversity to college campuses. The recent string of right wing provocateurs successfully baiting left leaning students on college campuses is, I think, a symptom of a deeper problem. We need to find productive ways of dealing with intellectual/ideological difference. The Wall Street Journal published the piece this past weekend under the title “The Opening of the Liberal Mind.”

I have received plenty of responses from readers—some applauding my call for greater intellectual diversity, some angered by my use of “affirmative action” as a label for the kind of proactive work that universities should be doing in the humanities and social sciences to explore different viewpoints with students. I thought the irony was obvious; legacy preference in admissions, after all, is often described as “affirmative action for the wealthy.” My point is that we can’t rely on the market of ideas to create intellectual diversity; we must be intentional in seeking out serious ideas from traditions under-represented on campus. This is critical for our students’ intellectual development, giving them the opportunity to test their own thinking against different approaches to enduring questions.

Since I took an early stance against what I called “the Trumpian Calamity” and have urged resistance to attempts by the current administration to curtail civil rights, others have asked how I could now call for more scholarly attention to conservative ideas and intellectual traditions.  It should be clear that I do not regard the president’s incoherent leadership—which is so often driven by impulse, resentment and prejudice—as belonging to significant streams of conservative thought, even broadly conceived. And we already study the dynamics of authoritarianism.

My example of the Posse Program for Veterans as contributing to intellectual diversity does not, of course, imply that all our Posse Scholars (or all veterans) are conservative. The point is that these older students have different life experiences than most undergraduates, and that this likely leads to a different mix of political views.

I should emphasize that the courses supported by the endowment gift mentioned in the op-ed will be created and taught by faculty—not donors—as is always the case.  The goal here is to expose students to a wider range of thought—with especial attention to the classical liberal tradition—and develop their capacities to engage with those who may hold positions different from their own. We are regularly developing our curriculum to fill gaps in instruction and provide students with a broad education. We have engaged in similar fundraising to develop: the Quantitative Analysis Center; The College of Film and the Moving Image; The College of the Environment; and the Creative Writing Program—just to name a few.

Our present political circumstances should not prevent us from engaging with a variety of conservative, religious and libertarian modes of thinking, just as they shouldn’t prevent us from engaging with modes of thinking organized under the banner of progressivism or critical theory.  Such engagement might actually lead to greater understanding among those who disagree politically, and it might also allow for more robust critical and creative thinking about our histories, our present and the possibilities for the future.

Naturally, I didn’t expect my op-ed would generate agreement among all readers, least of all among all Wesleyan readers. I am pleased it has generated conversation. That’s the idea!  

 

There is no denying the left-leaning political bias on American college campuses. As data from UCLA’s Higher Education Institute show, the professoriate has moved considerably leftward since the late 1980s, especially in the arts and humanities. In New England, where my own university is located, liberal professors outnumber their conservative colleagues by a ratio of 28:1.

How does this bias affect the education we offer? I’d like to think that we left-leaning professors are able to teach the works of conservative thinkers with the same seriousness and attention that we devote to works on our own side of the political spectrum—but do we?

It is hard to be optimistic about this challenge in the wake of recent episodes of campus intolerance for views on the right. Would-be social-justice warriors at Middlebury College transformed the mild-mannered political scientist Charles Murray into a free-speech hero, and campus appearances by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald and the right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter have been handled badly, turning both women into media martyrs.

Most colleges, of course, host controversial speakers without incident and without much media coverage. In March, for instance, Franklin & Marshall College gave a platform to the Danish editor who published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. There were protests and arguments but no attempt to silence the speaker.

Academics worried about attacks on free speech have felt the need to respond, and they have articulated sound principles. Princeton professors Robert P. George and Cornel West recently attracted lots of supporters for a statement underscoring that “all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views” and that “we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree—especially on college and university campuses.”

The issue, however, isn’t whether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak. That is tolerance, an appeal to civility and fairness, but it doesn’t take us far enough. To create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions, because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve.

