Conservative media have had a long tense relationship with institutions of higher education. Right-leaning outlets depict higher education as a landscape of unrelenting indoctrination spearheaded by ultraprogressive professors and social justice warrior students. At the same time, the stalwarts of those colleges wave away any negative portrayals of their campuses by conservative media as groundless, hyperbolic hysteria. The former can lead to a counterproductive level of hostility and demonization. The latter can lead to a separate set of problems. Specifically, defenders of higher education who focus only on condemning these outlets ignore the possibility that some of the criticism found in the conservative media may be of legitimate concern, even to them. What if some of what they say turns out to be true? In many ways, this is precisely what happened when mainstream outlets dismissed the Wuhan lab-leak theory as conservative fearmongering and conspiracism.
Let’s look at what is considered one of the most unabashedly hyperpartisan outlets in the conservative media ecosystem, at least when it comes to higher education: the online publication Campus Reform. The organization, a self-described “conservative watchdog to the nation’s higher education system,” has been labeled an “outrage machine” and has been rightly called out for the fact that many of the subjects of its stories become targets of online harassment campaigns. If any outlet is drumming up needless hysteria, Campus Reform would almost certainly be it.
A quick glance at the Campus Reform website is informative. It says its mission is to expose “liberal bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses.” Some pieces address concerns about the way higher education leans into identity-based theories (along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Examples include titles such as “Academics claim that ‘whiteness’ is a hindrance to education reform” and “Prof claims that violence against Asians from non-white people is still caused by ‘white supremacy.’” Such pieces raise questions that should be open to debate, including: Is it possible to lean too much into separating people into identity categories? Who decides what is “too much”? What are the potential consequences in terms of the resulting divisions?
Some campus Reform articles reference activity that people across the political spectrum may find concerning. For instance, in “Macalester College offers ‘weightlifting for women of color,’” “‘Sex Week’ at Tulane University features ‘Black Sex’ talk for ‘Black students only,’” and “Cornell charges students $1,800 for racially-segregated rock climbing class, frantically scrubs website when confronted,” the authors highlight campus programming that promotes segregation in a way that may be unlawful. Sometimes, the precipitating event that leads to an article occurs on social media. For instance, one article was about an instructor who tweeted that she is trying to minimize contact with white people. I’ve written here about whether comments on social media should be viewed as indicative of classroom teaching, but whatever the answer is, it should be applied consistently with regard to political orientation.
Rather than engage with conservative criticism, some campus defenders have argued that the real truth is that conservatives themselves are the ones who actually control higher education, as one author wrote recently. That piece was published after the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees tried to block New York Times journalist and 1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones from a tenured appointment at UNC-Chapel Hill. (The appointment is going through, but her tenure will be postponed and reconsidered in five years.) To be clear, using political bias as a basis to prevent Hannah-Jones from receiving a tenured appointment is wrong. However, to go from this instance, or the relatively small number of similar instances, to the conclusion that conservatives run academia is a serious reverse ecological fallacy.
The fact that it is improper and concerning for a conservative-influenced board of trustees to deny tenure based on politics simply underscores the separate and equally improper and concerning fact that steady streams of students at institutions around the country are only exposed to a narrow—and overtly left-leaning—ideological perspective. Placing overt ideological bias at the center of the academic enterprise is a problem whether it comes from the right or the left, or from a board of trustees or an instructor in the classroom.
For each of the past three years, I have taught a course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called “Bigots and Snowflakes.” The course, which engages with a set of complex social questions from multiple ideological perspectives, has been a pleasure to teach, with an engaged group of students each time. In teaching that class, I have learned that in other classes at my college, and I’m sure at many others, too, students are rarely exposed to ways of understanding the world that don’t align with a politically progressive worldview.
This is why they often start the semester without understanding that someone could have a principled objection to campus discourse elevating identity above all other attributes, to segregating people into racial groups for housing and other activities, to discussions of inequality that only focus on structural causes, and so on.
Often, they tell stories about conversations that unfold in other classes. There was the student with the instructor who asked the class whether they supported “building a wall” on the border with Mexico, making it very clear exactly what she thought of people who held such an opinion. There’s the student who admitted to the class that he doesn’t do the reading for his other sociology classes yet does well on the exams. Why? Because he simply supplies the instructor with whatever answer is furthest to the political left—a strategy he has found to be effective and reliable in securing high scores. And there are the endless students who can’t answer the question of why someone who isn’t racist may adopt a “conservative” position, such as opposing race-based college admissions.
It’s possible that these are the types of concerns that drive the work of outlets such as Campus Reform. And dismissing them as nothing more than conservative hysteria, even if the outlet is an “outrage machine,” is evasion, not engagement.
We should condemn hyperbole and the harassment that often follows Campus Reform articles. We should also be open to recognizing that some of the events those articles describe raise legitimate concerns. We can actually do both.
Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Founding Faculty Fellow at the University of Austin. She is the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the president of The Mill Center. She is the co-author of Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education and the creator of the Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes video series.