During my extended book tour between 1998 and 2000 in support of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, I occasionally encountered skepticism from readers who were convinced that the book overstated the problem of individual rights violations on campus. Despite the fact that none of the key figures in the controversies featured in the book once disputed our facts, the skeptics seemed nonetheless convinced that my co-author Alan Charles Kors and I must have exaggerated and distorted in order to validate our argument that free speech, academic freedom, and due process are in increasing danger in higher education. Thankfully, at almost any given public forum, there were students on hand with one or more examples from their own college campuses that corroborated The Shadow University’s thesis. One such moment – which I have never forgotten – unfolded in the studio of 99.1 FM (KNOW), the Minnesota Public Radio affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The host of the radio call-in show I was appearing on played the role of the skeptic. Like much of the staff at this radio station in solidly Democratic Minneapolis the host was clearly liberal in her politics; she had wrongly pegged me as a political conservative because of my libertarian criticisms of campus policies. She apparently felt obliged to discredit me at least a little. Rather than tackle my thesis head-on, however, she insisted that, because she had never before heard any of these criticisms before, and because these university policies I described seemed so outlandish, surely I must have exaggerated and distorted the examples to fit my preconceived ideas about college campuses.
The program hostess expressed particular disbelief over my descriptions of bizarre freshmen orientation exercises that seemed ripped from the pages of Nineteen Eighty Four or A Clockwork Orange. In one such workshop at Wake Forest University, called “Blue Eyes,” white students were abused, ridiculed, made to fail, and taught helpless passivity so that they can identify with "a person of color for a day." The underlying purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate to students that race in America is destiny, and the lighter your skin, the more advantages you enjoy. The sub-text of this approach is that those in racial minority groups require that society bend its rules in their favor in order to redress the disadvantages bred by centuries of racism.
My complaint about this outlandish Wake Forest program (used on many other campuses as well) was not that it adopted this simplistic and rather mechanical view of race relations in America, even though, in my opinion, it did. Nor did I minimize the problems of racism. Rather, I objected that school officials saw fit to insist that students who disagreed with the school’s “official” views on race relations were simply wrong and needed re-training in order to “correct” their “erroneous” views. That, I concluded, is a form of thought-reform that is inimical to any free society, and to a campus of higher education in particular. I felt that racism and other social problems could and should be redressed by free citizens without dictation from thought-reform bureaucrats.
I feared this radio interview was devolving into a charade in which the interviewer kept insisting my facts must have been wrong, while I kept insisting that my facts were right. But then, to my relief, a caller rescued the discussion and turned what I thought would be a terrible interview into one of my all-time favorites.
The caller happened to be an incoming freshman at Hamline University, a medium-sized private school in Minneapolis. She explained (this broadcast having taken place in late September or early October, near the start of first semester) how she had just completed the freshman orientation program at Hamline. “Blue Eyes” reminded her of an exercise she participated in at Hamline – except her example was even more bizarre and intrusive. She described how students were told to divide into three groups: heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals or those who were not sure. Members of each group were then told to explain how their sexual orientation proved to be either an advantage or disadvantage thus far in life. As in all thought reform activities, it was clear what the correct answer was: straight students were expected to explain how their sexual orientation had allowed them to lead a life of privilege, while the others were expected to describe the discrimination they endured.
I’ll never forget the flabbergasted look on the face of this radio host when presented with listener-supplied evidence of an even more egregious violation of the dignity and privacy of the students than the ones presented in The Shadow University – and this was happening right in her backyard. It was these sorts of small victories that encouraged me to co-found the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) (www.thefire.org), a nonprofit organization that advocates free speech, academic freedom, freedom of conscience, religious liberty, and due process on campus. In this Hamline student, and all of the other students who vouched for my thesis during my book tour, I saw a voice of reason and a future ally in the fight for liberty and decency.
Today, these individual campus watchdogs make up FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network. They alert FIRE to censorship cases at their institutions and raise awareness of FIRE’s work among their peers. As a result, FIRE’s national profile has never been larger, and it is becoming increasingly rare for members of the media, like that radio host in Minneapolis, to ignore the rights violations taking place at campuses around the country and in their backyards. It is not a matter of left versus right, or white versus black, or gay versus straight, or male versus female. Rather, the central fact is that each individual is endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these rights are free speech, free thought, freedom of conscience, and a certain modicum of personal privacy so that he or she may live life free of the heavy-hand not only of government, but of campus bureaucrats as well.