Backfire on Campus

In 1964 the Free Speech Movement was born on the Berkeley campus of the University of California after administrators declared the campus off-limits to most political organizing. The movement was a catalyst for the New Left, which in its early years drew much of its energy from protests against administrative infringements on student freedom.

Hardly anyone would have expected history to repeat itself. But in the late 1980s, the pattern was reenacted on campuses across the country in an altogether unexpected way. University administrators introduced a swath of new rules, including restrictions on speech and political organization, that were aimed at suppressing racism and sexism. They ended up energizing a new generation of conservatives.

The University of Michigan, where I graduated in 1994, provides a disturbing case study in the great progressive backfire of the past decade. What went wrong at Michigan should have more than local interest. The issue that so vexed liberals at Michigan is the same one that threatens the Democratic Party today: race.

The Ann Arbor campus has a diverse population and a long history of political activism. Students for a Democratic Society was born there in the early 1960s, and the school continued to be one of the centers of radical student politics through the decade. The New Left has had a continuing presence on campus in the form of a sizable minority of leftist students, conspicuously aware of the glories of their predecessors. Twice in the 1970s, massive black student protests--the Black Action Movements--succeeded in pressuring the administration into vigorous affirmative action in admissions.

By 1987 black students had declined to 5.3 percent of the total, from a high of 7.7 percent 11 years before. In January of that year, a flyer proclaiming "open season" on minorities--whom the flyer termed "porch monkeys"--was anonymously slipped under the door of a lounge where several black students were watching television. The next week, a student disk jockey on a late-night campus radio program aired racist jokes, which he followed with a laugh track.

These incidents prompted the formation of a student organization called the United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR). Ascribing the incidents to "institutional racism," the multiracial group held protests and sit-ins demanding increased representation of black students and faculty. Although vague about the mechanics, UCAR asked for tuition waivers and open admissions for black students. The protests received wide and generally sympathetic coverage in the Detroit and national papers. Outraged Democrats in the state legislature held hearings on racism at the Ann Arbor campus and threatened to reduce state funds unless the administration responded.

Although UCAR claimed that racism at the University of Michigan was endemic up to the highest levels, it had little evidence of institutional bias. A racist flyer or occasional graffiti could hardly be called "institutional." In fact, the Michigan administration and faculty bent over backwards to mollify the protesters. The black freshman class was already 50 percent larger than four years before. The university agreed to provide lounges for students of color, $35,000 for the Black Student Union, and start-up funds and campus facilities for a Baker-Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education.

Evidence of Michigan's institutional racism finally arrived that fall in the form of comments about affirmative action by Peter Steiner, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Steiner, a square-jawed 65-year-old administrator with close-cropped hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, said at a meeting:

Our challenge is not to change this university into another kind of institution where minorities would naturally flock in much greater numbers. I need not remind you that there are such institutions, including Wayne State University and Howard University. Our challenge is not to emulate them but to make what is the essential quality of the University of Michigan available to more minorities.

These words, referred to thereafter by the campus left as "Dean Steiner's racist comments," galvanized UCAR for months. The Michigan Student Assembly (MSA) unanimously passed a resolution demanding that the regents "pursue legal recourse" against Steiner. Student demonstrators called for Interim President Robben Fleming to fire Steiner. Although Fleming said he found Steiner's remarks offensive, he didn't fire him. But he supported two longstanding UCAR demands: a mandatory course on racism and a policy for prosecuting racial harassment.

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At the physical and cultural center of the University of Michigan sits the Diag, a grassy park ringed by the bulk of the school's classroom buildings that gets its name from the diagonal paths that crisscross it. On warm days students meet there to bask in the sun, toss frisbees, or take in a harangue by one of an eclectic mix of indigenous campus preachers, ranging from a Christian Evangelical named Preacher Mike on the right to a green-haired aging hippie named Stoney Burke on the left.

In 1988 the Diag was home to a slew of wooden shanties painted with slogans protesting evils such as campus racism, South African apartheid, or Israel's policies toward Palestinian Arabs. Every racist incident--some real, some imagined--drew crowds of protesters bearing signs such as "Racism Will Not be Tolerated" or "We Have a Dream of a Racist-Free University." The Michigan Daily, which is a student-run paper that was rocked by a ferocious internal conflict between liberals and radicals, editorialized against rampant racism and sexism in every facet of campus life--including, in one instance, in its own news department. Walls all over campus were covered with slick flyers in maize and blue, the school colors, posted by the administration urging students to report any incidents of racial harassment to the authorities.

