By Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley
Universities have long been centers of political correctness. But campus administrations increasingly seem to be indulging students who, when faced with uncomfortable ideas, complain of feeling “harmed” or “unsafe.” This is reaching its breaking point and making it hard for professors to teach.
As part of my oversight work in the Senate, I’m seeking answers from some of the nation’s top universities about incidents that have taken place on their campuses. These incidents give me concern about the state of academic freedom:
• Last spring, Harvard dismissed Ronald Sullivan and his wife, Stephanie Robinson, as faculty deans of the residential college Winthrop House. Their offense? Mr. Sullivan, who is also a defense lawyer, had agreed to join Harvey Weinstein’s legal team. Every criminal defendant in this country, rich or poor, should have access to a lawyer. The American Bar Association states that a lawyer’s client representation is not an endorsement of that client’s activities. But students protested and are suspected of vandalizing areas outside Mr. Sullivan’s home with graffiti stating “Down w Sullivan!” Administrators caved in to the protesters, and the couple were forced out of their administrative roles.
Duke fired an award-winning professor, Evan Charney, after 20 years. The reason? He challenged his students to think beyond their own ideology with a “radical free speech” teaching method. Duke’s administration cited the professor for a “tendency to provoke negative reactions, and perhaps harm” his students. If asking students to consider arguments other than their own and analyze an issue from all angles causes “harm,” I think it’s fair to ask what the point of higher education is.
• A professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Samuel Abrams, published an op-ed piece in the New York Times last October discussing the widespread liberalism among college administrators. Students responded by defacing his office door and demanding he be fired. Media reports indicate school administrators may have taken a blame-the-victim approach, supposedly even accusing the professor of creating a “hostile work environment.”
• In March, two Villanova professors, Colleen Sheehan and James Matthew Wilson, wrote in these pages how new course-evaluation questions, such as rating professors on “diversity and inclusion,” have created a chilling academic environment in which faculty are afraid to teach once-common subjects such as Frederick Douglass. They’re even afraid to teach “Catholic doctrine on marriage and the family” at Villanova—a Catholic school.
Campuses were once places of vigorous debate. Now many appear dominated by groups of angry students with closed minds and the administrators who kowtow to them. On many campuses, “Bias response teams” investigate allegations of supposed discrimination. True cases of discrimination need to be investigated and handled with care. But media reports indicate many such complaints are frivolous and politically motivated.
Students who can think critically for themselves are best equipped to tackle the most difficult challenges we face in our democracy. College professors must be free to teach in order for this to happen.