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In this age of political correctness, a college student's best friend is FIRE -- the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Since 1999, FIRE has safeguarded the civil rights of students across the ideological spectrum -- winning victories at 121 colleges and universities, bringing an end to 81 unconstitutional or repressive policies, and benefiting 2.7 million students.
Now, FIRE is riding to the rescue of students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where a heavy-handed attempt at thought control is underway.
The Race, Culture, Class and Gender Task Group of the U's College of Education and Human Development has recommended that race, class and gender politics become the "over-arching framework" of all teacher education courses. Under the group's proposed plan, future teachers would be required to pass an ideological litmus test -- denouncing "white privilege," "hegemonic masculinity" and "heteronormativity," and proving their determination to "fight" for "social justice."
In connection with this initiative, the College of Education intends to redesign its admissions process. It plans to use "predictive criteria" to weed out applicants whose beliefs are judged to render them incapable of developing acceptable levels of "cultural competence." A university document calls for warning this year's applicants about the possible changes.
Last month, FIRE fired off a legal warning shot to university President Robert Bruininks. "If the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group achieves its stated goals," its letter declared, "the result will be political and ideological screening of applicants, remedial re-education for those with the 'wrong' views and values, and withholding of degrees from those upon whom the university's political reeducation efforts proved ineffective."
FIRE's letter warns that the U's proposed actions are an unconstitutional invasion of students' First Amendment right to freedom of conscience and a "severe affront to liberty." The letter quotes the Supreme Court's ringing declaration in West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette:
"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
This is especially true at our universities, which the court has declared to be "peculiarly the 'marketplace of ideas,'" FIRE added.
The debacle at the U of M illustrates the gulf that separates higher-education officials and ordinary citizens on the subject of freedom of speech and thought. University leaders seem clueless about these rights' crucial importance, while average folks grasp intuitively that thought control is wrong.
Thanks to most citizens' common sense, "often all it takes to end repression of this sort is to expose it to the sunlight," says FIRE spokesman Adam Kissel.
Kissel cites recent events at the University of Delaware as a case in point. Several years ago, the Residence Life staff there launched a crusade to reform the beliefs and behaviors of all 7,000 students in college dormitories. Instead of invoking "cultural competence" to justify its actions -- as the U of M has -- Delaware declared that students must become world citizens, committed to "justice" and "sustainability."
As a result, students were subjected to "Diversity Facilitation Training" and were hectored about consumerism, affirmative action, and world distribution of wealth. Nonminority students were chastised about "white privilege" at mandatory floor meetings. Expected "competencies" included such gems as this: "Each student will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression." As one student put it, "I'm being told it's wrong to be a middle-class white male."
After FIRE alerted the public to the program's unconstitutionality, University of Delaware authorities promptly shut the effort down. But continued attempts to revive it suggest that vigilance is imperative, says Kissel.
At the U of M, spokesman Dan Wolter told Fox News that the College of Education's policymaking is still "a dynamic process." But he added that the college hopes to be ready to admit prospective students into its redesigned program by fall of 2011.
What's behind campus authorities' apparent compulsion to dictate what students think and how they live? At both the U of M and Delaware, says Kissel, they "seem to think that sacrificing individual rights and freedom of conscience is a small price to pay for achieving their grand visions of social justice."
"These programs are so dangerous because they teach the next generation that the authorities get to decide what each person's values and beliefs must be," he adds. "That is exactly the opposite of a free society, and the opposite of seeing a university as a true marketplace of ideas."
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.