New Film Exposes Apparent Lack of Academic Freedom in US

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Critics who question the need for race-based affirmative action programs, among other politically controversial issues, are prominently featured in a new documentary that looks at academia's treatment of dissenting views.

Although most of America's institutions of higher learning were designed to foster debate and mold students into critical thinkers, a two-and-a-half-year investigation shows that a repressive political climate has taken hold in recent years - a climate where dissent is silenced and free speech is jeopardized, according to Evan Coyne Maloney, who made the documentary "Indoctrinate U."

The film was screened last week at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and audience members, many of them students, expressed empathy for the people in the film who were often on the receiving end of politically correct harassment.

"The very people who invoke the name of tolerance are shown to be quite intolerant themselves," Josiah Ryan, a graduate of Hillsdale College, told Cybercast News Service. "Free speech is about a rich exchange of ideas. It's not about having everyone in agreement. The very notion of tolerance has been turned upside down."

While the documentary focuses on individuals who successfully pushed back against harassment and censorship, it is important to note that there are many students and professors who have had their academic careers damaged and even ruined, Maloney told the audience after the screening.

The film also touches on the dramatic ideological imbalance that currently exists among college professors and administrators.

Studies show conservative-minded academics to be vastly outnumbered in comparison to their liberal counterparts. But Maloney cautions against assuming that people on the right would not succumb to some of the same practices highlighted in the film, if the situation were reversed.

"I think it's a well-documented trait of human nature that when people tend to be in ideologically uniform groups they act differently than they would as individuals," he told Cybercast News Service. "I think it's true that no point on the ideological spectrum has a monopoly on the desire to suppress the views of people they don't agree with on campus or in other environments."

One main objective of the documentary is to focus attention on the "group-think" that takes hold when people operate in a closed community that has little interaction with outside views and alternative opinions, Maloney said.

This closed mentality, reflexively hostile to viewpoints not widely held on college campuses, is front and center as the documentary opens with an appearance by a civil rights activist at the University of Michigan.

Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent, who has been spearheading statewide initiatives aimed at eliminating racial preferences in college admissions and government hiring, brought his message to campus.

While the ballot initiatives have resonated with voters in several states, the film demonstrates that Connerly's pursuit of colorblind polices are decidedly less popular in academic settings.

"Throughout his speech, Connery is repeatedly shouted down," Maloney declares in his voiceover.

Apparently, some members of the campus community continue to believe blacks do not have the right to question conventional attitudes and beliefs, he said. This point is not lost on Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University professor who is interviewed in the film.

"If you question the traditional way of doing things, then almost immediately you are characterized as the enemy of your group, you are seen as an inauthentic black, you're an Oreo," she argued.

So-called "affirmative-action bake sales" that offer identical pastries at different prices are in many respects an outgrowth of the politically correct environment that holds sway in classrooms, Swain said. Students who are not free to express their views in class are finding alternative methods, she added.

The documentary includes footage from some of the bake sales and the student reaction in places such as Columbia University in New York, where liberal opinion is dominant.

Over the long-term, Maloney hopes his film plays some role in readjusting attitudes and bringing civility back into the debate. Instead of shouting down the opponents of certain affirmative-action polices, for example, the custodians of prevailing campus opinion should allow sufficient latitude for a reasoned debate, he said.

The "sunlight of public exposure" that the film conveys should raise awareness among parents, students, trustees, alumni and other concerned citizens who have a stake in the health of America's colleges, Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Moving Picture Institute (MPI), said while fielding questions from audience members.

The film should not be viewed as being ideologically tilted toward either a conservative or liberal view, he said, but should instead be seen as an important vehicle for raising awareness about academia's often repressive political environment.

"We hope this mainstreams the discussion about the assault on the First Amendment on college campuses," Halvorssen told Cybercast News Service. "The tragedy here is that the American university, the one place that should be open to all sorts of ideas, and tolerant of all sorts of perspectives, has become very narrow-minded."

Unfortunately, many trustees and alumni place a greater premium on safeguarding the reputations of schools than they do on calling out administrators for their unsavory treatment of free speech, he said.

"If they really wanted to express allegiance and loyalty, they would work to rescue these universities from their current state of intolerance," said Halvorssen. "Universities have become a hostile environment for anyone interested in open discussions and critical thinking."

The documentary was produced by On the Fence Films with support from MPI. Halvorssen founded MPI in 2005. The organization seeks to promote the principles of American liberty through film. Its stated goal is to "guarantee that film's unique capacity to give shape to abstract principles - to make them move and breathe - is used to support liberty."

Halvorssen, who served as the first executive director and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has been praised for his contributions to civil rights by people from across the political spectrum, including former Attorney General Edwin Meese and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.

See Earlier Story:
'Indoctrinate U' Film Alleges Repressive Climate on Campuses (March 26, 2007)

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