The Mandatory Banality of University Presidents

The president of Harvard University, Larry Bacow, has joined numerous other college presidents in a rush to declare how upset he is over the killing of George Floyd and lamenting how divided the country has become. Brian W. Casey, president of Colgate University, wrote to alumni to express his “horror of watching the killing of George Floyd,” and his need to speak out “when silence is a form of complicity, not merely a turning of a blind eye, but a participation in the injustice we have, again, seen.”

Inside Higher Ed rounded up statements from half-a-dozen more college presidents who likewise deplore the Minneapolis homicide. Duke University president Vincent Price said, “This ongoing history of structural and sustained racism is a fundamental and deeply distressing injustice, here as elsewhere,” and vowed that, “Duke University will continue the work of addressing generations of racism and injustice.” Martha Pollack, the president of Cornell University, said, “I want to make clear, both personally and on behalf of Cornell, that we will do all we can as a university to address this scourge of racism.”

Numerous other college presidents rushed to get out statements of their own, including Eric Barron, president of Penn State, who spoke of Floyd’s killing “following other recent unspeakable tragedies,’ as making “clear yet again that systemic discrimination and unjust racial disparities continue to plague our country.”

At some point, expressions of dismay over a killing become banal. None of these colleges has a meaningful connection to the incompetent, malevolent, or indifferent actions of the Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death. Yet the college presidents feel compelled to say something. They or perhaps their PR consultants cobble together sober reassurances to their COVID-dispersed students, Zoom-bound professors, idled Title IX enforcers, and perplexed alumni that their university at least isn’t shrugging off Mr. Floyd’s death as just one of those things.

Outrage has been stirred.  An “incomprehensible loss” (Bacow) has befallen us. “Anger, pain, and fear” (Casey) have been unleashed. Something must be done to bring about communities that are “truly safe, supportive, and inclusive for all” (Price). Worse, this killing comes on top of the epidemic that “has profoundly disrupted the lives of people worldwide” (Bacow) and we “know it is even more challenging to support and lift each other up during this global pandemic, with the added difficulty of social distancing” (Barron).

The sameness of these declarations nullifies what little (very little) solace they might have provided. It would be a hard task for any college president to summon deep, heartfelt sorrow over Mr. Floyd’s killing. Instead, the presidents are fulfilling what they take to be their public obligation to put themselves and their institutions on the side of collective responsibility for racial injustice in America. It is taken as a given that Mr. Floyd’s killing was indeed a racial incident and not police misconduct or something else—a possibility raised by the odd circumstance that Mr. Floyd and Mr. Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on his neck, knew each other and had “worked at the same Minneapolis Latin nightclub, both part of the team responsible for keeping rowdy customers under control.”

Indoctrination, Hard and Soft

The statements from the college presidents individually do not mean much, but taken as a whole, they testify to the sterile conformity among the leaders of American higher education. No one wants to be caught flatfooted by failing to acknowledge the enormity of Mr. Floyd’s killing. No one dares to miss the occasion for reasserting his college’s surpassing commitment to racial justice, along with his secure belief that America is a profoundly racist nation.

These are the orthodoxies of contemporary American higher education, handed down as holy truths to generations of college students. Some of them have concluded that a nation so steeped in iniquity ought to be burned down.

Antifa, Indivisible, and such terror-minded groups could hardly exist if not for the soft indoctrination of the college campus, which offers the preliminary steps towards full-scale radicalization. Fortunately, most students wear the anti-American message as a fashion that they outgrow, but for some, it becomes an identity and a religion. Even those who abandon it, however, are left with a long-term susceptibility with the cant of the left. They think words such as “social justice,” “sustainability,” and “structural racism” refer to the real world, and they possess little capacity to question the ideological premises embedded in such terms. In the face of the over-the-top rhetoric of the radicals, they tend to stand aside rather than confront. When the bricks fly and the Molotov cocktails explode, they still feel a chord of sympathy, as if to say: “Their methods are extreme, but after all, they are fighting against oppression and for social justice.”

College presidents have something to do with this self-destructive liberalism. In a way, they invented it in the 1960s. When Yale president Kingman Brewster conceded virtually every demand to the Black Students at Yale (BSAY)—a black studies program a cultural center, a voice in the recruitment of black students—he unleashed the force of neo-segregation in American higher education, which spread like wildfire (or COVID-19 through a nursing home). This story is presented in minute detail in the National Association of Scholars’ study, Separate but Equal, Again. When Cornell’s administrators caved in the confrontation with the armed black protesters who occupied Willard Straight Hall in April 1969, virtually every college president got the message: give the black students whatever they want.

The preemptive concessions didn’t work at Yale, Cornell, or anywhere else. They simply established the ruts in which American higher education has traveled ever since. If the black students collectively pose a grievance at a particular college, the college president will do everything in his power to meet it with concessions. This does little or no educational good for the students who protest or the students who follow after them to an ever more re-segregated campus, but power is its own reward. And that pursuit of power as a goal in its own right lies at the center of all of today’s identity group maneuvering.

