Political Correctness's Second Golden Age

The 1980s and 1990s P.C. culture did not deteriorate and fall. It's just recently gone underground. It's back now.

PCU, a 1994 film about a dissident fraternity fighting against their politically correct institution, was a watershed moment. It wasn't because the film was particularly good—it wasn't. It was a watershed moment because it demonstrated that political correctness had officially devolved into a farce.

For the preceding decade, the derogatory nickname "P.C." had alluded to a legitimate and powerful force on campus. However, by the mid-1990s, it had become the punchline of political jokes from both sides. Political correctness' cultural moment was gone, as evidenced by the development of a mainstream film criticizing it.

Punitive college speech regulations were being overturned at the same time. Stanford Law School, for example, had a well-known speech rule that prohibited "speech or other expression...intended to humiliate or stigmatize" an individual on the basis of membership in a protected class that presumably included every living human. It doesn't take a lawyer to see how a prohibition on anything that "insults" may be abused: Under such a wide and ambiguous guideline, even presenting PCU, which makes fun of student activists, feminists, and vegetarians, may get you in trouble. The First Great Age of Political Correctness came to an end in 1995 when the Stanford speech code was overturned in court.

Some felt that this signified that political correctness was a passing trend. Instead, it became stronger over the following two decades, embedding itself in university employment processes and speech policing, until it became known as "wokeness" or the overused term "cancel culture."

Political correctness did not fell out of favor. It disappeared beneath, then reappeared. Today, it is, if anything, stronger than it has ever been. Nonetheless, some notable leftists continue to minimize the issue, even claiming that the rise in tenured academics being fired for off-limits speech is a sign of a healthy university. This refusal to acknowledge a significant problem in academia has emboldened right-wing culture warriors, who have begun their own attacks on free speech and viewpoint diversity in American schools.

We've fully entered the Second Great Age of Political Correctness. If we are to find a way out, we must understand how we got here and admit the true depths of the problem.

The Ignored Years

You could be forgiven for thinking that university attacks on free speech were a thing of the past in the decades after the First Great Age of Political Correctness.

Concerns were ignored by professors and administrators, who claimed that there was no scarcity of perspective variety (and that those who suggested otherwise had sinister, probably racist motivations). Wherever speech regulations were challenged in court, they were soundly rejected. The civil rights struggle had been reduced to a joke. Indeed, it was such a popular punching bag that several pundits dismissed the entire concept as a right-wing ruse. Isn't that the case?Hardly. Professors were less publicly enamored of speech rules in the mid-'90s, which was the fundamental difference. The college speech battles entered their Ignored Years, when campus speech received significantly less attention even as the fundamental problem worsened. The seeds for a deeper transformation just one generation later were sown throughout this time.

Speech codes should have faded away into legal oblivion after the Stanford policy was overturned in court in 1995. Instead, their numbers have skyrocketed. By 2009, 74% of universities had highly restrictive speech rules, 21% had unclear speech laws that may be used to restrict speech, and only eight of the top 346 colleges assessed had no restrictive policy. Many of these initiatives, unlike those of the 1990s, were championed by a growing administrative class rather than by professors.Meanwhile, professorial perspective diversity has declined. According to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, the ratio of self-identified liberal faculty to self-identified conservative faculty was 2-to-1 in 1996 and 5-to-1 in 2011.

More recent data paints a more bleak picture. According to a 2019 survey by the National Association of Scholars on the party registration of academics at each state's two top-ranked public and private colleges, registered Democrats exceed registered Republicans by a 9-to-1 margin. The ratio was around 15-to-1 in the Northeast.

Democrats outnumber Republicans "just" 3-to-1 in the most equally split field, economics. Mathematics, the second most evenly distributed field, has a 6-to-1 ratio. In comparison, the ratios in English and sociology are roughly 27-to-1. It's a startling 42-to-1 in anthropology.Higher education became substantially more costly and bureaucratized during the Ignored Years. The inflation-adjusted cost of public college tuition nearly doubled from 1994–95 to 2018–19. In the meantime, the administrative class grew, with around one administrator for every two faculty members in 1990 and virtually equal numbers of professors and administrators in 2012.

In addition, early study revealed a "12-to-one ratio of leftist to conservative college administrators," according to Sarah Lawrence College's Samuel J. Abrams, who wrote in The New York Times in 2018. "A pretty liberal student body looks to be being taught by a very liberal professoriate—and indoctrinated by an exceptionally liberal collection of administrators," he concludes. Following the publication of the Times piece, Abrams was attacked twice by students in an attempt to get him dismissed for speaking out.

