Repression in the Shadows

January 2002

Review of Alan C. Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. New York and Toronto: The Free Press, 1998.

In 1993 President Clinton nominated Sheldon Hackney, then president of the University of Pennsylvania, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. During his confirmation hearings, testifying under oath before a Senate committee, Hackney professed to be a champion of free expression. He denounced campus "speech codes" and criticized "political correctness," including excessive solicitude for the "rights of minority groups."

To judge from the evidence assembled by Kors and Silverglate, in their admirable book, Hackney was fortunate that it is difficult to prove perjury against witnesses who describe their own beliefs. An accused can defend himself too easily by insisting that whatever his previous (or subsequent) words or deeds, he testified truthfully about what he thought at the time. As a lawyer active in the American Civil Liberties Union, Silverglate understands the constitutional and other legal remedies that victims of American campus persecutions can pursue -- remedies that the book explains in some detail, and that Canadians have reason to envy. As a professor of history at Penn, Kors is especially familiar with the flagrant abuses that occurred there under Hackney. The book ranges widely over the American academic scene, citing specific cases (often horrifying) at many institutions, but what happened at Penn exemplifies well the techniques of repression and injustice employed by the left-wing radicals of the "shadow university" -- the term applied by the authors to the bureaucracies in charge of orientation, residences, and "student life."

It is typically these bureaucracies that enforce regulations, often behind a cloak of "confidentiality." Not content to wield power over students, the "shadow university" has sought, with some success, to extend its sway over faculty as well.

Many of the rules and practices have been outrageous - among them efforts to impose "thought reform" through mandatory indoctrination in radical ideology, as well as denial of due process in determining whether a person accused of prohibited conduct is guilty or innocent.

For a professional burglar or pickpocket, an occasional sojourn in the slammer has no long-term significance; it is merely one of the inconveniences of his chosen occupation. Yet before he can be imprisoned, the law requires the prosecution to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and to do so in a public trial under procedures that grant the accused extensive rights.

Those subjected to disciplinary action by universities on serious charges (such as harassment" or "date rape") are likely to suffer much more severely. Academics who have invested years in preparing for a career, or students looking forward to lucrative employment after graduation, may well find their prospects ruined. On many campuses, however, they enjoy few if any of the rights accorded to an alleged thief (such as presumption of innocence, a public trial, representation by a lawyer, and cross-examination of witnesses).

At Penn, Hackney had a long record of seemingly fanatical devotion to "politically correct" causes, especially minority "rights" (actually privileges) and the suppression of "harassment," very broadly defined.

It is true that on certain occasions he did champion free expression. He did so in 1981, when a left-wing columnist in the Daily Pennsylvanian expressed regret that President Reagan's would-be assassin had not been successful. He did so again in 1988, when Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam came to the campus and preached anti-Semitism. Later, asked whether denouncing a white man as a "fucking fascist white male pig" would amount to prohibited harassment under Penn's speech code, he replied that it would not. He also considered it permissible to call a black who habitually associated with whites an "Uncle Tom" or an "Oreo."

Similarly, on an off-campus issue, Hackney upheld the right of an "artist" to receive federal funding -- taxpayers' money -- for a work highly offensive to many Christians. Entitled "Piss Christ," it consisted of a crucifix immersed in urine. Any attempt to "cleanse public discourse of offensive material," Hackney argued, threatened to result in "an Orwellian nightmare."

But white males, Jews, and Christians, as well as blacks who failed to display an adequate sense of their own cultural distinctiveness, were not protected groups. If anything "offended" feminists or racial minorities favoured by the radical Left, the response of Hackney and his subordinate administrators was to sacrifice freedom of expression in the supposed interests of a more sacred cause, that of "diversity."

Universities like to proclaim (as a policy document at the University of Western Ontario did in 1995) that they aim at providing a "welcoming environment" for people of diverse origins. Such rhetoric may be harmless, but only if administrators avoid drawing the conclusion that they have a right (or duty) to suppress, or allow others to suppress, anything "offensive" to any of the groups being "welcomed" -- especially the "historically under-represented." At Penn, Hackney did draw that conclusion, and urged his subordinates to act accordingly. The result was indeed Orwellian.

When some black students stole (they preferred to say "confiscated") the entire press run of the Daily Pennsylvanian, in protest against a columnist of whom they disapproved, Hackney saw a "conflict" between "diversity" and free expression. Diversity prevailed; the thieves went unpunished. The university was similarly lenient towards blacks who kidnapped a white student and terrorized him at length for his alleged "racism."

Penn's double standard became obvious after a group of students disturbed a Jewish freshman, late at night, by persistently singing and chanting under his dormitory window. He finally shouted in exasperation: "Shut up, you water buffalo!" The term "water buffalo" was an English version of Hebrew slang for persons engaging in rowdy or thoughtless conduct. The reproach was rather a mild one in the circumstances, but it happened that the noisy students were black. Penn charged the freshman with "racial harassment."

The accusation was so ridiculous that it attracted the attention of the national media. Penn's officialdom appeared to be as nutty as a pecan pie -- the sort of "politically correct" crackpots who could encounter a Pekingese puppy and imagine themselves to be confronting a pack of ravenous wolves. The university's public image suffered major damage, and eventually the forces of repression capitulated. Not only was the "water buffalo" prosecution abandoned, but Penn's trustees intervened to insist that the right of free speech be restored. Their will prevailed, and the campus "speech code" was abolished.

At many other institutions, unfortunately, restrictions on freedom of expression survived. They are difficult to dismantle as long as a university gives priority to "social justice" over its strictly academic mission. Commitment to "social justice" requires definition of the term. To establish such a definition is a political act, requiring the university to take a stand on who is right and who is wrong on controversial public issues. A citizen in a free society has a right, for example, to oppose "affirmative action" (race and sex preferences); but if a university seeks "social justice" and defines it as entailing preferences, students or faculty members who condemn this view may be regarded by administrators as posing an intolerable threat to the institution's official "goals" and "values."

Kors and Silverglate believe that typical senior administrators are motivated by ambition more than ideology; they want to protect their careers by appeasing the groups willing to make trouble -- usually feminists and "anti-racists." But another form of trouble is bad publicity. The experience at Penn supports the authors' argument that "sunlight" is a potent weapon against the denizens of the "shadow university," the enemies of true justice and liberty. Enjoying fewer legal safeguards for freedom of speech, members of the Canadian university community clearly have even greater need for this weapon as an alternative to lawsuits.

As a result of the response to their book, A. C. Kors and H. A. Silverglate performed a second valuable service. They launched the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (, which intervenes in individual cases to support victims of repression. FIRE and SAFS are thus advancing the same cause, though in somewhat different political and legal environments.