Mizzou Madness: A Case Study of Non-Diversity, Non-Freedom, and Non-Academics in Higher Education

J. Martin Rochester

NAS member J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis, has written a case study of the 2015 crisis at the University of Missouri, using it as a window into the declining commitment to diversity, free speech, and academic rigor nationwide.

The Office of Sexuality and Gender Diversity is located on the fourth floor of Lucas Hall. This Office is home to Prizm [the Queer-Straight Student Alliance] and Gender Studies. Adjacent to the Office are two gender inclusive bathrooms. These gender inclusive bathrooms are becoming more common on campus. In some cases, these bathrooms were previously gender specific and we are having a small problem with folks forgetting to lock the doors when they are using the bathrooms. Please remember to lock the door once you enter the bathroom since the gender inclusive bathrooms generally are designed to be used by one person at a time. UMSL is really an inclusive campus and these types of changes are good parts of 21st Century America.

The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri-St. Louis sent the above email to the faculty on March 23, 2017. In the past, the need for educational institutions to instruct their students in potty habits typically has occurred at the level of nursery schools and kindergarten. It is a sign of the times that this is now occurring in higher education, carried out by no less than a dean of arts and sciences. The dean is a microbiologist, and one might have expected him to be concerned about germs and public health issues. However, the matter in question here was social justice, something that we are now all supposed to be expert in nowadays. It’s a survival skill.

UM-St. Louis is just one campus in the four-campus University of Missouri system. This same scene could have been played out on any of the UM campuses. As the flagship campus – the one with the Division I football and basketball team – the University of Missouri-Columbia (“Mizzou”) is the source of most of the rules and regulations issued by the system administrators and board of curators. Since the much-publicized racial turmoil at UM-Columbia in the fall of 2015, the regimes governing UM have doubled down in mandating “inclusiveness.” The Mizzou incident sparked similar protests at universities across the country, with similar calls for increased inclusiveness. Bathroom wars and other such conflicts have only escalated since the 2016 presidential election.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, spoke for many academics when he warned, in a recent New York Times op-ed, that “not since the era of witch-hunts and ‘red-baiting’ has the American university faced so great a threat from government.”1 What he and his fellow administrators and faculty fail to recognize is that the threat to the university has been building for decades. It comes less from government than from within, less from Donald Trump and the alt-right than from the control-left that rules American campuses.2 In Orwellian fashion, the typical campus trumpets diversity ad nauseam, but lacks its most important form, intellectual diversity; proclaims its commitment to free inquiry and expression but undermines those through a proliferation of speech code restrictions including micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces; and claims its main mission to be the cultivation and dissemination of knowledge, although many disciplines have drifted away altogether from scholarly rigor and serious curricula.

The 2015 crisis at the University of Missouri-Columbia is a window into how “institutional liberalism” has subverted the modern university throughout America.

The 2015 Campus Crisis at Mizzou

According to “Concerned Student 1950,” the group that launched the campus protest in the fall of 2015 at the University of Missouri-Columbia, racial problems had persisted at Mizzou for decades, with relatively little progress made in combating racism. When a “Racism Lives Here” rally was held on September 24, the recent police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri 120 miles from Columbia, had already charged the campus with racial tension. So too had several anecdotal accounts of local incidents involving bigotry, including a September 12th Facebook posting by the African-American student government president, Payton Head, who reported that unidentified people riding in a pick-up truck off-campus had hurled racial and anti-gay slurs. On October 8, UM-Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced that all incoming freshmen would receive mandatory online diversity training. Two days later, protestors blocked University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe’s car during a homecoming parade, with Wolfe accused of being unresponsive to student concerns and even “smiling and laughing.”

On October 20, Concerned Student 1950, which had no more than a couple of dozen members, issued a list of demands that included an apology from Wolfe, his resignation, the hiring of more black faculty, and the adoption of a more extensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum for all staff, faculty and students. On November 2, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler, who claimed Wolfe’s car had hit him during the parade, started a hunger strike. He stated that it would continue until the university president resigned. Despite an apology from Wolfe that acknowledged racism at the university, some 200 students camped out in support of Butler. The school’s football team also supported Butler and threatened to boycott the rest of the season, which would have cost the university a $1 million fine for forfeiting the upcoming game against Brigham Young University, and millions more if the entire season had been canceled. Under growing pressure from faculty and state legislators concerned about damage to the school’s reputation, President Wolfe announced his resignation on November 9. He was followed hours later by Chancellor Loftin, who likewise had been accused of insensitivity to racial and social justice issues.

That was not the end of the story. The day after the Mizzou chancellor’s resignation, all students, staff, and faculty received an email from the campus police department “asking individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions to call the police immediately” and “provide a detailed description of the individual(s) involved.” Such Bias Response Teams were not viewed as constituting “witch-hunts” but as necessary to insuring a “safe” environment. On November 9, student protestors who had gathered in a tent city in the university’s main quadrangle were approached by two student journalists interested in capturing the event on video. An assistant professor of mass communications, Melissa Click, tried to block the journalists from interviewing and filming students, even though the reporters were seeking access to a public space. She was caught on tape yelling at them to “get out” and, after grabbing the camera, calling for “some muscle“ to remove them from the quad.

