Will institutions of higher education end up being instruments of oppression or places where free inquiry can liberate the mind of man?

Oddly, this struggle is indirectly reflected in a couple of very different great movies. The first film is “Animal House,” released in 1978 — a funny parody of fraternity and sorority life at the fictional Faber College (based in part on Dartmouth) in the 1960s. It was a time of great personal freedom when creativity was celebrated. The sexual revolution had begun, and many students (both men and women) drank and partied too much. Despite the excesses, it might have been the best time ever to be in college.

The second film is “The Lives of Others,” released in 2006, a realistic and brilliant portrayal of life in the police state of East Germany near the end of the communist regime in the 1980s. The Ministry of State Security (Stasi) was the East German equivalent of the Soviet KGB. The Stasi spied on both foreigners and East German citizens. Those who criticized the regime or were in other ways considered disloyal could be imprisoned without due process. The actions of the Stasi created a climate of fear, which was exactly what was intended.

As luck would have it, I finished my undergraduate and graduate years when higher education was both useful (little indoctrination) and allowed free expression. Subsequently, by the nature of the work I was doing, I led a couple of missions to communist Cuba in the 1970s and then was extensively involved in economic and political reform of the former communist systems in Hungary, Estonia, and particularly in Bulgaria, and then the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s. I saw the horrors of the communist system up close.

What I never anticipated was that years later, an enforced ideology would become the norm on many college campuses in the United States. Professors and others who have never directly experienced socialism and communism are indoctrinating students with utopian fantasies about how everyone could be equal if only capitalism were abolished. The fact that communism has always failed is excused because those who tried to implement it made “mistakes that will be corrected next time.” Some advocates admit coercion will be necessary to force people to give up their hard-earned assets, and free expression will be curtailed to avoid allowing the people to be exposed to “impure racist and sexist thoughts.” All of this is justified for the “greater good.”

Real, free debate has been abolished in much of academia. Speech is regulated to the absurd level of telling people which pronouns they may use. Concepts like innocent until proven guilty and due process are ignored. Students are encouraged to provide anonymous reports on others: “He looked at my breasts in a suggestive way,” “She said the protection of private property was an important right,” “He made a racist statement in a bull session,” and so on.

Oppressive states and institutions need enforcers (like Gestapo and KGB officers) and slimy clerks to keep the records. The communist intelligence services found many willing to staff the police state. Like the Stasi, colleges now wishing to keep detailed records on student behaviors require large databases.

This is often well beyond the capability of most traditional school registrar’s offices, so they have turned to private contractors. Maxient is one company willing to maintain and share secret files on students. Maxient brags about having a national repository that receives about 7,000 tattletale reports a day from 1,300 client institutions. (Remember Lenin’s old quip: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”) Students are often unaware that negative reports have been filed on them, and constitutional due process protections are ignored at many colleges. A negative report, even one based on false information, can result in a student losing a scholarship or even being expelled — negatively affecting the rest of his or her life.

A particularly sad case took place last year at Stanford University, where an academically and athletically accomplished young woman was threatened with dismissal because she had allegedly poured coffee on a football player’s lap. (He never pressed charges, nor was it determined whether the very high crime of a coffee spill was an accident.) After being accused (but not convicted of anything) and being harassed by university officials, she killed herself. Her parents are now suing the school.

In the “Animal House” college-campus era, some students were subject to unkind comments — usually in jest — but most did not live in fear for acting as college students frequently do. Crude comments and behavior rarely destroyed one’s future career (a point the film makes at the end). But now, in the Stasi college-campus era, students live in fear of saying something that may offend someone for expressing a non-approved opinion and then being blackballed or expelled. Rates of depression are soaring, particularly among young women of college age, and suicide rates are higher than they were a few decades ago.

Colleges are destroying themselves, and enrollments are falling — a market reaction against an overpriced, increasingly inferior education coupled with an oppressive environment. Those institutions that continue to support wokeism and deny basic liberties will die. Good riddance!

• Richard W. Rahn is chairman of the Institute for Global Economic Growth and MCon LLC.


© Copyright 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.