College students’ heightened sensitivity, embodied in their impulse to find “safe spaces” from ideas they dislike, is an epidemic of closed minds. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA has discovered disturbing trends about students who entered college last fall. Its 2016 study, of 141,189 freshman, shows a growing political polarization. Students who think of themselves as “middle-of-the-road” politically have decreased from 47 percent in 2014 to 44.9 percent in 2015. Many of those students moved to the left, and students characterizing themselves as “liberal” or “far left” now make up 33.5 percent of the 2015 freshman class, up from 31 percent in 2014. Meanwhile “conservative” and “far right” students remained unchanged at 21 percent. This drift to the left is growing alongside a student affinity for political activism, an increase in campus politicization, and a downward spiral of intellectual liberties.
More students are interested in leadership and politics. According to the study, nearly 39.8 percent of students say that being a community leader is “very important” or “essential” as a life goal, compared to 36.4 percent a year earlier. Over the past decade, voter turnout has consistently decreased at each presidential election. That trend may end as incoming freshman come up on their first opportunity to vote and focus their political ambitions. When asked, 22.3 percent of the 2015 freshman class believe influencing political structures to be a “very important” or “essential” achievement. In other words, politically ambitious students are becoming mainstream.
But students aren’t simply more ambitious, they’re more active. In 2014 only 5.6 percent of students felt it “very likely” that they would participate in campus protests. A year later, 9 percent of the incoming freshman class reported that they were likely to participate in student protests.
The HERI at UCLA released the 2015 fall National Norms report in the smoke of a misguided war: the campus versions of the Black Lives Matter protests. The report’s introduction mentions that race relations from 2014 to 2015 deteriorated into protests across the nation following the killings of black men in Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore, affecting the political attitudes of Americans entering college in 2015.
Students should be using their increased political activity to find solutions to such societal tensions. Instead, they are using activism to curtail rather than expand personal liberties. According to the National Norms report, 70.9 percent of students believe that “colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech.” Another 43.2 percent think that colleges have a “right to ban extreme speakers.” These students prefer censorship to conversation. If they have their way, universities will become tightly controlled “safe spaces”—no place for controversial ideas.
Their attitudes aren’t just hypothetical. Disinvitations are becoming the new norm. Williams College, Scripps College, and others have all disinvited speakers they thought to be “extreme.” Such disinvitations amount to ideological wall building. This is the very concept that Sandra Y.L. Korn, a Harvard student, proposed a year ago in the Harvard Crimson. She even went further by calling for the complete elimination of academic freedom. More recently, students at the University of Pittsburg shouted down Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos for sharing his opinions on the gender wage gap, Black Lives Matter, and feminism. Many of the students reported feeling “unsafe” and “insecure.” In February, Williams College President Falk disinvited John Derbyshire, a writer whose opinions are considered by many as racist. Derbyshire was invited by students to speak in a lecture series titled “Uncomfortable Learning.” Zach Wood, the student organizer of the lecture series, who is both black and a liberal, believes that engaging with intolerant ideologies is better than attempting to “quarantine” them. It seems that Wood falls in that 29.1 percent that still values free speech and intellectual freedom.
This report presents a dangerous reality: as students become more politically active on campus, they are beginning to limit personal liberties, especially First Amendment freedoms. If more students fall into step with their compatriots, campuses will become bastions of politicization and ideological indoctrination, impenetrable to attempts to reintroduce the intellectual freedoms that have so far sustained the academy.