It's hardly news that conservatives are not especially welcome on college and university campuses. Speech codes are designed to restrict discourse and punish the exercise of fundamental rights. Faculties are disproportionately left-wing in their politics. Administrators are sometimes intimidated by mobs. Conservative students can be marginalized and harassed. Visiting speakers are assailed, shouted down, sometimes physically assaulted.
We don’t mean to exaggerate the problem: Conservatives can and do thrive in the academy, most professors practice tolerance, academic freedom generally prevails. Even the resistance and hostility felt by conservatives on campus has been answered by the growth, in recent decades, of organizations and institutions devoted to their protection. When a student is mistreated, or a visitor is attacked, word gets out. The ideological tone and tenor—the bias, dogma, intolerance, even violence—of the great institutions of higher learning in America has been a problem for conservatives, but not an insurmountable problem.
Still, while we remain optimistic about the life of the mind—the pursuit of knowledge, the free exchange of ideas, scholarly courtesy in the expression of judgment—we cannot pretend that all is well. Just a few minutes’ research yields a long list of disquieting trends and incidents on campus, reflecting a hardening, not softening, of what can only be called a totalitarian impulse on the academic left.
Two recent, rather ominous, examples illustrate the point. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born crusader for women’s rights who has lived under Islamist death threats for the past decade, was asked to be the commencement speaker at Brandeis this month. And Condoleezza Rice, a distinguished scholar of international relations and first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state, was invited to receive an honorary degree at Rutgers. Both accepted their invitations. But after lengthy campaigns of abuse and vilification—not to say threats of disruption and violence—neither will now set foot on either campus. With a calculated insult, Brandeis withdrew its offer to Hirsi Ali; and after lukewarm public support from the Rutgers president, Condoleezza Rice chose to withdraw, explaining that she did not wish to be “a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”
It would be tempting, at this juncture, to wonder at what impulse drives such hostility toward two black women of courage and achievement—such hostility, indeed, as can lean toward the threat of violence. But the basic issue is political: Both are identifiably conservative, and therefore, so far as the left is concerned, persona non grata in the one place where such women should be especially welcome.
Obviously, as we say, this is a problem for conservatives. But as it broadens and proliferates, as this culture of bigotry takes root and wields power, such campus intolerance will become a problem for the left as well—and in the long run, for anyone who cares about liberal education, about the life of the mind, about the future of freedom itself. Colleges and universities, take note: The one institution where every American should be free to speak her mind, to follow where knowledge leads, to argue and debate, without fear and without fear of reprisal, is the one place where that freedom is now most imperiled.