Are the leaders of our academic institutions complicit in the current student-led challenge to free speech and free expression on college campuses? Jonathan R. Cole thinks so.  In a recent piece for The Atlantic Cole discusses possible cultural, institutional, and societal explanations for the recent uptick in opposition to free expression on American college campuses.

Cole’s argument moves beyond the psychological hypothesis advanced by some of our members concerning the coddling of the American mind. In particular, Cole discusses 9/11 and its aftermath. He describes today’s college students, primarily born in the mid-1990s, as “children of war and fear” who have been raised in a political climate where freedom of expression and/or privacy have been pitted against personal security:

“During their politically conscious lifetime, they have known only a United States immersed in protracted wars against real and so-called terrorists, a place where fear itself influences their attitudes toward other civil liberties. Students are asked to pit freedom of expression or privacy against personal security. During times when elected officials have exploited the public’s fear of terrorism for political gain, students seem more willing to trade civil liberties for a sense of security.”

Cole further suggests that rapid developments in social media and the increasing prevalence of government surveillance has led his current undergraduate students to the belief that privacy has become obsolete and is a thing of the past. For some of these undergraduates, in particular minority students, these developments are interlaced with rational fears:

“Add to this apprehension the fears that so many students of color experienced before college—a rational fear of the police, of racial stereotypes, of continual exposure to epithets and prejudice—and it is no wonder that they seek safe havens. They may have expected to find this safe haven in college, but instead they find prejudice, stereotyping, slurs, and phobic statements on the campuses as well.”

Fault also lies with America’s academic leaders – namely university professors and administrators – who increasingly treat students, and their families, as customers whom they cannot offend.  According to Cole, the fear of offending is driven by fears over job security and a need to protect personal reputations and the reputation of the university as a whole, not to mention the risk to the uninterrupted inflow of dollars. The end result is that many students do not understand why free expression is an essential value for any higher-learning institution:

“Students want to be protected against slurs, epithets, and different opinions from their own—protected from challenges to their prior beliefs and presuppositions. They fear not being respected because of a status that they occupy. But that is not what college is about. While some educators and policymakers see college primarily as a place where students develop skills for high-demand jobs, the goal of a college education is for students to learn to think independently and skeptically and to learn how to make and defend their point of view. It is not to suppress ideas that they find opprobrious.”

The idea that cultural, institutional, and societal pressures introduced by the events and aftermath of 9/11 has contributed to the current climate on college campuses is intriguing.  It suggests that parents, politicians, and societal institutions (such as elementary schools, high schools, and the media) have all played a role – sometimes with the best of intentions – in producing young people who cannot tolerate diversity of viewpoints.

Read the entire piece in The Atlantic.