To the Editor:
There are many things that I agree with in Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s article [“The Campus: ‘An Island of Repression in a Sea of Freedom,’” September 1989], but I am puzzled by some others, especially concerning my own role in the debate and my essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education to which Mr. Finn refers. Yes, we need to guard against conventional wisdom on matters like affirmative action becoming a prescriptive ideology that closes out further debate. And yes, I too have seen distressing examples of this in American academic life.
Two points trouble me, though. First, our cherished “right to be offensive” cannot be extended so far as to condone racial or ethnic harassment. Unfortunately there has been a rise in incidents of bigotry on campuses in recent years. I believe Mr. Finn would agree that this is morally as well as legally reprehensible. Why shouldn’t colleges bear the responsibility of taking explicit positions against bigotry? This is in large part what I mean by “moral education.”
The other part has to do with clear discussions about college affirmative-action programs. My own essay was triggered by some interviews with students who attributed racial tensions on campus to unjust racial-preference programs. For my own part, I have supported affirmative action insofar as it broadens the candidate pool but not insofar as it implements racial preferences. How many other college officials feel the same way? It is impossible for students to know, since these programs are carried out with little explicit explanation. This creates a source of moral confusion for students on campus.
There are three possibilities here: (1) college officials could enforce affirmative-action programs without explaining them to the community; (2) they could enforce them with a clear and principled set of justifications, open to community debate; (3) on the basis of such debate, they could revise such programs. Either the second or third possibility is consistent with a campus atmosphere that encourages students to explore and acquire ethical values around racial and ethnic issues. My complaint in my original essay was that too many colleges were following the first course, sweeping everything under the campus rug in a hypocritical and morally debilitating manner. Hence my call to put the moral education of our students ahead of unarticulated political ends.
Providence, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is correct in writing that mandatory courses that try to indoctrinate pluralism are self-contradictory; and his criticism of college administrations which censor student or faculty thought in order to “protect” any group from thoughts which it deems offensive is also well-taken. Many of his other assertions, however, are poorly supported.
Mr. Finn begins by criticizing “anti-bias codes” as contradictory to the Bill of Rights as well as to the tradition of freedom of thought and expression that has existed in American colleges and universities. But as the Supreme Court has so often noted, schools are not a microcosm of society, and rules and rights are altered in an academic environment. Certainly, at the college level, students object when the college acts in loco parentis, as Boston University students did this past year when the president of the college instituted a curfew to curb undergraduate sexual activity. Such interference in student life is a superfluous invasion of students’ privacy and has no bearing on the educational atmosphere or process on campus. However, campuses are not, as Mr. Finn asserts, “shrugging off” responsibility with respect to drugs or illegal alcohol activity, both of which do affect the educational atmosphere and involve the breaking of state laws. Anti-bias codes also serve to protect the educational atmosphere and process, and they are not contradictory to pluralism.
To foster pluralism is to foster an environment where divergent ideas and cultures can be freely studied. . . . Conduct which “stigmatizes or victimizes an individual” disrupts the learning environment. It is inflammatory. Toleration of such behavior allows for the increase of physical violence among different groups on campus; it is in reaction to an increase in violent incidents on campuses across the country that college administrations have finally started to clamp down on disruptive behavior. Admittedly, the codes abridge one’s freedom of speech, but this does not fall under what Justice Brennan calls the prohibition of “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” . . .
First, the codes themselves come from the administration of the university, and it is the administration which judges what constitutes a violation of the codes. The complaints at Harvard against Professors Ian Macneil and Stephan Thernstrom, which Mr. Finn discusses, came from students, and did not mention the anti-discrimination and anti-harassment rules. Allegations of racial insensitivity—which, believe it or not, are sometimes deserved—existed on college campuses long before anti-discrimination and anti-harassment codes were drawn up, and it is foolish to think that the allegations will ever stop. I agree that the criticism of Thernstrom was too harsh, but it is not as though the university itself censored him. Mr. Finn complains that the allegations are “un-remonstrated by the administration.” Now there’s an ironic complaint for Mr. Finn to make in an anti-censorship article. Does he think a student should be punished for saying that he doesn’t like the way a professor teaches his class? The criticism is for Thernstrom to answer, if he chooses to do so. And don’t blame student criticism for discouraging “scholars from even teaching courses on topics that bear on race and ethnicity.” Academia is the wrong field to go into to be free from the scrutiny of others, and the “hard time” professors get from students is generally no worse than what they might face from fellow “scholars.” . . .
