Political correctness in higher education has been much criticized, but there have been distressingly few suggestions for how to address it. This brief article proposes a strategy. Like the first car, airplane, or computer, it is undoubtedly clumsy. I hope, however, that my recommendations will start a conversation that leads to better ideas.
By political correctness I mean a set of attitudes and policies that in academia restrict free speech, academic freedom, and due process; shrink or eliminate the traditional core curriculum and infuse it instead with leftist political propaganda; and staff faculties almost exclusively from the left. It is not just conservatives who have been ideologically cleansed from our universities; the number of moderate academics has also declined, while liberals and far leftists have proliferated.1
PC is indigenous; it was not imposed by outside forces. The forces that instituted PC on campuses are strong and continuously make it even more extreme. There is no hope that internal forces will reverse PC. Campus leftists require administrators to swear allegiance to PC in order to be hired. Once in office, administrators know that any resistance to PC will result in their dismissal, so they cave in to even the most outrageous behavior. Some effort has been made to persuade university trustees—who have legal control of each school—to rein it in.2 Unfortunately, this effort has made little headway; even when confronted with the most egregious violations of free speech and due process it is hard to find a single trustee who raises any objection.
Both public and private colleges depend heavily on government funding through direct grants and subsidies of student loans. One might think that elected officials who are conservative or moderate would have rushed years ago to curb a movement dedicated to their destruction. In fact, they have done almost nothing. The public attitude, even among most conservatives, seems to be that campus PC is ridiculous and even offensive, but that it’s a side show, not a significant problem warranting serious political action. As often happens in democracies, a small but intensely committed group (here, left-wing academics) can prevail over the majority, who do not agree with the minority but don’t feel personally threatened and therefore are uninterested in taking action.
A difficult but essential first step toward combatting campus PC, then, is to raise public awareness of its influence. Most bad ideas that now plague our nation were incubated in our universities. The loss of privacy that results from permitting people to use bathroom facilities that correspond to the gender with which they claim to identify is just the latest of these bad ideas.
As John Stuart Mill said: “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their posts as soon as there is no enemy in the field.”3 When they hear only one side of an issue—when differing and dissenting opinions are suppressed—even honest, well-meaning scholars will arrive at incomplete or faulty conclusions. A good example is the unquestioning acceptance of tests that expose “implicit bias,” supposedly proving the existence of wide and deep racial discrimination in America today, practiced even by people who are unaware of their own racism.4 The significance of these claims has been more than academic; government, corporate, and nonprofit organizations have hastened to adopt programs addressing pervasive unintentional racism. There were warning signals that the evidence did not support these claims, but pervasive political correctness and the paucity of non-PC scholars who could combat it let the flimsy claims go unchallenged for years. They were finally debunked by a few undeceived researchers, but too late. The bureaucratic campaigns mounted to combat implicit bias won’t close up shop any time soon.
In addition to the aforementioned damage caused by biased scholarship, students are misled when they are exposed to only one side of a public issue debate. They have been taught that everything they believed before arriving on campus (and certainly everything their parents believe) is not just mistaken, but evil. They also learn to accept without question the constant changes in the party line. Yesterday it was bedrock dogma that all cognitive differences between the sexes were socially constructed. Now it is politically and morally taboo not to endorse prevailing beliefs about transgenderism.
True, most students are not entirely convinced by indoctrination, but that does not mean that they are not deeply affected by it. Students who doubt the prevailing PC ideology see no other ideals to embrace. Like Russians after the fall of communism, they are likely to become cynical and nihilistic, believing that no universal, enduring moral truths exist, just the propaganda imposed by force in any given place and time. Accordingly, students grow timid and reticent. They hesitate to parrot what they recognize or suspect to be nonsense, but know from experience that the constant praise of critical thinking is pure hypocrisy. College students today are taught not how to think but what to think; any expression of independent thought is likely to be punished with public shaming and compelled abject contrition. Their only prudent path is to make the minimum bow to the PC creed du jour required to avoid trouble and otherwise shut up about anything political. (This leaves sports, popular music, making money, and consumer consumption among the few topics one may generally discuss with relative freedom.)
Students have also lost interest in studying the liberal arts and humanities. Once students were encouraged to explore with a respectfully critical mind the celebrated art, music, literature, philosophy, and history of Western civilization. PC now disdains that canon as a cesspool of racism, sexism, and homophobia to be studied (if at all) only to expose its offenses. As the liberal arts and humanities have become concentration camps for re-education, students have fled to less politicized and more vocationally valuable fields such as finance and economics.