The decade of the 2000s also saw the rise of "bias-related event programs," often known as "bias reaction teams" or "BRTs." These initiatives exist to combat "bias" (formerly known as "prejudice") on campus by allowing anybody in the community to anonymously register concerns with the administration. They're attempts to impose college dogma in ways that are (barely) legal. By 2016, approximately 40% of the colleges examined had BRTs.

Early versions of BRTs involved policing inside jokes and pop culture references. Eventually, reported speech included everything from a "snow penis" at the University of Michigan to a humor magazine at the University of California San Diego that had satirized the idea of safe spaces to an incident at John Carroll University in Ohio, where an "anonymous student reported that [the] African-American Alliance's student protest was making white students feel uncomfortable."

It was also during the 2000s that terms like "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions" became commonplace on college campuses. Meanwhile, the frequency of speaker disinvitations, which occur when speaking invitations are revoked due to protests or other concerns, has steadily increased.

Education schools, in particular, became much more active, with far-reaching consequences for where we are now. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which accredits over 600 graduate education programs, "recommended" that education students exhibit a commitment to social justice in the early 2000s. The requirement was accepted by the Teachers College at Columbia University, as well as others. NCATE deleted the suggestion in 2005, despite protests from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), of which I am president and CEO. However, several colleges did not, including Columbia's Teachers College.Graduates of education schools entrenched in social justice activism dominated not just K-12 teaching but also the growing numbers of campus administrators. According to a survey conducted by Sarah Lawrence's Abrams, 54 percent of college administrators hold degrees from educational institutions.

Two education school graduates aided in the development and popularization of "orientation" programs, which may be regarded as initiatives at thinking reform and have been adopted in various forms across the country. Students were interrogated by student leaders at the University of Delaware in the late 2000s about a variety of personal topics, including their views on gay marriage, their own sexual orientations, when they discovered their sexuality, whether they would consider dating members of other races and ethnicities, and more. The program then attempted to instill "proper" moral ideas in pupils through "treatments," such as required one-on-one meetings with resident advisers.

Requiring "diversity statements" as a condition of faculty hires and promotions is yet another way colleges enforce ideological conformity on campus. These statements effectively require faculty to affirm and provide examples of their commitment to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion—which, of course, are rarely defined. Like NCATE's recommended social justice requirement, they function as political litmus tests—demonstrations of one's commitment to prevailing orthodoxies.

A criteria is used by the University of California, Berkeley, to evaluate prospective faculty members' adherence to specified ideological viewpoints. For example, candidates who subscribe to the notion that one should "ignore the varied backgrounds of their students and 'treat everyone the same,'" are penalized.

During the Ignored Years, university administrators put in place infrastructure to keep P.C. alive, such as switching from speech codes to BRTs as speech codes were overturned in court, encouraging the hiring of even more politically homogeneous professors and administrators, and recasting speech policing as an important part of protecting students' mental health.

An Explosion in Censorship

Jenny Jarvie's "Trigger Happy," a March 2014 New Republic article critical of campus trigger warnings—the practice of alerting students whenever a potentially sensitive topic is about to come up in class conversation if the teacher believes it may "trigger" a trauma response in students or simply upset them in some way—marks the end of the Ignored Years. Jarvie's article foreshadowed a significant increase in coverage of similar topics outside of conservative outlets. Jonathan Chait's essay "Not A Very P.C. Thing to Say" in New York magazine and Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, both released in 2015, were also significant. On campus, people began to pay attention to speech once more.

But it wasn't just a matter of expanding coverage. On campus, something else had changed. During the previous two decades, university censorship initiatives were typically led by administrators. Students, for their part, opposed such measures. However, in late 2013, there was an uptick in student-led censorship. The infrastructure constructed during the Ignored Years has repercussions.

Graduates of the activist education programs trained the generation that descended on campuses in 2013. They were, in some cases, the offspring of students who advocated for (or were at least OK with) speech codes in the 1980s and 1990s.This generation grew up with social media and had a true understanding of how damaging and vicious words can be, particularly when anonymous and online. However, it had not been taught that the right to use derogatory language is essential to the operation of our democracy and the generation of information.

Several high-profile free-speech outbursts occurred on campus in 2015. The fight between sociologist Nicholas Christakis and Yale students, which began over school guidelines concerning unacceptable Halloween costumes, is perhaps the most well-known.

In 2017, there was blatant violence at Berkeley and Middlebury Colleges, with radical students retaliating violently to speakers they disagreed with. (During an appearance by novelist Charles Murray at Middlebury, a professor named Allison Stanger was badly harmed in a scuffle.) Then came 2020, with hundreds of high-profile incidents around the country of attempts to get teachers and students fired.

