colleges

Did the Free Market Create Political Incorrectness?

"The real threat to free inquiry isn't students, but that same market imperative that First Amendment defenders claim to hold dear." Wrong!

|

Youtube.com, FIRE

Jim Sleeper, who teaches at Yale and writes for The New York Times (among other places), has found an unlikely cause for left-wing political correctness on college campuses across the country:

The real threat to free inquiry isn't students, but that same market imperative that First Amendment defenders claim to hold dear. Most university leaders serve not politically correct pieties but pressures to satisfy student "customers" and to avoid negative publicity, liability and losses in "brand" or "market share" — terms that belong in corporate suites but appear, increasingly, in deans' offices.

So…beset by market forces, especially the need to keep "customers" (students? parents? alumni? doesn't matter…) happy, administrators go out of their way to enforce strict intellectual and ideological orthodoxy because that never creates bad press or diminishes the academic reputation that allows colleges to attract top students and professors…. Got it.

This is a bad argument on its face and its weakness is compounded by the fact that Sleeper's claim that Greg Lukianoff, the head The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and a Reason contributor, had scurrilously published personal details about a Yale student he caught on video screaming that college residence life was "not about creating an intellectual space." (Lukianoff happened to be on campus to give a talk on free speech; The Daily Caller identified the student and showed pictures of her home. The Times has published a correction.) Sleeper's piece is simply the latest in a long list of pieces that essentially argues that the fuss over "political correctness" either doesn't exist or, if it does, is really a bogeyman created by off-campus "conservative" groups who are seeking to straitjacket ideological discourse, retard progressive social agendas, or just trying to justify their existence.

Today wealthy donors back groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute: the Bradley Foundation, the Scaife family foundations and the Koch brothers' DonorsTrust ( for donors who don't want to go public) that funnel money to, among others, the David Horowitz Freedom Center (whose "academic bill of rights" would monitor professors' syllabuses for "balance") and Campus Watch, which tracks comments on the Middle East.

(Disclosure: Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this site, has received money from some of these groups and we work closely with people at FIRE.)

As somebody who has spent and continues to spend a lot of time on college campuses, I'm willing to grant that "most" university leaders, especially at schools less flush than Yale, are indeed very worried about where their schools' next dollars are coming from. And there's no question that the funding model of higher education that's been in place at least since the end of World War II is changing. Public universities still get tons of money from state legislatures, though they tend to get less as a percentage of their operating budgets than they used to; administrators everywhere are figuring out how to bring in new revenue via grants, professional degree programs that will turn a "profit," and reaching out to deep-pocketed alumni. Federal student aid continues to rise but there is discomfort over high levels of student debt and Hillary Clinton has adopted Bernie Sanders' plan to make in-state tuition free at state schools. Tenure-track professors are becoming scarcer over time, research seems to be widely devalued (especially by the state legislatures that contribute fewer dollars even as they try to dictate teaching loads and other work tasks). None of this is particularly new, however, and arguments (read: complaints) over the "consumer model of education" have been around for a very long time. Far from being an unchanging institution, the American university has been in a constant state of building up and breaking down, of booms and busts, funding crises, of changes in college-age popluations, and threats and opportunities from new technologies. Read Leslie Fielder's What Was Literature?: Class Culture and Mass Society (1982) for great insight into how the post-war era—typically considered the salad days of the American system—was a scene of constant twilight struggle and institutional ferment.

Author photo, website

But back to Sleeper. Does it make any sense to designate market imperatives as "the real threat to free inquiry"? Yeah, not so much. The incident that led to the screaming match captured by Lukianoff stemmed from an ongoing argument over what sorts of Halloween costumes might be offensive to students (read Lukianoff on the matter). The student is seen screaming at a faculty member who functions somewhere between an academic advisor and residence life staffer; he is actually defending a statement by his wife (also on the Yale staff) that students are adult enough to know when they might be crossing a line. It's not exactly clear how this incident furthers Sleeper's argument. Is he suggesting that you only get these sorts of outbursts and confrontations because students/customers expect to be placated always and everywhere? If that's the case, how is this scene even happening? Is this bad press for Yale because it reneged on its implicit promise to coddle its undergraduates? Is it just right-wing agitprop because it was captured by an interloper who heads an organization that fights for free speech rights for faculty and students all over the country? Does Yale even have to deal with market forces? Its endowment is gigantic and its reputation is so high that basically the only people who get accepted but don't enroll are those who also get into Harvard (as I once said while giving a talk at Yale, "It's a great pleasure to be in roomful of people who, like me, couldn't get into Harvard").

