We Must Stop Caving to Campus Radicals

College campuses have been insane the past few years. During the 2014-15 academic year, Americans heard numerous stories about “trigger warnings” in class syllabi, “safe spaces” eliminating dissenting opinions, and a dubious campus “rape epidemic” that could only possibly be addressed by destroying due process in school-led kangaroo courts.

This prompted talk about a “new political correctness” resurrected from the 1990s. After a media controversy surrounding the UVA rape case reported in Rolling Stone, which soon unraveled under the face of actual journalistic scrutiny, many believed the campus “social justice” movement had reached its peak.

Apparently not. This school year began with fresh new moves from school administrators to micromanage the language and conduct of students and others. Even more worrying, student activists have become emboldened to make increasingly outlandish demands of universities, which are being entertained with startling frequency.

The primary recent example is the string of incidents at the University of Missouri, culminating in university president Tim Wolfe resigning, which began in earnest a few months ago. Black students reported several incidents in which they were targeted by racial slurs from whites, and a university building was vandalized with a swastika made of human feces. At least some of the perpetrators of these acts are undergoing disciplinary proceedings potential resulting in their expulsion, as they should. Black students, rightfully angry, wondered why they had to tolerate such sickening behavior, and demanded the school change its underlying culture.

Soon enough, student protest groups began targeting the president, who they say “enabled a system of racism” at the university. They surrounded Wolfe’s car at a homecoming parade, and when he did not address them there, they became outraged. The administration’s reactionary and muddled response throughout the demonstrations progressively eroded the students’ faith in Wolfe and the school’s chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin. Even as Wolfe expressed remorse throughout and met with protest leaders on multiple occasions, he was unable to convince them of his commitment to addressing their concerns.

The football team staged a boycott of games. Professors publicly voiced their lack of confidence in the leadership. A black student began a hunger strike, dramatically stating he would only quit after Wolfe’s resignation or his own death. All the while, the demands piled up. Not only did the students want diversity training for employees and a more diverse university staff (up to 400 more black employees), but also mandatory classes in diversity and privilege for all students and that Wolfe read a written apology acknowledging his “white male privilege” prior to resigning. Protesters even compelled Wolfe to give his definition of “systemic oppression”, which he accurately predicted would not be satisfactory to them.

Thus did the Missouri saga, beginning with firm demands in response to racial hatred, progress to yet another social justice witch-hunt. In response to racial incidents, it is not exactly clear how universities can respond besides punishing those responsible and condemning the actions. Adding diversity training in theory can help change the underlying culture of the university, but after that is instituted, what tools are left to show that the administration takes race relations seriously? Will simply mandating more classes and trainings in response to every individual incident ever lead to the elimination of all ignorant bigots?

Despite these limitations, Wolfe caved and stepped down. Still, the demands listed by student groups like Concerned Student 1950 persisted, even after the resignation. Protesters have carried on, and their conduct has become even more indefensible. Their more authoritarian tendencies were on full display last week, as activists bullied reporters that they condemned as the “white media” invading “black spaces” (in fact, the student reporter in the video is Asian; many of the protesters were white and on an explicitly public space on campus). They expressed their distaste for the spotlight by intimidating a single person while claiming that he was making them “unsafe.”

Professors have immersed themselves in the fray too. Assistant professor of mass media Melissa Click was filmed yelling: “Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here.” The backlash against these events has only caused students to harden their stance. Missouri’s student VP decried the First Amendment being used as a justification for creating a “hostile environment,” even though it is being cited to defend simple media coverage of the protests and skepticism of the protesters’ goals, not racist speech or threats of violence. Still, university police have asked students to report “hurtful speech” to them for possible disciplinary action.

Online threats of violent and hate group activity have made events all the more frightening, highlighting both the very real concerns of black students. The combination of legitimate gripes with the university community and the overreach of campus activists has complicated the situation greatly and deeply polarized both students and onlookers.

However, the seriousness of that overreach must not be discounted, given similar protests at other schools under far different circumstances. Last week, a video from Yale has gone viral of a nasty, shrill female student shrieking at the headmaster of the school’s undergraduate Silliman College while demanding that he step down from his position, thereby losing his family’s university-provided residence[1]. The source of this altercation was an email sent out by his wife, the associate headmaster, suggesting that the university should not be micromanaging Halloween costumes.

