The Dissembling Protesters

My experience at Ohio University offered me a first-hand glimpse into the mindset of anti-due process activists, and the subsequent media coverage has indicated a troubling willingness for misdirection.

Austin Linfante, a reporter for the OU campus news site New Political, noted that the protesters furiously tweeted how the talk doubted that “the justice system favored white men accused of rape over African American men accused of rape.” Yet the only reference in the talk to the justice system was about the lacrosse case, an instance in which the accused people were white (and who clearly didn’t receive preferential treatment). And while I observed that colleges treat all students accused of sexual assault unfairly, regardless of race (as the Dez Wells case showed), the only reference in the Q&A to the justice system came in my positively citing Harvard Law professor Janet Halley’s recent point that, historically, weakening due process safeguards have disproportionately harmed minorities. It’s hard to imagine how an endorsement of Halley’s thesis could be labeled a denial of racial injustices in the criminal justice system.

One of the protesters, Katie Conlon, subsequently penned a letter to the Athens Postjustifying the failed efforts at a heckler’s veto, on grounds I had committed a worse offense: “calling victims of sexual assault ‘comically unbelievable.’” First, Continue reading

A Troubling Report on Campus Anti-Semitism

I recently reported on a clear incident of discrimination against a Jewish UCLA student for her ties to Jewish organizations on campus. Readers who follow this issue will be familiar with other recent cases in which the allegedly progressive movement to boycott Israel has flirted with anti-Semitism.

Until now, though, we haven’t had much data on anti-Semitism on American college campuses. This week, Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, both professors at Trinity College, attempted to fill that gap with a new report. Their headline finding: in the academic year 2013-14, 54% of Jewish students surveyed “reported having been subject to or witnessing anti-Semitism on their campuses”. The survey covered a period prior to this summer’s Gaza offensive.

Here are some of the survey’s other findings. First, being an Israel critic does not shield you from anti-Semitism. Almost half of the respondents who identified themselves as members of J Street—a group that takes critical stances on Israeli policies—reported directly experiencing or witnessing anti-Semitism on campus. Moreover, students’ experiences of anti-Semitism did not vary by their level of Jewish affiliation. Students involved with the Orthodox Chabad group were no more likely to report anti-Semitism than students involved with the non-denominational Hillel group or students involved with Jewish fraternities.

Second, the incidents most often involve interpersonal, as opposed to institutional discrimination. However, the researchers also argue that “anti-Semitism appears to go under the radar” and is “largely ignored by the official cognitive system,” in spite of administrators’ invocations of diversity and inclusiveness.  Third, in spite of Great Britain’s reputation for anti-Semitism and the United States’ reputation for tolerance, American students reported anti-Semitism at the same rate as British students had in 2011. Fourth, women (59%) are more likely to report anti-Semitism than men (51%).

These troubling results, as the authors note, reinforces a 2013 Pew Research Center study in which young Jews reported being called offensive names at higher rates than older Jews. This is a shocking finding given the widespread notion that young people are less prejudiced than older people.

One caveat, which the authors make themselves, is necessary. For a variety of reasons, the survey sample “cannot claim to be a fully representative national sample,” and its response rate, at 10-12%, was relatively low. On the other hand, the authors argues that the students surveyed “seem to mirror the overall national sample” reached in the 2013 National College Student survey.  Admittedly, it seems unlikely that a group, 40% of which reported having “visited a Holocaust memorial museum in the past year,” is representative of the Jewish campus population. However, as the researchers themselves concede, the “climate surveys” used to demonstrate bias against other groups on campus are often bedeviled by small sample sizes and concerns about selection bias. To dismiss this survey’s findings on that basis would deny one of the respondents’ poignant and reasonable demand: “to know that our University stands by us.”

Frat Sues Wesleyan for Discriminating

Members of Wesleyan’s Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter are suing the school for discrimination after being forced to accept women in order to remain on campus. For the record, the university has an array of other residential houses and halls, none of which, it seems, is required to accept students of other genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, identity groups, interests, or religions as the price of being allowed to exist.

These include Womanist House, Women of Color House, Malcolm X House, La Casa (Latinos), Turath House (Arabs, Muslims), Buddhist House, Asian/Asian American House, Light House (Christians), Bayit (Jews), Japanese Hall, Chinese House, and Open House, which is for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Flexual, Asexual, Genderfuck, Polyamourous, Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism (LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM) communities and for people of sexually or gender dissident communities.” Missing from this protected list: hetero males who wish to live with other hetero males in a fraternity.

What’s An Ivy League Education Worth?

