Review: Campus Life

campus life

Campus Life: In Search of CommunityEdited by Drew W. Moser and Todd C. Ream, Foreword by David Brooks. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An expanded version of a 1990 Carnegie Foundation report on the basis for community on college campuses, with contributions from pairs of academic and student development leaders at six Christian universities.

Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published several important reports roughly thirty years ago on higher education. Perhaps one of the most profound of these that expressed a concern for the soul of the American university was Campus Life: In Search of Community. Out of his research findings he elaborated six principles that characterize flourishing learning communities on campus:

  1. Purposeful community: where students are intellectually engaged and where academic and co-curricular aspects are integrated.
  2. Open community: a place where freedom of thought and expression coupled with an awareness of the power of words to heal or hurt, a “sacred trust.”
  3. A just community: where dignity, equality, and equity are affirmed and practiced in bridging widening gaps between rich and poor.
  4. A disciplined community: where university governance protects the common good. Boyer advocated for clear codes of conduct developed by the community.
  5. A caring community: places where every student is supported, and where there is opportunity for engagement across generations.
  6. A celebrative community: a place held together by more than complaints about food or parking, but by remembering and celebrating traditions, including the traditions and contributions of its diverse student population.

Many of us who work around universities would concur that this still serves as an outstanding vision for and description of healthy university communities, and an agenda worth pursuing by all those who are stakeholders in an academic community. Thankfully, we don’t have to search online or in libraries for copies of this report. It has now been reprinted as part of an updated and expanded version, directed particularly for those working in the Christian college context but relevant as well, for both student life and academic professionals more widely.

The update includes six chapters, each co-written by a student life and an academic leader from the same Christian college. These parallel Boyer’s six principles, updated and contextualized to Christian colleges, and framed by a prologue by the editors on the search for renewal, and an epilogue, describing the challenging work of walking the “narrow ridge” of Christian calling and academic excellence.

A few standout ideas:

  • In the chapter on “open community” the tension of academic freedom and Christian orthodoxy was acknowledge. The writers proposed a distinction between “core beliefs that the college affirms and must be shared by educators and “privileged beliefs” affirmed by the college, but on which educators may disagree while being supportive of the college. They also acknowledge neutral beliefs on which the college has no stance. It would seem that clarity on which is which prior to faculty hiring is key.
  • Under “just community” the writers talked about the importance in seeking diverse, multicultural communities that this cannot be an instance of “you are welcome, but don’t move the furniture.”
  • The chapter on “caring community” had what I thought a helpful discussion of faculty and staff awareness of student health, and a constructive section on what happens when uncaring moments occur on campus.
  • On “celebrative  community,” there was encouragement both to learn from institutional history and tradition, and to developing celebrations that reflect the current student body.

So why is David Brooks, The New York Times columnist writing a foreword for this book? In addition to affirming the communal values outlined in Boyer’s original report and their elaboration by these higher education leaders, Brooks believes Christian colleges uniquely help students flourish in the committed life. He comments:

“When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments–sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age twenty-two. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments” (p. xii).

This contrasts with the “expressive individualism” Brooks observes in the wider culture and he attributes the difference to the formative communities he sees at Christian campuses where he has spoken.

Whether one accepts the Christian premises of the contributors in this expanded edition, Boyer’s six principles of community remain a challenge for all higher educators. These principles also provide a bridge for Christians working in public higher education to connect with what may be shared aspirations among student life and academic leaders. When Christians affirm purposeful and integrated learning, open and civil engagement, commitments to justice and equity in the university, to a disciplined yet caring community, and to sharing in and contributing to the celebrations of university life, they not only contribute to the communal health of their institutions, but they bear witness to the Christian distinctives that have helped shape flourishing institutions throughout history.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Are Universities in the United States Losing Their Edge?


Princeton University, Public Domain via GoodFreePhotos

The lead story in this week’s University World News reported that universities in the United States received their worst rankings in the sixteen years the QS World University Rankings have been published. Ben Sowter, director of research at QS, says the United States is seeing an unprecedented rate of decline in these global rankings. While five of the top ten schools are from the United States, only 29 are in the top 100, and 72.6 percent of the schools saw a decline in their rankings.

Why is this happening? Sowter observes:

“This attrition of confidence has been compounded by worsening international student ratios, relative to global peers, and evidence that America’s previously unassailable status as the world’s research leader is under increasing threat.”

Declining federal funding

Courtesy of the National Science Foundation

In the US, federally funded research funding has declined from a peak in 2011 by 13 percent by 2016. Recently, the current US administration proposed another $7.1 billion cut to Department of Education funding. However, it should be noted that funding cuts go back to the previous administration. States have also been cutting research funding during this period. Any increases in funding have come from industry and from universities themselves. Meanwhile, the research output at China’s top ten universities now nearly equals that of the US although the “research impact” of US universities is still twice that of China. China has been making an aggressive investment in research funding during this period.

Concurrent with these funding declines are political attacks on science, striking the use of “evidence based research” in government reports, and publicly questioning finding concerning climate change and the safety and efficacy of vaccines. These factors also color global perceptions.

This is regrettable because an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study shows that the majority of Americans strongly support funding for scientific research (71-72 percent), and view research as beneficial (72 percent). It appears that in perceptions of science as in other matters a smaller but energized base skews perceptions held by a broader swath of the American public.