One might think that the increasing media attention and a slew of high-profile episodes of college speech crackdowns—including violent confrontations captured on video—would have conclusively proven that the situation with university free speech has deteriorated. Not only were there disagreements over whether college speech was truly in crisis, but there were also new arguments asserting that campus censorship and academic freedom were not issues at all.

Stranger Than Fiction

The Chair on Netflix is a clever, well-written, and well-acted program. The story follows an English professor and her department at an exclusive liberal arts institution with falling admissions as they face several problems. One of the series' primary plotlines is a tenured professor being fired after throwing a parody Nazi salute during a modernism lecture. Students have referred to him as a Nazi and have demanded that he quit.

It's not nearly as openly humorous, but it may be considered as this generation's PCU, in that it symbolizes that mocking and resisting the illiberalism that has emerged on campuses in the previous five or six years is OK. It may also be interpreted as a sign that individuals are now willing to talk about the oppressive climate at many institutions.However, this was not the case for all viewers. "A real-world tenured professor like Bill would be exceedingly unlikely to lose his job for producing Nazis in the wrong way," noted New York Times writer Michelle Goldberg. She also said that adults over 40 are ashamed of being "repelled by the sensitivities of the young," which is why they are concerned about the environment on campus.

In fact, according to surveys, Generation Z (those born in 1996 or later) has the most unfavorable attitude of cancel culture of any generation. And Goldberg's claim that The Chair presented an unrealistic example of a danger to free speech on campus is debunked by the fact that something similar happened earlier this year.

Robert Schuyler, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was forced to resign in January after he gave a mimic Nazi salute in response to being hushed at a departmental meeting. Critics branded Schuyler's one-second gesture "heinous conduct," and demanded that the institution penalize him to show its opposition to "all sorts of racism." As though Schuyler's sardonic response to the strict enforcement of faculty meeting regulations could justifiably be taken as a show of sympathy for the National Socialist doctrine, the student publication duly noted that he assured them "he does not condone Nazism."

A case featuring a Nazi salute would be among the least sympathetic instances in a given year for those who support free speech on campus. (In an age when the alleged impact of communication is thought more significant than the meaning, the fact that Schuyler's gesture was mocking scarcely registers.) But these days, it doesn't take a Nazi charge to get you in trouble. Professors have been attacked for referencing James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as for asking students to study the ramifications of the "Columbian exchange" historical shift in commerce and travel patterns, and for speculating on the origins of the COVID-19 epidemic. After students protested about a self-censored reference to two epithets—literally, "N " and "B "—in a law school exam scenario regarding employment discrimination, University of Illinois Chicago law professor Jason Kilborn was placed on leave and subjected to months of inquiry.

The Chair, if anything, made the students calling for the professor's resignation appear more rational than they typically do in real life. The series includes a confrontation with students that is reminiscent of Christakis' interaction with students in 2015, which I observed. Christakis was surrounded by students who yelled at him, sobbed, called him nasty, and warned him he shouldn't sleep at night. What is the reason behind this? In an email, Nicholas' wife, Erika, argued that students should be permitted to choose which Halloween costumes to wear—an argument for student autonomy that was unquestionably less objectionable than a Nazi salute.

At least 200 efforts to have speakers removed from schools have been made since 2015, with 101 of them succeeding. Even while the activities continue, student protestors may physically block the entry to controversial talks, yell, pound drums, or sound the fire alarm to drown out the speakers. A few speakers have been physically attacked, notably conservative podcaster Michael Knowles at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, who was doused with unknown substances. Smashed windows, bleeding onlookers, and fire bombs were among the riots at Berkeley in 2017 during a Milo Yiannopoulos event.

The 'Chilling Effect'

The assertion stated by Liberal Currents editor Adam Gurri that just a small number of academics had been targeted for cancellation was a component of Goldberg's piece. "We would consider every other problem in social life effectively handled if it occurred at this frequency and size," Gurri stated.

FIRE's data was used to compile Gurri's list of targeted professors. It does not appear to be a problem that has been effectively solved in the context.

