A news item a little under the radar regarding Northwestern Communications Professor Carol Kipnis illustrates a very disturbing trend in higher education. Kipnis penned an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education critical of a recent university ban on faculty-student romantic relationships. Admitting that she had engaged in such behavior, she used this policy as a platform to decry recent events on campuses nationwide when it came to academic freedom and student’s being offended. Although I personally find the issue of faculty-student relationships a little creepy, Ms. Kipnis is free to express her opinion in a free and open society, or so one would think.
Unfortunately, there were two paragraphs regarding another professor accused of sexual harassment which she used a springboard to attack politically correct speech. These two paragraphs apparently offended some students feeling that she was minimizing the original complaints and the “victims.” They filed Title IX charges against Kipnis. It is an unfortunate fact that feminists and other special interest student groups have highjacked Title IX which is designed to eliminate sexual discrimination in higher education. In order to avoid liability under Title IX, many universities and colleges have adopted strange and ambiguous “speech codes” where an overheard off-color joke at a party could land someone in legal trouble. In effect, anything anyone says about anything could be construed as harassment under these codes and faculty and students alike could be raked over the coals.
Students protested against the Kipnis article’s two paragraphs which criticized this tendency on campuses. Once the complaints were filed, Northwestern University hired an outside firm to investigate the charges. Eventually they ruled in her favor and no charges were levied against her, but this was hardly a victory for free speech. For several months, she was subjected to a legal limbo over the future of her job for two paragraphs in an article that offended a segment of the campus community.
This incident is but one of many which illustrates that today’s college campuses are less institutes of higher learning and more insulated bubbles of liberal political correctness. Legal definitions are now being stretched to the extremes. Spoken words are sometimes considered “assault.” One student who questioned (in a classroom setting) statistics on the incidence of campus sexual assault nationally was suspended from a school because their comments offended another student in the class. Not only is this a violation of free speech, but many times the affected student is afforded no due process rights. You said it; you’re guilty. Some (many) professors now place “trigger warnings” in the syllabus for their classes warning students that some required reading may contain language or ideas that could be construed as “offensive” to the reader. Usually, they are given a pass on that reading.
A perfect example would be American literature and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Never mind that this was a commentary on race relations at the time (and one that wonderfully illustrated the stupidity of prejudice and celebrated the individuality of people) it contains the “N” word. If the original manuscript is not now scrubbed of the offensive word, students are warned that the word appears in the text and that they may be offended by it. Yet by the same token, high school required reading lists contain the “F” word with no such warning. Something is seriously askew here.
No one on the Left or Right minimizes the incidence of sexual assault on college campuses. But, the problem lies in the definition of “sexual assault.” Today, under the more draconian college speech codes, words can be construed to be “sexual assault.” And in some cases, actual student consensual sexual relations can be harassment at a minimum and rape at a maximum.
Much of this is attributable to an incident(s) at the University of Montana. In response to a series of alleged “rapes,” the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights- the arm of the Department charged with Title IX enforcement- investigated and basically forced upon that college a new speech and behavior code that stretched the definition of harassment and discrimination. That was then used as a template for all schools that fell under Title IX. And Title IX applies to any school that receives federal funding of any kind- grants, scholarships, student financial aid, etc.- essentially every college in America.
The incident at Northwestern illustrates how far the Left has drifted away from a healthy respect for free speech and due process rights and into an era of political correctness where they are changing the language. This is the most disturbing aspect of Leftist ideology. They use free speech and due process to their advantage to enter positions of power, then use that power to quash free speech and due process when deviations from their worldview is expressed no matter how benign the statement. When an arm of the federal government then comes in and endorses, codifies and threatens loss of funding, then the line between political correctness and liberal fascism has been crossed.
As Kipnis noted in a follow-up article (where she rightfully refused to apologize) she noted that today’s politically correct campus environment is doing a disservice to students who will one day have to leave the friendly confines of their insulated campuses and enter the real world where they will likely hear more ugly things. Colleges are doing a terrible job of preparing students for the real world. When feelings may be hurt because you have to read “Huckleberry Finn,” this country is in more trouble than we originally thought.