The anger convulsing colleges and universities is heartbreaking. Fifty years of good-faith efforts to broaden opportunity, diversify faculties, and promote inclusion for students of color seem to be going up in smoke.
At dozens of schools nationwide, a small but vocal number of students insist an intolerably hostile racial atmosphere permeates campus life. An activist corps no more authentic than the Occupy Wall Street movement stirs the hate pot, pushed forward by cheering media. To wide dismay, faculties and administrations applaud Black Lives Matter-style indictments and cower before student insults.
The accusations are vague and often delusional. The phantom of “white privilege” marks claims of supremacy, institutional racism, and indelible race-based injustices. These follow on recent campus outrages over rape culture and sexual violence, heteronormativity and transgender rights, climate change, and any number of emotional progressive causes.
Whatever the complaint, it is clear that the protesters want a fight. They enjoy intimidation and being centers of attention. Students of many backgrounds now obsess over social justice. Instead of studying history, economics, or physics, they Mau-Mau the Flak Catchers. (I suppose the title of Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay is unconscionably racist, but these days, what isn’t?)
Yale University erupted this month after Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis wrote an email on policing Halloween costumes, noting “free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
“Hate speech isn’t free speech,” the protesters assert. Hate speech appears to be anything that challenges or offends their fixed ideas. They reject expression that would give critics the chance to respond to their charges. Instead, they seek to close discourse and punish anyone who crosses them. Coercive diversity on campus involves an escalating, ugly power struggle brimming with envy and resentment. Distinctions of ability and social class are not going to disappear.
Efforts to broaden diversity compound the friction. Racial admissions preferences are an engine of campus unrest, as Stuart Taylor, Jr. points out. Minority students with sketchy academic credentials benefit from preferential admissions policies and scholarship support. Many struggle to keep up in class. No doubt, some feel like outsiders who don’t belong. Their distress is real and should not be trivialized.
But high-performing elites inevitably set the tone at places like Yale, and major state research universities have never been cuddly places. All the world’s diversity policies and sensitivity workshops cannot control whom students choose as friends or whether or not they get along. When students disrupt the community, they exclude themselves by their own behavior. Classmates avoiding hostility or danger keep a distance. The alienation and discontent are self-fulfilling.
At Dartmouth College, students storm through the library, harassing other students obscenely. Princeton University protesters do a number on Woodrow Wilson, who morphs from a progressive icon and global idealist into a despicable racist. Protesters want his name expunged from the school of public administration and his presence removed from campus, and President Christopher Eisgruber accedes.
Columbia University students claim the venerable Core Curriculum oppresses students of color, requiring them to read texts that ignore the existence of marginalized people and their histories. “It’s traumatizing to sit in Core classes,” said one to the Spectator, the student newspaper. “We are looking at history through the lens of these powerful, white men. I have no power or agency as a black woman, so where do I fit in?”
Obsequious deans take the side of protesters rather than laughing them off, suspending, or chastising them. The University of Missouri president and chancellor resign rather than twist slowly in the wind. Refusing to quit under pressure, Occidental College’s president leaves campus under police escort as a helicopter circles overhead.
In a Nov. 17 letter to the Yale community, Flak Catcher par excellence President Peter Salovey, responding to campus disorder in a spirit of conciliation, promised to create a “transformative, multidisciplinary center” focused on “race, ethnicity, and other aspects of social identity” and “launch a five-year series of conferences on issues of race, gender, inequality, and inclusion,” this on top of Yale’s recently announced $50 million faculty diversity initiative.
Salovey further promised to double funding for Yale’s four identity-based cultural centers (Afro-American Cultural Center, Asian American Cultural Center, the Latino Cultural Center, and the Native American Cultural Center). He announced additional financial aid for low-income students and sensitivity training for the entire administration, starting with himself, “on recognizing and combating racism and other forms of discrimination in the academy.” He pledged that other palliatives “to create a fully inclusive campus” were on the way.
Salovey’s elegant groveling is incredible, as Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution has observed, given the university’s obsessive, decades-long attention to multiculturalism. “There is no telling how many tens of millions of dollars and how many tens of thousands of labor hours Yale has devoted during the last 50 years to increasing the number of women and minorities throughout the university,” he says.
How did this all come to pass, puzzled liberals ask.
Protesters exploit the professoriate’s own “idealism” and political prejudices. It is no longer enough to seek social justice and provide opportunity. It is necessary to compel everyone to join in, and if not, face disgrace and possible censure.
Non-academics have little idea of the pressure on campus to admit, hire and placate blacks, women, and other minorities. For human resources officers, ascriptive qualities are often the sine qua non of employment. Even business schools, hard sciences, and colleges of engineering push to meet diversity quotas, not least to keep government inspectors off their backs and protect any public funding.
Powerful factions minister to protected groups. Diversity deans are vested in paranoia (“microaggressions”) and invention (“the war on women”). Carving out “safe spaces” and organizing sensitivity workshops is their job and life mission. No one is willing to blow the whistle on the hustlers and crazies. No one even has a whistle.
We live in a culture that claims to be open minded. But many in control of academic institutions demand the political conformity found in authoritarian societies. Any rebuke meets disbelief or intense hostility. Mild criticism can lead to public shaming or loss of employment. You are not wrong but evil. You are a hater.
“A good education would be devoted to encouraging and refining the beautiful,” the University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom observed in his 1993 masterwork, Love and Friendship. “But a pathologically misguided moralism instead turns such longing into a sin against the high goal of making everyone feel good, of overcoming nature in the name of equality.”
The current rage will subside. As with Occupy Wall Street, the histrionics are a turn-off, and the accusations are unconvincing. Genuine intimidation of minorities is virtually absent on campus, whereas anti-white animosity is common and evidently ascendant. Too many Americans — including college students — know that in the last half century educational opportunity has grown in spectacular ways. As the current outbursts are making clear, the ability for individuals to use that opportunity remains uneven.
College presidents and provosts, deans and department chairs trying to overcome baked-in resentment will fail. But their gestures and policies to assuage their own guilt will further compromise institutional integrity. Decades of intellectual dry rot and bad ideas on campus foreshadow academic collapse.