An Alumni Revolt Against Overzealous Correctness

The Alice-in-Wonderland world of academic political correctness has often seemed to be off in its own little orbit, unaffected by the rest of the universe and impervious to common sense or common decency. But there are growing signs that the taxpayers, the alumni and others who supply the money that keeps academia going are getting fed up.

The most notable recent example was Yale alumnus Lee Bass, who asked for his $20 million back after Yale University dragged its feet for four years without setting up the program in Western civilization that Mr. Bass gave the money for. Western civilization is something to be sneered at by the politically correct, whether at Yale or Stanford or at points in between.

One Yale professor teaching the current version of Western civilization has been quoted by a student publication as saying, "The major export of Western civilization is violence." He could continue saying that in his course - but he would have had competition from those with a very different perspective if the Bass gift had been used to set up an alternative course on the subject.

The politically correct are not interested in alternative perspectives. The political left has long understood that a cultural war is going on for the soul of this country - and they intend to win that war, by hook or crook, regardless of the alumni, the taxpayers or the Constitution. Only belatedly are others beginning to wake up to what is happening.

One sign of that awakening is the recent formation of a group called the National Alumni Forum, headed by the very able and savvy Lynne Cheney, who encountered the culture wars when she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. However, this organization is not simply a reaction from the right, as shown by the fact that the National Alumni Forum's supporters include Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman and former Democratic Governor Richard Lamm.

There are already alumni groups fighting against political correctness at Stanford, Dartmouth and other institutions. Whether they will end up affiliating with the new national organization remains to be seen.

For a long time, alumni and their wishes have not been taken very seriously in academia. The president of Trinity College in Washington, D.C., has said: "We cannot have alumni groups who want us to return to the '50s. The '50s are gone." The provost of Stanford University has likewise warned against trying to return to the past.

Despite such condescending statements, however, nobody is trying to return to anything, except to some principles that did not begin or end in the 1950s and may - if we are lucky - be here a hundred years from now. The very attempt to cheapen the issues by reducing them to nostalgia is all too symptomatic of what is wrong in academia.

Alumni are no longer taking all this lying down. At Dartmouth, alumni have sued the college's board of trustees. At Converse College, the alumni withheld donations and forced the college president to leave. At Stanford, a group of alumni called the "Winds of Freedom" have organized to try to roll back the tide of political correctness there.

When it literally takes a federal case to get campus restrictions on freedom of speech ended - as recently happened at Stanford, and at Dartmouth and Michigan before that - then it is all too painfully apparent that academia cannot be trusted to keep its own house in order or to keep faith with those who pay its bills.

Despite a few court decisions here and there, elite colleges and universities remain among the most ideologically intolerant institutions in a free society. Indoctrination in political correctness begins when freshmen first set foot on campus and go to orientation sessions. Cultural commissars in the dormitories continue the indoctrination process under labels like "residential education."

It is not that all professors are more interested in ideology than in their intellectual disciplines. It is just that the ones who are can run amok because the path of least resistance is to let them do so, rather than have a fuss that will look bad in the newspapers and perhaps make some donors reluctant to open their checkbooks.

College and university presidents may or may not agree with the activists of the left among the faculty and students. But administrators want peace and the easiest way to get peace is to cave in to the demands of vocal activists. Nowhere do the squeaking wheels get more oil than in academia.

One sign of the way academics have come to turn reality upside down is that it is considered somehow dishonorable for donors to want to have their money spent for what they intended it to be spent for. That is called - indignantly - giving money "with strings attached." But taking the money and diverting it to some other purpose causes no such indignation when those other purposes are politically correct.

Lynne Cheney and the National Alumni Forum have their work cut out for them.

(Copyright, 1995, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Thomas Sowell's column appears Wednesday on editorial pages of The Times.