Campus Political Correctness and the Consumerist Model of Higher Education

Skinner Hall, College of Nursing, UMass, Amherst MA

I'll be the first to admit that Camille Paglia's lengthy article in The Smart Set, Free Speech & the Modern Campus, did not exactly resonate with me. Her experience with political correctness as a faculty member is fairly different from my own, which is to be expected given that we work in different fields. Moreover, I disagree with her suggestion that faculty bear the primary responsibility for where we are today. And while I appreciate the historical context she brings to her understanding of how political correctness infiltrated academia, I did not find her recipe for undoing the damage to be terribly compelling.

Gripes aside, Paglia's final paragraph deserves to be unpacked, as it highlights a crucial point that is rarely made in discussions of political correctness on modern college and university campuses: the situation in which we find ourselves today is, at least in part, a consequence of our refusal to adequately fund higher education. Here's how she put it:

As tuition costs rose stratospherically over the past quarter century, American colleges and universities shifted into a consumerist mode and have now become more like shopping malls than educational institutions — they don’t want to upset the paying customers! But the entire college experience should be based on confronting new and disruptive ideas. Students must accept personal responsibility for their own choices and behavior, and university administrators must stop behaving like substitute parents and hovering therapists. The ultimate values at any university should be free thought and free speech.

I've previously noted how the lack of adequate funding for higher education and resulting transition of most public colleges and universities to what Paglia labels a "consumerist model" has resulted in lowered academic standards. And yet, I have not written nearly enough about how this has also produced a climate conducive to political correctness, social justice warriorism, the regressive left, or however else you may prefer to characterize efforts to stifle the free expression of ideas on campus through a combination of trigger warnings, safe spaces, efforts to dis-invite speakers, and so on.

The Consumerist Model Comes to Higher Education

As state after state has reduced funding for their public colleges and universities, these institutions have had to raise tuition to make up some of the difference. But since states typically limit the amount which institutions can raise tuition, they have also adopted the consumerist model. In essence, customer satisfaction has become the primary goal. This has been labeled in many different ways to make it more palatable to educators (e.g., "student retention"), and it now takes priority over academic rigor, free speech, and many other once-sacred academic values.

In the consumerist model, we want happy students. We are far more concerned with their contentment and eventual graduation than with the prospect that they might learn something meaningful along the way. Many state legislatures now tie funding to the number of students each institution admits, and some have developed funding formulas to reward the institutions that graduate the highest percentage of students they admit. If these students want "safe spaces," the institutions will crack down on "hate speech" and make sure they do not have to encounter new and potentially upsetting ideas. If these students find personal responsibility to be a scary prospect, the institution demands that employees coddle them. If the free expression of ideas must be stifled to produce happy students, so be it.

To be clear, when I said "we" in the previous paragraph, I am not referring to most of the faculty. I know that many conservatives are eager to blame all of this on liberal professors. In my experience, the vast majority of faculty, including many liberal professors, have opposed the imposition of the consumerist model on their institutions because they see it as antithetical to the mission of higher education. For the most part, the imposition of this model is being driven by administrators who are incentivized by state legislatures. And therein lies the problem. When the people in charge of the money decide that they are going to implement this model, there is very little faculty can do about it.

Of course, none of this relieves faculty from our responsibility in contributing to political correctness. Paglia is certainly correct to point the finger at faculty in the humanities for their role in the initial infiltration of political correctness. There are faculty in many fields who have bought into this and become "part of the problem." I think it is entirely fair to suggest that there are liberal faculty who preach social justice warriorism at every institution. And yet, this would not cause the harm that it does without administrative buy-in. The problem is that they are being empowered by administrators so that some of their nuttier ideas are given institutional backing in order to appease students who often seem to lack minimally adequate coping skills. The political correctness and social justice warriorism they advocate is being seized on by administrators as a tool to advance the consumerist agenda.

Solutions to the Problem of Political Correctness on Campus

What can we do to banish political correctness from campus and restore the free expression of ideas? Paglia offers us three ideas:

  1. Institutions should reject "the sprawling cafeteria menu of over-specialized electives and return to broad survey courses..."
  2. Institutions should sponsor public colloquia on sensitive topics where both sides are represented while punishing any disruption of such events.
  3. Institutions should stay out of the private social lives of students.

While I do see some merit with her suggestions, I do not believe that any represent particularly feasible options, at least not until the consumerist model is thoroughly dismantled. First, no institution is going to abandon "over-specialized electives." These courses are extremely popular with students, and academic departments are under tremendous pressure to maximize student enrollment. If anything, I'd expect that we will continue to see more of these courses specifically because they reflect attempts by various departments to attract students, something which has been thoroughly incentivized by administrators.

Second, while I agree that institutions should offer colloquia where hot-button issues are openly debated while preventing disruptions, this is precisely the sort of thing many administrators will not do. They know that these events will lead to campus protects and social media outrage. Who cares? Widespread social media outrage is now perceived as harmful to the "brand" of the institution. In the consumerist model, brand is everything. When thousands of people take to social media to complain about how "racist" or "sexist" an institution is, administrators worry that student recruitment will suffer. Do not expect to see real progress here as long as the consumerist model persists.

Paglia's final suggestion is one that many will find appealing; however, this seems to be the least feasible of all. Not only are we up against the consumerist model and the desire for happy students in their safe spaces here; we also have to contend with federal laws mandating all sorts of over-reach by institutions in the lives of their students. Some of the "paternalism" is driven by the consumerist model, some is driven by parents who are not ready to let their children grow up, and some is driven by federal legislation requiring institutions to take on functions better reserved for law enforcement. Turning this around is going to be an uphill battle requiring legal reform at the federal level.