Mr. Finn . . . also manages . . . to take a swipe at affirmative action. He complains about the fact that he has “run into” several political scientists who cannot find tenure-track teaching posts at colleges worthy of their brilliance, only because they suffer persecution for being white males and for having had the integrity to brush aside such unworthy subjects as revolutionary ideologies and the politics of feminism and racism in order to study the poor, forgotten gods of Western civilization—Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Burke. I don’t buy it. . . . There happens to be a glut of people who study dead, white, European males, with no shortage of courses being taught on the subject—despite the fact that they are not mandatory. At Harvard, for example, where I am a junior, the only thinkers studied by sophomores in the social-studies department are dead, white, European males. And the Harvard administration is not “killing” for more minority and women faculty. Minorities—and women, particularly—are underrepresented on the faculty. . . .
Mr. Finn uses an incident from Harvard’s race-awareness week—which I doubt he attended—to assert that there is now “little room for opinion that deviates from campus political norms or for grievances from unexpected directions.” He gives the example of a white student at one of the race-awareness events who was given “short shrift and no sympathy” when she complained that she had experienced minority ethnocentrism. But that one incident is hardly sufficient grounds for saying that there is little room for disagreement on the idea of minority ethnocentrism. If Mr. Finn spent an ounce of time on the campus about which he makes sweeping generalizations, he would know that minority ethnocentrism is not an unusual topic of undergraduate conversations, and that a series of controversial editorials were printed in the Harvard Crimson about that very subject. I myself have “run into” several ethnic students who are alienated from their respective campus organizations because they feel them to be too enthnocentric. . . .
To the Editor:
Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s article provided a true. . . . description of a debilitating syndrome without, however, going very far in uncovering the underlying disease. . . . Mr. Finn implies a relationship between the suppression of free speech on our campuses and their institutional commitment to affirmative action in the hiring of faculty members. If this relationship holds true, what then needs to be examined is the commitment on the part of university administrators to an academically unjustifiable policy of preferential hiring. . . .
I am a white male with an excellent and unusually broad academic résumé; but having a family, I was prepared to accept almost any sort of teaching position. In the course of three years, applying for more than fifty varied positions each year, I discovered that I could get interviews only at schools of the first rank. I received immediate rejections from the least demanding institutions, often followed later by a notice to the effect that a woman or “minority member” had been hired. It seems that the refusal to consider my résumé was directly proportional to the institution’s proximity to public funding, and inversely proportional to its “respectability,” preferential hiring policies constituting both a preempting of any future government regulation and a cheap path to scholarly dignity.
The fervor of students in attempting to expunge all traces of racism and sexism requires little explanation. The young have always tended to be intolerantly moralistic, usually in obedience to the self-indulgent hopes of their more disaffected elders. . . . No less transparent is the unseemly timidity of even tenured faculty in the defense of their own academic freedom. Dignity becomes nervous with age, fearing unseemly brawls at faculty meetings, and age would appreciate that last soft bed of the position emeritus. What does require further examination, though, is the general conduct of educational administrators, their willingness to apply coercive measures against their own faculty in squelching open consideration of staffing policy (among other issues). . . .
Joseph Keith Woodard
Bethany, West Virginia
Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes:
The timeliness and volatility of this issue are even more apparent now than when I wrote in early summer. Scarcely a day passes without fresh evidence—via the mail, the telephone, the media—that freedom of expression is in considerable jeopardy on the American campus.
I learned, for example, of an “anti-bias” code already adopted at Tufts (and suspended in early October after public exposure and student protest). A faculty correspondent described such a policy nearing completion at Duke. The New York Times reported a compulsory “race-sensitivity” course at the University of Connecticut. A flurry of articles, editorials, and radio interviews indicated widespread interest and more than a little concern about this trend in American higher education.