Stroll off the Yale campus and look at related situations in which political correctness is stridently enforced, and not by students. Over the weekend Robby Soave wrote up a case at Syracuse University in which a religion studies professor withdrew an invitation to an Israeli filmmaker after being threatened by faculty involved in the "boycott, divest, sanctions" (BDS) movement. From the professor's letter:

I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come. In particular my film colleague in English who granted me affiliated faculty in the film and screen studies program and who supported my proposal to the Humanities Council for this conference told me point blank that if I have not myself seen your film and cannot myself vouch for it to the Council, I will lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues. Sadly, I have not had the chance to see your film and can only vouch for it through my friend and through published reviews.

Clearly I am politically naive. I also feel tremendous shame in reneging on a half-offered invitation.

Whatever else you can say about that incident, tying it to market forces and corporate strategies of avoiding bad press seem kind of a stretch. Is it so hard for progressives and liberals to understand that sometimes ideology overrides market imperatives?

There is a cleaner explanation for censoriousness and intellectual diversity (especially in the humanities and social sciences) on college campuses: It's not something forced on colleges by impersonal "market forces" or even by young adults with an outsized sense of their own righteousness. Rather, it reflects the thoughts, beliefs, and agendas of the vast majority of faculty at many universities (though by no means all). In my experience, there are precious few actual Marxists on college campuses (I always get along well with them, since I share a belief in materialist explanations for social phenomenon, minus the extreme determinism of much Marxist analysis). Instead, faculty (who are source material for administratiors, deans, and college presidents) are broadly progressive in their politics when they aren't generally indifferent to such matters. Faculty with ideological agendas are able to push their view of the world into undergraduate teaching, resulting in, for instance, the widespread use of (mostly mandatory) freshman composition classes as thinly veiled attempts at ideological indoctrination. It wasn't student-customers that forced that Syracuse professor to rescind his invite to the Israeli film director any more than it was student-customers at University of Missouri who forced professor Melissa Quick to call for "muscle" against a student journalist during a protest. Nor was it students-customers that pushed Yale University Press to pull reproductions of the infamous "Mohammed cartoons" in a book about…the Mohammed cartoons.

But maybe things are changing. For most of the broadly defined era of "political correctness" (let's date it to 1991, when New York Magazine's "Are You Politically Incorrect?" (page 32) explored the topic in a way that captured public attention), much of the strictures on free speech and open inquiry have been coming from the top down. Of course there have always been student activists with agendas (University of California at Santa Barbara undergrads were a force behind the call for "trigger warnings," for instance), but by and large, it was administrators and faculty who set a university's ideological character and agenda. That may be changing, though, in a way that should give everyone pause. As Greg Lukianoff notes in the interview below, when students at Emory were presented with chalked sidewalks advocating for Donald Trump, they demanded such offensive speech be censored. Students, says Lukianoff, had long been fighting administrators for more expressive freedom. Now, he worries, they may be urging the powers that be to clamp down on student speech. Take a look below:

NEXT: A.M. Links: Trump Leads Clinton By 2 Points in New Poll, Conservative Activist Phyllis Schlafly Dead at 92, Philippine President Apologies for Insulting Obama

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Sleeper appears quite adept at Newspeak.

    1. He does kinda have a point, kinda. If your customers (students) are whiny little bitches and you think it will make you more money to cater to that view, then perhaps it is an economic situation of a product meeting a demand for it.

      On the other hand, a free market would also imply that there would be plenty of other universities who would say “sack up, kiddo” to the students whose parents don’t want them to be coddled.

      I think the reality, as it often is, is somewhere in between. Universities are looking to attract whoever will pay. They get their money primarily from the parents of the students (who expect their own values to be upheld while the kid attends), from donations from alumni, and increasingly from government handouts. It may very well be that someone with deep pockets donates a building to the Uni, or governmental meddling with strings attached, but only if the Uni is willing to meet their unreasonable PC demands to try to manipulate students into thinking their way. In that case, it’s just plain old fucking politics as usual. It’s exactly why the public school system is similarly designed to indoctrinate rather than educate. All the interests are aligned just so to create a perfect storm of bullshit.

      Sounds exactly like what proggies would do to pervert anything they touch. Not really a market issue anymore.

      1. “They get their money primarily from the parents of the students (who expect their own values to be upheld while the kid attends), from donations from alumni, and increasingly from government handouts. ”

        Well, the students who are most likely to demand safe spaces are in all likelihood the ones whose parents have the deepest pockets (i.e. rich white brats whose mommies and daddies are also paying for their meds/psychiatrists). When I was a student at an Ivy known for its political correctness 25 years ago, I would laugh when they would have these protests for (fill in the blank) oppressed group and it would only be white kids dressed in the latest army-navy store fashion who would show up. The students they claimed to want to help were too busy studying or working.