Meanwhile, the list of colleges hopping on the protest bandwagon continues to grow. A dean at Claremont McKenna College stepped down after protesters took offense at an email in which she said she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold,” i.e., minority students. To them, the tone of her email outweighed its stated intentions. At Vanderbilt, students are demanding the ouster of a conservative professor (who happens to be a black woman) for stating views critical of Islam, the LGBT movement, and the left in general. A University of California, Northbridge professor was “convicted” by a campus tribunal after a Title IX complaint against him. His crime: an optional assignment he gave to students to attend an event at the Ronald Reagan Library (apparently being the equivalent of a “Ku Klux Klan camp”).

At Amherst, after some students put up fliers decrying the downfall of free speech at Missouri, protesters demanded that those students be punished with mandatory training for “racial and cultural competency.” For good measure, they also want the president to apologize for Amherst’s “institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx [sic] racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.”

My own alma mater, Georgetown University, has joined in by demanding that a building – named after an early university president who owned slaves – be renamed, that an endowment based on the net present value of a specific slave sale be created for recruiting black professors, and that campus tours be required to discuss Georgetown’s slaveholding history. They have not yet targeted any specific students or professors for public shaming, although they have adopted the now-familiar policy of silence towards the media. The demands posed are also unrealistic.

Do we really think that all slaveholders from America’s early history must be purged from public view, which would include the likes of Thomas Jefferson (this was actually proposed at Mizzou)? The demand that a university with a relatively pitiful endowment essentially provide reparations is likewise nonsensical. Of course, it did not take long for the administration to give in to renaming the buildings – it remains to be seen whether that will be enough for the agitators.

In short, this wave of college activists has become impossible to ignore, but not in the way they intended. As much as apologists may claim that incidents like the free speech crackdown at Missouri are mere aberrations, as well as distractions from the core issues of racial injustice, we have to address the extreme and, yes, un-American consequences of total surrender to these activists.

American ideals are based on essential liberties like due process and free speech – not only in a strictly legal sense of government obligations, but in the principles of fairness and a marketplace of ideas that flow from them. These are incompatible with “social justice” that seeks to punish powerful figures for what they represent, or with “safe spaces” that shun open dialogue in public spaces. Preferring to discuss one’s feelings with like-minded peers instead of having an emotionally-charged debate with a skeptic is a completely reasonable preference, but might we suggest that you not expect to monopolize a public space where people are free to verbally engage with each other?

Conventional wisdom says that the excesses of these activists are at least contained on colleges – as if losing our institutions of higher learning to extremism is acceptable. But actually this is just where they are most visible. Despite stern words of condemnation across the political spectrum, there are similar trends in government, corporate boardrooms, and sympathetic media circles.

I wish I could say this problem is apolitical, but as I have written in the past, it is distinctly leftist elements of our society that enable and empower overreach by social justice advocates, allowing them encroach on liberal American principles. It is thus tempting to believe that the easiest short-term solution to these tantrums is electing a president who will eliminate or severely downsize the Department of Education, which uses public money to incentivize politically-biased college administration, or at least make the left think twice about overreaching so publicly that it turns off vast swaths of American voters.

But that will not be enough in the long-run. Politics flows from culture – something that these activists understand better than anyone else – and by attempting to shame or ruin the careers of people who do not adhere to their extreme worldview, they are trying to shift our cultural narrative. This means going far beyond treating people of all backgrounds empathetically or striving for equality of opportunity, but instead completely prioritizing the opinions and experiences of people based on their level of “privilege.”

These activists will denounce status quo as an oppressive system that divides us racially, marginalizes uncomfortable ideas, and regulates sex. Yet give them an ounce of power anywhere and there is rampant racial tribalism, intolerance for dissenting opinions, and, well, regulation of sex – all for very good intentions, they assure us.

College administrators, professors, and fellow millennials have largely caved in or actively worked to achieve these goals. Will the rest, including the liberals among us, continue to yield the floor to them? Remember, disillusioned alumni, you also have an important source of influence at your alma mater: your checkbook.

[1] Each residential “college” at Yale has a master who lives among the students as a mentor, authority figure, and cultural/social influencer of sorts.