Last fall was an angry time on campus. What now? Will the Ivy League and other top colleges and universities get back to business or resume the St. Vitus dance in the spring?
The dreamed-of academic Shangri-las for ambitious, able youth of every background and color stand accused of crimes and neglect they have spent decades trying to cure.
According to the indictment: Whatever gains peoples of color have made on and off campus, white racism is far from diminishing. It remains formidable, but unlike racism in the past, is subtle and covert. Decades-long policies to widen fields of study, faculties, and enrollments have not yielded satisfactory results. Microaggression is everywhere.
Will rich, ultra-complex institutions with endowments in the tens of billions execute their expansive Fall 2015 promises? Or will they dawdle and hedge? If they move forward, where will they quickly find top-tier talent? What assumptions, attitudes, programs, narratives, and scholarly interests will new appointments bring to campus, especially about the Anglo-European past? Will Princeton re-label the Woodrow Wilson International Center and non-person Wilson, Soviet style, as some students demand?
Students of color and their allies want more control of campus curricula and resources. They want to change who gets hired to do the teaching and who gets admitted and graduated. Using insulting and intimidating tactics, they wish to purge campuses of unthinkable thoughts.
Four decades of scholarship funds and affirmative action programs, minority appointments, content makeovers, and diversity regulations fall short. The presidents of several important universities have said so and apologized for the errors of their ways.
In November 2015, the Brown University president Christine Paxson — who even by university standards is an Apology Pro — addressed the “racism, power, privilege, inequity and injustice that are part of the Brown experience for so many members of our campus.”
To the Brown community, Paxson wrote:
The deep pain that we have heard expressed by students of color in the past weeks and months — a pain that has been affirmed by faculty and staff members who work closely with and care deeply about our students — is very real. We value our students of color and are grateful to them and those working with them for calling attention to actions needed to address racism and injustice on our campus.
Deep pain! We care deeply! Racism and injustice… very real!
Also very Brown — the stagy drama queen of the Ivy League — acting as though it has not been in a decades-long state of institutional atonement.
With similar angst, Yale President Peter Salovey had written to Yalies a few days before: “our community will have to do much more to create a fully inclusive campus.” The new Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana had gushed in December 2014: “I have watched and listened in awe of our students, faculty, and staff who have come together to declare with passion, grace, and growing resolve that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and to call for justice, for ally-ship, and for hope.”
This obsequious — and tortured — language is amazing and disturbing, coming from three of the nation’s most prominent educators. Paxson, Salovey, and Khurana hope to sweet talk and empathize away a tricky, racially charged situation that they don’t want to catch fire and inflame higher education. And lest we forget, they have duly internalized the esthetics of identity politics and work under their spell.
The January-February 2016 Brown University alumni magazine highlights demands made by 35 unhappy graduate students at the bellwether school including “visible and administrative accountability for departments and centers with ‘racist hiring and retention policies,’ as well as anti-black pedagogy.”
Something is incredibly wrong with this picture. When did any nook or cranny of Brown University pursue anything remotely like “racist hiring and retention policies,” or exhibit a whiff of “anti-black pedagogy”? Why is Brown’s alumni bulletin featuring fringe demands and holding itself responsible for, in its words, “keeping Brown accountable.”
The answer is simple. Guilt.
Profound guilt cements college and university Gestalt. It is today the academy’s internal combustion engine. Guilt rules. Anyone (notably white, male, Christian, and / or heterosexual) who cannot play a diversity card is expected to confess to original sin.
It’s expected that all moral, good people on campus accede to the creed. Doesn’t every right-minded professor, campus religion department, and chaplaincy want to make the college chapel Muslim-friendly?
Few professors want to forgo the prestige, titles, benefits, and academic privilege that adhering to the diversity catechism brings, and opposing the Gestalt of Guilt will make life difficult. Many of them are Guilt’s votaries.
In the highest reaches of government, universities, corporations, and courts, a powerful line of thought believes all people should have equal outcomes. Not just equal opportunity but equal results. Civil rights legislation and the Supreme Court have enshrined the concept of disparate impact in institutional life. Differences in individual achievement are the outcome of unfair discrimination. They reflect injustices and unfair racial, gender, and social advantages. No one in his right mind on campus — tenured or not — would casually dare challenge this proposition.
Furthermore, what if affirmative action and other equalizing policies create a restive, challenged, campus element that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and Stuart Taylor, Jr. call a “mismatch”? An awkward number of non-white students admitted with sketchy transcripts and test scores struggle with high classroom standards and feel the Excellent Sheep’s polite distance.
U.S. colleges and universities have spent decades doing everything they can to level and adjust the playing field. Trustees, administrators, faculty, and admissions officers have long bent to equal opportunity, non-elitist, and affirmative-action loyalty tests. Educational opportunity has grown in almost unimaginably spectacular ways. The ability to use that opportunity remains uneven.
Those who control U.S. colleges and universities do not believe for a moment in equality for themselves or their children. (College administrators and faculty understand that their own advancement and power demand diplomatic fictions.)
If after all the special panels and shovelfuls of money, special admissions baskets, and get-up-to-speed remedial programs, the awareness raising and diversity indoctrination seminars that bespeckle higher education, colleges and universities still fall short, then what?
Repurposing the campus to transform America and the way it thinks politically may have critical mass. It may be unstoppable.
Unlike in the case of the campus upheavals of the 1960s, which mirrored wider social discontent, older liberals including academic trustees and senior professors don’t see themselves at fault, especially if they have devoted their professional lives to diversity and advancing ascriptive virtue.
Yet the meta-guilt that Paxson, Salovey, and Khurana display is fully internalized institutionally. The question underlying the current campus revolts and before the professoriate is whether Guilt will remain the grand narrative of the future. Will guilt and ideology override quality and reward of performance?
Academic institutions still have it in their best interests to admit the intelligent, the cheerful, and the talented. Thus they favor students who, you know, work hard, take direction, get the right answers, and keep smiling. Colleges and universities stand to benefit from admitting and rewarding students who are going after hard knowledge and who do not self-identify as social justice warriors.
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