Although Click had a courtesy appointment in the School of Journalism, she apparently was unaware of the First Amendment rights of the student journalists. Her understanding of mass media was limited to popular culture: the university website reported that “her research interests center on . . . theories of gender and sexuality and media literacy. Current research projects involve 50 Shades of Grey readers, the impact of social media in fans’ relationships with Lady Gaga, messages about class and food in reality television programming, and messages about work in children’s television programs.” Her research agenda had included not only Lady Gaga but also Martha Stewart, the Twilight vampire series, the Thomas the Tank Engine series, and other such “academic” subjects. Although she claimed to be an expert on “visual literacy,” she did not realize how quickly her scowling image and call for mob rule could go viral nationally.

Click was under review for tenure at the time, and many state lawmakers urged that she be terminated immediately. On February 24, 2016, after release of an earlier video showing her screaming profanities at police during the October homecoming parade, the UM Board of Curators fired her. Over 100 of her colleagues signed a letter defending her in the name of academic freedom and due process, and they were supported by the American Association of University Professors. Click subsequently was hired as a lecturer in communication studies at Gonzaga University, which announced that “Dr. Click was hired through an extensive national search process that revealed her to be the most qualified candidate for the position.”3

President Wolfe was replaced by Michael Middleton, a Mizzou law professor and deputy chancellor emeritus, who became interim head of the UM system. On the same day that Professor Click was terminated, Middleton, an African-American, received a revised set of demands from Concerned Student 1950 which included compulsory cultural competency training for all staff, faculty and students, overseen by persons of color; an increase in the percentage of black faculty and staff to 10 percent; and other demands aimed at “advancement of Blacks on campus.” The next month, the University of Missouri hired a Chief Diversity Officer with a starting salary of $235,000 and instituted a new three-credit hour “diversity intensive” course required for graduation, focusing on “understanding differing social groups.” It was not clear how any of this would address the fact that Mizzou was ranked in 2016 as “the worst school in the country for ideological diversity.” 4 It was also not clear if the university would learn any lessons from this debacle, as freshman enrollment at Mizzou suffered a 35 percent drop due to negative publicity, while alumni donations, especially to the athletic department, plummeted precipitously, and state officials unimpressed with faculty teaching, research, and oversight ordered substantial budget cuts.5

Reflections on the Misery in Missouri

As a University of Missouri (UM) faculty member, I watched with a mixture of amazement and horror at the events that unfolded during the 2015-16 academic year. Amazement, because perhaps never before had so few students been able to get so many college administrators to display so much cowardice over so little provocation. A relatively small group of protestors not only succeeded in ousting the two highest officials in the UM system but also emboldened the radical left all across the country to hold campuses hostage to threats of disruption, in a chain reaction that eventually encompassed both elite private universities and large public institutions.6 Horror, because perhaps never before had we seen quite this combination of jackbooted intolerance and sophomorism at work in higher education.

The 1960s also saw campus demonstrations of a significant magnitude, but they at least could be understood as reactions to the vilest forms of racism, along with anger over the Vietnam War. Although there remain legitimate concerns about racial and social justice today, we clearly live in a much more inclusive society—and there is no major war taking the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. Chants about white supremacy and white oppression seem somewhat misplaced at a time when Asians are the most educationally and economically successful racial group in America, a black man was twice elected by comfortable majorities to occupy the highest office in the land, and two of the last five secretaries of state were also black. On most measures of racial progress, improvement has been unmistakable.

Closer to home, beyond some anecdotes, it is hard to validate the complaints of Mizzou students that the campus suffers from a climate of racism. Nobody has taken a reliable survey of the racial attitudes of the 35,000 students in Columbia. And it is difficult to square the accusation of a “climate of racism” with the fact that UM President Tim Wolfe was preceded by the black Elson Floyd; that the president and the homecoming queen of the UM-Columbia student body at the time of the crisis were both black; that the black graduate student whose hunger strike against “white privilege” led to the climatic events of November 9 was the son of a millionaire railroad executive; that representation of African-Americans in the undergraduate student body (8.1 percent) and among tenure-track faculty (3.5 percent) roughly approximated the level of representation in American universities generally; and that two months before the crisis the university had held a diversity workshop educating faculty and staff in the use of racially acceptable language.7

My own campus, UM-St. Louis (UMSL), has not escaped the fallout from its sister campus, as diversity sensitivity training has been stepped up here as well. It does not matter that UMSL has among the most diverse minority student populations in the state, with blacks comprising 18 percent of the student body; that in my department alone one-third of the tenure-track faculty are black; that there has been a “cultural diversity” curriculum requirement for all majors for decades; that we have had a black chancellor, at a time we were called a “racist” institution; that we have long had a “chief diversity officer” and a “chancellor’s diversity council”; and that as recently as 2013 we received a national “Higher Education Excellence in Diversity” award.

