In yet another sign of liberal illiberalism, this week Harvard University announced a policy that would ban students in sororities, fraternities and single-gender “final clubs” from on-campus leadership positions and from prestigious scholarship competitions such as the Rhodes and the Marshall.
Harvard’s president, Dr. Drew Faust, explained the purpose of the policy was to create an “inclusive campus.”
The irony here was apparently lost on Faust.
As a private university, Harvard has broad discretion to determine who it picks as a football captain or endorses for scholarships. Indeed, if Harvard so desired, it could reinstitute its longtime compulsory chapel attendance.
What should trouble readers of all political stripes, however, is that this effort to “include” by exclusion is not just an issue at private elite universities. Increasingly it defines both thought and actions at one of the few places where we expect all viewpoints in our communities to be able to thoughtfully exchange ideas: the public university.
Folks across the political spectrum are taking note.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote this week, “Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”
Kristof cites sociologist and professor George Yancey at the University of North Texas. “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black,” Yancey commented. “But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”
And the institutions of higher learning within religiously observant communities are not immune.
Last week, for example, the University of Utah dithered over awarding an honorary degree to a renowned community philanthropist because of her affiliation with organizations supportive of biologically intact nuclear families, such as the World Congress of Families and Family Watch International.
Simply aghast that our state’s flagship university — ostensibly established for the benefit of the taxpayers — could award an honorary degree to someone with a differing perspective, the university’s Academic Senate passed a resolution calling for the creation of a committee to review any future finalists for honoree degrees to presumably ensure they pass an ideological litmus test.
Such sensitivity belies a strange and worrisome fear of facing different perspectives. The vital role of a public flagship university is not to silence nonconformity. Rather, Utah taxpayers and legislators expect their public flagships to be unique societal spaces where ideas and viewpoints can coexist and at times collide in thoughtful and constructive ways.
Undoubtedly, a vibrant public flagship is an essential element to any community and state. Yet, academics across the country jeopardize their own well-being when they show an inclination to intimidate those who hold less-than-politically-correct viewpoints. Representative lawmakers seem to be responding in kind to this ideological myopia. In recent years, lawmakers in Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Wisconsin have proposed sizable cuts to university systems. This is an unfortunate tit-for-tat approach, but we fear that if unchecked intellectual bullying takes root, legislators will start taking note at a time when Utah needs to increase investment.
Yet, far more important than funding is the intellectual diversity that is important for the sake of education. As Kristof observes: “The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values … but also the quality of education itself. When perspectives are unrepresented … classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.”
In a similar statement, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently reminded a commencement crowd at the University of Michigan that "the whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations — not run away from them.” He said that a so-called “safe space” is the most intellectually dangerous space on campus “because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views.”
Bloomberg was met with boos.
Even President Barack Obama has expressed anxiety over the campus zeitgeist: “What I don't want is a situation in which particular points of view that are presented respectfully and reasonably are shut down.”
Utah’s public universities offer our students an extraordinary opportunity to participate in a vibrant public square of discourse that should improve their capacity to communicate with and work alongside the diverse citizenry of our state. Few things will kill that intellectual vibrancy faster than implicit ideological purity tests and the ugly sycophantism that inevitably follows.