Campus bullying

Bullying is a significant problem on college campuses these days. Working at Harvard, I’ve run into some of it myself. I’m not talking about the crude, “Give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up” kind of bullying, but intellectual intimidation. If you express views that are out of line with the orthodoxy, you can be subject to serious pressures. Not even the president of Harvard is safe; Lawrence Summers was driven out of that post in 2005 for raising the possibility (not asserting as fact) that statistically slight cognitive differences might contribute to the numeric differences between men and women in the sciences.

Even your private conversations aren’t out of the bullies’ reach. In 2010, Law School Dean Martha Minow castigated a student in public for failing to dismiss categorically — in private email — the question of whether there are racial differences in intelligence. When the defense of a scientific idea consists of “You’re forbidden to think about the alternative,” the only people who’ll think about the issue are the ones who challenge it, and no one will be equipped to rebut their claim that the old idea is mere dogma.

This month, Harvey Silverglate gave three out of five Campus Muzzle Awards to Harvard. I disagree in part with his assessment of the locking of the gates last winter in response to some Occupiers; if the purpose was “keeping the outside world from seeing a political demonstration,” it only kept people from seeing how tiny it was. The lockdown was a clumsy attempt to keep outsiders from camping out on campus without dealing with the problem directly, causing serious inconvenience to legitimate visitors.

As long as I’m employed at Harvard, it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to detail my own experiences in public, but I’ve encountered the bullying attitude myself. Let’s just say that a person I have reason to worry about recently addressed the words, “I’m for free speech, but …” to me.

Even as an unusually stubborn person with money to fall back on, I can feel worried. What must it be like for an undergraduate with very little experience and hardly any money, away from home in an unfamiliar culture?

High school students picking colleges to apply to should consider the atmosphere of intellectual freedom or its lack at the schools they consider. There’s no definitive ranking anywhere; obviously people will vary on how intimidating they think practices are. It will take research. If you apply to a military or religious school, you know up front that some ideas will be encouraged or frowned upon. Maybe it’s worth putting up with, as long as you know what you’re getting into. It’s the ones full of fanfare about “academic freedom” and “open exchange of ideas” where you have to look carefully. FIRE‘s website can be a valuable source of information.

If you run into academic intimidation, the best response is a firm, calm stance. If you seem afraid, bullies of any kind will take advantage of it. If you get angry, you’ll lose. Clearly (not belligerently) pointing out that what you’re encountering is intimidation will make them worry. It’s a common trick for bullies to play victim: by saying something they don’t like, they say, you’re creating a “hostile environment.” Remind them that you are simply discussing an issue, and they’re the ones trying to make you feel afraid. Most professors and administrators are chiefly concerned with keeping their jobs and not getting into trouble themselves; your best chance is not to look like either an easy target or a threat.

Easy for me to say, I know. But it’s the best advice I can offer, and if you can carry it out, it’s your best chance.

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