All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses

A Thorough and Damning Account of Political Indoctrination on American Campuses

Many books have discussed political indoctrination on American campuses, but none is as thorough and damning as this one. Alan Kors, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense attorney and civil liberties litigator, present overwhelming evidence that the loss of liberty on campuses is far greater than most people realize. Speech codes, which punish students and faculty for offensive or “harassing” speech, are ubiquitous. Due process is the exception rather than the rule: secret judicial proceedings routinely deny accused faculty and students the right to be represented by legal counsel, to confront or call witnesses, and to have an impartial judge and appeals process. Most chilling of all, “sensitivity training,” a.k.a. thought reform, tells students what to believe and labels them as “in denial” or as “oppressors” unless they profess the politically correct orthodoxy about race, gender, and so on.

Most people, even critics of political correctness, are unaware of this system because much of it happens outside the classroom. To see the destruction of liberty on American campuses one must also examine offices of student life, residential advisers, judicial systems, deans, freshmen orientation, and the promulgation of rules and regulations. These aspects of the university are inescapable for students (and increasingly for faculty), and punishment for violating its rules occurs behind closed doors. Hence the book’s title: The Shadow University.

Kors and Silverglate rip the veil off this system, revealing far more cases than have hitherto been reported. Besides providing compelling narratives of various assaults on liberty, the authors also cogently explain the basic moral and constitutional principles of free speech and academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience, which are routinely violated throughout academia. A hallmark of their violation is the double standard: provocative speech (such as “born again bigot,” “Uncle Tom”) by the politically correct is protected, but those who appear to criticize feminism, affirmative action, or other reigning orthodoxies may be censored and/or re-educated.

I’ll sketch only a few of the incredible cases: a (white) student at the University of Pennsylvania calls noisy (black) students “water buffaloes” and is charged with racial harassment; a professor at Dallas Baptist University criticizes feminist arguments, is charged with defamation, and is then fired, along with the dean who defended him; a student at Sarah Lawrence is sentenced to sensitivity training for “homophobia” for laughing at a remark made about a gay student; a Catholic residential adviser at Carnegie Mellon University is fired for refusing to wear a symbol in support of gay and lesbian students; freshmen orientation at Williams College requires everyone to gather in a dark auditorium where insults are hurled at them from all directions; a professor at Cornell University is found guilty of sexual harassment at a hearing that he is forbidden to attend or call witnesses, and where the head of the investigating committee says “we have to make the rules as we go along.”

How did this arise? Bad ideology plus careerist administrators, answer the authors. The bad ideology is New Left theorist Herbert Marcuse’s argument in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that the marketplace of ideas masks repression of “progressive” ideas. To prevent the silencing of these ideas, “reactionary” ideas must be censored. This zero-sum view of freedom is followed by today’s defenders of speech codes and other assaults on liberty. (However, the authors give no evidence that today’s censors were influenced by Marcuse.) As for administrators, they perform their jobs in hopes of moving on to a more prestigious position, often at a new campus. To move on, their reign must be relatively untroubled, which means they aim to appease groups who can cause trouble: militant feminists, blacks, and gays. Sacrifice of other people’s freedom doesn’t matter.

I wish the authors had dug deeper on the careerism issue. They remark that colleges and universities have taken on many of the trappings of large corporations, minus the accountability, but they do not discuss whether re-establishing accountability requires that colleges become proprietary institutions.

Kors and Silverglate suggest two strategies for restoring liberty. First, litigate. Court challenges to university oppression frequently succeed. State universities are bound by the First Amendment and the requirements of due process; private universities are contractually bound to keep their promises of free inquiry and procedural fairness. Second, publicize oppression: Universities hate publicity. Publicity can shame the university into change, and/or arouse freedom-minded colleagues to revolt.

This is a great book, and that’s not hyperbole. It is not an enjoyable topic, but one indispensable for anyone concerned with liberty in academia. I am in awe of the authors. It must have taken enormous energy, intellectual focus, and a burning passion for justice to uncover this massive oppression on American campuses. All lovers of liberty are in their debt.