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Jewish World Review March 25, 2002/12 Nisan, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

The cleavage in higher education | The campus beauty contest is back, and at Harvard of all places. Brains, of course, are important, too, so Miss Harvard not only twirls a mean baton, but is an editor of the Crimson, the college newspaper. The competition was brutal. Competing talents included a flamenco dance, a tae kwon do combat sequence and "interpretive painting" on roller sakes.

Adhering to proper multicultural perspectives, the winner boasted of growing up "biracial" and enlivened the crowd with chutzpah and humor: "A vote for me would improve Asian-American relations," said the ultimate winner, "and send a message to the world that race doesn't define beauty - I do."

What this pageant says about "sexism" is an entirely different matter. Women of Radcliffe, who had their own contest in the darkly unenlightened '50s, before Harvard went coed, were alarmed at the news that the Miss Harvard contest was back.

Jessica Rosenberg, publicity chair for the Radcliffe Union of Students, told the Crimson that the pageant raised a "red flag" for her. "I just hope whoever's doing it is sensitive to the fact that beauty pageants can be really loaded issues for women," she said.

As it turned out, Miss Rosenberg and like-minded Cliffies needn't have fretted about either the exploitation of women or an adverse impact on gender politics.

"Miss Harvard," it turns out, is a mister. In fact, three of the four finalists were men, and even Miss Congeniality, a title awarded by "the girls," was a man. (Cattiness doesn't count in the Miss Congeniality stakes). One male student in the audience attributed the success of male entrants to the fact that they tried harder. "(Girls) are used to being girls," said Jim Stillwell, who rooted for the winner. "They don't have to try." He's right about that. The contestants had to show themselves off on the catwalk in evening dresses, high heels and bathing suits.

There's a long history of silliness on campus, most of it merely amusing, from swallowing goldfish to stuffing telephone booths to panty raids. Before there were women on campus, the attitude was simply "boys can be boys." Now -at Harvard, anyway- "it's boys can be girls."

But some silliness is more serious than other silliness. In what sounds like satire (but it's not), West Virginia University has set aside "free speech zones." Two small areas on campus, including an amphitheater and a plaza, are the places and the only places where students can enjoy their rights as Americans guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. If they speak in other places, they must adhere to the university administration's strict rules of censorship.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Inc., or FIRE, which monitors campus abuse of free speech, identifies four examples of suppression of speech and expression on the campus of West Virginia University.

Free speech zones, once found on many other campuses, popped up first at the University of California at Berkeley in the '60s; indeed, it was the "free-speech movement" at Berkeley that set off the cultural and political revolution we've come to call "the '60s." Free-speech zones still send the message that speech can be dangerous, feared and must be monitored. That shrill buzzing sound is the sound of the Founding Fathers spinning in their graves.

"This appalling division of the campus into minute islands of freedom in a vast sea of oppression is another sad chapter in the WVU administration's long history of seeking to limit free speech," says Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE.

Kors speaks from personal experience. In 1997, he was invited to WVU to address assaults on free speech. The university administration had outlawed "heterosexism," defined as "the assumption that everyone is heterosexual, or, if they aren't, they should be." Students were instructed to avoid descriptions such as "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" to identify the "other" in their romantic relationships. Instead they were to use "friend," "lover" or "partner." Penalties included a reprimand, expulsion and/or something called "educational remediation." When threatened with exposure of such perversions, the president of the university withdrew them.

Parents who pay the bills to send their sons and daughters to institutions of higher education may want to take a closer look to see whether they're getting value for money. When a miss can be a man, heterosexism an offense, and speech silenced, the poet was probably right: "A little learning is a dangerous thing."

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS