The Haunting of Our Colleges

Dec. 8, 2023

Our universities and colleges are haunted. The are haunted by the ghosts of critical thinking, tolerance, debate, reason and diversity of opinion. Ghosts are dead and I can make an argument that critical thinking in our colleges and universities is dead or dying. 

In the last few decades, our institutions of higher learning have become bastions of groupthink. I don't care if you are a liberal or conservative. Anything that smacks of something conservative, pro-US and now, pro-Israel, is shut down and attacked on our college campuses.

It is amazing to me to see these alleged students shutting down free speech. There was the case of a conservative judge at Stanford earlier this year who was invited to speak at Stanford's Law School. (You know, where they allegedly teach students how to argue the law and debate!) The judge has had some controversial judgments when it comes to the transgender rights issue. But as he was speaking, he was shouted down by students who did not want to hear what he had to say. At this event, an Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was attending as an observer. When the judge asked this dean to address the heckling, she instead indicated she was uncomfortable with his presence at the event. Someone with a title that includes "diversity, equity and inclusion" inexplicably supported the stifling of this judge’s opinions. Rather than allow for an open debate, the students and this dean shut the program down. They learned absolutely nothing that day except to deny someone their right to speak. 

This is not an unusual occurrence on our campuses these days. Rather than championing the rights of all sides to be heard, you only hear one side as opposed to the other counter-discussion which is frequently a conservative perspective. How does this help the cause of higher education? It doesn't. It promotes groupthink. It promotes a lack of critical thinking. It promotes a narrow view of the world where you are "right” and any opposing viewpoints are "wrong."

The latest iteration of this is taking place now with the Israeli conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Mass protests against Israel are taking place on our college campuses. No doubt fueled by faculty and administrators who tolerate this one-sided way of thinking. Weak-kneed educators allow for outright antisemitism instead of promoting debates about what each side's points of view are. It becomes a childish exhibition of ill-informed children. "Palestinians are good. Israelis are bad." 

It is a circular argument that fails to represent both Palestinians and Israelis as people. Some are good and some are bad. Hamas and other terrorist groups are just flat-out bad. End of discussion since most admit Hamas doesn’t represent all Palestinians.

But in today's extremely tribal environment, it is easy to champion the latest case of David versus Goliath on college campuses. In this case, ironically, with the kids in our college institutions, their David is the Palestinians and Goliath is portrayed as the country of Israel. Protests are acceptable and encouraged under our Bill of Rights. But violence against those of the Jewish faith, lack of tolerance for Israel's point of view, and totally ignoring the attacks on Israel on October 7 and the people who were kidnapped, killed, tortured, or raped, is outrageous and heinous.

The one institution in our country where free speech, debate, and dissection of many points of view should flourish in our colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the very opposite is happening. A lack of tolerance, debate and critical thinking is helping to churn out a group of college-educated automatons who think alike, talk alike and whose values seem to be the same. Intolerance and privileged attitudes of some students and faculty shut down diverse forms of speech. That is not an atmosphere that fosters open minds, learning and understanding.

What happens when students leave those hallowed halls and face the realities of the global melting pot? Far removed from the cocoon of an insulated campus environment, many students are ill-equipped to deal with the diversity of thoughts and opinions that constitute real life. The universities have let them down.

Our colleges and universities are doing our students a disservice. Too many students are modeling what their professors and administrators do and speak. Instead of having the fortitude and knowledge to champion free speech, the current debates on campus seem to be held in a vacuum of facts and insight. Like the associate dean at Stanford who was "uncomfortable" with the conservative judge's presence, intolerance permeates campuses which is shocking to many.

It is crucial now in our country’s history that today’s graduates are critical thinkers with a world view even if they fail to jibe with their personal biases. Well-rounded students are not robots with sheepskins, who after four years have little ability to assess diverse points of view and understand them. Hiding behind labels such as "hate speech" to justify shutting down divergent opinions is not okay. It is counter-intuitive to the process of higher education.

It is time to wake up and understand that it is our collective ability to debate rigorously and argue opposing points of view in an intelligent and respectful manner that makes the U.S. different. We have that right whereas in other countries not towing the "party line" could be hazardous to your health. I pray that we don't come to that. The day citizens find themselves afraid to espouse their opinions for fear of being shouted down, or even worse, being physically attacked (and this has been happening) is a threat to democracy.

As leaders, you should fight this intolerance wherever you see it. It is not acceptable, and leaders must stand for the free exchange of ideas, even in the face of intolerance.

Mike Howard currently is President of Howard Consulting Services, LLC, a security consulting and mentoring firm based out of Las Vegas Nevada. Howard is the former Chief Security Officer (CSO) for Microsoft Corporation and held global responsibility for vital security functions including operations, investigations, risk mitigation, crisis management, executive protection, security technology, strategy, intelligence, and