March 1, 2005


We Need More Speech Codes (Douglas Kern, 03/01/2005, Tech Central Station)

et's stop playing five-card socialist stud and start playing five-card Texas Cultural Hold'em. Let's pull our smelly little institutional orthodoxies out in the open. Hey, big academia: you don't like social conservatives? Don't want to tolerate anti-feminist opinions, or reactionaries who reject rights for gay couples, or Neanderthals who question Darwin? Fine -- but say so directly. And be prepared to accept the consequences from alumni, bloggers, and taxpayers. The same goes for conservative schools, or schools supported with tax money squeezed out of conservatives. Don't want the Ward Churchills of the world to promulgate crypto-Islamicism on your time and your dime? Okay, but have the guts to put that rule in writing.

I hasten to add that I have no problem in principle with smelly little orthodoxies. I hold to quite a few of them myself, and some orthodoxies aren't so smelly. Every thinking person embraces a host of biases and prejudices with which to sort through a confusing, contradictory world. But I accept my prejudices. I don't conceal them. Quite the contrary -- I hold them up for public display and judgment. My "speech codes" are a matter of public record. Can Harvard say the same?

Had Harvard told its faculty from the very start that belief in the equality of the sexes was non-negotiable, reasonable people might have asked some probing questions: Why can't faculty members hold that view? What harm could come from such an opinion? Why does the pro-equality crowd fear even the possibility of open discussion of the subject? Open, fully articulated rules can be discussed, and accepted or rejected on their merits. But what good comes from a "speech code" that hides the preferences of the school under an unconvincing veneer of free speech?

Big academia suffers from the same problem of bias that afflicts the mainstream media. It's fine to be overtly politicized, but when you hide your biases behind a posture of perfect, disinterested neutrality, you insulate your biases from critical scrutiny. Behold the debacle of Memogate. Would CBS have behaved so recklessly but for its irrational certainty that its left-wing biases were nothing more than tough, objective journalism? Having concealed its prejudices for so long that it even fooled itself, CBS was rendered helpless when those same prejudices consumed its professional judgment. Harvard and Colorado know that helplessness well.

Yet I suspect that many schools conceal their left-leaning preferences not because they secretly aspire to promote liberalism, but because they have no idea what they want to promote. For what reason do most colleges and universities exist? To secure good-paying jobs for their students? To perform advanced scientific research? To win college bowl games? Or to suck tuition money out of the pockets of middle-class parents? And why should a college do any of these things? The answer in most cases is "All of the above" and "I dunno." The only master purpose in big academia is self-perpetuation. And institutions propelled by inertia will inevitably reflect the inchoate biases and preferences of the faculty members and administrators who rise to the top of the academic heap. Political correctness in academia isn't a conspiracy. It's the excreta of intellectual bottom-feeders. Small stupid ideas occupy the space where big, inspiring ideas ought to be.

Admittedly, an explosion of detailed speech codes would reduce free speech on college campuses to some degree. But consider another definition of academic freedom: the freedom to explore complex ideas in a like-minded community.

Isn't it likely that they conceal them for fear of alienating prospective students, parents and alumni?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 1, 2005 10:02 AM

It real isn't very good concealment. Most universities and most of the MSM, for that matter, conceal their biases about as well as Artemus Gordon concealed his identity with those cheesy disguises on the Wild, Wild West TV show.

Posted by: Bart at March 1, 2005 10:45 AM

The PC universities and colleges are feeling the effect in their budgets. Alumni are withholding their contributions from institutions of higher learning that boast speech codes, affirmative action, and other anti-democratic measures.

Why do you think tuition keeps jumping higher each year?

Posted by: John J. Coupal at March 1, 2005 10:54 AM

For what reason do most colleges and universities exist?

Fortunately, my alma mater is rather literal-minded and helpfully cared the mission statement on a a wall:


Posted by: Mike Earl at March 1, 2005 2:15 PM

OJ: Yes. They conceal them for the same reason that the Communist Party of America conceled its true activities and objectives.

Posted by: geo at March 1, 2005 7:28 PM

The irony in the harvard situation is that the PC is a cover for the real issues, trying to keep Summers from making the senior faculty actually go out and talk to the unwashed mass of undergraduates, who are no where near as obsequeious as graduate students and the even greater fear that some of them have that they will be sent across the river to Alston to languish far away from Cambridge.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 2, 2005 2:51 AM


Don't remind me. Most senior faculty I knew were cool, but some made you behave like you were in the Ottoman Sultan's court circa 1500. Power of the pursestrings and all that. I'm surprised some don't have court eunuchs.

Posted by: Bart at March 2, 2005 7:29 AM