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!


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: