On November 14, the Ithaca College Republicans welcomed Dr. Alan Kors, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, to give a lecture on their campus. Dr. Kors co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses with Harvey Silverglate and is President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Dr. Kors graciously agreed to an interview with me prior to his talk at Ithaca College. A transcript of that interview appears below.
Joe Sabia: Dr. Kors, in The Shadow University, you cite many examples of Leftists using their power in the academy to silence conservative viewpoints. What is your thesis to explain why universities have devolved from institutions committed to the free and open exchange of ideas to Leftist indoctrination centers?
Alan Kors: I don't have what I wish I did have, and that is a deep psychosocial theory of why academic culture has become an adversarial culture. The sides of it that are obvious are that the heirs of the '60s stayed on university campuses. They made no adaptation to the real America like other people from the '60s did. They froze themselves in time and expected to always be the moral leaders of the universities. In the early '80s, they discovered that students no longer looked up to them, the students didn't accept them as leaders, the students often recoiled at the style and politics of the '60s. And I wouldn't minimize it as a moment of truth in 1984 when a majority of college students voted for Ronald Reagan. The people from the '60s in the universities looked at these students and changed their motto from "Don't Trust Anyone Over 30" to "Don't Trust Anyone Under 30." In the '60s they said, "What could our elders possibly know?" being the victims of a wicked America. Their motto now is "What could our children possibly know?"
Intellectually, what happened, was that in some ways, the initially marginalized sides of the '60s, Marcuse's "Repressive Tolerance"-rather than the flower children, free speech, live-and-let-live people-that part, the Marcusian side of the Left said that you use institutions and culture as political weapons, that's the part that won out on college campuses. [They won] either in numbers, or in setting the agenda that other people were afraid to resist, challenge, or question.
Sabia: Many elite universities such as Berkeley, Brown, and Cornell have aggressive "diversity" policies that encompass racial quotas in admissions, racially segregated dormitories, and Africana/Latino studies programs. From your research, what are the impacts of these three policies on campus culture?
Kors: I think that the more racial, social engineering that universities have tried and the more they have tried to tell people "You are your race," "You are your sex," "You are your sexuality," the worse, not the better human relations have become. It should be obvious to anyone with open eyes that every year, our universities become more balkanized and more segregated.
The second aspect of it that really ought to trouble people is that students who could have applied to historically black colleges and universities, students who could have chosen to go to school with people just like them, but chose to go to universities that are supposed to be in a real sense "diverse," those students are told "Here's what it means to be black," "Here's what it means to be female," "Here's what it means to be Latino," "Here's what it means to be Asian American," "Here's what it means to be gay." And [they are taught] it's one politics, one voice, one worldview, one set of answers that depend upon externalities. You have to go back to the Third Reich and notions of German physics and Jewish physics to find that kind of racialism that exists now. And the arguments that [the Left] used to convince people of this was "If you have a temporary period of heightened racial identity for the purposes of a university, it will lead us into an academic world in which people can individuate and diversify according to their own likes." That was either a false promise or a fraudulent promise. But it certainly is the opposite of what has occurred. Everything that universities do is an attempt to create in people a racial sense of self, a sexual sense of self, a sexuality sense of self.
Look, for example, at the separate minority orientations in which students aren't welcomed as individuals into a community of inquiry. But they're told "Here are your leaders," "Here are your programs," "Here are your residences," "Here are your organizations." It is the most patronizing, and in the final analysis, it's the most racist imaginable approach to education.
Liberation is not trading in one set of masters over your identity for another. Liberation is the right of people to decide for themselves the importance or unimportance of their sex, their sexuality, their ethnicity, their race, and their religion. But universities are doing that for people. The reason that universities are trying so desperately to do that for people is that they only have four years to try to convince people that far from living in a society of the most extraordinary legal equality and opportunity that has ever been produced on planet earth, that, in fact, they live in a wicked caste system of race, sex, and sexuality in which they are hopelessly trapped without revolutionary change. Since everything in reality argues against that in terms of the American experience, you've got four years in which you have to control the definitions, the language, the curriculum, the orientation, the residential programs, the judicial system to try to bring home that reality.
Sabia: When you look into these peoples' eyes, you see such anger, such resentment, as if they've been totally brainwashed-
Kors: It sets into motion this terrible process of reinforcement, which is, that if you're taught that all of the normal abrasions of life are a result of racism, sexism, then you filter the ordinary abrasions through that process. In the 1970s, I co-founded a college house at the University of Pennsylvania and we had 180 undergraduates, four faculty, eight graduate students living together and we had no social engineering. What we put out was that it was a place to be whoever you are. At that point, Penn was maybe 2% black. The notion of just being someplace where you could be treated as an individual made it so appealing to black students that for the eight years I was there, the place was never less than 20% black. That was because it was a place you could be comfortable.
People offended each other all the time and then they humanized their conversations and leaned how to talk to each other. I remember one of the most striking conversations that I sat in on was a dinner conversation. There was a black student saying to white students, "You guys will never know what it's like to be discriminated against." I said, "Well, give me an example." He said, "I waited on a line at the registrar for 20 minutes and then I get up there and people are snapping at me, curt with me, impatient with me." And every white student broke into hysteria saying, "That's exactly what happens with us."
