Is free speech on campus under threat in age of 'empathetic correctness'?

From Title IX investigations of feminist professors, trigger warnings on classic works of literature, and 'bias-free language' guides that include the term American, some critics are concerned cultural sensitivities may have gone too far on campus.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Students chat on campus at Columbia University in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan, on May 6, 2015 in New York, N.Y.

Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis acknowledged she was being a little irreverent when she wrote an article about student-professor relationships.

“Forgive my slightly mocking tone,” she wrote in the article, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe." “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum.”

She was surprised, and a little amused, when she heard that students were lugging mattresses up to the college president’s office in protest of the article.

It became less funny when the professor, who writes about gender identity and sexual politics, was notified that a sexual discrimination complaint under Title IX had been filed against her, leading to a two-month investigation before she was cleared of all charges.

While Professor Kipnis says she does not want to be held up as a test case, many academic observers wrote about her story. Some called it a lesson on the cultural sensitivities that, some critics say, are increasingly turning college campuses into a free-speech minefield. 

Take the “bias-free language guide” developed by students and staff at the University of New Hampshire in 2013. It found the use of the world “American” problematic because it didn’t recognize South America.

The guide was never campus policy, President Mark Huddleston told USA Today Wednesday after the guide went viral.

“I am troubled by many things in the language guide, especially the suggestion that the use of the term ‘American’ is misplaced or offensive,” he said. “The only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses.” 

But “free and unfettered” speech is increasingly coming up against a new generation of students, some of whom have an expectation that they have a right not to read or hear ideas that differ from their worldview or make them uncomfortable.

What began in the 1990s as political correctness – a desire not to offend others – has now morphed into what one academic observer calls “empathetic correctness” – a desire never to be offended. Even celebrities have weighed in on the debate, with comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher saying the environment at college makes it almost impossible to do their routines without someone becoming upset.

While many have pointed to helicopter parenting or the mainstream media as root sources of a politically correct culture on campus, much of the criticism is oversimplified, academics say.

According to professors and higher-education experts, the trend is driven by financial realities in the American higher education system, and exacerbated by a contemporary world in which opinions are catalyzed and publicized by the intellectual echo chamber that can exist online. With a drop in the number of college-age students, as well as decreased funding from states, increased competition among colleges and universities has resulted in an atmosphere where students are treated like consumers and more emphasis may be placed on their satisfaction rather than how much they are learning, critics charge.

Professors can feel disincentivized to bring up controversial issues in class for fear of getting in trouble either with administration or with students that they may offend, critics say.

Liberty University Professor Karen Swallow Prior says she does not personally feel afraid to speak freely, but over the past few years she has observed a shift among students from the desire to not offend other people, into an effort to protect one’s self from being offended.  

Professor Prior coined the term “empathetic correctness” to describe this phenomenon and used the classroom example of students refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.

“The problem is when this kind of culture bleeds into an environment where open-mindedness and being challenged are inherent to the process of learning,” Prior says. 

The shift toward a consumer-catered higher education system means resort amenities like rock walls and lazy rivers on campuses, says Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, but also in the rise of academic environment where student comfort is held up over open debate.

“Now, because you’re interested in catering to the 17-year-old, you’ve set up a system where the administration chooses to disinvest from academics and invest in students’ whims,” says Professor Arum. He traces the roots of the trend back to the 1960s, when the federal government started shifting funding from institutional grants to student grants – meaning that if colleges wanted those dollars, it needed to attract and keep the most students.

The ubiquitous nature of social media also can cause some faculty members to feel that they are under constant public scrutiny, with off-the-cuff comments online having serious ramifications on academic careers.

• Saida Grundy was a recently hired Boston University professor who was forced to apologize after tweets emerged in which she criticized white male college students.

• Steven Salaita had a tenured job offer from the University of Illinois rescinded over tweets about his thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

• In the case at Northwestern, one of the pieces used as evidence in the Title IX investigation came from Kipnis’s Twitter account.

“I think the Internet and social media does have something to do with it. It’s almost like it was communicable or catching,” says Kipnis, who works as a cultural theorist and wrote about the details of the Title IX investigation in another article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “I mean that’s how culture works: Students learn to be more sensitive and more vulnerable because there’s this conversation about sensitivity and vulnerability.” 

Recent media attention surrounding trigger warnings also may be an example. At first trigger warnings, which began on feminist blogs as a way to facilitate open discussion about sexual assault, were used with regard to material that had graphic descriptions of sexual violence. Recently, students and universities have suggested the notices on increasingly mundane curriculum, including literary classics like “The Great Gatsby.”

Administration policies may not explicitly block controversial speech on campus by either faculty or students. Instead, it’s more likely to be threatened implicitly, says Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA and founder of the Volokh Conspiracy blog.

“Many faculty members will get the message that if they want to move forward in their careers then they won’t express those views,” Professor Volokh said.

He gave an example of one case at the University of California (UC) where the system encouraged faculty to stay away from so-called “microaggressions.”

Microaggressions are defined as ‘brief, subtle verbal or nonverbal exchanges that send denigrating messages to the recipient because of his or her group membership.”

But Volokh said the UC policy basically equates microaggressions – which includes criticism of affirmative action – to a form of racism.

For its part, the University of California refutes the characterization that censorship has been institutionalized on its campuses.

“To suggest that the University of California is censoring classroom discussions on our campuses is wrong and irresponsible. No such censorship exists,” it said in a statement. “UC is committed to upholding, encouraging, and preserving academic freedom and the free flow of ideas throughout the University.”

The evidence is not just anecdotal: A 2013 survey of 165,743 college freshman done by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that they “scored themselves lowest on their openness to having their own views challenged.”

This mindset also can affect other students.

Take the case of Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan, who wrote a satirical piece last year in the university's conservative newspaper on the overbearing PC culture that he believed was rampant on his college campus.

The article set off a firestorm that culminated in his termination from the main student newspaper. His apartment was vandalized, with people throwing food at his door and writing vulgar messages.

While he says he doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the newspaper or his critics, Mr. Mahmood said in an interview that he is concerned about the effect what he characterized as a fear-based environment has on free speech on his campus.  

“It’s become like this private club,” Mahmood says. “If you agree with us and speak out, then you’re praised; if you don’t and speak out, then you’re a bigot.”

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