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Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.

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Note: A version of this article was first published in the El Reno Tribune on July 18, 2018.

The recent vindication of Marquette University Professor John McAdams by the Wisconsin Supreme Court is being hailed as a blow against suppression of diverse viewpoints on college campuses, especially those of a conservative bent. McAdams was summarily suspended without pay for publicly criticizing a graduate assistant who refused to allow students to debate the issue of gay marriage in the classroom. The court ruled that he had been unjustly and excessively targeted for expressing a politically incorrect opinion on his own personal blog. 

The court’s decision in favor of free speech is significant, because the fear of retaliation for questioning left-leaning ideology is very real for many university professors and teaching assistants across the country. That includes Oklahoma, where several conservative professors refused to be quoted for this article and another refused to communicate via university email, so as not to have his comments recorded in its archives. 

These professors report that many of their conservative-leaning students feel intimidated as well. Even those who haven’t been the target of overt retaliation said that they frequently censor themselves so as to avoid conflict with teaching peers and administrators. 

In response to growing speech limitations on the state’s campuses, roughly a dozen of Oklahoma’s higher education faculty members have joined the Heterodox Academy, a national organization founded on the premise that when college campuses lack diverse viewpoints, both research and teaching suffer. Originally begun as a blog in 2015, it’s transitioned into an organization with nearly 2,000 professors and graduate student members nationwide.

Several conservative professors in Oklahoma refused to be quoted for this article and another refused to communicate via university email, so as not to have his comments recorded in its archives.

Neera Badhwar, Ph.D., a recently retired professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, is among the group.

“I believe university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other,” she said. “In the past I remember a couple of incidents that led some campus feminists to censure colleagues and students for remarks that deviated from the ‘party line.’ The very fact that there is a party line is troublesome in an institution that is supposed to exist for the sake of providing a liberal education—that is, an education that cultivates free minds.”

There’s a Serious ‘Fear Factor’ 

Ben Bindewald, Ph.D., assistant professor of social foundations at Oklahoma State University, said he’s witnessed a very strong “chilling effect” nationwide that leads conservative faculty and students to self-censor their comments.

“Many are intimidated into keeping quiet after seeing others who have expressed similar views subjected to mob harassment, public humiliation, or vitriolic criticism of their character,” Bindewald said, citing the “heckler’s veto” harassment of conservatives at a number of institutions including Yale, Dartmouth, Berkeley, Middlebury, the University of Missouri, California State University, and more.

“Sometimes defenders of orthodoxy invoke institutional power, e.g., faculty or administrative admonitions, investigations, or sanctions resulting from anonymous reports of speech code violations or ‘bias incidents,’ etc.,” he added. “This is designed to encourage campus community members to embrace a set of orthodox beliefs, patterns of behavior or a particular conception of justice. The political far left tends to frame this phenomenon as a struggle between powerful oppressors/beneficiaries of unearned privilege and powerless oppressed/marginalized/disadvantaged groups. Thus, such aggressive, intimidating, and emotionally charged confrontations are deemed by the far left to be legitimate reactions to systematic oppression.”

Another professor in Oklahoma, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed with Bindewald’s assessment, and said that DEI (“diversity, equity, and inclusion”) policies at his university do not permit questioning of, much less discussing, politically correct ideology. Those who do put themselves at serious risk of harassment and professional retaliation.

“Identity politics reign supreme,” he said. “Discussion of the legality and efficacy of these policies is stifled in classrooms and in meetings. As a simple example, the Republican Party is the majority in Oklahoma, but some academic programs are completely devoid of registered Republicans. Try asking in a meeting ‘Are we supposed to discriminate against Democrats?’ Or with women comprising 58 percent of the higher-ed population in the U.S., try asking this question in a classroom: ‘Are we supposed to direct scholarship money toward men?’ These questions cannot even be asked, and any answer other than ‘no’ is not tolerated. The efforts encouraged for DEI need to be examined for legality.”

While there is indeed creeping censorship, in Bindewald’s opinion Oklahoma’s campuses still are not quite as lockstep as others outside the state.

Identity politics reign supreme. Discussion of the legality and efficacy of these policies is stifled in classrooms and in meetings.

“I think that because Oklahoma is such a politically, culturally, and religiously conservative state, its public campuses—although they are still overwhelmingly left-leaning—have more conservative students and a general public and state legislature that are pretty far to the right and would certainly push back against overt suppression of conservative speech on campus,” he said. “So, I think these Oklahoma public college and university campuses tend to be generally more moderate than others in the country and are generally less affected by the national trend of ‘groupthink.’ But this does not mean that there are not occasional incidents and even small spheres within these universities in which extremist attitudes and practices are considered normal.” 

Bindewald also said he sees an “overwhelming” emphasis on social justice and identity politics-related themes at academic conferences and faculty job announcements.

“I sense that legitimate concerns about Trumpism and the emboldened far-right are leading the campus left to ‘circle the wagons’ and double down on their commitment to maintaining orthodoxy and the practice of silencing dissent,” he said. “I worry that segments of this group are increasingly using these legitimate concerns as illegitimate justification for intolerance against perceived threats on campus and elsewhere.” 

Several other conservative Oklahoma professors reported that they have not experienced left-leaning groupthink as a major problem on their campus. 

“There’s no shortage of political biases on campuses in Oklahoma, but relative to what I hear from colleagues across the nation, I feel that Oklahoma schools do a much better job of being professional and collegial as a rule,” said Robert Mather, Ph.D., who’s a professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma and an assistant dean of its Jackson College of Graduate Studies. Mather has authored a number of papers on ideological bias in the field of social psychology. He’s also among the earliest Heterodox Academy members and participated in many of its published panel discussions after the 2016 presidential election.

In some cases, it’s not the university policy per se, but simply conflict between individuals, added Dr. Laura P. Ford, University of Tulsa associate professor of chemical engineering and past chair of its ASEE Chemical Engineering Division.

“I joined the Heterodox Academy because I feel there is a growing incivility in discussions between people with different viewpoints,” she said. “I rarely experience that in my engineering faculty bubble, however. Occasionally I am with groups who obviously don’t realize that I disagree with them, but I do not reveal myself because they are spitting mad about the subject, and I don’t think we could have a reasoned conversation.”

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