How many movies have remained so relevant decades after their release as the 1994 college comedy PCU? Within days of my son's arrival at the University of Arizona in Tucson, he and his buddies watched the film as a curative to the politicized weirdness they experienced as part of orientation. Happily, the students' reactions to the movie suggest that tolerance and fun still enjoy a constituency among college students despite the best efforts of ideologically driven campus killjoys.
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Orientation Turns Creepy
"It consisted of a group of students (I wasn't sure if they were undergrads or not) all wearing white polos and standing on a stage," my son, Anthony, told me via email about the required "Wildcat Way" presentation to incoming freshmen. "They appeared to be reading from a script. The structure of the presentation was that one of them would say something, and then the others would repeat a few key words, or would say something different in unison."
The main topics of the presentation were inclusivity (in the identitarian sense) and consent (in the ask before each stage of groping sense).
"In general the message was good," my son added. "But it was delivered in an extremely creepy way. For example when talking about consent they emphasized the word always, in unison saying it several times while getting louder each time. The creepiness of the whole event, combined with the fact that it was mandatory, and the security guards and metal detectors outside the building made it feel like I was trapped in some sort of cult brainwashing."
Note to campus administrators: If you want to persuade students of the righteousness of your messaging, don't stage something that looks like a dystopian rally.
Speaking of movies, the cult-y "Wildcat Way" wasn't what prompted the impromptu PCU viewing. That session came after several days of intermittent oddities among useful presentations, helpful meet-and-greets, and inevitable wastes of time. For instance, at one gathering there was a "consent booth" where students were coached through the "right" way to ask for sex at each stage of an encounter. Prizes were awarded to those who said the magic words that unlocked the gates to paradise.
Here, horndog. Have a biscuit!
It's Creepier at Other Schools
Strictly speaking, Anthony and his classmates got off easy. However eye-roll-inducing the presentation, urging students to refrain from bigotry and rape is a defensible activity for a university housing many thousands of residents. As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has documented, though, some colleges go much further, demanding ideological conformity and segregating students by race as part of politically charged orientation programs for incoming students.
"At a growing number of colleges and universities, students are directed or even required to attend orientation sessions whose outward purpose is to introduce incoming students to life in college," FIRE warns in introducing its Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus. "These sessions have evolved in Orwellian fashion in the hands of college administrators."
"The form of censorship with which this Guide is concerned is the affirmative form of censorship that goes beyond prohibiting 'bad' speech and ideas. It instead seeks to impose on a student, and coerce the student to adopt and to believe in, the 'approved' point of view advanced by the authorities."
In 2021, writing in the pages of Reason, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff called the current wave of campus intolerance and indoctrination "the Second Great Age of Political Correctness." It followed, after a pause, an earlier period in the '80s and '90s which inspired the movie my son and his buddies turned to for relief.
"The 1994 movie PCU, about a rebellious fraternity resisting its politically correct university, was a milestone," Lukianoff noted. "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 Return of Political Correctness, And of PCU
PCU was written by Adam Leff and Zak Penn, both of whom had recently graduated from Connecticut's Wesleyan University. At the time, Wesleyan served much the same role that, say, Middlebury (or Yale, or Stanford Law) fill today—a sort of Wuhan Institute of Virology of self-righteous intolerance. That provided much fodder for a movie about "causeheads" imposing their views on others.
"The more I examined the script and the more I did my homework about where culture was going on campuses, the more I thought, geez, there's an opportunity here," director Hart Bochner told Vice in a 2022 retrospective.
Unfortunately, after a brief intermission, the culture went there again.
"The whole woke movement, it's obviously an echo of those times," writer Adam Leff commented. "I certainly feel like we're on repeat, although this feels more universal. It goes to the workplace, it goes into politics, it goes into your everyday life in a way that the P.C. movement probably didn't."
That's why my son and a bunch of his friends crowded into the rec room in their dorm of their own accord to watch a 30-year-old anti-authoritarian comedy that remains as relevant—more so—as it was when it came out. We probably need a PCU for today, but Hollywood is in no condition to rise to the occasion and the 1994 film still does the job.
"The movie was well received, and most people seemed to enjoy themselves," my son told me.
A Free Campus If You Can Keep It
As mentioned above, the University of Arizona is generally a rather open campus, weird orientation programs aside. It gets a "green light" rating on free speech from FIRE and is number 18 of 203 in free speech rankings. Earlier this month, all three of Arizona's public universities dropped the use of often ideologically charged diversity, equity, and inclusion statements in hiring. My son and his classmates may suffer the occasional cult-like gathering, but they should remain free to voice dissent.
They should remain free. But they'll have to be vigilant.
"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," Lukianoff cautioned in 2021. "As a result, the problem was allowed to grow worse."
I have high hopes for my son's college experience. But if his campus follows so many others down the path of intolerance and indoctrination, he and his classmates seem inclined to mock rather than submit, and to defend standards of free thought and free speech. They'll have PCU for inspiration.