The Milo Yiannopoulos pedophilia scandal ought to prod some serious soul searching on the part of American conservatives, especially his college Republican hosts. After all, until his ugly and obscene remarks jokingly condoning the sexual abuse of young boys finally discredited him, Yiannopoulos had been given the red carpet treatment by the right. Across America, college Republican groups had eagerly invited him to campus despite -- or maybe because of -- the crude and obscene insults he hurled at students of color, women and transgender students.
The adult right off the campus was no better. The Conservative Political Action Conference had invited Yiannopoulos to speak at the same event as Vice President Pence, only rescinding the invitation after tapes surfaced of Yiannopoulos making light of pedophilia, which caused an uproar.
Prior to the Yiannopoulos scandal, most media criticism had focused not on his rants but on the Left’s disruptions of this alt-right provocateur’s campus tour. That criticism was appropriate since those who would ban Yiannopoulos or violently disrupt his talks are guilty of corroding free speech, which is the lifeblood of the university. But this spotlight on the campus Left was so intense that little was said about how much the Yiannopoulos affair tells us about the sorry state of campus conservatism.
The discourse in Yiannopoulos campus speeches at times descended into obscenity and cruelty. In his speech at West Virginia University, he referred to women as “cunts.” At the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, he not only used obscenity, but he did so in a vicious manner to mock a transgender student in the audience, projecting a photo of this student onto a screen in the lecture hall (which was live streamed on the Breitbart website) and saying of her “the way you know he’s failed is I can still bang him.” This was apparently done in the service of his transphobia, which led him to say at the University of Delaware: “Never feel bad for mocking a transgender person. It is our job to point out their absurdity, to not make the problem worse by pretending they are normal.”
In defending their decision to host Yiannopoulos’s talks, the campus Republicans never mentioned his obscene and defamatory rhetoric. Instead, they spoke abstractly about freedom of speech and presented themselves and Yiannopoulos as the embodiment of that cherished freedom -- standing up for his right to speak despite the dangers from a censorious Left. At the University of California at Berkeley, in fact, site of the most violent disruption of a Yiannopoulos talk, his host, the Berkeley College Republicans presented themselves as heroic freedom fighters, heirs of Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio: “We proceed fearlessly because we know we have the president of the United States and the United States Constitution on our side. The Berkeley College Republicans are the new Free Speech Movement,” wrote members Troy Worden and Pieter Sittler in Berkeley’s Daily Californian.
But while Free Speech Movement of 1964, of course, defended free speech, it did not champion obscene, degrading speech. Search as you may you will not find a single obscenity in any of Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio’s speeches (as you would expect of a former altar boy). And neither Savio nor any Free Speech Movement speaker would have even dreamed of using a campus podium -- or any other -- as Yiannopoulos has, to defame or ridicule students on account of their sexuality.
So Yiannopoulos’s Republican campus hosts are at miscast as the Free Speech Movement’s political descendants. If there is any free speech dispute from Berkeley in the 1960s that the Yiannopoulos affair resembles (and even here the resemblance is limited) it is the obscenity controversy that erupted in spring 1965, a semester after the Free Speech Movement. That controversy concerned the right to use the obscene word “Fuck” in public campus discourse. Some Free Speech Movement veterans supported this right, and others (like Savio) objected to the punishment of obscenity protesters on due process grounds. But most movement veterans and much of the Berkeley student body refused to rally to this cause because they felt that this use of obscenity was irresponsible and distracted from more serious issues facing the civil rights and antiwar movements.
That’s why journalists who labeled this obscenity affair “the Filthy Speech Movement” erred, as it was impossible to build a mass movement at Berkeley in defense of obscene speech, impossible to re-assemble the old Free Speech Movement coalition for such a cause. Most of the Berkeley student body in 1965 was too wedded to the ideal of responsible political discourse to wave the “Fuck” banner. In this sense they were more genuinely conservative than today’s Berkeley College Republicans who not only wink at Yiannopoulos’s obscenity, but also at its use to defame minority students.
To be clear, Berkeley students in 1965 were not endorsing suppression, but close to 80 percent opposed the use of such “filthy speech” in public, as I note in my book, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2009). And so, they were unwilling to battle for the cause of obscene speech, a cause they thought irresponsible.