That fall every student received a pamphlet explaining the university's new policy on discriminatory harassment, known as the code. Sanctionable conduct included behavior that "stigmatizes or victimizes" minorities or "creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment." Since these restrictions were vague, the code tried to clarify them with examples:

  • You exclude someone from a study group because that person is of a different race, sex, or ethnic origin than you are.
  • You tell jokes about gay men and lesbians.
  • Your student organization sponsors entertainment that includes a comedian who slurs Hispanics.
  • You display a confederate flag on the door of your room in the residence hall.
  • You laugh at a joke about someone in your class who stutters.

When the policy was challenged in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union, the judge asked the university's lawyer how he could distinguish speech that was merely offensive from speech that stigmatized or victimized a protected minority. "Very carefully" was the counsel's reply.

The campus left opposed the policy, though not on grounds of free speech. Most major student activist organizations condemned the policy as "inadequate." The Daily pointed out in an editorial that it "reserves all the power for the administration and only punishes students, ignoring racist harassment by staff, faculty, the regents, and administration." UCAR argued that disciplinary power should be in the hands of students of color rather than white male administrators like Steiner.

What sort of incidents of faculty harassment did the activists have in mind? One example was a class on race relations taught by the sociologist Reynolds Farley, one of the nation's leading demographers. During a Martin Luther King Day speech on racism at Michigan, a UCAR activist claimed that Farley had employed a variety of racial slurs, such as using the word "nigger" or calling Mexicans "lazy." A soft-spoken liberal Democrat, Farley protested that the language attributed to him actually came from historical sources he was quoting. "Nigger" came from W.E.B. Du Bois, whom he cited in describing the history of racism. The line about Mexicans came up when Farley explained the history of anti-immigration sentiments by citing a speech by a nativist senator in the 1920s. Yet his explanations were brushed aside, and Farley became the latest racist of the month, denounced at campus rallies and in the Daily. The next semester he suspended his course.

Just as the activists succeeded in narrowing the intellectual range of the dialogue on racism, they were able to dramatically expand its scale. In 1990 the College of Literature, Science, and Arts succumbed to a long-standing UCAR demand by approving a requirement that all its students take a course sensitizing them to racism.

In the face of illiberalism, how did liberals react? Initial newspaper accounts of the events at Michigan interpreted the conflict through the prism of the civil rights era. They reported the struggle as primarily about racism and generally gave favorable mention to such responses as the code--they were concrete administrative measures to stem the rising tide of bigotry. This interpretation changed only slightly after the courts upheld the ACLU's challenge. The dominant view was that if liberal administrators had erred, it was because they had pursued worthy ends through improper means.

But what happened at Michigan was not a case of liberal ends being carried out through illiberal means. The campus left was illiberal to the core. It subscribed to a variant of Marxism that substituted women and people of color for the proletariat and white males for the bourgeoisie, and it discounted the concept of individual rights as a myth created by society's privileged for their own benefit. In liberating the oppressed, the left saw no need to respect the oppressor's rights.

The initial outcry over the jeopardy to rights did not come from liberals but from conservatives. The right began to define what was happening at Michigan and other campuses as a new form of liberal tyranny--the reign of "political correctness."

Conservatives who railed against political correctness had little interest in clarifying the identity of their opponents. The truth was that the new campus censors had nothing to do with the liberal tradition, but why would conservatives bother with that distinction? It was up to liberals to say so, but few did.

To many liberals, the new tales of "liberal tyranny" circulating in the media sounded suspiciously like the same claims about the intellectuals and the arts that conservatives had been making for years. The academic left seized upon this suspicion to make its case. In the winter of 1991, the University of Michigan hosted a conference called "The P.C. Frame-Up: Who's Behind the Attack?" The theme was that the uproar over political correctness was a right-wing plot to stigmatize any gains made by women and minorities.

There was some truth to this charge. Even campus conservatives conceded that right-wing journalists had manipulated and distorted the issues. But the participants at the conference argued not only that p.c. was a fictional product of conservative hysteria, but that any argument to the contrary was merely a stalking horse for the racist right. Self-critical introspection was in short supply.

The sociologist Todd Gitlin, a participant in the conference from the University of California at Berkeley, sought to stake out a middle ground, claiming "There is such a thing as p.c., there's not a frame-up, and yet there's a hysteria [on the right]." Most of the other participants received this argument coldly. Gitlin recalls, "There was some of this sentiment of 'we have been picked upon, we are victims, we must pull the wagons around and defend ourselves against the barbarian right'-- something of a mirror image of the barbarian right's image of the p.c.niks."


