The ‘Year of the Great Campus Pushback’?

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Could 2016 be the Year of the Great Campus Pushback? Could this September be the moment that colleges and universities recover their pride and dignity and go back to being place of learning rather than intellectual “safety zones” for the coddled children of the comfortable? Stay tuned!

The warning salvo from the University of Chicago to incoming freshmen that “if they are looking for ‘safe places,’ they should go someplace else,” has hit a nerve. For a half dozen years, campuses across the country have approved policies about “trigger-words,” that might offend certain individuals or groups. So, too, against “micro-aggressions,” such as saying to an African-American fellow student, “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”

Moreover, campuses have developed seriously corrupting polices that “protect” students from individuals with political and social views that don’t match the dominant campus fashion, ideas that might make some students uncomfortable. Either by rescinding invitations or allowing campus protesters to pressure speakers to withdraw, colleges are shielding students from ideas that differ from their own.

Among the long list of speakers considered “unsafe” are: Laura Bush (UCLA); Condoleezza Rice (Rutgers University); Henry Kissinger (University of Texas); Ben Carson (Johns Hopkins); and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Brandeis University).

How has such an atmosphere developed in the one notable institution – the academy — that should always stand for freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas?

Perhaps, the atmosphere developed in response to the overprotective “helicopter” attitudes that have surfaced in recent years, particularly among college educated parents. The parental kabuki dance of first shielding and then pushing their kids forward has given us today’s odd species. Vulnerable and hypersensitive. Aggressively empowered and competitive. These parents have been so busy protecting their middle and high school children from any hint of bullying, cyber or otherwise, that the message has sunk in with their kids. “It’s a dangerous world out there and we have to protect ourselves and others from it.”

Or perhaps this atmosphere developed because colleges that once had clear and rigid standards are now run by businessmen. College administrators know that every admitted freshmen represents a paying customer, a customer who must be kept and, therefore, pleased. “If they want pizza daily in the dining halls, they get pizza daily. If they want cable TV in their dorm rooms, they get cable TV in the dorm rooms. If they want intellectual safety, we’ll give them intellectual safety.” In America, the customer is always right.

A less charitable theory is that many of today’s college students suffer from “Sixties Envy,” that time when college students were, or saw themselves, on the vanguard of social change … as part of the Age of Aquarius. They have accepted the mythology that students like them stopped the Vietnam War and helped Dr. King bring civil rights to America. To today’s students, sitting in their dorm rooms, hungry to get away from that paper that is due Monday, the idea of doing something “noble,” such as protecting one’s fellow students from being hurt or offended, has great appeal. Plus, they might find themselves on television, the ultimate validation of their worth.

That the counter-offensive to political correctness in higher education has come from the University of Chicago, and not Harvard, Stanford or Notre Dame, should not be a surprise. In the minds of many, the U. of C., is America’s truest university, a place where the free, unfettered pursuit of truth is most cherished, and therefore, most protected. As the Dean of Students, John Ellison wrote in his letter to incoming students, “Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression,” And further, “Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship.”

Read more about back to campus HERE

Turning back the tide of political correctness is very much in the tradition of the University of Chicago. In the late 1960s, many of our nation’s best and worst universities were paralyzed and brought to their knees by student protests. In November 1969, three or four dozen U. of C. students decided to force their way into the office of the newly appointed president, Edward Levi, himself a graduate of the school. As was characteristic of the times, they had a long list of grievances and demands and they wanted immediate action or else. Levi quietly listened and told them that they were in a university and things weren’t done this way. He explained that universities were place of dialogue and reason, not demands and force. He was ready to listen and discuss with them, but they were “breaking the rules.”

Unpersuaded, they continued to make demands. Levi asked them to leave. They would not, saying they would take over the university. He quietly told them that a university is not its buildings or classrooms or offices. “A university is an idea and you are violating that idea.” He then packed his briefcase and left. The others in the building followed suite. He did not, as happened on many campuses, call the Chicago Police.

The student protestors had huge TV and newspaper coverage for days. But then the story got old. No one, except the press and a few sympathetic faculty members paid any attention to them. After two weeks of living in the administration building, the crestfallen students slunk away.

The spines of university presidents and faculty all over the country stiffened and the scourge of campus uprisings abated. One man versus the mob. An idea – and the University of Chicago — beat the bullhorn.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan are writers, former teachers, and the editors of Why I’m Still A Catholic. They write primarily on cultural, educational and religious topics. Kevin was on the U. of C. faculty for nine years and Marilyn holds a masters degree in political science from the U. of C. Read their past columns here