Universities have come a long way since Kent State and other symbols of Vietnam-era activism, but one would never know it from the shrillness of voices being heard today in the halls of academe. Many have attributed the growing shrillness to Trump-era hyper-polarization, although the Mizzou protest, and many other such episodes, preceded Trump’s election. Whether in Columbia, St. Louis, or any other community, the local campus is probably the single most diverse place in town, yet the site of the largest grievance industry over racism, sexism, classism, and other categories of victimhood and discrimination. We are in the midst of a revolution of rising expectations.8 Students may have less reason to be enraged today than in the 1960s, but the growth of political correctness, social media, and other cultural trends over the past fifty years has only increased the sense of entitlement and the level of revolutionary fervor, stoking student demands that go far beyond anything conceivable in the past. There is a take-no-prisoners quality to the current uprising.

One could see this not only in the Mizzou affair but also in the campus follies it helped trigger nationwide. For example, almost no one in the 1960s at Princeton would have dared suggest the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of International and Public Affairs and other corners of the campus, lest they reveal ignorance of the fact they were calling for expunging an iconic figure long considered the father of American progressivism and the liberal welfare state, as well as the exemplar of liberal internationalism through his creation of the League of Nations. Yet, when students staged a sit-in at President Eisgruber’s office in November 2015, they demanded Wilson’s banishment from campus due to his “racist legacy.” The students settled for the removal of his mural, along with a ban on the title “masters” of residential colleges.

A month earlier, Yale experienced a similar uproar over a memo circulated by its Intercultural Affairs Council instructing students in proper Halloween attire, and urging them not to wear costumes (say, Mexican garb) that might border on “cultural appropriation.” Erika Christakis, a lecturer in early childhood education and the wife of the head of a residential college, elicited a storm of profanity from irate students who called for her dismissal when she replied in a public email that Yalies were capable of making their own Halloween costume selections. Yale President Salovey said he heard the student protestors’ “cries for help” and accepted Christakis’ resignation—an action which indicated just how scary the ivory tower had become. Around that same time, not to be outdone, Columbia University saw several hundred students gather on the quadrangle to chant “I love black criminals,” extending the same warm welcome the school had given Iranian president and Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a few years earlier. One was left wondering what kind of reception someone on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum would likely get—a Ben Carson, a David Clarke—were he ever invited to speak there.

One final illustration of the depths to which higher education had descended: the students at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania matched the silliness of their Ivy League counterparts when they demanded the renaming of Lynch Hall. In doing so, they dishonored a former college president—and raised the possibility that former U.S. Attorney-General Loretta Lynch might not be considered as a commencement speaker anytime in the future.

If the Mizzou case seems a caricature of contemporary American academia, it is by less than six degrees of separation.

The Declining Commitment to Scholarship

What happened at Mizzou has been replicated elsewhere and is symptomatic of the larger problems found across the higher education landscape. President Botstein of Bard offered the usual pieties invoked to define the essence of a university: a commitment to the scholarly “pursuit of knowledge” and “truth” based on “reasoned argument, evidence, and rigorous verification”; a commitment to “academic freedom” and free exchange of ideas “no matter how uncomfortable”; and a commitment to “nonpartisanship” and avoiding pressures to “create a consensus of belief that can marginalize disagreement and dissent.”9 These are the very core values now at risk, under attack not so much from outside the walls of the ivory tower, as Botstein argues, but rather from within; and not so much from the right as from the left, the erstwhile bastion of free thought.10

Professor Click’s call for “muscle” to censor a journalist exhibited questionable values for someone with an appointment in a journalism school, and a questionable temperament to be a professor responsible for cultivating young minds. One might also question her scholarly credentials, given that her research agenda includes vampires and Lady Gaga. Then again, these are cutting-edge, relatively hi-brow subjects to teach and study these days. Witness the fluff that has passed for “gen ed” at American universities in recent years: “students from Dartmouth to Stanford are getting academic credit for studying Star Trek and Looney Toons”; at Stanford, students can enroll in “How Tasty Were My French Sisters”; at Michigan, coursework is offered on “diva-worship, drag, and muscle culture.”11 Harvard has offered a class called “Anal Sex 101.”12 Zombie studies are particularly in vogue, pioneered by Arthur Blumberg of the University of Baltimore. Blumberg is co-author of Zombiemania: 80 Movies to Die For and the instructor in the “Media Genres: Zombies” course, where students read “Walking Dead” comic books and watch 16 classic zombie movies, which are intended to provide “a back door into a lot of subjects.”13 One of those subjects is my own field of international relations, where one can read Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (published by a prestigious university press no less) to explore how “different approaches to world politics would explain policy responses to the living dead” and can attend panels at scholarly conventions on “How Global Governance Would Deal with Zombies.”14 All this is done in support of student “engagement,” the latest buzzword in campus centers of teaching and learning, designed to maintain student interest in disciplines that no longer provide serious, useful bodies of knowledge and marketable skills.

