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Students & Parents | Freedom of Expression

Yet Once More: Political Correctness on Campus

NEW YORK TIMES   |  October 14, 2007 by Stanley Fish

Sometimes the stars seem to come into alignment. Just as I was getting ready to write a column (this column) on a new documentary about free speech and political correctness on campus, the film’s producer and director, Evan Coyne Maloney, made news of another, but related, kind. According to the New York Post of Oct. 7, Maloney, unhappy with the performance of his dry cleaner, began plastering his neighborhood with flyers proclaiming that the offending establishment “sucks and is overpriced.” Now he is being sued for defamation, and he has responded to the suit by declaring that what he did is “clearly protected speech.”

We’ll see, but I would advise the dry cleaning firm and its lawyers to take a look at Maloney’s documentary, “Indoctrinate U,” if only so that they might gauge what they’re up against.

At least as an on-camera presence, Maloney is polite, unflappable and relentless. He borrows some techniques from Michael Moore, but rather than resembling a giant donut, Maloney has the lean boyish looks that could earn him a role in “Oceans 14” alongside Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. So when he ambles into a university office in search of an administrator who will explain why there is no Men’s Resource Center at a university where The Women’s Resource Center flourishes, a viewer is likely to ask, Why won’t they even talk to that nice young man? (Of course it’s a set-up; Maloney knows in advance that no one who works for a large institution is going to start talking to a film crew that just wanders in, and he’s counting on it.)

“Indoctrinate U”‘s thesis is contained in its title. You may think that universities are places where ideas are explored and evaluated in a spirit of objective inquiry. But in fact, Maloney tells us, they are places of indoctrination where a left-leaning faculty teaches every subject, including chemistry and horticulture, through the prism of race, class and gender; where minorities and women are taught that they are victims of oppression; where admissions policies are racially gerrymandered; where identity-based programs reproduce the patterns of segregation that the left supposedly abhors; where students and faculty who speak against the prevailing orthodoxy are ostracized, disciplined and subjected to sensitivity training; where conservative speakers like Ward Connerly are shouted down; where radical speakers like Ward Churchill are welcomed; where speech codes mandate speech that offends no one; where the faculty preaches diversity but is itself starkly homogeneous with respect to political affiliation; where professors regularly use the classroom as a platform for their political views; where students parrot back the views they know their instructors to hold; where course reading lists are heavy on radical texts and light on texts celebrating the Western tradition; where the American flag is held in suspicion; where military recruiting personnel are either treated rudely or barred from campus; where the default assumption is that anything the United States and Israel do is evil.

This is a large bill of particulars—but hardly a new one; Alan Bloom, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, Charles Sykes, Lynne Cheney, Alan Kors, Anne Neal and David Horowitz, among others, precede Maloney—and while each of the complaints is presented as equally weighty, some are more significant than others and a few are red herrings.

The question of who gets to speak on campus is one of them. Speakers are typically invited to campus by departments and by elected student committees charged with the responsibility of distributing student fees. One group decides what work in the discipline is important and cutting-edge; the other decides more on the basis of popularity and notoriety. Neither is particularly interested in balance; nor should they be. Balance (and I will return to this point) is a political, not an academic requirement. Balance requires that you ask the question, “Did every constituency get its turn or its share?” But to ask that question is to replace judgment with the criterion of proportional representation, and in the academy that is almost always a bad idea.

Students who want to hear different speakers should get themselves elected to the committee. Faculty members who feel that speakers of interest to them never get invited should go get a grant or pony up their own research funds (if they have any) or think about going to another department. Of course, once a speaker is invited, he or she should be protected from harassment, but heckling and picketing aren’t harassment. They are what you buy when you decide to appear before the public.

As for the clannishness of students who hang out only with those of their own race and ethnicity, that is certainly worrisome, and it is likely that the strong marking of identity in admissions policies, course descriptions and race- or gender-based centers contributes to it. But to call it segregation is to fudge the distinction between forced separation and a separation voluntarily chosen (even if it is a separation you lament). Maloney does exactly this when he reports on racially skewed admissions practices while his screen shows grainy-imaged footage of the pre-Brown v. Board of Education days. They’re the same, he’s saying. No they’re not. This is one of the few arguably dishonest moments in the documentary.

Then there’s the matter of speech codes. This is a fake issue. Every speech code that has been tested in the courts has been struck down, often on the very grounds—you can’t criminalize offensiveness—invoked by Maloney. Even though there are such codes on the books of some universities, enforcing them will never hold up. Students don’t have to worry about speech codes. The universities that have them do, a point made by “Indoctrinate U” when Maloney tells the story of how Cal Poly was taken to the cleaners (no, not his cleaners) when it tried to discipline a student for putting up a poster with the word “plantation” in it.

