Backfire on Campus


In 1964 the Free
Speech Movement was born on the Berkeley campus of the University
of California
after administrators declared the campus off-limits to most
political
organizing. The movement was a catalyst for the New Left, which
in its early
years drew much of its energy from protests against
administrative
infringements on student freedom.


Hardly anyone would have expected history to repeat itself. But
in the late
1980s, the pattern was reenacted on campuses across the country
in an
altogether unexpected way. University administrators introduced a
swath of new
rules, including restrictions on speech and political
organization, that were
aimed at suppressing racism and sexism. They ended up energizing
a new
generation of conservatives.


The University of Michigan, where I graduated in 1994, provides a
disturbing
case study in the great progressive backfire of the past decade.
What went
wrong at Michigan should have more than local interest. The issue
that so vexed
liberals at Michigan is the same one that threatens the
Democratic Party today:
race.


The Ann Arbor campus has a diverse population and a long history
of political
activism. Students for a Democratic Society was born there in the
early 1960s,
and the school continued to be one of the centers of radical
student politics
through the decade. The New Left has had a continuing presence on
campus in the
form of a sizable minority of leftist students, conspicuously
aware of the
glories of their predecessors. Twice in the 1970s, massive black
student
protests--the Black Action Movements--succeeded in pressuring the
administration into vigorous affirmative action in admissions.


By 1987 black students had declined to 5.3 percent of the total,
from a high of
7.7 percent 11 years before. In January of that year, a flyer
proclaiming
"open season" on minorities--whom the flyer termed "porch
monkeys"--was anonymously slipped under the door of a lounge
where several
black students were watching television. The next week, a student
disk jockey
on a late-night campus radio program aired racist jokes, which he
followed with
a laugh track.


These incidents prompted the formation of a student organization
called the
United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR). Ascribing the incidents
to
"institutional racism," the multiracial group held protests and
sit-ins demanding increased representation of black students and
faculty.
Although vague about the mechanics, UCAR asked for tuition
waivers and open
admissions for black students. The protests received wide and
generally
sympathetic coverage in the Detroit and national papers. Outraged
Democrats in the state
legislature held hearings on racism at the Ann Arbor campus and
threatened to
reduce state funds unless the administration responded.


Although UCAR claimed that racism at the University of Michigan
was endemic up
to the highest levels, it had little evidence of institutional
bias. A racist
flyer or occasional graffiti could hardly be called
"institutional." In fact, the Michigan administration and faculty
bent over backwards to mollify the protesters. The black freshman
class was
already 50 percent larger than four years before. The university
agreed to
provide lounges for students of color, $35,000 for the Black
Student Union, and
start-up funds and campus facilities for a Baker-Mandela Center
for Anti-Racist
Education.


Evidence of Michigan's institutional racism finally arrived that
fall in
the form of comments about affirmative action by Peter Steiner,
dean of the
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Steiner, a
square-jawed
65-year-old administrator with close-cropped hair and black
horn-rimmed
glasses, said at a meeting:


Our challenge is not to change this university into another kind
of institution
where minorities would naturally flock in much greater numbers. I
need not
remind you that there are such institutions, including Wayne
State University
and Howard University. Our challenge is not to emulate them but
to make what is
the essential quality of the University of Michigan available to
more
minorities.


These words, referred to thereafter by the campus left as "Dean
Steiner's racist comments," galvanized UCAR for months. The
Michigan Student Assembly (MSA) unanimously passed a resolution
demanding that
the regents "pursue legal recourse" against Steiner. Student
demonstrators called for Interim President Robben Fleming to fire
Steiner.
Although Fleming said he found Steiner's remarks offensive, he
didn't fire him. But he supported two longstanding UCAR demands:
a
mandatory course on racism and a policy for prosecuting racial
harassment.




