Protecting the Clash of Ideas in Higher Education

My first post on the New York Times Magazine's special issue, "Collegeland," explained how the rise of corporate power has shifted the balance in higher education between students getting a good return on their college investments and their opportunities for "building your soul as much as your skills." It drew on Kwame Anthony Appiah's account of competing visions about higher education today -- Utility U. and Utopia U. Equal attention should be paid, however, to the way that corporate values have influenced free speech and civil rights conflicts on college campuses.

The first post praised "Collegeland," and the way it began with the foundation laid by Appiah and concludes with Nikole Hannah-Jones's review of the way inequality has worsened for African-Americans.

That was mostly true. For instance, Appiah starts us off with the reminder that Utility U. has dramatically reduced the proportion of faculty with tenure. Tenure provides the "intellectual freedom that has helped make our universities the research powerhouses of the world."

But, the magazine actually began with the same type of unfettered debate in the "Letters to the Editor." The issue began with a rousing discussion of the magazine's previous story on Serena Williams. In other worlds, the Times represents the clash of ideas that is essential for journalism, higher education and democracy, but that has not been properly valued in the quest for Utility U.

The clash of correspondents' ideas was followed by Appiah's account of free speech controversies in Utopia U., warts and all. The "aim is to create a safe space, to check your privilege and suspend the prejudices of the larger world, to promote human development and advance moral progress." Utopia U. stresses civility and it needs to create safe spaces. Appiah explains that when students stridently complain about "microaggressions -- possibly unintentional slights that stem from racial, ethnic or sexual difference ... It's easy to roll your eyes at 'social justice warriors,' but there's a perfectly good idea here: People don't think well when they feel personally insulted or aggrieved."

Appiah worries, however, "As college grows more expensive, plenty of people want to know whether they're getting a good return on their investment." If the concern over investment value dominates, the thrashing out of values will be subordinated.

"Collegeland" also tackles old-fashioned academic battles that precede today's Utility U. dynamics. Other articles show how sheltered college students and faculty can exercise their free speech and due process rights in a way that opens them to ridicule. Despite the sound and fury, the Utopian U. values still come out looking good.

Emily Bazelon's "The Return of the Sex Wars" updates the decades-long dispute which was the prologue of today's conflicts over campus sexual assaults. The debate between Catherine MacKinnon and Janet Halley over the burden of proof in sexual misconduct is just as intense as similar 1970s battles. But, Bazelon closes with "a rare and productive moment." The Harvard Law School broke with the university and adopted policies that protect the due process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct. The result is "two opposing views of feminism coming together" as both MacKinnon and Halley agree with the law school.

Shifting back to Utility U., a corollary angle is offered by Nikil Saval, who tells the story of the University of Cincinnati and its hope that "buildings by starchitects will turn into a desirable, glamorous place to spend four years living and studying." As the university provides "sparkling new buildings" to "encourage sparkling new neighborhoods," its focus could shift to craft-beer emporiums and yoga studios. Consequently, "the university and its students now visibly set themselves apart from surrounding communities."

Saval describes the economic costs of adopting the corporate model with its fancy digs. The university's debt has grown by 20% to $1.1 billion. Perhaps more important, "the spending is predicated on the idea that new buildings can help turn provincial universities into outré, worldly ''academical villages.'' Above all, it entails the risk "that the university will turn into a luxury brand, its image unmoored from its educational mission."

Perhaps the most intriguing analysis is that of Frederik deBoer, who explores the "real source of campus restrictions on free expression: not coddled students, but corporatism." He says:

In the business world, corporatism results in the well-being of workers being sacrificed for the good of the shareholders. In the university, the self-determination and freedom of the individuals within the schools are rendered subservient to the alumni, the Boards, the regents, and the institutions themselves. It's the logic of collectivism without the outcome of greater equality and justice.

Frankly, I do not know enough about the free speech issues that deBoer raises to be able to voice an opinion on them. Moreover, his discussion of the way that corporatism affects higher education debates over the best ways to ensure safe spaces for learning is beyond my expertise. But, I know his essay is intriguing, so I will summarize it in the hopes that more knowledgeable persons will advance the discussion.

DeBoer criticizes the Columbia University students who called for "trigger warnings" on Ovid's ''Metamorphoses'' due to its depiction of rape and assault. He then adds, "Critics [of the students] saw sensitivity taken to the point of inanity; defenders saw students righteously invested in the content of the courses for which they are paying." The controversy exemplified the "rigid dichotomies and teams mentality" that "seems to reflect all of our worst political debates and has little to offer anyone who isn't already a dedicated partisan."

DeBoer denies that today's college students are oversensitive as he also worries that their attitude is a real threat to intellectual and political freedom on campus. On the other hand, he believes that critics of college activism "are strangely quiet about the structural racism and sexism, and other forms of inequality, that shape life on the average college campus."

DeBoer gets interesting when he links these debates not to Utopia U. but to Utility U. He counters:

Rather than painting student activists as censors -- trying to dictate who has the right to say what and when -- we should instead see them as trapped in a corporate architecture of managing offense. Have you ever been to corporate sexual harassment training? If you have, you may have been struck by how little such events have to do with preventing sexual harassment as a matter of moral necessity and how much they have to do with protecting whatever institution is mandating it.

Moreover, deBoer argues:

If students have adopted a litigious approach to regulating campus life, they are only working within the culture that colleges have built for them. When your environment so deeply resembles a Fortune 500 company, it makes sense to take every complaint straight to H.R. I don't excuse students who so zealously pursue their vision of campus life that they file Title IX complaints against people whose opinions they don't like. But I recognize their behavior as a rational response within a bureaucracy.

"As a result," deBoer explains, "our campuses are becoming simultaneously too safe and too dangerous." He fears the "that the educational function of the university will become sanitized and smoothed over."

Echoing Saval's critique of Cincinnati, deBoer worries that "a new generation of students has become acclimated to the experience of college as luxury resort hotel, one they will pay for in student loans for the rest of their lives."

DeBoer wants "these bright, passionate students to remember that the best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them." He hopes the contemporary American university can preserve "something wild" about the clash of ideas. To do so, students will have to lead the way, "not by making appeals to institutions that will never truly serve their needs but by creating a new, human -- as opposed to corporate -- campus politics. Until then, we will have to wander, looking for those remaining places that are still untamed, still a little wild."

And, that is why I feel obligated to summarize deBoer's analysis. Whether or not it precisely nails the nature of campus controversies, his discussion of corporatism clearly addresses threats that I see in the arenas that I know. In today's utilitarianism, too many people are flirting with a disgusting bargain. We're too willing to sacrifice the clash of ideas. If universities and tenure can't remain our bulwarks against trading fundamental democratic principles for short term success in advancing our agendas, what institutions will? We might as well sacrifice the journalistic ethos and the First Amendment that ensures rousing debates such as those prompted by the New York Times Magazine.