      2. “So…beset by market forces, especially the need to keep “customers” (students? parents? alumni? doesn’t matter…) happy, administrators go out of their way to enforce strict intellectual and ideological orthodoxy because that never creates bad press or diminishes the academic reputation that allows colleges to attract top students and professors…. Got it.”

        Academia is NOT free market. If it was, kids would get a better education because its their money they are spending. They would want to be there to learn as much as they could in as short a period of time as possible because it their money they are spending. Schools would offer prices for classes that are competitive rather than the huge increases because of all the regulation barriers to opening a new university.

    2. My brother’s friend Bryan showed me how I can make some cash while working from my home on my computer… Now I earn $86 every hour and I couldn’t be happier… Before this job I had trouble finding job for months but now when I got this gig I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. Start this website
      go web and click tech tab for more info work… http://goo.gl/AzTMwA

  2. “The real threat to free inquiry isn’t students, but that same market imperative that First Amendment defenders claim to hold dear.”

    What a load of horseshit. How exactly does one become so mentally stunted as to believe this crap? I knew kids who ate glue and paint chips in kindergarten who ended up smarter than this dipshit.

    1. Jim Sleeper, who teaches at Yale and writes for The New York Times

      Nevermind. That explains everything.

    2. If you refer to someone else as a “First Amendment defender”, then YOU are the real threat to free inquiry.

      1. I know, i thought the 1A was one of those things that people never wanted to be demonstrated as opposed to.

        1. Well now, since saying nasty things or things other people disagree with is exactly the same as shooting them in the face with a flare gun, there are a number of people of a Progressive bent who see the 1st as no different than the 2nd: an antiquated law written by cis-hetero slaveowning white men that doesn’t apply in the modern world. The SJW’s are heading towards blatant calls for blanket censorship at Mussolini-like speed.

        2. Hate speech isn’t free speech!

          /So saith the flock

    3. See mine below: I screwed up the threading.

    4. The “political correctness” charge against the academy is every bit as phony as the “liberal bias” charge is against the media.

      They are both the projects of the Koch-funded vast right wing conspiracy of racists, sexists, homophobes, ableists, lookists, specie-ists, climate-change deniers, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, and other haters who refuse to acknowledge how awesome our government and its leaders are.

    5. The thing is, the Progressive/Left absolutely MUST deny the existence of Media Bias, Political Correctness, and easily a dozen other examples of Leftwing thought control. If they don’t, the entire interconnected edifice begins to crumble. But since this puts them in the position of denying the blatantly obvious, their arguments naturally make no sense whatsoever.

    6. Language, dear. Language.

  3. It’s not something forced on colleges by impersonal “market forces” or even by young adults with an outsized sense of their own righteousness. Rather, it reflects the thoughts, beliefs, and agendas of the vast majority of faculty at many universities (though by no means all).

    What happens when market forces actually do catch up with the current state of higher education?

    1. It will be a lovely, lovely crash. No offense intended to the academicians who are to be found in our serried ranks.

      1. By then there will be 20 student life and safe space administrators for every full-time professor. A major in social justice demonstrations will be seen as the most prestigious

    2. Mizzou.

  4. Gillespie gets along with Marxists! I knew it!

  5. Jim Sleeper
    Melissa Click
    Marcia Fudge
    Josh Earnest
    Robby Mook
    Anthony Weiner

    Even Ayn Rand would blush at the silly names of the leftist villains in this novel called Reality.

    1. I am reminded of a demonstrator at the Wisconsin Capitol building a few years ago who gloried in the name of Elizabeth Wrigley-Field. You should really recite your proposed name in front of a mirror a couple of times before you go public with it. Unless you’re a Cubbies fan. For them there is no hope.

  6. What a load of horseshit. How exactly does one become so mentally stunted as to believe this crap?

    Simple: academics spend their entire professional lives (and their professional training before that) around people who broadly think the same way they do. Everything they “know” about their ideological opponents is filtered through their ideological friends.

    I knew I would be in a minority when I went to grad school. What I wasn’t prepared for was the abject ignorance most people had about contrary views. Compounding this, they are unaware of their ignorance. This is the main reason I no longer have political conversations with academics: there is rarely any common ground on which to hold the discussion.

    1. Supposed to be in response to CA at 9:26. Threading fail.

    2. I work for a state university and my wife is getting her PhD. Her experience is more with the culture where mine is more with the finance angle, but we compare notes from time to time. If you’re familiar with Discworld, it’s not too dissimilar to Unseen University.

