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U.S. Universities: Education or Indoctrination?

The market of ideas in academia isn't so free.

by
Robert Shibley

Bio

April 27, 2009 - 12:00 am

It’s difficult to find anyone to publicly admit they believe our nation’s institutions of higher education should not serve as free marketplaces of ideas, where any and all topics can be openly discussed. After all, such an opinion runs counter to the basic nature of the university ideal and would be massively unpopular with the public. Nobody wants to think that he or she is paying for his or her children to be indoctrinated rather than educated.

Unfortunately, on campuses across the country, the line between indoctrination and education is being blurred and ignored on a daily basis. Even more appallingly, students and faculty members are victims of enforced campus orthodoxy. One of the most recent examples comes from Virginia Tech, where the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences recently voted on a proposal that would make a demonstrated commitment to “diversity” a mandatory part of tenure and promotion reviews. And Virginia Tech offered a hyper-politicized definition of diversity seemingly calculated precisely to leave those who disagree politically with the university out in the cold:

We, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity Committee, use the term “diversity” to mean the desirability and value of many kinds of individual differences while at the same time acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege.* The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences is determined to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices. In this sense, diversity is to be actively advanced because it fosters excellence in learning, discovery, and engagement.

* These characteristics include, but are not limited to ability, age, body size and condition, class, color, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, geographical and cultural background, health status, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status. [Asterisk in original.]

That’s right: Virginia Tech was telling prospective tenured faculty members that if they were not sufficiently committed to eliminating “socially constructed differences” and inequalities based on characteristics including “body size,” they were not wanted.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, along with several other organizations, protested this political litmus test for professors and exposed the situation to the press. Thankfully, once faced with public scrutiny, Virginia Tech President Charles Steger ordered that the language be changed to make it clear that a commitment to “diversity” would be optional, not required. Thus, a blatant example of a supposedly nonpartisan government agency — a state university — requiring a political litmus test for its employees was averted.

Virginia Tech should have known better. Its leaders need to remember — without being prompted by outside organizations — that they are not paid to be ideologues but to be public servants who have a moral and legal responsibility to the state and to society to not use governmental power for political discrimination. That said, Virginia Tech only attempted to dictate the opinions of its faculty members. It is still more offensive when a public university pressures virtually its entire student body to adopt politicized beliefs approved by the university, and therefore by the government.

Shockingly, the University of Delaware chose to engage in such an effort. The resulting travesty is vividly documented in a new short film from FIRE: Think What We Think … Or Else: Thought Control on the American Campus. Under the rubric of teaching students to value “sustainability,” the University of Delaware’s Office of Residence Life (not even the faculty, mind you) operated what can only be described as a thought-control program in its dormitories, complete with questions like “When did you first discover your sexuality?” and “Would you ever date a person of a different race?” (Sustainability, as you will see from the video, evidently means much more than conservation and recycling.) Students who refused to cooperate with such interrogations or who told the resident advisers conducting the interviews that it was none of their business were given poor evaluations that were duly recorded and reported to the Residence Life office. You can read more about the case, including a huge number of documents detailing the program, at FIRE’s website, including an  award-winning article from the director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, Adam Kissel.

Delaware’s program was such a blatantly Orwellian operation that the entire thing was abandoned  two days after FIRE went public — but it had already been operating for at least a year. And one year of reeducation at an American university is one year too many.

FIRE is committed to putting a stop to such programs wherever they start. If you’re a student or professor and you think your university is engaging in reeducation efforts that contradict your constitutional rights, or if you’ve simply been censored or told that you can’t operate a religious or political group as you please (it happens, and often), contact FIRE to let us know.

Robert Shibley is the vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia, PA.
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