Education, recent

Like the Campus Thought Police

Smith College police chief Daniel Hect was put on administrative leave after becoming an object of campus hate. Chief Hect’s crime was ‘liking’ (not writing) tweets that fall outside of academia’s ever shrinking zone of toleration. Behold the offending tweets:

“Stay the course Pres. Trump”

“BUILD THAT WALL!!”

“The National Rifle Association wishes you and your family a very Merry Christmas!”

The tweets express opinions that most Trump voters would likely support. And the chief stands accused not of originating these tweets, but of merely liking them on his own personal Twitter account. If you are not familiar with Twitter, know that liking doesn’t always imply support.

The official reason given for Chief Hect’s suspension was, as Smith’s President wrote, because “members of our campus community have voiced a lack of trust” in him. Given the protests, “lack of trust” is quite the understatement. Interpreted in the most favorable light, the students might be worried about the chief’s views on immigration.

Smith College is devoted to the spirit of the sanctuary campus movement within “the limits of federal law” meaning that if anyone in the Smith community determines that a student is in the U.S. illegally we should not tell the immigration authorities unless required to by law. Since enforcing national immigration policy falls far outside of the purview of a small-town college police chief, Hect’s views on immigration are utterly irrelevant to his job. But by (very weakly) associating himself with the offending tweets Chief Hect falls outside of Smith’s Overton window, which gives the range of tolerated opinions one can hold in a given environment.

You can’t intelligently discuss views not in the Overton window because right-thinking people mock, ostracize, and de-platform those who hold such ideas. But by excluding mainstream Republican opinions from consideration, colleges deny their students’ intellectual diversity, and prevent these opinions from having any hope of gaining footholds in many young minds.

The hate against Hect sends a chilling message throughout my campus. Imagine you are a Smith student who supports Trump, his wall, or gun rights. How comfortable would you now be speaking up in class?  Even if you know your professor doesn’t punish heresy, you should fear that your fellow students might.

Some on Twitter took what happened to Hect as a reason either to not attend Smith, or to not hire Smith graduates, but this would be a mistake. Many years ago, Smith, a women’s college, became greatly worked up over language that defined all students as female and thus excluded some transgender students. I thought this anxiety over mere pronouns was a harmless but strange peculiarity of Smith culture. Later, when Smith students got extremely concerned about transgendered students’ access to bathrooms, I again thought this was a weird Smith obsession. In truth, Smith is a thought leader among elite colleges and what happens on my campus spreads.

This Hect incident, and the numerous other assaults in academia on people who don’t completely conform to leftist dogma, reinforce ideological purity among professors. A conservative contemplating getting a Ph.D. in the hopes of becoming a U.S. professor would be foolish not to think her political views would greatly diminish her chance of getting professorship. Conservative college employees, furthermore, will take these incidents as reasons to hide.

(Even though I work at Smith College, I can write this article because I’m protected by tenure, a fancy law degree, and a neurodiverse brain that causes me to care less about what people think of me than is the norm. Almost everyone else in the Smith community has far less protection than I do.)

Smith, like most elite colleges, worries endlessly about inequality and classism including on its own campus. It seems deeply ironic that Smith would give some members of its community far more effective freedom of speech than others.

Teenagers hoping to one day gain admittance to a top U.S. college would be smart to avoid associating themselves with Republican views on social media.  While I have no knowledge of anyone going through applicants’ observable internet history, such an investigation seems all too likely, at least in the near future. By controlling access to the upper class, colleges can effectively censor not just those under their control, but everyone hoping to pass through their gates.

What I most fear is technology that would allow colleges to read the emotions of their applicants. Imagine that in the near future machine learning has figured out how to detect your emotional state from your facial expressions. While this tech would bring many benefits, it would have a disastrous effect on intellectual diversity.

Colleges could require all applicants to watch videos on inclusion and diversity while machine learning algorithms study their faces to look for impossible to hide signs of skepticism and contempt. Those who don’t truly believe in the values of the campus community could be excluded with the official justification being the need to protect marginalised groups. High schools hoping to place students at elite colleges would have to stress left-wing ideology so their students could have some hope of becoming true believers. Ambitious parents would respond to college purity tests by forbidding their kids from being red-pilled through exposure to problematic media sources from Tucker Carlson and Jordan Peterson, to Quillette.

Daniel Hect, who was also in charge of Mount Holyoke’s campus police, understandably turned down my interview request.

 

James D. Miller is a professor of economics at Smith College. Follow him on Twitter @JimDMiller.