The tumultuous, racially charged demonstrations that rocked American campuses this fall show few signs of abating. In fact, they’re spreading across the country because student activists have been emboldened by their “successes.”
For example, at the University of Missouri, the president and chancellor resigned amid protests (even the football team threatened to go on strike) regarding allegations of racism on campus and the administration’s refusal to address them. In response, the UM system announced the creation of a Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer and various diversity initiatives.
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Common threads running throughout the campus upheavals include attacks on principles of free speech and a willingness on the part of school officials to mollify students and cede control to leftist protesters. Given higher education’s track record, however, both developments are unsurprising.
Universities have long preached the gospel of social justice through politicized degree programs, coursework, and university policies. For years, there has been a proliferation of gender, black, and gay studies programs and a host of other partisan “studies” fields. Meanwhile, universities have ramped up multiculturalism “training” for students, professors, and administrators.
And they’ve long treated students as customers to be appeased at all costs to keep the money flowing. The mindset born of the combination of political correctness and consumerism has brought about policies that attempt to “protect” students’ emotional well-being—usually at the expense of scholarly debate and the open exchange of ideas. Schools have disinvited campus speakers who offend the sensibilities of left-leaning students. They’ve given credence to illiberal concepts such as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”
A Lame Defense of Trigger Warnings
The initial end result has been the debasement of campus discourse, increased cultural and racial division, and diminished academic standards. But we are witnessing an even more disturbing trend: much of academia is being turned on its head, with the least knowledgeable and least mature members of the academic community assuming command based on their emotions.
Protests started by individual campus events and by events outside academia have coalesced into a powerful national movement. Actual authorities cravenly submit to their demands, and one is tempted to think of such historical anti-intellectual movements as the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao-tse-tung or the Italian monk Savonarola’s “bonfires of the vanities.”
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Under the banners of “racial equality” and “solidarity,” some of the protesters—who have aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement and other non-academic liberal causes—have shunned civil debate entirely. At Dartmouth College, protesters stormed a library, shouting racial epithets at white students trying to study.
At Yale University, a student screamed at a school official whose wife (also a Yale employee) had had the temerity to suggest that administrators should not regulate “offensive” Halloween costumes worn by students. Others have vandalized campus statues and monuments tied to historical figures with controversial pasts or racist legacies.
More problematic than these and related incidents, however, has been universities’ timid responses. Out of fear of public shaming and protest, school officials have caved to this new movement’s politically correct thought police. As mentioned above, some have resigned, and others have promised to spend millions on diversity and racial sensitivity programs.
The Mess at UNC
Some administrators seem so fearful of this movement that they have joined with it preemptively. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in response to the events on the campus, in Missouri, and elsewhere, Chancellor Carol Folt recently announced the creation of a new high-level administrative position aimed in part at improving race relations on campus. And on November 19 the school hosted a “Town Hall on Race and Inclusion” which embodied much of what’s wrong about higher education’s tendency to conciliate students.
Roughly 1,400 people—including Folt, the university’s board of trustees, hundreds of professors and administrators, and students—packed the school’s performing arts center. High above the stage, the university’s motto, Lux libertas (Light and Liberty), was displayed—a message that starkly contrasted with the event’s eventual tenor of groupthink and hostility to dissent.
Folt gave the opening remarks, telling the crowd, “[Nothing] matters more to me [than] having these conversations and trying to…make people in our community feel safe, feel welcome.” She then introduced Clarence Page, a liberal syndicated columnist, who was supposed to moderate the event. Instead, he weakly lost control to students who defied the event’s rules at every turn
‘It’s Our University’
Before Page could give his introduction, a group of roughly 40 students stormed down one of the aisles, chanting “Whose university? Our university!” One student held a sign that read “F— Whiteness.” Another, “UNC Admin Supports Violent Hate Speech.”
The group’s leader grabbed a nearby microphone and brusquely told the crowd, “We are going to read these demands out and you are gonna sit here and listen because we have things that we need to say and problems that need to be fixed.” This was followed by cheers and finger-snapping. Then came the demands, which members of the group took turns reading.
Mandatory Programming, Please
Among other things, students are calling for “mandatory programming [that] teaches the historical racial violence of this University and town….” They also demand “more aggressive recruitment of Black faculty and faculty of color” and an end to the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions decisions, as those standardized tests, according to protesters, “disproportionately benefit” wealthy white students. “Gone are the days where we ask for what is past due to us: we are here to take what is ours. Tear it down, or we shut you down,” concludes the document.
Only once did the moderator speak up and tell the protesters, who took roughly 30 minutes to read such demands, that other students in attendance deserved a chance to speak, too. And even after the protesters left, he allowed students to exceed the pre-determined two-minute speaking limit. Chancellor Folt, nor any of the faculty and administrators in attendance, addressed such insolence. Two students expressed objection to the protesters’ tactics and to the other student-commenters. Muffled sneers percolated through the crowd after those objections were made.
Chancellor Folt provided closing remarks. “We couldn’t have heard more strongly that we need training,” she said, possibly referring to “racial equity training,” which one male student suggested should be mandatory for university employees. (“A lot of black people have spoken and have different views, but we all agree on one thing: systemic racism exists. If you don’t understand that it exists, you won’t get it,” he had said.)
That student, a freshman, said he had learned all about “systemic racism” at a diversity training workshop sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. Each year, taxpayers devote hundreds of thousands of dollars to that office, which seems more focused on indoctrinating students into political activism than objectively educating students or creating a positive campus climate.
At any rate, perspective is important. Twenty-nine thousand undergraduate and graduate students attend UNC-Chapel Hill; the truculent protesters at the town hall event represent a very small fraction of that total. And while some agree with those protesters and their tactics, many others do not. There are signs that students at Chapel Hill and other universities want administrators to restore civility and reopen the marketplace of ideas on campus.
Furthermore, the vitriol toward other groups expressed by the protestors clearly shows that justice for all is not their goal, but that they seek vengeance and advantage.
Letting the Few Take Over
So it’s time for university leaders to stop allowing a small minority of militant activists to control university policies and campus dialogue. Rather than kowtow to the fringe and waste resources on diversity initiatives and cultural reeducation programs, which have abysmal track records, Chapel Hill and other universities should use recent events as a broader learning lesson.
In the coming months, instead of fear, university leaders should show “solidarity” around the First Amendment, intellectual vitality, and real diversity—viewpoint diversity, which is sorely lacking on many campuses. They can remind students that coercion and the stifling of opposing views—no matter how offensive they may be—hurts one’s cause and social progress itself. The Black Lives Matter movement and other movements in the broader culture are free to behave as they wish; on college campuses, however, higher standards must be maintained and cherished.
In the end, this is a struggle to restore the spirit of higher education. The UNC protestors asked one very important question—“Whose university?” It’s time for administrators, particularly at public universities, to think long and hard about that. Unfortunately, for many, it seems too difficult a task. After all, they created the university according to their beliefs, and the protesters are their intellectual progeny.
Reprinted from the John William Pope Center for Educational Policy. Jesse Saffron has been with the Pope Center since 2013.