From Suppressing to Compelling

The diversity requirements at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst demonstrate a troubling shift from proscription of speech to prescription of political attitudes, argue Daphne Patai and Harvey Silverglate.

April 25, 2016

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.

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