As an American who is a Christ-follower engaged in ministry in higher education, I have deeply mixed feelings about all this. On one hand, I am a witness to the huge advances in medicine, digital technology, transportation safety, development of renewable energy, and many other aspects of human life that comes out of research labs. Our research output has contributed to vast improvements in human flourishing in many areas. I’m also conscious of the double-edged character of so much of our research, that may both heal and kill, and sadly often is utilized for the latter.

Also, as one whose first allegiance is to the kingdom of God that knows no boundaries of national borders, I do not have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the greatness of American research universities, as much as I love my country. Advances in knowledge are to be celebrated whether they occur at Harvard, or Oxford, or at the National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University in China, the University of Melbourne, or Universidad National Autonama de Mexico (UNAM). I do regret that it appears we will have fewer opportunities to welcome students from other countries.

What troubles me is seeing good resources squandered. I wonder what is not being researched for lack of funding in American universities. I wonder about the quality and focus of research when more of it is tied to industrial or military clients. What questions of basic research are being ignored? What talent is fleeing our borders for countries more favorable to research? As in so many things, research universities may take decades to develop into greatness, but can decline within a few years. Right now, American universities are trying to keep up by increasing their own funding efforts as state and federal funding declines. It can be asked how long this is sustainable as well as what else suffers along the way. Will funding pressures and the loss of international students, who bring tuition dollars into the university, result in universities becoming more selective in admissions, enrolling the elite at the expense of those requiring scholarships and grants?

What is clear is that what we do in the next years will be decisive. If we start now, perhaps in five years the precipitous declines in these rankings, and the corresponding declines in our universities may be stabilized or reversed. If we don’t begin now, things likely will get worse, even as other universities in China, Singapore, Korea, Australia, and other parts of the world get better. The quality and output of our research universities, coupled with the protection of academic freedom in our universities have been one of the marks of American greatness. Both are in jeopardy and it seems the question we must ask is whether we are willing to accept this form of loss of American greatness.

Review: The Future of Academic Freedom

The future of academic Freedom

The Future of Academic FreedomHenry Reichman (foreword Joan Wallach Scott). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Summary: A defense of academic freedom in a contemporary setting where it is under attack by political leaders, and facing curtailments with the rise of the corporatized university.

What is academic freedom? Classically it has been defined as the protection of the freedom in research and publication, freedom of discussion in the classroom on matters related to their discipline, and freedom when they speak or write as citizens from discipline or censorship, with the expectation that while they do not speak for their university or profession, that they nevertheless represent these and ought speak with both accuracy and constraint. (Summarized from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure adopted by the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]).

Henry Reichman, the Chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers in this work a rigorous defense of academic freedom, and a discussion of some of the related controversies on campus, and trends that threaten that freedom. He opens by posing the question, “does academic freedom have a future?” He explores the different trends threatening academic freedom that he will explore in more detail, from efforts to censor faculty or outside speakers on campus, the limits on students expressive freedoms, and more serious in his view, efforts to administratively or legislatively censor faculty speech,

In his chapter justifying academic freedom, he engages what he calls the “cramped” argument of Stanley Fish that argues that the responsibility of faculty is to research and teaching focused in one’s discipline, and that extramural expressions of ideas (for example on politics or personal ethics) fall outside the duties of faculty. He argues that this is not consistent with historic AAUP commitments that contend that the profession’s devotion to the larger common good justify accurate and responsible speech on wider issues both as members of the universities as citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

This leads to further discussion on faculty freedoms to speak as citizens, including utterances on Twitter. He explores challenges to that freedom by administrations or pressures brought to bear when faculty make controversial public statements. One of the things that comes out is a differentiation between free speech and academic freedom. While faculty can speak freely as citizens, not all such speech may be protected under provisions of academic freedom, particularly when such speech raises questions of fitness for their position. He considers specific cases, some in which he would argue that dismissal was unwarranted.

He discusses some of the much-ballyhooed threats to free speech on campuses (particularly speakers who are dis-invited or shouted down) and contends that these threats, while real and requiring a vigorous response, are often isolated and exaggerated. He points to the thousands of counter-examples of speakers on a variety of issues who speak on campus, sometimes with vigorous dialogue, which he contends is what campuses are for. He contends for the expressive freedom of students, which, while not academic freedom, per sé, nevertheless is consistent with the university as a place of free inquiry.

The real issue, he believes come from the pressures exerted on administrations by donors, cost-cutting pressures in increasingly corporatized universities that are reducing the numbers of tenured faculty and resulting in the increased use of contingent faculty, and political pressures attacking the idea of higher education, particularly public education, and seeking to reduce research funding and student aid.

One of the most revealing aspects of Reichman’s discussion is the evolving AAUP stance on unions and collective bargaining. AAUP has sought to maintain itself as a professional organization, and yet the pressures of both faculty speech and finances around both the corporatization of the university have necessitated the evolution of unions or union-like structures in AAUP chapters at many universities. One senses that Reichman accepts this as a necessary evil that has arisen in an era of bloated administrations and eroded faculty governance and standing.

Reichman gives us a discussion at once careful, grounded in historical precedent, and at the same time attuned to the changing environment of contemporary higher education. The work serves both as a good introduction to the idea of academic freedom, and a spirited discussion of what that means in the present time. He shows that academic freedom is not a mere indulgence, but essential for the education of students, the advance of learning, and the wider common good of society.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Are Humanities Degrees A Dying Breed?

