University of California President Janet Napolitano recently contemplated in The Boston Globe “how far we have moved from freedom of speech on campuses to freedom from speech.” The letter, seemingly addressed not to the university system over which she presides, but to East Coast colleges, seemed more a publicity stunt than a serious call for self-examination.
Napolitano’s public letter comes eight years after another extremely contentious election. In October 2008, I wrote to the president of the University of California-Berkeley, where I was a doctoral student at the time, objecting to the Democratic Party’s takeover of everything on campus from flyers on official department bulletins to the use of list-servs. At the time, I considered myself a Democrat and a progressive, so the basis for my complaint was only a sense of compunction that a taxpayer-funded institution was serving as an informal branch of a political party.
Four months later, well after the election, Chief of Staff Charles Upshaw responded:
Prompted by your letter, I tried to document the most recent occasion when members of the Berkeley community were reminded about these regulations in relation to national and statewide elections. I learned with some degree of confidence that it was 1970, at the height of nation-wide campus unrest and protests, sometimes with tragic consequences, over the Vietnam War… The relevant University policies have not changed in over 39 years, but there has been some slippage in the community’s awareness of them, and, based on your experiences, our collective understanding of how the policies should be followed by some faculty and departments.
This suggests there had been a four-decade hiatus since the university voluntarily did the kind of self-assessment necessary to continue accepting taxpayers’ money. The university cannot allow itself through lack of vigilance, or as he put it, “some slippage,” to finance partisan activity.
After a decade of studying and then teaching at the University of California I can say that this lack of rigorous self-assessment has created a cultural and intellectual climate without enough open discussion across ideological lines. Similar situations on campuses all across America have resulted in the breakdown of communication outside of academia that has now come to a catastrophic impasse in our nation.
Students are no longer trained to engage in real debate; critical thinking has been abandoned in favor of label-throwing and indignation; and the scholastic, then humanist, and finally liberal tradition that created the university and poured out of it into the rest of the world is being abandoned.
Used to People Thinking They’re Racist
Universities have contributed to this breakdown of intellectual and political discussion by making sure that nobody expresses dissent against “progressive” ideals. Conservatives feel beleaguered and shut out, and when progressives can’t win an argument by its merits they resort to charging their opponent with misogyny, racism, and homophobia.
One of my freshmen at UC-Davis, Jakob Mandsager from Folsom, California, explained: “It’s sort of the stereotype that liberals are easily offended.” I asked him if he thought conservatives are more open to political discussion: “Yes. Definitely. Maybe it’s because most of the conservatives I come across are in California, and most of them are used to people completely disagreeing with them and thinking they have a bias or [are] racist.”
Another freshman in my Writing about Politics seminar, Luis Anguiano from San Diego, acknowledged that in this atmosphere neither progressives nor conservatives are willing to engage each other: “neither side is more open to everything” but “people who are really right or really left” are especially resistant.
Progressive strategies of maintaining power on university campuses have effectively shut down conversation between conservatives and progressives and left moderates bewildered. Emboldened, progressives now routinely repress their ethical integrity and logical reasoning in favor of finger-pointing.
Who Cares If It’s Ethical
My awakening to all this was in the Barack Obama wave in 2008. There were Obama flyers everywhere at UC-Berkeley—papered on building walls and ceilings, pinned to department corkboards by volunteers and paid fundraisers. They were there alongside things that actually belonged on a university department bulletin, and staff and faculty who were responsible for running the departments left them there. Grad students and professors used list-servs occasionally to organize for Democratic candidates.
I complained about this use of public resources to promote one political party. One of the chairs of a department in my building responded: “If they were throwing a party for Marx and Hegel, would you object?” I responded, “Marx and Hegel are not running for president this year. Mr. Obama is.” “What, then,” she asked, “If they were using the list-serv to organize against Prop 8? Would you object then, as well?” She assumed I was against Prop 8 and was going to ensnare me in her own way of thinking: that if the political cause were close enough to my heart I would abandon my sense of what is right in a public university.
The incident crystallized an anti-intellectual reasoning I now see everywhere. The chair’s response was beneath her. It was a coercive response from an otherwise brilliant scholar with integrity. No doubt, the progressive issues at stake in the 2008 election meant so much to her that she was able to justify the bullying because the ends justified the means. But this was far from the kind of conversation one would expect from actual “liberals.”