One ray of good sense gleamed through. In late summer, Federal Judge Avern Cohn invalidated portions of the University of Michigan’s “discriminatory harassment” policy relating to verbal behavior (and “verbal conduct”) on grounds that they violate the First Amendment. “John Doe,” a Michigan graduate student in psychology—who insisted on anonymity to protect himself from recriminations—was represented by attorneys from the ACLU. They contended that Doe’s right to pursue his own research (which touches on such controversial matters as biologically-based gender and race differences) was impermissibly chilled by the university policy and sought to have that policy declared unconstitutional and enjoined as vague and overbroad.
Judge Cohn examined both the wording of the policy and a host of supplementary materials that Michigan authorities had issued to explain it, including an interpretive guide for students which gave, as examples of punishable conduct, displaying a Confederate flag on the door of one’s dormitory room, declining to invite a fellow student to a party because “she might be a lesbian,” commenting “in a derogatory way” about a “particular person or group’s physical appearance or sexual orientation,” etc.
Not all forms of expression are protected by the Constitution, the judge explained in his opinion. Campus authorities might legitimately have promulgated a narrowly drawn policy banning obscenity, threats of violence, speech “which has the effect of inciting imminent lawless action,” and words “which by their very utterance inflict injury.” What the university could not constitutionally do, said the jurist, was “establish an anti-discrimination policy which had the effect of prohibiting certain speech because it disagreed with ideas or messages sought to be conveyed” or “proscribe speech simply because it was found to be offensive, even gravely so, by large numbers of people.” And that, of course, is exactly what the University of Michigan had done. Moreover, Judge Cohn cited several instances in which even “serious comments made in the context of classroom discussion” were considered sanctionable by campus authorities. While the court declared itself “sympathetic to the university’s obligation to ensure equal educational opportunities for all of its students, such efforts must not be at the expense of free speech. Unfortunately, this was precisely what the university did.”
As a sort of coda to his opinion, Judge Cohn cited the 1986 comments of the distinguished Yale historian C. Vann Woodward in a celebrated New Haven case concerning a sophomore placed on probation for distributing an anti-homosexual flier: “It simply seems unnatural,” Woodward acknowledged, “to make a fuss about the rights of a speaker who offends the moral or political convictions passionately held by a majority. The far more natural impulse is to stop the nonsense, shut it up, punish it—anything but defend it. But to give rein to that inclination would be to make the majority the arbiters of truth for all. Furthermore, it would put the universities into the business of censorship.”
In his letter, William Damon professes no sympathy for censorship or “prescriptive ideology,” but if what he means by “taking explicit positions against bigotry” includes punishing individuals who state views that he (or I or someone else on campus) might judge to be nasty, mean-spirited, or even bigoted, he is clearly no defender of free speech in the only situations when it really matters: where one person’s speech so angers another that sanctions and restrictions are sought.
Dan Mufson’s prose is better than we have come to expect from undergraduates, but his ideas show the effect of breathing the Cambridge air. He makes one important point, though. How can I lambaste universities simultaneously for adopting codes that inhibit free expression on campus and for failing to deal severely with students who abuse faculty members for saying things in class that the students do not like to hear? (This is not, incidentally, a problem confined to higher education. In early October, students trashed a Brooklyn high school because a social-studies teacher had the temerity to suggest in class that there are other repressive regimes on the African continent besides the one in Pretoria.)
The point, of course, is that any meaningful defense of free speech and academic freedom on campus begins with the principle that the administration must create and maintain an atmosphere in which all classroom discussion is immune from censorship and vigilantism, whether from a congressional committee or a band of disgruntled students. The only exception I can think of—where a professor persistently engages in unprofessional or propagandistic discourse under the guise of instruction—calls for peer judgment by fellow scholars, not for student thought police. A college that cannot vouchsafe such an atmosphere for its entire faculty does not deserve to exist. Even if it has been around since 1636.
Finally, Joseph Keith Woodard’s tale offers further evidence of the perniciousness of contemporary affirmative-action policies.