The idea here is that with freedom comes responsibility, and that ought to lead you (especially if you are conservative) to question whether saying “Fuck” from the podium or bringing Yiannopoulos’ ugly vitriol on to campus is responsible -- even though you have the right to do so. This is what Mario Savio was referring to in his Free Speech Movement victory rally speech, Dec. 9, 1964, when he said: "We are asking that there be no, no restrictions on the content of speech save those provided by the courts. And that's an enormous amount of freedom. And people can say things in that area of freedom which are not responsible. Now... we've finally gotten into a position where we have to consider being responsible, because we now have the freedom within which to be responsible."
Thinking seriously about free speech involves much more than reciting a simple formula that says “anything goes,” leaving us racing out mindlessly to speak and invite others to speak without considering what is being said, how it is being said, and who those words may be hurting gratuitously. That point was made decades ago in the Woodward Report at Yale University, a classic statement on the “university’s primary obligation to protect free expression,” but which also stressed the “ethical responsibilities assumed by each member of the university community” that are “of great importance. If freedom of expression is to serve its purpose, and thus the purpose of the university, it should seek to enhance understanding. Shock, hurt and anger are not consequences to be weighed lightly. No member of the community with a decent respect for others should use, or encourage others to use, slurs and epithets to discredit another’s race, ethnic group, religion or sex. It may sometimes be necessary in a university for civility and mutual respect to be superseded by the need for free expression. The values superseded are nevertheless important, and every member of the university community should consider them in exercising the fundamental right to free expression."
I suspect that the failure of campus conservatives to take seriously such questions about responsibility and civility in this Yiannopoulos affair is connected to the influence of Donald Trump. He rose to the presidency through his constant, ugly barrages of ad hominem attacks, and in spite of being caught on tape discussing how he grabs women “by the pussy.” This seems to have given a green light for even the crudest of public oratory. The right proved itself willing both off campus and on to dispense with notions of civility, so long as the vitriol emanates from someone on their side who succeeded in generating mass appeal -- either at the ballot box (Trump) or in the lecture hall (Yiannopoulos). It was not the crudeness or cruelty of his campus speeches, but a two-year-old taped interview that caught Yiannopoulos’ amoral ramblings on sexual abuse of minors that finally led CPAC and Breitbart News to drop him.
This is a tale not merely of moral declension on the right but also conservative (or pseudo-conservative) intellectual decline. Again there is a parallel between Trump and Yiannopoulos, both of whom go in for hectoring rather than logical discourse and are more concerned with drawing and exciting large crowds with shock jock sloganeering and show biz gloss (Yiannopoulos, who refers to himself as “a star,” and in his campus gigs uses spotlights, Broadway-style lighting and huge photo displays of himself a la Hollywood) than with intellectual gravitas. Yiannopoulos offered College Republicans this spectacle and they lapped it up despite its intellectual vacuity, ad hominem cruelty, and bigotry sugar coated by snarky humor.
The contrast between, this and the serious, civil Left-right debates the Young Americans for Freedom sponsored in the 1960s -- modeled after those held by their intellectual godfather, William F. Buckley, Jr. on his TV show Firing Line -- could not be more striking. It is as if the student right has forgotten what serious political thought and reasoned oratory look and sound like. In this sense the right on campus today, has, as Savio once put it, “free speech but nothing left to say.”
Robert Cohen is a professor of history and social studies at NYU Steinhardt whose books include Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s; The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings that Changed America; The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (co-edited by Reginald E. Zelnik)
It has been widely hypothesized that the type of identity politics nurtured on elite secular campuses helped produce the backlash that swept Donald Trump into office as president. “Fox News and other conservative media outlets,” wrote Mark Lilla in The New York Times, “make great sport of mocking ‘campus craziness’ that surrounds such [identity] issues … [but] this only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus.”
Also writing in the Times, Nicholas Kristof warned that campuses today are in danger of doubling down on liberal groupthink: “I fear that liberal outrage at Trump’s presidency will exacerbate the problem of liberal echo chambers, by creating a more hostile environment for conservatives and evangelicals. Already, the lack of ideological diversity on campuses is a disservice to the students … with liberalism on some campuses collapsing into self-parody.”