The myriad George Floyd statements by college presidents are one more milestone in the preemptive surrender of colleges to the logic of this power politics. The black students aren’t on campus to protest right now, but it is better to be prepared by “doing the right thing” before your office gets occupied. Moreover, the permanent encampment of marginally employed hard-core radicals, most of them white, is always ready to rumble.


The situation these college presidents face is a combination of racial grievance which is momentarily fixed on the killing of George Floyd; the florid hatred of President Trump that grows luxuriously on campus; the ever-recycled always-ripe anarchism of the SDS/Weather Underground/Occupy Wall Street/Antifa radicals; and the bursting-at-the-seams frustration of the COVD-19 shutdown. That’s a highly toxic brew, and no wonder college presidents are trying to vaccinate themselves against it.

Higher education is also facing a financial crisis of untold proportions. Shutting down campuses and sending the students away to finish their courses online has cracked the basic business model of American higher education. No one knows what will happen this fall or next spring, except that substantially fewer students will enroll, and those that do are going to be shortchanged much of the “college experience.” Some colleges will close for good within a year; beyond that, everything will depend on deep cuts in expenses and begging the federal government for bailouts.

Deep cuts? That’s where George Floyd comes in. Higher education is enormously over-invested in diversity administrators and programs. To survive, colleges will have to cut these severely. Students will protest, and the radicals will do whatever they can to make those protests hot. With that on the horizon, college presidents are scrambling to make clear right now how deeply and profoundly they are committed to “racial justice.”

What’s happening in American cities with riots bordering on insurrection is the roll-out of a model well-tested on college campuses for the last decade. Free speech, lawful assembly, and ordered debate have languished at our colleges and universities because of the eagerness of college presidents to placate radical protesters, black and white. Both situations we find playing out on America’s streets have been found on college campuses over the last decade: police overreaction and underreaction. College presidents have often watched from a distance as their campuses descend into turmoil. We now have mayors and governors cut from the same cloth as college presidents. And they are getting the same results. The difference is that the American people may not be as willing to write off their own communities, as college presidents have been to sacrifice their only mission—education.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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12 thoughts on “The Mandatory Banality of University Presidents

  1. Perhaps, while our colleges and universities have much of our youth population on their campuses, their Boards of Trustees might consider asking that their faculties actually teach real history, real facts, real life, and throw in a little Emily Post about manners and civility. And about how to repair the smashed statues in our historic hallways.
    Who has been teaching the little bastbarbarians for the last forty years? What kind of media has defined our culture (think TV.) And what kind of parent has nurtured these little savages in the dark to make them so blind?
    I’m afraid we also have no one to blame other than ourselves for handing the parenting of our kids over to the unchecked media.

  2. Great article. However, the article you reference does not seem to say Mr. Floyd and Mr. Derek Chauvin knew each other.

  3. I have long since concluded that college presidents patronize the same PR firm that writes these scripts for dissemination to their academic constituencies. And the scriptwriters at the PR firm are the products of the institutions at which they learned the platitudes and rhetoric during their own college years. Thus the entire exercise is simply an inter-generational echo chamber, from one generation to the next, that has existed since sometime in the mid-1980s or so.

  4. Harvard President Bacow’s statement omitted any complaint about rioting and looting. I emailed him to say this was a remarkable omission, but heard nothing in reply.

  5. It’s hard to understand how the author could imply that terms like “structural racism” don’t apply to the real world. Take a look at redlining policies in cities like Chicago, even ones instituted back in the 1920s during the height of the Great Migration. Ta-Nehisi Coates had a great piece on that in The Atlantic in 2014. Redlining produced segregated neighborhoods which, in turn, determined things like school districting, location of banks and commercial real estate, as well as social and psychological separation. Effects of these redlining policies have persisted into the 21st century. How would that not be structural? How would that not reinforce racism and embed it in the educational, economic, and social institutions that make up a community?

  6. Really, we should pity university presidents because they are under so much political pressure to regularly issue banal statements. These declarations are akin to hostage videos — to survive, administrators must recite what the PR office has typed up for them regarding the latest controversy. Statements about events that have nothing to do with their schools, though, are not as stupid and hypocritical as the ones they make after a conservative author, student group, or “controversial” individual is banned, defunded, or harassed ON campus. Then, like clockwork, you can expect a president to blather on about how “we place a high value on free speech, and are committed to defending it, etc., etc., etc. …” If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny. That highly educated people feel compelled to utter such pathetic nonsense deserves, I think, at least a small amount of sympathy.

    1. I have no pity whatsoever for these university presidents. They make hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in salary. Many get free housing, a car and other perks on top of that. It’s like feeling pity for the unfortunate, abused NFL players

  7. And to show just how bad the situation is, I will merely post the recent statement of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court:

    Dear Members of the Judiciary and the Bar:

    The events of the last few months have reminded us of what African-Americans know all too well: that too often, by too many, black lives are not treated with the dignity and respect accorded to white lives. As judges and as lawyers, we are both saddened and angry at the confluence of recent events that have revealed how much more we need to do to create a just, fair, and peaceful society.

    But we must do more than express our feelings of sadness and anger.
    As judges, we must look afresh at what we are doing, or failing to do, to root out any conscious and unconscious bias in our courtrooms; to ensure that the justice provided to African-Americans is the same that is provided to white Americans; to create in our courtrooms, our corner of the world, a place where all are truly equal.

