Campus Political Correctness and the Costs of Free Speech

 
 

It is difficult to speak up and defend certain unpopular truths on today’s college campuses. But it is also urgently needed and greatly rewarding.

One woman said that my ideas reeked of Nazism. A young man said that I didn’t understand the concept of moral reasoning. Another man suggested that, since I hadn’t served in the military, I had no right to tell those who had served how to run their lives. Except for my friend and colleague Bob Houston and one other speaker, I faced a steady stream of, at best, disagreement and disbelief, and, at worst, thinly veiled contempt for the hour and 45 minutes during which I led a discussion of Stephen Heaney’s Public Discourse article “A Marriage Tail.” Although Bob and I tried repeatedly to support Heaney’s central argument about an orientation toward procreation as an essential characteristic of marriage, this concept was met with derision and rejection. I have to say that a few times during the discussion I asked myself how I had gotten into this uncomfortable situation.

It all began at the annual Fall Convocation of faculty and staff at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). When President Doug Whitlock announced that he would be instituting a domestic partner benefit in January 2011, most of my colleagues applauded. I, however, believed it was a step that ultimately would provide justification for the state supreme court to overturn traditional marriage in Kentucky. If a same-sex couple, the argument will go, can enjoy most of the benefits of marriage in state-sponsored settings such as EKU, on what grounds can we deny them the full status of marriage?

President Whitlock was happy to talk to me about my concerns but he wasn’t willing to change his mind about the policy. When the campus paper, the Eastern Progress, endorsed the new policy in a glowing editorial, my friends and I thought it was time to act. If traditional heterosexual marriage was really threatened by the domestic partnership policy, someone had to do something. As a junior professor I’d kept a low profile, but I had tenure now. Was I the one who should challenge the policy? After some soul searching I decided to send the following letter to the Progress:

I am concerned about the sponsored dependent (domestic partnership) benefit that will be offered to EKU employees in January for three reasons:

1)      It undermines marriage. The policy endorses the practice of unmarried couples living together and confers marriage-like benefits to them. It says to EKU, to Madison County, and to Kentucky that sexual relationships outside of marriage are not only legitimate but important enough to necessitate university sponsorship.

2)      The policy conflicts with the Kentucky Constitution, which says, “A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.” The “sponsored dependent” envisioned by the policy is “an adult that shares primary residence with the covered EKU employee” who is not a relative and who must sign an “Affidavit of Sponsored Dependent Relationship.” Those qualifications are clearly the creation of a legal status substantially similar to that of marriage. If such is not the case, why can’t the sponsored dependent be a relative or a child?

3)      The policy adds significant financial liabilities to EKU at a time when state budgets are being slashed and offices are being closed. Proponents of this policy point out that sponsored dependents must pay the full price for health insurance, but the policy encompasses far more than insurance. It confers rights to the faculty/staff tuition scholarship (currently worth $3,312 per semester), sick leave, and bereavement leave, in addition to several other benefits. Do we really want to tell our generous friends in the legislature (who have saved higher education from the massive cuts experienced by other parts of the state government) that EKU is so flush with funds that it can create a new and open-ended benefit?

When I saw the letter in print, I felt mostly relief. It felt good to get the socially conservative views that I’d been hiding for years out into the open. The next issue of the Progress, though, gave me pause. Professors, staff members, and students replied to my letter with surprise, shock, and anger. Dozens of professors took out a full page ad to express support for President Whitlock and his new policy. I don’t know if anyone wrote in to support my ideas but certainly nothing of the sort was published in that issue. Although I have some good friends among the faculty who supported what I wrote, I still battled a sense of being exposed and unprotected.

Soon, though, I accepted my new role. I had started a conversation on campus, and I needed to stick with it. The discussion of marriage and sexuality has continued in almost every issue of the campus paper but it also now occurs in campus coffee shops and professors’ offices. I’ve met professors and students who agree with me and I’ve met those who don’t. I’m in the middle of negotiating with the Philosophy Department and proponents of gay marriage about holding a series of public debates on gay marriage and related issues. The discussion mentioned at the beginning of this article came about when an EKU librarian responded to one of my letters in the Progress by asking me to bring the ongoing debate into the weekly discussion series that he runs in the university library. It is safe to say that the definition of marriage has become an issue on campus and that it will continue to be one for some time. Although still uncomfortable with my new role at the forefront of a controversial issue, I’m willing to continue because I believe that traditional marriage is the foundation of a healthy society. What we decide about marriage, even here at EKU, actually matters.

In the midst of all this, while reading George Weigel’s The End and the Beginning, the second volume of his biography of Pope John Paul II, it occurred to me that John Paul might have something valuable to teach me. His predecessors, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, treated the Soviet bloc as a permanent fixture in modern Europe. Their so-called “Ostpolitik” sought to preserve what could be preserved of Catholic life behind the Iron Curtain by avoiding confrontation and cooperating as much as possible with the demands of Communist governments in Eastern Europe. This was a modus non moriendi, a way of not dying, not a way of fomenting Christian growth and expansion. Despite the pleas of many bishops behind the Iron Curtain to adopt a stronger stance and despite the Paul VI’s own anguish about Communist perfidy, the policy lasted through the 1960s and 1970s. Pope John Paul II, of course, ended the policy and began a vigorous spiritual campaign against the Communist domination of his homeland, Poland, and the other eastern European countries. The rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the eventual fall of Soviet communism owe much to the more confrontational approach of John Paul. “How many divisions does the pope have?” Josef Stalin had once asked. The Polish pope demonstrated that he didn’t need armies, that personal example, words of truth, and the creation of a culture of life were more important than guns and tanks. John Paul’s example and my own experiences at EKU have convinced me that it is time to end Ostpolitik on campus.

