Middlebury College in Vermont has joined the growing list of illustrious universities in danger of becoming better known for hostility to free speech than for academic credentials or notable alumni. One unedifying evening last week saw a guest lecture by Charles Murray, notorious author of The Bell Curve, curtailed by protesting students while, in the middle of the fracas, the professor hosting the event was seriously injured. In the same week, six professors from Wellesley College wrote to faculty arguing for new guidelines to stop speakers who might cause students ‘damage’ from being invited on to campus. The missive was prompted by an invitation issued to feminist cultural critic Laura Kipnis, who has spoken out against legislation to regulate consensual relationships between academics and students.
Both Wellesley and Middlebury are highly selective liberal arts colleges. Middlebury is referred to as a ‘Little Ivy’ and Wellesley is one of the ‘Seven Sisters’ women’s colleges established in parallel with the Ivy League. These are academically elite – and expensive – institutions. As such, they join other top ranking universities at the forefront of eroding free speech. It was Yale students who infamously shouted down the professor defending their right to choose for themselves what to wear for Halloween. It was at University of California, Berkeley, the home of the original campus free-speech movement, that students rioted in protest at Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned visit. A look at spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings reveals a similar pattern in the UK. The more prestigious universities, those ranked highest in popular league tables, are nearly always the most censorious; the few green-ranking institutions are generally less highly esteemed.
It’s undoubtedly true that campus censorship attracts more media interest when it takes place at top universities. What happens at Yale or Oxford is newsworthy: these institutions educated today’s politicians and journalists and are currently shaping tomorrow’s leaders. But this is about more than just attention. On both sides of the Atlantic it is the most elite institutions, those that can take their pick of the brightest students, those that, in the US at least, are able to command the highest fees, that are leading the way in censorship.
Students in receipt of the best education money can buy are neither less capable of refuting speakers they find offensive nor inherently more sensitive than the rest of us. Perhaps what they do have is a more finely tuned sense of entitlement, stemming from their place within the academic elite and exacerbated by their status as consumers. All too often this is enacted as a demand for freedom from speech. Some seem to assume that the cost and effort that goes into securing a top university place gives them the right not to be offended once there.
The link between academic success and a fondness for censorship is more than just a mindset. It is precisely because they are the academic achievers that students at elite universities demand freedom from speech. They are the ones who have best imbibed the lesson that truth is a question of perspective; discourse is a reflection of power relations and oppression is intersectional. They’ve learned that language constructs reality, and that ‘words that wound’ can inflict ‘spirit murder’ on those who, according to their gender, ethnicity or sexual identity, are assumed to be forever powerless. The students who excel in elite universities today have come to embody the vulnerability they see in others.