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May 5 2014

Time for More Uncomfortable Conversations

National Review Online
Karin Agness

I was recently in New Orleans participating in what was supposed to be a debate at Tulane with a professor. This professor, who has a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies, began her presentation by stating that feminism taught her to reject the “debate” construct, and, instead, to have “uncomfortable conversations.”

Regardless of what this feminist professor says, for the benefit of students, true debates are needed on feminism and what it means to be a successful woman today. The Left has taken hold of this movement and incorrectly defined empowerment for women today.

Sometimes true debate is the last thing these feminist professors want. Earlier this semester, I was invited to debate another outspoken feminist professor, but then the student organizers informed me that this professor turned it down because she didn’t have an advance copy of my opening speech. Another professor, who was less knowledgeable on the subject, agreed to participate as a matter of principle, and the feminist professor attended the debate instead — this is hardly a show of strength for her beliefs.

Administrators also seem uncomfortable with a rigorous discussion of competing ideas at times. Rutgers University president Robert Barchi thwarted an effort by the Faculty Council at Rutgers University New Brunswick to rescind Condoleezza Rice’s invitation to speak at commencement this spring. Rice served at the highest levels of the government — first as National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State — but the faculty denounced her because she held these positions in the George W. Bush administration. As a result of continued faculty and student protests, Rice withdrew, not wanting to become a distraction.

The president of Brandeis University ran the opposite direction. Brandeis University announced it was no longer going to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree at commencement after complaints about her past comments. The official statement said, “We cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” Somalia-born Hirsi Ali suffered genital mutilation as a child and escaped an arranged marriage by obtaining political asylum in the Netherlands. There she became a member of parliament. She is an outspoken defender of women’s rights around the world.

The Wall Street Journal published an abridged version of what she would have said if given the opportunity to speak at Brandeis: “We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged. I’m used to being shouted down on campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen.” The students didn’t have the opportunity to hear her. The silver lining is that at least this controversy started a larger discussion on intellectual diversity on campus today.

It is one we need to continue to take seriously. Students benefit from intellectual diversity on campus, whether in the classroom or as a part of extracurricular events. Even at commencement, we see an imbalance. According to a study of high-level former and current officials and operatives conducted by Campus Reform, Democrats outnumber Republicans as commencement speakers by a two-to-one margin.

After visiting a dozen campuses this semester, I can tell you that we need more debates on feminism today. Women’s institutions on campus overwhelmingly present a one-sided view of what women should seek in their personal lives as well as from the government.

Conservatives must push back. At the same event at Tulane, I pointed out the problems with the Life of Julia infographic created by the Obama campaign during the last election showing what life would be like under President Barack Obama, which involved government interaction at every major stage in a woman’s life. A Tulane student asked what was wrong with this, as she said she wanted to be able to rely on the government. I was gratified to be able to provide my opinion to her, explaining that I don’t believe this is what previous generations of women’s-rights advocates fought for — the idea of women dependent on the federal government. She may not have agreed with me at that moment, but I hope that it gave her something to think about and opened her mind for the next time she saw an infographic or read an article about women and public policy.

Our “uncomfortable conversation” taught me that we must engage more on campuses to give an alternative view and encourage students to think more critically about issues. After all, that’s what an education is supposed to be, isn’t it?

Karin Agness is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and founder and president of the Network of enlightened Women.

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Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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