Yet challenging circumstances create remarkable opportunities and surprising protagonists. That is the case for America’s Christian colleges and universities after the 2016 elections. They are now well positioned to save not only liberalism from self-parody but also conservatism from the maw of populist demagoguery. “Christian colleges and universities may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity,” according to the Baylor historian Thomas Kidd -- a view that rings true in my own experience, having spent time at both secular and Christian schools.
Unfortunately, this diversity was not heard from during the election, in part due to excessive focus on Liberty University in Virginia when its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., endorsed Trump. The Washington Post even described Liberty as “the epicenter of evangelical education in the United States.” But nothing could be farther from the truth, and Liberty’s own students -- who lean heavily rightward compared to those at other colleges -- protested their president’s actions.
To get a fuller picture of the Christian academic landscape, one would need to visit institutions such as Bethel University in Minnesota, Calvin College in Michigan, Dordt College in Iowa or East Texas Baptist University, among hundreds of others. They “represent a slice of America that most secular liberals don’t know anything about,” according Molly Worthen, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a much-discussed book on evangelical higher education.
As institutions that host many first-generation college students and are also replete with Ph.D.s from major universities, Christian colleges can provide a bridge between elite opinion and “red-state” America. How might they rise to the occasion?
First, they must practice what they preach. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In an age when conservative intellectuals often find themselves “disinvited” to speak on prominent campuses, Christian colleges should make certain that they invite articulate and diverse voices, including liberals and secularists, to their own campuses. When I oversaw a center at my former (evangelical) institution, Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., our lecture series included the well-known atheist Bart Ehrman as well as Cornel West, John Kerry and Susannah Heschel -- hardly icons of the right. We also regularly hosted Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim speakers. Charity begins by hearing what another is actually saying, not encountering it secondhand in caricature.
Second, Christian colleges can contribute to the common good by continuing to teach and even expand curricular offerings in the conservative intellectual tradition, perhaps one of the biggest causalities of the recent anti-intellectual insurgence. Authors whom one would find neither by Trump’s bedside nor trumpeted in the curricula of most elite colleges deserve a robust hearing: Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, C. S. Lewis, Adam Smith and Richard Weaver, among others. Liberals should welcome thoughtful young conservatives lest their own identity become deformed in obsessions against Trump. Beware, Nietzsche once warned, for you can easily become the monsters you seek to slay.
Third, in what some have dubbed our “postsecular age,” Christian colleges should point the way by teaching, through empathy and analysis, how religion functions as a dynamic and complex phenomenon in human affairs. At elite colleges and universities, too often religion is viewed strictly through the lenses of race, gender and class -- or else through some of the grand explanatory schemes of the academy, including that of Karl Marx (religion as ideological superstructure), Sigmund Freud (religion as coping mechanism or neurosis) and Michel Foucault (religion as a mask for power). Some of these schemes have yielded valuable insights, to be sure. Nonetheless, as Brad S. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, has argued, they often come with the presumption “that religion is not something that can be or ought to be understood in its own terms.” As such, explaining subtly and sometimes readily yields to a more reductionist explaining away, denying students insights wrought by the messier, more difficult process of empathetic engagement.
Finally, permit me to offer a modest proposal -- one that would require no small dose of philanthropic support and administrative imagination. Christian colleges and elite secular institutions should seek out one another to promote student exchanges, either for a short visit or a semester of study, similar to one suggested by David J. Smith in a previous article in Inside Higher Ed. A Bay Area student at the University of California, Berkeley, would have much to learn from spending time with peers at, say, Goshen College, a Mennonite school in northern Indiana. A top-notch conservative Lutheran student at Concordia University in Seward, Neb., would greatly benefit from a stint at Williams College in Massachusetts. Stereotypes might well erode, exposing leftist, rightist, secular and religious groupthink in the process.
To be sure, Christian colleges have their own problems. With all educational institutions, they bear some of the blame for a society capable of such an uninspiring election that sent a ruthless vulgarian to the White House. For years, they, too, have followed trends of raising tuition costs even while relying on cheap adjunct faculty labor. And many have far to go on racial and ethnic diversity.
