Off the Cuff: January 2006

It was time, we realized, to give Alan Charles Kors a call. Kors is a Penn history professor and co-founder of the free-speech advocacy group known as FIRE, and I called him for two reasons. One is that our universities and colleges are so bent on a liberal political agenda that more than a dozen state legislatures — including Pennsylvania’s — and Congress are considering some form of an academic bill of rights in an attempt to change one-dimensional college atmospheres. That initiative, naturally, has elicited cries of “witchhunt” and “McCarthyism” among academics, though Dr. Kors has some pointed thoughts about what is really going on here. The other reason we called him was to understand something simpler: why a Penn undergrad recently got in trouble for taking a picture of a couple openly having sex in front of a dorm-room window. Kors, who in November was presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Bush for his scholarship and championing of academic freedom, has some pointed thoughts on that, too. We now have a much firmer grasp on the state of academia in this country: It is a mess, and getting worse.

It’s old news that our universities have become bastions of far-left dogma that have inculcated students with a particular worldview on matters of race, politics, feminism, multiculturalism, and other tried-and-true obsessions of the liberal intelligentsia. Yet campuses have increasingly become, in Kors’s view, “closed-shop private political fiefdoms.” He believes the problem has been building for a generation. When Kors was in college in the ’60s, there was a disproportionate number of left-leaning professors, but classrooms weren’t pulpits; differing points of view were encouraged, there was no political litmus test in hiring, and it was unthinkable to grade down students for political or ideological differences. Unchecked power among the liberal academic elite eventually corrupted higher education, however. “Even well-intentioned professors who are exquisitely aware of abuse of power by others,” Kors observes dryly, “are almost never aware of their own.”

The liberal default mode of thinking has become so powerful on many campuses that it’s now hard for conservative students to even speak up. For example, a student at Oregon State recently told NPR that since most of his professors are liberal, he holds back his right-leaning views in class “out of fear of being alienated, out of fear of … being looked upon as the lone conservative. … I would say some professors would even look at you as stupid just for having conservative beliefs.”

It’s this sort of prejudice that has gotten the attention of state legislatures and Congress. There’s a problem, however, with government legislating the academic playing field; it would be, Kors says, “a prescription for disaster.” He’s right — trying to impose fair-mindedness and openness simply substitutes one sort of litmus test for another. The solution, Kors believes, is for states to cut funding to schools they support if those schools won’t open their doors to divergent points of view, and for private schools to be held accountable, through lawsuits if necessary, for claiming to foster open, fair-minded environments when the reality is anything but.

Which brings us to the already infamous case of Penn threatening to discipline a student after he took a picture of the couple copulating prominently in a dorm window and then posted it on his website; the university didn’t prosecute the couple for indecent exposure, preferring instead to go after the photographer for sexual harassment. Kors poses a crude-sounding, though telling, challenge: Suppose, instead of the couple, it had been a man, alone, in the window of a fraternity on campus, and a woman had photographed him in a solitary act that should be private, then posted it on her website. We all know how Penn would handle this: The male student in the window would be expelled, the fraternity would be thrown off campus, and the woman would be viewed as a put-upon hero. Because these days, on America’s college campuses, irrational liberal dogma is out of control.