THE subtle and not-so-subtle prejudice women and minorities deal with at American colleges is a continuing story. Cultural ignorance and just plain stupidity exist in higher learning - as in society at large. But colleges, by their very nature, must confront and educate against prejudice. That can't be overemphasized. Colleges must buck the tides of insensitivity. Most schools now strive mightily to police insensitivity. College faculty usually fall over each other to denounce racism and sexism. Whole schools have met to discuss a single piece of racist graffiti. Workshops on racial awareness abound. At Duke, Stanford, the University of Michigan, Harvard - and other colleges - tougher policies on discriminatory behavior are in place, or are pending.
Yet the effort to battle prejudice is also causing legitimate concern among students and faculty who feel that free speech and, more important on campus - academic freedom - may be at risk.
They are concerned about the development of a dynamic which, in its zeal to deal with racism and sexism, may itself be harmful, unjust, and even intolerant.
The problem is not whether but how to educate against prejudice or stop racial slurs. Some colleges have gone to ludicrous lengths. A Tufts student punished last year for selling T-shirts demeaning to women had his penalty annulled when it was decided his First Amendment rights were violated. Instead, Tufts created three ``zones'' on campus in which certain forms of speech were not allowed. Two weeks ago, protesting students marked the areas with tape and posted signs warning that one was entering an area (classrooms, dining room, dormitories) of fewer rights.
Top colleges have sanctioned questionable racial attitudes and ideologies. The line between education and racial politics becomes blurred when, as in a recent Harvard workshop, a dean stated that colleges ``might be the slickest form of genocide going.'' Another Harvard dean told students that ``Overreacting and being paranoid is the only way we can deal with this system.''
Some Harvard students had already been taking his advice. An eminent labor historian the previous fall was defamed for weeks in the school newspaper on allegations made by two students that he taught a racist perspective. The ``facts'' were disproved. But the career of a more junior member of a faculty could have been destroyed. This sort of event is repeated in schools across the country and it stifles free inquiry and debate. It becomes Orwellian.
Do you feel it questionable to promote homosexuality as a virtue? Don't ask aloud at the University of Michigan. According to Michigan's new policy on discrimination, you could be expelled.
Prejudice needs to be fought. But rights also extend to the majority, something often forgotten amid campus pieties today. To restrict speech for the majority but not the minority creates a double standard, and invites backlash.
We don't condone slurs. But battling prejudice in a way that can lead to a more fundamental loss of rights is not the answer.