Why vampire and zombie fiction is worthy of scholarly study remains a mystery. Donald Trump is no more anti-rigor or low-brow than the average professor, at least in the social sciences and humanities. If rigor no longer matters, then it becomes more acceptable for students to dictate changes in faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion guidelines that render merit a peripheral concern. It also is more acceptable for research and curricula to be driven by ideology rather than by the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. Hence, it is legitimate for a professor of education and program chair for a 2016 National Council of Social Studies professional conference to elicit proposals challenging presenters to “look at systemic racism, white supremacy, Islamaphobia, homophobia, transphobia, voter suppression, socioeconomic disparities, sexism, and environmental destruction (to name a few)” and consider “intersectionality, decolonization, LGBTQ+ Studies, Critical Race Studies, and Environmental Justice.”15 Increasingly, in schools of education as well as in social work, law, communications, history, political science, English and other liberal arts, professors are hired who not only can add entertainment value to a department’s offerings but also can teach political values in a wide range of victimization studies courses.

There has been general academic slippage as a well-intentioned but misplaced obsession with equity and diversity, along with a “therapeutic” culture aimed at softening life’s hard edges, jointly have undermined standards from beginning to end, from college admissions to granting of diplomas. One would think that “social justice” would entail rewarding people for superior work. However, affirmative action has morphed into race-based admissions, often discriminating against Asian students and others with stronger academic records.16 Universities are considering allowing incoming, unprepared students—weaned on K-12 classes that award trophies to students for registering a pulse—to count “remedial” courses as college credit toward graduation.17 “Retention centers” are proliferating along with “early alert” warning systems designed to support students by sending regular reminders to come to class and perform basic obligations. The growth in online classes may eliminate the need to come to class at all. The hand-holding, “coddling” paradigm has been imported from K-12, complete with enhanced mental health counseling, rec centers that offer yoga and other stress reduction exercises, and wellness areas such as the new “Whole U” at UMSL, which offers “comfy cots” for napping during the day. Mental health is a serious problem among young people, but it is not clear why this generation experiences so much stress and sleep deprivation when the bar for success, at least in school, is being lowered. There has been well-documented grade inflation in undergraduate education for several decades.18 Arum and Josipa, in Academically Adrift, have shown how grades have gone up as expectations and work demands (in terms of the number of books read and the length of papers written) have gone down.19 Partying has gone up, with one study estimating the flow of beer at fifteen cases consumed per student per year.20 Meanwhile, learning objectives are being skewed toward college sports as “pigskin and sheepskin collide”21—it is characteristic that the pivotal moment in the Mizzou crisis came when the UM Tiger football team, backed by its head coach, threatened to boycott the rest of the season, depriving the campus of a major raison d’etre.

In short, the core academic mission of the university, inside and outside the classroom, among students and faculty alike, is being chipped away.

The Declining Commitment to Academic Freedom and Free Exchange of Ideas

One might argue that the very concept of “academic freedom” entails allowing faculty to study and teach virtually whatever they want and how they want, at the same time giving students an ever-wider menu of choices in the curriculum—even in an era of scarce budgetary resources, which might suggest a need to assign priorities. However, freedom only goes so far. It has never meant total license. In fact, in many respects personal liberty is increasingly being infringed upon in academia, as seen in the imposition of mandatory cultural competency training for all stakeholders at Mizzou, similar to programs throughout American higher education. These programs bear an unfortunate resemblance to the political reeducation camps of Mao Zedong and Pol Pot.

The roots of the current challenge to academic freedom lie half a century in the past. In the 1960s, students challenged authority structures. But today the authority structures are so mired in political correctness that they themselves are enablers of protest. As political correctness took hold in the 1970s, and became ensconced on and off campus, young people became more convinced than ever of the rightness of their cause, indoctrinated or validated by their professors. Mario Salvo’s Berkeley Free Speech Movement degenerated into restrictive campus speech codes in the 1980s and 1990s, which by the new millennium were transforming the university into an academic police state. Bias Response Teams report the most tangential affronts to PC, while Title IX sexual harassment cases proceed against defendants with minimal due process.22 Censoring has replaced censuring, and “hurtful” comments have replaced hateful comments as the mark of unacceptable behavior. The same collegians uttering obscenities at university officials and their peers claim a right not to be “offended” by even the slightest counter to their worldviews or the tiniest “micro-aggressions.” Their psyches are apparently so fragile that they require “trigger warnings” for any idea that might deny them a “safe space.”23 These phrases have now become the ubiquitous, everyday vocabulary of thin-skinned collegians, who have variously been called “snowflakes,” “Little Robespierres,” and “crybullies.”24 They are being coddled in more ways than one.25

