Last month, we had two cases of college presidents at high-profile universities join in student protests over the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case. Here is a story on President Eric Barron, head of Penn State, standing amidst students with hands raised. The students had spent two days gathering on campus, shouting slogans (“Black lives matter!”), and laying on the ground in a “die-in,” mimicking Michael Brown’s body on the street. In the photograph, Barron adopts the “hand up, don’t shoot!” posture along with the 20-year-olds in the crowd.
And here is Amy Gutmann, head of University of Pennsylvania, at a campus Christmas party at which protesters showed up and stretched out on the floor in a die-in. Gutmann played her part, too, lying down and crossing her arms as you would a corpse, as you can see in the photograph under the headline.
The reactions to each action were severe, with politicians and police officers denouncing the presidents for indulging uninformed undergraduates and trashing policemen. The president’s offices came back with customary bureaucratese, such as this from Penn:
I can assure you that her laying on the ground was not solidarity against police. It was solidarity with students who are expressing their personal opinions. There’s not a doubt in my mind of Amy Gutmann’s loyalty and respect for law enforcement across the board and in particular the Penn police.
That sort of president-speak may be exasperating, but it sufficiently disarms criticism. It is the bureaucrat’s way of getting past difficulty and defusing hostility. It converts disruptive actions into “the expression of personal opinions,” and we must respect those opinions if we are to remain committed to free speech, right? (Except, of course, when we must disrespect the personal expression of opinions if we are to remain committed to a just and inclusive society—Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleeza Rice . . .) The protesters were wrong, but they are aspiring citizens who feel strongly about a perceived injustice, and for the authorities to do otherwise than show tolerance and sympathy is to betray their roles as educators and leaders.
Yes, we must remember that college presidents are high-level bureaucrats. At the head of their duties are two often contradictory requirements: one, to raise money, and two, to manage the interests and demands of campus constituents, including the faculty and students. When students protest on the quad, presidents must pacify them. When police officers get upset, presidents must pacify them. The same goes for professors, parents, alumni, and all the other groups that make up campus life. It’s all part of the job.
What made the Penn State and Penn episodes worthy of publicity wasn’t the bare fact of students protesting and presidents showing their acknowledgment. That happens all the time. Instead, it was the degree to which the presidents went in rehearsing the puerile theatrical behavior of the kids. We can debate the validity of the students’ claims, but that would be beside the point. Those photographs are damning not on the yardstick of ideology, but on that of seemliness. Those pictures have no political content at all. They are too ridiculous for that. You look at the image of Gutmann on the floor in front of the Christmas lights (!) and think, “What are you doing?” You examine Barron holding up his hands while a sophomore smirks beside him and wonder, “Aren’t you embarrassed, Mr. President?”
But, of course, a bureaucrat never feels embarrassment, only security or insecurity. He sees a troublesome event unfolding here or there in the university and thinks first about the squeakiness of the wheel, not about its ethical or educational content. The problem needs troubleshooting, not evaluation. The primary task is to make it go away, not to examine it. Our test of the college president may be whether he conducted himself with grace and principle, but their test is only a pragmatic one: did my response work? Did it end the immediate situation?
Sadly, the answer to those questions is “Yes,” which means we will see actions such as Barron’s and Gutmann’s happen again and again in the future.