The 1994 movie PCU, about a rebellious fraternity resisting its politically correct university, was a milestone. Not because the movie was especially good—it wasn't. It was a milestone because it showed that political correctness had officially become a joke.
The derisive term "P.C." had referred to a genuine and powerful force on campus for the previous decade. But by the mid-1990s, it had become the butt of jokes from across the political spectrum. The production of a mainstream movie mocking political correctness showed that its cultural moment had passed.
At the same time, punitive campus speech codes were being struck down. Among the most prominent cases was Stanford Law School, which boasted a notorious speech code banning "speech or other expression…intended to insult or stigmatize" an individual on the basis of membership in a protected class arguably including every living human. You don't have to be a lawyer to see how a ban on anything that "insults" would be abused: Even showing PCU itself, which makes fun of campus activists, feminists, and vegetarians, could potentially get you in trouble under such a broad and vague rule. The 1995 court defeat of the Stanford speech code marked the end of the First Great Age of Political Correctness.
Some assumed this meant political correctness was a fad that was gone forever. On the contrary, it gathered strength over the next two decades, rooting itself in university hiring practices and speech policing, until it became what people now refer to as "wokeness" or the much-abused term "cancel culture."
Political correctness didn't decline and fall. It went underground and then rose again. If anything, it's stronger than ever today. Yet some influential figures on the left still downplay the problem, going so far as to pretend that the increase in even tenured professors being fired for off-limits speech is a sign of a healthy campus. And this unwillingness to recognize a serious problem in academia has helped embolden culture warriors on the right, who have launched their own attacks on free speech and viewpoint diversity in the American education system.
We've fully entered the Second Great Age of Political Correctness. If we are to find a way out, we must understand how we got here and admit the true depths of the problem.
The Ignored Years
In the decades that followed the First Great Age of Political Correctness, you could be forgiven for assuming that campus attacks on free speech were a thing of the past.
Professors and administrators dismissed concerns, claiming there was no shortage of viewpoint diversity (and that those who suggested otherwise had sinister, probably racist motivations). Speech codes had been roundly defeated wherever they were legally challenged. The P.C. movement had been reduced to a punchline. Indeed, it was such a common punching bag that some pundits rejected the whole idea as a kind of right-wing hoax. Problem solved, right?
Hardly. In reality, the major change after the mid-'90s was that professors were less openly enamored of speech codes. The campus speech wars entered their Ignored Years, during which far less attention was paid to campus speech even as the underlying problem grew worse. It was during this period that the seeds were sown for a deeper change just one generation later.
After the Stanford policy was defeated in court in 1995, speech codes should have faded away into legal oblivion. Instead, their number dramatically increased. By 2009, 74 percent of colleges had extremely restrictive codes, 21 percent had vague speech codes that could be abused to restrict speech, and only eight of the top 346 colleges surveyed had no restrictive code. Unlike in the '90s, many of these policies were championed by a burgeoning administrative class rather than by faculty.
Meanwhile, viewpoint diversity among professors plummeted. In 1996, the ratio of self-identified liberal faculty to self-identified conservative faculty was 2-to-1; by 2011, the ratio was 5-to-1, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
More recent statistics paint a starker picture. A 2019 study by the National Association of Scholars on the political registration of professors at the two highest-ranked public and private universities in each state found that registered Democrat faculty outnumbered registered Republican faculty about 9-to-1. In the Northeast, the ratio was about 15-to-1.
In the most evenly split discipline, economics, Democrats outnumber Republicans "only" 3-to-1. The second most even discipline, mathematics, has a ratio of about 6-to-1. Compare this to English and sociology, where the ratios are about 27-to-1. In anthropology, it's a staggering 42-to-1.
In the Ignored Years, higher education became far more expensive and considerably more bureaucratized. From 1994–95 to 2018–19, the inflation-adjusted cost of public college tuition nearly doubled. Meanwhile, the administrative class expanded, from roughly one administrator for every two faculty members in 1990 to nearly equal numbers of faculty and administrators in 2012.
What's more, preliminary research showed a "12-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative college administrators," wrote Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College in The New York Times in 2018. His conclusion: "It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate—and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators." Following the Times article, Abrams was targeted twice by students in an unsuccessful campaign to get him fired for speaking out.
The '00s also brought the popularization of "bias-related incident programs," commonly known as "bias response teams" or "BRTs." These programs exist to root out "bias" (once called "prejudice") on campus by empowering anyone within the community to file complaints with the administration, often anonymously. They are attempts to enforce campus orthodoxy in ways that might be (just barely) constitutional. By 2016, nearly 40 percent of surveyed colleges had BRTs.