It’s mistake to conclude that “where you go to college is of almost no importance.” Even if they don’t offer the royal road to intellectual or professional success, elite colleges provide opportunities and resources that are tough to find elsewhere. And that’s one of the dilemmas of American higher education. An Ivy League diploma isn’t just a status good—it carries real advantages.

The first benefit of an elite education is access. A Harvard B.A. opens doors that a degree from, say, Lehigh simply won’t.

This is partly a matter of preferential hiring. Top-tier consulting and investment firms, for example, generally hire graduates of just three or four universities. No, this isn’t fair, and yes, there are exceptions. But the truth is, students at state universities who dream of Goldman Sachs are probably out of luck.

Even when there isn’t a policy of exclusion, students at elite universities join networks of professors and alumni whose members offer each other information, support, and advice that isn’t available to outsiders. Want to work at The New Yorker? A word from Louis Menand counts for a lot more than an enthusiastic letter from the overworked adjunct who taught you Lit 101 at Directional State.

The good news is that this kind of access is relevant in a few fields that are closely associated with Ivy League and tend to hire recent graduates. That means, above all, Wall Street or the prestige media. In most other areas, it matters less where you went to college. This includes professions that require advanced degrees and base their hierarchies on graduateschool pedigree, such as law, medicine, and academia.

A second advantage of attending an elite university is being around lots of other ambitious, capable people. Sometime, this is no more than luck of the draw. Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder and controversial owner of The New Republic, can trace his fortune back to his time as Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate.

The benefits of proximity don’t always have a clear connection to learning. But sometimes they do: although they have their share of party animals, elite schools include large numbers of students devoted to serious study. There are outstanding teachers and students at every college and university in the country, and you can get a great education by selecting courses carefully. But you’ll learn more when you take classes with people who actually want to be there. (In this respect, mission-based great books or religious colleges may be even better than the Ivies).

Much the same is true outside the lecture hall. Whether they’re interested in the arts, politics, or other pursuits, students tend to work harder and find greater success when they’re surrounded by peers doing the same thing.

Nearly all universities have clubs or organizations that promote these kinds of communities. But clubs and societies aren’t worth much unless they have a large and active membership—which isn’t always easy to find in middle and lower reaches of the academic hierarchy.

The final advantage that elite colleges offer is money…and lots of it. Contrary to the popular perception, it is usually cheaper for a poor or middle class student to attend Yale than the local state university because the richest schools pay all or most tuition fees for many students. And it’s a lot easier to study when you don’t have to worry about paying the bills.

Elite colleges also offer lavish support, both official and from alumni, for extracurricular activities ranging from literary magazines to study abroad. Although they’re often dismissed as resume padding, many students learn more from these activities than they do from classes. In a recent column arguing that that you can learn just as much at the public universities that dominate big-time sports as you can at Yale, Jay Mathews recalls spending most of his time working for the school paper rather than studying. But that doesn’t mean that his alma mater was irrelevant to his career as a journalist—Mathew’s school paper was The Harvard Crimson, which offers a range and depth of coverage that few of its competitors match.

Access, intellectually and professionally ambitious peers, and institutional and financial support are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of a rewarding college experience. But they’re more important than advocates of the “individual responsibility” model of higher education usually admit. The question is whether these advantages justify their costs in effort, time, and sheer anxiety. I don’t envy students and families the task of the figuring that out.

Some Clemson Faculty Call for Censorship

In a recent edition of The Tiger, Clemson University’s official student newspaper, 110 faculty and staff members published a petition endorsing seven “demands” of the “Coalition of Concerned Students.” Demands 2-7 call for Clemson officials to construct a multicultural center, provide more funding for “under-represented student groups,” increase affirmative action hiring, rename “offensively named buildings,” and increase diversity training for administrators, faculty, and students.

What shocked the Clemson community was the professors’ support of the students’ first demand, which called on the university “to prosecute criminally predatory behaviors and defamatory speech committed by members of the Clemson University community (including, but not limited to, those facilitated by usage of social media).”

There has been some recent public confusion and debate over the exact meaning of this intellectually incoherent statement. Did its authors and supporting faculty intend to use the word “criminally” as an adverb to modify “prosecute” or as an adjective to modify “predatory behaviors and defamatory speech”? If the former, their intent is said to be malignant; if the latter, their intent is said to be benign. In the end, this is a distinction without a difference.

Targeting ‘Hate Speech’

In a recent attempt to clarify their troubling statement, our “Concerned Students” have unwittingly admitted that their ultimate goal is to criminalize certain kinds of speech: “We want the university to hold people accountable for threats and harassment. That’s all. Criminal, as in hate speech or threats of violence, cyber bullying, stalking, etc.” Since “hate speech” is not a crime, it now seems clear that they are in fact demanding the criminal prosecution of defamatory and other kinds of speech.