A J Gordon Chapel Gordon College

A. J. Gordon Chapel, Gordon College. Photo: John Phelan [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia

Gordon College announced recently that it was eliminating chemistry, French, physics, middle school and secondary education, recreation, sport and wellness, Spanish, and social work as separate majors, and combining philosophy, history and political science into a single department. This will mean the cutting of 36 faculty and staff positions.

Several small liberal arts colleges have faced closure, and one senses that the move on Gordon College’s part is to avoid a similar fate. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of bachelors degrees in the humanities dropped by nearly ten percent.  By contrast, degrees granted in engineering, science and health and medical sciences have increased.

Much of this is attributed to a rise in the number of jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related disciplines. Not only do majors in these fields preclude major in the humanities for all but the most motivated students, but the course loads in these majors are driving the reduction of what we called General Education courses, those that provided the necessary number of student hours in these humanities courses.

In my work in collegiate ministry with graduate students and faculty, most of those I know in the humanities are working as adjunct or contingent faculty, as tenured faculty positions dry up. They are lured to grad school by a love for literature, or history, or philosophy, and the chance to dig more deeply into what they love on fellowships or tuition waivers and stipends for teaching introductory courses with undergrads. They are actually low-cost labor. Then, as they wrap up four to six years of study with a dissertation, they go onto a saturated job market competing with several hundred others for every open tenure track position, often settling for those adjunct or contingent faculty positions. Many times they have to pay their own health benefits out of salaries that place them below the poverty line. Some find other ways to leverage their talents in industry, teaching high school, free-lancing or other jobs related, sometimes tangentially,  to their field. And some are baristas, or food truck vendors.

While it saddens me to see people who do not find jobs in the fields they love, most end up living satisfying and interesting lives. What saddens me more is the message many others are buying into in preparing for work in STEM fields. These are often sold as the training needed to fill the jobs that fuel the American economy. The message seems to imply that the purpose for which the emerging generation exists is to be fuel for our economic machine, or maybe a cog in the machine–until the machine replaces them! I find myself wondering how long people will settle for this before waking up to the fact that they know how to make and do, but have no idea why they are making and doing, what kind of world they are making and doing in, whether their making and doing is something good and worthy to give one’s only life, and how we arrive at this place in time and this kind of society.

A good liberal education helps people explore all these questions, and consider whether the answers of others address the questions of the day. I wonder sometimes whether the effort to eradicate what was once a staple of education is a recognition of the dangerous character of such an education. It fosters the asking of hard questions of oneself and one’s society. Questions people ask. Questions cogs do not ask.

I asked the question of how long it would take for people to wake up to what they’ve missed or lost. I suspect some never do, the amusements and distractions of life precluding such awakenings. Others get twenty years into a career only to discover that they have no clue why they are doing what they do other than that it pays well.

Writing a blog, and curating a Facebook page devoted to book, reading, and ideas, I interact with a diverse community of people for whom ideas and history, literature and art matter. They have discovered that making a life is far more important than making a living. They want to understand not only how to do things, but to make sense of their place in the world and this particular time in its history. Some have always understood this. Others fought to this realization later in life.

It makes me wonder whether at times humanities courses are wasted on the young. I wonder whether one answer to declining humanities enrollments is offer courses for those who later on in life realize what they have missed. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of things like The Great Courses.

Why do I value the humanities? I could come up with profound answers but the truth is, it comes down to some good teachers who opened up the fascinations of history, the profound questions raised in great works of literature and philosophy and the passages of Augustine and Calvin that made my soul soar. There were also those in the sciences whose larger perspective on life looked beyond how things work to explore why we can understand these things and why they seem so beautiful, why the world is a place of wonder.

I realize as I muse on these things that I have no clue what the answer is to the decline in humanities enrollments and the curtailment of humanities programs. The most that I know to do is to keep affirming the richness and goodness and beauty of the fruits of these disciplines: literature, history, philosophy, political thought, art, music, and more. I don’t know that I can be a good teacher, but I hope I can celebrate those in print who have been good teachers to me and say, “look at this.”

Review: In This World of Wonders


In This World of WondersNicholas Wolterstorff. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2019.

Summary: A memoir tracing vignettes of the different periods of the author’s life from childhood in rural Minnesota to a career in higher education in which he was instrumental in leading a movement of Christians in philosophy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Alvin Plantinga, is a leader of a movement of Christians who have thoughtfully engaged the academic discipline of philosophy, including forming the Society of Christian Philosophers. His teaching career included permanent academic positions at Calvin College and Yale University as well as visiting professorships at a number of universities including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, Notre Dame, the Free University of Amsterdam, and the University of Virginia. His academic works have included publications on aesthetics, Reformed epistemology, justice and political philosophy, metaphysics, and the philosophy of education.

His memoir is composed of “vignettes,” from the different periods of his life. He begins with his roots in rural Minnesota, the loss of his mother, the family dinner table that anticipated philosophical discussions, and the opening vistas provided by his education in a Christian high school. He traces his educational journey through Calvin College, and the influence of Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, his marriage to Claire Kingma, and his graduate education in philosophy at Harvard. He chronicles his early teaching experiences at Yale, including an embarrassing class he offered at a nearby prison. Much of his career was spent at Calvin College, and he recounts his friendship with Alvin Plantinga, and the turbulent times of the sixties and the seventies. He also recounts a fascinating consulting assignment with Herman Miller, manufacturer of the famous Eames chair, and the questions about aesthetics Max DePree and others asked, rooted both in Christian conviction and a concerned for excellent craft.

