Who’s naughty? Who’s nice? We help Santa scrutinize higher education

This year has been an eventful one for higher education in general and for North Carolina specifically. As Santa checks his list, the Pope Center has a few suggestions as to who’s been naughty and nice this year.

George Leef:

Naughty: Speech-censoring college presidents

During 2014, quite a few college presidents were naughty. They caved in to pressure from students and/or faculty to disinvite a speaker whose presumed message would be upsetting to the tender sensibilities of some on campus. I will single out one in particular: Frederick Lawrence of Brandeis University.

Last spring, Brandeis invited Somali refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak at commencement. She is famous for her work on behalf of abused women around the world. She is, however, also famous for saying harsh things about Islam, the religion in which she was raised but now rejects.

Because she criticizes Islam, students (and many others) who can’t tolerate such criticism began an online petition demanding that the offer for her to speak be rescinded.  The pressure was too much for Lawrence, who did just what the protesters wanted.

Brandeis University was named for Justice Louis Brandeis, a steadfast defender of freedom of speech. It’s ironic that the school should bow before a mob that doesn’t want to allow speech that might offend it.

Nice: One college president who supported free speech

But in a similar instance, Miami University president David Hodge had enough backbone to stand up for free speech when students demanded that nationally-syndicated columnist George Will be disinvited. Will aroused the ire of zealous feminists for a piece that questioned whether there is truly a rape epidemic on our campuses. Hodge responded that a university’s responsibility is “to engage and challenge opinions with evidence, reason, and purpose.”

Harry Painter:

Naughty: Everyone involved in the Rolling Stone hoax

The hoax that fooled Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors into publishing a hole-ridden story about campus rape is an ongoing barrage of naughtiness. Everyone involved should be ashamed, from subject “Jackie” for concocting or exaggerating her story, to Erdely and her editors for negligent reporting, to University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan for punishing fraternities and vowing a policy change even after the story was thoroughly debunked.

And double shame on Rolling Stone for not retracting the story. The magazine has instead posted a “living” apology on its website and is “re-reporting” the story, probably so it can continue to perpetuate the originally intended narrative about the menace of campus rape.

Nice: Oregon State University, the University of Florida, and Plymouth State University

In the United States, supposedly “a nation of laws” and the “land of the free,” only 19 public colleges or universities don’t violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campus rights organization, rates over 400 schools and found that the majority of them clearly and substantially violate students’ freedom of speech. A smaller but still large group consists of “yellow light” schools that have policies that can too easily be interpreted to violate free speech. Only 19 schools have policies that, to FIRE’s knowledge, don’t imperil student speech rights.

Congratulations to the University of Florida, Oregon State University, and Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, for being new additions to FIRE’s valuable list.

Jenna Ashley Robinson:

Naughty: UNC-Chapel Hill’s Football Team

This year hasn’t been good for Tar Heel sports. Although Carolina’s academic misconduct is now in the past, the UNC football team misbehaved in other ways in 2014.

In August, UNC football players made the news by allegedly assaulting a team member at training camp. What began as a hazing incident allegedly turned into a group assault of a freshman walk-on wide team member. Four players were suspended for one game for their participation in the assault. An investigation by the vice chancellor of student affairs’ office is still ongoing.

And in November, UNC football players trashed a locker room. After defeating the Duke Blue Devils at Duke, UNC football players caused thousands of dollars in damage to Duke’s visiting team locker room. No players were disciplined after the incident.

Nice: John Fennebresque and the UNC Board of Governors

At the December meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, chairman John Fennebresque implemented a new transparency measure.

For the first time, members voted by show of hands instead of voice votes. That change means that individual votes will be recorded in the minutes.

Sugarplums to the board and to chairman Fennebresque for this commitment to accuracy, transparency, and accountability.

Jesse Saffron:

Naughty: Student groups pushing for “trigger warnings”

This spring, UC-Berkeley students demanded that professors add “trigger warnings” to course syllabi. The idea is that students who may be predisposed to experiencing emotional reactions to course content that refers to traumatic events such as rape, sexual assault, or kidnapping, should be forewarned and given an opportunity to skip the material.

Unfortunately, the idea has spread to other schools. In February, for example, a Rutgers student wrote an op-ed calling for “trigger warnings” for The Great Gatsby!

Colleges should be marketplaces of ideas. “Trigger warnings” are repugnant to that marketplace. Shielding students from unpleasant ideas only creates maladjusted adults and a watered-down educational experience. 

Nice: Entrepreneurial students

Bitcoin (BTC), a digital currency and anonymous third-party payment system, has gotten a lot of media ink the last couple of years. Some say it’s the much-needed answer to central bank inflation, and others say it’s an incredibly volatile currency that will be extinct in the near future. Whatever the case, college students have shown a keen interest in it.

Earlier this year, tech-savvy students started BTC “clubs” at a number of universities, including the University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State, and Ohio State. One student helped a local business begin accepting the currency. Another started his own BTC exchange. A Penn State student worked on a clean water project funded solely by BTC donations.

It’s easy for college students to find unproductive and unhealthy ways to spend their extracurricular time. Students who instead use their passion and intelligence for something socially beneficial deserve high praise.

Jay Schalin:

Naughty: Former University of Virginia professor Steve Salaita

University of Illinois rescinded its job offer to Steve Salaita once the reprehensible tweets he made concerning the Israeli-Palestine conflict came to light. For example, he wrote “if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”

Salaita’s appeal to academic freedom fell short, as UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise pulled back her nomination of his employment. Even Cary Nelson, the Association of American University Professors stalwart who has long championed an expansive view of academic freedom, found Salaita’s comments unreasonable and uncivil enough to negate academic freedom. (Officially, AAUP backed Salaita by confusing academic freedom with the First Amendment right to free speech.)

Nice: The jury who decided in favor of UNCW professor Mike Adams

Mike Adams, a criminology professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, sued his employer for denying him a promotion because of his off-campus “speech activity.” Adams was hired by UNCW, and back when he was a political liberal, received tenure and teaching awards. Once he became an outspoken conservative, his relationship with the university soured and he was denied a promotion to full professor.

Previously, the Garcetti v. Ceballos court decision that governed public university employees’ speech offered scant protection for faculty members who publicly dissent from their schools’ administrative policies. The Adams decision sets a precedent that offers much stronger academic freedom protection for those do not toe the politically correct line in the Ivory Tower.

Jane S. Shaw

Naughty: Texas legislators

A couple of years ago, the University of Texas Law School was paying professors secret “forgivable” loans (up to $500,000). The discovery by several UT regents led to the firing of the law school dean. One regent probed deeper, and began to suspect that lawmakers were using their clout to get family members into the law school.

The regent, Wallace Hall, began seeking more information, causing a firestorm. Legislators claimed he had demanded hundreds of thousands of pages (he hadn’t) and that he was illegally revealing student information (he wasn’t). He came close to impeachment for doing his job.

Texas legislators should get a lump of coal (or, since it’s Texas, maybe a gallon of gasoline to get the heck out of town).

Nice: Professors and regents who speak out

For Santa’s “nice” list, let’s start with the aforementioned and steadfast Wallace Hall. But there are others.  Tom Cushman, a sociology professor at Wellesley, not only protested Wellesley’s too-close ties with the government of China but also helped bring Xia Yeliang to the United States after he was fired from Peking University after criticizing socialism. And there’sAndrew Perrin, a sociology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, who has been trying since 2009 to get “contextual” grading—one way to curb grade inflation—adopted by the university. Finally, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been speaking truth to power, pointing out that conservatives are unwelcome in his field (and getting blasted for saying so).