William F. Buckley famously authored God and Man at Yale in 1951. In it, he decried his alma mater’s overt efforts to undermine what he called good, American values such as faith, capitalism, and individualism. Today, I assert that institutions of higher schooling everywhere undermine — or fail to instill — other crucial values; values that underpin the very idea of higher education.

In particular: appreciation for freedom of speech, academic freedom, open debate, and fearless, intellectual rigor. 

For more on freedom of speech, see Prof. Peter Jaworski’s Learn Liberty Video, The Philosophy of Free Speech 👇

As many scholars and thinkers have pointed out, American elite higher schooling is increasingly a place where ideas outside of the progressive, identitarian orthodoxy are vilified. It’s a place where even people like award-winning Harvard economist Roland Fryer are encouraged to keep quiet their empirical studies that challenge assumptions such as rates of police violence against African Americans. Fryer is African American, by the way, and half of his paper confirms some orthodox assumptions about police discrimination.

This toxic learning environment serves nobody — least of all those who play the game of identity politics, who are harmed because they graduate full of unchallenged assumptions and empty of the capacity to deal with dissenting ideas. I worry this reality could encourage radicalism and even violence, in the long run … especially after the developments revolving around Jewish students post-October 7 and the resignation of Harvard president Claudine Gay

It seems like things are getting worse. And this worry isn’t just a talking point; this comes from my own experience. 

I’m currently a law student at George Mason University, the flagship institution for the conservative-libertarian legal movement and, to my eyes, a bastion of respectful discourse. But I did my undergrad at a place totally unlike George Mason: Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Trinity is part of a collection of America’s premier liberal arts colleges otherwise known as “The Little Ivy.”

When I enrolled, I thought I was going to receive a well-rounded education that would help me serve my country and the world. And I did — but not in a way the curriculum intended. 

See, I was a Bernie Sanders-style progressive in those days. I arrived at Trinity with ideas that put me in the majority, and I quickly rose through the ranks of various student groups. I was an assistant to the Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; I was president of an environmentalist group that advocated for banning plastic straws; I even served on the national board of a radical, far-left, Asian American student group. 

Then, one key event turned me around.

The Churchill Incident 

My friends, classmates, and professors were harassed and berated during the infamous “Churchill Institute debacle.” 

This series of unfortunate events, beginning in March of 2019, saw hundreds of Trinity students protesting the recognition of a fellowship program that essentially was a Western political philosophy reading club. We read Toqueville and Machiavelli and invited speakers from groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Heritage Foundation. 

But some students accused the organization and its members of being “white supremacists” (mind you, I — with the last name of Yang and an assistant to the school’s Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion — had helped get the group off the ground). 

For more about campus culture, see our friend John Stossel’s video featuring Erec Smith, former Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Trainer:

These leftist students took issue with the Churchill Institute’s explicit embrace of Western Civilization … and then, two years later when Russia invaded Ukraine, suddenly wanted to defend the West, of course. But I digress. 

Although I was studying in London at the time, I saw horrifying reports of my Churchill friends back home being doxxed and harassed. Posters were even hung up on campus with their faces on them. Meanwhile, my friends and colleagues who had been largely apolitical or only moderately left-leaning blindly endorsed campaigns to defame the Churchill Institute. 

Never in my life had I felt so enraged and disappointed with the state of higher education. This was supposed to be a college — an elite institution of higher schooling, at that. And yet, it became clear that many of my fellow students had not come to this esteemed college to learn but instead to have their preconceptions reinforced. And the faculty were going along with it.

I decided to do something about it. But some efforts went over like a lead balloon. 

For example, I started a petition to call on Trinity to affirm the Chicago Statement of Free Speech, something that had been adopted by schools we hoped to emulate such as Princeton and Columbia.  I thought that would be a classic and easy win; after all, it was traditionally the American left that fought for free speech and academic freedom. However, when I testified before the student government, I was treated like some sort of madman. 

Further, official recognition of my Libertarian club was held up because certain students didn’t want us to exist on campus. In response to my questioning on the matter, a student government official informed me that “political ideologies are taken very seriously and can cause upset among many.” 

Other efforts were much more successful. 

I founded a student-led, faculty-supported think tank/fellowship program, the Mark Twain Center, that hosts programming centered around the power of markets and entrepreneurship. It has continued to grow since I graduated. 

On a more personal level, I gained a thorough and thought-provoking education in politics and policy by attending Students For Liberty conferences, watching YouTube videos, and partaking in extracurricular learning groups.

And that’s what I want to leave you with. If the people in charge won’t reform higher ed, then the job rests with external groups, such as SFL, and its many brave leaders on college campuses, to restore higher education. 

It won’t be easy. But our academic institutions are worth saving, and academic freedom is a fight worth fighting.

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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.