There is no magic formula to awaken the public to the harmful absurdity of campus PC, but moderate and conservative elected officials must at least recognize that they are now funding their biggest political opponents. Corporate leaders must also understand that PC undermines the market economy and the rule of law on which private enterprise depends and that voices for these institutions are now weak in the mainstream media and almost completely shouted down on campus. Business leaders must be persuaded to fund organizations such as the National Association of Scholars so that they can at least make themselves heard in public and on campus. They now lack sufficient resources to do so.
Campus Threats to Free Speech
The independence of the academy has long been sacrosanct. This independence was fine so long as the conduct of universities generally corresponded to the values of the general public. Now the universities have been captured by a small radical minority. In a democracy all public institutions should be publicly accountable; if the universities cannot police themselves, lawmakers must step in. In several liberal states legislators may be quite content with campus PC, but in many states legislatures should be at least potentially receptive to remedial action.
Although state legislatures should not micromanage universities by making individual decisions about hiring and tenure or specific course offerings, there are many broader actions they can take. The first is simply to declare a state policy that diversity of thought is an important value in higher education and that ideological bullying is unacceptable.
Next, states should enact laws guaranteeing academic freedom and due process, including protection of speech consistent with the First Amendment. Stanley Kurtz and the Goldwater Institute have drafted a model Campus Free Speech Act that has already been introduced in some states and adopted in Colorado and Tennessee.5 In addition to removing rules restricting speech, it would require university administrators to deal effectively with those who interfere with the free speech of others.
Another threat to free speech on campus is bias reporting systems and bias response teams. These programs encourage students to report (often anonymously) any speech that they find “offensive.” The threat of an official proceeding, even if it would not result in punishment, is so daunting that members of college communities are fearful of saying anything student “bias reporters” might not like.6 These programs must be eliminated. Speech should be punished only if it reaches the level of legal harassment.7
On many campuses, proceedings against people charged with violating school rules, especially on sexual assault, are kangaroo courts. Tribunal members have no legal training, there is no presumption of innocence, and the accused is often denied the right to counsel, to interview witnesses before a hearing, or to cross-examine hostile witnesses at a hearing. Legislatures must restore due process. The American College of Trial Lawyers has adopted a statement describing the current abuses and recommending remedies.8 This paper could serve as a model.
On some campuses, student organizations are required to admit all students, including those who reject the group’s mission. This denies students the right of free association with like-minded students. Student religious or political organizations, for example, should be allowed to limit membership to students who share the organization’s religious or political beliefs.
State legislatures must also address the degradation of college curricula. The NAS has reported on the political abuse of college civics courses and made recommendations for improvement.9 The core curriculum and serious course requirements have decayed.10 They should be restored. If requiring a serious core curriculum is too unfashionable now, there should at least be core curriculum programs leading to a special certificate or concentration to give due recognition to students who satisfy the program’s requirements.11 Offering courses not marinated in PC could help to revive students’ interest in the liberal arts and humanities.
Restoring Political Diversity
The most difficult challenge is to restore some political diversity on university faculties. Although the general problem is well-known,12 we need to gather more data about the lack of ideological diversity on individual campuses. Simply providing this information to the public as well as to those who run our campuses will do some good: university officials will be pressed to explain why Republicans, conservatives, libertarians, and even political moderates are excluded from their faculties, especially given that these same officials incessantly proclaim the necessity of diversity and inclusion.
There are other improvements that legislatures can make on their own, including ending the use of “diversity statements,” which have been deployed as political litmus tests for applicants for faculty appointments, promotion, and tenure, as well as to intimidate academics from challenging PC.13
There must be no quotas for diversity of any kind—neither express quotas nor de facto quotas, as in quantitative “goals” that result in punishment if they are not met. Quotas are not only unfair but also counterproductive when they result in the hiring or admission of members of some group who are less well qualified than others at the school. This condition gives rise to, or reinforces, stereotypes that a particular group is generally inferior. The last thing conservatives need is an influx of second-rate conservative scholars into academia.
However, there is evidence that the lack of political diversity stems from discrimination, not from weaker qualifications. Many conservative and libertarian scholars are “underplaced”—i.e., teach in lesser academic institutions (or are not in academia) than their academic credentials warrant. There are many outstanding conservative and libertarian scholars in private think tanks who could be lured into academic appointments. Universities can at least start to improve their diversity by tapping this pool of scholars.