      1. They have an orangutan running the library?

    3. My Father was a Professor of the History of Science and Technology, and in the years I lived with him, the Progressive Lefties on campus were scared to death of him. I realize now that this was because they had never encountered another Classical (18th century) Liberal, OR another Methodist Minister’s son, and had known damn few actual scholars. They weren’t used to people who disagreed with them and knew how to argue.

  7. Did the free market create Jim Sleeper’s hilarious comb over?

    1. At least you get to look at it in a 1MB high resolution jpeg. Suitable for printing and hanging on your wall.

      1. Suitable for printing and hanging on your wall dart board.

        1. Mr. Hoitey Toitey, I-Don’t-Throw-Darts-Right-At-The-Wall.

    2. Did the free market create his ill-fitting herringbone tweed jacket? And where are the elbow patches? What kind of New England intellectual, Ivy League professor wears a tweed jacket without elbow patches? Is this guy even a professor?

      1. Maybe he’s an adjunct and can’t afford the patches?

        1. Depicted

          Homer (wearing a leather jacket): Look everyone. Now that I’m a teacher, I’ve sewed patches on my elbows.
          Marge: Homer, that’s supposed to be leather patches on a tweed blazer, not the other way around. You’ve ruined a perfectly good jacket.
          Homer: Uh…incorrect, Marge. *Two* perfectly good jackets.

    3. That pic looks like it was clipped from the dustcover of a self-help book from 1973 found at a yard sale in the “Everything’s Just a Nickel!” milk crate.

      1. Shut up, he’s saved dozens of marriages with his tips on yoni massage and fondue recipes

        1. Only to see those marriages destroyed by disco and Reaganomics.

  8. Is it so hard for progressives and liberals to understand that sometimes ideology overrides market imperatives?

    They understand just fine. But they have to pretend otherwise when it leads to bad results.

    1. Ideology doesn’t really override market imperatives. Ideology informs what some people want from the market. The market is perfectly happy to service their ideological needs, for the right price.

      Now, its when you enlist armed agents of the state to enforce your ideological preferences on third parties that we get into “overriding” the market.

  9. There’s no real free market in education, at least in any meaningful sense, for the same reason that there’s no real free market in the medical industry. Government subsidies remove consumers from the prices of the products and services they buy, and so the usual market forces don’t really happen. The behavior of an 18-year-old who can walk into a campus finance office and, following a brief video and some paperwork, walk out with $20,000 that he won’t have to pay off for at least four years is not the same as someone who, for instance, has to prove creditworthiness and put down a down payment or collateral in order to get a mortgage. It’s just like how a person who has $200 per paycheck automatically removed for insurance won’t bat an eyelid at getting multiple CT scans “just in case”, nor will the doctor hesitate to recommend same since he knows he’ll be getting his money from a company for whom the cost is relatively low.

    If students had some skin in the game and still paid Yale-level tuitions to support a culture of safe spaces and gender studies, then maybe there’d be something to the argument. However, something tells me that would cease to be the case.

  10. Superb blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go
    for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m completely
    overwhelmed .. Any recommendations? Bless you!
    http://www.mainasiapk77.com

    1. Thanks! Write! You just have to write and keep writing.
      I hear that.
      Paid option. Let someone else do all the nerd work, am I right?
      I assume you are overwhelmed because you are a woman – just ask a man to help you.
      No. And thank you! Bless you, too!

  11. I thought the screaming match over Halloween costumes was at Princeton, not Yale. Not that there’s any difference.

    1. Not now. Historically speaking Yale went terminally silly five years earlier.

  12. The bit about removing the cartoons of Mohammad from a book about the cartoons of Mohammad got me interested, so I checked google.

    They don’t appear to be suppressing cartoons of Mohammad or images offensive to Islam, at least not here in the US. When you search for “Mohammad Cartoon Controversy” the first image that pops up is the bomb-turban Mohammad cartoon.

    So there is that, at least.

  13. Anyone want to take bets how long it will take Gillespie and his ilk to fold on speech? They’ve already folded on religious liberty. Since speech is the next thing in the cross hairs of the Left, how much longer before the cosmotarians fold on that front too?

    1. Clearing what we need around here is more yokel hysterics. That will fix everything.

      1. Where’s our “report cosmo fags” and “report yokel retard” buttons?

  14. “The real threat to free inquiry isn’t students, but that same market imperative that First Amendment defenders claim to hold dear. Most university leaders serve not politically correct pieties but pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability and losses in “brand” or “market share” ? terms that belong in corporate suites but appear, increasingly, in deans’ offices.”