For at least two generations, Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, and other religious conservatives have sought to “get along” with the prevailing American campus culture of relativism and moral license. We have dedicated ourselves to academic excellence, to fair and balanced teaching, and to keeping a low profile. We have kept quiet in department meetings, in the faculty senate, and on university committees. We have bitten our tongues when colleagues disparaged our religion, our morality, and our most cherished beliefs. We have convinced our colleagues that religious conservatives can be surprisingly thoughtful and urbane.

In the end, what have such actions won for us? Many of us have produced solid scholarship and positive teaching evaluations. We’ve been awarded tenure and even prizes. We have the respect of our colleagues and our administrations. Ostpolitik on campus has allowed religious conservatives to live normal lives, to teach our courses with a degree of independence, and to pursue the research agendas of our choice. Our jobs are secure and our careers give every sign of continuing success.

We have watched, though, as our campuses veered farther and farther off course. Sexual license is now taken for granted. Mentions of abortion, homosexuality, and even bestiality hardly merit a second glance in our campus papers. Many students have never heard a rational conservative argument about any moral issue. Our colleagues now scoff even at the idea of truth, as if it were some quaint notion from the Middle Ages. Discipline after discipline has lost its mooring and drifted into irrelevance or outright idiocy.

Perhaps all this might be justified if students were somehow benefitting from this atmosphere of license and relativism. The opposite is the case. Most students, even at the best universities, have no passion, no love of learning. Focused on careers, at best, or, more often, on nothing at all, they approach texts that have changed the world as if they were being forced to read the dictionary. Faced with the results of painstaking research, they yawn and check their phones. They do less homework than American students have ever done before because professors have relaxed their requirements. The result is that, amazingly enough, students are bored in their modern Sodom.

What is to be done?

Step one is to end Ostpolitik on campus. Holding our tongues might have allowed us to advance professionally but it has contributed to the near death of the American campus. Yes, progressives bear much of the blame for the stultifying sameness of contemporary academia, but we let them do what they wanted. It’s time to speak up. It is time to make a public case for truth, for human dignity, for academic standards, and for the joy of learning. I guarantee that students will not be bored when they see us defending the truth. (I should point out that speaking up is not a synonym for being rude.)

We need to go into this process knowing that the risks are real. We probably will be condemned by our colleagues, our students, and our administrations. I doubt that I’ll ever get used to hearing the kind of words I related at the beginning of this article or to reading that much of the Psychology Department believes that my ideas reflect the kind of obscurantism that one might find in theocratic Iran. Still, this experience of being criticized publicly is not as negative an experience as some might believe because it is balanced by the support one receives from those who were waiting for someone to speak up. In fact, it is through bold public discourse that we can best find our friends and allies.

Much more seriously, we risk our jobs. There’s not much that can be said to minimize this threat, but I can propose that if universities make it a common practice to fire their vocally conservative professors, it will publicize our arguments more than anything we could do on our own.

Step two is ecumenism. There are, of course, very real theological differences between, for instance, Catholics and Evangelicals. But there are large areas of agreement, such as marriage, abortion, the dignity of the human person, and the existence of truth, where we can cooperate. In this time of crisis we can put aside our disagreements to fight for the common good. The principles outlined in the Manhattan Declaration—life, marriage, and religious liberty—offer a strong basis for such ecumenical work.

Third, we need to dialogue with those most opposed to our ideas. Some professors and students will respond to our more visible presence on campus with anger and ridicule, but some will want to understand us. With this latter group we must make every effort to communicate clearly and to forge relationships of trust and respect. Most of our partners in dialogue, of course, will not change their minds. Many, however, will come to see that our views have a certain logic that they can respect. The discussion that I led in the EKU library had its dramatic moments, but I am looking forward to more such events for two reasons: first, it personalized “the other side” and made me see them more clearly as men and women struggling to find the truth; second, as weak as the truth may seem, it is inherently appealing. Being able to speak the truth, especially in an intimate setting, is worth our time and effort.

Fourth and finally, live in hope. Soviet Communism had the KGB, the Red Army, millions of party members, and a system of gulags to enforce its nefarious designs, yet it utterly dissolved during the course of a few years. Do not assume that the regime now dominating our campuses is any more substantial, any more permanent than the Soviet regime. Structures built on faulty foundations may look solid but are inherently unstable. The contemporary university, resting on relativism, multiculturalism, and rationalism, does not have a coherent account of its purpose because its most cherished notions are mutually contradictory. Despite the fears of many conservatives that it is unredeemable, the university is in fact ripe for criticism and reform. Ostpolitik, however, will not get us very far.

Todd Hartch is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Kentucky University.

 

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