The transition of American college campuses from centers of liberal arts education to ideological training camps has taken a major step forward with a recent redefinition of what counts as social and cultural diversity in courses that wish to receive general education credits at the flagship University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. The guidelines are to be woven into the diversity courses from which students are required to enroll in at least two, one dealing with diversity in the United States and the other with diversity globally. These are required, not elective courses, explicitly warning against “ethnocentric stereotypes,” endorsing particular “attitudes” and apparently designed to ensure that the politicization of education continues to encroach on student life and also on what now passes for intellectual activity in the classroom.
Proof of this transition lies in many quarters, but most glaringly in the new dispensation adopted by the Faculty Senate in late 2014 and distributed in March 2016. The guidelines make plain that the university is no longer content with attempts to censor student and faculty speech. The time has come to cross over into the realm of compelling the inmates to utter -- and presumably come to believe -- the nebulous precepts of “diversity, equity and inclusion.” These are the oft-repeated terms in university documents and now a crucial part of what Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy has dubbed “our diversity strategic plan.” With numerous references to “social progress” and “social justice” based on identity politics, these are the concerns that appear ever more prominent in the university’s definition of its mission.
Using politically fashionable jargon, the three new gen-ed guidelines for diversity courses stipulate not merely, as before, geographic and cultural breadth but the specific attitudes and beliefs that must animate certain areas of teaching (or indoctrination, depending upon your point of view). Faculty members must embrace “knowledge, pluralistic perspectives and engagement beyond mainstream traditions,” by focusing on “unequal access to resources that derive from race and ethnicity, national origins, language, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual orientation, religion, age, and ability.”
The second mandated guideline encompasses “cultural, social and structural dynamics” that shape human experience and produce inequality, while the third specifies “exploration of self and others” so as to recognize inequalities and injustices. The clearly stated goal, not left to the imagination, is “to engage with others to create change toward social justice.” This phrase encapsulates the shift from educating students to be able to think and analyze for themselves to the vastly different effort to indoctrinate students into administrators’ and professors’ belief system, which is assumed to be the only worthwhile, good and moral one from which, therefore, no one dare dissent.
Indoctrination into the entire social justice agenda is hardly new at UMass or, for that matter, on the vast majority of campuses elsewhere around the country. Indeed, freshman orientation sessions have become ever more explicitly political, no longer merely part of the introduction to university life that has for decades been required at the start of a student’s college career. And a plethora of politically tinged and attitudinally correct courses and training sessions have long been sprinkled throughout higher education. But what makes the UMass initiative noteworthy is that political indoctrination, in recent years promoted primarily in schools of education, social work programs and certain majors and graduate programs, has now officially taken up residence as an explicit and crucial goal of liberal arts education via course requirements disguised as academic study.
All of this should cause concern at a public university that is bound by constitutional norms. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech has two aspects. The more widely known one prohibits the law from censoring officially disfavored and unpopular speech. But the other equally important and complementary aspect of this liberty enjoins the government from compelling speech and belief.
In a society where students have long been granted the right to refuse, for example, to recite a biblical passage or even the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, college students are now required to genuflect before the banner of diversity, inclusion and social justice. It’s insufficient for students to refrain from uttering offensive or “wrong” words and ideas. They must increasingly be trained to mimic their professors and affirmatively utter the “right” ones.
Students are now demanding -- and the university is providing -- intellectual “comfort” in their educational environments. “Comfort,” not “offensiveness,” has become the low criterion capable of engaging the power of the university. What Aldous Huxley intended as satire in Brave New World (in which the Controller says, “There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant”) is now treated with respectful assent. That has led to suggestions such as the recent one launched on a website at the University of Portland, Ore., urging students to report to campus police any “incidents of discomfort” that they either experience or witness.