Such an effort can take many different forms. In 2013, Wesleyan decided to join Vassar College in working with the Posse Foundation to bring cohorts of military veterans to campus on full scholarships. These students with military backgrounds are older than our other undergraduates and have very different life experiences; more of them also hold conservative political views.

One notable episode illustrates how this program has contributed to broadening discussion on campus. A student named Bryan Stascavage, who had served almost six years as a U.S. Army military intelligence analyst in Iraq and Haiti, came to Wesleyan to study social sciences. In the fall of 2015, he published an op-ed in the student newspaper questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, which enjoys widespread support here. He asked whether the protests were “actually achieving anything positive” because of the damage done by the extremists in their ranks.

The essay caused an uproar, including demands by activists to cut funding to the school newspaper. Most students, faculty and administrators recognized that free speech needed to be defended, especially for unpopular views. They rose to the challenge of responding substantively (if sometimes heatedly) to Bryan’s argument. As for Bryan himself, he felt that he had “field-tested” his ideas. As he told the PBS NewsHour in an interview about his experience at Wesleyan, “I don’t want to be in an environment where everybody thinks the same as me, because you just don’t learn that way.”

At Wesleyan, we now plan to deepen our engagement with the military. We have been working with the U.S. Army to bring senior military officers to campus, and starting next year, the first of them will arrive to teach classes on the relationship between military institutions and civil society.

Another new initiative for intellectual diversity, launched with the support of one our trustees, has created an endowment of more than $3 million for exposing students at Wesleyan to ideas outside the liberal consensus. This fall, our own academic departments and centers will begin offering courses and programs to cover topics such as “the philosophical and economic foundations of private property, free enterprise and market economies” and “the relationship of tolerance to individual rights, freedom and voluntary association.”

We are not interested in bringing in ideologues or shallow provocateurs intent on outraging students and winning the spotlight. We want to welcome scholars with a deep understanding of traditions currently underrepresented on our campus (and on many others) and look forward to the vigorous conversations they will inspire.

Many of our undergraduates already have a strong desire to break out of their ideological bubbles. Recently, the student Republican and Democratic clubs began jointly hosting lunchtime lectures and discussions. Catherine Cervone, a member of the Wesleyan Republicans and an organizer of the series, put it this way: “We recognized the necessity on this campus for dialogue and communication. We decided to reach across the divide to team up with WesDems in hosting this speaker series, a discussion forum with the purpose of really understanding what the other side thinks.”

Trying to understand the logic of someone else’s arguments is a core skill that schools should be paying more attention to, and it doesn’t always require elaborate new programs. The group Heterodox Academy, which includes faculty from many universities and from across the political spectrum, has recently launched the “Viewpoint Diversity Experience,” an online effort to combat “the destructive power of ideological tribalism.” The aim is “to prepare students for democratic citizenship and success in the political diverse workplaces they will soon inhabit.”

Such efforts are sorely needed, but they can succeed only if we do a better job of bringing underrepresented points of view into the mix. Simply relying on the marketplace of ideas isn’t enough. We need an affirmative-action program for conservative, libertarian and religious modes of thinking.

As someone who identifies with the political left, I welcome this intellectual diversity—and as a teacher, I know that education requires it. If you are on the right, you might call this a remedy for political correctness; if you are on the left, you might prefer to call it the “new intersectionality.” Whatever the label, the result will be a fuller, more meaningful educational experience for everyone.

Sharing Ideas at the Aspen Festival

At the beginning of this month, Kari Weil and I made a brief trip to Colorado to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival. This brings together a few thousand curious and thoughtful people to hear talks from artists, academics, politicians, writers and activists. The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine put together the program, and we were both invited to talk about our work.

Kari was interviewed about her research in animal studies, starting from the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo with the gorilla Harambe. You’ll remember that a small child fell into the gorilla enclosure, and after his panicked parents alerted the zoo’s staff, Harambe was shot. The boy (whose name I still don’t know) was saved—though it will always remain unclear whether his life was really in peril. As Kari said in her Aspen conversation, the aftermath of this event tells us much about key issues in animal studies.

