Is Violence the Secret Sauce?

When future historians examine the Left’s capture of the academy, a key question will be “Why was it so easy?” And why so quickly, from top to bottom, even at the most prestigious schools, where, most oddly, resistance was almost non-existent? No military historian could find a parallel in which an invading army prevailed similarly unchallenged.

These future historians will, no doubt, provide multiple answers for this collapse, but let me offer one factor that they might overlook—physical fear. To be blunt, at first sight of the enemy, those administering our citadels of learning threw down their weapons and fled. “Collaborator” is not too strong of a word to describe the academics who suddenly decided that defending Western Civilization entailed believing that every undergraduate, no matter how intellectually “challenged,” possessed their own truth, which was inherently worthy of respect.

Rampant physical cowardice is the secret sauce that facilitated this take-over. Academics are not recruited for their heroism in the face of danger. This is not the post-WW II era, in which faculty and administrators often had served in combat. Nor are “manly” traits necessary to advance up today’s career ladder. The opposite is more likely—those infused with the odor of testosterone in their demeanor (including women) clash with the contemporary campus culture. Outside of military schools, veterans and others whose careers depended upon their physical prowess are personae non gratae. To reveal one’s penchant for displays of aggression, even if only verbal and just with body language, is to commit the unforgivable sin of toxic masculinity. Even appearing “tough” can make academics uneasy. Provided disciplinary standards are satisfied, the “right stuff” for today’s life of the mind resembles the virtues of medieval European court politics—skill at intrigue and alliance building, a talent for flattery and being able to ingratiate oneself with superiors, plus skill at trading favors and offering clever put-downs. One does not challenge a rival to a duel or to fisticuffs; rather, enemies are defeated by spreading hurtful gossip about them or sabotaging them via “academic politics.” Veteran academics may hate this court gamesmanship, but they nonetheless accept its reality.

Professors are ill-suited to battle those who play by the rules of physical prowess, and the university by its very nature is powerless against violence-prone outsiders. The days when colleges and universities recruited only the well-socialized are long gone. The Provost may be a brilliant “academic” in-fighter, but his abilities are irrelevant when confronting a mafia soldier demanding extortion money for a building contract. Nothing in his academic bag of tricks is relevant.

Actual violence is unnecessary—only credible threats are required, and those who prosper via aggression know how to make a lasting impression. The visiting mafiosi will have the “Godfather look,” use the blunt stereotypic language (“nice little school you have here…”), and, most importantly, enjoy a credible reputation for ruthless violence. If the Provost needs a little nudging, the caller might add that he knows the name of the Provost’s wife, the family’s address, and the school that his children attend. And calling the police would be a big, big mistake. Any questions?

The physical intimidation game is easy. Tom Wolfe’s Mau Mauing the Flack Catchers depicts how black “activists” effortlessly extorted San Francisco public officials by appearing on the edge of mayhem, dressing like street thugs, and acting a bit crazy. Top it off with hinting at imminent bloodshed—“not sure how much longer the boys can wait before the city burns”—and these functionaries were all too happy to pay-off the “concerned citizens.”

[Related: “Why Campus Craziness Never Seems to End”]

The most iconic example of the extractive power of physical intimidation was the 1969 take-over of Cornell University’s Willard Straight student union. Black militants seized the building and forcibly ejected those staying there for parents’ weekend. Critically, the protestors excelled in revolutionary violence theater—brandishing rifles and bandoleers of ammunition and using inflammatory rhetoric and angry scowls to hint at a looming shootout.  Judged by the consequences, the take-over was a complete success. The administration totally caved, and the perpetrators became heroes, with many going on to lead successful careers in business. More important in the long run, this success set the tone for decades of racial strife on college campus. The secret sauce became a commodity.

There are two important lessons here. First, as with Mafia-style extortion, actual violence is not always necessary. Excessive brutality quickly becomes counter-productive as victims learn to resist, and the carnage may alienate political allies. There is no point in periodically trashing the Dean’s office—just show up looking unhinged and slightly drug-crazed. Reasonable expectations that something bad will happen, even if the odds are 100 to 1, will suffice. Women can also play this game—no dean wants to negotiate with weirdly dressed women who are cursing and behaving hysterically. The pressured Dean knows what could happen if he is uncooperative.

