Opponents of free speech have chalked up many campus victories lately as ideological conformity marches on.
There was a time when people looking for intellectual debate turned away from politics to the university. Political backrooms bred slogans and bagmen; universities fostered educated discussion. But when students in the 1960s began occupying university property like the thugs of regimes America was fighting abroad, the venues gradually reversed. Open debate is now protected only in the polity: In universities, muggers prevail.
Assaults on intellectual and political freedom have been making headlines. Pressure from faculty egged on by Muslim groups induced Brandeis University last month not to grant Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the proponent of women’s rights under Islam, an intended honorary degree at its convocation. This was a replay of 1994, when Brandeis faculty demanded that trustees rescind their decision to award an honorary degree to Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In each case, a faculty cabal joined by (let us charitably say) ignorant students promoted the value of repression over the values of America’s liberal democracy.
Opponents of free speech have lately chalked up many such victories: New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly prevented from speaking at Brown University in November; a lecture by Charles Murray canceled by Azusa Pacific University in April; Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national-security adviser under the George W. Bush administration, harassed earlier this month into declining the invitation by Rutgers University to address this year’s convocation.
Most painful to me was the Harvard scene several years ago when the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies, celebrating its 50th anniversary, accepted a donation in honor of its former head tutor Martin Peretz, whose contributions to the university include the chair in Yiddish I have been privileged to hold. His enemies on campus generated a “party against Marty” that forced him to walk a gauntlet of jeering students for having allegedly offended Islam, while putting others on notice that they had best not be perceived guilty of association with him.
Universities have not only failed to stand up to those who limit debate, they have played a part in encouraging them. The modish commitment to so-called diversity replaces the ideal of guaranteed equal treatment of individuals with guaranteed group preferences in hiring and curricular offerings.
Females and members of visible minorities are given handicaps (as in golf). Courses are devised to inculcate in students the core lesson that (in the words of one recent graduate, writing online at the Huffington Post) “harmful structural inequalities persist on the basis of class, race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the U.S.” On too many campuses, as in a funhouse mirror, ideological commitment to diversity has brought about its opposite: ideological hegemony, which is much more harmful to the life of the mind than the alleged structural inequalities that social engineering set out to correct.