January 1, 2001 -- The classics, academic freedom, and justice often seem all but dead on college campuses today. Routinely, colleges and universities are ditching traditional standards of learning and governance, and replacing them with trendy, politically correct models. Consider these two recent cases:
1. Jared Sakren, a graduate of the Juilliard School and a former instructor at Yale University, was recruited from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 1994 to head Arizona State University's graduate acting program. His former students include Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Annette Bening, and Oscar-winner Fran McDormand. Said Bening in a 1998 Campus interview: "Jared Sakren is exceptional. And I am not talking about this in a generic way; he specifically is a very unusual and exceptionally good teacher and has skills that most acting teachers don't possess….I worked with him twenty years ago. He has enormous influence."
During his first year on campus, Sakren garnered praise from his colleagues for his production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. But this praise later turned to criticism when Sakren refused to bow to departmental pressure to teach postmodern plays such as Betty the Yeti: An Eco-Fable ("garbage," Sakren called it) and continued to teach the works of Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Chekhov, and Ibsen. A memo written to Sakren by Lin Wright, the department's chairman, revealed that "the feminists are offended by the selection [of] works from a sexist European canon." Shortly after receiving this, Sakren's contract was not renewed.
ASU argued that Sakren's contract was not renewed because of leadership problems, an inability to work well with his colleagues, and legitimate differences in opinion over the teaching of the classics. Believing his dismissal was the result of unjust political pressure exerted by peers in his department, Sakren filed suit against ASU and went public with his accusations. In an out-of-court settlement reached in November 2000, the university paid him $395,000, the equivalent of six years' salary.
2. In response to pressure from on-campus organizations, Columbia University replaced its sexual misconduct policy with one that creates, in the policy's own terms, "resources and structures [that are] sufficient to meet the physical and emotional needs of individuals who have experienced sexual misconduct."
Columbia's new system was designed to meet allegations that its previous system was ineffective in punishing sexual harassment and physical assault. A victims' advocate group led by student Sarah Richardson—who had accused two students of harassment but was unsatisfied with the results of her case—demanded a system that focused on aiding victims. Using red tape as her symbol, she claimed that the university's bureaucracy had stifled complaints to the point that only two were heard in the last five years. The new system requires a hearing, which must commence within ten days of the complaint and must be held in front of two deans and one student (who may be excused under certain circumstances). This panel hears testimony from all involved, reaches a judgment, then notifies the accuser and the accused in writing of their decision. The panel also submits a written summation, with recommended punishment, to the dean of students of the accused student's school.
Columbia University's sexual-misconduct policies have drawn strenuous objections from a cadre of individual rights organizations.
Detractors claim that this system aids victims at the expense of the accused, who has no right to have a lawyer present, or to face the accuser, or to listen to witnesses. There are no cross-examinations, and transcripts of the arguments are not kept. Moreover, complaints can be filed up to five years after the alleged incident. "How do you defend yourself?" asked Thor L. Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE, a new organization founded by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, has helped form a civil liberties task force at Columbia to change the policy.
Columbia's new system has also come under attack from a variety of columnists publishing in newspapers such as the Village Voice, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Boston Globe. A host of other organizations—including New York University, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Feminists for Free Expression (FFE)—have also criticized the university's disregard for due process. A letter to Columbia from FFE's vice president, Joan Kennedy Taylor, stated that her organization is "dismayed by provisions that infantilize students by streamlining away both the protections for the accused and the accountability of the accuser." The letter further discussed a concern that the policy "casts too wide a net," consequently "open[ing] the door to a wide variety of potentially spurious accusations against which defense might be difficult," and concluded by stating that "it is no service to women to hold that offenses against them require a kangaroo court." Despite this mounting criticism, Columbia has yet to change its sexual misconduct policy.
Unfortunately, political correctness is not limited to these two campuses. Similar instances, as reported by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), have been seen at San Diego State University, where students entering the graduate teaching program are required to go to such places as gay bars and all-black churches to learn tolerance; the University of Texas, where a scheduled speech by Henry Kissinger was cancelled due to pressure from campus protestors; and Virginia State University, where a professor of sociology and social work, Jean Cobbs, has been the object of a long campaign of persecution because of her conservative political beliefs. Many organizations, such as FIRE, FFE, and ISI, work to shed light on these examples, but the battle is far from won.