He recounts his “awakenings,” including his rejection of foundationalism for a Reformed epistemology that contends that there are certain beliefs, for example concerning the existence of God, that are properly basic. In Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, Wolterstorff elaborated these ideas. He traces his exploration of aesthetics, a growing concern for justice in his encounters with South Africans, Palestinians, and Hondurans, and his developing ideas of a philosophy of education, all subjects on which he wrote.

The most poignant part of the book is his narrative of the loss of his eldest son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident. He describes the writing of Lament for a Son, and admits both that he cannot make sense of what God was up to in such a loss, and yet that he cannot give up on a God who he believes performs the cosmos. Personally, I found this one of the most compelling discussions of the nature of grief and the profound questions it raises in anything I have read.

His narrative of Amsterdam brings out his love of architecture and well made objects, including chairs. It was clear throughout that Wolterstorff not merely writes about aesthetics–he loves beauty in both the creations of God including flowering gardens and in the creations of good craft on the part of human beings.

The final parts of the book include his later years at Yale, his retirement and visiting appointments, his life in Grand Rapids, and his family. A thread here that comes up throughout is that he is a lifelong churchman of the Christian Reformed denomination. Not only has the legacy of Calvin and Kuyper shaped his philosophy, but also the liturgy of the church shaped and formed his life, another subject on which he later wrote in a book on liturgical theology, in which he explored the understanding of God implicit in our liturgy.

This memoir is a wonderful example someone who has lived the life of a scholar Christian, one whose faith serves to draw together all the threads of his life, including a rich marriage and family life, enabling him to see and rejoice in worlds of wonder, and whose faith shapes his engagement with his chosen discipline of study, philosophy. Anyone who has read the resulting scholarship, and particularly his books, will find this memoir a fascinating journey describing how he came to write these works. Most of all, he captures so much of what is best in scholarly work, endangered by the corporatization of higher education. He writes:

“What do I love about thinking philosophically? I love both the understanding that results from it and the process of achieving the understanding. Sometimes the understanding comes easily, as when I read some philosophical text that I find convincing and illuminating. But often it comes after struggle and frustration. My attention has been drawn to something I do not understand, which makes me baffled and perplexed. Questions come to mind that I cannot answer. I love both the struggle to understand and the understanding itself–if it comes. The love of understanding and the love of achieving that understanding are what motivate and energize my practice of philosophy. For me, practicing philosophy is love in action” (p. 105).

I think this describes what motivates many scholars. This is a great book to read for anyone who aspires to such a life, or for anyone who wants to understand those who engage in scholarly work.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Race on Campus

race on campus

Race on CampusJulie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018.

Summary: Addresses myths and misconceptions around issues of race on college campus using research data.

Race continues to be an issue on campus as well as in our larger society. It is popular to note how students of color may be found sitting together in the college cafeteria and self-segregate into ethnic-specific organizations. Some object to using race in admissions processes and argue that the same ends might be achieved by class-based admissions alone. Of course, affirmative action is argued back and forth, and the case has been made for students with high test scores who were turned down for admissions including those from Asian-American backgrounds. Recognizing some of the inequities in college tests, proposals have been made to remedy with offering universal test prep. Some have recommended that affirmative action programs at some of the nations elite schools “mismatch” students of color and set them up for failure, when they may have excelled at a lower tier university.

These are the issues Julie J. Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, addresses in Race on Campus. Her approach is to come up with data-driven insights from peer-reviewed research to explore if what is being proposed or observed is actually the case. Often times, she argues, the data reveals a very different story, and that cognitive bias is actually a big issue in discussions where data belies what is contended. Here is a sampling of some of her findings:

  • The self-segregation of students of color in cafeterias and organizations reflect only an hour or two a day of a student’s life, and that students in ethnic specific organizations actually have more interactions with those of other ethnicity. Times with one’s own ethnic minority re-energizes students for engagement across ethnic boundaries. She also observes that most of us don’t notice that all the white students are also sitting together, or the instances where students are crossing boundaries.
  • Where self-segregation is a greater issue is in Greek life on campuses, as well as in religious organizations. Especially in the Greek system, self-segregation leads to fewer interactions with non-White students. This is less the case in religious organizations, but most students in self-segregating religious groups will have fewer close friends of another ethnicity.
  • Studies show that admissions processes that are both race- and class-conscious result in far more diverse classes than class-conscious approaches alone. She observes the wealth gap between median household wealth of Black and White families ($7,113 versus $111,146) and that this supports that we need to focus on race to get to class diversity because of disparities in wealth.
  • Asian-American students actually benefit from affirmative action, both by not being discriminated against, and in being part of more diverse student bodies. The discussion here goes beyond the test scores to the variety of factors in a student’s profile that are considered in admissions and student success. She deconstructs the “140 points” myth (that Asian-American students need to score 140 points higher on the SAT to be competitive with other students for admission).
  • There are all kinds of problems with admissions tests and the test-prep programs touted to bring big score increases. The actual overall gains, from test to test using test prep are minimal. Furthermore, there are inequities both in educational backgrounds that cannot be made up for with a test prep course, and inequities of access to the best test prep programs that make tests like the SAT an unreliable measure of how a student will perform.
  • The problem with the “problem of mismatch” is that under-represented minority students admitted to elite schools on the whole do about as well, and in some cases, better than majority students. Here, Park takes apart a study by Sander and Taylor that has been invoked for encouraging students to go to “slower-track” institutions.