As at Mizzou, administrators tend to cave in to protestor demands. There are now limits to free speech so outrageous they leave one almost speechless, as epitomized by the note on University of California president Janet Napolitano’s website instructing faculty to avoid uttering such “microaggressions” as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” At the University of Tennessee and many other institutions, diversity offices, worried about student discomfort with gender-specific pronouns (“he,” “she,” etc.), are urging gender-neutral substitutes (“ze,” “hir,” “xyr,” etc.). The president of Emory went so far as to sympathize with students who felt “endangered” by “Vote Trump in 2016” chalk markings on sidewalks, and authorized investigations of those responsible for such epithets. Following Trump’s victory in November, the Hampshire College administration lowered the American flag to half-staff in the main quad and offered grief counseling services, anticipating an unusually heavy load of post-traumatic stress disorder cases in a college community unable to handle the bombshell result of constitutional democracy. Also in the fall of 2016, a student at Pierce College was barred from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus, since he was held to be outside the school’s designated “free speech zone.” The University of Northern Colorado’s “Language Matters” campaign warned against saying “all lives matter.”26 So much for “courageous conversations.”

Speech is supposed to be protected at public universities by the First Amendment, and at private universities by the traditions of academic freedom. Neither is being defended vigorously at present. This perhaps is seen most clearly in the number of campus speakers being disinvited or prevented by force from speaking. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has tracked such trends in recent years, as “the number of disinvitation attempts from 2000 to 2016 has grown fairly steadily.” FIRE found that 2016 “featured a record number of disinvitations to speakers from colleges and universities, 46 in total.”27 While 14 of these were targeted at Milo Yiannopoulos, the anti-PC provocateur, most involved less provocative figures. It is one thing to try to ban an incendiary provocateur like Yiannopoulos, whose visit to the University of California-Berkeley campus on February 1, 2017 sparked violent rioting. That may be understandable, if inexcusable. However, among those experiencing disinvitations recently have been the following: former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (at Rutgers), former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley (at Brown), International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde (at Smith), human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (at Brandeis), columnist George Will (at Scripps), columnist Jason Riley (at Virginia Tech), and former UC-Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau (at Haverford).28 Virtually all of these and other speaker disinvitations monitored by FIRE came “from the left of the speaker and occurred most often for controversies over racial issues, views on sexual orientation, and views on Islam.”29 Even when conservative speakers appear on campus, they are not assured of being able to deliver their remarks, as seen most recently in the cases of Charles Murray (whose visit to Middlebury College on March 2 was cut short by loud disruptions and physical assaults) and Heather MacDonald (whose lecture at Claremont McKenna College on April 7 was cancelled when protestors blocked the auditorium).

The Middlebury College home page website advertises, in clichéd words, a “commitment to a diverse and respectful community.” And that is the rub; the modern university respects all manner of diversity (racial, ethnic, gender, and otherwise) except the most critical type of diversity that defines the academy—diversity of ideas. As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his 2014 commencement address at Harvard, ”Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species.”30

The 2005 report “Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action,” observed that “the most serious challenge for higher education today is the lack of intellectual diversity.”31 Now, more than a decade later, action is long overdue.

The Declining Commitment to Diversity and Inclusiveness

In David Hume’s words, “Truth emerges from debate among friends,” from the competition of ideas conducted in a civil way. There is relatively little debate and competition of ideas on most campuses, and less and less civility. There is a liberal hegemony that has become so ingrained among administrators, faculty, and students as to constitute systemic or institutional liberalism. Conservative faculty and students are marginalized, often compelled toward self-censorship. One can talk about “toxic masculinity” and “whiteness” but not dare to stereotype women or blacks.32 Liberal ideology is privileged especially in those departments and units that preach the most about the need for diversity—the humanities and social sciences, education and social work schools, and others. Of course, there are exceptions (for example, economics departments and business schools, along with many of the hard sciences); but liberal orthodoxy dominates the university as a whole, as could be seen in the broad groundswell of faculty support for Melissa Click at Mizzou, including from the AAUP. Data provided by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute and other sources confirm a trend over time toward a higher percentage of self-identifying “liberals” in the professoriate and a decreasing percentage of “moderates” and “conservatives.”33

A hallmark of the university should be “nonpartisanship,” but that is no longer the case. One study by Daniel Klein and colleagues, which examined faculty voter registration at forty leading universities, found Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a ratio of 12 to 1.34 Another report found “Democrats and Marxists outnumber Republicans and libertarians by 3 to 1 in economics, more than 5 to l in political science, 10 to 1 or more in history and English, and well over 20 to 1 in anthropology and sociology.”35 Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU, a self-described “devout Democrat,” in an article entitled “US Colleges Need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors,” adds that at the 8 Ivy League colleges, 96 percent of the faculty who made campaign donations in the 2012 presidential election gave to President Obama. At Brown, for example, 129 faculty gave to Obama and just one donated to Mitt Romney.36 It is not just an Ivy League thing – at my own university, based on Federal Election Commission filings, it was determined that from 1997 to 2015 more than 75 percent of faculty and staff political donations went to Democrats.37 Like Zimmerman, some other liberal observers have found the evidence impossible to ignore. For example, Nicholas Kristof, who has written about “liberal intolerance” and “the dangers of echo chambers on campus,” has noted that “four studies found that the proportion of professors in the humanities who are Republicans ranges between 6 and 11 percent, and in the social sciences between 7 and 9 percent. One study found that only 2 percent of English professors are Republicans.”38

