WASHINGTON, August 23, 2016 – When alumni receive letters soliciting contributions from their alma maters, more and more of them are either declining to contribute or cutting back the amount of their gifts. This attitudinal shift is part of a growing backlash against political correctness on the nation’s college and university campuses. Of particular concern to alumni donors are the imitations on free speech that are being imposed on a growing number of college and university campuses.
It’s clear there is an increasing awareness of the dangers of recent trends. In March, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a report arguing that the Federal law known as Title IX, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, has been stretched beyond its intended boundaries to punish language and ideas that are Constitutionally permitted.
The AAUP report cited examples of abuses such as the case of Patty Adler, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who had long taught a popular sociology course called “Deviance in U.S. Society.” Adler’s Dean threatened her with forced retirement after some students complained about role-playing exercises in her class. The threat was ultimately rescinded, but a disillusioned Adler chose to retire. In another case, Teresa Buchanan, a Louisiana State University professor, was fired over the objection of a faculty committee, because some students complained about her use of profanity.
According to AAUP,
“Overly broad definitions of hostile environment harassment work at cross purposes with the academic and free speech rights necessary to promote learning in an educational setting. Learning can be best advanced by more free speech that encourages discussion of controversial issues rather than by using punitive administrative and legal fiat to prevent such discussion from happening at all.”
Today, more than half of America’s colleges and universities have imposed restrictive speech codes. According to Newsweek,
“American college campuses are starting to resemble George Orwell’s Oceana, with its Thought Police, or East Germany under the Stasi. College newspapers have been muzzled and trashed, and students are disciplined or suspended for ‘hate speech’ while exponentially more are being shamed and silenced on social media by their peers. Professors quake at accidentally offending any students and are rethinking syllabi and restricting class discussions to only the most anodyne topics.”
Examples of abuse abound.
- A Brandeis University professor endured a secret administrative investigation for racial harassment after using the word “wetback” in class while explaining its use as a pejorative.
- At Amherst College, students called for a speech code that would have sanctioned some students for making an “All Lives Matter” poster.
- Activists at Wesleyan trashed their student paper and pushed to get it defunded after it published an article critical of the “Black Lives Matter” group.
- At the University of California system, some groups supporting Israel demanded that opposition to Zionism and criticism of Israel be labeled “anti-Semitism.” In this case, the university deplored anti-Semitism but declined to broaden its definition.
- Students at Emory University protested messages in support of Donald Trump which were chalked on campus sidewalks as an attempt to intimidate minority groups.
Not only are students and faculty members having political correctness imposed on them. Guidelines issued at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in its Employee Forum sought to help staff avoid “micro aggressions,” by cautioning them against using allegedly offensive phrases such as “Christmas vacation,” “husband/boyfriend” and “golf outing.”
With regard to “gender” microaggressions, the guidelines discourage comments such as “I love your shoes” to female colleagues, or otherwise complimenting the appearance of women. The guide also discourages staff from inviting others to play a “round of golf,” which “assumes employees have the financial resources/exposure to a fairly expensive and inaccessible sport.” At faculty award ceremonies, says the guide, honorees should not be asked to “stand and be recognized” for their achievements, which assumes “that everyone is able in this way and ignores diversity of ability in the space.”
At Princeton University, the Office of Human Resources has issued a list of gender-inclusive style guidelines. The word “man” can no longer be used, in order to foster “a more inclusive community.” Instead of “man,” employees are told to use words such as “human beings, individuals or people.” Instead of “man and wife,” the acceptable terms are “spouses” or “partners.” The term “manmade” should be replaced by “artificial, handmade or manufactured.” The term “mankind” should be replaced by “humankind,” and “workmanlike” should become “skillful.” The list is a long one.
“Microaggression” is usually defined as unintended slights directed toward vulnerable groups. In reality, “microaggressions” often carry political implications and serve as a pretext for silencing political dissent. At an event last year titled “Managing Microaggressions,” students at the University of Virginia said that identifying oneself as an “American” is a microaggression. Students at the University of Wisconsin said that calling America a “melting pot” or “the land of opportunity” is micro aggressive.
In a front-page report headlined “Amid College Protests, Alumni Are Less Fond and Less Giving,” The New York Times cited Scott MacConnell, a 1960 Amherst graduate, has now cut the college out of his will. In a letter to the college’s alumni fund, MacConnell wrote: “As an alumnus of the college, I feel that I have been lied to, patronized and dismissed as an old, white bigot who is insensitive to the needs and feelings of the current college community.”
Scott C. Johnson, who graduated from Yale in 1982, said he was on campus last fall when activists tried to shut down a free speech conference, “because apparently they missed irony class that day.” He recalled the Yale student who was videotaped screaming at a professor, Nicholas Christakis, accusing the professor of failing “to create a place of comfort and home” for students in his capacity as the head of a residential college. In Johnson’s view, “This is not your daddy’s liberalism. The worst part is that campus administrators are wilting before the activists like flowers.”
Last March, some Amherst alumni learned that a new director of the Women’s and Gender Center asked to be addressed as “they,” rather than “he” or “she.” Robert Longsworth, who graduated from Amherst in 1999, is the seventh in his family to have attended Amherst and was president of the New York City alumni Association and a class agent. He has now withdrawn because he feels the college has become
“…wrapped up in the politically charged mission rather than staying in its lane and being an institution of higher learning. When the administration and faculty and ultimately a lot of the student body spends a great deal of time on witch hunts, I think that a lot of that intellectual rigor is forgone… Friends who went to Hamilton, Trinity, Williams, Bates, Middlebury, and Hobart are not pleased at what’s happening on campus, and they’ve kind of stepped away. Refusing to write a check seems to be the only lever that can make a difference.”
The backlash against political correctness and the politicization of many colleges and universities is increasingly evident. In the case of Amherst, the amount of money given by alumni dropped 6.5 per cent for its last fiscal year, and participation in the alumni fund dropped 1.9 per cent to 50.6 per cent, the lowest participation rate since 1975. At Princeton, where protestors unsuccessfully demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from university buildings and programs, undergraduate alumni donations dropped 6.6 per cent and participation dropped 1.9 per cent.
Elsewhere, 35 small, selective liberal arts colleges belonging to the fund-raising organization Staff (Sharing the Annual Fund Fundamentals), recently reported that their initial annual fund results for FY 2016 indicated that 29 per cent of them were running behind 2015 results in dollars and 64 per cent were behind in donors.
Fortunately, there are a few universities that have been doing their best to maintain academic freedom and free speech. The University of Chicago has taken the lead in defending free speech on campus. Last year, a special committee issued a statement noting the importance of civility but upholding “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.”
If universities cannot be persuaded to embrace free speech and academic freedom as a matter of principle, perhaps alumni can push them in the right direction by withholding contributions until they do. All of us would benefit if such an effort were to succeed.