College is a Poor Investment

If you’re considering sending your son or daughter to a college, it’s worthwhile to read, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, by Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. I’ve included excerpts below describing campus tyranny and why you’re wasting your money.

The dramatic expansion of the administrative class on campus may be the most important factor in the growth of campus intrusions into free speech and thought. While FIRE has long been concerned about the harmful results of swelling campus bureaucracy, Professor Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University made the case in detail in his stinging 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. Ginsberg exposed the dizzying growth of the administrative class at universities, the usurpation of powers that once belonged strictly to the faculty, the surprising lack of qualifications of many administrators, the unseemly rise in the salaries of administrators (especially university presidents), and how a burgeoning bureaucracy jacks up costs while diluting educational quality. This ever-expanding bureaucracy creates and enforces an environment of censorship on campus….

Students are not paying for an exponential increase in the quality of their education, but rather for a massive increase in campus bureaucracy. This includes an expansion in the number of residence life officials (who are in charge of dormitories), student judicial affairs personnel (who administer campus discipline), and university attorneys. The administrative class is largely responsible for the hyperregulation of students’ lives, the lowering of due process standards for students accused of offenses, the extension of administrative jurisdiction far off campus, the proliferation of speech codes, and outright attempts to impose ideological conformity (like the ones you will see in Chapter 5). Parents and students are paying tens—even hundreds—of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being censored!

….As Alan Charles Kors has pointed out, one of the great ironies of contemporary censorship on campus is that it constitutes a “great generational swindle”: the same baby boomers who fought so hard for free speech on campus under the banner of “Question Authority” turned around and imposed speech codes and free speech zones when it was their turn to be in charge of the academy. This change can be seen in the excesses of campus police, some of which have been caught on video and circulated around the planet. Whether it’s the infamous “Don’t tase me, bro!” incident at the University of Florida in 2007 or the more recent video of campus security officers at UC Davis casually spraying a dozen or more peacefully protesting students in the face with an industrial-sized can of pepper spray, the public is becoming aware that universities are getting increasingly aggressive with students who get out of line….

Universities are afraid of being sued even for frivolous claims of harassment and discrimination by students or employees. Currently, the logic seems to be that a free speech lawsuit is comparatively rare and will not cost much in court, while lawsuits for harassment and discrimination are far more common and costly. Therefore, university attorneys conclude that it is best to have broad speech-restrictive policies that you can point to during litigation to show you were proactive against “offensive speech,” and that protecting speech must be secondary. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus examined universities’ fear of liability and the link between legal fees and out-of-control tuition in their book Higher Education? (2010). They concluded that “[a] big slice of the tuition pie ends up with lawyers and their clients. After hospitals, colleges may be our society’s most sued institutions.” While some legal threats to universities are valid (say, a lawsuit for the denial of free speech), many others contribute to an overly cautious, overly regulated atmosphere that’s hostile to free speech….

Freshmen arriving at Harvard in the fall of 2011 made history: For the first time in Harvard’s multicentury existence, students were asked to sign a pledge to specific ideological values. They were asked to pledge “to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility” and to affirm that “the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.” Who could possibly object to such a warm and fuzzy pledge? Well, for starters, Harvard’s former dean Harry Lewis.

In an eloquent blog post on August 30, 2011, Lewis explained why pressuring students to sign loyalty oaths to seemingly unobjectionable values goes completely against what Harvard has always represented. He argued that “Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of rights to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college.” He also debunked the claim that the pledge was voluntary in any meaningful sense: freshmen were approached by resident advisors with disciplinary powers when they first arrived on campus and were “encouraged” to sign the pledge, and if they did so, their names were added to a list of signatories that was posted on dormitory entryways. Students not signing the agreement were therefore subject to “public shaming.” Lewis went on to add, “Few students, in their first week at Harvard, would have the courage to refuse this invitation. I am not sure I would advise any student to do so.” Still, students and some commentators didn’t see what the fuss was all about, or what made the pledge so objectionable.

The title of my September 7, 2011 Huffington Post article about the pledge effectively sums up the heart of my objection: “Does Harvard Want Bold Thinkers or Good Little Boys and Girls?” To me, nothing better exemplifies the problem of cultivating in students a mindless certainty about serious issues than such an oath. The comparative merits of civility, kindness, industry, etc. versus intellectual attainment is a great topic for debate, but here Harvard basically said, “Oh screw it, it’s much too hard to actually discuss the relative merits of all these competing values. Just sign this damn pledge.” This is intellectual laziness, and it teaches terrible lessons about the way an intellectual community is supposed to work, as it places conformity above deep and meaningful questioning. It’s as if Harvard suddenly came to believe, after hundreds of years of existence, that it could take a shortcut to solving profound questions of ethics and moral philosophy. Trying to sidestep the ethical questions and simply inject a set of qualities through a piece of paper is a glowing path to groupthink. As John Stuart Mill well knew, those in power often invoke civility to punish speech they dislike, but overlook the equally acid-tongued statements that are in agreement with their own assumptions.

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