ACTA in the News | Freedom of Expression

Higher Ed Bureaucrats Want to Regulate Your Speech After College, Too

REALCLEAR EDUCATION   |  August 30, 2023 by Robert C. Platt and Steven McGuire

    “All children, except one, grow up,” wrote J.M. Barrie in “Peter Pan.” Today’s college and university administrators seem eager to prove him wrong.

    American students are increasingly micromanaged, coddled, and, as a result, controlled by the ever-growing ranks of bureaucrats who run their campus Neverlands. Now some institutions want to continue this infantilizing behavior after students graduate.

    Alumni-affairs offices have developed overbearing codes of conduct to regulate volunteers and, in some cases, everyone who attends alumni events. Some of these codes prohibit constitutionally protected speech and require signatories to support institutional orthodoxies on topics such as diversity, equity, and inclusion.

    The codes at Cornell University (where one of us is an alumnus) and Williams College are two of the most troubling examples. Channeling the therapeutic attitude that pervades American campuses today, both schools say that they “are committed to providing a friendly, safe, and welcoming environment for all.” They go on to prohibit “derogatory” as well as “demeaning, discriminatory, or harassing behavior and speech,” noting that “harassment may include: offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, race, age, religion, disability.”

    Of course, people should not be subjected to discrimination or harassment, but these codes are hopelessly overbroad and vague, leaving too much room for interpretation on the part of staff who are often ill-equipped to ensure that free expression is protected at university events. It does not inspire confidence that Cornell’s code was adopted after an alumnus used the word “Negro” in a speech in reference to Hall of Fame baseball player Satchel Paige, who spent much of his career in the Negro leagues.

    Just as bias-response teams encourage students to report one another anonymously, attendees of alumni events are instructed to alert staff if they “are witness to or are subjected to unacceptable behavior.” Even though the alumni-relations staff are not trained to play a disciplinary role (they’re certainly not at Cornell), they are empowered to do whatever they think is necessary, “up to and including expelling attendees from the event without warning or refund.”

    When do these institutions, which are supposed to be helping students mature into contributing members of society, expect that their graduates will be able to navigate conversations on their own?

    All colleges in New York are already subject to state-mandated Rules for the Maintenance of Public Order which “govern the conduct of students, faculty and other staff as well as visitors.” The addition of a separate conduct code for alumni is excessive.

    Other universities have overreaching codes that apply only to volunteers. For example, the Stanford Alumni Association (SAA) condescendingly reminds volunteers that “serving in a volunteer leadership role is a privilege and the SAA reserves the right to revoke the opportunity if deemed necessary.” It also insists that volunteers “should embrace diversity and inclusion.” Is it not enough to tell them that they “should treat each university community member fairly and with respect”?

    Some of the codes are just silly. While students complain that Stanford hates fun, at Rutgers, it is a violation for alumni volunteers not to have fun – the rules say they must – when “building community and Scarlet Forever pride.” More seriously, like their Stanford counterparts, they must also agree to “cultivate inclusion and diversity through respect and celebration of the fundamental value and dignity of all Rutgers alumni.” Rutgers goes on to “pledge to create and maintain an environment that honors diverse traditions, heritages, experiences, and individuals.” The code does not say anything about respecting free expression or diversity of thought.

    These policies are yet another symptom of the bloating of the college administrative state. The Cornell Alumni Association was once an independent corporation controlled by a board elected by alumni. Alumni planned Cornell reunions themselves. The idea that support staff would be making policy for or policing the individual alumni or their groups was inconceivable. Now alumni volunteer to serve under the bureaucrats who apparently believe that it is their job to shield students and others from anything uncomfortable an older Cornellian might say.

    Alumni should reassert themselves. Their alma maters want their money and their volunteer service. They should ask if the colleges want their ideas, too.

    This post appeared on RealClear Education on August 14, 2023.


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