Another red herring is the accusation that there is too little patriotism on campus. Maloney interviews a bus driver who was forced by a university to remove an American flag because it might make foreign students uncomfortable. Removing a flag from a university bus may be an act the wisdom of which might be questioned, but the question would go to the university’s competence, not its patriotism. (There is a difference between being stupid and being disloyal.) Universities by definition are neither patriotic nor unpatriotic; striking political stances in either direction is not the business they are properly in.

Still, when all the red herrings and non-issues have been checked off, there remain some serious questions. Why, Maloney asks, should “schools pay people to operate offices and programs that are blatantly political in nature?” (He has in mind offices and programs like Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, African American Studies, Chicano Studies.)

The answer to that question is to pose two others: (1) Are there programs with those names that are more political than academic? (2) Do programs with those names have to be more political than academic?

The answer to the first question is yes, to the second no. It is certainly the case that many of these programs gained a place in the academy through political activism, but that doesn’t mean that once they are in political activism need be, or should be, the content of their activities. Race, gender and class are not myths. They are realities and as such worthy of serious study. There are more than enough legitimate academic topics to keep an ethnic or gender studies department going for decades—the recovery of lost texts, the history of economic struggle and success, the relationship of race, ethnicity and gender to medical research. And there is no reason in principle that such investigations must begin or end in accusations against capitalism, the white male Protestant establishment and the United States government.

But some of them do. Some of these programs forget who’s paying the bills and continue to think of themselves as extensions of a political agenda. And students who take courses in those programs may well feel the pressure of that agenda. When that happens, an administration should step in and stop it. And if it doesn’t, it deserves every criticism this documentary levels.

How many such programs are there?

Maloney strongly implies that they are all like that, but offers little evidence except the anecdotal evidence of the dozen or so people he interviews. In other places in his documentary he offers as evidence the familiar (and accurate) statistics indicating that in many departments in the humanities and social sciences, 75 percent to 95 percent of the faculty self-identifies as left of center. Noting that Stanford’s Diversity Office advertises itself as promoting difference, Maloney guesses that “it isn’t doing such a great job,” given that in the humanities Democrats outnumber Republicans 144 to 10. He quotes a student who declares, “The university totally ignores that diversity of thought means political diversity.”

No it doesn’t. Political diversity (a more honest label for what Maloney, following David Horowitz, calls “intellectual diversity”) means that in terms of its partisan affiliations, a university faculty should look like America and display the same balance of Democrats and Republicans as can be found in the country’s voting rolls. But this requirement of proportional political representation makes sense only if you can predict what and how a professor teaches from his or her partisan identification: absent such a correlation, the political makeup of the faculty is not a legitimate pedagogical concern.

So the question to ask is, does ballot box performance predict and track classroom performance? And the answer is, not necessarily. In many social science departments, there is a split right down the middle between partisans of quantitative methods (techniques like statistical modeling) and partisans of qualitative methods (inquiries rooted in philosophy and theory). But, as the statistics Maloney cites show, 90 percent of those on either side of this divide will be registered Democrats. What this means is that academic politics and “real world” politics are independent variables. Knowing the political registration of a faculty member tells you nothing necessarily about the way in which he or she teaches.

Still, “necessarily” is an important qualifier, and as “Indoctrinate U” makes clear, there are those who do not distinguish between academic and partisan politics and allow the latter to inflect the former, often in the name of social justice.

Once again, the question is how many of them are there? Anne Neal, president of the conservative watchdog group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, asks that question on camera, and answers it by reporting that in a survey of students a “significant percentage…complained that politics was being introduced in the classroom” and 42 percent “said their book lists were one-sided.”

Here again there’s the part we should take seriously and the red-herring or fake-issue part. Book lists take their shape from the instructor’s judgment that a particular text is important to the area of inquiry. There is no reason—at least no pedagogical reason—to demand that a book list contain representatives of every approach out there. The judgment that a list is “one sided” is a political not an academic judgment (and the fact that students are making it makes it even more suspect), and enforcing it, as some state legislatures now want to do, would be a blatantly political act.

But then there’s the part we should take seriously: professors who use the classroom as a stage for their political views. Maloney speculates that perhaps one out of seven perform in this way. I would put the number much lower, perhaps one out of twenty-five. But one out of 10,000 would be one too many.

Academics often bridle at the picture of their activities presented by Maloney and other conservative critics, and accuse them of grossly caricaturing and exaggerating what goes on in the classroom. Maybe so, but so long as there are those who confuse advocacy with teaching, and so long as faculty colleagues and university administrators look the other way, the academy invites the criticism it receives in this documentary. In 1915, the American Association of University Professors warned that if we didn’t clean up our own shop, external constituencies, with motives more political than educational, would step in and do it for us. Now they’re doing it in the movies and it’s our own fault.

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