The way institutional liberalism works is not so much that conservative job candidates fail at departmental interviews but rather that they never make it to the interview stage if their dossier lacks a progressive-minded dissertation or research agenda in the works. Nobody questions why queer history is in and military history is out. It is not so much that conservative guest speakers are disinvited but rather they are rarely if ever invited in the first place, since they are only marginally represented on the faculty, on university student programming boards, and on other bodies that make up the bubble that is the university. Students wanting to start up a College Republicans organization on campus may be prevented from doing so, not because of any outright ban but owing to the unavailability of conservative faculty to serve as an advisor. “Discovery learning” is the pedagogical rage, aimed at getting students to reach the conclusions dictated by what is assumed to be a settled liberal consensus on everything from climate change to the minimum wage. There is a smug sense of inclusiveness, with everyone welcome as long as there is no dissent and challenge to prevailing liberal dogma. When liberals are accused of fostering institutional illiberalism, their fallback position is that, by definition, liberals cannot be illiberal.


It is possible that a conservative counter-revolution may be on the horizon. Campus progressives may have overplayed their hand lately, as even many liberals have winced over the excesses of trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, and safe spaces that are fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a liberal education.39 Especially hopeful is the recent letter by the University of Chicago dean of students, Jay Ellison, supported by President Robert Zimmer, informing incoming freshmen that academic freedom and vigorous debate override concerns about discomfort and other speech constraints. As President Zimmer remarked, “A university should not be a sanctuary for comfort but rather a crucible for confronting ideas.”40 A few other universities, such as Purdue and Princeton, have followed suit, with faculty committees following the lead of Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression in drafting policy statements.41 A large number of faculty opposing the recent illiberal trends have formed the Heterodox Academy in order to articulate their concerns. Washington University in St. Louis and other schools have developed policies to limit disruptions that prevent invited speakers from being heard.42 John Etchemendy, the former provost of Stanford University, delivered a speech to the Stanford Board of Trustees on February 21, 2017, warning of “the threat from within ... as I have watched a growing intolerance at universities in this country—not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines. ... Rather, a kind of intellectual intolerance, a political one-sidedness that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for.”43 Still, there remains much pushback against reform.

The solution to all this is not affirmative action for conservative professors to achieve a certain “balance” of viewpoints, since the development and dissemination of knowledge should not be reduced to ideological and partisan bean-counting.44 Rather, if universities want to respond to this critique properly, they need to become more sensitized to these issues and include them in the “diversity” project. If universities do not act more responsibly in policing themselves, they will invite outside intrusion from politicians and alumni.45 That would be unfortunate, but universities would have only themselves to blame for a failure of governance.


