Campus Drones, Student Norms, and the Toxic Collegiate Culture

It has become exhausting to catalog the ways in which higher education has lost the plot. The DEI loyalty oaths. The way conservatives get harassed, threatened, and subjected to double standards. Plenty of professors acknowledge they’d be less likely to hire colleagues who are Republican or evangelical.

All of this has come in for well-deserved criticism. Indeed, red-state legislators have started to take long-overdue steps to address some of these issues.

But there are two enabling factors that tend to get less attention than they deserve (perhaps because they’re less susceptible to legislative solutions). One is the role of deep-set student attitudes, and not just the stylings of ideologues, in stifling speech. The other is how an army of campus administrators has made things worse. These student norms and bureaucrats have contributed mightily to the toxic collegiate culture.

About those student biases: College Pulse and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression recently published their invaluable annual report on the state of campus free speech, documenting the erosion of student respect for the free exchange of ideas and the normalization of ideological bias. Sixty-three percent of students say it is acceptable to shout down speakers on campus. More than a quarter say the same about using violence to stop a campus speech.

Of course, it’s not conservatives driving this illiberalism. Students are systematically more hostile to right-leaning sentiments. When asked if their college should “allow” a speaker who argues that “transgender people have a mental disorder,” 44% of students would bar them from campus. For a speaker who urges banning all abortions, 39% would.

The results were very different for left-leaning speakers. Just 9%, for instance, would bar a speaker from campus who calls for repealing the Second Amendment. Overall, about 4 in 10 students would bar right-leaning speakers from campus. For left-leaning speakers, the figure was more like 1 in 10.

The Constructive Dialogue Institute reported that nearly a quarter of college students say they’ve been involved in “calling out, punishing, or ‘canceling’” someone. Again, this is driven by the Left, with 42% of students who identify as “very liberal” saying they’ve canceled someone. The figure among “very conservative” students? Eight percent. The result? Perhaps not so surprisingly, a remarkable 45% of students say they’re frequently afraid to share their thoughts in the classroom.

Then there are the ranks of campus bureaucrats. A few years ago, my colleague Sam Abrams reported that, among college administrators, liberals outnumber conservatives by 12 to 1! This was twice the (already lopsided) rate among faculty, making administrators “the most left-leaning group on campus.” Abrams aptly observed, “When it comes to collegiate life — living in dorms, participating in extracurricular organizations — the ever growing ranks of administrators have the biggest influence.” These midtier functionaries invite speakers, set campus norms, deliver training, and explain what it means to be “tolerant” or “open-minded.”

As student-run social hubs such as fraternities and sororities become less influential while campuses seek to expand social and emotional supports, more and more of college life is shaped by this petty officialdom. And the associations that speak for these administrators make no bones about their shared agendas. Student affairs administrators think their job is to advance “social justice” and that “anti-bias” response teams are swell. Admissions counselors almost uniformly believe the Supreme Court was wrong to strike down the use of race-based admissions preferences. DEI officials embrace an approach to “anti-racism” that teaches that our institutions help subjugate “people of color” and “overserve white people.”

So, by all means, treat DEI loyalty oaths as the coercive instruments they are. Insist upon more transparency when it comes to hiring and outcomes, and push back on ideological instruction. But that won’t be enough unless we also change campus culture by teaching students to understand and respect free inquiry while defanging bloated, agenda-driven bureaucracies.

How do we do all this? A few places to start:

We should demand that K-12 schools do much more to teach an understanding of basic rights, especially those embodied in the First Amendment. Institute mandatory trainings for new students in what it means to respect free speech on campus, like James Madison University did this fall. Boards of trustees should insist that campus officials pare nonessential or unduly ideological administrative roles. And college leaders should make clear that respect for intellectual diversity must be a big consideration in staff hires.

None of this will miraculously “fix” the corrosive culture that has taken hold in many institutions of higher education. But such measures will help, doubly so if pursued in concert with the more direct legal and statutory efforts that are underway.

Frederick M. Hess is a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. The author of Education Week’s popular blog “Rick Hess Straight Up,” Dr. Hess is also an executive editor of Education Next, and a Forbes senior contributor. He is the founder and chairman of AEI’s Conservative Education Reform Network.

Reprinted with Permission from – By Frederick M. Hess

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