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A close-up of a pink highlighter being used to highlight the entry for "left-wing" in a dictionary.

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It’s been said, “Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to stop participating in the problem.” Another adage holds: “The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have a problem."

For more than a decade, surveys have demonstrated that the academia I first knew faces serious problems. Since 2012, enrollments have experienced small but steady declines so that estimated increases in enrollments in the last two years have been only very modest. Some institutions have either merged or closed, and academic disciplines with few enrollees are increasingly endangered. The pandemic’s negative impact on student preparation will continue for years, and gradually slowing birth rates since 2008 pose an additional challenge. Prohibitive college costs continue to rise as technical schools, boot camps, business and industry offer alternative means of education and employment.

Equally concerning, although too often minimized and denied, is the effect that political polarization has had on higher education. While Americans generally view college attendance as a path to upward mobility and economic success, divergent political ideologies have divided the country and jeopardized positive perceptions of academia for more than a decade. Explanations for the origins of the current division vary and can be disputed, but left-wing bias has widely been regarded as dominant on American campuses.

While Democrats generally have positive assessments of higher education, a 2019 overview of survey research from the Pew Research Center reported disquieting right-wing evaluations. Fifty-nine percent of adult Republicans and Independents who leaned Republican said that colleges and universities had negative effects on the country—and just 48 percent of this group had a fair or great deal of confidence that professors act in the best interests of the public. Especially chilling was that 19 percent of Republicans had no confidence at all that professors would act in the public interest. The dissatisfaction was explained largely by the fact that 79 percent of Republicans said professors bringing their social and political beliefs into classrooms is a major reason why higher ed is headed in the wrong direction.

Administered to a wide range of Americans of varied ages, education levels and backgrounds, Gallup’s 2023 survey—reported by Inside Higher Ed with the headline “American Confidence in Higher Ed Hits Historic Low”—also affirmed a relatively depressing outlook. Just 36 percent of respondents had “quite a lot” or “a great deal” of confidence in higher education. Democrats comprised the single positive subgroup (59 percent), while only 19 percent of Republicans expressed confidence.

Regarding the results, a Gallup education researcher told Inside Higher Ed that the public image of colleges and universities needs improvement—but then added, “I don’t think, necessarily, I would say they [higher ed officials] should be concerned, but I think they should be paying attention.”

So what do higher ed officials make of this? Are they concerned? Inside Higher Ed’s 2023 survey of college presidents found “near unanimity” on this issue: “77 percent of college presidents agree that the perception of colleges as intolerant of conservative views is hurting public attitudes about higher education.” However, the presidents were “split” as to the validity of these perceptions: “44 percent agree that ‘the perception of colleges as places that are intolerant of conservative views is accurate,’ while 41 percent disagree.”

A compelling 2017 address to the Stanford Board of Trustees by former provost John Etchemendy identified risks if higher education ignores what he termed “the threat from within” and fails to recognize its responsibility to accommodate divergent political points of view:

“Over the years, I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country … a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for. It manifests itself in many ways: in the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines; in the demands to disinvite speakers and outlaw groups whose views we find offensive; in constant calls for the university itself to take political stands. We decry certain news outlets as echo chambers, while we fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.

“This results in a kind of intellectual blindness that will, in the long run, be more damaging … because we won’t even see it: we will write off those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid, rather than as interlocutors worthy of consideration …

“The university is not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view, and when it does it violates a core mission. Universities must remain open forums for contentious debate, and they cannot do so while officially espousing one side of that debate.”

Etchemendy’s concern about the problem of “political one-sidedness” became a reality at Stanford’s law school in March when student protesters illustrated the “threat from within” as they attempted to deny conservative federal judge Kyle Duncan’s invitation to speak by shouting him down.

