There is no denying the current divided state of our country. Partisanship seems to have elevated to an almost toxic level, making one’s party affiliation a proverbial face tattoo to nearly fifty-percent of the population. Healthy debate and open dialogue between parties has reached a stalemate, forced on by hate speech, violent riots and increasingly polarizing platforms. Some might argue that we’ve seen this significant level of thought-divergence before, and that the media has a habit of proclaiming Armageddon doom and gloom after every presidential election. There is certainly some truth to these sorts of claims considering the commonly used hyperbolic formula for garnering higher readership and media subscriptions. But, what if we are now facing a new kind of problem entirely; one that won’t simply autocorrect when pushed to abnormal limits? The increasingly popular allegation that college campuses are merely “echo chambers” for liberal thought and therefore must be inoperative, is just this sort of problem.

This presumption has been tossed around frequently in the past, but its full weight wasn’t upon us until September of this year, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at Georgetown University Law Center, and addressed what he referred to as “an attack” on constitutionally protected speech. Sessions contends campus regulations like the one found in Boise State University’s Student Code of Conduct prohibiting any “conduct that a reasonable person would find offensive” as being a direct infringement on the first precept of the first amendment. While it might be difficult for every individual to agree on the appropriate definition of “reasonable,” or even “offensive,” this disparity in perception is not the problem of the school. In fact, this “reasonable person” standard serves to protect the accused as much as the accuser and is why it is used in the conduct guidelines of most academic institutions and employers alike.

As a self-proclaimed “reasonable person,” I understand this statute to be an attempt by the implementing party to prevent harassment. In no way do these limits on speech prevent what has always been vital in academia — a safe place for healthy debate, learning, constructive criticisms and a conglomeration of opposing ideals. This calls into question an interesting aspect of free speech limits, and yes, it is limited. What we can and cannot say is not necessarily commensurate to what we can but shouldn’t say. The criterion for a sexual harassment case to be presented to an accused employee is a common example of free speech limitations. And, while it’s important to make that distinction, I reject the idea that being empathetic is somehow bowing to the ridiculous constraints of a society that has become too politically correct.

Another supporting evidence provided by conservatives and general contributors to this “echo chamber” conversation is the massive imbalance of liberal as opposed to conservative professors at U.S. universities. A study conducted by Econ Journal Watch in September of 2016 reveals just how lopsided these numbers really are. Of the forty universities surveyed, the study found that for every registered Republican currently teaching, there were eleven professors registered as Democrat. Whether or not these statistics suggest that schools are filtering out conservative professors in the hiring process, or that a progressive political ideology correlates with a greater interest in teaching, it is difficult to prove either. And, while I certainly agree these numbers are alarming, and that discrimination based on moral values or ideology is corrosive to the learning environment, they do not confirm the common sister-accusation that any professor, regardless of political affiliation attempts to present their stance on politics in the classroom as a set of objective truths.

But, according to one professor I spoke with at the University of Utah, liberal instructors on college campuses might very well be guilty of doing just this. He agrees that “most of the professors are progressive,” and “because of this, too often do they try to influence their students and get them to believe in the same things.”

When asked if he considered there to be any correlation between subject taught and political affiliation, he disagreed saying that while there isn’t any noticeable correlation between the two, there is a definite “lean to the left” in academia, so “there tends to be more left leaning professors, and this is true regardless of subject.” The obvious ideological imbalance in favor of progressive thought on our campus and others is irrefutable, but what scenario would we find ourselves in if the opposite were true?

The right is concerned that liberal professors are indoctrinating their youth with leftist ideology disguised as secular world-views, but what then would be their alternative? Theologically based morality disguised as fiscal conservativeness and family values? Regardless of how you arrive at your personal set of morals, these ideas and protocols must continue to be considered subjective. So, when proponents of intelligent design seek to have creationism taught in the classroom, conservative legislators, regardless of belief, need only refer back to the first amendment. There is an immense importance in allowing healthy debate and the clashing of ideas in a college campus setting, but a reasonable criteria for burden-of-proof needs to also be established. Without it, scientific claims lose credibility, and opinion becomes fact.

According to Dr. Moyer-Horner, a biology professor at the University of Utah, both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of politicizing science and empirical truths, but he argues that there is at least one significant difference. While the left politicizes certain issues, he claims, they “rarely make it into the agendas of elected officials.” The right, however, he says, will not only try to politicize science and it’s empirical truths, but “these claims have been explicitly espoused by numerous conservative legislators at many levels of government, including the presidential level, and are in direct opposition to the scientific evidence.”

College campuses across the U.S. are some of the most diverse institutions in the country, and this diversity provides strength. While we focus on inclusivity of ethnicity and culture, let’s not lose sight of the need for an equal amount of diversity in thought and discourse. If higher-education is being accused of becoming an “echo-chamber” of scientific truth and query, I struggle to comprehend how this designation can be considered a negative one. But, if you are like our Attorney General, and you feel like conforming to society’s version of a “reasonable person” is a direct violation of your freedoms, you might not have anything reasonable to contribute to the conversation anyway.

letters@dailyutahchronicle.com

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