One of the worst places to be, in terms of getting targeted, punished or canceled for what you say, has been on campus at an elite American college over the past six years.
A survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that Stanford University has experienced the most incidents of scholars being targeted by “triggered” complainants, with 18 reported since 2015 on its campus in Palo Alto, California. That’s twice as many as reported at Harvard, UCLA and Georgetown.
All told, the Ivy League accounted for half of the six worst campuses for scholar targeting. The University of Pennsylvania and Yale ranked next on the list, according to FIRE’s tally of more than 400 targeting incidents since 2015.
Other than UCLA, tuition for those highly ranked private colleges costs more than $80,000 per year, according to the schools’ calculations.
“It’s alarming, especially because the most elite schools are role models for lesser-known institutions,” said Komi German, a FIRE research fellow and co-author of the report, “Scholars Under Fire.”
“Elite institutions have larger audiences both within and outside academia, and graduates of elite institutions are overrepresented in both political and business sectors, as well as the cultural sectors of American life,” Ms. German said. “Therefore, we should be deeply concerned that elite schools, our most influential institutions of higher learning, tend not to defend the free speech and academic freedom of their scholars.”
The Washington Times contacted all six universities with the most reports of targeting incidents. The elite schools were asked whether they had a response to FIRE’s findings or any concern that the politically charged atmosphere on campus had a potentially detrimental effect on education there, as FIRE’s report says. None of them responded.
Evidence that a handful of the highest-ranked schools in the U.S. are some of the least tolerant spaces for the First Amendment was troubling, but FIRE’s authors concluded that similar things were happening on thousands of campuses.
The report outlines 426 targeting incidents in the past 5½ years, but the numbers have “risen dramatically” from 24 in 2015 to 113 in 2020. Thus far in 2021, “61 targeting incidents have already occurred,” the report said.
In response, FIRE has announced a Faculty Legal Defense Fund that has already taken on cases in its opening week.
Some broad themes have emerged from the information gathered in FIRE’s database.
The targeting incidents were roughly split between private and public schools. The most likely cause of the targeting was race, and more complaints were filed by liberals (62%) than conservatives (34%).
The most likely scholars targeted were White men, who comprised a higher percentage than the majority share of the overall faculty.
More complaints came from within a school — either from students, administrators or other scholars — than outside groups such as Change.org.
Regardless of the targeted scholar’s politics, the people clamoring for punishment were more zealous about their politics than the scholar.
When complainants seek some degree of punishment, from mandatory training sessions to suspension to termination, they have found the schools largely sympathetic to their complaints, according to FIRE.
Almost 75% of the incidents in FIRE’s database led to sanctions meted out by “spineless bureaucrats,” the report said.
“Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated,” said Sean Stevens, FIRE’s senior research fellow and co-author of the report. “If administrators keep caving in to demands to punish faculty for their expression, the demands will continue to increase.”
FIRE’s authors were dismayed to discover “half of the targeting incidents have occurred because of a scholar’s scientific inquiry (106 incidents; 25%) or teaching practices (107 incidents; 25%),” according to their report.
The majority of targeting took place “in the disciplines that are at the core of a liberal arts education: law, political science, English, history and philosophy,” the report said.
It came as no surprise that most of the incidents happened at schools that had adopted restrictive “speech codes” or failed to adopt the University of Chicago’s “statement” that compels adherence to the First Amendment, FIRE’s report said.
Schools that have adopted the “Chicago Statement” issued in January 2015 are “committed to free and open inquiry in all matters,” and “it guarantees all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”
Among the top-ranked schools with the most scholar targeting, only Georgetown has adopted the “Chicago Statement,” according to a FIRE list of 82 schools that have done so.
Among the Ivy League, only Princeton and Columbia have expressed solidarity with the ringing endorsement of free speech, according to the list.
In some respects, Stanford‘s position atop the targeting list is misleading because multiple cases stemmed from one incident.
In an Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity class last year, three targeting cases emerged after an instructor used a version of the N-word while “reciting lyrics to the 1988 classic by N.W.A., ‘F—- tha Police,’” the report said.
Two other scholars who attempted to mediate also found themselves targeted. FIRE said Stanford stopped short of issuing punishment to any of the three faculty members, although they were “condemned.”
Stanford‘s crush of 2021 incidents, which has accounted for 11 of the 18 total targets, is attributed by some scholars to the leftist intelligentsia’s effort to disassociate the university from its conservative-leaning Hoover Institution.
Prominent conservative scholars such as Victor Davis Hanson, Niall Ferguson and Harvey Mansfield — the last a visitor from the Harvard faculty — crop up in the FIRE database. The Hoover Foundation was subjected to a “faculty resolution” calling for an investigation of its ties to Stanford.
Some Hoover Foundation fellows filed their own complaints, which accounted for all of the “from the right” targeting incidents at Stanford in 2021, according to the report.
“You’re right that the incidents ‘from the right’ at Stanford from earlier this year were a response to the targeting of the Hoover Institution for investigation,” Mr. Stevens told The Washington Times.
“However, our view is that the appropriate response to attempts to sanction, and possibly censor, a scholar is not for that scholar to call for more censorship or compelled speech, but instead to rebut the criticisms and accusations made by those calling for sanctions,” Mr. Stevens said. “We interpreted the response written by the three Hoover fellows as supporting compelled speech when they asked that Stanford faculty refrain from criticizing the Hoover Institution.”
The report details stories of trigger-happy complaints of teacher transgressions. Among the most publicized incidents of the past half decade were those of Gordon Klein, who for decades lectured at UCLA‘s accounting school, and Mike Adams, a conservative professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Adams, who wrote right-wing social media and blog posts, killed himself in 2020 after campaigns by leftist students and outside groups drove him to retirement.
Mr. Klein declined to accommodate a Black student who requested an easy grade after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police last year. UCLA administrators sided with liberal protesters, and Mr. Klein received death threats after he publicly defended himself. UCLA was forced to reinstate his classes after FIRE represented his cause.
FIRE relied mainly on public reports about incidents, although it also consulted various datasets that have tried to track the eruption of cancel culture on campus.
One of those is maintained by the conservative National Association of Scholars. Its president, Peter Wood, said people should not be surprised that students and outside agitators of the country’s best schools proved to be quick with objections to free speech.
“I do think that the higher a school’s academic ranking, the more likely it is to attract the self-entitled intellectual poseurs who launch and lead these efforts to silence and punish anyone who departs from the ‘narrative’ of the moment,” Mr. Wood said.
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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