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I was put on different panels with college presidents and others to talk about online international educational exchanges, the challenging issues in the future of higher education, and current tensions between a commitment to free speech on campus and calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings. That last topic was considered by a rather large group of lawyers, professors, administrators, faculty and students. You can watch the session here, though I warn readers that it is long.

During that panel discussion I found my commitment to free speech challenged because I am unwilling to declare myself an “absolutist” in this regard. I have a substantial and broad commitment to freedom of expression, and, as I have written on more than one occasion, it is a fundamental value of education and democracy. I just recognize it’s not the only value at the core of these enterprises.

There are some things I don’t think a university should legitimate or dignify under the rubric of protecting speech. When we make a subject part of a debate, we legitimate it in ways that may harm the educational enterprise. Moreover, there are always things that an institution or a culture doesn’t dignify by debate. Hate speech and harassment fall into these legal or procedural categories at many places now, but there are always some things that are deemed beyond the borders of legitimate debate in a given setting. Speech is never totally free.

This is not an excuse for political correctness, nor is it a cover for censorship. I only want to recognize that we have real borders for discussion, no matter what our abstract commitment to freedom. Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter and I took different approaches to this question, as reported here.

Today, we see an accelerating coarsening of political discourse, as topics that inspire hate and violence are legitimated by political candidates and would be revolutionaries alike. To refuse to dignify discourses of despicable racism and terror with an educational platform is not an abdication of one’s commitment to speech but a recognition that speech always takes place in a context, in a culture.

These are complex matters, to be sure, and I certainly do recognize that the best way to think them through requires freedom of expression. It also requires a recognition of the rights of those who participate in the conversation. Happily we are able to protect all these things at Wesleyan.

One of my favorite moments at Aspen was saying hello to Governor John Hickenlooper ’74, MA ’80, Hon. ’10. This great force for good things has just published a memoir, The Opposite of Woe, with plenty of interesting stories about Wesleyan in the 1970s and politics over the last 20 years. A wonderful read! (Learn more in this interview with Hickenlooper in Wesleyan magazine, and this Careers by Design podcast).

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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.

Biggest Threats to Free Speech Not on College Campuses

In response to some of the misinformation and manufactured outrage in the press, I wrote an opinon piece for the Hartford Courant on Sunday. This was reproduced on the HuffingtonPost the next day. ICYMI, I post it here.

 

As we prepared to honor Middletown military veterans at Wesleyan University’s first home football game, I sought out one of our engaged and thoughtful student vets. Bryan Stascavage had published an opinion piece in The Argus, the school newspaper, raising critical questions about the Black Lives Matter movement. The reaction to his provocative piece was intense: Some students were angry, some hurt and still others wondered what editors of The Argus were thinking when they published an essay that questioned a civil rights movement that has claimed the hearts and minds of so many of us on campus.

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. Sure, 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 (what doesn’t?). 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 and, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the student newspaper has not been defunded. 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.

Commentators, perhaps weary of their impotence in the face of the perversion of free expression in politics by means of wealth, have weighed in on this so-called threat to free speech on college campuses. “What’s the matter with kids today,” these self-righteous critics ask, “don’t they realize that America depends on freedom of expression?” 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, puffed-up pundits turn their negative attention to what they see as dangerous calls to make campuses safer places for students vulnerable to discrimination. But are these calls really where the biggest threat to free expression lies? I fear that those who seize upon this so-called danger will succeed in diverting 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.

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. We learn most when we are ready to recognize 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.

Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when freedom of expression is undermined by calls for safety. Just look at Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans for silencing anything deemed “extremist” and in conflict with “British values,” or Donald Trump’s fascistic rhetoric about closing mosques as part of his effort to “make America great again.”

My role as a university president includes giving students opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. As I wrote on my blog shortly after Bryan’s opinion piece was published, debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but, as many free speech advocates have underscored, there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

Our campus communities, like the rest of society, will be more inclusive and free when we can tolerate strong disagreements. Through our differences we learn from one another.