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At
the physical and cultural center of the University of Michigan
sits the
Diag, a grassy park ringed by the bulk of the school's classroom
buildings that gets its name from the diagonal paths that
crisscross it. On
warm days students meet there to bask in the sun, toss frisbees,
or take in a
harangue by one of an eclectic mix of indigenous campus
preachers, ranging from
a Christian Evangelical named Preacher Mike on the right to a
green-haired
aging hippie named Stoney Burke on the left.


In 1988 the Diag was home to a slew of wooden shanties painted
with slogans
protesting evils such as campus racism, South African apartheid,
or
Israel's policies toward Palestinian Arabs. Every racist
incident--some real, some imagined--drew crowds of protesters
bearing signs such as "Racism Will Not be Tolerated" or "We
Have a Dream of a Racist-Free University." The Michigan
Daily
, which is a
student-run paper that was rocked by a ferocious internal
conflict between
liberals and radicals, editorialized against rampant racism and
sexism in every
facet of campus life--including, in one instance, in its own news
department. Walls all over campus were covered with slick flyers
in maize and
blue, the school colors, posted by the administration urging
students to report
any incidents of racial harassment to the authorities.


That fall every student received a pamphlet explaining the
university's
new policy on discriminatory harassment, known as the code.
Sanctionable
conduct included behavior that "stigmatizes or victimizes"
minorities or "creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning
environment." Since these restrictions were vague, the code tried
to
clarify them with examples:

  • You exclude someone from a study group because that person
    is of a different
    race, sex, or ethnic origin than you are.

  • You tell jokes about gay men and lesbians.

  • Your student organization sponsors entertainment that
    includes a comedian
    who slurs Hispanics.

  • You display a confederate flag on the door of your room in
    the residence
    hall.

  • You laugh at a joke about someone in your class who
    stutters.


When the policy was challenged in federal court by the American
Civil Liberties
Union, the judge asked the university's lawyer how he could
distinguish
speech that was merely offensive from speech that stigmatized or
victimized a
protected minority. "Very carefully" was the counsel's
reply.


The campus left opposed the policy, though not on grounds of free
speech. Most
major student activist organizations condemned the policy as
"inadequate." The Daily pointed out in an editorial that
it
"reserves all the power for the administration and only punishes
students, ignoring racist harassment by staff, faculty, the
regents, and
administration." UCAR argued that disciplinary power should be in
the
hands of students of color rather than white male administrators
like
Steiner.


What sort of incidents of faculty harassment did the activists
have in mind?
One example was a class on race relations taught by the
sociologist Reynolds
Farley, one of the nation's leading demographers. During a Martin
Luther
King Day speech on racism at Michigan, a UCAR activist claimed
that Farley had
employed a variety of racial slurs, such as using the word
"nigger" or calling Mexicans "lazy." A soft-spoken
liberal Democrat, Farley protested that the language attributed
to him actually
came from historical sources he was quoting. "Nigger" came from
W.E.B. Du Bois, whom he cited in describing the history of
racism. The line
about Mexicans came up when Farley explained the history of
anti-immigration
sentiments by citing a speech by a nativist senator in the 1920s.
Yet his
explanations were brushed aside, and Farley became the latest
racist of the
month, denounced at campus rallies and in the Daily. The
next semester he
suspended his course.


Just as the activists succeeded in narrowing the intellectual
range of the
dialogue on racism, they were able to dramatically expand its
scale. In 1990
the College of Literature, Science, and Arts succumbed to a
long-standing UCAR
demand by approving a requirement that all its students take a
course
sensitizing them to racism.


In
the face of illiberalism, how did liberals react? Initial
newspaper accounts
of the events at Michigan interpreted the conflict through the
prism of the
civil rights era. They reported the struggle as primarily about
racism and
generally gave favorable mention to such responses as the
code--they were
concrete administrative measures to stem the rising tide of
bigotry. This
interpretation changed only slightly after the courts upheld the
ACLU's
challenge. The dominant view was that if liberal administrators
had erred, it
was because they had pursued worthy ends through improper
means.