This is a winsomely written book addressing a tough subject. I especially appreciate the epistemic humility of Park, who in the course of her research discovers some of her own cognitive biases, and has the courage to admit them. I also appreciate an academic citing academic research who writes accessibly for a wide audience. In the Introduction, she says,

“Who should read this book? Everyone! If you’re a graduate student, academic, policy-maker, educator, everyday citizen–come on in. One of my key goals is to highlight empirical studies on race in a way that is more accessible than the original peer-reviewed journal articles, which are primarily read by academics. Don’t get me wrong, academic journals are riveting reading, but it can be tedious to comb through study after study, so I’ve done that work for you. I’ve also done my best to write this book in a conversational tone to make it accessible to a wide range of readers” (p. 6).

I believe she succeeds on both counts. The work is meticulously researched with 32 pages of end notes in a book that comes in at under 200 pages. Park keeps it accessible, citing key statistics within the text without bar charts and graphs (which I know will disappoint some). The tone remains conversational, and Park avoids the “detached researcher” voice that often result in accurate but sterile works.

This work is important for its conclusions as well–that we are tempted to adopt policy proposals driven by cognitive bias rather than data, that we need more robust measures of merit than test scores that recognize different ways excellence manifests in students across race and class, and that racism and racial inequalities continue to need to be addressed on campus. The book challenged some of my own cognitive biases around issues like self-segregation.  This is an important book for anyone connected to higher education who aspire to seeing campuses as diverse as our population, that prepare students to lead in a diverse society.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Summary: Discusses three bad ideas that result in a culture of “safetyism” in higher education, chronicles the consequences of these bad ideas, traces factors that led to the embrace of these ideas, and how we might choose a wiser way.

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt contend that these three bad ideas constitute a well-intentioned but toxic basis for a campus culture of “safetyism.” They argue that these ideas contradict ancient wisdom, psychological research on well-being, and are harmful to the individuals and communities who embrace this mindset. Lukianoff, the president of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Haidt, a social psychologist perhaps best known for his recent work, The Righteous Mind, began to notice, from 2013 on, an increasing trend of concern on university campuses about “triggering material,” efforts to disinvite, or obstruct controversial speakers by heckling or even violence, coupled with reports of increasing levels of anxiety and fears about safety.

There seemed to be an increasing perception by university administrators that students were “fragile” and needed protection and “safe spaces.” They noted the priority given to feelings, and that the response to anything that evokes negative emotions is not to consider how one ought think about the external cause, but to simply remove whatever offends or causes stress–be it course material or offensive speakers, or perceived “microaggressions.” (Although I wonder whether two white men can fully take on board what it is like to experience frequent microaggressions because of one’s race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or disability.) They also noted the framing of the world in terms of a toxic form of identity politics, focused on common enemies rather than common humanity–us versus them, good versus evil.

After delineating the contours and problems with these “three great untruths,” the authors chronicle a number of incidents in the last five years that they believe result from these often well-intentioned but bad ideas. They chronicle violent outcomes to this thinking at Berkeley after Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak with no disciplinary action by the university, and at Middlebury College when controversial scholar Charles Murray attempted to speak and a hosting faculty member suffered a concussion and whiplash requiring six months of physical therapy, in attempts to disrupt the event. Perhaps not as well publicized were the “witch hunts,” often against liberal faculty like Erika Christakis at Yale, who objected to an administration’s paternalistic instructions about offensive Halloween costumes, suggesting that students might be mature enough to set their own norms. Students called her out as a racist, for creating an unsafe space, and sought her firing. She ultimately resigned. On many campuses, faculty feel they are walking on egg shells, often choosing to avoid anything controversial for fear that it may evoke complaints, or a witch hunt.

The authors identify six contributing factors to this culture of safetyism, devoting a chapter to each:

  • Rising political polarization, with campuses shifting leftward and increasingly distrusted by those on the right.
  • An increase in adolescent anxiety and depression beginning in 2011, significantly correlating to smartphone usage. This group began arriving on campus in 2013.
  • Paranoid parenting resulting in far less unsupervised play and greater fears of abduction (even though crime rates for this crime have dropped).
  • The decline of free play and the rise of emphasis on test preparation.
  • The growth of a bureaucracy of safetyism at universities, driven by federal mandates, risks of lawsuits, and a consumerist mentality, in which students are the consumers.
  • The quest for justice, evoked by events between 2012 and 2018 that sometimes focuses on “equal outcomes social justice” in which any demographic disparity is assumed to be the result of discrimination, and alternative explanations are themselves considered discriminatory.

The authors observe that many of these factors arise from good intentions taken to extremes and are careful to distinguish between legitimate forms of concern (like protecting physical safety) and more extreme forms of safetyism.

They conclude with three chapters on wising up, with applications to children, to universities, and to the wider society. They argue for preparing kids for the road rather than the road for the kids. They propose that our worst enemies cannot harm us as much as our emotional reasoning. And they encourage the recognition that “the line dividing good and evil goes through the heart of every human being,” and that we ought be watchful for any institution that promotes a common enemy rather than common humanity narrative. They commend the Chicago Statement (including a version of it in an appendix) that promotes free speech, academic freedom and free inquiry and sanctioning efforts to suppress speech.

