Home inFocus Advice to the Next President (Fall 2008) An Opportunity to Improve Higher Education

An Opportunity to Improve Higher Education

Alex Joffe Fall 2008

The next president will have a slate of issues to address, from Iraq and Iran, ties with Europe, and the economy. Education policy, and how free speech is preserved on college and university campuses, should also be high on the list.

The tyranny of political correctness, the under-representation of conservative faculty voices, and the ideology of progressive social engineering have turned the campus into a painfully repressive environment. These are not new problems, but they are increasingly difficult to cover up.

Whether in the embrace of radical causes and self-declared enemies of the U.S., embodied by the appearance of Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Columbia University, the crucifixion of athletes falsely accused of rape at Duke, or the inability to explain why higher education costs so much, colleges and universities are on the defensive.

With these challenges comes an opportunity for leadership.

The Problem

The traditional view of the campus as a bastion of free speech was never entirely accurate. Free speech has always been a contested value besieged by both the right and left. In one era it was Congregationalist preachers teaching Christian virtue to the sons of the early American aristocracy, and in another it was fistfights between Stalinists and Trotskyites in the lunchrooms at City College. It is the nature of the “marketplace of ideas” that some views dominate others, if only for a time.

Since the 1960s, however, the situation has changed. The failure of that generation’s political left masked its successes elsewhere, namely the “long march through the institutions,” including higher education. The public acquiesced to the left-liberal domination of schools, school boards, and university faculties, in part because it was done under the radar, and also because it was couched in the widely accepted language of best intentions, fairness, rights, and redress.

Some claim that “tenured radicals” have hijacked the system. A more precise view sees in universities the triumph of 1960s culture—politically liberal, culturally tolerant, and naturally adversarial toward authority. That liberalism has since hardened into dogma. Tolerance became intolerance in the name of preserving freedom.

Speech codes are also a problem. Ostensibly intended to maintain civility, they are often efforts to prescribe thought and behavior. Consider one example from Jackson State College cited by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

…harassment includes language to physical acts which degrades, insults, taunts, or challenges another person by any means of communication, verbal, so as to provoke a violent response, communication of threat, defamation of character, use of profanity, verbal assaults, derogatory comments or remarks, sexist remarks, racists remarks or any behavior that places another member of the University community in a state of fear or anxiety.

Anything perceived as harassment, including “fighting words,” is prohibited. Authority is vested in the subjectivity of the offended. Transgressors are subject to kangaroo courts where sanctions range from compulsory “sensitivity training” to expulsion.

To be fair, not every word or look is weighed with suspicion on campus. Students still drink and carouse. They sit in classrooms, study, and even graduate. Only sometimes do students run afoul of speech or behavior codes.

Still, the effects of these codes and social engineering mechanisms are subtle yet clear. Administrative apparatuses exist on campuses to police behavior, speech, and thought. They complement traditional pedagogy with education on “social justice” and self-esteem, feeding the sense of entitlement and its inverse, grievance on the part of students and faculty alike. Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, real and imagined, are officially decried, and echoed dutifully by student activist groups.

Diversity — racial, ethnic, cultural and otherwise — is the official ideology and culture on campus. All beliefs and viewpoints—with the exception of conservative ones—are explicitly equal, and woe unto those who suggest otherwise. Rather than free speech and equal defense of “diversity,” the result has been aggressive policing of grievance, real and imagined.

Recently, at Purdue University at Indianapolis, a student-employee was found guilty of racial harassment for reading Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, which a fellow employee mistakenly thought was a racist tome. Racism may still exist on campus, but this wasn’t it. It took outside intervention and public embarrassment before school administrators admitted error.

At Columbia University, the head of the anti-illegal immigration “Minutemen” group was shouted off stage and chased by socialists who denied his right to free speech. On the same campus, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was offered a venue and was challenged by the university’s president on his country’s horrific human rights record. The faculty subsequently castigated the university president, Lee Bollinger, for his bad manners.

The Short Leap

It is a short leap from dogma regarding speech and behavior to “correct thinking” in history, politics, and culture. Fallout into research and pedagogy is now pervasive. The adversarial stance of faculty members toward bourgeois American society and its conventional politics, and the narcissistic perception of the campus as the last bastion of freedom, have elevated many left-liberal views to sacred cows.

Politicization of curricula, from the humanities to the professions, is now so pervasive that it is ignored. Courses are often celebrations of the supposedly suppressed and hidden. History is the story of Western perfidy and global resilience in the face of the same. Capitalism and globalization perpetuate inequality and human greed. Social work, education, and law are instruments to dismantle white, Western hegemony. To speak out against these orthodoxies courts career-ending disaster.

Title VI

Israel is presented at American colleges and universities as it is at Arab ones—the root of the region’s and the world’s problems. Along with the Great Satan (the U.S.), Israel is vilified for its very existence. To note how this theme dominates the intellectual life of the university is considered outside interference. Recall the hyperbolic reactions to the David Project’s film “Columbia Unbecoming” on bias and harassment, or the resistance to recent evidence documenting a hostile environment for pro-Israel students on the University of California-Irvine.

Federal education policies such as Title VI only make matters worse. Through an amendment to the 1965 Higher Education Act, Federal funds intended for international education and language training support Middle East Studies centers across the country. Indeed, the federal government subsidizes the assault on Israel and American. These centers ensure that educational materials, frequently funded by Saudi petrodollars, that glorify Islam and denigrate the West, are disseminated with university imprimatur to elementary and high schools around the country. Students learn “what it is like” to be a Muslim by wearing the veil and bowing toward Mecca. They may also learn, courtesy of the Arab World Studies Notebook, that Muslims discovered North America before Columbus and found Arabic speaking natives.


The incoming administration should take a strong stand on the need for free speech on campus. Making this a national issue will alert citizens and policymakers to its importance.

The next administration might call for a presidential study examining free speech on campus. Colleges and universities, along with the Education Department, have monopolized the issue, claiming that outside intervention is “censorship.” A public-private panel might take the issue away from education bureaucrats who obfuscate the issue. Civic and business leaders — not education professionals — could take testimony from students, parents, faculty, and administrators, and create a visible forum for discussion.

Third, opposition by the Middle East Studies community to oversight for Title VI funds must be overcome. This can be done either by congressional action on pending amendments or by presidential decree. Every federal program has a mechanism for oversight. Cries against “censorship” or “interference” are simply efforts to avoid accountability.

Finally, whether by test scores or private funding to remediate inadequate high schools and colleges, education in America must improve. Economic competitiveness and national cohesion are already suffering. Without a shift from social justice to science and engineering, the U.S. will issue more H1-B visas for foreign scientists and engineers to drive American industry.

Making education and free speech a presidential priority requires no line items in the Federal budget, nor does it risk alienating voters. The issue may anger the professorate, but not the majority of Americans. Aligning policy with the electorate, now demonstrably irritated with higher education, is good policy and good politics.

Alex Joffe is director of research at The David Project Center for Jewish Leadership (www.davidproject.org).