    As lawyers, we must also look at what we are doing, or failing to do, to provide legal assistance to those who cannot afford it; to diminish the economic and environmental inequalities arising from race; and to ensure that our law offices not only hire attorneys of color but also truly welcome them into the legal community.

    And as members of the legal community, we need to reexamine why, too often, our criminal justice system fails to treat African-Americans the same as white Americans, and recommit ourselves to the systemic change needed to make equality under the law an enduring reality for all. This must be a time not just of reflection but of action.

    There is nothing easy about any of this. It will be uncomfortable: difficult conversations, challenging introspection, hard decisions. We must recognize and address our own biases, conscious and unconscious. We must recognize and condemn racism when we see it in our daily lives.

    We must recognize and confront the inequity and injustice that is the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans, and challenge the untruths and unfair stereotypes about African-Americans that have been used to justify or rationalize their repression. And we must examine the underlying reasons why African-Americans have suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of the number of deaths and the extent of economic hardship it has caused, and, where possible, address the causes of those disparities.

    Perhaps most importantly, it is a time for solidarity and fellowship with African-American judges and attorneys, to acknowledge their pain, to hear about the conversations they now have with their children, and to stand together when others may try to divide us. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail:

    “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

    Ralph D. Gants, Chief Justice
    Frank M. Gaziano, Associate Justice
    Kimberly S. Budd, Associate Justice
    Scott L. Kafker, Associate Justice
    Barbara A. Lenk, Associate Justice
    David A. Lowy, Associate Justice

    1. No, I’ll add this, while Harvard is technically in Middlesex County and not Suffolk County (across the river in Cambridge, not technically in Boston), BU & BC are. Let’s look at the legal landscape.

      Suffolk County is essentially Boston, and Rachael Rollins is the DA. Rollins is a product of UMass Amherst at its nadar in the 1990s, and the first thing she did was list 15 offenses that she would no longer prosecute. Here is what she said the morning after the worst destruction that the city has ever seen:

      This is from the left-leaning Boston ABC-TV affiliate, and the burning police car is next to the historic Parker House hotel and built in 1925, it probably is framed with wood. With people asleep inside the building…

      The Commonwealth’s Attorney General Maura Healey stated that “Yes, America is burning, but that’s how forests grow.” Both the Governor and Lt. Governor praised the “mostly peaceful” protesters. Now the state supreme court has posted the above.

      So what is even an honorable college president to do? Even if you (and your institution) had the courage to stand up to these thugs, they still can burn your campus flat with impunity. And then turn around and sue you for hurting their feelings, with the suit eventually going to the judges who wrote the above.

      No, higher education can not be saved. It’s not just that there is no one left with the courage to stand up to these bullies but it no longer is possible to. The tenured radicals have now managed to secure key positions in the larger society….

  8. This is the same police department where a Black Officer (Mohamed Noor) fatally shot a White woman (Justine Ruszczyk Damond) for no apparent reason. Seven months later, with no small amount of diplomatic pressure from the Australian government, the officer was arrested.

    Here the officer was arrested four days later, and while there is an apparent consensus that Chauvin will be convicted — I’m not so sure.

    First, if the Minneapolis Police Department actually teaches placing a knee on the cervical spine as an approved practice, then Chauvin was following his training and departmental protocol, and it’s going to be hard to make that a criminal act.

    Second, if the autopsy actually showed that Floyd was “intoxicated” on fentanyl with methamphetamine also being found, it’s going to raise all kinds of “reasonable doubt” in multiple dimensions. Eyewitnesses reported that he appeared to be on something, and one of the other officers expressed a concern to that effect. Those are heavy-duty drugs, hallucinations are not uncommon (particularly with meth) and this is something that an intrepid defense attorney likely can exploit.

    Third, Chauvin was a military police officer with the U.S. Army from September 1996 to February 1997 and again from September 1999 to May 2000. We don’t know if he was in a Guard or Reserve unit after this (a lot of cops were), nor if he was called up for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — a *lot* of cops were. The wild card is if he can somehow make a credible claim of PTSD — again, “reasonable doubt”, raised by an attorney trying to keep him out of prison.

    That’s why I don’t think Chauvin’s conviction is a done deal, not if he’s given a fair trial, and that raises the issue of the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” — nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women. That went to the US Supreme Court, twice I believe, on issues of what constituted a “fair” trial and if Chauvin is convicted, I could an appeal on the same grounds.

    The LA riots didn’t start until AFTER the acquittal….

    1. I’ll go further — the mentality of a lot of these activists is to raise the price of defiance so high that no one would ever dare challenge them, nor tolerate anyone who would.

      This isn’t rage and it isn’t protest — it’s terrorism. Textbook asymmetric warfare and it needs to be viewed as such, and dealt with as such.

    2. Stalin said that it’s not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes. Likewise, it’s not the facts in evidence but the jury’s verdict, and as we all know, juries can be and are swayed by public sentimenti; in this case do not be surprised if the verdict is the exact opposite of jury nullification.

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