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Ten Troubling Social Trends at U.S. Colleges
When the terms “troubling social trends” and “U.S. colleges” are used in tandem, the first things that come to mind are young-adult vices like binge drinking, fraternity hazing, and a heaping dose of HPV.
But alas, other worrisome habits have crept into many American colleges, and the consequences could be far more serious than a hangover, a few bruises, or an itching sensation down under. Welcome to higher learning in the era of all-things politically correct.
In a giant, progressive leap either forward or backward, Western Washington University recently debuted Black-only housing. Located about 90 miles south of Seattle, the small liberal arts school has designated the fourth floor of one of its largest dormitories for something called its “Black Affinity Program.”
Per the program’s website, the goal is to “explore and celebrate the diversity of Black and African American people and culture, with historical and contemporary context.” Oddly, the website also states that “Black Affinity Housing residents represent all diverse identities”—even though, by definition, they don’t. It intends to foster “a sense of belonging for all residents by creating a safe environment for open, honest, and sometimes challenging dialogue.” Exactly how “safe environments” invite “challenging dialogue” is up for debate.
Instances of self-segregation are becoming increasingly common at American colleges. The National Association of Scholars recently launched an initiative called “Separate But Equal, Again: Neo-Segregation in American Higher Education.”. Of the 173 universities it surveyed, 42% offer segregated residences, 46% offer segregated orientation programs, and a whopping 72% host segregated graduation ceremonies.
Granted, many colleges have historically been dominated by white students (and, more recently, Asian-Americans), leaving some Black students struggling to connect to their own culture at a pivotal time of self-exploration. Still, many student and education advocacy groups have disparaged the uptick in self-segregation, wondering aloud if it’s something that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have endorsed.
In October 2021, Dorian Abbott, Associate Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, was disinvited by MIT for a guest lecture he’d been scheduled to give. He must have been some whack-job arguing that the Earth was flat or that climate change doesn’t exist, right?
Wrong. The lecture was called “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets,” a dissertation exploring how scientists factor in a planet’s likely climate when considering its potential for hosting organic life. It also details how astronomical observations indicate the possibility of new climatic regimes not found on modern Earth. Again, not exactly fodder for widespread protest.
Still, he must have done something terribly offensive outside the classroom for a science-driven institution like MIT to pull the plug. Maybe he’s a white supremacist? A serial sexual harasser? Rabidly anti-LGBTQ, perhaps?
Nope. Abbott’s horrific offense stemmed from an opinion piece he wrote for the non-partisan magazine Newsweek, in which he dared criticize current diversity, equity, and inclusion higher-education standards. In short, Abbott argues that these standards are anti-meritocracy. He suggests a new framework called “Merit, Fairness, and Equality” where students would be “treated as individuals” and “evaluated through rigorous and unbiased” processes based on qualifications. How unforgivable of him.
Fortunately for both Abbott and sanity, Princeton University subsequently invited him to give his lecture, which was so well-received that it required a cyber-conference expansion after its Zoom quota was reached.
8 Treating Moderates Like Radicals
Conservative speakers being disallowed or disinvited at American colleges is nothing new. Here’s a list dating back two decades, courtesy of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Fortunately, the more overt attempts to suppress speech on campuses have diminished in recent years; in 2019, Commentary Magazine optimistically noted that, concerning free speech, things were “looking up.” And according to FIRE, university disinvitations peaked in 2016 and have slowly declined since.
In their stead, however, has been more insidious forms of gatekeeping—ones standing on the shoulders of decades of anti-conservative bias to cloak further favoritism in the veil of democracy. In January 2021, the National Review published a piece by the president of the right-leaning party of Princeton University’s bipartisan American Whig-Cliosophic Society, the nation’s oldest collegiate literary, political, and debate organization. The centuries-old institution foments the free exchange of ideas—the essence of higher learning.
Guest lecture invitations are decided by the Speakers Council via vote. Per the piece’s author, the left-leaning party had their speakers list rubberstamped with ease. Meanwhile, his party’s speaker list had two rejections deemed too controversial.
Among them—and this is truly nuts—was George Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post columnist. He is among the most respected, reasonable journalists on either side of the political aisle—oh, and he’s also a Princeton ALUMNUS.