The authors, particularly Greg Lukianoff, who benefited personally from this approach, advocate for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that improves mental health and coping skills through recognizing cognitive distortions and maladaptive behaviors, and challenging and changing these. Essentially, they would contend that their “three bad ideas” are both cognitive distortions and lead to maladaptive behaviors good neither for the person, nor the university, nor society. Hence, it should be understood that CBT is integral to their critique and recommendations.

Working in a collegiate setting, I’ve seen many of the conditions the authors describe. Most faculty I know readily resonate with the feeling that they walk on egg shells, even while being deeply committed to academic freedom and challenging students thinking. I’ve seen the growing sensitivity to microaggressions. I’ve witnessed the surprise when I’ve suggested that being offended is a choice–that no one can offend us unless we let them, and that there are other options. I have been concerned that universities often seem to be echo chambers for the progressive end of our political discourse, blind to the very practices they excoriate on the right.

Given the character of our wider society, it seems the last thing universities should be doing is engaging in the kinds of “coddling” Lukianoff and Haidt describe. If we are to have any hope, it will take resilient, anti-fragile people who will engage and keep engaging differing and even off-putting ideas. Most of all, in a climate of us versus them, we need people able to follow the Pauli Murray principle: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” Here’s to drawing larger circles!

Review: Consent on Campus

consent on campus

Consent on Campus: A Manifesto, Donna Freitas. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An argument that current approaches to consent education as an approach to combating sexual assault on campus are inadequate both in the time devoted to deal with the complexities of sexuality, and the absence of campus leadership, faculty, presidents, and other university leaders, from the discussions.

Much has been made in recent years of the prevalence of sexual assault on campus, with statistics indicating between 20 and 25 percent of women will be subject to assault, and smaller numbers of men, during their collegiate years. Colleges and universities, under pressure from the federal government and Title IX enforcement, have stepped up their efforts at “Consent Education” with programs like “Sex Signals” and “Partying with Consent.” These programs, often part of an hour long session in new student orientation, allow campuses to check the box that they have exercised due diligence in consent education. The other side is Title IX enforcement when a student or other member of the university community files a sexual assault complaint, with mandatory reporting requirements when university officials learn of a sexual assault, opaque investigative processes, neglect of due process for the accused, and pressures on the accuser, depending on who the perpetrator might be.

Donna Freitas, who has been studying student sexuality and the hookup culture on campus for the past ten years since publication of Sex and the Soul, believes these institutional responses to be utterly inadequate. She begins with a preface directed to all university presidents, and it is her hope that they all read this book. Their personal engagement, and not simply written statements, is vital in communicating that campus leadership prioritize thoughtful, honest discussion of sexuality on campus.

She surveys the landscape of campus efforts to deal with sexual assault. She offers a helpful explanation of how Title IX works, the “Dear Colleagues…” letter in 2011 that has triggered the growth of Title IX offices, reporting, and enforcement, and the failure of a campus-wide approach to address the sexual culture on campus that is implicit in Title IX proceedings. She also describes the thin efforts at consent education that fails to deal with the complexities of what “yes” means. Particularly, this is problematic with the party culture of campus and the complications alcohol bring to consent for both male and female students.

It goes deeper though and perhaps one of the most important part of Freitas’ book is the exploration of the inherited “scripts” that shape student behavior, often pressuring them to act in ways that are far from sexually free. Women have to project an air of indifference toward men, that sex doesn’t really matter that much, to avoid any sense of appearing “needy” or “clinging.” Men face pressures to perform sexually, even when they don’t want to. Their masculinity is at stake. Hookups are defined as over when the man “comes” (no real consideration of the woman’s experience). Women also face pressures around body image and various forms of “slut shaming.” All of this, in combination with the presence of alcohol, undermines any real giving and receiving of consent, as well as destroying any sense of sex as something deeply intimate, powerful and empowering for both partners. These inherited scripts are problematic, and often supported by a prevailing assumption on campus that “everyone is doing it” that doesn’t support those who wish to abstain, or wait for a different kind of relationship.

Freitas advocates for a concerted, widely owned effort to re-write these scripts, shared between students, student life personnel and faculty and university leadership. She observes that students often have high ideals of social justice and human dignity, but have never been able to connect those ideals to their sexual and partying behavior with each other. Freitas argues that any sexual encounter is an ethical act. She suggests using campus mission statements, which often are intended but rarely applied as expressing the ideals to which the community aspires. She contends that both existing scripts need to be codified, and critically examined, and that alternative, “interruptive” scripts need to be enacted. She sites the example of Columbia student, Emma Sulkowicz, an assault survivor who raised campus awareness by carrying her mattress with her wherever she went, which became a senior thesis, “Carry That Weight.” Most of all, she pleads that discussions of sexuality not be confined to large, one hour orientation sessions led by over-burdened student life personnel, but be integrated into classroom discussions. She challenges the value of intellectual detachment, proposing that where course content is relevant, that discussion on how this bears on students personal lives and behavior is appropriate and needed and that faculty and university leaders actively engage what happens after the classroom hours as well as during them.

I found much to be commended in this “manifesto” that “named the elephant” lurking on every campus. I appreciated her contention that what is needed are not trigger warnings but honest, even painful discussion (while never forcing students to share personal experiences they are not ready for). I appreciated her descriptions of Title IX and existing consent education efforts and their inadequacy. This needs to be honestly faced, and she helps us do that. I was glad for her contention that student beliefs and choices not to engage in the campus hookup culture need to be affirmed for whatever reasons, including religious belief, that they embrace these choices.