With a faculty that was generally apathetic, intimidated, or enamored of the campus revolution, the opposition initially came from the student body. The Michigan Review, a conservative monthly founded in 1982 with money from right-leaning foundations, attracted prospective journalists who could not bring themselves to write for the Daily. The Review in the late '80s and early '90s alternated between thoughtful arguments opposing the new censorship and hard right, in-your-face, Rush Limbaugh-style mockery that sometimes was, in fact, racist and sexist. But when campus leftists criticized the Review for its dalliances with bigotry, conservatives shrugged. To be called racist now simply put the Review in the same category as Reynolds Farley or Peter Steiner. Most students believed that racism existed, but they came to see it primarily as a political label rather than as a social malady.

Conservatives at Michigan bore little resemblance to their national cohorts. Many had little or no identification with the Republican Party. Their unifying value was rebellion, not allegiance to the establishment. An increasingly dominant ideological strain on the right was libertarianism, which naturally appeals to college students due to its simplicity and general aversion to authority. In the 1990s the Review gradually adopted libertarianism as a credo, which has made it simultaneously more radical and more socially tolerant. In the past year it repeatedly attacked Newt Gingrich as a "statist," while a December article praised the Michigan Militia. But at the height of the campus left's power, the Review was able to attract a surprisingly diverse array of thinkers.

In the fall of 1988, John Miller came to campus as a freshman from Pompano Beach, Florida. At the time, he was hardly a prime candidate to join the Republican Party. Although not consciously ideological in high school, he was a politically active journalist and a member of Amnesty International. When the school administration tried to ban the group from campus he had rallied to its defense. Like Tom Hayden almost thirty years before, Miller enrolled at Michigan determined to be a journalist and guided only by a vague distrust of authority. Only, instead of signing up with the Daily like Hayden, Miller joined the Review. Today Miller, a vice president at the neoconservative Center for Equal Opportunity, is one of the brightest young thinkers on the right.

The same year Miller arrived, the leftist party that controlled the student assembly attempted to withdraw official status and office space from a student group called Christians in Action because it hosted a singer who sang that "God hates queers." Later in the semester, the Zionist organization Tagar, in response to a Diag shanty attacking Israel, erected its own shanty to commemorate the bombing of an Israeli schoolbus, emblazoned with the slogan, "Stop Arab Terrorism!" Campus activists immediately attacked Tagar for promoting anti-Arab racism. Although Tagar publicly apologized and changed the slogan to "Stop All Terrorism!," MSA immediately moved to "derecognize" it, too.

These incidents helped to galvanize freshman Jesse Walker, a tall, lanky, red-bearded son of two liberal college professors. Walker arrived at Michigan with a well-developed iconoclastic left-libertarian ideology. Today he is an editor at Liberty. Although Walker was no stranger to leftist politics--as a high school radical who subscribed to Mother Jones and the Nation he had been called a communist--he "was immediately struck by the campus atmosphere of political correctness." Right away Walker became active in a campus movement to force the assembly to automatically grant recognition to all student groups. This idea later became the central campaign theme of the assembly's main opposition party, the Conservative Coalition.

The student opposition was not as conservative as it may have appeared to outsiders. The editor of the Review, and much of its staff, were Democrats. The same was true of the Conservative Coalition. James Green, a member of the Coalition and former president of MSA, was fond of saying, "A conservative on this campus is anyone who is either a Republican or a Democrat."

But the fact that even moderate or liberal students found themselves consistently on the campus right affected their thinking. They joined organizations or social networks whose intellectual center of gravity was on the right. They began to see themselves as conservative. "When the only people rushing to your defense are a handful of conservative faculty members and, nationally, a handful of conservative pundits," recalls Miller, "it's not difficult to start identifying with them."

In his book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin describes a clumsy propaganda film produced by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960 that sought to build support for its anti-Communist crusade. The effort was a self-parody, and New Left students employed it in their own recruiting efforts. "The Committee radiated thickheadedness and ineffectuality," Gitlin writes, "the anti-Committee Left stood for eloquence and good humor."

A similar dynamic was at work at Michigan. Multiculturalism was an official dogma, and for many college students that was reason enough to embrace the opposite viewpoint. Among students the voices of rebellion, and humor, were all on the right. The campus left, moreover, provided a steady stream of grist for its opponents.