When an eloquent moderate conservative alumnus is treated as an ideological threat, there’s a big, big problem.
7 Banning Conservative Student Organizations
Perhaps even more worrisome than the disallowance of conservative guest speakers is the banning of conservative organizations comprised of paying customers: namely, students.
In 2017, the student senate at California’s Santa Clara University voted to reject the formation of a chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative organization whose stated mission is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” So basically, mainstream American conservatism.
The final tally was 10 votes in favor, 16 against. According to student senate chair Neil Datar, “the final decision was a product of a rigorous, fair, and democratic process”—a reminder that undemocratic notions can be enabled by democracy itself. One senator who voted in favor of Turning Point USA, Ahmer Israr, echoed this sentiment: “It is a shame that 16 of my peers saw it fit to trample upon the rights of an intellectual minority group on campus by engaging in a tyranny of the majority.”
During deliberations, Israr and fellow senator David Warne emphasized the importance of intellectual freedom and diversity. Instead, an organization espousing views typical of one of the country’s two mainstream political parties was treated like an existential threat to a liberal-majority student body. One dissenter ascribed this to a “false sense of danger…that anyone who is vaguely conservative is a Nazi or a white supremacist.”
6 Illiberal Liberalism
It isn’t just conservative voices being silenced at American colleges. Similar treatment extends to many left-leaning educators deemed not sufficiently progressive. Such was the case with tenured Portland State University professor Peter Boghossian—who describes himself as a classical liberal who’s never voted for a Republican candidate.
As a philosophy professor, Boghossian exposed his students to a broad range of viewpoints. He regularly invited speakers on various topics—even if he didn’t share their opinions. “I invited those speakers not because I agreed with their worldviews,” he writes, “but primarily because I didn’t. From those messy and difficult conversations, I’ve seen the best of what our students can achieve: questioning beliefs while respecting believers, staying even-tempered in challenging circumstances, and even changing their minds.”
That sounds…well, like a philosophy professor doing his job.
Unfortunately, the persistent pushback he received is as unsurprising as it is unsettling. University officials, he continues, have “transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division. Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
Boghossian’s resignation letter reads like everything wrong with progressive collegiate groupthink. Not coincidentally, it was posted to the Substack page of Bari Weiss, a left-leaning opinion writer who claims she was drummed out of her role at The New York Times because she wasn’t progressive enough.
5 Abdicating Their Primary Purpose: Education
The Boghossian resignation letter (see previous entry) lays out, in eloquent fashion, personal experiences with broader trends on campuses across the U.S. Among these failures is what Borgossian sees as a diminished dedication to exposing students to new or unconventional ideas.
Per Boghossian: “Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions.” Such actions, he points out, not only prevent opposing ideas from entering healthy academic dialogue but also train differently opinioned students to keep mum. “This,” he continues, “has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.”
The overarching theme was clear: conform, or else. Boghossian: “Questions from faculty at diversity trainings that challenged approved narratives were instantly dismissed. Those who asked for evidence to justify new institutional policies were accused of microaggressions. And professors were accused of bigotry for assigning canonical texts written by philosophers who happened to have been European and male.”
Or fired for showing critically-acclaimed films, for that matter.
This environment of virtue signaling, PC thought policing, and engagement hesitation (for fear of being shunned or canceled) sounds strikingly familiar. Specifically, it sounds like social media, only with IRL replacing URLs.
Worse, in not only allowing but encouraging this tepid tabooism, colleges are teaching those paying to be educated to limit their thoughts to rigidly accepted, strictly monitored limits. This groupthink, stay-inside-the-box mentality seems destined to churn out far more sheep than shepherds.
4 Deciding What’s Funny (and What Isn’t)
When I think “great sense of humor,” I think Woke college students. Not.
The pervasiveness of political correctness at American colleges has made them a no-go for an ever-growing list of comedians who have this crazy idea in their heads that stand-up comedy should be, well, funny. And irreverent.
This is not, let’s be clear, limited to conservative comedians. We’re not talking Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour or even the rabidly anti-liberal Dennis Miller. Ultra-liberal Bill Maher has largely steered clear of campuses since 2014 when University of California Berkeley activists opposed his speaking at winter commencement because of past remarks criticizing Muslims during a stand-up act.
