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Social justice doctrines ruining higher ed, panelists say, but offer few answers

A peaceful faculty protest during a 2016 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
A peaceful faculty protest during a 2016 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

Free speech is in trouble on college campuses. Social justice indoctrination is to blame.

Speakers at a Friday, Dec. 6, panel in Raleigh issued this warning about the impact social justice advocacy has had in higher education. 

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the National Association of Scholars hosted the event, “Leveling America: Social Justice and Identity in American Higher Education,” which closed with the panel discussion. 

Panelists included Mike Adams, a professor of criminology at UNC-Wilmington; Steve Long, a UNC Board of Governors member; and Jonathan Jordan, a former N.C. state representative of Ashe County.

John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation, moderated the panel. 

Adams said social justice has infected universities across the country. The professor has called social justice “a code word for ‘Marxist.'” He said the emergence of postmodernist thought, coupled with social justice, has eroded free speech and due process rights on college campuses.

“The lack of due process and lack of free speech on college campuses has been a serious issue that has kind of been driven by a postmodern worldview that has morphed into this social justice mission,” Adams said.

Adams said the prevalence of social justice activists on campus harmed his ability to teach and pursue academic research. The professor no longer pursues research but instead writes articles criticizing higher education. 

Adams sued UNC-Wilmington to secure tenure. He settled a lawsuit with the university in 2014, after he claimed the campus refused to promote him to full professor because of his right-of-center views, which have criticized left-wing activism and promoted Christian values.

Long said university faculties lack a diversity of thought. He pointed to the faculty hiring process. If a job candidate’s views don’t fit with the majority liberal mindset, then the candidate won’t get hired, Long claimed. 

“There is a structural problem,” Long said. “They will never hire conservatives because they don’t want them in the club.”

Fixing the hiring process could lead to a more diverse ideological makeup of university faculty, Long said, but he didn’t know exactly what changes would accomplish the goal.

Despite the warnings, panelists agreed that North Carolina is ahead of the curve in protecting free speech on college campuses. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization aimed at protecting civil liberties on college campuses, classifies universities with red, yellow, and green lights based on their free speech policies. While red schools restrict speech, green schools protect free speech. 

North Carolina has the most green-light universities in the country, with 11 schools earning the highest marks. Universities achieved a green light by eliminating speech codes and ridding campuses of free speech zones.

The panelists credited House Bill 527, Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech, with helping to protect free speech on North Carolina’s college campuses. 

Jordan was one of the primary sponsors of the bill, which became law in 2017. 

Under H.B. 527, the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors was required to adopt a systemwide speech policy to ensure student and faculty’s free speech rights were protected. The board adopted a policy a few months after the bill became law.

But the legislature can do only so much, Jordan said. 

Adams and Long agreed.

“We are winning the legal battles but are losing the cultural aspect,” the professor said.

Adams said students are increasingly choosing comfort over freedom. Policies can only go so far. Cultural attitudes need to change too. 

“I think there are a lot of faculty who agree there needs to be a diversity of viewpoints. The university is always best when you have liberals and conservatives of various degrees debating,” Long said. “Even social justice should be allowed and heard in the university so students can make up their own minds about it.”