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Colleges should do more to slow down ‘fast thinking’

Cornell University arts quad
Cornell University
The statue of Cornell University founder Ezra Cornell looks across the university’s arts quad to the statue of its first president, Andrew Dixon White.

Last week, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll reported that a majority of Americans oppose allowing transgender women and girls to compete against other women and girls in high school, college, and professional sports. At least 18 states have passed legislation to that effect, with more on the way.

And yet, less than 1 percent of Americans identify as transgender, and the number of cases in which the participation of transgender athletes has raised concerns is vanishingly small. Almost every news story — and there have been many — starts and ends with a single example, that of Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania swimmer who competed for three years on the men’s team with only modest success, then won a national championship after transitioning and joining the women’s team.

Citing Thomas’s success, critics claim that transgender women athletes in general have an unfair advantage in size, muscle mass, bone density, and heart and lung capacity. This week FINA (the International Swimming Federation) banned trans athletes who have experienced male puberty from entering its women’s events, proposing instead a third (“open”) category that will allow them to compete. Transgender advocates respond that trans athletes have a right to compete on a team that aligns with their gender identity. They view the FINA policy as “discriminatory, harmful, unscientific,” and “the result of a moral panic because of Lia Thomas.”

The debate over transgender athletes illustrates a larger problem that affects all aspects of American culture, society, and politics: jumping to partisan conclusions based on isolated incidents taken out of context.

Colleges and universities should do more to teach us how to slow down “fast thinking.”

No matter how one views cases like that of Lia Thomas, context is important. By one estimate, “out of 200,000 women in college sports at a given time, about 50 are transgender.” And participation is by no means automatic. NCAA guidelines, in keeping with the Olympic framework, follow a “sport by sport approach,” intended to preserve “opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.” To ask, as the Washington Post-University of Maryland poll did, whether “transgender women and girls should or should not be allowed to compete” on women’s teams contributes to the misleading narrative that trans athletes inevitably constitute unfair competition and threaten the viability of women’s sports.

The tendency to generalize occurs on a wide range of issues across the political spectrum.  Racism, for example, remains a serious problem on college campuses, as it does in society at large. But treating institutions of higher education — among the most progressive in the country — as if they were bastions of systemic racism, “complicit, in countless ways, in the reproduction of white supremacy,” as a 2020 petition to Cornell University administrators alleged, can only harden partisan differences and impede the development of effective policy responses.

In a recent survey, a majority of undergraduates say it is acceptable to shout down speakers to stop them from speaking on campus. When such events occur, as they did earlier this year at Yale Law School and the University of California at Hastings, they are widely publicized and often treated as evidence of a free speech crisis on college campuses. But as Lee Bollinger, the former  president of Columbia University, has observed, “we should be careful drawing conclusions based on a handful of sensationalist incidents on campus.” Instances in which a speaker is actually shouted down are, in fact, extremely rare.

As are the occasions on which a speaker is disinvited for political reasons. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which maintains a “campus disinvitation database,” identified only ten such cases in 2021 from among the many thousands of speaking invitations issued last year. While one denial of free speech is one too many, and there are legitimate reasons to worry about the state of free expression on college campuses, generalizing from unrepresentative cases obscures what is actually happening in higher education, reinforces partisan divides on and off campus, and complicates efforts to identify ways in which a culture of free speech and open inquiry can be fostered.

In the present highly polarized political environment, it is not surprising that zealots on the left and the right seek to exploit isolated incidents, and sometimes view events through a distorting lens, as two DEI advocates did recently when they mistakenly accused a Black DJ of wearing blackface.

The problem is exacerbated, of course, by social media, which “silos people into think-alike bubbles, rewards hyperbole and outrage, and does not support nuanced academic reasoning,” as the Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force on Campus Free Expression notes in the context of campus free speech. If a swastika appears on a residence hall bulletin board, does that indicate rampant anti-Semitism on campus? Does a reference to racial bias in a mathematics textbook indicate critical race theory is running amok?

Institutions of higher education have a special obligation to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions and recommend remedies without adequate review, even when many members of the campus community demand an immediate response.

Administrators and faculty should lay the foundation for slowing down fast thinking in and outside the classroom, at orientations and convocations, and in communications to alumni and parents of undergraduates, before heated controversies arise. When they do, college and university officials should condemn offensive speech and behavior but have the courage — and it will take courage — to distinguish incidents that are unrepresentative from those that indicate a systemic problem, and base policies and responses on a careful assessment of all available evidence, even when that takes time.

Who knows: This approach might also catch on with politicians and the voters who elect them.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.

Tags anecdotal evidence free speech on campus Higher education in the United States Lia Thomas political polarization transgender athletes

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