Considered Disagreement Versus Knee-Jerk Reaction
Contrast this response with one I got from the George H. W. Bush administration 16 years before. I was honored as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and my work was to appear in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, where I was also invited to read one of my stories. I had chosen a story with some taboo topics, and an administration official asked to speak with me. With sincerity and without appearing judgmental, she explained why they were uncomfortable with the story. Although I was not a happy 17-year-old, even I acquiesced, and I read something else at the Smithsonian. Contrast the response from the eminent progressive professor.
The letter from Upshaw affirmed the basic message of my “letter and attachments [to] highlight the importance of balancing the rights of political expression, advocacy and activity with the responsibility of assuring that University facilities and resources are not used for political purposes, except as specifically permitted by University regulations, and that students are provided reasonable protection against practices that would make them involuntary audiences to partisan political activity.”
Upshaw defended “the essential balance between protecting the speech and advocacy rights of individuals and groups and assuring that the University is not diverted from its essential functions or improperly implicated in non-University issues and activities.” He then admitted, “Your letter, however, demonstrated the need to remind the campus community—faculty, staff and students—about campus regulations that delineate time, place, and manner for exercising speech and advocacy.”
Back in 1970, “the President of the University issued a statement to the faculty that reaffirmed the longstanding policy that University facilities and resources, including supplies, equipment, services, and intangible assets, like the University Seal, must not be diverted to partisan political use.”
In 2009, he suggested, the “slippage” could be “remedied to a great degree by timely communications from the Chancellor or his designee about the relevant regulations and the principles undergirding them. I will help institutionalize this effort and will begin by assisting our Legal Counsel in reviewing all applicable regulations to ensure that they are unambiguous and consistent in the delineation of time, place, and manner for exercising speech and advocacy.”
In the six years I was at UC-Berkeley after this letter, I never received follow-up from his office. I contacted him and his former assistant, and their emails were defunct. The faculty holding that position did not respond for comment.
Why This Really Matters
The reason this matters is not because I want the Democratic Party to fail by losing its stronghold on college campuses. A psychoanalyst who does not go into therapy is at a high risk for counter-transferring her own issues to her patients. Similarly, if we as faculty, staff, and graduate students do not constantly examine our partisan behavior, we will have universities that fail in their mission: forming students who have the stamina and emotional wherewithal to play with diverse ideas—not just from different cultures—but also from different places on the political and ideological spectrum.
Progressive ideology has acknowledged the challenges of being a minority, and of the disadvantages that fall to certain segments of society. However, being sensitive to people’s cultural background and supportive of educational needs is one thing, but students now know that they can bully their teachers with identity politics. They learn to throw out labels and recrimination because it works, and is far easier than learning to think critically.
I have seen the strain of this culture on faculty and students. People feel beleaguered by the politically correct culture everywhere, and, instructed by faculty, parents, and the culture at large, students eschew real debate. This standoff between progressives and conservatives has led to a huge intellectual divide. Kelly Sunseri-Adams, a UC-Davis junior, explained how he has sometimes felt in the classroom at different universities. He remembers faculty “trying to push their belief system on you.” He kept his faculty’s ideological position in mind when writing papers for fear that ideas that did not align might be punished with a bad grade.
If You’re a White Male, Shut Up?
Clearly, university has not been the utopia progressives imagine with limitless free speech and independent thinking. No student should feel so encumbered. Sunseri-Adams criticizes the “thin skin of people of my generation…from being catered to by political correctness….afraid to hear anything they don’t agree with…It’s hard to learn if you only hear what you want to….In my history class my professor has to prelude to everything he is going to talk about, has to give a warning that ‘this isn’t my opinion’…it’s almost like he has to tiptoe around these subjects to get them out there.”
Benjamin Porter, a UC-Davis freshman who calls himself very far left, tells me a story about one of his lectures at Davis. “One of the first things he says in class was that he wanted to make sure he didn’t offend anybody…He says, ‘Discussions of artistic material like this may have offensive material, and it can be difficult for people to talk about, and historically in situations like this, the people who tend to talk the most are privileged white males. If you are a privileged white male, talking all the time, I will probably talk to you at the end of class, and let everybody speak.’”
Porter concluded, “I don’t really know that this sort of censorship will help discussion. I am just there cuz I like movies…In the class there are three white males out of thirty; the teacher himself is a white male…I can see how people like me or who are a lot more conservative could be frustrated.”
