No Free Speech for Christians at Some of America’s Best Universities
By claiming that some groups need to be shielded from challenging ideas, universities create in-grown and hostile worlds, and the victims are often Christians
I’m a sucker for old college campuses. They’re often beautiful. The aged architecture conveys that students are the inheritors of tradition, especially intellectual tradition. Yet they are free, like the Frisbee-chasers on the lawn, to explore this inheritance, to turn it over in their minds, to figure out their place in it, to question it, and — we must say — to be questioned by it.
I suspect that my notions of the college campus as a nurturer of inquiry and respect are past their expiration date. Recently, the College Republicans of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill hosted David Horowitz, the well-known advocate for Israel and opponent of campus leftism. Horowitz’s visit sparked — pause to hold your breath with anticipation here — a vulgar and slanderous Twitter campaign known as #NotSafeUNC.
Christina Hoff Sommers might have felt “not safe” as well when she spoke at Oberlin College. Sommers has been a leading cultural observer, writing in places like The Atlantic and The New York Times. Lately she has been an outspoken critic of the popular framing of “rape culture,” arguing that we need more facts in order to find the right answer to the problem. That nuance was lost in the outcry at Oberlin. Much of the response to Sommers — said to be a hostile presence — was profane, and some of it was downright threatening.
Sadly, this climate of intolerance is spreading. It’s not the world of the aged architecture and beautiful green lawns, but the world of the rioting mob.
I can speak to this firsthand. Last year, my alma mater, Bowdoin College, helped mainstream an Orwellian term: they “derecognized” Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, a small group working in partnership with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. The Bowdoin administration demanded that BCF open leadership up to students of all sexual orientations and gender identities or else be kicked off campus. To their everlasting credit, BCF leaders refused to do violence to their biblically-formed convictions.
Hence, the foreboding shadow of “derecognition” fell over the small college in Maine. I wrote a piece at the time for The American Spectator; some time later, the New York Times ran an A1 story by ace reporter Michael Paulson on the controversy.
The trend at the schools in question points to a common problem: the loss of free speech, and freedom of belief, at public and private colleges. These are not sectarian institutions, mind you. Oberlin, founded by Presbyterians including evangelist Charles Finney, touts on its website “longstanding commitments to access, diversity, & inclusion.”
Bowdoin, once begun by hardy Trinitarian Congregationalists, suggests in its lyrical “Offer of the College” that it will train students “To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work / And the criticism of your own.” Carolina’s website tell us “Whether students come here undecided on a major or with one in mind, they will find that Carolina opens the door to a universe of knowledge.”
Compared to these lofty claims, something is misfiring in American education.
What Can Be Done?
The hour is late, to be sure. The tone at many schools has already been established; the culture of insecurity has grown up like ivy on brick. It remains now to men and women of good faith to speak up. Faculty members who actually like diverse environments and intellectual debate should register protest against the willful blinding of their college’s intellectual vision. The faculties of Princeton and Chicago, two of the best universities in the world, have done just this.
I also encourage fathers and mothers of future collegians to consider carefully where they will bank a small fortune. If students are going to be beaten down by both peers and administrators, schools that will do them no harm should be considered — even if they don’t always have the status of the more famous and repressive schools.
Alumni of such institutions should act in every reputable way to encourage their alma mater to cease and desist from their bullying behavior. They should think about giving to schools that support an open intellectual life and a thriving campus community. Can a Christian support a school that makes life unnecessarily hard for its Christian students?
Free speech is either free or it is not. If a school limits intellectual exchange in the name of free speech, it has lost free speech. More ominously, it has swapped freedom of belief for a mess of trigger warnings. By claiming that some groups need to be shielded from challenging ideas, it creates insularity and hostility. This yields academic adolescence, stimulating a thousand undergraduate temper tantrums, rather than fostering genuine maturity and fair-mindedness.
As a result, when outside speakers dare to raise a minority viewpoint in all of a one-hour lecture, our carefully-trained student corps act as if a war had been launched against them. Why wouldn’t they? They have been trained to think that dissent is nothing less than violence.
They Trained Him, But Now . . .
I love my college. I have a Bowdoin chair in my office and clothe my children in tiny Bowdoin t-shirts. I am a college professor on a beautiful Kentucky campus, and I was drawn to this vocation in part because of the experience I had at that small college in Brunswick, Maine. My campus had the aging buildings and rolling green lawns.
An evangelical, I encountered people at Bowdoin of every conceivable variety: Muslims, Jews, Catholics, from all corners of the world. Even some Yankee fans matriculated, a sure sign of an even-tempered and open-minded admissions committee.
My professors were brilliant and actually liked students. Though many of them disagreed with me, they trained me well, leaving me a more charitable thinker. In one class after another, one conversation after another, my worldview and principles were challenged. Per the College offer, “generous enthusiasms” were cultivated. Friendships were made.
This was the college that formed me. Now it’s a school where a Christian group can’t operate by Christian principles. At Bowdoin, Oberlin, UNC and beyond, I hope, with many friends of good faith, that the great collegiate Animal Farm experiment will soon end. In such a climate, neither tradition nor true freedom — old stone building nor grassy expanse — matter at all.