Jawboning from legislatures will not by itself suffice to achieve fair diversity. Public universities have mounted massive resistance to the First Amendment; most maintain patently unconstitutional speech codes despite numerous court rulings striking them down. Any effort to improve diversity of thought on campuses will meet the same kind of resistance.
Lawmakers could simply give less money to universities that make no serious effort to improve diversity. However, withholding money is a blunt weapon. Budget cuts will be allocated by the same people who are causing the problem, who will then impose harm on the innocent, not on themselves and their allies.
Greater intervention will be necessary. State legislatures are neither professionally qualified nor structurally organized to perform this function. However, most states have a chancellor or a board of regents, or both, tasked with overseeing the state’s colleges and universities. These institutions are ideally positioned to combat the politicization of our universities. Unfortunately, they have done almost nothing, even in politically conservative states.
The problem is getting the people in these positions to do their jobs. That will not be easy, but it will be far easier than getting university administrators to reform themselves; chancellors and regents are far less subject to campus pressure than are university presidents, deans, and provosts. At the least, lawmakers can require chancellors and regents to survey campuses for viewpoint diversity and to report to the legislature what they find and what remedies they adopt.
One helpful step would be to create semi-independent centers or institutes within state universities and to divert some funding to these centers. These centers would have authority to offer courses and to hire faculty and perhaps to grant tenure, subject to appeal by university officials to the chancellor or regents. Something like this was recently done when the Arizona legislature created the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University.14 Such centers could help to rectify the curriculum problem and the lack of viewpoint diversity on faculties.
The academic left-wing echo chamber is reinforced by the exclusion of conservatives and libertarians as outside speakers on campus. Although incidents in which conservative speakers are disinvited or physically prevented from speaking have been publicized, the bigger problem is that they are rarely invited in the first place. An extra benefit of creating independent centers is that they could bring in outside speakers who would offer some diversity in the messages students are allowed to hear.
The preceding suggestions have referred to state (public) colleges and universities, but many states also give financial assistance to local private colleges. These colleges should be subject to the same measures as the public—with proper allowance for religious colleges to pursue their mission.
Federal Steps Forward
So far I have spoken solely of state governments. Although public colleges and universities are creatures of the states, the federal government also exerts tremendous influence over higher education. At minimum, universities that receive federal research grants or whose students receive federal financial assistance should be required to comply with the constitutional protections for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and rights to due process, including the right of student organizations to limit membership to those who share the organization’s commitments.15 The U.S. Departments of Justice and of Education can inform colleges and universities of their duties and bring legal action against and withhold funds from schools that continue to violate these basic individual rights.
The federal government should also forbid racial discrimination by schools receiving federal money as provided by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unfortunately, that act has been distorted to permit admissions preferences for certain racial minorities. If that interpretation cannot be changed, colleges must be required to be honest about what they do: colleges that discriminate should be required to publicize that fact prominently and to reveal data showing the extent of their preferences in admissions. A big step forward would be simply to stop the bad practices of the last several years, such as misconstruing Title IX to mandate validation of a student’s claimed gender identity.
The federal government gives power to accrediting agencies by granting funding only to colleges that meet the standards of these agencies. The accrediting agencies have used this power to suppress competition and to impose many forms of PC.16 These agencies should be confined to monitoring objective educational criteria.
To encourage alternatives to the dominant PC teaching of American history,17 Congress should fund the American History for Freedom Program, adopted by Congress in 2008 but never funded.18 It could also fund other programs in Western civilization.19
The federal government can also provide students and their families with more information about viewpoint diversity at all schools receiving federal money. The Heterodox Academy’s Guide to Colleges offers a prototype model for such disclosure.20 Higher education is fiercely competitive. Colleges will not blithely accept receiving low ratings for academic freedom, quality of curriculum, and diversity of thought.
Mustering the Will
The politicization of our colleges and universities is a serious problem that has not received adequate attention from our lawmakers. To reiterate, this article is only a first cut at devising a strategy for addressing this problem. I invite others to point out its weaknesses and to propose better solutions.
No one should fancy that solving this problem will be easy. Leftists have targeted academia because they see it as the soft underbelly of our republic—and its fulcrum. Having largely seized control there, they will not surrender it meekly, and our colleges and universities now operate far outside the political mainstream. The ideological regime imposed by leftists is offensive not only to conservatives and libertarians but also to political moderates.
Our challenge, then, is not to change people’s minds, but rather to make them aware of the scope of the problem and its dangerous consequences, and to persuade them that reform is essential. If the will can be mustered, rectifying political correctness, though not easy, can be achieved.