Universities more intolerant?

By David French:

Not long ago, the university was seen as a world apart—an idyllic enclave where our studious youth learned the virtues of citizenship, cheered hard for the football team, and read the great classics of Western thought. The “ivory tower” was more an observation than the insult the term has become, an almost monastic reference to a place where thought was free and knowledge ruled.

Nostalgia, of course, is deceptive-life was rarely as good (or bad) as we remember. However, nearly everyone will agree that our universities have changed in the past four decades, educating millions on vast campuses that my friend Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has compared to “small European countries.”

As universities have grown in size, they have also grown in ambition. Most students are now aware of the concept of “university values,” an all-encompassing worldview that tells us men and women are exactly the same, that “diversity” is a paramount goal, and that one should tolerate everything except intolerance….

In 2010 the Supreme Court—in a 5-4 decision in a case called CLS v. Martinez-held that a private Christian club on a public university campus did not have an absolute right to Christian leadership. In other words, it had to open itself up to potential Muslim, Hindu, or even atheist leadership if the university adopted and maintained an “all-comers” policy.

Why did the Supreme Court reach that result? Why did it grant a state entity a degree of authority over a private religious organization that would have been previously unthinkable? For two reasons: First, because it trusted the university. The Martinez decision in many ways is an extended ode to the discretion of the professional educator. Second, the Court saw the Christian students’ quest to meet in empty classrooms and use community bulletin boards not as exercising a right (as the Court had previously described such activities) but as seeking a benefit from the state.



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  • Anderson

    I will agree that there have been instances in which universities have wrongly reprimanded students for expressing or holding fast to certain conservative values or beliefs. But the evidence French presents is anecdotal. He says “In the 1990s, universities tried to prevent religious groups from sharing in student funds,” but the link he provides mentions only one university. He later laments, “intrusive ‘curricular’ guidelines are now requiring students to adopt leftist viewpoints regarding marriage, family, and sexuality as a condition for obtaining a degree and entering a profession,” and links to one of his own articles that mentions exactly two such cases. One of those, involving Eastern Michigan University, is still pending, and the resources French links to don’t tell the University’s side of the story or present hard evidence in favor of the student.

    Then he makes a big jump in this paragraph:

    Universities advance those values energetically by conducting orientation indoctrination sessions and diversity training, enforcing expansive rules governing student speech, and creating an alphabet soup of programs and centers serving different identity groups but pushing the same agenda. The message is clear: Out with the old (your parents’ influence, your traditional religion, your intellectual independence); in with the new (sexual experimentation, group identification, and statist dependence).

    It’s not at all clear to me how diversity training leads to sexual experimentation and statist dependence. It’s also not clear what agenda all the “programs and centers” are pushing, unless that agenda is simply embracing ideas that David French doesn’t like.

    I’m willing to be outraged when a school treats a student unfairly on account of his or her values and beliefs. And I won’t dispute that university faculty, as a group, lean to the left. But I’m not convinced that the “modern university” as a whole is systematically trying to “marginalize conservative or orthodox religious life.”

  • DRT

    Wow. Reading the quote Scot put in the post I thought French was advocating that the universities are indeed more tolerant now. Shows you how much the title and other parts change the meaning….

    Seriously, all 5 of those paragraphs can show more tolerance. That’s how I read it.

  • In several universities, widely distributed emails have been uncovered which have shed light upon the blatant, seemingly systematic anti-Christian prejudice – Guilliermo Gonzalez in the University of Iowa and the case of an astronomer who was denied employment at the U of Kentucky (or Western Kentucky). Many other cases have surfaced, but I forget this specifics.

  • DRT

    I must say that I have a knot in my stomach the whole time I read that article by French.

    It is patently ridiculous for a university to advocate or support a religion, if the definition of a religion is anything like a belief system attributable to a god-like being. The day someone proves the existence of a god then they can do it. Until then, no dice. How could he be so irrational?

  • DRT

    Daniel Mann, what? Listen to this Daily Show video from last night then come back with real evidence. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-may-3-2012/free-at-last–free-to-blast

  • For a sociological study of faculty attitudes toward “evangelicals,” see George Yancey, Compromising Scholarship: Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education (Baylor U. Press, 2011). Yancey is a sociology professor at the University of North Texas.

