Saturday, March 21, 2009

NYIIFVF: Indoctrinate U

College campuses ought to be a place where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged and protected. However, the college administrators Evan Coyne Maloney tried to interview for Indoctrinate U, his hard-hitting documentary investigating political correctness in higher education, were all decidedly reluctant to engage the filmmaker in any sort of dialogue. After barnstorming across the country showing his film to appreciative campus audiences, Maloney now brings IU (trailer here), to the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival this coming Tuesday (3/24).

When debating so-called political correctness on campus, there is a tendency to minimize or to defend it as mild forms of protection against forms of harassment. However, IU cites many instances of where campus policies, particularly speech codes, are used as by university administrations as instruments to persecute political opinions they disagree with. Many students interviewed in film repeat the point that there is no diversity of opinion on campus—it simply will not be tolerated.

One of Maloney’s strongest case studies is a former student from Cal Poly. His thought crime consisted of posting a flyer for a College Republican meeting to feature a speaker advocating capitalism and entrepreneurialism for the African-American community in a campus building reserved for minority interest groups. Accused of harassment, and by implication racism, he was threatened with expulsion if he refused to undergo Maoist sensitivity training sessions (transcript of his initial disciplinary hearing here).

The CR stuck to his guns and with the help a FIRE, an organization founded by political liberals to defend students’ rights to free expression, won in court. The entire attempted abuse of power cost California taxpayers forty-thousand dollars when the court awarded legal fees to the student. So what did the administration have to say in its defense? Nothing. They went to great lengths to avoid speaking on the record for Maloney’s camera, even threatening him with arrest.

So is it fair to “ambush” college administrators Michael Moore-style, as Maloney attempted? Certainly, at a taxpayer supported public school like Cal Poly, the administration has a special responsibility to represent the university to any reasonable person with a legitimate question about their policies. However, even private school administrators should be willing to publicly defend school policies and their enforcement, since such decisions can have lasting consequences for the individuals they target. That nobody would do so on camera speaks volumes. It seems the administrations of Yale, Bucknell, Cal Poly, Foothill College, UC-SC and other schools featured in IU realized the sausage-making process of enforcing orthodoxy of opinion, particularly through speech codes, would not appear attractive when exposed to sunlight and videotape.

IU is an effective example of guerilla filmmaking. It is not a perfect film. The frequent uses of quick cuts (particularly early in the film) might actually weaken Maloney’s case, allowing his inevitable critics to complain about the conspicuous editing. However, the cases he cites are undeniably disturbing. He is right to try to hold administrators responsible, because their actions will have repercussions on their students’ lives for years to come. Despite the seriousness of his examples, Maloney brings his sense of humor to bear on the subject matter, resulting in an infuriating but often entertaining film.

The NYIIFVF deserves credit for programming IU. These are important issues. Smart, decent kids are being demonized for not towing the administration’s official line and every student suffers from the resulting chilling effect on intellectual discourse. It screens this coming Tuesday (3/24) at the Village East Cinemas.

(Disclosure: I know Maloney, we used to be neighbors. However, he never asked me to review IU.)