If you teach people to filter everything through the prism of race, they're going to do that. What universities are doing now would be the equivalent if, on the first day of orientation, you've got Jewish and Christians in a room and then you show films of the Holocaust. And then you say to the Jewish students, "That's what they did to you." And then you say to the Christians, "That's what you did to them." [And then say to all of them], "Now that you understand things, go out and get along." This would not increase natural human interaction. It would set up barriers and defensiveness and reinforce a sense of separate identities. And that reinforcement of separate identities among minorities taking the place of the proletariat in left-wing mythology is the goal of so many of these programs.
Sabia: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has, of late, spent a great deal of time spotlighting the lack of due process rights of students on campus, especially with regard to allegations of sexual misconduct. What are the most egregious examples of this and have you been successful in taking actions to rectify this problem?
Kors: The worst example we saw was what Columbia University tried to do. Columbia's sexual misconduct policy was going to involve defendants only knowing the charges against them right before they went to trial, no transcript, no recording of the trial for purposes of appeal, and no right to cross-examine or confront the people who charged you or the witnesses in the case.
Because a lot of what passes for sexual misconduct in the eyes of campus ideologues would be tacit consent or just boorishness out there in civil society, Columbia was going to have specially trained panelists who would be trained by campus feminist ideologues who would then be the hearing panel on these cases. We so humiliated Columbia that they had to modify [their policy] rapidly and radically. NYU backed off of imitating them, Rensselaer backed off of imitating them. That movement for the denial of due process for men charged with sexual misconduct and creation of circumstances where an accusation was tantamount to conviction, that had been a movement ready to be sprung, tremendously networked from campus to campus just like the sweatshop issue. And I think we nipped that in the bud.
If you get to a serious crime like sexual assault or rape, there is only one appropriate venue for that trial to occur and that is in the criminal courts. Campus judicial systems under the best of circumstances are absolutely ill equipped to handle such things. Under politicized circumstances of symbolic and redistributive justice, it's absolutely appalling that one would send students to such courts.
The other thing with trained panelists and tribunals-and this is a national trend with regard to sexual misconduct-is that if you charge a tribunal with a special mission to root out, whether it's heresy, witchcraft, sexual misconduct, or sexual harassment, [the tribunal members] feel like they are doing the Lord's work in rooting out that evil. That is not the circumstance where you get impartial findings toward truth and justice.
Sabia: Some Leftists have argued that in the post 9/11 world, there has been a paradigm shift such that liberal views-such as opposition to the war on terrorism and support for Yasser Arafat-are now squelched on college campuses. Have you found this to be true? Is bias just cyclical, changing with the times?
Kors: I think that over the long haul, bias is cyclical, which is why sane people understand that liberty is a way of being human, not a means toward a particular political end. In terms of 9/11, FIRE came in on cases of both sides. We defended the handful of people who found themselves in difficulty when careerist administrators-facing an outraged public and discovering very outspoken blame-America people-took any action against them. What I can tell you is that for every one of those cases, there were 8-10 cases of people who found themselves in difficulty on their campuses for saying what 95% of the American people believe. So, it is a new politically correct myth that there was a suppression of anti-war criticism or suppression of criticism of American foreign policy on campus. There were incidents of such suppression, largely at the hands of careerist administrators who sensed a temporary shift in the political winds and decided to cover their rear-ends. But for every such case, there were 8-10 cases of people being persecuted by the Left on their college campuses.
Sabia: Dr. Laura Schlessinger recently wrote a piece for World Net Daily in which she stated "Most people are living in fear. Political correctness, when it first came up, was sort of a joke. Now it's anything but. I look around and see how it immobilizes so many otherwise decent people." Has fear paralyzed our campuses?
Kors: One has to blame cowards for their own cowardice. The fear has not stopped you from speaking out, it has not stopped me from speaking out, it has not stopped our friends from speaking out. That universities govern by self-censorship is absolutely true, but no one is going to take anyone away in the middle of the night. We are not in Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. This is a classic case in which people through their cowardice and their failure to bear witness to their real beliefs, their failure to defend their own liberties and dignity are half of the equation of the catastrophe of political correctness. The oppressors have oppressed, but people should have fought back passionately and not rolled over and played dead… Liberty is going to die in the hearts of a generation of college students and that bodes very ill for the future of this society.
Sabia: What is the most important single piece of advice that you can offer conservative students who are facing a barrage of liberalism from faculty, administrators, and even in their dormitories?
Kors: The most important advice I could give conservatives is that Justice Brandeis had it right: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Do not let anything unfair be done to you. Don't let any legal equality be denied to you. Don't accept any second class status. Don't accept any repression without screaming in public and shaming the university. Read your contracts with the university. What they promised coming out of the '60s about academic freedom, free speech, and legal equality, read those carefully. Know your rights, but not just your legal and contractual rights. Know your moral rights. The great weakness of the university is that they can't defend in public what they believe and practice in private.
Conservatives have got to realize that the great weapon that they have is that the American body politic, on the whole, and civil society believe in fair play, legal equality, that the same rules apply to all, and in freedom of expression. They are speaking on behalf of essential American values when they defend these things. Get the university out of the shadows and into the sunlight. Do not roll over and play dead.