But what happened at Michigan was not a case of liberal ends
being carried out
through illiberal means. The campus left was illiberal to the
core. It
subscribed to a variant of Marxism that substituted women and
people of color
for the proletariat and white males for the bourgeoisie, and it
discounted the
concept of individual rights as a myth created by society's
privileged
for their own benefit. In liberating the oppressed, the left saw
no need to
respect the oppressor's rights.


The initial outcry over the jeopardy to rights did not come from
liberals but
from conservatives. The right began to define what was happening
at Michigan
and other campuses as a new form of liberal tyranny--the reign of
"political correctness."


Conservatives who railed against political correctness had little
interest in
clarifying the identity of their opponents. The truth was that
the new campus
censors had nothing to do with the liberal tradition, but why
would
conservatives bother with that distinction? It was up to liberals
to say so,
but few did.


To many liberals, the new tales of "liberal tyranny" circulating
in the media sounded suspiciously like the same claims about the
intellectuals
and the arts that conservatives had been making for years. The
academic left
seized upon this suspicion to make its case. In the winter of
1991, the
University of Michigan hosted a conference called "The P.C.
Frame-Up:
Who's Behind the Attack?" The theme was that the uproar over
political correctness was a right-wing plot to stigmatize any
gains made by
women and minorities.


There was some truth to this charge. Even campus conservatives
conceded that
right-wing journalists had manipulated and distorted the issues.
But the
participants at the conference argued not only that p.c. was a
fictional
product of conservative hysteria, but that any argument to the
contrary was
merely a stalking horse for the racist right. Self-critical
introspection was
in short supply.


The sociologist Todd Gitlin, a participant in the conference from
the
University of California at Berkeley, sought to stake out a
middle ground,
claiming "There is such a thing as p.c., there's not a frame-up,
and yet there's a hysteria [on the right]." Most of the other
participants received this argument coldly. Gitlin recalls,
"There was
some of this sentiment of 'we have been picked upon, we are
victims, we
must pull the wagons around and defend ourselves against the
barbarian
right'-- something of a mirror image of the barbarian
right's image of the p.c.niks."


A CONSERVATIVE POPULAR FRONT



With
a faculty that was generally apathetic, intimidated, or enamored
of the
campus revolution, the opposition initially came from the student
body. The
Michigan Review, a conservative monthly founded in 1982
with money from
right-leaning foundations, attracted prospective journalists who
could not
bring themselves to write for the Daily. The Review
in the late '80s and
early '90s alternated between thoughtful arguments opposing the
new
censorship and hard right, in-your-face, Rush Limbaugh-style
mockery that
sometimes was, in fact, racist and sexist. But when campus
leftists criticized
the Review for its dalliances with bigotry, conservatives
shrugged. To be
called racist now simply put the Review in the same
category as Reynolds Farley
or Peter Steiner. Most students believed that racism existed, but
they came to
see it primarily as a political label rather than as a social
malady.


Conservatives at Michigan bore little resemblance to their
national cohorts.
Many had little or no identification with the Republican Party.
Their unifying
value was rebellion, not allegiance to the establishment. An
increasingly
dominant ideological strain on the right was libertarianism,
which naturally
appeals to college students due to its simplicity and general
aversion to
authority. In the 1990s the Review gradually adopted
libertarianism as a credo,
which has made it simultaneously more radical and more socially
tolerant. In
the past year it repeatedly attacked Newt Gingrich as a
"statist,"
while a December article praised the Michigan Militia. But at the
height of the
campus left's power, the Review was able to attract a
surprisingly
diverse array of thinkers.