  • Robin


    That article is poorly written, but it isn’t about Universities advocating religion, it is about religious organizations being forced to adopt an “all-comers” policy. The case which has been in the news most recently is Vanderbilt which has decided that having religious organizations which are explicitly religious violates their non-discrimination policy.

    So…at Vanderbilt the Baptist Student Fellowship cannot restrict either its membership or leadership to Baptists or an explicit statement of faith. So, if a bunch of fundamentalist Christians wanted to engage in shennanigans they could, en masse, join the Muslim Student Association, run for office, take over the organization and do whatever they wanted to with it. According to Vanderbilt the Muslims students could do nothing to prevent such a takeover without violating the non-discrimination policy and risk getting kicked off campus.

    The Martinez case that was cited said that PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES can enforce the same standard that Vanderbilt is choosing.

    The real irony in the Vanderbilt case is that even though religious organizations, political, or ideological organizations must accept all-comers…even comers who are directly opposed to their organizational identity…the entire greek system is still permitted to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion, beauty standards, wealth, and anything else they please.

  • Anita Wilson

    There is a growing tendency in our culture to view the college generation as being in need of protection from influences that may differ from the family values they were (or were not) raised with. Many parents fear that simply exposing their young adults to a different set of morals/values/paradigms will spark rebellion. This is the fear creating the unease. As a parent, it is hard to face that fear. It feels like your performance is being evaluated based on the choices your young adult makes. The truth is, in order for someone (including your child) to fully know Christ and fully experience the fullness of the abundant life that person MUST make their decisions based on their own experiences away from their parental influences.

    The Supreme Court’s decision, though I do not fundamentally agree with it, does create a fantastic proving ground for a young adult’s spiritual development within their new paradigm. Personally, I would love to attend a Christian based club led by a Muslim. I would welcome the opposing view points, the challenging discussions and the rewards of working out my faith. After all, upon graduation, our young adults are flung out into a world filled with diversity and varying levels of tolerance.

  • MWK

    Is the title of this post rhetorical?

  • DRT

    Robin, and Anita Wilson,

    I agree with the decision. If people want to make up rules and then form organizations around them and those organizations discriminate against people then they should not have the privilege of getting direct financial support from the university. Meeting rooms are direct financial support.

    What is so controversial about that?

  • RJS

    French overstates badly … and that is unfortunate.

    To pick one – the university most definitely does not tell us that men and women are exactly the same. But I, for one, am quite happy that the university does have an ethic today that allows me to do the things that I am good at without the overt patriarchial baloney that was still around when I began my career; and I bemoan the fact that “the church” does not.

    On the other hand … evangelical is something of a dirty word.

  • Robin


    It has never been controversial for private colleges, but it has always been assumed that at public universities students had a right to free association along ideological lines. If campus democrats wanted to require that people be democrats to join them, then they wouldn’t be punished if they refused to let a bunch of Republicans take over the organization.

    The bigger issue coming down the pipe is selective enforcement of anti-discrimination policies. Vanderbilt has explicitly exempt some organizations from the anti-discrimination policy (Greek organizations) and they have that right. How long do you think it is going to be when some small public university in the Bible belt decides to enforce such policies more strictly against non-Christian groups, or until a school in a Red State decides to strictly require non-discrimination among progressive groups, but not against conservative groups.

  • RJS


    On this one I agree with you. At public Universities there should be policy for students to freely associate along ideological or other grounds (ethnic, activity, …) with no preference for any group over another.

  • DRT

    Robin (and RJS),

    Here is why I feel as I do.

    I feel a big part of the responsibility of our government is to ensure that the majority does not impose their will on the minority. I feel this perspective has been all but eliminated from the public square because of the right wing persistence of democracy being the “everyone vote and the majority rules” view of the world. But that is not the way our country has been founded.

    In many southern states with ultra-ingroup behaviors relating to other religions, countries and even food (My family is regularly discriminated against here in Virginia for being vegetarian. My daughter was just venting to me yesterday how the scout masters in adventure scouts actually made fun of her, and how the special dietary needs check box on some forms only allows for kosher or hindu dietary restrictions), the majority can, and does, lead to a tyranny of the majority.

