ACTA in the News | Free Speech

College administrators are the problem

THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  September 22, 2023 by Samuel J. Abrams

The stories of illiberal and repressive forces on campuses nationwide are seemingly unending. Mob-style cancel culture and violent protests at American universities are no longer exceptional. Professors and students are now regularly threatened with cancellation and expulsion. And notably, these attempts to silence discourse and disagreement often involve liberal students and activist groups attacking conservative ideas and speakers.

Pushback against this self-censorship and repression has begun. In the fight to correct our system of higher education and the liberal machine that has infected our collegiate institutions, it is critical to recognize that our students are actually not monolithically left of center and remain open-minded. The primary source of the problems today are instead activist administrators, who see their missions on campus as political. Their dangerous and small-minded behavior must be held accountable for creating the current campus climate and then rolled back.

It’s important first to paint a more accurate picture of most students attending colleges and universities. Despite a small number of liberal students making a lot of noise through protests and social media, the fact of the matter is that our college and university students are not a solid bloc of liberal Democrats whatsoever. They are open to heterogeneity. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s latest free speech rankings, which included over 55,000 student voices across 254 colleges and universities, revealed that just about a third of students today describe themselves as either strong or weak Democrats. Another 12% assert that they are strong or weak Republicans. However, the plurality of students are in the middle and identify as independents (48%). Certainly, there are more Democrats than Republicans on campuses today, but most students are centrist independents. Ample survey work shows that political parties generally do not resonate with students today. Undergraduates hold little interest in the Democrats and have no affinity for the Republicans, and there are large numbers of students who believe that neither party is ready to enact the necessary reforms for our country.

Moving beyond partisanship, as a university professor myself, I have found that students today are profoundly curious. Having taught undergraduates for almost two decades at a variety of schools nationwide, I have interacted with many different types of students in different settings, but what remains consistent is that those Generation Z students who are on campus today have a strong desire to comprehend social dynamics meaningfully, having grown up in a world of political turmoil and digital chaos. These students are less rigid and less ideological than the earlier millennials, and I have found that they are open to being challenged and hearing many ideas and viewpoints. When I introduce conservative ideas in class, for instance, no one objects. They regularly embrace ideas and policy prescriptions from both the Left and the Right. What may surprise many is that when Charles Murray, Arthur Brooks, and other classically liberal thinkers have joined my seminars over the past few years, there has been no protest. Everyone attended, engaged, questioned, and absorbed the different perspectives that are not typically found on campus. My students were enthralled to hear guests talk about philosophy, faith, and free markets in ways that they had not been exposed to before, and as opposed to trying to shut down my guests, they questioned and regularly asked where they could learn more. When a professor actually spends time explaining the virtues of viewpoint diversity and then professionally and respectfully introduces new ideas, students tend to respond positively without protest.

Broader survey work backs up my own in-classroom experiences. Surveys regularly show that undergraduates respect and crave alternative views despite frequent media projections to the contrary. Large majorities believed that a major strength of theirs is the “ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective,” and they considered an “openness to having [their] own views challenged” as a major strength. So many students actually welcome the opportunity to see the world from someone else’s perspective. My own students consistently reject the notion of cancel culture and, like their Gen Z peers, take pride in their tolerance of others with differing beliefs.

Students also repeatedly reject the pervasive labels that diversity, equity, and inclusion offices often assign to them. They recoil at the notion of saying, “As a person of this race or gender,” finding it reductionist and prejudiced despite the prevalence of identity politics on social media. I habitually observe that they resist being told how to define themselves, emphasizing that this fixation on labels, which implies harm to certain groups, fragments the broader community, erodes intimacy, and causes destruction.

That said, according to survey data, huge numbers of students self-censor and worry about reputation damage from saying the wrong thing or being misinterpreted. More than half of students (56%) today express worry about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding what they have said or done, and just over a quarter of students (26%) reported that they feel pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes. And at least a quarter of students said they self-censor “fairly often” or “very often” during conversations with other students, with professors, and during classroom discussions — 25%, 27%, and 28%, respectively. A quarter of students also said they are more likely to self-censor on campus now, at the time they were surveyed, than they were when they started college.

So, if students are generally more open to other views, why do they feel the social pressure to self-censor on campus? This move toward silence is a result of an illiberal culture promoted on campus by student-facing administrators — notably those in cancerous DEI offices who are omnipresent in classrooms, dormitories, and social spaces. Certainly, some liberal students are being both pushed and supported by liberal activist-scholar faculty, and there are small groups of well-organized, media savvy, and vocal students who create a perception that students are activist, progressive, promoters of cancel culture. But it is the administrators who are setting the tone and terms of discourse and discussion through a host of totalitarian measures, including reviewing syllabuses of faculty and undermining academic freedom to offer speech guides making it clear what language can and cannot be used on campus.

