Colleges and universities are implementing policies and programs to address issues arising from George Floyd’s death, but some faculty and staff say those efforts represent political conformity for more conservative members of the campus community.
Last week, a political science professor at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, told Inside Higher Ed that he is facing “possible termination” for refusing to view “diversity” videos that the administration has started to mandate.
“My quarrel is not so much with the content of the materials the administration would impose upon us but rather the coercive imposition itself,” Jeffrey Poelvoorde wrote in an open letter to Converse.
Catholic scholars issued a letter of disapproval after Loyola University Maryland, a Jesuit-run college in Baltimore, announced last month that it would remove the name of the Southern short story writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor from a dormitory after the school’s president said “racist leanings” emerged in the writer’s correspondence.
In Louisiana, Nicholls State University President Jay Clune asserted in a campuswide email in June that “free speech does not protect hate speech,” worrying advocates of free speech on campuses.
“With faculty, we are seeing an uptick in universities requiring mandatory diversity training and sensitivity training,” Zach Greenberg, a program officer with campus free speech group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Washington Times.
Mr. Greenberg noted that universities have their own free speech rights as organizations but added, “Generally, they can’t force faculty to conform to any political orthodoxy.”
Polls have consistently shown that political views among faculties at U.S. colleges and universities tend to be more liberal than conservative.
But the Memorial Day death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, which ignited widespread social protests, has sent college administrations to the mat to account for protesters’ critiques of higher education as a mostly liberal and mostly white space.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 45% of students come from underrepresented groups while only 24% end up as professors or instructors.
“We are part of one of the strongest movements this country has seen,” María Pabon, director of the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, said in announcing a $100,000 gift to the George Floyd Fellowship for Social Change.
“We owe it to our students and communities not only to acknowledge the racism that infects our schools, neighborhoods and other institutions, but also actively to work to be part of the movement and change,” Ms. Pabon said.
While colleges create Floyd-inspired scholarships or amend mutual agreements with local police forces, accusations of backlash against conservatives are mounting.
An accounting lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles said he lost his job after refusing to move the end-of-semester testing for students who were in mourning over Floyd.
Meanwhile, Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson blogged disparagingly about the Black Lives Matter movement, saying its “Hands up, don’t shoot” mantra was a “fabricated narrative.” This summer, he was chastised in a statement by his dean, who called his analysis “offensive and poorly reasoned.”
Nonetheless, law school Dean Eduardo M. Penalver also invoked academic freedom to defend Mr. Jacobson’s expression.
At a number of schools, including Missouri State University and the University of South Carolina, students who have yet to arrive on campus are being told to stay home for writing social media posts that are viewed as racist.
Marquette University in Milwaukee said it revoked admission of an incoming lacrosse player after finding out that she had posted to Twitter “some ppl think it’s okay to [expletive] kneel during the national anthem so it’s ok to kneel on someone’s head.”
“Following an internal review involving the Division of Student Affairs, Undergraduate Admissions, Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, and Intercollegiate Athletics, and in alignment with our Guiding Values, Marquette University has made the decision to rescind the incoming student’s offer of admission and athletics scholarship, effective immediately,” university spokeswoman Lynn Griffith told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“We’re seeing a lot of universities investigate and punish students for allegedly hateful speech that they say online,” said Mr. Greenberg, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “And the vast majority of this expression is protected under the First Amendment.”
The crackdown on speech, for some, represents a disingenuous attempt to stifle dissent, not uproot racism. Some of the academic clashes already have landed in court.
Late last month, Fordham University student Austin Tong filed a lawsuit against the school’s president and a top administrator for breach of contract and free speech violations after he was suspended from campus for posting to his Instagram account a photo of himself holding a firearm.
“Only an individual seeking to intentionally misrepresent the content of Tong’s posts could consider the posts to be a threat,” said attorneys for Mr. Tong, a rising senior and Chinese immigrant. Mr. Tong said he was speaking out against authoritative regimes on an anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
School officials, in letters Mr. Tong posted to the internet, said he violated the school’s policy against making online threats.
Ilana Redstone, who is affiliated with the Heterodox Academy, a group of professors dedicated to “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement,” said viewpoint diversity needs to remain critical for colleges, even in turbulent times.
“Engaging with a diversity of viewpoints should be a priority within higher education,” Ms. Redstone, associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in an email. “We can and should encourage intellectual humility and a curiosity about the ways different people understand the world.”