Early versions of BRTs involved policing inside jokes and pop culture references. Eventually, reported speech included everything from a "snow penis" at the University of Michigan to a humor magazine at the University of California San Diego that had satirized the idea of safe spaces to an incident at John Carroll University in Ohio, where an "anonymous student reported that [the] African-American Alliance's student protest was making white students feel uncomfortable."
It was also in the '00s that ideas such as "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions" burrowed their way into everyday campus parlance. Meanwhile, the number of speaker disinvitations, in which speaking requests were rescinded because of protests or other objections, slowly crept up.
Education schools, in particular, became even more activist, which had an outsized impact on where we are today. The early 2000s began with the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)—the accreditor of over 600 graduate education programs—"recommending" that education students be required to demonstrate a commitment to social justice. The extremely influential Teachers College at Columbia University adopted the requirement, as did others. In 2005, in the face of protest from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I am president and CEO, NCATE removed the recommendation. But many schools, including Columbia's Teachers College, did not.
Education school graduates who had been steeped in social justice activism went on to dominate not only K-12 teaching but also the swelling ranks of campus administrators. A random sample taken by Sarah Lawrence's Abrams indicates that 54 percent of college administrators have degrees from education schools.
Two education school graduates helped develop and popularize "orientation" programs, implemented in various forms around the country, that could be described as efforts at thought reform. At the University of Delaware in the late '00s, for example, students were subjected to interrogations by student leaders about all manner of personal topics—their views on gay marriage, their own sexual orientations, when they discovered their sexuality, whether they would consider dating members of other races and ethnicities, and more. The program then sought to provide students with "treatments," such as mandatory one-on-one sessions with their resident advisers, meant to inculcate them with "correct" moral beliefs.
Requiring "diversity statements" as a condition of faculty hires and promotions is yet another way colleges enforce ideological conformity on campus. These statements effectively require faculty to affirm and provide examples of their commitment to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion—which, of course, are rarely defined. Like NCATE's recommended social justice requirement, they function as political litmus tests—demonstrations of one's commitment to prevailing orthodoxies.
The University of California, Berkeley, uses a rubric to score prospective faculty on adherence to specific ideological positions. Candidates are scored negatively, for instance, for attesting to the position that one should "ignore the varying backgrounds of their students and 'treat everyone the same.'"
During the Ignored Years, then, university administrators created infrastructure to keep P.C. alive—moving from speech codes to BRTs as speech codes were shot down in court; encouraging the hiring of even more politically homogeneous professors and administrators; and reframing speech policing as a crucial part of protecting students' mental health.
An Explosion in Censorship
If a single piece of writing marks the end of the Ignored Years, it's Jenny Jarvie's "Trigger Happy," a March 2014 New Republic article critical of campus trigger warnings—the practice of alerting students anytime a potentially sensitive topic is about to come up in class conversation if the teacher thinks it may "trigger" a trauma response in students or just upset them in some way. Jarvie's piece presaged a marked increase in coverage of such issues beyond conservative media. Other milestones included Jonathan Chait's New York magazine article "Not A Very P.C. Thing to Say" and Jon Ronson's book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, both published in 2015. Suddenly, people were paying attention to speech on campus again.
But it wasn't just an increase in coverage. Something else had changed on campus. During the previous two decades, administrators were usually the leaders of campus censorship campaigns. Students, in turn, resisted those efforts. In late 2013, however, there was an explosion in censorship that was student-led. The infrastructure built during the Ignored Years was producing downstream effects.
The generation hitting campuses in 2013 had been educated by the graduates of those activist education schools. In some cases they were literally the children of the students who had pushed for (or at least were OK with) speech codes in the '80s and '90s.
This generation also grew up with social media; it had a genuine awareness of how hurtful and nasty speech can be, especially when anonymous and online. But it had not been taught that freedom to engage in nasty speech is necessary to the functioning of our democracy and to the production of knowledge.
In 2015 alone, there were multiple high-profile free-speech blowups on campus. Perhaps most famous was the confrontation between sociologist Nicholas Christakis and students at Yale that began over school guidance about inappropriate Halloween costumes.
In 2017, there was outright violence at Berkeley and Middlebury College, with activist students using force in response to speech they opposed. (At Middlebury, a professor named Allison Stanger was permanently injured in a melee during an appearance by the author Charles Murray.) Then came 2020, with hundreds of high-profile examples of attempts to get professors and students canceled, all across the country.