Second, eliminating the plausible threat of campus violence is nearly impossible. The campus police fight crime and occasional student rowdiness; they do not protect faculty and administrators from blackmail. Nor can today’s universities employ strict security measures, posting guards and TV cameras everywhere, establishing multiple security checkpoints, and sending out Stasi-like spies.  Universities are helpless when an angry gaggle of students bedecked in military-style clothing, wearing black wraparound sunglasses and showcasing home-made neck and face tattoos, occupies the President’s office to demand that the university hire ten new faculty from under-represented groups. Summoning the campus cops or the local police will invite outcries of “excessive force against peaceful protesters” and “police violence.” If the activists are arrested or even forcibly removed, they will be declared heroes, and rioting will likely ensue.

This bullying is successful because administrators are not being asked to squander their own money—only the school’s. Given a choice between agitating dangerous-looking people and spending school money, why would a well-paid functionary risk his job or invite a trip to the hospital? His choice is obvious—agree that these future hires are essential and commit to forming a faculty search committee. Ironically, the cowardliness will be widely hailed for “moving the university forward” and diffusing a potential crisis. Peace in our time. Disgruntled faculty who are worried about lowered standards and financial waste will prudently remain silent. No professor wants these extortionists to show up during office hours to plead their case.

A lack of backbone will quickly become the administrative norm, particularly when prestigious schools are at the forefront. In other words, this “talent” will become a required qualification. If capitulation is good enough for Harvard, it certainly suits Smallville Community College. If a top administrator feels compelled to lecture on upholding intellectual standards and standing firm against impermissible student demands, he can wait until the Students for Jesus Christ delegation quietly requests to use school facilities for prayer meetings.

Given that spines cannot be surgically stiffened, nor administrators injected with testosterone, the only solution is to alter the recruiting pool in favor of those notable for their physical toughness. Return to the era in which Columbia University hired Five Star General Dwight D. Eisenhower as President. He was a skilled diplomat, but he also had no problem facing down bullies. One can only imagine what would have happened if he were confronted by a motley group of students play-acting as “militant revolutionaries.” Whatever the crazed, wild-eyed activists might demand, Ike had faced worse. And everybody knew it.


Image: Steve Starr, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

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

3 thoughts on “Is Violence the Secret Sauce?

  1. In nearly all universities, administrators rise through the ranks in a ‘dual governance’ system– where in theory administrators and faculty have equal voices in running things. For example a director doesn’t just need a dean’s appointment, he needs to win faculty vote of confidence as well.

    In practice this means that a director assiduously avoids any decisions– no matter how necessary– that would draw the ire of even a few of the faculty. Directors who aggressively try to improve their colleges do not last long enough to become deans, provosts, or presidents. Therefore when unruly students make demands, the administrators have had years of practice rolling over and playing dead– and they almost invariably revert to type.

    1. Yes and no – not all student demands are pandered to.

      Just look at student drinking as compared to 1983 – when the national drinking age became 21, although many states had raised it earlier.

      Kegs are gone, as are the day-long outdoor parties. IHEs now routinely punish students for having parties in their off-campus apartments.

      None of this was popular with students, it is what what was really behind the sports championship rioting of 15 – 20 years ago.

      Colleges responded with force – a student was fatally shot by the police outside Fenway Park in 2004.

      They then used the then-new facial recognition technology to identify students who had merely been present – much like the FBI did after Jan 6th.

      My point is that IHEs have become very good at repressing undesired student behavior WHEN THEY WANT TO.

      There is no desire to do so here as most of the administrators actually SUPPORT the radical thugs.

  2. I’m sorry Dr. Weissberg, but you are completely wrong in multiple dimensions. WRONG….

    First as to the guns at Cornell, the local cops were willing to deal with that but were prevented from doing so. (I attended a grad seminar where one of the administrators involved proudly explained how they did so.)

    Second, I LIVED 22 years very much “in harm’s way” and while I am many things, a coward is not one of them. I saw some very brave people trying to make a stand notwithstanding overwhelming odds. People paying a high personal price, as did I.

    Third, there was no shortage of Benedict Arnolds at all levels, persons who sold out for personal gain. Who, thinking only of their next job, picked sides. Who licensed the violence, and don’t think for an instant that the violence was licensed.

    I know of one situation where the police told an undergrad that they knew that people intended to murder him, they had no intention of protecting him, and he could either withdraw from school or die — his choice.

    Fourth, as to the Statsi and the cameras, they exist! When the stories of the COVID gulags come out in a few years, people will realize the extent of both.

    There is a lot more that I am not saying here, but do not think for an instant that the resources & abilities aren’t there. And they are being used to silence the right.

    I once was trapped on the roof of a burning building, neither knowing how much water was left in my truck nor how fast I was using it.

    But I knew that help was coming — the first responding truck ran a line to feed my truck, saving my life.

    In the Ivory Gulag, I knew that help would not be coming — or, at best, I would be the person arrested.

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