SOCIAL and intellectual trends on campus often point toward issues the larger culture will face later. If so, current trends regarding ethnicity and diversity in colleges ought to be carefully monitored for fairness and tolerance. It is early to say for sure, but the battle against prejudice and intolerance may itself be taking a prejudicial turn. Minorities rightly want to be treated with respect and dignity. Their neglected stories and contributions should be reflected in academic disciplines. In both formal and informal discourse and discussion, racist or sexist attitudes are repugnant and should be challenged.
But in trying to establish standards of responsible behavior, many colleges have adopted policies that, while unobjectionable on the surface, may actually work against a free and open discussion of ideas. Some longtime academics, many of them veteran civil rights advocates, now worry that a coercive orthodoxy of "political correctness" is taking hold on campus.
Student speech and conduct codes are currently a disputed area in this regard. Codes requiring students to live up to a civil standard - to forgo name calling and ethnic slurs - are certainly legitimate. Colleges have a right to recommend or institute them.
An equally legitimate concern, however, is raised by those who do not want such codes to contribute to an overall chilling of speech and thought on campus. The codes can operate as a form of censorship - allowing some on campus to act as "thought police" for others. For a brief time at the University of Connecticut students could be disciplined for "inappropriately directed laughter." Other examples abound.
No one condones ugly speech and epithets. But policies that may institutionalize censorship must be also be challenged.
A new bill by Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a strong conservative, offers one response to this issue. The bill, which has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, no less, would allow students at private schools receiving federal aid to challenge censorship in court. But some cautionary notes are in order:
Would the law make private schools less private? What further unforeseen federal intrusions would such a bill help open up?
Will it reinforce an already disturbing tendency to solve every problem through litigation?
Is a preoccupation with the issue a "frightful distraction" from deeper learning in colleges, as educator David Riesman feels?
But if the bill causes trustees and alumni boards to step where faculty fear to tread - to examine such issues as "political correctness" - that's to the good.