One might assume that the increased media attention and the numerous high-profile incidents of campus speech crackdowns—including violent confrontations caught on video—would have definitively demonstrated that the campus free speech situation has become dismal. Yet not only were there debates about whether campus speech was really in crisis but new arguments appeared insisting that campus censorship and academic freedom simply weren't problems at all.
Stranger Than Fiction
Netflix's The Chair is a smart, well-written, well-acted show. The series examines the many challenges facing an English professor and her department at an elite liberal arts college with dwindling admissions. One of the series' main throughlines occurs when a tenured professor is pushed out of his job after giving a satirical Nazi salute during a lecture on modernism. Students call him a Nazi and demand his resignation.
It's not quite as overtly comic, but it could be seen as this era's PCU, in that it signals that it's OK to mock and resist the illiberalism we've seen emerge on campuses over the last five or six years. And it might be taken as a sign that people are finally willing to address the repressive atmosphere at many colleges.
But not all viewers saw it that way. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote that "a real-world tenured professor like Bill would be extremely unlikely to lose his job for making fun of Nazis in the wrong way." She also posited that concern about the climate on campus is really about people over 40 feeling ashamed of being "repelled by the sensibilities of the young."
In fact, polling finds that Generation Z (the cohort of young people born in 1996 or after) has the most negative outlook on cancel culture of any generation. And Goldberg's assertion that The Chair used an implausible example of a threat to free speech on campus is undermined by the fact that something very similar actually happened earlier this year.
In January, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Robert Schuyler was pushed into retirement after he reacted to being silenced in a departmental meeting by giving a mock Nazi salute. Critics characterized this one-second gesture as "heinous acts" and called on the university to punish Schuyler in order to demonstrate its opposition to "all forms of prejudice." The student newspaper dutifully reported that Schuyler told it "he does not endorse Nazism," as if his sarcastic reply to the rigid enforcement of faculty meeting rules could legitimately be interpreted as an expression of support for the National Socalist philosophy.
For those who defend free speech on campus, a case involving a Nazi salute would be among the less sympathetic cases in a given year. (The fact that Schuyler's gesture was sarcastic barely registers in an age when the alleged effect of speech is deemed more important than the intent.) But it doesn't take an accusation of Nazism to get you in trouble these days. Professors have been targeted for quoting James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.; for asking students to analyze the consequences of the historical shift in trading and travel patterns known as "Columbian exchange"; and for speculating on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, University of Illinois Chicago law professor Jason Kilborn was placed on leave and subjected to months of investigation after students complained about a self-censored reference to two epithets—literally, "N_____" and "B____"—in a law school exam hypothetical about workplace discrimination.
If anything, The Chair made the students demanding the professor's resignation look more reasonable than they often do in real life. The series features a confrontation with students evocative of Christakis' confrontation in 2015, an encounter I witnessed. There, students surrounded Christakis, screamed at him, broke down in tears, called him disgusting, and told him he shouldn't sleep at night. The cause? Nicholas' wife, Erika, had argued in an email that students should be able to decide which Halloween costumes to wear—an argument in favor of student autonomy that was surely less offensive than a Nazi salute.
Since 2015, there have been at least 200 attempts to get speakers disinvited from campuses; 101 of those were successful. But even when the events go on, student protesters sometimes physically block the entrance to speeches deemed problematic or chant, bang drums, or pull the fire alarm so the speeches can't be heard. A few speakers have actually been assaulted, including unknown chemicals sprayed at conservative podcaster Michael Knowles at University of Missouri–Kansas City. Riots at Berkeley in 2017 over a Milo Yiannopoulos speech included smashed windows, bloodied spectators, and fire bombs.
The 'Chilling Effect'
Goldberg's article was premised in part on the claim, advanced by Liberal Currents editor Adam Gurri, that only a small number of professors have been targeted for cancellation. "If any other problem in social life was occurring at this frequency and at this scale," Gurri wrote, "we would consider it effectively solved."
Gurri's count of targeted professors comes from data collected by FIRE. In context, it does not show a problem effectively solved.
From 2015 through mid-October 2021, FIRE identified 471 attempts to get professors fired or punished for their constitutionally protected speech, with almost three-quarters of them resulting in some type of sanction. In 106 of those cases, the sanction included the loss of a job. The frequency of these attempts has risen dramatically, from 30 in 2015 to 122 in 2020. And the list includes 172 tenured professors who were punished, 27 of whom were fired.
