This article was previously published on The Stream.
If we have learned anything from recent clashes on our college campuses, it’s that those who do not bow to the current campus orthodoxy should keep quiet. They need to mind their Ps and Qs and keep their head down. Others have already touched on complex issues of free speech, tolerance, the purpose of college, and racism. But the intended lesson of the dustups at Yale, the University of Missouri-Columbia, Claremont McKenna College and Ithaca College are simple really: those who would dare question the educational dogma accepted by the protesting students are to be fired and sent their way. Am I exaggerating? Ask Oscar Robert Lopez and Carol Swain what happens when a professor does not obey the dictates of such students.
The crime these unlucky professors are often charged with is racism. As an African-American I hate racism and I have experienced it. I have worked hard to help bring people of different races together. I have done the difficult work of sitting down and listening to those with whom I disagree. Are the student protestors willing to sit down and really work at communicating with others? If their attitude is similar to the Yale student who said, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain,” then I do not see that communication happening. Ironically, those talking about ending racism will ensure continued racial alienation and tension if they successfully institute what it seems that they want – to fire those who will not agree with them.
And please don’t imagine that being a minority professor will insulate you from the charges of racism. Dr. Lopez and Dr. Swain are persons of color, and it didn’t insulate them. I have done the research, teaching and service my job requires of me. But would that matter if there is a student uprising demanding my compliance with the latest ideological fad? I have good relations with my colleagues but can that protect me if I say the politically incorrect thing? No, this is not a smart op-ed for me to write if I value job security. But what I’m saying needs to be said.
How can we serve our students if we can only reinforce their previous assumptions and ideas? If we are not allowed to challenge them to consider alternative perspectives, then can we truly do our job? I want to hear, and respect, their concerns that lead to their desire for a safe space. But what is safe about having your job threatened if you do not conform to the latest sociopolitical demand? In light of the evidence of academic bias against conservative Christians, are these students really ready to talk about safe space for all or only for those that they like?
The sources of this current strife is multiple. College professors such as Melissa Click have for years fostered the sort of dogmatic activism we see today. College administrators are often afraid to challenge these students and find that the easy way out is to simply give into their demands without requiring those students to grapple with perspectives that differ from their own. Our larger society has become more polarized and in many ways our college students simply reflect that polarization. Christians have stopped entering academia in significant numbers, which leaves this institution in the hands of those eager to punish those who do not capitulate to leftist dogma. This is a problem that has taken years, if not decades to develop. It is foolish to believe that it will be eliminated overnight.
And that is why I have to write this op-ed even though it outs me as a nonleftist professor. We must start down the long road to having a college and university system where different ideas can be debated in an atmosphere of true respect for all individuals. We must start the difficult process of engaging in introspection ourselves as well as teaching our students how to engage in such introspection. We have to carefully listen to our students, and help create the type of environment where they can learn. But while there needs to be an element of safety, it must not come at the expense of keeping those students safe from challenging ideas.
Finally, if we are going to have an inclusive campus then non-leftist academics have to be allowed to play a role in it. They cannot have their jobs threatened because they make comments, or support perspectives, some students do not like. Those who do not want to take the interest of such professors into consideration should no longer claim that they want inclusiveness or diversity. They only want to include those they agree with. In that they resemble the stereotype of the intolerant Christian fundamentalists they so often lampoon.