In the fall of 1988, John Miller came to campus as a freshman
from Pompano
Beach, Florida. At the time, he was hardly a prime candidate to
join the
Republican Party. Although not consciously ideological in high
school, he was a
politically active journalist and a member of Amnesty
International. When the
school administration tried to ban the group from campus he had
rallied to its
defense. Like Tom Hayden almost thirty years before, Miller
enrolled at
Michigan determined to be a journalist and guided only by a vague
distrust of
authority. Only, instead of signing up with the Daily like
Hayden, Miller
joined the Review. Today Miller, a vice president at the
neoconservative Center
for Equal Opportunity, is one of the brightest young thinkers on
the right.


The
same year Miller arrived, the leftist party that controlled the
student
assembly attempted to withdraw official status and office space
from a student
group called Christians in Action because it hosted a singer who
sang that
"God hates queers." Later in the semester, the Zionist
organization Tagar, in response to a Diag shanty attacking
Israel, erected its
own shanty to commemorate the bombing of an Israeli schoolbus,
emblazoned with
the slogan, "Stop Arab Terrorism!" Campus activists immediately
attacked Tagar for promoting anti-Arab racism. Although Tagar
publicly
apologized and changed the slogan to "Stop All Terrorism!," MSA
immediately moved to "derecognize" it, too.


These incidents helped to galvanize freshman Jesse Walker, a
tall, lanky,
red-bearded son of two liberal college professors. Walker arrived
at Michigan
with a well-developed iconoclastic left-libertarian ideology.
Today he is an
editor at Liberty. Although Walker was no stranger to leftist
politics--as a high school radical who subscribed to Mother
Jones
and the
Nation he had been called a communist--he "was immediately
struck
by the campus atmosphere of political correctness." Right away
Walker
became active in a campus movement to force the assembly to
automatically grant
recognition to all student groups. This idea later became the
central campaign
theme of the assembly's main opposition party, the Conservative
Coalition.


The student opposition was not as conservative as it may have
appeared to
outsiders. The editor of the Review, and much of its
staff, were Democrats. The
same was true of the Conservative Coalition. James Green, a
member of the
Coalition and former president of MSA, was fond of saying, "A
conservative on this campus is anyone who is either a Republican
or a
Democrat."


But the fact that even moderate or liberal students found
themselves
consistently on the campus right affected their thinking. They
joined
organizations or social networks whose intellectual center of
gravity was on
the right. They began to see themselves as conservative. "When
the only
people rushing to your defense are a handful of conservative
faculty members
and, nationally, a handful of conservative pundits," recalls
Miller,
"it's not difficult to start identifying with them."


In
his book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd
Gitlin describes a
clumsy propaganda film produced by the House Un-American
Activities Committee
in 1960 that sought to build support for its anti-Communist
crusade. The effort
was a self-parody, and New Left students employed it in their own
recruiting
efforts. "The Committee radiated thickheadedness and
ineffectuality," Gitlin writes, "the anti-Committee Left stood
for
eloquence and good humor."


A similar dynamic was at work at Michigan. Multiculturalism was
an official
dogma, and for many college students that was reason enough to
embrace the
opposite viewpoint. Among students the voices of rebellion, and
humor, were all
on the right. The campus left, moreover, provided a steady stream
of grist for
its opponents.


When student voters in 1989 gave a majority of seats on MSA to
the Conservative
Coalition, the leftist majority then in control of the assembly
invalidated the
election on the basis of trumped-up technical glitches and
instead appointed
members of their own party to fill the seats. In 1993 a group of
sociology
graduate students charged professor David Goldberg with racial
and sexual
harassment, bullying the department chair into suspending his
course without so
much as a hearing. It turned out that the professor had merely
questioned the
statistical basis of many multicultural shibboleths. More common
were daily
absurdities: A speaker protesting jazz artist Miles Davis's
sexism
called on her audience to "break his tapes, smash his albums, and
burn
his CDs until he agrees to rethink his views on the woman
question." No
one in the audience thought to point out how difficult converting
Miles Davis
would be, since he was, at the time, dead. Incidents like these
rolled by
through the years, and although most students paid little
attention to such
affairs, those who did could not help but conclude that the left
was inimically
hostile to freedom of expression, fanatical in its thinking, and
corrupt in its
practices.


