In the fall of 2000, I promised my daughter the freshman that I wouldn’t write about Wesleyan University (Middletown, Conn.) until she graduated. As a result, you readers learned nothing from me about the naked dorm, the transgender dorm, the queer prom, the pornography-for-credit course, the obscene sidewalk chalking, the campus club named crudely for a woman’s private part, or the appearance on campus of a traveling anti-Semitic roadshow, loosely described as a pro-Palestinian conference.
Instead of hot news items like these, you usually just hear that Wesleyan is very “diverse.” Newsweek once hailed the school as the “hottest” diversity campus in America, apparently using the word diversity in its normal campus meaning of “no diversity at all.” A one-liner about the campus is that “Wesleyan is so diverse that you can meet people here from almost every neighborhood in Manhattan.” And the students tend to have opinions from every known corner of MoveOn.org.
After the 2000 election, my daughter told me that 80 percent of the students had voted for Al Gore. “Bush got only 20 percent of the vote?” I asked. “No, Dad,” she explained, “the 20 percent was for Nader.” Visiting speakers who challenge any aspect of campus orthodoxy are as rare as woolly mammoths. However, columnist Nat Hentoff, whose son had gone to Wesleyan, showed up in 2002 and criticized the lack of intellectual diversity and free speech.
At a Manhattan holiday party last week, hosted by a friend with Wesleyan ties, I overheard my daughter explaining that no real debate takes place on campus. This was a major frustration, since she is feisty and brilliant and loves to argue ideas. She is politically liberal but wonders how Democrats of her generation will be able to speak convincingly to the middle of the political spectrum when so many of them shun the complexity of arguments and simply spout the party line.
Two years ago the Argus, the student newspaper, ran a survey and found that 32 percent of the students feel “uncomfortable speaking their opinion.” Orthodoxy plays a role, of course, but so does an exaggerated fear of giving offense. Identity politics is so strong that criticizing other students’ ideas can seem like a faux pas, if not a challenge to their core identity. Better to keep your head down and stick to standard opinions.
The naked dorm and the porn course were both examples of Wesleyan’s determination to accommodate as much sexual confusion as possible. The porn course, which had some students filming S&M scenarios, ended when the teacher died. The popularity of the naked dorm, which featured nude wine and cheese parties, seems to have faded. “I just sometimes feel the need to be nude,” a Wesleyan male told the New York Times in 2000. “If I feel the need to take off my pants, I take my pants off.” The obscene chalkings, which included colorful references to the sexual practices of professors, are now forbidden, possibly because they were upsetting donors and enraging some faculty.
But the Wesleyan campaign to stamp out diversity continues, this time in a move against fraternities. The university is pressuring its frats to accept women as members or pay a stiff financial price. The antifraternity campaign is standard on the politically correct campus these days, usually with an announced aim of reining in a boozy, sexist, right-wing culture. But this is Wesleyan, which has no right-wing culture and no sexist, out-of-control frats. The Argus has quoted gays and women saying mild and kind things about the Wesleyan frats, some of which are receptive to gays and set rooms aside for female residents. Much of the opposition to the frats seems to depend on the gross national image of fraternities, not the essentially harmless frats at Wesleyan. The administration and radical feminists oppose the frats for violating the campus nondiscrimination rule by not allowing women as members. However, they don’t bother to apply the same objection to Womanist House (a residence for females) or Malcolm X House, which caters to blacks.
I should add that I think my daughter got a decent education at Wesleyan. You can do this if you are strong-minded, independent, and willing to pick your courses very carefully. But admission to the university should come with a warning label: If you are fainthearted, go somewhere else.