Tenure was designed to be a nearly invincible protection from termination for one's speech, beliefs, teaching, or research. Until very recently, even a single fired tenured professor for anything related to his or her speech or scholarship was a huge deal. Twenty-seven tenured professors fired in a handful of years for their expression is unprecedented. It undermines the whole function of tenure, which is to protect academic freedom by assuring professors they won't find themselves unemployed for exercising it. Contrary to Gurri's framing, this number is not small.
His argument resembles another misleading argument made by those who say campus speech culture is not a problem. It typically starts by noting that there are 6,000 colleges in the country and then shrugs off the hundreds of attempts to push out professors as a small number. This makes the problem look diffuse. In reality, it's quite concentrated.
Of the top 100 schools according to U.S. News & World Report, 65 have had a professor targeted since 2015. Meanwhile, the top 10 schools had an average of seven incidents each.
In fact, if you start with the top 100 universities and then eliminate the schools that appeared in FIRE's Scholars Under Fire database, schools with severely restrictive "red light" speech codes, schools where FIRE intervened on behalf of a student or faculty member, schools with a successful disinvitation campaign, and schools with a Bias Response Team, you are left with only two institutions: the California Institute of Technology and the Colorado School of Mines. If you eliminate schools with vague "yellow light" speech codes as well, there would be no colleges in the top 100 left.
But the problem is disproportionate in some places. Take the "most influential university in the world," Harvard, which educates a notably large share of America's ruling class. Keep in mind that the Harvard faculty, as at most elite colleges, is politically homogeneous: Just 2.5 percent of its faculty of arts and sciences identifies as "conservative" and 0.4 percent as "very conservative." Despite that overwhelming ideological unity, there have been 12 public attacks on professors just since 2015.
In 2017, Harvard rescinded the admission of 10 would-be students over offensive memes in a Facebook group. In 2013, the school surreptitiously scanned resident deans' email accounts in the wake of a cheating scandal—not to find the cheaters but to sniff out who had leaked an email about the scandal, a gross violation of faculty privacy.
By downplaying the scale of such problems, Gurri and others are wishing away the "chilling effect," the well-recognized fact in both law and psychology that when people have to guess as to which opinion, joke, or idea will get them in trouble, they tend to self-censor. Indeed, professors have been telling us they are chilled for years. As far back as 2010, when the Association of American Colleges & Universities asked professors to respond to the statement, "It is safe to have unpopular views on campus," only 16.7 percent strongly agreed.
According to a 2021 report from Eric Kaufmann at the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, 70 percent of conservative academics in America say that there is a hostile climate toward their beliefs, and 62 percent of conservative graduate students agree that "my political views wouldn't fit, which could make my life difficult." Meanwhile, 1 in 5 faculty members openly admit to having discriminated against a grant proposal because it was perceived as conservative or "right-leaning," and slightly more than 1 in 10 faculty members say they have discriminated against conservatives on both paper submissions and promotions.
Perhaps the saddest story of a targeted tenured professor is that of University of North Carolina Wilmington criminology professor Mike Adams, whose struggles at the school spanned nearly 20 years. After Adams was denied tenure because of his conservative writing, he filed a successful lawsuit, which not only won him tenure but also resulted in an important 4th Circuit appeals court decision protecting academic freedom in five states. Nonetheless, last summer, Adams was pushed into early retirement after he tweeted a sarcastic comparison of COVID-19 restrictions to slavery. In the weeks that followed, he killed himself.
Race to the Gutter
Of the 471 incidents mentioned above, most have come from the left of the targeted scholar. But 164 of them have come from the scholar's right. In fact, many of the efforts by conservatives to turn the tide on campus have mutated into approaches that look uncomfortably like the very speech codes they battled for decades.
In one case, researchers trying to determine whether liberals were becoming more comfortable with political violence were targeted by conservative author Todd Starnes, who insisted that a survey to discover student attitudes was equivalent to endorsing violence. In another case, the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party demanded that the University of Virginia investigate professor Larry Sabato for tweets that were critical of former President Donald Trump.
Across the country, conservatives trying to reduce the influence of campus-style identity politics have passed laws banning what they dub "critical race theory" (CRT), a catchall term for a constellation of ideas that encompass a certain perspective on race and its intersections with society. For most of its history, critical race theory was a niche area of study within the academy. But since the George Floyd protests of 2020, it has gone mainstream with the political left and become a villain to the political right.
The laws that Republican lawmakers have written in their effort to counter CRT are almost always unconstitutional as applied to higher education. What's more, they're likely to backfire. Giving campus administrators permission to get rid of professors who teach or subscribe to a particular ideology will almost always be used to get rid of dissenters. And conservatives who honestly express their opinions are, by definition, dissenters on most campuses today.