  1. Leon Botstein, “American Universities Must Take A Stand,” New York Times, February 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/opinion/american-universities-must-take-a-stand.html.
  2. Among the few universities that have spoken out publicly against speech code restrictions and other threats by the authoritarian left to free speech is the University of Chicago. See “University of Chicago Rebels Against Moves to Stifle Speech,” New York Times, August 27, 2016; and Robert Zimmer, “Free Speech Is the Basis of A True Education,” Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2016, written by the president of the University of Chicago.
  3. “Fired Mizzou Professor Melissa Click Hired at Gonzaga University,” September 4, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/09/04/fired-mizzou-professor-melissa-click-hired. Michael Pearson provides the sequence of events during the crisis in Michael Pearson, “A Timeline of the University of Missouri Protests,” CNN, November 10, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/09/us/missouri-protest-timeline/.
  4. “Mizzou Ranked As Worst School in the Country for Ideological Diversity,” The Daily Caller, October 27, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/27/mizzou-ranked-as-worst-school. According to Heterodox Academy, a group of academics seeking to increase respect for diverse viewpoints in our universities, the University of Missouri-Columbia was tied with the University of Oregon for the most ideological homogeneity among American universities.
  5. UM-Columbia expected an overall drop in enrollment of 7.4 percent in Fall 2017, including the smallest freshman class in two decades, as well as the loss of $14.7 million in state funds, which would require the university to trim 400 positions. “Mizzou Likely to Cut Hundreds of Positions Amid Expected 7 Percent Enrollment Dip,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 16, 2017. See also Anemona Hartecollis, “Long After Protests, Students Shun the University of Missouri,” New York Times, July 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/09/us/university-of-missouri-enrollment-protests-fallout.html.
  6. Wong and Green estimate that some sixty colleges and universities were the subject of “demands” made by student protestors during 2015-2016. Although some of these protest events preceded the Mizzou crisis, for many others the crisis was a catalyst. See Alia Wong and Adrienne Green, “Campus Politics: A Cheat Sheet,” Atlantic, March 4, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/04/campus-protest-roundup/417570/.
  7. For statistics on the racial composition of the Mizzou campus and the degree to which discrimination exists, see Michael Podgursky, “Racial Discord and Response at the University of Missouri-Columbia,” talk given at the Discussion Club, St. Louis, May 6, 2016.
  8. On revolutions of rising expectations, see W.C. Runciman, Relative Deprivation and Social Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966); and Russell K. Nieli, “Snowflake Jacobins: Black Rage on Campus,” Academic Questions, 29 (Summer 2016): 163-176.
  9. Leon Botstein, “American Universities Must Take A Stand,” New York Times, February 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/opinion/american-universities-must-take-a-stand.html.
  10. Early on, Allan Bloom observed these problems developing in academia, in The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). For a similar, more recent analysis, see Kim Holmes, The Closing of the Liberal Mind (New York: Encounter Books, 2016). Holmes (p. 99) states, “The paranoid style still exists on the far right in America. What is new is not only how pervasive it is on the far left, but also how acceptable it has become in the mainstream mentality and practice of progressive liberalism.”
  11. Tony Mecia, “Is It Weird? You May Get College Credit,” Campus (Spring 1997); William Simon, “The Dumbing Down of Higher Education,” Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1996; “How To Be Gay,” National Association of Scholars, August 13, 2001.
  12. “Harvard University Offers Students ‘Anal Sex 101’Class,” Reuters, November 3, 2014, at http://www.rt.com/usa/201979-harvard-anal-sex-week. The class was offered during the annual Sex Week.
  13. Daniel de Vie, “Exploring the undead: University of Baltimore to offer English class on zombies,” Washington Post, September 10, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/08/AR2010090802944.html; also, see Erica E. Phillips, “Zombie Studies Gain Ground on College Campuses,” Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/zombie-studies-gain-ground-on-college-campuses-1393906046.
  14. Daniel W. Drezner, Theories of International Politics and Zombies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011). The “Zombies” theme panel was held at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association in 2014.
  15. Rich Hess, “A Rorschach Test for Bias in Education Scholarship,” Education Week, February 13, 2017, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2017/02/a_rorschach_test_for_bias_in_education_scholarship.html.
  16. Hans von Spakovsky and Elizabeth Slattery, “Discriminatory Racial Preferences in College Admissions Return to the Supreme Court: Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin,” Heritage Foundation, December 3, 2015, http://www.heritage.org/poverty-and-inequality/report/discriminatory-racial-preferences-college-admissions-return-the; Jason Riley, “Is the Ivy League’s Admission Bias A Trade Secret?,” Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-the-ivy-leagues-admission-bias-a-trade-secret-1490740763.
  17. For collapsing academic standards in the California State University system, see Chester E. Finn, Jr., “The Collapse of Academic Standards,” Flypaper, March 23, 2017, https://edexcellence.net/articles/the-collapse-of-academic-standards.
  18. See Chronicle of Higher Education, February 14, 1997 and July 25, 1997; Valen Johnson, Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (New York: Springer, 2003). Nearly half of all high school seniors in America in 2016 graduated with a grade point average of A, while A was the single most popular grade in American colleges. Greg Toppo, “A’s on the Rise in US Report Cards, But SATs Flounder,” USA Today, July 17, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/07/17/easy-a-nearly-half-hs-seniors-graduate-average/485787001/. 
  19. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  20. Chester E. Finn, Jr., “The High Price of College Sports,” Commentary (October 2001).
  21. Jere Longman,” At Oregon, Pigskin and Sheepskin Collide,” New York Times, October 20, 2001.
  22. On Title IX abuses, see Laura Kipnis, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (New York: Harper, 2017).
