Challenging the Sensitivity Gestapo
THE TRAJECTORY OF MY CAREER changed in late 2006, although I could never have recognized it at the time. A tenured full professor of journalism at Michigan State University, I was sitting in my office when a student dropped by and identified himself as the chairman of the MSU College Republicans. They needed a faculty advisor.
I had no problem giving the young man an enthusiastic “yes” to his request. And all I had to do was sign a paper.
By the fall of 2007, I was being investigated by the campus Office for Inclusion, charged with harassment and discrimination against students because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, political persuasion, and weight.
In April 2007, the College Republicans and the campus chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom sponsored a speech on illegal immigration by the founder of the Minutemen. Left-wing students disrupted the speech and some of them were arrested by campus police. Some of those protesting students then went to the MSU Office for Inclusion and charged the students who organized the speech—and their faculty advisors—with violating the campus anti-discrimination policy.
Anti-discrimination policies are perfect for helping left-wing students and administrators to silence conservative speech. Such polices assume that “protected classes” are victims and that those accused of harassment or discrimination must demonstrate their innocence. Such policies make speakers responsible for any feelings of harassment or discrimination felt by those who choose to listen.
Sometimes these kinds of campus assaults against free speech and conservative ideas are litigated, usually with courts upholding protected First Amendment speech. Many more times, the Gestapos of political correctness on campus have their own way. University bureaucracies easily intimidate undergraduates accused of “hate speech” and subject them to “diversity training,” the campus equivalent of a re-education camp.
But at MSU, the advisors to the two student groups in question were actual conservatives. I’m both an economic and a social conservative. William Allen, my faculty colleague who was also under investigation, had equally conservative credentials.
A professor in the Department of Political Science, Allen was at that time the advisor to the Young Americans for Freedom. Earlier in his career, he headed the Commission on Civil Rights during the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and then President George Herbert Walker Bush. While at MSU, he helped organize Toward A Fair Michigan, which played the major role in the success of the 2006 Michigan ballot initiative that outlawed affirmative action in government hiring.
The relevance of Dr. Allen’s Civil Rights experience was lost, at first, on the university administration. Following the accusations, we did not break down in tears or go begging on our knees for forgiveness, offering endless apologies. More to the point, we did not stand aside so the Office for Inclusion could do whatever it wanted to the conservative students involved.
It was clear to Allen and me that the anti-discrimination policy could and would be used against those who publicly articulated conservative positions on controversial issues. It was equally clear that the administration’s ability to do so rested on the secrecy of the proceedings and on the faculty’s fear of being dirtied with the taint of “racism.”
So we responded with boldness and openness in every public venue we could.
We publicized the investigation thoroughly through opinion columns and letters to the editor. We proposed and began to work through university governance on an amendment to the anti-discrimination policy to better protect free speech. We brought the movie Indoctrinate U to campus and leafleted students on the campus Library Bridge urging them to attend. We also began meetings with representatives in the state legislature who were becoming interested in the problem.
The defiance and vigor of our response was almost certainly a shock to the Office for Inclusion and to the university administration generally. And worse still for them was our outreach to the state legislature. In fact, the investigation (which lasted nearly six months) ended the day after Allen and I met with one of the leaders of the majority Senate Republicans in Michigan. The investigation report released in March 2008 concluded that no discrimination had taken place at a “level” that called for any action against the student groups or the advisors.
Despite this outcome, what was clear was the vulnerability of students on campus and the passivity of faculty in the face of assaults on fundamental democratic rights. To put a point to this, it was clear to us that American college campuses emulate third-world style oppression more than American democracy.
So we formed Conservative Faculty and Staff in September 2008 to respond to threats against conservative students and to take the initiative to articulate and protect core American values. We wrote a document based on the principles articulated in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: that God is the author of our freedom; that individuals, not groups, have rights; and that the right to life enables all other rights.
More than a dozen faculty and staff met in September to approve these principles and the group’s bylaws. Since then, we have advertised our presence on campus and begun inviting speakers who embrace and articulate conservative viewpoints. But the group’s main focus will be to counter the intellectual damage done in classrooms by the “multiculturalism” on campus that views freedom as simply a Western peculiarity and not an especially valuable one at that.
In essence, the mission of Conservative Faculty and Staff at MSU is to protect and defend freedom. Only on our nation’s campuses can this truthfully be seen as a counter-revolution. Those of us at MSU don’t imagine that we can do it all. But we’ve made a start.
Dr. Fico is a professor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University. This article is reprinted with permission from the Web site Minding the Campus (www.mindingthecampus.com), produced by the Manhattan Institute.