The law school administrator on site, Tirien Steinbach, then associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, only made the situation worse. While stating the importance of free speech, Steinbach nevertheless expressed agreement with protesters and implied Duncan’s views were “abhorrent,” “harmful” and “denie[d] the humanity of people.” His being there, she said, was “tearing at the fabric of this community.” She questioned whether it was worth the “pain” and “division” it was causing.

Steinbach later excused her outburst by saying she assumed she would be speaking only to students and, as a reporter put it, “did not realize that her words would be blasted out to the world.” The dean of the law school apologized to Duncan and announced that Steinbach was on leave and later announced Steinbach was leaving Stanford to pursue other opportunities.

After learning of the Stanford situation, Wayne State University professor Steven Shaviro was suspended for a Facebook post saying that it would be “more admirable to kill a racist, homophobic, or transphobic speaker than it is to shout them down.” He was suspended with pay, and the situation was referred to law enforcement.

The shouting down at Stanford may have been the most high-profile campus free speech debacle of the spring, but it was far from the only one. In another case that garnered extensive publicity, speech became an issue in May when a TikTok posting by University of Cincinnati student Olivia Krolczyk reached more than 2.8 million viewings. The video described Krolczyk’s professor failing her for using the term “biological women” on an assignment about transgender athletes competing in women’s sports. Krolczyk contended “biological women” was the only terminology she knew to use in this context.

An initial decision to reprimand Krolczyk’s professor, Melanie Rose Nipper, was rescinded. She was required to complete training about the institution’s free speech policy and have her syllabus for the coming year checked. She told a reporter that although she thinks debate and discussion are important, it is her responsibility to correct mistakes when a student uses “outdated terminology,” or when a student is “intentionally or unintentionally participating in a systemic harm of some kind.” She added that seeing publicity about the incident was “a lot to handle” and had caused her to cry.

Although Krolczyk was regraded by another professor and received a passing grade in the class, Krolczyk described the recension as a violation of her right to free speech and “an injustice to students everywhere.”

“UC is affirming that professors will have no consequences for failing students with dissenting opinions,” she said.

“The university shouldn’t pick and choose which policies they decide to enforce based on whether the professor follows in line with their ‘woke’ ideologies or goes against them.”

It is probable that some of these situations might have been avoided without damage to institutions’ reputations and the possibility of litigation. Administrators must be depended upon to know better than to engage in personal attacks on institutions’ guests, especially when they hold respected offices. When confronted with criticism for unprofessional behavior, academicians are not expected to make situations worse by attempting to excuse their verbal eruptions with claims they were intended for student audiences only, a statement that could create increased difficulty for the institution.

Before failing a student’s work, a professor with language preferences should be aware that giving an F over a widely used two-word phrase will likely alarm the student. Academicians’ responsibility is to inform, not to advocate. Professional behavior would be to meet with the student and explain that certain forms of terminology can be distressful for some. But by penalizing a student for a personal concern, however valid, the professor is denying the student the right to discuss a topic of interest.

While the Shaviro case may be an extreme example, it illustrates how serious the threat of unrestrained political advocacy, whether right or left, can become. Academics on the right as well as those on the left may behave in problematic ways, but the reality is that at present left-wing behavior has more often resulted in social, print and broadcast news media capturing higher education in unfavorable positions.

The difficulty with problems and threats is they seldom go away without attention. Yet in spite of concerns about negative responses to left-wing domination on campus, serious discussion has been limited.

Nevertheless, for higher education leaders genuinely concerned about the threat of their institution becoming “a megaphone to amplify this or that political view,” a beginning would be to acknowledge that while administrators and professors have rights to personal political opinions and activities, their professional obligations are more complex.

Academics are the people who determine the curricula, write the syllabi, give the lectures, control the discussions and evaluate papers and tests. To argue that they lack the ability or the intention to influence students’ minds is pretense. The fundamental commitment of those employed in higher education should be to use their knowledge and power to ensure that students’ experiences in academia open them to varieties of viewpoints in preparation for a many-faceted and unpredictable future.

Billie Wright Dziech is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.

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