Stomping on students’ consciences

Many of you probably have heard about the shocking case of Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon student at Florida Atlantic University, who along with his classmates, was assigned by his professor to write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper and then step on the paper. When Rotela complained about the assignment, the college charged him with violating the student code of conduct and ordered not to attend class.

The college initially denied that it had taken action against Rotela, but a letter from an Associate Dean showed this claim to be false. Realizing at that point that damage control was required, the college apologized to Rotela and dropped the charges against him.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the invaluable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), draws out some of the lessons of the Rotela incident. Among them is this:

The incident provides an opportunity to examine universities’ strange understanding of the limits of their power over issues of conscience. As bad as it is to tell students what they cannot say, it is far worse to tell students what they must say. Nonetheless, Missouri State University, for example, punished a social work student because she was unwilling to sign a letter saying she supported gay adoption. Meanwhile, at Rhode Island College, a conservative social work student was told he would have to lobby the government for progressive causes in which he did not believe if he wished to graduate.

“Academic freedom” can be a difficult concept to define. Among various theories, the academic freedom of professors is often emphasized, while the academic freedom of institutions is misunderstood, the academic freedom of departments is forgotten, and the academic freedom of students is ignored. While a student’s right to academic freedom may be comparatively humble, it at minimum should include the right to principled dissent and the right not to be required to publicly reject your beliefs. Let’s hope FAU’s very public embarrassment on this issue leads to some desperately needed recognition of its students’ academic freedom.

At Power Line, we have tended to focus on abuses at Dartmouth and other leading colleges. This tendency is natural because three of us attended Dartmouth and two of us have sent children there. Moreover, institutions further down the “chain of being” can easily fly under the radar screen, at least until something as egregious as the Rotela incident is exposed.

But I sense that the crude presentation and enforcement of left-wing orthodoxy is a bigger problem at schools like Florida Atlantic University than at schools like Dartmouth College. At Dartmouth, my daughter rarely witnessed professors openly express raw political opinions in the classroom (admittedly, she tried to avoid professors who had a reputation for such expression).

Moreover, to the extent that professors expressed their views, dissent was an option. For example, my daughter’s harsh critique in an Earth Science course of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” was very well received even though the professor agreed with Gore’s views.

By contrast, I hear reports from further down the chain that raw expression of left-wing political views is quite common in the classroom. According to these reports, dissent is non-existent.

It stands to reason, I think, that the problem of enforced orthodoxy is more pronounced at non-elite institutions. Top professors are more likely to possess intellectual security and intellectual curiousity. Thus, they are unlikely to feel threatened by dissenting students. Some may even relish being challenged.

Similarly, top students are less likely to be intimidated by orthodoxy. Certainly, Dartmouth’s conservative students never have been.

Then too, I sense that certain departments at lesser institutions try to mimic those at more prestigious ones, but in doing so lose much of the nuance and playfulness of their “betters.” I noticed this some years ago when I compared course descriptions of certain of Duke University’s literature courses (as I understand it, Duke’s faculty helped pioneer the “deconstruction” of literary texts) with those of what I would call a Duke-wannabe program.

The wannabe program’s offerings read like a parody of Duke’s. From what I could tell, the professors knew the jokes but didn’t seem to get them.

By definition, the vast majority of the nation’s college students don’t attend elite institutions. This makes the crudeness with which left-wing orthodoxy is presented and enforced at non-elite institutions all the more alarming.

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