It’s troubling when any institution tries to squelch debate or discourage controversial ideas, but it’s downright alarming when this occurs at a university — and even worse when it is the University of California, whose Berkeley campus was at the center of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening thanks to heavy-handed sensitivity training about so-called microaggressions. University instructors everywhere should feel free to say that America is a “land of opportunity” or that affirmative action is “racist” or that a student of any race or gender is “good in math” without having to worry that they might inadvertently be offending someone. UC officials should understand that and stop trying to defend their over-the-top, politically correct list of unacceptable topics and questions.
The phrases quoted above were included in material posted on the website of the office of UC President Janet Napolitano as supplemental material to workshops that deans and department heads had been invited to attend. The goal was legitimate enough — to increase awareness of racist or sexist comments that might be made unintentionally. And certainly, some of the examples are indeed the kinds of seemingly innocuous personal comments that deans and department heads and other faculty members should know are hurtful — such as saying to a black woman, “I would have never guessed that you were a scientist,” or asking a Latino student to say something in his or her “native language,” as though that language couldn’t possibly be English.
But some of the supposed microaggressions are not necessarily aggressive at all. If a professor asks a Latino, Asian American or Native American student to “speak up more” in class, is the professor really saying that they must “assimilate to the dominant culture”? If a university official says, “I believe the most qualified candidate should get the job,” does that really mean “people of color are given unfair benefits?”
Worse yet, the material posted on the UC website discourages faculty members from expressing legitimate political opinions. Surely a professor ought to be able to say that America is a melting pot, or that affirmative action is a bad policy because it is inherently racist. Since when are universities afraid of clashing or provocative beliefs?
UC’s response has been that the list doesn’t reflect university policy and that no one is actually being forbidden to use such language. That’s true, but the university is clearly discouraging certain kinds of statements, and faculty will take notice — especially those members without tenure.
These are disheartening days in academia. Some students are demanding “trigger warnings” about material that may be emotionally distressing. Others insist that some political points of view are just too offensive to be discussed. We’re all for sensitivity and we are against racism and sexism. But colleges have always been bastions of free expression because the learning process requires students to debate controversial and occasionally disturbing ideas. UC has done a disservice to that noble academic goal.