A Guide To Campus Shakedowns

Observers of today’s campuses have undoubtedly encountered a phenomenon that I will call “incidentism.” Its principle characteristics are as follows:

First, a seemingly minor often obscure, innocuous event, e.g., a student newspaper cartoon, an off-hand remark by the school president, an invitation to a “controversial” outside speaker, among countless other possibilities, triggers boisterous outrage among groups claiming to be offended to the point of incapacitation. Rallies, marches, non-negotiable demands and all the rest predictably follow. Offended parties are almost always African American students, sometimes feminists, gays, even Muslims, but never conservatives. One might guess that sensitivity to “offense,” like susceptibility to Tay-Sachs disease, follows ethnic/racial lines. Interestingly, that the triggering incident was a likely hoax, a silly misunderstood joke or even a misconstrued word like “niggardly” is irrelevant. Stating truth is, needless to say, also no protection. Anything suffices for those addicted to being offended.

Second, no matter how ridiculous or even false, the university’s administration will treat matters “seriously.” Typical are promises of yet more free benefits to help the injured party “heal the wounds” (e.g., mandatory campus-wide sensitivity training, additional faculty hires from “under-represented” groups, more role models and mentors, special “theme” centers where the vulnerable can feel safe, and on and on). At a minimum, the official Flak Catcher (to recall Tom Wolfe’s Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers) will issue an official apology, promise an investigation, even suspend classes so student can attend workshops, and assure aggrieved victims that “this will never happen again.”

Third, despite all the heartfelt official assurances an “incident” will soon occur, again. It is inevitable on today’s campus. Rest assured, some professor will use improper terminology (e.g., colored instead of person of color); some campus restaurateur will slight a rowdy gay rights group or, to recall an outrage-provoking incident whose offensiveness still befuddles me, The Champaign, Il police department used the abbreviation “BM” for black male on their crime reports. These seem to average at least one per year per group, and nothing, absolutely nothing can make universities “incident free.” These indignations are not like a frat party gone too wild, mere nuisances. They can entail hefty new expenditures ($50 million in the case of Larry Summers’ off-hand remark about women and math) and sully a university reputation for “tolerance for diversity,” an especially important cost if universities rely on state funds. There is also the ever-present threat of reputation-destroying violence if campus police over-react or rowdy outsiders join the fray. At a minimum and this is hardly trivial, a parade of incidents contributes to an unhealthy, freedom-killing paranoia—nobody, especially professors, risks triggering a confrontation, so better sanitize everything.


Though each event has its own causes and circumstances, there is a simple explanation accounting for their prevalence and immunity to eradication: dependency. In the contemporary university racial/ethnic/sexual groups have become hopelessly dependent on those above for benefits. Ironically, a willingness to beg forcefully for hand-outs (i.e., blackmail), when successful, is called “power.” Begging is also a great deal for the university for it permits officials to manage potentially dangerous students. It is perfect symbiosis—Deans can meddle in the lives of potential trouble-makers and, in turn, these miscreants-in-waiting receive the familiar gravy-train rewards of university life—money to invite ideological fellow traveler speakers, an office with an administrative budget, the right to hold meetings on university property and all the rest that official recognition bestows.
But, as with the Mafia extracting protection money or corrupt police shaking down after-hours bars, occasional reminders that “payment is due” are necessary. Deans can go complacent amidst tranquility and may forget “to renew” their commitment to social justice by inviting ex-Black Panthers or over-the-top lesbian feminists to condemn the patriarchy, both for a mere $5000 (plus a school-paid post lecture feeding fest). This process may even be unconscious—groups learn that being outraged brings tangible rewards, and like Pavlov’s dogs, eventually forget the intermediate link. In a phrase, threaten trouble, get a check.

Another explanatory element also deserves mention. Economists observe that groups can be held together by various types of glue. A farm organization, for example, survive through economic self-interest; a drinking society by thirst. For many political groups, especially those on the left, the bonding agent is passionate camaraderie—it is just enormous fun to assemble and march on city hall to demand justice for the homeless even if this “justice” is unachievable and harms the intended beneficiaries. Rallies provide much-needed feelings of solidarity, purposefulness, sociability and other necessary human nature vitamins so lacking in today’s atomistic world. “I demonstrate, therefore I am,” so to speak. And from an organizational prospective, this comradeship—not the humdrum common economic self-interest–sustains if not ennobles the group. Outrages are the life-supporting nutrients, so if the group is to endure, fresh outrages must be discovered, or if they do not occur naturally, just invent them. In much of today’s odd political world, groups needing to stay alive cause outrages, not the reverse.
Lastly in the way of explanation, much of today’s ideologically driven curriculum entails group-related skin thinning. Courses in Women Studies, for example, entail leaning to see once hidden victimization, e.g., all sex is rape. Meanwhile, those enrolled in Queer Studies 101 will come to grasp that even the very idea of “normal” is a plot to stigmatize those who just want to be different. Now students “progress” into wisdom by learning to “see” oppression everywhere, and the grand prizes go to the most ingenious at sensing what have never even been imagined. Competition can be fierce, and we should note that last year’s Grand Champion was a feminist scholar who proved that Darwinism is a male plot to impose the idea of competition on naturally non-competitive women.

But, why doesn’t the same logic hold for the campus right? It’s obvious. First, most college conservatives refuse to be financially dependent on school largess for survival. This is particularly true for religious groups—a campus evangelical group need not find an excuse to harass the hapless Assistant Dean of Campus Life when Marxist professors insist that religion is the working classes opiate. Offended yes, but extorting money is totally unnecessary. Funds, thankfully, largely come from outside the university or are raised locally in church-based activities. Second, most conservatives are rightfully suspicious of top-down granted benefits, and perhaps intuitively realize that these foster dependency and the rejection of dependency, regardless of one’s brand of conservatism, social or libertarian, is what makes one a conservative in the first place. Power here means independence, not subservience to those above.

Truth be told, a penchant for dependency is what the left is all about. The left demands health care, education, economic security, decent housing, adequate nutrition, even happiness, so to command campus administrators to supply them just localizes the grand ideology. One gets an education from those who give it, and the possibility that one could acquire learning without expensive infrastructure, not to mention role models, is enough to instigate a boisterous protest march. It is no accident that big government fans nationally are today’s most enthusiastic supporters of “Big University,” i.e., an academic environment overflowing with helpers supplying all the benefits of the good life with minimal personal exertion.

Just try to imagine a campus conservative angered over his professor’s anti-military screeds? Will he demand a special Center to feel safe from such abuse? Or teams of counselors to heal the wounds from hearing such drivel? Or funds so as to invite pro-military speakers to campus at $5000 per pop? More likely our offended conservative will seek non-university support or just do nothing. He intuitively recognizes that to go pleading, to embellish discomfort so as to extract a few dollars more, is both personally demeaning and puts him into bed with all the other ninnies viewing political activism as identical to pressuring Mom and Pop to take a Wallyworld vacation.

In sum, incidentism is an incurable political campus condition, and a fact of life that flows from importing students inclined to life-long dependency. Such dependency is also, as university might boast, “training for life.” Today’s student offended by some minor incident and who then shakes down the Dean for a useless race-based summer enrichment program will go on to grander accomplishments. No doubt, upon his retirement 40 years hence, when all of his demands on government are recounted to an appreciative audience of aged radicals, he will honestly say that all this would not be possible without his first-rate university education.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

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