We’re not even talking about the most outlandish comedians. Jerry Seinfeld—who doesn’t do political material and rarely even swears—avoids playing colleges due to the hypersensitivity of students. “When you think about Jerry Seinfeld not being willing to do college campuses because of political correctness,” said former Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman, “I think you got a real problem.”
And edgier comics? Forget it. Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Pete Davidson—all sacrifice college gigs for their insistence that comedy presses buttons and pushes boundaries. Looking back, many of the best stand-up acts ever—Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce—likely would have had similar misgivings.
3 Denying Due Process
The relatively newfound right of women subjected to sexual harassment, assault, or rape to have their voices heard is long overdue. Unfortunately, there’s a fine line between empowering women and leaving men completely defenseless—and many colleges cross that line.
Writing for the left-leaning magazine The Atlantic, Emily Yoffe penned a 2017 article discussing the loss of due process for men accused of inappropriate sexual conduct. “At many schools,” she writes, “the rules intended to protect victims of sexual assault mean students have lost their right to due process—and an accusation of wrongdoing can derail a person’s entire college education.”
This phenomenon, Yoffe explains, isn’t just straightforward accusations of “he forced himself on me.” Rather, these potentially life-ruining accusations often result from mutual encounters that ended with one party feeling slightly—and subjectively—uncomfortable.
Yoffe describes an incident where a woman performed oral sex on a man, who then cajoled her into sticking around a few minutes longer with a playful grab and kissing. She was fully clothed the whole time. Per her formal written accusation, it was only later that she “realized I’d been sexually assaulted.”
This led to cascading events that, ultimately, saw the man suspended, banned from campus housing, and suffering stress-related health problems so severe he needed to drop two classes. For Yoffe, the incident showcases how “many remedies that have been pushed on campus are unjust to men, and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the fight against sexual violence.”
2 A Growing Gender Imbalance
The days of women playing catch-up in higher education are over—and then some. In fact, Googling the term “why aren’t men” and glancing at the autocomplete options, the very first one is “going to college.”
For the 2021-22 academic year, nearly 60% of college students are women—a gap that has been gradually widening for decades. This represents millions of fewer men at both two- and four-year colleges. (A half-century ago, those figures were almost exactly the opposite.) The trend seems to be accelerating: Over the past five years, overall U.S. college enrollment has declined by about one million students, with men accounting for more than 70% of this drop-off.
No consensus exists as to why men are now a marked minority at American colleges. Some experts point out that, in elementary and high schools, boys are more likely to be held back, drop out, or have trouble learning to read. Some economists suggest that men are likelier to feel the lure of a job immediately following high school, especially since the types of decent-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees—construction, law enforcement, etc.—skew male.
Regardless of the reason, there will likely be consequences. College graduates earn, on average, 56% more than high school graduates—a difference that amounts to over a million dollars of lifetime earnings. College grads are also far less likely to lose jobs during economic downturns and, socially, are generally happier, healthier, and enjoy more successful marriages.
1 Prompting a “Radical Centrist” Education Backlash
Though this final entry may eventually be seen as a positive trend, the fact that it’s even necessary is troubling. Quite simply, enough moderates on both sides of the ideological spectrum have had enough of this nonsense that they’ve gone ahead and founded their own college.
In early November 2021, news broke that several current and former Harvard University professors are helping establish the University of Austin, a Texas-based liberal arts school created to counter what its founders see as a culture of censorship in higher education.
In addition to politically centrist former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss—whose Substack page published the resignation letter referenced in two entries above—U of A founders include former Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, Kennedy School professor Arthur C. Brooks, Psychology professor Steven A. Pinker, and Brown University economics professor Glenn C. Loury.
In an interview, Pinker said that “too many of the country’s universities are stuck in the same rut, and that rut includes exorbitant tuition, a mushrooming bureaucracy, a bizarre set of admissions criteria, and increasing political homogeneity, including repression of speech and ideas.”
Another co-founder, former St. John’s University president Panayiotis Kanelos, recalled Harvard’s motto—Veritas—before wondering aloud if “in these top schools, and in so many others, can we actually claim that the pursuit of truth—once the central purpose of a university—remains the highest virtue?”