This story was submitted by Kyle Butts, PhD student at CU Boulder.
There is a little trick in grassroots conservatism, a hidden secret, that a clever writer will pick up once every few years, update the stories to modernize and publish to massive fanfare. It is the one idea guaranteed to be reviewed with fanfare in the media and build the author’s audience.
All you have to do is write that campuses are failing to be beacons of free speech and have been brainwashed by liberal tenured professors. Just like that and you’ll be number one on the NYT Bestsellers List.
Don’t believe me? Let me list a few.
William Buckley in 1959 published his first book, God and Man at Yale, criticizing college campuses, launching his career as the beloved conservative columnist. In 1987, Alan Bloom sold almost half a million copies of his book, the Closing of the American Mind, which criticized the shift to “relativism” over “objectivism” as a closing off thought.
Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative author of The Big Lie which claimed Democrats are hidden Nazis ideologues, got his start in 1991 when he published Illiberal Education wherein, you guessed it, he lamented college liberals. Ben Shapiro began his career with Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth published in 2004. This year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote The Coddling of the American Mind, currently sitting in the top 10 of the bestseller list, to document a generation “unable or disinclined to engage with ideas”.
Decade after decade has come with apocalyptic claims of the destruction of liberal democracy at the hands of universities. And each generation, taught by the university system, has proven the prognosticator wrong. Then, like clockwork, the next generation rings the alarm about the next generation’s claimed irrationality.
While the last few generations of conservatives have received one or two “groundbreaking expositions” of the liberal brainwashing of campuses, modern conservatism is obsessed with this.
Bari Weiss, an opinion writer for the New York Times, this year wrote a now infamous opinion piece about the “intellectual dark web” of the “iconoclastic thinkers”, with members Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Sam Harris, and Dave Rubin. The common thread is that they all have been silenced by “liberal universities” and the “university-educated elite.” Their main supporting claim is that police had to shut down events in the past because of security risks, even though the majority of events are hosted by universities.
Many times when members of the “intellectual dark web” are given a chance to discuss all the ideas ruminating on the dark web, they spend all their time on liberal bias on campus and, well, not much else. Most people will voice their disagreements respectfully during the Q&A period of the talk. Quite a few come with sources and data to back up their argument. Where they learned how to do this is unknown, since universities are said to be indoctrinating students and destroying the ability to rationally think.
These complaints lurk in the background of the CU Regent’s recent affirmation of their commitment to free speech.
The announcement uses lofty language on the importance of diversity of ideas in the public sphere and the importance of preserving first amendment protections. In their press release and accompanying video, CU reiterates the values that everyone—left and right—share, but do not specifically reference the conservative complaints that they are clearly responding to in their effort.
When talking about their success in promoting free expression, they brag about hosting far-right thinkers and no one else.
“CU has done pretty well in terms of hosting controversial speakers,” Ken McConnellogue, vice president for communication at CU, said in an interview with Westword. “We hosted Milo Yiannapoulos, Charles Murray and Ann Coulter, largely without incident. We’ve been working pretty hard over the past few years to work on free speech.”
Ann Coulter frequently calls universities “a four-year vacation” where students “learn absolutely nothing.” Charles Murray complains of students “ready to be triggered” by rational claims like his famous claim that black people are genetically predisposed to lower IQs. Also, Milo Yiannapoulos calls out the problem of “political correctness” when people boo him for saying things like “You’re wearing a hijab in the United States of America, what is wrong with you?” and for attacking a transgender girl to tears at his event by saying “the way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him… It’s just a man in a dress, isn’t it?”
“Free speech,” it seems, is making sure to pay large speaking and security fees in order to have your institution trashed by conservative pundits who don’t have any serious idea to contribute. And the diversity of thought from “controversial speakers” needed for strong public debate seems to be not all that diverse.
I, for one, would rather spend the speaker budget on people who are serious about getting things right, rather than bringing guests focused on generating buzz for their book deals.
While facially neutral, CU to some extent knew that this was a statement to the conservative complainants. Most of the frequently asked questions are about controversial speakers and the protesting of them. CU has pledged to cover all security fees to ensure conservatives are able to insult the university and for students to use their speech—albeit uncivil—to drown out the speech of a controversial speaker.
The term “freedom of speech” belies that fact that CU is actively amplifying these voices at the cost of drowning out others.
It has long been policy at CU to promote free speech and academic integrity, but the Regents felt it necessary to put up a press release pledging to do more to promote diversity of thought. If the Regents believed in our academic integrity, instead of placating the complainers, they would stand by their school. In effect, the Regents have sold out the university’s hard-working thinkers to appease a timeless complaint not argued in good faith.
All the professors, graduate students and undergraduate thinkers who spend their days on campus reading and thinking and arguing have had their work’s legitimacy called into question by nine Regents wanting to avoid being called biased by people who have been recycling arguments that don’t hold up to even minor scrutiny.
The attackers of public universities have seemed to succeed. They are now being giving a rhetorical role for the future of CU, and the university is worse off for it.