Still, coastal, educated elites should pay greater heed to these institutions, a remarkable legacy of America’s First Amendment and voluntary institution building. Hundreds of such colleges populate the “flyover” states -- and the coastal states, too -- and they come in numerous denominational varieties. Their faculties, I would hazard, could hold their own in tongue-lashing Trumpian nationalism with is racist undertones, while also pinpointing the liberal blind spots that led so many people to underestimate Trump’s appeal.
In our current moment, then, these colleges might well validate, if nothing else, the maxim that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. But what begins in necessity or convenience often ends on higher, and sometimes even common, ground.
Thomas Albert Howard holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics and is professor of humanities and history at Valparaiso University. His most recent books are Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry Into the Meanings of Protestantism (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Protestantism After 500 Years (edited with Mark A. Noll and published by Oxford).
January is the time when we say good-bye to the previous 12 months and look ahead to the next ones. It’s clear that 2016 was an especially turbulent year for higher education. What’s on tap for 2017?
Here are a few of the most serious trending issues that are likely to affect colleges and universities.
Sliding enrollments. College and university enrollment in America continued to decline in 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Not all institutions have been affected equally: four-year public and elite private institutions continue to grow, while small colleges are under strain, intensifying the gap between haves and have-nots. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, tipped over the 100,000 mark for applications this fall, and Yale University announced a multiyear effort to enroll more students from its sizable pool. But more than four in 10 private colleges and almost three in 10 public ones missed their goals for enrollment and tuition revenue in 2016.
While demographic trends vary by region, in general the student population is becoming more diverse, fueled by increases in numbers of Hispanic and Asian students. Many colleges also have relied upon international students to diversify their campuses and plug the enrollment hole, but concerns over Trump administration rhetoric about immigration may depress international applications, as has already occurred in British universities in the wake of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.
Concerns about cost and access. The free-college effort is likely dead at the federal level, but that doesn’t mean concerns about cost will abate. Bipartisan pressure will continue to force colleges and universities to rein in tuition increases and justify endowment spending, as well as compel selective institutions to increase enrollment of low-income students. States and cities also have the opportunity to adopt the narrative about free; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was first out of the gate in 2017, and others are likely to follow.
Celebrity authors and scholars as well as politicians have led such efforts. Malcolm Gladwell launched a podcast series in 2016 decrying the high cost of college and poor access for low-income students. Sara Goldrick-Rab at Temple University and Inside Higher Edcolumnist Wick Sloan, among others, have led campaigns to highlight the challenges of college students who are homeless or food insecure -- more than 20 percent, according to a national report.
Colleges and universities are responding. Thirty campuses have joined an effort funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies called the American Talent Initiative, while more than 90 institutions participate in the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. Both efforts aim to reduce barriers and increase the number of lower-income students who apply to and enroll in selective colleges. Campuses also are launching food banks, shelter programs and emergency assistance funds for students who have short-term challenges with food or housing.
Questions about value. A growing chorus of business and civic leaders is questioning the value of college. One of the most vocal proponents of the skip-college narrative, Peter Thiel, has a newly influential role as a member of the Trump transition team. The presidential election pointed up a stark gap in opportunity and perception between college graduates and those with a college degree, leading to headlines about the “humbling of higher education” and college graduates who are “out of touch.”
Colleges are renewing their efforts to demonstrate value, not only in employment and earnings benefits to graduates but also in their role as an economic engine for regional economies. A growing number of campuses, both large and small, have embarked on new efforts to engage with their local communities. And research institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University have large, sustained innovation initiatives to spur new business development and commercialize faculty and student discoveries.
A focus on careers and job placement. Although related to the discussion about value, the growing concern about employment and job placement is so powerful that it deserves its own entry. Students and parents increasingly expect their college or university to be a partner in helping them to map out a successful career path. The 2016 Gallup-Purdue study found a gap between student expectations and college performance in career placement, with only one in six college graduates saying their campus career office was helpful.
