In praise of tolerant colleges

John Zmirak

10/10/2006 12:29:52 PM - John Zmirak

A few weeks ago, the national magazine The Advocate published a book that’s both unprecedented and unnecessary: The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students. In case you’ve spent the past 20 years in either a cloister or a coma, LGBT stands for “Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender,” a dazzling example of compression for politically correct speech, which normally takes 3-4 polysyllabic words to produce an opaque euphemism. Such euphemisms generally sound ridiculous at first — until they are shoved into every nook and cranny of our language by bureaucrats, academics, and finally attorneys. It usually takes some 10 years or so for a laughable acronym like this to move from the punchline of a joke to a term of art in anti-discrimination regulations.

The editors at The Advocate seem to imply by releasing their guide that most universities are bastions of hostility to public displays of sexual deviance. To which I’d say that I’m not sure which country they live in. I do remember that my blue-collar high school in Queens was a tough place for anyone who diverged in any way from the grubby norm; reading poetry in the lunchroom was enough to get you showered with epithets, and shaken-up cans of Coke. (See, I was a “heterosexual victim of homophobia.”) But that’s hardly the case at any of the campuses I’ve visited, or the 130 + schools I cover as editor of a series of college guides. At Yale when I arrived way back in 1982, there were public same-sex “kiss-ins,” on the steps of the library each spring. When I wrote an article during “Gay-Lesbian Awareness Days” reasserting enduring Christian teaching, within the week I was assaulted by an angry male-male couple at a party. (The police refused to file a report.) But even at the most conservative campus I have seen, that of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge — which was rife with the kind of frat boys one might suspect of secret hostility to drag queens — there were thankfully no reports of attacks on the many open homosexuals on the campus. No thuggish young men with “issues” were reported hanging around outside the thriving gay bar near campus. An opera student made a series of drag-queen movies right on campus which launched his career. Last time I heard of him, he was doing a solo act in Carnegie Hall.

No, in my experience and the reports of the hundreds of students and teachers we consult each year, there’s little reason to fear much hostility to students with offbeat sexual tastes. And that’s a good thing. Personal attacks on people because of their “sexual identity” are uncivilized, and ought to be punished like any other form of harassment. What intolerance we have found on campuses across the country seems aimed at a very different sort of student: The kind who expresses and defends traditional social mores, and Christian faith. In just the past year, there have been numerous incidents reported on in mainstream and niche media which suggest that schools which would move heaven and earth to avoid incommoding “transgender” students are cavalier about the rights of conservatives and people of faith.

Most recently, at Columbia University, the administration failed to protect the free-speech rights of the College Republicans, who attempted to host a talk by representatives of the Minutemen — a group of patriotic Americans who risk their necks as volunteer observers on the bleeding U.S. border with Mexico, braving attacks by armed “coyotes” (human traffickers), drug smugglers and enraged Latino nationalists. When a mob of outsiders associated with various old-line Commie front groups rushed the stage and grabbed the microphone, campus police did not intervene, and the event had to be abruptly cancelled.

In a more subtle instance of intolerance, the administration of Georgetown university — the Jesuit university where crucifixes were only kept in classrooms thanks to the intervention of the school’s Islamic chaplain — allowed its office of Protestant ministry to expel six Evangelical groups, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, from the campus. Their crime? The ministry’s press release was a quilt of weasel words, but it’s safe to conclude that the Evangelicals’ offense lay in their theological conservatism. Such groups tend to be vocally pro-life, against gay activism (for instance, the redefinition of marriage), and hostile to the liquidation of traditional Christian doctrine. In other words, the school’s chaplaincy represents the dying hulk of mainstream liberal Protestantism — just as the university, in the main, shills for the fading faith of liberal Catholics. And it doesn’t want the competition from people whose faith is on fire.

At Harvard University, where a panel re-examining the school’s anemic distributional requirements recommended adding a mandatory course in religious studies, (to which I say “Boola-boola!”) the school’s semi-official Memorial Church (Mem-Church) conducts same-sex weddings. What is more, two of its official chaplains are openly gay. As Harvard graduate (and now editor at The Atlantic) Ross Douthat, complained in the Harvard Salient, the appointment of such clergy “was intended to establish Mem Church as a place where those with orthodox religious views would not be welcomed.... Tolerance for gays, it is now clear, means intolerance for others, namely those who cling to what the administration obviously regards as outdated nonsense — the idea that not all sexual behavior is morally equivalent.”

At Louisiana State University, where I finished my Ph.D., one graduate student was given a failing grade on a final paper which would have led to her expulsion from the program — and the loss of her teaching job at another college. Her crime? Citing Thomas Aquinas and Dante as a source in critical theory, and using their “fourfold method” to interpret a novel. Her paper was good enough to get accepted at a professional conference, but the embittered ex-Catholic professor — himself a squeaky Marxist feminist — gave her a zero. Not an “F.” A zero. Having spent the entire semester cracking jokes about all the “Bible-thumpers” on campus, he got his revenge on this student when she dared to employ her knowledge of medieval literature and theology in an academic paper. The department backed him to the hilt. It took the threat of a lawsuit, asserting that the professor’s repeated slurs aimed at Christians had created in the classroom a “hostile learning environment,” which amounted (hold your breath) to sexual harassment. In a piece of cleverness, the student turned the leftist bureaucrats' own regulations against them, and the university blinked. She passed the class — but was so traumatized by the year she spent fighting the system that she dropped out of the school. She’s now happily home-schooling her son, but she’ll never get her degree.

Such stories are commonplace nowadays, far more common than open gestures of “homophobia.” Indeed, the phenomenon of intolerance by students, faculty, and administrators towards more traditionally-minded students is well-known among conservative parents — who are becoming ever more dubious about bundling up their kids for four years of the silent treatment. For that reason, the organization where I work, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has produced a counterpart to The Advocate’s guide, aimed at the group which is really underserved and sometimes persecuted on campus nowadays: All American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith. In it, we examine 50 academically excellent schools, including such stars as Princeton and the University of Chicago; religious schools which are faithful to their founders, such as Wheaton College, Yeshiva University, and the University of St. Thomas; and several colleges where a prevailing liberal consensus does not prevent conservative or religious students from learning or voicing their views, such as Deep Springs in California and Whitman College in Washington.

These are not schools where students with unconventional sexuality would find themselves persecuted — though the dress code at the Citadel, for instance, might prove awkward for cross-dressers. They are schools which take seriously the old ideals of humane liberal education, academic freedom, and openness to faith. At these schools, students of many different viewpoints will find the breathing room they need, in an environment of intellectual rigor. To my mind, those qualities ought to be what any student is seeking.