    My take on this is that the market is better than the government at doing lots of things–and censorship is one of them.

    Even when you look at something like the FCC censoring television, part the of the argument against them doing this is that the FCC does a terrible job of it. They censor things that very few people find offensive, and they let through things that bother a lot of people tremendously. Television producers worried about their market share and offending the sensibilities of their audience do a much better job of catering their “censoring” their own product to match the tastes of their audiences.

    If only schools were more subject to market considerations, they’d do a much better job of censoring themselves than Title IX.

  15. “Free speech” is part of that “equal opportunity” crap the racists and the sexists and the kkkorporationists keep pushing like we’re too stupid to see just how unfair fairness is and how unequal equality is and how unjust justice is. “Free speech” just means everybody has an equal opportunity to be heard and doesn’t actually guarantee that everybody will be heard equally. People who use reason and logic and intelligence to make persuasive arguments tend to be listened to more than people who are unreasonable and illogical and just plain retarded fucking assholes screaming random shit – and how is that at all fair? Justice demands not just that everyone speaks equally but that everyone is heard equally – it’s not enough that I am free to speak, you must be forced to listen to me as well.

    1. “People who use reason and logic and intelligence to make persuasive arguments tend to be listened to more than people who are unreasonable and illogical and just plain retarded fucking assholes screaming random shit – and how is that at all fair?”
      Trump couldn’t agree more. He has the best, most persuasive arguments you have ever seen, and that’s why so many wonderful people listen to his greatness.

      To be clear: if you believe your own words, you’re a fool. As the Good Witch said:

      “[…] Celebrated heads of state or / Specially great communicators / Did they have brains or knowledge? / Don’t make me laugh! […]”

  16. Most university leaders serve not politically correct pieties but pressures to satisfy student “customers” and to avoid negative publicity, liability and losses in “brand” or “market share”

    Well, gee, fella, maybe your kind shouldn’t have been pushing the line the last 60 years that everyone needs to attend college, inculcating them with cultural Marxist rhetoric while progressively dumbing down curriculums so that even sub-literate grievance-mongers could be admitted. Now that the Frankenstein’s SJW monster you gleefully created to attack your political opponents is turning on you, suddenly it’s the fault of the “free market”? Get the fuck out of here. You people can reap the whirlwind you sowed.

  17. I think one of the biggest problems here is attempting to equate businessmen and those acting according to market pressure/incentive as somehow being pro-freemarket. An obvioys false conclussion, IMHO

  18. RE: Did the Free Market Create Political Incorrectness?

    Fortunately there is no free market. The market has been regulated to such a point that any move toward a profit has been judiciously watched and controlled by our obvious betters. The Union of Soviet Socialist Slave States of Amerika has been under the watchful eye of the SEC and other handcuffing bureaucracies for many decades. Unless one is politically connected, unchecked profits that were legally gained will be condemned and redistributed for the sake of the collective. One must thank the fascist Adolph Hitler for providing the magnificent paradigm of employing red tape, rules, regulations, laws, etc in order to control the little people so they cannot advance from their appointed socio-economic status. The regulators ensure the lowly plebian class doesn’t make too much money and disrupt the delicate balance the rich and powerful have worked so hard to maintain. Indeed, is one so naive to believe the powers that be didn’t invent the concept of political correctness with the help of their friends in academia? Censorship via political correctness guides one to the shining path of censorship, collectivism and socialism which are all key parts of any socialist slave state. Therefore, let us all praise those who enslave us by employing the wise ideals of political correctness and suffocating capitalism in its crib to further the Glorious Peoples Revolution.

  19. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go? to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,
    ——————>>> http://www.works76.com

  20. So…beset by market forces, especially the need to keep “customers” (students? parents? alumni? doesn’t matter…) happy, administrators go out of their way to enforce strict intellectual and ideological orthodoxy

    He is absolutely right. In order to see why, you need to understand that the primary customer of modern universities is the federal government, and it is paying universities handsomely for the indoctrination of students. And that customer wants the universities to “enforce strict intellectual and ideological orthodoxy”. It’s the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.

  21. my classmate’s aunt makes $74 /hr on the internet . She has been fired for eight months but last month her paycheck was $12598 just working on the internet for a few hours. find out here now

    ?????? http://www.businessbay4.com/

  22. Olivia . I can see what your saying… Matthew `s storry is great, last tuesday I bought a gorgeous BMW M3 since I been earnin $9756 this last month and-a little over, 10/k this past munth . without a question it is the most-financialy rewarding Ive ever done . I began this 7-months ago and practically straight away earned more than $71 per hour . More Info..
    ???????>>> http://www.earnmax6.com/

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.