Terminate found 471 attempts to fire or penalize academics for their constitutionally protected speech from 2015 to mid-October 2021, with nearly three-quarters of them culminating in some sort of consequence. The sentence in 106 of the cases involved the loss of employment. The number of attempted assassinations has increased considerably, from 30 in 2015 to 122 in 2020. There are also 172 tenured academics on the list, with 27 of them being sacked.Tenure was created to provide a near-invincible shield against dismissal for one's speech, opinions, teaching, or research. Even a single tenured professor being dismissed for anything relating to his or her speech or work was a big problem until lately. It's unheard of for twenty-seven tenured academics to be sacked for their political views in just a few years. It undermines the very purpose of tenure, which is to defend academic freedom by ensuring that academics will not lose their jobs as a result of exercising it. This is not a tiny number, contrary to Gurri's assertion.

His reasoning is similar to another fallacious argument made by people who claim that university speech culture is unproblematic. It usually begins by pointing out that there are 6,000 institutions in the United States, then dismisses the hundreds of attempts to fire teachers as insignificant. The problem appears to have diffused as a result of this. It's actually quite concentrated.

Of the top 100 schools according to U.S. News & World Report, 65 have had a professor targeted since 2015. Meanwhile, the top 10 schools had an average of seven incidents each.

In fact, after eliminating schools that appeared in FIRE's Scholars Under Fire database, schools with severely restrictive "red light" speech codes, schools where FIRE intervened on behalf of a student or faculty member, schools with a successful disinvitation campaign, and schools with a Bias Response Team, only two institutions remain: the California Institute of Technology and the Colorado School of Mines. There would be no universities in the top 100 if you also excluded institutions with unclear "yellow light" speech regulations.

However, in certain areas, the situation is exaggerated. Take Harvard, the "world's most prominent university," which teaches a sizable portion of America's governing elite. Keep in mind that, like other prestigious universities, the Harvard faculty is politically homogeneous: just 2.5 percent of the arts and sciences faculty identifies as "conservative," and 0.4 percent as "extremely conservative." Despite this ideological unanimity, 12 public attacks on professors have occurred since 2015.

Harvard revoked the admission of ten prospective students in 2017 due to obscene memes in a Facebook group. In the aftermath of a cheating incident in 2013, the school secretly checked resident deans' email accounts—not to discover the cheaters, but to figure out who had leaked an email about the issue, a flagrant violation of faculty privacy.

By downplaying the scale of such problems, Gurri and others are wishing away the "chilling effect," the well-recognized fact in both law and psychology that when people have to guess as to which opinion, joke, or idea will get them in trouble, they tend to self-censor. Indeed, professors have been telling us they are chilled for years. As far back as 2010, when the Association of American Colleges & Universities asked professors to respond to the statement, "It is safe to have unpopular views on campus," only 16.7 percent strongly agreed.

According to a report published in 2021 by Eric Kaufmann of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, 70 percent of conservative academics in America believe their beliefs are being attacked, and 62 percent of conservative graduate students agree that "my political views wouldn't fit, which could make my life difficult." Meanwhile, one out of every five faculty members openly admits to discriminating against a grant proposal because it was perceived as conservative or "right-leaning," and slightly more than one out of every ten faculty members admit to discriminating against conservatives in both paper submissions and promotions.

Perhaps the saddest story of a targeted tenured professor is that of University of North Carolina Wilmington criminology professor Mike Adams, whose struggles at the school spanned nearly 20 years. After Adams was denied tenure because of his conservative writing, he filed a successful lawsuit, which not only won him tenure but also resulted in an important 4th Circuit appeals court decision protecting academic freedom in five states. Nonetheless, last summer, Adams was pushed into early retirement after he tweeted a sarcastic comparison of COVID-19 restrictions to slavery. In the weeks that followed, he killed himself.

Race to the Gutter

The majority of the 471 occurrences described above have come from the targeted scholar's left. However, 164 of them came from the scholar's right hand. In reality, many conservatives' efforts to turn the tide on campus have morphed into tactics that are disturbingly similar to the speech laws they fought for decades.

In one example, conservative author Todd Starnes attacked academics attempting to ascertain whether liberals were getting more comfortable with political violence, claiming that conducting a poll to learn about student sentiments was the same as advocating violence. In another case, the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party demanded that professor Larry Sabato be investigated by the University of Virginia for tweets critical of former President Donald Trump.

Across the country, conservatives trying to reduce the influence of campus-style identity politics have passed laws banning what they dub "critical race theory" (CRT), a catchall term for a constellation of ideas that encompass a certain perspective on race and its intersections with society. For most of its history, critical race theory was a niche area of study within the academy. But since the George Floyd protests of 2020, it has gone mainstream with the political left and become a villain to the political right.

When it comes to higher education, the regulations designed by Republican politicians to combat CRT are nearly invariably illegal. Furthermore, they will very certainly backfire. Providing authorization for university administrators to fire academics who teach or subscribe to a specific ideology will almost always be utilized to silence opponents. Conservatives who express their views honestly are, by definition, dissidents on today's universities.

