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Lyons: College in the crosshairs

Part three

The Radical Right is targeting higher education for takeover because it's really the last American institution to resist them. They presently control the White House, the Supreme Court, mainstream media, most churches and much of the corporate world. All that's left is academe: the final frontier!

The academy has been able to resist this invasion, if only so far and only partially, because it has clout. Without vibrant colleges and universities, learning stagnates, research stops, markets falter and nations decline. Powerful interests are not going to let that happen easily.

Another reason is the culture of higher education. Folks who study history, philosophy and politics tend to be more skeptical of arguments based on emotions and exaggerations than, say, those producers of infotainment occupying our cable television newsrooms, where ''if it smells, it sells.''

Of course the little generals of the Radical Right know this, which is why they cloak some of their most reactionary ideas in Enlightenment clothing, using terms like ''freedom'' and ''rights'' to advance ideas that are actually hostile to both.

David Horowitz doesn't call for the purging of ethnic and women's studies; he advances an ''Academic Bill of Rights.'' He's not for mandating conservative ideologies in the curriculum; he's for ''intellectual diversity.'' His work wouldn't roll back the gains made by women and minorities in the last half-century; it's about ''academic freedom.''

One of the most consistently distorted Enlightenment concepts used to advance the Radical Right's agenda is ''free speech.'' Originally invented by liberals to guarantee the rights of citizens to protest their government, free speech now means the right of the Right to hassle minorities on campus and interfere with the administration of institutions.

To wit, College Republicans at the University of Rhode Island recently offered $100 scholarships for white, heterosexual males who applied by explaining how they have overcome ''adversities.'' Get it? This ostensible ''satire'' mocked the presence of URI students who really have been disadvantaged by racism, sexism and homophobia. Ha ha!

They got into trouble with the Student Senate, which partially funds the organization with student fees, but were vindicated thanks to pressure from an outside group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It's now fair game to humiliate students of color, women and gays at URI, and make them pay for it through their fees.

FIRE portrays itself as a defender of democracy whose mission is ''to protect the unprotected'' from the ''indoctrination of radical political orthodoxies'' and ''violations of basic rights that occur every day on today's college campuses.'' Translation: FIRE fights campuses that develop perfectly reasonable policies protecting students from hate speech, humiliation and intimidation.

Consider FIRE's last three press releases (as of May 4). What they call ''indoctrinations of radical political orthodoxies'' and ''violations of basic rights'' include:

* A domestic abuse/sexual assault early intervention program at Michigan State mandating counseling for students caught intimidating, threatening, coercing or emotionally abusing other students. FIRE ominously called this prevention program ''ideological re-education.'' It was discontinued, oddly enough, shortly after Cho Seung-Hui's rampage at Virginia Tech.

* Texas A&M's Student Rights and Obligations policy compelling students ''to recognize constituted authority, to conform to the ordinary rules of good conduct, to be truthful, to respect the rights of others, to protect private and public property, and to make the best use of their time.'' This policy, for FIRE, is ''not worth the paper on which it is written.''

* Harassment charges brought against a conservative newspaper at Tufts University for publishing a spoof called, ''O Come All Ye Black Folk.'' (''All come! Blacks, we need you/Born into the ghetto!/O Jesus, we need you now to fill our racial quotas!''), as well as running fake advertisements during Islamic Awareness Week associating Muslim students with terrorism. FIRE calls the charges ''tyranny.''

This is just a tiny sample of the reports on FIRE's Web site, nearly all targeting the same things - codes of conduct, hate speech regulations and early intervention programs - and always making poor campus administrators seem like Orwell's Thought Police.

Why shouldn't colleges set basic standards of conduct for their students? Hate speech in particular is a very good thing to regulate, since hate crimes are increasing on campuses.

In 2001, the Justice Department issued a report condemning ''the widespread use of degrading language and slurs by [college] students directed toward people of color, women, homosexuals, Jews and others'' and warning of two results associated with uninhibited hate speech. First, it can easily ''escalate.'' Second, it's ''traumatic.''

Campus speech codes wisely attempt to prevent such consequences, but FIRE calls foul on every single one: ''Free speech!''

Too many have fallen for the line that hate speech must be protected as free speech lest the Republic fall into the hands of inquisitorial Stalinists. Distinctions between the two are not difficult to make, as seen in virtually every Western European national constitution, and free speech never existed on campuses anyway. What do you think happens when papers are graded?

Don't buy the hype. Through organizations like FIRE and distortions of democratic concepts like free speech, the Radical Right isn't protecting democracy, but interfering with the administration of higher education in order to reshape it in its own image.

Time to draw a line. For starters, let's admit that this hoo-hah over ''academic freedom'' and ''free speech'' is a smokescreen. The Radical Right doesn't really believe in either - witness their treatment of Ward Churchill - just using noble words to push ignoble policies.

Second, we should insist that administrators be allowed to do their jobs without outside interference from meddlers like FIRE. They know best how to govern their institutions.

Third, let's build coalitions to protect higher education from the Radical Right, say, between proponents of diversity and science. If you're passionate about one but not the other, remember that both are under assault. We need each other.

Finally, never forget that Natives are in these crosshairs too. We just arrived to the academy (thanks largely to affirmative action), immediately revised the curriculum to reflect our experiences (thanks to multiculturalism) and tried to make campus life more palatable for students (thanks to conduct codes). So far this historic union between Indians and academe has been mutually beneficial.

There's no reason to think that it couldn't end. Draw the line.

Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, directs the Center for Indigenous Studies at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y., and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.