At the same time, she writes dismissively of  “values voters” and conservative “one size fits all” ethics in a way that seems to suggest that this is the only alternative currently on offer to hookup culture or her own “script rewriting efforts.” The truth is many campus religious communities are having thoughtful discussions of the kind she writes about that go beyond “what not to do and who not to do it with” to explore the meaning of sexuality, the significance of our gender and identity, how we deal with desire and respect and honor others. She leaves this group out as potential allies, despite their influence with a significant percentage of students on many campuses.

Finally, in urging greater faculty involvement, I wonder whether she reckons with the institutional support necessary for such conversations, from training of what is and is not legal and appropriate in classroom discussions, access to counseling when discussions raise unresolved issues for faculty who also have sexual lives and histories, and good linkages between faculty and student services personnel who might follow up with students in need of further counsel.

This “wake up call” comes as another cohort of students is preparing to arrive on campus. The matters she raises are urgent. Will this next cohort face the same depersonalizing sexual scripts that have prevailed and receive the same thin gruel of consent training? Will both men and women feel strong pressure to conform to the gender stereotypes that prevail in campus sexual culture? And will 20 to 25 percent of these women conclude their college experience not only with a degree but a sexual assault? Much of the answer depends, in Freitas’ view, on whether university leaders, faculty, student life personnel and students come together to disrupt that culture. Her book is probably one of the best playbooks I’ve seen for doing just that.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Freitas’ earlier book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy was reviewed at Bob on Books on November 24, 2013.

Review: Speak Freely

Speak Freely

Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, Keith E. Whittington. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Summary: A case for the vigorous defense of free speech as essential to fulfilling the mission of the university in the face of both institutional and outside attempts to suppress objectionable speech.

Free speech on college campuses is perhaps under as great
a threat today as it has been in quite some time. We are not,
of course, on the verge of returning to the rigid conformity of
a century ago, but we are in danger of giving up on the hard won
freedoms of critical inquiry that have been wrested from
figures of authority over the course of a century.

So contends Keith E. Whittington in this rallying cry to defend free speech on university campuses. Whittington discusses the challenges to free speech arising from free-floating forms of calls for “trigger warnings and safe spaces,” the cries to ban “hate speech” from public discourse, protests whose purpose is not dissenting from the speech of others but obstructing it, restraints or bans on student groups and outside speakers advocating objectionable ideas, and attacks on the academic and speech freedom of faculty.

His fundamental contention is that freedom of speech is essential to the mission of the university, which he defines as “producing and disseminating knowledge.” Freedom of inquiry, rigorous discourse, disagreement and persuasion are all aspects of this process, and the protections of freedom of speech are essential for universities to flourish in this mission. A common element to both the mission of the university and a rigorous defense of free speech is a commitment to truth-seeking.

Having stated this contention, he surveys the development of a tradition of free speech over the last several centuries, both in its political expression tracing back to Jefferson and the refusal to permit authorities to define and censor “bad” speech and the philosophical tradition of John Stuart Mill upholding freedom of thought and conscience. He then considers the challenges to this freedom of speech, already noted above, including a number of recent instances in the last decade, notably the efforts to suppress Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, and the injury to the faculty moderator that ensued. He also calls attention to the banning of religious groups who do not permit students to lead who do not share their beliefs, thus excluding the views of these groups from the public square.

In this last instance, I would have liked to seem a stronger recognition of how protecting the freedom of people with a particular viewpoint to associate is essential to sustaining their freedom to advocate that viewpoint, whether in line or at variance with the university orthodoxy. I would have liked a clearer connection to be drawn between the institutional forms of suppression of free speech that occur in universities, and efforts by students or outside groups to do the same, to which those same university leaders often object. In many instances, students are using the means at their disposal to restrict certain forms of speech, mirroring the more “refined” ways institutions suppress objectionable speech through policies, procedures, and pressures. Students are often simply doing what they have been taught.

Nevertheless, the author’s contention is crucial that all forms of speech, short of speech that is directly threatening harm or incites violence, ought to be protected, and channeled toward real deliberation and persuasion. I saw an instance of this recently where a university president, under pressure to dis-invite a speaker who made some impolitic statements, refused to do so and invited students to engage the speaker with their questions about his statement, and also to set up other university-supported discussions countering the speaker’s viewpoint. The president used this instance as a “teachable moment” of what it meant to live up to the school’s “Code of Love and Honor” that includes these affirmations:

I respect…
the dignity, rights, and property of others and their right to hold and express disparate beliefs.

I defend…
the freedom of inquiry that is the heart of learning.

This, for me was an example of the personal and institutional backbone necessary to sustain the speech freedom Whittington, I think rightly, believes vital to the mission of our colleges and universities. Whittington notes that this may be costly, when controversial speakers make appearances. Equally, his book seems to me to be a cry for colleges and universities to examine their own culture, and how institutional efforts to censor objectionable or unpopular points of view undermine the very mission of higher education. If colleges and universities indeed believe that inquiry, rigorous discourse, persuasion through logical and reasoned discourse, and appeals to evidence are the stuff of truth-seeking, not just in higher education, but in a liberal democracy; then they should not only defend those who seek to “speak freely” but eschew any efforts to substitute institutional power plays for the deliberative truth-seeking that is supposedly at the heart of its mission.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: American Academic Cultures

American Academic Cultures

American Academic CulturesPaul H. Mattingly. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Summary: Traces the history and development of higher education in the United States as a succession of seven “generational cultures,” using examples of prominent institutions representing the emergence of each culture.

