No one defends rape. But these days conservative intellectuals often defend students accused of rape. Why? What is “conservative” about defending accused rapists? And what does it have to with higher education?
This is a different question than a similar one we’ve asked lately. At some conservative religious colleges, we’ve seen a debate over the relationship between theology and sexual assault. I’ve asked if religion might deter some students from booze-fueled assault. I’ve also wondered if the top-down authoritarian culture of many fundamentalist schools might encourage assault.
In this discussion, however, we see secular conservatives complaining about the process by which colleges handle accusations of assault.
For instance, columnist George Will attracted a firestorm of controversy when he suggested that assault victims win extra privileges on college campuses. Liberal-dominated campuses, Will accused, were learning that “when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.”
Other commentators also take the system to task. Legal scholar David Bernstein worried that the bar for proving guilt had been lowered to dangerous levels. At some universities, Bernstein commented, any touching that did not have explicit approval could count as rape or assault. By that measure, Bernstein argued provocatively, only prostitutes and their clients were safe from accusations of rape.
Peter Berkowitz, too, demanded a revision of campus assault rules. In a case from Swarthmore College that attracted a great deal of attention, Berkowitz insisted that the accused rapist did not get a fair hearing. Too many “elite” schools, Berkowitz argued,
convene kangaroo courts to adjudicate accusations of grave crimes that should properly be left to the police and government prosecutors. Although they cannot sentence students to jail time — the cavalier manner in which these proceedings treat evidence would never pass muster in the criminal justice system — the campus bureaucracies nevertheless impose penalties capable of upending students’ lives.
None of these writers condones sexual assault. Their gripe is with the process by which those assaults are handled. Too often, being accused equals being condemned. Too often, campus committees do not respect the American traditions of being innocent until proven guilty. Each of these writers warns that a rush to convict—even with the best intentions of protecting the innocent—risks trampling the rights of the accused.
But there’s also a deeper rumbling in these essays that points to an important element of conservative thinking. In each case, by attacking campus procedures, these conservative writers condemn the leftist-dominated culture of higher education as a whole.
Peter Berkowitz, for example, located this discussion within a broader problem. Elite schools, Berkowitz wrote, have struggled with
the hollowing out of the curriculum, the aggressive transmission of a uniformly progressive ideology, the promulgation of speech codes, and the violation of due process in campus disciplinary procedures.
And George Will blamed “academia’s progressivism” for its current sorry state. “Academia,” Will concluded, “is making itself ludicrous.” But left-leaning professors and administrators brought it on themselves, Will believes. Colleges have asked for ridiculous rules and short-sighted policies, Will said, “by asking for progressivism.”
There is something more going on here than just procedural complaints. Conservatives are not only complaining about the rights of accused students. Rather, these arguments about sexual assault are part of a longer conservative tradition of fretting about university leftism. For these conservative writers, recent cases of sexual assault serve as yet another example of college radicals gone wrong.