Cal Poly is back. It is reclaiming its place on the frontier of political correctness with a new program aimed at encouraging students to turn in their teachers and fellow students for deviating from officially approved thought patterns.
California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo, may be best known these days for its starring role in Indoctrinate U, Evan Coyne Maloney’s riveting documentary about the suppression of free speech on America’s campuses.
In an extended sequence in the film, Maloney seeks an explanation from campus authorities as to why a student, Steven Hinkle, got in serious trouble in November 2002 for posting flyers that announced a talk by C. Mason Weaver, author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, who is a black conservative. Hinkle was charged by campus police for posting “offensive racial material” in the Multicultural Center, and he was sent up to Director of Judicial Affairs. Hinkle ended up with a seven-hour hearing, during which he was denied access to legal counsel. The judicial board found him guilty and demanded he write a public letter of apology. Hinkle instead went to FIRE and the Center for Individual Rights. Eventually Cal Poly, watching its case collapse in court, agreed to settle with Hinkle and paid his $40,000 legal bill.
The movie includes Maloney’s attempt to see the president of Cal Poly, which results in an amusing display of bureaucratic power by a pompous little man who intensely dislikes the idea that his actions are being filmed. Catch it if you can.
Cal Poly got itself into this trouble by means of an extended and rather relentless campaign of political correctness. It encouraged the idea that students were frail creatures who might suffer untold damage if exposed to ideas or images they deemed “offensive.” And a great many Cal Poly students in Steven Hinkle’s era drank in the concept that they were all potential victims of the “hate speech” that malignant people were just waiting to unleash.
So did Cal Poly learn its lesson when it settled with Hinkle? Not hardly. According to the student newspaper, The Daily Mustang, Cal Poly is launching a new “outlet for students to report grievances,” called CARE-Net. “It is essentially a forum for students to report discriminatory incidents.”
The “CARE” in CARE-Net stands for “Community Advocating REspect.” The University initiative already has its own website, a page for the new identity-group-grievance-snitch system. The student newspaper account quotes special assistant to the vice provost and CARE-Net organizer Patricia Ponce expressing Cal Poly’s interest “in hearing about students’ experiences at Cal Poly,” which she reminds us, “is committed to be an inclusive community.” The webpage goes further. It declares that “Cal Poly is an ardent supporter of free speech.” That ardor, however, will not stand in the way of Cal Poly’s attempt to ensure that all members of the community "live and work free from bias, harassment, abuse, mockery, and discrimination.”
CARE-Net encourages students to report, “any speech, act, or harassing incident or action taken by a person or group that is perceived to be malicious or discriminatory toward another person or group based on bias or prejudice relating to such characteristics as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, age or mental or physical disability.”
According to the website, the Cal Poly community seems to face a grave risk from unnamed but extremely ill-intentioned forces: “Incidents that are motivated by bias, prejudice, intolerance, and hatred pose a unique danger to society and undermine the fundamental fabric of our campus community.” The website links to other valuable tools, such as the Cal Poly personnel office’s great grid of grievances.
CARE-Net will start with a staff of twelve “campus advocates” to vet the reports from the University’s 18,000 or so students. Students will also be able to report online through a system called EthicsPoint, which describes itself as “a leading provider of ethics hotline and case management solutions, [and] a strategic partner with the Association of College and University Auditors (ACUA).” EthicsPoint situates itself as a compliance tool for institutions seeking to keep up with Sarbannes-Oxley regulations, but it also provides “Whistleblower Hotline Solutions” to over 2000 organizations! We might think of EthicsPoint as Big Brother’s little nephew.
What more could or should we say about Cal Poly’s new venture? It is, of course, rooted in an alleged bias incident. Last October, some students during Halloween hung a Confederate flag, a noose, and an offensive sign outside the campus residence in which they were living, “Crops House.” This occasioned much soul-searching and many meetings. Cal Poly administrators apologized (apparently for their inability to overrule the First Amendment) and students protested the apology as insufficient. Cal Poly president, Warren Baker, said the incident was “unacceptable” and that in thirty years as president, nothing had saddened him as much. The upshot was that the flag-displaying, noose-hanging students (they denied putting up the sign) were moved out of Crops House and the University announced its decision to tear down the building.
It isn’t entirely clear what the louts in Crop House thought they were doing, but in any case, the “bias incident” got reported easily enough without the help of EthicsPoint or the dozen new CARE-netters. Cal Poly’s new policy thus doesn’t exactly track the event that the administration cites as evidence for the need—unless we accept the logic that the Cal Poly is rife with ethnic hatred and bias that has just gone unreported for lack of a safe means to turn in the culprits.
Cal Poly is, of course, not the first college or university down this path. Last fall, we reported in Williams Chokes Up, on a similar system called Williams Speaks Up at Williams College in Massachusetts. Williams Speaks Up was, at the time, a bias reporting system with a frustrating dearth of bias reports. Perhaps it is time to check in with Williams again. At the end of the academic year has the bias-reporting business picked up? Or are we in a bias recession?
I suppose a larger question is whether systems such as the one Williams created last year and Cal Poly has just instituted make campuses more wholesome? I am skeptical. As I wrote last week in American Character, the Remix: How College is Shaping Us Now, the ethos of American higher education has shifted towards encouraging psychological dependency. A portion of this involves identity politics and the careful nurturance of grievances, and an even larger portion involves fostering a whiney irritability in students—an irritability that is directed towards everything. Life is unfair; people insult me; I’m going to tell.
This world of resentful passivity is fed by the university that increasingly tells students that a major part of their education is coming to recognize the grievances they didn’t know they had. To help them come to that awareness, more and more university resources are devoted to the therapeutic side of the university. Cal Poly calls its new system, naturally, CARE-Net. Cal Poly cares enough to help you snare in its net the imaginary tormentors that make your life imperfect.
Cal Poly’s motto, incidentally, is “learn by doing.” Doing, apparently, includes dropping a dime to little nephew at EthicsPoint when your professor says something that crosses your threshold of racial sensitivity or calling the inclusivity police at CARE-Net if someone like Steven Hinkle mentions a lecture on a topic you don’t approve.
In his thirty years at Cal Poly, President Baker may have built some educational programs that deserve broad respect. Be that as it may, he also helped to make Cal Poly a place of intellectual repression and cringing acceptance of ideological fashion. He has favored a style of education that ill prepares students for morally responsible adulthood by training them to think that complaining to a bureaucracy or calling the police will cure their dissatisfactions.
People who complain about the reign of political correctness on campus often think mainly of the hardship inflicted on those who disagree or who attempt to dissent, such as Steve Hinkle. But that’s only the most visible cost to political correctness. It also a system of rewards to those who comply with its edicts. And those rewards are far more insidious than the punishments meted out to dissenters. They are tickets to a lifetime of unappeasable grievance.
UPDATE 5/12/09 - After this article was published and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to Cal Poly, CARE-Net removed all the information from its website, leaving only a promise that "new text will be available soon" and that interested parties can send the program an email for more information. Stay tuned for further developments.