When student voters in 1989 gave a majority of seats on MSA to the Conservative Coalition, the leftist majority then in control of the assembly invalidated the election on the basis of trumped-up technical glitches and instead appointed members of their own party to fill the seats. In 1993 a group of sociology graduate students charged professor David Goldberg with racial and sexual harassment, bullying the department chair into suspending his course without so much as a hearing. It turned out that the professor had merely questioned the statistical basis of many multicultural shibboleths. More common were daily absurdities: A speaker protesting jazz artist Miles Davis's sexism called on her audience to "break his tapes, smash his albums, and burn his CDs until he agrees to rethink his views on the woman question." No one in the audience thought to point out how difficult converting Miles Davis would be, since he was, at the time, dead. Incidents like these rolled by through the years, and although most students paid little attention to such affairs, those who did could not help but conclude that the left was inimically hostile to freedom of expression, fanatical in its thinking, and corrupt in its practices.

The thinking of college students is, if nothing else, anti-establishment. In the 1960s, students were often initially politicized by small administrative infringements upon their everyday life. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley arose in response to limits on expression far less draconian than Michigan's speech code.

Brian Jendryka, like John Miller, arrived at Michigan in 1988 as a prospective journalist with no political leanings. Jendryka, also repulsed by the Daily, was alarmed by the university's code and became interested in freedom of speech. Quite naturally, this led him to gravitate toward the campus right, where he followed Miller as editor of the Review.

Campus conservatism is not a new phenomenon. Universities have always had activity on the right. Neoconservatism, for instance, sprung up in the academy in the late 1960s and '70s as a reaction to the excesses of the time. Yet the institutional dynamics at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s were nearly the opposite: The left was demanding that the university exercise more authority over the lives of students, not less.

This new extension of administrative authority had a clear ideological purpose. Racial and gender oppression blotted out all other considerations in UCAR's intellectual universe, and it demanded that the university establish a variety of mechanisms to reflect that impulse. By and large, the university complied. It established a variety of programs to redress racism, including mandatory anti-racist orientation programs for freshmen, separate black lounges in every dorm, a racial harassment code, and the diversity course requirement. Implicitly, the administration accepted UCAR's view of the world. Hence the anti-institutional impulse became conservative.

Ultimately, Michigan's left was destroyed not by the galvanized conservatism it created but by itself. It is a sad irony that a newly resurgent left, rather than aiming outward to redress the world's evils, instead directed its energies almost entirely inward in a misguided attempt to achieve ideological hegemony in a small university enclave.

The left at Michigan identified its enemies as racial and sexual oppression endemic to Western civilization. Because it had no solutions other than repressing these tendencies whenever they appear, it had no potential for sustained growth. In Michigan's tribalistic atmosphere, activists expressed political positions through the politics of identity. During the Gulf War, for example, nonwhite protesters split off from the main group to form their own "People of Color Against War and Racism." In addition to an end to the war, they demanded open admissions and free tuition for all people of color. Needless to say, women of color soon also had their own antiwar group.

"The focusing of political energy on points of difference," explains Gitlin, "has incapacitated the left to find points of political and/or economic commonality."

This certainly seems true today in Ann Arbor. After a blistering 1989 federal court ruling struck down the code on First Amendment grounds, the administration immediately drew up another, narrower policy to limit racist speech. It was withdrawn in 1991 after a subsequent Supreme Court ruling made it clear that, if challenged, the new code was doomed to suffer the same fate as its predecessor. Its most fervent demand precluded by the Bill of Rights, the campus left suddenly found it had nowhere else to turn. The life-sustaining flow of sit-ins and demonstrations trickled to a halt as the students originally called to the streets to fight racism graduated or moved on with their lives. UCAR's only visible legacy today is a university bureaucracy propagating a panoply of diversity programs under the rubric of the "Michigan Mandate," an administrative decree proclaiming the university's fealty to multiculturalism.

Gitlin's generation came of age during the moral clarity of the civil rights movement, only to see the battle bog down in the murkier terrain of racial separatism and affirmative action. Many of that generation are still grappling for solutions as simple and clear as those proposed during the 1960s. For college students today, there is no such conflict. For them, the debate about racism means only speech codes, separate minority facilities, and the like. Students now widely, however wrongly, associate these measures with liberalism. It is not too late for liberals to repudiate this distortion of their ideals.