How did higher education in the United States achieve its present status, whether one considers this desirable or otherwise? Was there a golden age in American higher education, and if so, exactly when was that? These and other questions are much discussed in higher education circles and the topic of numerous historical explorations of higher education in America. Most trace the development from colleges closely tied to the church through the rise of research universities and public, land-grant institutions, down to the present day of our complex multiversities. Most works simply trace a linear development. What is distinctive in Paul Mattingly’s work is the proposal that this development might be understood as a succession of seven overlapping “generational academic cultures” which he discusses in the course of the fifteen “essays” that comprise the book. In each of these, he elaborates the character of these cultures through highlighting examples of prominent institutions, cultural trends, and key figures that represent a particular academic culture.

The seven generational academic cultures he identifies are (the date ranges are my approximations):

  1. Evangelical (1636-1800): These colleges were church-related institutions (Harvard, Yale, etc) that focused on the intersection of piety and intellect and whose character was profoundly shaped by the Great Awakening.
  2. Jeffersonian (1750-1830): As denominational colleges spread southward, Jefferson and the patrician hierarchy of Virginia sought to check the strong denominational indoctrination and paternalistic control through a publicly supported university that expressed the mores and values of the region. The University of Virginia was the educational, and even architectural expression of the ideal of “Mr. Jefferson’s University.”
  3. Republican/non-denominational (1800-1860): The growth of a post-Revolutionary republic and the need to educate business and civic leaders brought an emphasis on “moral character over “true belief,” resulting in even denominational schools broadening their curriculum to accommodate these needs. (I wonder if 2 and 3 are aspects of a single academic culture)
  4. Industrially-driven post-graduate/professional organization (1860-1910): The Civil War marked a watershed in higher education as war-related research and scientific and technological advances resulted in an increasing emphasis on post-graduate research on the European model, and post-graduate professional education. It led to the rise of the land-grant universities propelling both agricultural and engineering and science education, and Charles William Eliot’s efforts to turn Harvard into a “generic” university.
  5. A Progressive (urban-driven) pragmatism with a substantial liberal arts/teaching countercurrent (1880-1930): The rise of American cities and Progressive reforms led to the growth of urban universities that addressed issues of education, health, safety, and labor. This was the period of figures like Thorstein Veblen in sociology and John Dewey in philosophy and education. This period was epitomized by William Rainey Harper’s University of Chicago that fused liberal education with these pragmatic concerns, all within a Gothic architecture harking back to Europe’s great universities.
  6. An internationally-minded academic discourse (1890-1950): The emergence of research-oriented institutions like John’s Hopkins and its impact on the university landscape led to increasing ties with European scholars. The rise of Nazism resulted in a mass immigration of many of those scholars to the United States, where their presence transformed the discourse in fields from psychology to physics.
  7. The current corporate multiversity (1940-present): The ultimate expression of the development of pragmatism, where academic departments and interdisciplinary research vastly expanded in respond to federal research funding. Clark Kerr’s University of California–Berkeley is the epitome of this pragmatic university, organized not around an educational ideology but around the driving forces of research monies and market forces.

The work concludes with a chapter on challenging pragmatism, and indeed, it seems the author has landed on the critical question that this survey raises. Mattingly traces an evolution of higher education from institutions shaped around cultures centered on ideas to ones shaped by increasingly pragmatic concerns. The question this raises is whether our system of higher education exists for anything more than serving the research and vocational training needs of the country?

Mattingly contends that throughout this history, faculty have had a shaping role in the successive cultures of higher education, and believes this will be so in the future. I have to admit to being more dubious about both parts of his proposal. I think his survey actually demonstrates the predominant influence of cultural forces outside the university that shaped successive academic cultures. The culture-shapers he singles out inside higher education are primarily university presidents, and it seems that the prominent ones were those who got on the leading edge of broader cultural changes and led their institutional response to these changes. Furthermore, the corporatization of universities with more power flowing to administration and the adjunctification of the faculty suggests to me an even more diminished influence. I think the author is engaging in some wishful thinking at this point unless a concerted and focused movement of resistance and reform by noted scholars and tenured faculty arises.

The other criticism of this work is that it focuses primarily on elite institutions. While noting democratizing trends in higher education (with some attention on the development of the California State system as an example) relatively little attention is given to the diverse landscape of contemporary higher education from community colleges to the continued existence of liberal arts schools, urban universities (not the University of Chicago but the Wayne States (Detroit) of the university world, as well as the state systems, the comprehensive public universities, and the elite research universities. There is no mention of online education nor the rise of for-profit institutions. Perhaps considerations of space preclude this but it all seems an expression of the extension of both republican values (small “r”) and pragmatic concerns that the author so helpfully highlights.

These criticisms aside, the model of generational academic cultures as a way of understanding the history of American higher education seems quite helpful. It helps account for the very different ethos one finds in the collegiate settings of 1750, 1850, 1950, and today. As I noted, it also highlights the interplay of broader and academic cultural forces. Furthermore, the overlapping nature of these cultures underscores that the transition from one culture to another was never without tensions, throwbacks, and contention around the question of why a college or university exists. Furthermore, any meaningful conversation about the future(s) of higher education cannot exist apart from understanding where we are and how we got here, or a consideration of the cultural forces shaping the discussion. Mattingly’s well-researched and organized work seems to me required reading for any who care about such matters.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.