If you thought political correctness on campus had gone the way of pet rocks and hula hoops, think again. Last week, some 70 students at Colgate University, an elite college in rural New York, occupied the school's admission office for more than 7 hours to protest what they called "racially insensitive" statements made by associate professor Barry Shain in an e-mail he sent to a student.
Did these e-mails contain epithets or slurs? Did they attack or demean a particular racial or ethnic group on campus? Did they in any way express racist or xenophobic views? No, the professor's "insensitivity" consisted of questioning whether some minority and female students on campus were being "invited to offer opinions about their 'feelings' rather than advance reasoned opinions derived from careful examination of the written materials encountered in class." He also expressed his worry "that too many students of color are seduced into taking exotic courses that make few demands on them rather than those courses that force them to grow emotionally and intellectually."
Now Prof. Shain didn't just sound off on these topics, uninvited. He had been asked to be a guest on a Colgate student-run television program to address the topic "Racial Sensitivity at Colgate -- Are Students At Colgate Too Sensitive About Race?"
He offered instead to address questions he thought more relevant, which is how he got into hot water. The student who had invited him in the first place went running to the faculty "thought police" -- which, at Colgate, as at most campuses, consists of faculty members as well as students. Now Shain faces possible action from the university itself. Among the protesting students' demands are that all faculty receive mandatory "sensitivity training" and that the university re-evaluate Shain and other tenured professors in light of their "sensitivity."
Over the years it has become increasingly dangerous for professors or students themselves to criticize, in any way, minority or female students or faculty. It is impermissible to suggest that double standards exist when it comes to admitting minority students or hiring minority or female teachers. It is forbidden to question the merit of various ethnic or gender studies courses. And apparently it is forbidden to wonder aloud whether minority or female students aren't being cheated by all this "sensitivity" to their putative needs and desires.
But the protesting students are not the real problem at Colgate, or elsewhere the thought police have gone into action. Behind every one of these episodes there is usually at least one faculty member stirring the pot. At Colgate, Prof. Shain believes the incident reflects a broader attack on the institution's identity.
Shain claims that the attacks on him are part of a campaign to dramatically transform the university itself. Colgate has always occupied an enviable reputation as not just a first-rate academic institution but a well-rounded one, which values sports and social life, as well as academics. According to Shain, a small but active group of faculty members wants to change that. These "reformers" would like to get rid of NCAA Division 1 sports at the school, as well as campus fraternities and sororities, and turn the college into an androgynous place where students mirror their left-wing, feminist, multiculturalist professors.
Shain has been a thorn in the side of his colleagues on these issues, and they're now getting even. If they can brand him a racist, his objections to the transformation of the college won't be taken seriously.
But the questions Shain raised in his e-mail apply at virtually every college and university in the country. Courses in which students are invited to emote rather than think have proliferated since the '60s. Many professors find it easier to turn their classes into rap sessions than to prepare lectures or lead serious discussions of the reading material. The situation is particularly troubling at an elite college like Colgate, where more rigor might be expected.
It's not just a minority of female students who will suffer because of this growing trend. "This situation greatly saddens me," Prof. Shain wrote. It should sadden us all.