The latest UMass gen-ed directives demonstrate a troubling shift from proscription of speech to prescription of political attitudes. The line crossed is an important one, for it ventures aggressively into the realm of thought reform. The university conveys the message to students, in courses they may not avoid or evade, that it embraces -- as they too must embrace -- the unassailable viewpoints that all decent people henceforth must not only conform to but also believe. There is no longer even a semblance of support for the intellectual independence that used to be the hallmark of liberal arts education.
And nobody on the campus appears to be asking any hard questions, much less fomenting opposition, to this transition.
Daphne Patai is a professor in the department of languages, literature and cultures at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Harvey Silverglate is a trial lawyer with the law firm of Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP in Boston. He is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (The Free Press, 1998). Both serve on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
A racist video on YouTube -- with the headline “SIUC White Is Right” -- has disturbed many students and others at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The video, which contains racial slurs throughout, may be found here, although the university is trying to have it removed. Rumors are circulating that a fraternity at the university is responsible for the video, but a spokeswoman for the university, via email, said that "we do not have reason to believe that is was actually from the fraternity it is being attributed to and are investigating."
On Sunday night, the interim chancellor, Brad Colwell, sent out an email to all students. "The promotion of disruption and violence is not acceptable," he said. "It distracts all of us from our mission, and it makes members of our community feel unwelcome and unsafe. Individuals who hide behind anonymity, or who tie their views to organizations they do not represent, must not be allowed to disrupt our campus. Individuals who use the power of social media to spread hate and fear must not be allowed to be the voice of our community."
A new North Carolina law bars public institutions, including public colleges and universities, from letting transgender people use bathrooms that don't reflect their assigned gender at birth. A new study by a Georgia State University professor suggests that such policies are linked to suicide attempts by transgender students. The study used data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, focusing on 2,300 people who identified as transgender when in college. Nearly one-fourth of those said that they had been denied access to appropriate bathrooms or dormitory rooms while in college. The attempted suicide rate of all people in the study (consistent with other studies showing very high rates for transgender people) was 46.5 percent. The rate for those denied bathrooms or living spaces that reflected their gender identities was 60.5 percent.
The study was conducted by Kristie Seelman, assistant professor of social work at Georgia State, and was published in The Journal of Homosexuality.
One of the most perplexing features of the studies and reports on student success that have emerged in recent years in higher education is that many are dominated by discussion of student failure. Often, these documents included a section with a title like “Barriers to Persistence and Completion.” These narratives fixate on factors that identify students as “at-risk,” “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged.”
Chief among these factors is some variation of what I call the big three deficiencies: minority, low income, first generation. Maybe my sensitivity to them comes from the fact that I fit all three descriptions when I graduated high school.
More than ever before, colleges and universities are having to demonstrate their ability to ensure that students with big three labels achieve. Demographic trends indicate that the pool of prototypical college-ready students -- recent high school graduates from high-performing schools whose parents have had a successful college experience -- is shrinking. As the domino effect trickles through the system, all of our institutions will be competing at some level to enroll such students to fill our classes. The numbers as well as societal pressures have driven many schools to announce campaigns aimed at recruiting students of color. Public and private funders are insisting that once we get these students, we impel them to completion.
However, the deficit framework on which many of our efforts are built hardly seems an appropriate foundation for strategies aimed at success. As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined. Certainly, many of these students face challenges that require intentional and thoughtful support. Yet our overwhelming reliance on deficit-laden labels -- or, more recently, the painfully impersonal acronym URM (underrepresented minority) -- to routinely describe these students is an indication that we do not portray them predominantly as being imminently successful or exceptionally attractive to us. If that is the case, our best efforts will be impaired.
My perspective on this comes from my community organizing work and experience with practices of asset-based community development in urban neighborhoods. The approach recognizes that marginalized communities that are defined mostly by their very real problems -- poverty-stricken, crime ridden, violent, distressed -- are equally filled with talented residents and community assets, formal and informal, that are largely ignored. Research by John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Cormac Russell of Nurture Development and others show that such communities all over the world experience transformative change when residents see themselves as being beyond needy, are affirmed in the strengths they have to contribute and work together to solve problems on behalf of their families and their neighbors. Meanwhile, in contrast, communities where residents are seen, or see themselves, mainly as clients and recipients of services struggle to improve.