These administrators are not academics but activists who see themselves as agents of social change and restorative justice and come to campus with explicit social agendas that are often advertised and sought after by the schools themselves. Contrary to incoming students’ wishes to learn about a wide range of ideas and from the best and most qualified professors, much of the “education” being offered on campuses is occurring outside the classroom but is deeply influential. This programming is not being presented by professors but by administrators who are not bound by the same historic and sacred commitment to the scientific method or free inquiry.

Survey data have shown that almost all administrators (86%) see “personal values” as important when educating students, compared to a notably lower 59% of faculty. With numbers such as these, it should not surprise anyone when they walk on campuses today and see countless narrow workshops and events created not by faculty but by administrators intended to highlight various harms and encourage various forms of liberal recompenses. Moreover, the data show how far administrators are willing to go when spreading their ideology. A whopping 71% of student administrators are far more concerned with teaching current events, multiculturalism, and highlighting social justice questions instead of math, science, and technical knowledge.

Today, it is almost impossible for students to avoid the omnipresent administrative apparatus that dominates campus. Reports regularly document that both public and private schools are spending more on bureaucracy than teaching, and students are forced to engage with these ideological administrators in pre-orientation work before they even arrive on their respective campuses. Once students set foot on campus, they are bombarded with liberal ideas and dictates on how to participate through their orientation programs, their dormitories, and their student life centers from a handful of loud, liberal student leaders and administrators. These directives will frame debates and discourse and will tell students what can and cannot be discussed. Safe spaces are too common, and students are told that they can disengage or dismiss ideas that are uncomfortable or upsetting. Administrators control resources and promote particular groups and causes to receive focus and funding. Administrators have created a culture of fear based on amorphous definitions of harm with bias-reporting hotlines and a sense that speech is being policed and students are being watched and can face consequences when deviating from particular norms or even asking certain questions.

In the latest “colonial” twist, administrators are now teaching courses through the guise of “service learning” and are rarely credentialed experts or have been vetted academically. Even if they are well intentioned, they often lack the educational background to direct academic exploration. Administrators teach courses that in theory incorporate community engagement within an academic course and often do this in notoriously activistdisciplines, such as anthropology and gender studies. These courses tend to be very light on academic work and often involve political organizing work and ideologically infused engagement such as working in prisons and with local, cultural institutions. Service courses are rarely politically neutral, regularly focus on social justice themes and engagement, and offer “class experiences” as a time for activism and righting past wrongs, not a place for open debate, dialogue, and questioning. If administrators continue their hegemonic growth and continue to overreach in almost every facet of collegiate life, students will be turned into ignorant, ahistorical activists who possess limited analytical, empirical, and reasoning skills, which are hallmarks of a true liberal education.

Simply put, the mission and work of administrators today are not only antithetical to the goals and virtues of higher education, but they are out of line with how students see themselves ideologically and how they want to grapple with different ideas and worldviews. The good news is that many people have woken up to the dangerous, disgusting, exclusive, racially fracturing rhetoric emanating from DEI offices. Increasing numbers of states, such as Florida and Texas, are shuttering these offices. Their citizens want real inclusion in our educational institutions — conservative views, like liberal views, should now be far more represented and debated on their campuses. Rolling back polarizing DEI offices is a healthy and critical step toward moving higher education in the right direction. Other states, such as Arizona and North Carolina, are creating schools on campus that promote dialogue, diversity, and civility, and numerous campus groups such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Alumni Free Speech Alliance are mobilizing to demand that their schools be accountable to their liberal missions of education.

Higher education has been an incredible vehicle for innovation, mobility, possibility, and the realization of the American dream. Students today are interested in a multiplicity of ideas and experiences and take pride in their ability to absorb, confront, engage, and react to these varied views. Students are not particularly liberal and myopic, and they want to engage with ideas with each other — they want to empathize and understand. But these goals are being interrupted and derailed by administrators who promote a progressive political agenda that is both illiberal and has little to do with the enterprise of intellectual exploration, discovery, learning, and the search for truth that are the bedrock pieces of a collegiate experience. It is therefore essential that we work to end the stranglehold that activist administrators have on campus and actually embrace real diversity and celebrate the power of debate, disagreement, and dialogue, which propels ideas and promotes both individual and collective achievement. We must allow speech and ideas to flow freely so that our many colleges and universities and their students can truly realize their potential.

This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on September 22, 2023.


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