    Add to that the implied (even if not true) campus support for a particular majority view, and the natural inclination of people who are in the administration of the equitable oversight of university property (I mean that those with really big clubs will get better treatment), and I think we have a real problem on our hands. I live with it due to my family being vegetarian (I LOVE steak….)

    So, I don’t see this as an issue about free association, I see it as an issue of allocation of tax payer property and implied support (due to higher participation) of the property. I think it is conservative for us to not allow it to protect the minority from the majority.

  • DRT

    I realize I was not clear about one thing. If the support for an organization can be accomplished without regard to the quantity of people involved, then the university can dole out support. For instance, a list of all the organizations can be printed on campus materials. Or one spot for a pamphlet from each, though that borders on money being privaliged and I would need to ponder that more.

    But to have 20 “I hate Islam” rooms allocated and 1 “Islam is Life” room, is wrong.

    I think the least we can do is demand equal access.

  • RJS

    Frankly DRT, removing the right of free association in this form enables (can even ensure) the tyranny of the majority. The minority has no recourse. It is the minority group who stands to vanish without this protection.

  • DRT

    I see that too RJS. This is a tough issue.

  • Dana

    A must see: Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

  • Anita Wilson


    My only source regarding the Supreme Court decision in question is this blog post. I’ve done no independent research. Based on the information provided, my reasons for not agreeing with the decision is that it is attached to “leadership”. Accepting aid from a public, government funded institution should require that the club be all-inclusive and non-discriminatory. However, the decision mentioned herein specifically addresses leadership roles. Hypothetical, you are an apple farmer. Your desire is to gather other apple growers to discuss irrigation, shipping, marketing of apples unique to this industry. Why would I then be held to a ruling that says my leadership team must also contain orange growers? Yes there would be value in some similarities of orchard management, but there are so many other disparities that having this person on the leadership team would not be productive. I’m likely over-simplifying, but that is my reasoning for fundamentally disagreeing with that decision.

  • Aaron

    I heard this growing up and all through college that “liberal universities are intolerant of Christians”. I went to one of the most ‘liberal’ colleges in Colorado. There I was allowed to:
    Speak out against sex education in my English class.
    Encouraged by a teacher to write a paper expressing my conservative views on homosexuality.
    Did a speech for my speech class defending the historicity of the physical resurrection of Jesus.
    Participate in a conservative Christian club who excluded openly told people about the dangers of gays and liberals.
    Christians were allowed to set up booths on campus saying “Flee fornication”.
    Christians were allowed to set up a booth in the courtyard were they would stand up and yell at people that they are going to hell.
    We had our anti-abortion protestors with graphic huge signs in the courtyard.
    Christians were allowed to hand out propaganda and stop and talk to people both in the courtyard and in the cafeteria to try to convert you.

    Throughout college, even from professors and students who disagreed with me, I was given respect for my viewpoints. Overwhelmingly, even if they disagree, most students completely tolerated Christians. They simply went about their day and let them do their thing.

    This was never the case the for the evangelical churches I was a member of. If you accepted evolution, voted democrat, didn’t support President Bush, were gay, believed women should be allowed to lead, etc, you were at best ostracized and gossiped about, but usually you were pressured to leave; or at least prohibited from leading anything and never asked to participate in anything.
    It is the same way at a lot of “Christian” colleges. We all know what happens to professors like Peter Enns who go against the status quo…

    If the Christian club doesn’t want to abide by the university policies, then there is a pretty simple solution: don’t be associated with the university. Nothing stops you from forming your own club and doing your own thing without the universities blessing. A lot of clubs did that.
    The impression it gives to none-Christian students at college, who see all this going on and the university bending over backwards to accommodate religious practices, and on top of that hear Christian’s complaining that “their rights are being taken away/they’re being discriminated against/etc” is that Christians are concerned about one group of people:

  • Rebecca Hartman

    This is one of those refreshing, and rare, examples of the comments being more thoughtful and reflective than the original piece. As an educator, and yes, a liberal one, I am weary of the notion that my willingness to encourage open discussion, dialogue and reflection on nearly every subject is somehow “anti-Christian.” Does such an approach lead to one’s exposure to ideas that challenge one’s own? Yep. That is not intolerance. The siege mentality that new ideas are somehow inappropriate in higher education is chilling. Aaron hit it spot on.