In a recent letter-to-the editor  published in The Tiger, a supporter of the coalition unmasks their real intentions: “Maybe it is time” he writes, “to criminalize hate speech because of its damaging effects to the lives of people who have to suffer it: racial minorities, the LGBT community, women, and religious minorities.”

That a minority faction of faculty and low-level administrators would support junior-varsity censorship (e.g., speech codes and free-speech zones) is not surprising in this day and age. Demands for ideological cleansing are common on today’s college campuses. What is shocking, however, is the prospect of faculty members calling for the criminal prosecution of speech, which means that students could be arrested and imprisoned if convicted of speech crimes.

How are we to understand this unprecedented faculty demand for censorship and the criminal prosecution of speech?

Ignorance of the Law

The most charitable interpretation assumes that the petitioning faculty is simply ignorant of the law and what it means to “prosecute criminally” defamatory or any other kind of speech in the United States, never mind at a public university. The fact is that Clemson University has no authority or jurisdiction to prosecute anything criminally. This is the job of law enforcement authorities, including the police and the courts. More importantly, defamatory speech is not prosecuted as a crime in American courts. Defamatory speech is tried in our state and federal courts as a civil action (i.e., resulting only in monetary damages).

Surely our privileged professoriate knows this. Surely they understand the difference between American defamation law and that of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or ISIL, where defamatory speech can result in jail time or worse?

It is inconceivable to me that so many Ph.D.’s could be guilty of such a basic intellectual error, which raises a more ominous question: What if they actually support the criminal prosecution of constitutionally protected speech as a positive good? If this is the case, then the petitioning faculty would be subject to the same kind of moral judgment that decent people have always reserved for censors, thought police, and book burners.

The perverse irony of college professors demanding the criminal prosecution of student speech is mind-boggling. How strange for professors in the department of Communication Studies to censor speech, which means to censor the free communication of ideas—for professors in the department of Philosophy to censor speech, which means to censor thought and inquiry—for professors in the department of English Literature to censor speech, which means to potentially censor the books students read—for professors in the department of History to censor speech, which means to whitewash the past—for professors in the department Education to censor speech, which means to censor the ability to think and learn?

The attempt to intimidate young people with the coercive force of the State is anathema to the noble ideals of higher education. Those who censor almost always do so because they fear their ideas cannot withstand scrutiny in the marketplace of ideas. This is why they also insist upon forced indoctrination (e.g., mandatory diversity training) rather than persuasion and a free exchange of ideas.

This unfortunate turn of events has a silver lining, though. The more important Clemson story concerns a rapidly growing free speech movement. In the same issue of the student newspaper in which the petitioning faculty demanded the prosecution of student speech, I published a competing full-page ad (co-signed by two colleagues) entitled “An Open Letter to Clemson Students.” Our letter pledged to all Clemson students that we will “oppose all attempts by Clemson faculty and administrators to silence, suppress, or ‘prosecute criminally’ thought and speech deemed vulgar, controversial, unpopular, insensitive, offensive, inappropriate, subversive, or blasphemous.” And we mean it!

It is my view that university professors have a moral responsibility to defend their students from those who would censor them. Since the publication of our “Open Letter,” there has been a groundswell of support for free speech.  I have received a number of letters from students who have told me how much it means to them that some of their professors actually support free speech and are willing to defend the integrity of the human mind to think and speak without coercion.

Consider the significance of two particularly powerful letters I received:

Given the current climate at Clemson University, I appreciate your dedication to fight for the rights for students to speak and think free of any interference from outside forces. I personally am scared, as a student at Clemson, for what my future as a student holds for me. Those who should foster and encourage the concept of freedom of speech and thought no longer stand to protect us, but would publicly shame those who are willing to express opinions that contradict their own.

And another student, whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union, wrote:

I was shocked to see how many professors signed in favor of the Coalition for Concerned Students’ demands, as I had previously assumed that freedom of expression and free speech are considered unconditional rights by the majority of Americans. . . . I am not well-learned in political sciences as most of my knowledge about the dangers of censorship comes from stories my parents and grandparents told me about living in the USSR.

Our students have a profound intellectual and moral need to see their teachers stand on principle for the most fundamental right: the freedom to think and speak. Young men and women do not respect cowardice and compromise. Let us therefore reclaim our universities from the nattering nabobs of mediocrity, who fear and loathe independent thought and the spirit of open-minded inquiry. If we can’t defend our students from intimidation, censorship, and indoctrination, then we should all find new careers.