For instance, McKnight and other asset-based proponents argue that the obstacles associated with poverty are debilitating not because they extinguish one’s gifts and talents, but because they limit the opportunity for them to be fully actualized. Too often these contributions go underappreciated by systems of assistance that, while providing essential services, categorize people based mostly on their placement on a needs assessment. As McKnight states in his book The Careless Society, “Communities depend upon capacities. Systems commodify deficiencies.”
Now, apply this thinking to higher education, where the overarching culture of college and university life for all students starts with the premise that “you need us.” The counterbalance that “you also bring great value to the institution” is assumed to be in place for those considered college ready. Students whose identities upon arrival are tied almost exclusively to their deficiencies start at an extreme disadvantage.
Adopting an asset-oriented view of all students, including the big three, can be accomplished by overtly acknowledging and articulating the assets that these students possess. This does not require wishful thinking or mind tricks. It is increasingly evident that minority, low-income and first-generation students possess experiences and characteristics that make them prime candidates for what a 21st-century college student needs to be. In an increasingly diverse, urbanized world, many of these students have firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by the majority of people. Many have succeeded through challenging economic and social conditions with a measure of grit and tenacity that is beneficial in a highly competitive, fast-paced society. Often, driven by their own experiences, they bring a keen sensitivity and insight to issues of equity and justice, which are sorely needed at a time when seemingly intractable disparities within society are straining social and economic structures.
Many of these students also bring a high appreciation for familial and communal collaboration. A 2012 study by Northwestern University professor of management Nicole Stephens and her colleagues found that first-generation students, for example, were more likely to express motives of interdependence -- such as helping out family and being a role model -- than more affluent students. At a time when collective action is being lauded above individual heroism as vital to problem solving in civic or corporate arenas, such sensibilities would seem a welcome contribution to campuses fueled by the hyperindependence traditionally associated with going to college.
In order to develop the discipline to value and amplify the strengths and capacities the big three bring, however, I am convinced that higher education administrators and faculty members desperately need a new language to characterize these students that frees us from our dependence on labels such as “disadvantaged” or the dreaded URM designation.
Such a tactic is not trivial. Consider how new terminology has invigorated the efforts of those who work with some of the most marginalized individuals in our society: men and women who have served time in prison and have been released back into society. Long stigmatized as “ex-offenders” or “ex-cons” or “felons,” they are now routinely referred to as “returning citizens.” The term has been advanced by policy makers, criminal justice experts and community leaders who have come to recognize that these individuals’ productive transition back into neighborhood life is essential to community well-being and stability. The term has become so universally accepted that the city of Philadelphia in 2013 officially amended its city code to abolish the term “ex-offender” in favor of “returning citizen.”
A similar reorientation is needed in higher education. I suggest we adopt a term such as “rising scholars” to refer to big three students. It would force us to articulate our expectations for success in students who typically are characterized for their likelihood of failure. It would remind those of us who seek to assist them to recognize first their gifts, talents and contributions, rather than their deficits. Perhaps it would help us chart a surer path to success among students for whom failure is no longer an option.
Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.
A slate of candidates for the Harvard Board of Overseers has attracted considerable attention with its campaign to make the university free for undergraduates and its allegations that the current admissions system discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Now the organizer of the slate of candidates -- Ron Unz -- is facing scrutiny for his funding of authors and researchers whose work is viewed by many as bigoted, The Boston Globe reported. For example, Unz gave money to support an author who promotes a theory that a "gay germ" causes homosexuality, and to another author who wrote of how economic populism and "white party" issues could win a candidate the presidency. Unz said he doesn't necessarily agree with the views of the authors he supports, but that he wants to promote "alternative media."