In a Commentary essay earlier this spring, I argued that universities’ response to the 2015-2016 campus protests can be seen, in part, through the lens of faculty and administrators sharing the protesters’ diversity-obsessed goals, if not agreeing with them on tactics. A recent protest from Dartmouth confirmed the point.
Sometimes, campus speech issues are complicated. This one wasn’t. The Dartmouth College Republicans, following college rules, requested access to a bulletin board, where they posted items with the theme of “Blue Lives Matter.” The move coincided with National Police Week.
In response, “Black Lives Matter” protesters tore down the Republicans’ posters, put up posters that reflected their political viewpoints, and “occupied” the area around the bulletin board to prevent the College Republicans from re-posting their original material. The College Republicans went to the administration throughout the day to ask for assistance in replacing their posters, but were rebuffed. The administration, apparently fearful of confronting the students engaged in a heckler’s veto, informed the Republicans they’d have to wait a day; when the building was shut down in the overnight hours, the hecklers’ posters would be removed. Dartmouth administrators followed up with a statement forcefully condemning the removal of the posters—but without any indication of punishment. Nor was there any indication of Dartmouth devoting additional resources to free speech. This type of non-effect would have been inconceivable if the “Blue Lives Matter” students had torn down the “Black Lives Matter” students’ poster.
The student activists remained defiant. In an open letter, they remarked, “We acknowledge that many of you are concerned about the question of free speech. However, one hundred students’ disapproval for ‘Blue Lives Matter’ does not constitute a disregard for free speech, nor does it condemn policemen who have died in the line of duty. What it does constitute is a concern for anti-blackness on this campus and nationwide.”
Again: the student protesters took down posters with which they disagreed, and, on a bulletin board temporarily designated to the College Republicans, put up posters that reflected the protesters’ point of view. If that doesn’t “constitute a disregard for free speech,” it’s hard to imagine what could.
The campus that triggered the fall protests was the University of Missouri, where the highest-profile defender of the protests, ex-Professor Melissa (“muscle”) Click was back in the news last week. The AAUP produced a report faulting the University of Missouri for its slipshod procedure in firing Click. I agree.
But then the AAUP offered the following conclusion: “[W]e doubt whether Professor Click’s actions, even when viewed in the most unfavorable light, were directly and substantially related to her professional fitness as a teacher or researcher.” This statement is astonishing. Recall, again, the context: on the campus quad—a public area of the university—Click called for “muscle” against a University of Missouri student. How could such conduct possibly not be directly related to her position as a teacher? And, again, imagine the unlikelihood of the AAUP in reaching this conclusion if the facts had been reversed—if, say, a white male professor, an advisor of the Mizzou Republicans, had called for “muscle” against a black student journalist.
One of the most perceptive analyses of the fall 2015 protests came from Robert Tracinski. Writing in The Federalist, Tracinski observed, “The more you read through the students’ demands, the more they look curiously like a full-employment program for the faculty who just happen to be egging on these naive youngsters.” The demands, he noted, read “less like a manifesto of student revolutionaries, and more like a particularly aggressive salary negotiation. But this is not about higher pay for all faculty members. Notice in the middle the emphasis on “specialty positions,” we are defined as “faculty who work on critical issues related to social justice.” So it’s a special sinecure for those with the correct political agenda.”
Tracinski’s observations came to mind when reading a Chronicle piece earlier this month involving a tenure case at Rutgers. The basics: Rutgers denied tenure to an African-American professor of communications, Jennifer Warren. Warren came up for tenure without a book. And her teaching evaluations had recently declined. According to the article, Warren seems to have blamed both developments on guidance she received from her department. But on paper, it hardly seems outrageous to see a quality research institution like Rutgers deny tenure to a professor without a book, and with falling evaluations in the classroom.
Nonetheless, the tenure denial triggered protests, holding signs with such sayings as “RU for Black Tenure.” (Imagine the outrage if students carried signs demanding “RU for White Tenure.”) And then, according to the Chronicle, “Several days after the students’ rally, Ms. Warren received good news: She had won her grievance hearing and would have another shot at tenure, in the spring of 2017.”
The article supplies no additional information regarding the contents of Warren’s grievance, or the substance of the appeals decision. This incomplete record leaves two options: (1) Warren’s department committed an unspecified major procedural error, and it fortunately was caught in a university appellate process. (2) After denying tenure to someone whose scholarly and teaching credentials the university had deemed insufficient, Rutgers reversed itself to appease the protesters. The statement from the head of the Rutgers faculty union didn’t inspire confidence: “Students are driven to involvement,” said he, “in a sense of desperation because they’re seeing that percentage go down in a microcosm. What they see in Jennifer Warren’s case is the black-faculty percentage falling instead of rising.”
That might well be true. But a decline in the percentage of black faculty doesn’t constitute a procedural violation.
The New York Times has been all but hermetically sealed, ideologically, in covering campus events in recent years. Its one-sided approach to due process and campus sexual assault has matched its fawning, uncritical coverage of the 2015-2016 campus protests.
But even against that standard, a recent column from Frank Bruni stood out. It offered the administration of Amherst’s Biddy Martin as a model for other schools to follow in the quest for student diversity. That would be the same Biddy Martin whose administration has presided over what is likely the most egregious sexual assault trial since issuance of the Dear Colleague letter, and who proposed a new campus speech code modeled on the anti-due process approach Amherst has used for sexual assault. The idea that Amherst would be the model for anything is absurd.
Yet none of these controversies are mentioned by Bruni. He even gives column space to Martin to allow her to suggest her administration isn’t obsessed with only the usual types of campus diversity: “The college’s president told me that one of her current passions is to admit more military veterans, who bring to the campus abilities, experiences and outlooks that other students don’t possess.”
How many veterans has Amherst admitted in the past three years? Bruni can’t find the space to reveal the total.