Trigger warnings, safe spaces, micro-aggressions—in 2015, pundits, politicians, and other serious people had a lot of fun bemoaning academia as a liberal la-la land where hands are held and minds are coddled. I’m rather old-school when it comes to free expression. I didn’t go for author and Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis’s notorious essay cheering professor-student affairs, but surely it was overkill for grad students to bring charges against her under Title IX for having a “chilling effect” on student victims’ willingness to come forward. Wouldn’t writing a letter to the editor have sufficed? As for dropping Ovid’s Metamorphoses from the Literature Humanities core class at Columbia after students demanded trigger warnings about its accounts of rape: Wasn’t it bad enough that Ovid was shipped off to Romania? Must his beautiful poems follow him into exile?
Attacks on “political correctness” champion educational values: the importance of grappling with challenging ideas and texts, mixing it up with different kinds of people, expanding your worldview, facing uncomfortable facts. How will students grow into strong, independent adults in a tough and complex world if they’ve spent four years lying on a mental fainting couch? Good question. There’s a whole swath of academia, though, that gets left out of the discussion, despite the fact that its restrictions on speech and behavior, on what is taught in the classroom or argued in a lecture series, would make Yale and Northwestern and the rest look like New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I’m referring, of course, to evangelical and Catholic colleges. Some of these have no compunction about limiting freedoms that other colleges consider just a part of normal life. Many have strictures on dress (“no more than two piercings in an earlobe are allowed” for women at Pensacola Christian College), on dating and social life, even on how faculty members conduct themselves in their own homes. Lisa Day, who taught English at a small Christian college in Appalachia, told me in an e-mail: “In the year before I arrived, the then-president required regular, often unannounced inspection of faculty residences, and any alcohol was confiscated—including vanilla extract.” Students have been expelled for being LGBT; professors have been fired or forced to resign for coming out as transgender, for getting pregnant outside marriage, or for getting divorced. According to a report by the Human Rights Campaign, there was a sharp uptick last year in the number of schools that requested and received exemptions to Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination. From 2013 to 2015, 35 schools obtained waivers from the US Department of Education that would allow them to discriminate against students and faculty who are LGBT, female, or pregnant.
Religious colleges also have plenty of restrictions on intellectual inquiry and debate, as well as on political associations. Student clubs for nonbelievers can be restricted: the University of Dayton, Notre Dame, and Baylor, all religious schools, refused requests to recognize atheist or humanist student organizations. In 2009, Liberty University even banned the student Democratic club. (University president Jerry Falwell Jr. recently made headlines for calling on students to “end those Muslims” by carrying concealed weapons.) Conservatives stood up for free speech at Yale in 2015 when students protested a lecture invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, from the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Program speaker series. I agreed with conservatives on this one—but where are they when the shoe is on the other foot? Catholic colleges, for example, will not invite supporters of abortion rights: The Catholic University of America even banned the actor Stanley Tucci from speaking on Italian cinema because of his support for Planned Parenthood.