What's remarkable about this debate, as The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has pointed out, is that the right and the left have swapped places. Two of CRT's leading thinkers, Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda, were two of the strongest proponents of hate speech laws and campus speech codes in the '80s and '90s. And both have contributed to books with titles such as Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. By relying on the idea that ideas are dangerous, the anti-CRT laws now being promoted by activists on the right are direct descendents of the speech policies long favored by Matsuda and Delgado.

In public K-12 and higher education, Pennsylvania H.B. 1532 prohibits requiring "a student to read, view, or listen to a book, article, video presentation, digital presentation, or other learning material that espouses, advocates, or promotes a racist or sexist concept," as well as hosting or providing a venue for a speaker who "espouses, advocates, or promotes any racist or sexist concept." Laws in Arkansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma ban courses that teach that "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex"; bills in eight more states would impose the same language; and a federal bill referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform proposes restraining Washington, D.C., schools in the same way.

As with Matsuda and Delgado's work, the underlying notion is that some discomforting speech—especially speech that causes discomfort about race or gender—is harmful and should be prohibited.

Defenders of anti-CRT laws usually concede that the legislation's language is overbroad and poorly crafted. Almost invariably, they then insist the laws' vagueness should be ignored because of the scale of the problem and because those crafting the laws are on the side of the angels. I have seen this exact same argument made for decades to defend speech codes aimed at addressing racism and sexism on campus: In the face of such a terrible problem, the specifics of the law don't matter; only the intentions do.

As anti-CRT legislation grew more common, many on the left realized how broad and ambiguous speech rules might be used to penalize ideology and instructors they dislike. Meanwhile, many on the right have suddenly embraced the same kinds of rules they've been fighting for decades, believing that such codes will be the weapon they've been looking for to turn the ideological tide on campus.

True believers on all sides of the political aisle tend to believe that some weapons are good when used by the right people and dangerous when used by the wrong ones. That's a problem that has to be addressed, or else college culture will devolve into a rat race to the gutter.

How To Save Higher Ed

American higher education has grown excessively costly, illiberal, and conformist during the Second Great Age of Political Correctness. Shifts in employment, student development, and politically charged speech rules formed during the Ignored Years, when too few people were paying attention, have ushered in a moment of severe upheaval. Campuses in the United States should be havens for free speech and academic freedom. Rather, both are on the decline.

We can't afford to abandon higher education. The following are five things that college and university presidents can and should do:
  1. Immediately dump all speech codes.
  2. Adopt a statement specifically identifying free speech as essential to the core purpose of a university and committing the university to free speech values.
  3. Defend the free speech rights of their students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early.
  4. Teach free speech, the philosophy of free inquiry, and academic freedom from Day One.
  5. Collect data and open their campuses to research on the climate for debate, discussion, and dissent.
Donors to colleges should refuse to do so unless these adjustments are made.

But reforming our present institutions isn't enough. Alternatives to traditional higher education are required.

The University of Austin declared its desire to establish a new academic institution based on the values of radically open inquiry, civic dialogue, and engagement with different viewpoints in early November 2021. The university expects to establish masters degrees in 2022 and 2023, as well as an undergraduate program in 2024, according to Pano Kanelos, the next president of the University of Austin and a former president of St. John's College.

Meanwhile, Khan Academy is a free online platform that allows anybody to watch high-quality instructional videos on a range of topics and obtain a score based on their ability. Minerva University is a bold hybrid approach that combines on-campus learning in San Francisco and numerous other locations with online learning for students all over the world. It promises to be more exclusive than the most prestigious institutions, focusing on imparting "critical knowledge" to top-tier students. It's not difficult to picture a world in which companies regard a Khan Academy mastery level or a Minerva degree more than a degree from a mediocre regular university.

The bottom line is that professors' and students' viewpoints should be fiercely safeguarded, and university administrators should reject the notion that schools and universities exist to impose orthodoxies on anybody. Too many academic institutions have been used to presenting certain worldviews to prospective students during the last decade.

At most modern campuses, radical open-mindedness would be completely out of place. It will take significant cultural and political shifts to get there.

Self-awareness is the first step. The First Great Age of Political Correctness and the P.C. Wars of the 1980s and 1990s taught us that it was a great error to believe that just because a film like PCU mocked university culture, the problem had already been solved. As a result, the situation was allowed to deteriorate.

We're not going to make the same mistake twice. 30 or even 40 years ago was the best time for serious transformation in higher education. Now is the next best time.

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