Add to this apprehension the fears that so many students of color experienced before college—a rational fear of the police, of racial stereotypes, of continual exposure to epithets and prejudice—and it is no wonder that they seek safe havens. They may have expected to find this safe haven in college, but instead they find prejudice, stereotyping, slurs, and phobic statements on the campuses as well. Additionally, many of these students employ the classification of “the insider.” Believing that “outsiders” cannot possibly understand the situation that faces these groups of offended individuals, by virtual of race, gender, ethnicity, or some other category, the students often dismiss the views of their professors and administrators who can’t “get it” because they are not part of the oppressed group.
Many of the young adults at highly selective colleges and universities have been forced to follow a straight and narrow path, never deviating from it because of a passion unrelated to school work, and have not been allowed, therefore, to live what many would consider a normal childhood—to play, to learn by doing, to challenge their teachers, to make mistakes. Their families and their network of friends and social peers have placed extreme pressure on them to achieve, or win in a zero-sum game with their own friends. While it’s difficult to assess the cases, and while myriad factors likely contribute to the poor mental health among college students, in 2015 roughly 18 percent of undergraduates reported being diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the past year, according to the American College Health Association’s 2015 annual survey; the rate was 15 percent for depression. Many are taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication upon entry into college.
But there is a different, though equally important, reason many students today are willing to suppress free expression on campus. And the fault largely lies at the feet of many of the country’s academic leaders. Students and their families have been increasingly treated as “customers.” Presidents of colleges and universities have been too reluctant to “offend” their customers, which may help explain why they so often yield to wrong-headed demands by students. Courage at universities is, unfortunately, a rare commodity—and it’s particularly rare among leaders of institutions pressured by students to act in a politically correct way.
It seems that the vast majority of presidents and provosts of the finest U.S. universities have not seized this moment of concern voiced by students as a teaching moment—a moment to instruct and discuss with students what college is about. Too many academic leaders are obsessed with the security of their own jobs and their desire to protect the reputation of their institution, and too few are sufficiently interested in making statements that may offend students but that show them why they are at these colleges—and why free expression is a core and enabling value of any higher-learning institution that considers itself of the first rank. Of course, there are strong academic leaders who do encourage open discussions of issues raised by students while also speaking out against restrictions on campus speech, against speech codes, safe-space psychology, and micro-aggressions. But they are too few and far between.