As if students and parents didn’t have enough to worry about in choosing a college — academics, ambience, selectivity and, of course, cost — the political climate on U.S. campuses is becoming more of a concern.

Why? Because “woke” progressivism is received wisdom in academia these days, and students who don’t get with the program can have a very hard time. 

Academia used to be a place where vigorous debate was encouraged. Now, at too many colleges, a new orthodoxy is protected by speech codes, safe spaces, and trigger warnings.

This new academic state religion combines the ideology of intersectionality with strands of radical feminism, anti-imperialism, and gay and transgender activism. But it’s really about turning the existing power relationships on their head, so that, say, black lesbians or trans women are now at the top of the inverted pyramid and “cis” white males are at the bottom. “Toxic masculinity” and “white privilege” are the roots of all evil. The last shall be first, and the first last.

It’s true that men have dominated the world and women lag behind; gay people have been persecuted, trans people continue to be targets of violence, and African-Americans and other people of color are still victims of systemic racism and discrimination in jobs, housing, and policing. But self-righteous undergraduates, backed by professors and administrators, are turning this new campus orthodoxy into a toxic stew. “Four legs good, two legs bad,” the sheep brayed in “Animal Farm.” Once again, life imitates Orwell.

To compile this list, I used rankings of the most liberal colleges in Niche, Princeton Review, and BestColleges.com and chose the schools with the most overall points. All of these are private liberal arts colleges with hefty price tags.

1. Sarah Lawrence College:This coed college with about 1,400 students is, tucked in a leafy suburb just north of New York City. It has produced its share of star-studded alums including Yoko Ono, Vera Wang, Julianna Margulies, Carrie Fisher, and J.J. Abrams, to name a few, and it maintains its artsy focus.

But in a 2018 op-ed in The New York Times, a conservative professor at the college, Samuel J. Abrams, wrote that the college “was organizing many overtly progressive events — programs with names like ‘Stay Healthy, Stay Woke,’ ‘Microaggressions’ and ‘Understanding White Privilege’ — without offering any…meaningful ideological alternative.”

That prompted an avalanche of outrage, including a note posted on the tenured professor’s office door  calling for him to quit and apologize to a long list of aggrieved parties.  Instead of defending the faculty member, President Cristle Collins-Judd stressed the college’s “commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence” and was pressured by the student senate to “publicly affirm that Black Lives Matter, that LBGT+ Lives matter, and that Women’s Justice matters.” 

In a statement to MarketWatch, the college emphasized its “academic diversity,” which “encourages exploration of new and different ideas and…cultivates the intellectual flexibility and critical thinking skills necessary to examine issues and events through multiple lenses.”

Still, Sarah Lawrence’s place among the wokest of the woke is well-deserved.

2. Mount Holyoke College: One of the original Seven Sisters of women’s colleges, Mt. Holyoke, which has more than 2,100 students and is based in South Hadley, Mass, still ranks pretty well, though it admits more than half of those who apply. Many students who commented on Niche liked the academics and faculty, but some said it was hard to go against the prevailing winds of opinion. 

“Yes, there is a lot of racial, ethnical, sexual, and gendered diversity but that does not mean that there is diversity of opinion/thought,” wrote one student. To show how absurd things have gotten, the school recently dropped a new logo that used the Venus symbol after trans students objected. The symbol, an administrator noted, “had a long history of exclusion” (going back to ancient Rome, I suppose) and pledged “to develop a visual identity that could speak to the college’s identity as a gender-diverse women’s college.” Five years ago, the school canceled a performance of Eve Ensler’s landmark feminist play, “The Vagina Monologues,” because it “offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.”

For once in my life, I’m speechless. 

“At Mount Holyoke, …social activism is in our DNA,” the college said in a statement. “We have long been committed to access and social justice and to the belief that students of strength and conviction give rise to a better world for all.” Unwoke, beware.

3. Mills College: Another women’s liberal arts college, in Oakland, Calif., Mills had huge financial problems a few years ago but turned things around by streamlining its curriculum and actually cutting tuition by more than 30%, so at around $30,000 a year it’s now a relative bargain among private liberal arts colleges. 

But Mills is tiny, with less than 800 students, and with an acceptance rate of 86%, is hardly selective. About half the student body identifies as LGBTQ and some 8% as transgender. Most students are pretty cool with that — it is the Bay Area, after all — but some find the overall woke climate stifling. “The school purports to care about social justice, but for the most part is stuck in the 60s definition of what that means,” one student wrote on Yelp. “Students get singled out for having different views and have to bite their tongues at the fear of being lashed out at.” 

“We’re proud of Mills’ historic role in advancing opportunity and equity — so it’s exciting to see our students and community recognized for being aware of, and interested in surmounting, the barriers to equality that remain,” President Elizabeth L. Hillman said in a statement.

4. Oberlin College:This coed liberal arts college near Cleveland, Ohio, which has about 2,800 students, has encountered financial problems, too, but not like Mills. Despite charging almost $57,000 a year, Oberlin is struggling to close a structural deficit, faces a dwindling applicant pool, and has seen its acceptance rate rise over the last couple of years.

But its progressive bona-fides are not in question, illustrated by a disastrous conflict with a local bakery that led to a $44 million legal judgment against the college (since reduced to $25 million). You can read or watch this excellent piece about it by Ted Koppel for CBS Sunday Morning, which also shows how a real journalist reports a story.

In November 2016, the bakery owner’s son caught an underage black Oberlin student with two wine bottles under his shirt, chased him outside, and got into an altercation with two other black Oberlin students. The police arrested all three students, who later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, and Oberlin, enabled by zealous administrators, erupted in fury. They blasted the bakery for “a history of racial profiling and racial discrimination” and essentially boycotted a store that had done business with the college for decades. 

The store’s owners said business had dropped by 50%, but the school refused to exonerate them of racism. So, they sued.  “It had taken generations to build this reputation for us,” bakery owner David Gibson told Koppel. “And in just one day, we lost it.”

Oberlin has appealed the judgment, but its reputation, too, has been savaged. The college declined to comment.

To most of us, wokeness seems more than a little crazy, but in this case it hurt real people in the real world. Fanaticism always exacts its price, and the more power it has, the greater that price is. But this is not just a problem of these four colleges; it’s pervasive on American campuses. Applicants should know what they’re getting into, and parents and donors should demand real freedom of expression or vote with their dollars.

Howard R. Gold is a MarketWatch columnist. Follow him on Twitter @howardrgold. He attended a liberal college, Swarthmore, in the pre-woke days.

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2020-01-27