Colleges and universities of all types and sizes -- from research-intensive institutions to small liberal arts colleges -- are revamping career services and redefining their role in student career planning. Examples of new programs include engaging first-year students in the career office from day one, alumni career mentoring initiatives and targeted efforts to provide career support for low-income and first-generation college students.
Declining state support. Although not a new trend, the impact of declining state support for higher education has generated a new level of concern. Starving the Beast, a documentary about ideological shifts in state government and the resulting impact on public universities, was released in 2016 and sparked public discussion and numerous opinion pieces.
In December, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center issued recommendations on how to sustain public higher education. The center assembled a team of college administrators, business executives and former public officials, including former governors of Delaware and Florida. Their list of solutions includes federal block grants designed to pressure states into supporting public colleges adequately, as well as funding incentives tied to graduation rates.
Collisions over campus climate. Creating a welcoming climate for women and minorities is a long-running issue for college campuses, but things reached a boiling point after the 2016 presidential election. White nationalist groups have seized the opportunity to spread hate messages on campuses across the country. Trump rhetoric about immigration and Muslims has left many students feeling vulnerable, leading to pressure for campuses to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for undocumented students.
Immigration policy under a Trump administration is uncertain, as is the position of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights -- and in particular the enforcement of Title IX. Regardless of federal policy, activism around Title IX and sexual misconduct is likely to continue, and campuses are expected to sharpen their focus on programs, policies and support systems to combat sexual assault and harassment.
The dialogue about campus climate has increasingly included overcoming a racist past. Some institutions -- Georgetown University has been a leader -- have owned up to a history of slavery and made significant changes such as renaming buildings or programs. Other campuses have dedicated new or existing spaces in honor of African-American leaders. Whether proactively, such as the University of Michigan, or responding to a crisis, such as the University of Missouri, a number of colleges and universities have launched comprehensive plans focused on diversity and inclusion.
The defense of academic freedom and free speech. The University of Chicago brought free speech back into the spotlight this fall with the welcome letter its college dean sent to incoming students. Exactly what constitutes free speech in a university, and does it conflict with trigger warnings and attempts to create safe spaces for vulnerable groups such as members of racial minorities or survivors of sexual assault? Although all colleges defend free speech and play an important role in educating students about it, the precise boundaries vary from one campus to another.
One thing is certain: it’s easier to argue for free speech when you’re the one speaking. After the presidential election, some students who voted for Trump felt attacked and said they needed safe space, too. A “professor watch list” has been launched to shame faculty members conservatives think are pushing liberal ideas in the classroom. And the Trump transition team recently sent questionnaires throughout the Department of Energy to identify work done on climate change, raising alarm bells in the academy. Climate scientists are now organizing to defend their research and academic freedom.
So, What to Do?
The tensions are mounting and so are the stakes. Since head in the sand is not an effective strategy, we’d like to offer a few guideposts for higher education institutions that are navigating today’s uncertain terrain.
Be self-critical. Colleges and universities can assess and acknowledge areas for improvement and confront them with constructive game plans. Proactive leadership begins with self-evaluation and plans for change.
Make sure college is worth it. It is not enough to decry the devaluing of a liberal education. Our scan shows just how deep public skepticism about the cost and value of college runs, and higher education must find substantial ways both to lower student costs and increase the return on their investment. Career assistance, better information about job placement, opportunities for internships and increases in scholarship support all have to be on each institution’s docket.
Bridge the divide with new communications methods and fresh perspective. If it is us versus them, we cannot make progress. From continued defunding of public higher ed to sensationalized campus rhetoric, polarized stances are inhibiting shared understanding. Can we set aside blame and labels and work instead to listen more carefully toward finding some common ground? That will entail an authentic, two-way dialogue and new ways of describing and demonstrating value in today’s world, not just the usual universityspeak.
Find innovative new collaborators and partnerships. The coming year won’t be one of business as usual. New partnerships and opportunities, more innovation, and perhaps the occasional odd bedfellow can help illuminate new opportunities and advance mutual goals.
Get out ahead. The colleges and universities that best weather challenging storms are those that best anticipate and confront issues early and honestly.
Lisa M. Rudgers and Julie A. Peterson are co-founders of Peterson Rudgers Group, a consulting firm focused on higher education strategy, leadership and brand.