Saturday, January 25, 2014

It's Just BC!: A Rebuttal

A number of my friends (who are my best critics) have variously suggested in my criticisms of higher education that my view is too narrow, that the complaints I have are really only about Bellevue College, and that things really aren't that bad in other schools. It's an argument that my points are only anecdotal, which, of course, their responses are as well, but it also misses the way in which I came to the conclusions about higher education that I did. Allow me to clarify that here.

My concern with freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses, began after hearing Christopher Hitchens' defense of hate speech at the University of Toronto in 2006--my closer friends will have probably gotten sick of hearing references to this by now--and it was at that point, at the beginning of a class on the techniques and technology of propaganda I was involved in, that I took the issue seriously and began to research the threats to freedom of speech in the United States and in higher education generally. It became clear to me, in researching, that this was not a problem of the past or a latent problem, but a problem in American schools, now, today, and this was primarily the result of my discovery of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). From that understanding, and from various books I read--by Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate, the co-founders of FIRE, by Greg Lukianoff, the current president of FIRE, by "Kindly Inquisitors" by Jonathan Rauch, and another book called "Let the Students Speak!," a legal history of the freedom of speech struggles in American schools--from this, I saw freedom of speech as something that was important to examine at Bellevue College, but it wasn't something I believed was a problem at the moment. My line of thinking was: "Look, here's something that's problematic in other schools. Let's try to preempt that so it doesn't become a problem at Bellevue College." I didn't think it was a problem at Bellevue College at the time. It was entirely because of the instances of the chilling effect and the fear of these inscrutable and often incoherent policies at other schools that I began to look into Bellevue College's own policies.

It was then that, after I had assumed that Bellevue College was actually doing okay because I hadn't noticed anything myself prior to this, that I began to notice that Bellevue College was, in fact, a very, very, very poor defender of freedom of speech, and was even a strong opponent of it. This, by the speech of the now president of the college itself, Dr. David Rule, in response to my question at his student forum discussion, and by my interviews with the Vice President of Equity and Pluralism, Yoshiko Harden, and by the school's policy itself, and the way that school rules and beuracratic systems were used systematically to keep quiet opinions that ran contrary to its own political agenda, and to simultaneously promote its own agenda, and claim to be a defender of free speech while oppressing it in a quiet, surreptitious manner. All of that came after the discovery of these effects going on in other schools, and it was this discovery in other schools that fueled my discovery of it in Bellevue College.

Now, because it's been widely acknowledged by these same critics that my criticisms are for the most part true, (though the opinion differs greatly on what we should do about it), I hope it won't be alleged post-hoc that I'm tilting at windmills here. This was a problem I first discovered at other schools, and it's not just a thing at BC. Whether it's true at this or that or the other particular school is, of course, open to discussion. I haven't been to every single school; I haven't experienced the college life at these other schools. But when people who haven't taken quite as active of an interest in the subject as me--for entirely understandable reasons--come to me and say, "but my school's not like that!," I have no way of knowing whether that's true or not because I would have said the same thing about Bellevue College to my current self, were I talking from two year's ago's experience.

In short, this isn't just a problem at Bellevue College. It's a problem all over the country, and in more schools than not. FIRE rates schools on a red, yellow and green light system. Green doesn't even mean the school is constitutionally sound, but it's close enough. It's "about right," it for the most part does a good job of protecting student's rights and you'll be safe holding a dissenting opinion about a major political subject. The yellow-light school's policies are problematic. These are not abiding by the constitution, and there's an issue that needs to be addressed in the name of the school's Amendment XIV section I obligation to uphold student's constitutional rights, perhaps to an even greater degree than those of other, non-student citizens. Red-light schools are "laughably unconstitutional," as Greg Lukianoff described them, and of the schools surveyed by FIRE's team of extremely competent first amendment law team, they found that of the hundreds of schools surveyed, nearly 60% of them fell into the red-light category.

This is not a Bellevue College-exclusive issue we have here.

Bellevue College is one of those red-light schools, or was last year; they've since been removed from that list even though their policies have gotten worse with time and not better. And these are only the schools surveyed, which are the major and larger schools in the United States. So with that in mind, I think the burden is on those who say this is a one-school, Bellevue College issue, and not a greater, larger trend, to investigate their schools before exonerating them off the cuff, and to show that the resources, time and experience organizations like FIRE that have spent to evaluate these schools in dedication to this sole cause are don't prove that these school policies are a threat to the classical liberal society and American values that FIRE believes them to be.


  1. I was surprised to find my school (UCSD) is in the yellow-light category.

    The surprise is due to knowing people that have been harassed by the school for protesting.

  2. I don't see Gonzaga on that list. Or Western Washington University. It seems only larger schools are on the list (Bellevue College is in the top 3 in WA for amount of students, or at least it was a couple years ago when I checked).

    I wonder what they would have to say about GU or WWU, or even a small obscure college with only like 1000 students. I remember protests and student voice being very welcome at WWU, everything from the posters of aborted fetuses to gender-neutral bathrooms was accepted use of the school courtyards (to the point where it was annoying and one could not walk to and from class without getting at least one flier handed to them). I guess the deal was it was public grounds so people had the freedom of speech or whatever, or the freedom for non-students to go walk their dogs or whatever on campus. I wonder if the dynamics would be different at a private school like GU. As a distance ed student I really don't have a good viewpoint from which to make an assumption on the matter. BC(C) is also my least favorite of the three places of higher education I have attended.