The thinking of college students is, if nothing else,
anti-establishment. In
the 1960s, students were often initially politicized by small
administrative
infringements upon their everyday life. The Free Speech Movement
at Berkeley
arose in response to limits on expression far less draconian than
Michigan's speech code.


Brian Jendryka, like John Miller, arrived at Michigan in 1988 as
a prospective
journalist with no political leanings. Jendryka, also repulsed by
the Daily,
was alarmed by the university's code and became interested in
freedom of
speech. Quite naturally, this led him to gravitate toward the
campus right,
where he followed Miller as editor of the Review.


Campus conservatism is not a new phenomenon. Universities have
always had
activity on the right. Neoconservatism, for instance, sprung up
in the academy
in the late 1960s and '70s as a reaction to the excesses of the
time. Yet
the institutional dynamics at the University of Michigan in the
late 1980s were
nearly the opposite: The left was demanding that the university
exercise more
authority over the lives of students, not less.


This new extension of administrative authority had a clear
ideological purpose.
Racial and gender oppression blotted out all other considerations
in
UCAR's intellectual universe, and it demanded that the university
establish a variety of mechanisms to reflect that impulse. By and
large, the
university complied. It established a variety of programs to
redress racism,
including mandatory anti-racist orientation programs for
freshmen, separate
black lounges in every dorm, a racial harassment code, and the
diversity course
requirement. Implicitly, the administration accepted UCAR's view
of the
world. Hence the anti-institutional impulse became
conservative.


Ultimately,
Michigan's left was destroyed not by the galvanized
conservatism it created but by itself. It is a sad irony that a
newly resurgent
left, rather than aiming outward to redress the world's evils,
instead
directed its energies almost entirely inward in a misguided
attempt to achieve
ideological hegemony in a small university enclave.


The left at Michigan identified its enemies as racial and sexual
oppression
endemic to Western civilization. Because it had no solutions
other than
repressing these tendencies whenever they appear, it had no
potential for
sustained growth. In Michigan's tribalistic atmosphere, activists
expressed political positions through the politics of identity.
During the Gulf
War, for example, nonwhite protesters split off from the main
group to form
their own "People of Color Against War and Racism." In addition
to
an end to the war, they demanded open admissions and free tuition
for all
people of color. Needless to say, women of color soon also had
their own
antiwar group.


"The focusing of political energy on points of difference,"
explains Gitlin, "has incapacitated the left to find points of
political
and/or economic commonality."


This certainly seems true today in Ann Arbor. After a blistering
1989 federal
court ruling struck down the code on First Amendment grounds, the
administration immediately drew up another, narrower policy to
limit racist
speech. It was withdrawn in 1991 after a subsequent Supreme Court
ruling made
it clear that, if challenged, the new code was doomed to suffer
the same fate
as its predecessor. Its most fervent demand precluded by the Bill
of Rights,
the campus left suddenly found it had nowhere else to turn. The
life-sustaining
flow of sit-ins and demonstrations trickled to a halt as the
students
originally called to the streets to fight racism graduated or
moved on with
their lives. UCAR's only visible legacy today is a university
bureaucracy propagating a panoply of diversity programs under the
rubric of the
"Michigan Mandate," an administrative decree proclaiming the
university's fealty to multiculturalism.


Gitlin's generation came of age during the moral clarity of the
civil
rights movement, only to see the battle bog down in the murkier
terrain of
racial separatism and affirmative action. Many of that generation
are still
grappling for solutions as simple and clear as those proposed
during the 1960s.
For college students today, there is no such conflict. For them,
the debate
about racism means only speech codes, separate minority
facilities, and the
like. Students now widely, however wrongly, associate these
measures with
liberalism. It is not too late for liberals to repudiate this
distortion of
their ideals.

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