Wedge issues like gun rights, abortion, religious liberty, and bathrooms in Texas divert from a much bigger and existentially dangerous threat to all of us. The university is the place where for four years people who would not choose to hang out together are forced to share a classroom, a dorm, a dining hall. At the University of California, it’s where a kid from Fresno might be taking a class with a wealthy white conservative from Pebble Beach, with the children of Mexican migrant workers from Riverside County, with the child of Cantonese expats from San Francisco, or the daughter of a Filipino dry cleaner from Daly City.
But separate “safe spaces”? Segregated housing? Trigger warnings? Disdain for the European, liberal tradition that made the university system possible? These all come out of an unchecked progressive ideology that has a stranglehold on much of the thinking that goes on in universities, and the people making its policies. Instead of uniting us under its inspiring ideas of diversity and inclusion, progressivism is, like Hillary Clinton’s painfully ironic slogan “Stronger Together,” only dividing us, shutting down conversation, and making us demonize each other.
Name-Calling Isn’t Enlightened
Unexamined words like “racist,” “misogynist,” and “homophobic” don’t feel modern or progressive. They harken back to Nathaniel Hawthorn’s depiction of Puritan New England in “The Scarlet Letter,” to Maoist China, to Stasi-terrorized East Germany: hysterical finger-pointing, shaming your neighbor, and purging of “deplorables.” Progressive scholars have helped open the doors to new ways of thinking about our tradition. Conservative scholars can remind us to study and teach the tradition.
I told the director of a program at Stanford that I admired the students at her university for putting to a vote a proposition to restore the Western Civilization requirement. A few weeks later, the measure failed by a huge margin; only 15 percent voted for it. She rebuked me: “That’s all political activism by the students. If they want to take those classes, they have the freedom to do so.”
Will students really bother to study the foundational texts on their own? This generation who cannot be bothered with grammar, punctuation, or looking things up from credible sources is going to eschew Facebook to read Herodotus? Is it noble to give what are still essentially children the freedom of fully formed adults? If we thought of them as already intellectually developed they would not be in college in the first place.
The problems in the academy—the breakdown of real debate, of critical thinking, and the abandonment of the canon—are not just challenges for eggheads in their rarefied worlds, but for the nation today in a post-election-2016 world. I made a spreadsheet for the students of Writing about Politics class of the far left, far right, left-leaning, right-leaning, and “diverse” or “neutral” papers. The list of partisan journals was extensive. The non-partisan one was half a dozen. That is, most are preaching to the choir, not engaging people who don’t think along the same lines. They are responding to people’s “curating” of information, as it is called now: cherry picking only those perspectives that you want to read.
Were I not so familiar with the politics of the students in my seminar, I would think I was alone in having political ideas that range from New Deal Democrat to far-right conservative. But that kind of intellectual and ideological diversity is not uncommon. In her letter Napolitano continues: “Especially in the humanities and the social sciences, the goal is to foster constructive engagement and to prepare students to listen, discuss, argue, and learn about topics that may be difficult for them personally…I think of this kind of education as preparing students to be resilient, even in the face of speech that they feel undervalues them or diminishes their own experiences.”
Sounds nice, but how sincere is it? How will she turn a stump speech directed at the Ivy League into praxis? Moreover, how much time has Napolitano actually spent in a classroom recently? Rather, she has been involved in partisan politics for decades.
We need better professorial role models who don’t bully in a way that is beneath the office. We must return to a world free of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” Rather, the “safe space” should be the one held by a professor who is open to all perspectives and does not shame people into silence. All history and literature is traumatic, so “trigger warnings” are nonsensical.
Our Students Need Our Help to Become Resilient
When Donald Trump won last week, teachers did not show up to work at public schools across California. Exams were canceled, letters sent out by a UC-Davis chancellor urging us to excuse absences if we deemed it appropriate (which no doubt most of the grieving faculty did, but most of my students did not). At King’s College, Cambridge an “Anti-Trump Solidarity” Facebook page emerged in time to offer a “safe space” after sending out an email to all graduate students tempting them with coloring books and crayons. In other words, after months and years of enforced ideological homogeny, rather than stimulate conversation, the Democrats’ loss is treated like a catastrophe requiring a return to an infantile state.
We should help build up resilient students shaped by years of respectful intellectual opposition. We must maintain rigor in teaching critical writing and discipline to debate intelligently and with respect. We need to make the traditional canon mandatory at the university level.
As every year passes, I know from my tutoring of high school students that teachers are giving up on their duties, abandoning grammar and cursive writing and historical dates. They read self-help books and graphic novels, not Homer. Instead of becoming the crowning glory of their studies, universities are now the last stop before unending ignorance becomes their fate. The university needs to survive as something more than a very expensive technical training center.