  23. There is a huge, growing literature on micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. See, for example, Holmes, op.cit., chapter 6; and Jonathan Zimmerman, Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  24. Roger Kimball, “The Rise of The College Crybullies,” Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2015; “Yale’s Little Robespierres,” Wall Street Journal, November 9, 2015; and Ben Yagoda, “Who You Calling ‘Snowflake’?,” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, 2016.
  25. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic (September 2015).
  26. See “UC System Going the Wrong Way on Free Speech,” editorial, Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2015; and Katherine Timpf, “UC Faculty Training: Saying “America Is the Land of Opportunity’ Is a Microaggression,” National Review, June 10, 2015. On the University of Tennessee and other examples, see George Will, “America’s Higher Education Brought Low,” Washington Post, November 25, 2015. On the Emory incident, see Jonathan Turley, “Free Speech Should Not Be Big News,” USA Today, August 30, 2016. Also, see “Hampshire College Draws Protests Over Removal of U.S. Flag,” New York Times, November 28, 2016; “Student Sues Pierce College Over Tiny ‘Free Speech Zone’,” Los Angeles Daily News, March 29, 2017; and Jillian Kay Melchoir, “Censorship Is Free Speech? It Must Be the Class of 1984,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2017. Other incidents are reported in “Studies in Free Speech,” New York Times, June 23, 2016.
  27. Sean Stevens, “Campus Speaker Disinvitations: Recent Trends (Part 1 of 2),” Heterodox Academy blog, January 24, 2017, http://heterodoxacademy.org/2017/01/24/campus-speaker-disinvitations.
  28. See Jason Riley, “I Was Disinvited on Campus,” Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2016; Timothy Egan, “The Commencement Bigots,” New York Times, May 16, 2014.
  29. Sean Stevens, “Campus Speaker Disinvitations: Recent Trends (Part 2 of 2),” Heterodox Academy blog, February 7, 2017, http://heterodoxacademy.org/2017/02/07/campus- speaker-disinvitations.
  30. Quoted in Ray Sanchez, “Bloomberg: Universities Becoming Bastions of Intolerance,” CNN, May 29, 2014.
  31. “Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action” (Washington, DC: American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2005).
  32. At Gettysburg College and other schools, classes can teach about “toxic masculinity.” See Alissa Lopez, “Students Told Term ‘To Be A Man’ Represents Toxic Masculinity,” The College Fix, October 18, 2016, http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/29527/. Courses on “white privilege” and “whiteness” are commonplace. See Yanan Wang, “A Course Originally Called ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ Returns to Arizona State,” Washington Post, November 12, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/11/12/a-course-originally-called-the-problem-of-whiteness-returns-to-asu-as-racial-tensions-boil-over-on-campuses/?utm_term=.6ec196357820.
  33. Samuel Abrams, “There Are Conservative Professors. Just Not in These States,” New York Times, July 1, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/opinion/sunday/there-are-conservative-professors-just-not-in-these-states.html. On the marginalization of conservatives in academia, see Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn, Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  34. Reported in Bradford Richardson, “Liberal Professors Outnumber Conservatives Nearly 12 to 1, Study Finds,” Washington Times, October 6, 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/6/liberal-professors-outnumber-conservatives-12-1/.
  35. Cited in Robert Maranto and Matthew Woessner,” Diversifying the Academy: How Conservative Academics Can Thrive in Liberal Academia,” PS: Political Science and Politics, 45 (July 2012): 469-470.
  36. Jonathan Zimmerman, “US Colleges Need Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors,” Christian Science Monitor, December 13, 2012, https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2012/1213/US-colleges-need-affirmative-action-for-conservative-professors.
  37. Reported to me by a colleague at UMSL, on November 19, 2015.
  38. Nicholas Kristof, “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance,” New York Times, May 7, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/a-confession-of-liberal-intolerance.html. Also, see his “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus,” New York Times, December 1, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/10/opinion/sunday/the-dangers-of-echo-chambers-on-campus.html. Other liberal commentators who have acknowledged concerns about lack of respect for diversity of ideas on campus are Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” New York Times, March 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/11/opinion/sunday/the-dangerous-safety-of-college.html; and Kirsten Powers, The Silencing (New York: Regnery, 2015). Even Bill Maher, a vocal critic of conservatism, felt compelled on March 17, 2017, after the Charles Murray incident at Middlebury College, to say on his Real Time television show that “liberalism is at a perilous point” due to its repressive, exclusivist nature on college campuses.
  39. President Obama, in his 2016 commencement speech at Howard University, said, “Don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view. . . . Don’t do that.” “University of Chicago Rebels Against Moves to Stifle Speech,” New York Times, August 27, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/27/us/university-of-chicago-strikes-back-against-campus-political-correctness.html,
  40. Robert Zimmer, “Free Speech Is the Basis of A True Education,” Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2016.
  41. More universities are grudgingly conceding there is a problem that needs attention. See Douglas Belking, “Colleges Pledge Support for Discourse,” Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2017.
  42. At major assemblies featuring guest speakers, Washington University enforces a policy stating that “posters, banners, and other forms of expression should not be brought into the presentation area during the talk so that an environment free of interference, distraction, and intimidation shall be maintained,” although “groups are free to gather outside, to leaflet, to display posters, and to distribute literature.”
  43. John Etchemendy,”The Threat from Within,” speech to the Stanford University Board of Trustees on February 21, 2017.
  44. See Brianne Pfannenstiel, “Iowa Senator Wants Political Balance Among University Professors,” Des Moines Register, February 20, 2017, http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/20/iowa-senator-wants-political-balance-among-university-professors/98167182/.
  45. “Fight Over Free Speech Goes to States,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017.

Image: The Columns at the University of Missouri by Don J. Schulte // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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