What's remarkable about this debate, as The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has pointed out, is that the right and the left have swapped places. Two of CRT's leading thinkers, Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda, were two of the strongest proponents of hate speech laws and campus speech codes in the '80s and '90s. And both have contributed to books with titles such as Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. By relying on the idea that ideas are dangerous, the anti-CRT laws now being promoted by activists on the right are direct descendents of the speech policies long favored by Matsuda and Delgado.
Pennsylvania H.B. 1532 bans requiring "a student to read, view or listen to a book, article, video presentation, digital presentation or other learning material that espouses, advocates or promotes a racist or sexist concept" in public K-12 schooling and higher education and bans hosting or providing a venue for a speaker that "espouses, advocates or promotes any racist or sexist concept." Laws in Arkansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma ban courses that teach that "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex"; bills in eight more states would impose the same language; and a federal bill referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform proposes restraining Washington, D.C., schools in the same way.
As with Matsuda and Delgado's work, the underlying notion is that some discomforting speech—especially speech that causes discomfort about race or gender—is harmful and should be prohibited.
Defenders of anti-CRT laws usually concede that the legislation's language is overbroad and poorly crafted. Almost invariably, they then insist the laws' vagueness should be ignored because of the scale of the problem and because those crafting the laws are on the side of the angels. I have seen this exact same argument made for decades to defend speech codes aimed at addressing racism and sexism on campus: In the face of such a terrible problem, the specifics of the law don't matter; only the intentions do.
As anti-CRT laws have proliferated, many on the left suddenly became aware of how broad and vague speech codes can be used to punish ideologies, and educators, they are fond of. Meanwhile, many on the right suddenly began to embrace the same sorts of codes they had fought for decades, hoping such codes could be the weapon they've long needed in order to turn the ideological tide on campus.
True believers from across the political spectrum seem to believe that some weapons are good if they're wielded by the right people and bad if wielded by the wrong people. That's a problem that needs to be solved, lest campus culture become a tit-for-tat race to the proverbial gutter.
How To Save Higher Ed
Amid the Second Great Age of Political Correctness, American higher education has become too expensive, too illiberal, and too conformist. It has descended into a period of profound crisis wrought by shifts in hiring, student development, and politically charged speech codes developed during the Ignored Years, when too few were paying attention. American campuses should be bastions of free expression and academic freedom. Instead, both are in decline.
We cannot afford to just give up on higher ed. College and university presidents can and should do the following five things:
- Immediately dump all speech codes.
- Adopt a statement specifically identifying free speech as essential to the core purpose of a university and committing the university to free speech values.
- Defend the free speech rights of their students and faculty loudly, clearly, and early.
- Teach free speech, the philosophy of free inquiry, and academic freedom from Day One.
- Collect data and open their campuses to research on the climate for debate, discussion, and dissent.
Those who donate to colleges should refuse to do so without demanding these changes.
But we need to do more than reform our existing institutions. We need alternative models to traditional higher education.
In early November 2021, an upstart called the University of Austin announced the intention to create a new academic institution on the principles of radically open inquiry, civil discourse, and engagement with diverse perspectives. Publicly available information is sparse, but according to Pano Kanelos, the incoming president of the University of Austin and a former president of St. John's College, it plans to launch masters programs in 2022 and 2023 and an undergraduate program in 2024.
Meanwhile, Khan Academy is an online program where anyone can watch free, high-quality instructional videos on a variety of topics and receive an assessment of their abilities in return. Minerva University is an ambitious hybrid model offering brick-and-mortar facilities in San Francisco and several foreign cities and online instruction to students around the world. It focuses on teaching "critical wisdom" to top-tier students and claims to be more exclusive than the most elite colleges. It's not too hard to imagine a future in which employers value a mastery level from the Khan Academy or a degree from Minerva more than a degree from a middling traditional university.
The bottom line is that the opinions of professors and students should be ferociously protected, and that those who run universities must reject the idea that colleges and universities exist to impose orthodoxies on anyone. Over the past decade, too many academic institutions have grown used to promoting specific views of the world to incoming students.
Radical open-mindedness would be wildly out of place at most contemporary universities. Getting there will take substantial cultural and political change.
That starts with self-awareness. One lesson of the First Great Age of Political Correctness and the P.C. wars of the 1980s and '90s is that it was a huge mistake to think that because a movie like PCU skewered campus culture, the problem had already fixed itself. As a result, the problem was allowed to grow worse.
We can't make that mistake again. The ideal time for achieving real change in higher ed was 30 or even 40 years ago. The next best time is now.