No Hiding in Hyde Park - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
No Hiding in Hyde Park

A provocative cover letter sent last week to entering University of Chicago freshmen along with a book on academic freedom started the school year with a bang, when the respected college dean of students John Ellison declared:

we do not support so called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter instantly lit up the news from Yahoo to the New York Times. Some educators found its pre-emptive language and confident voice refreshing and constructive. Others, including Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth, dismissed it as a donor-oriented publicity stunt.

In fact, Chicago was distancing itself from last year’s destructive campus antics. The university is known for producing fine minds versed in Great Books and the inheritance of Western civilization. Many consider it to be the nation’s most rigorously intellectual undergraduate college. In 2015, faculty members issued the widely admired Report by the Committee on Freedom of Expression, a statement that later served as a model for policies adopted at Purdue, Princeton, Columbia, and other major universities.

Safe spaces, triggering, micro-aggressions, and other recent campus confections have fired public attention — and disdain. What will happen on campuses this fall, no one is sure, especially in a contentious election year when Donald J. Trump induces leftist delirium.

During the 2015-16 academic year, angry leftists held dozens of august colleges and universities hostage. Claims of white privilege, bigotry, hate speech, and rape culture filled the air. The presence of conservatives and even their points of view, it was said, rendered psychological damage and created hostile environments. To many alumni and parents, the politically charged complaints seemed ginned up and insincere. In some cases, student enrollments and alumni donations have since shrunk.

Sniffing out institutional weakness, a relatively few students — often with extreme disrespect — managed to extract expensive concessions and privileges from college administrations. Black Lives Matter figured prominently in the tumult. Feminists, LGBT radicals, and Muslims weighed in with grievances. In response to student distemper, Yale, Brown, and other high-profile universities created multi-million dollar appeasement machines.

Administrators have been caught off balance. Many are still in shock over unexpected campus discord. To see students protesting the very issues that universities have diligently attended to for the past fifty years means the academy has failed, and failed big. Thoughtful liberals who have spent their professional lives expanding access through admissions, scholarships, and almost unlimited good will feel betrayed. They find bold assaults on free speech and the lack of due process in many university offices disturbing.

Not everyone on campus does. Many who run University Inc. seek above all to guard the diversity narrative. They believe in it. They have faith and conviction. These stewards expect the rest of us to share their zeal, resorting to guilt tripping, epithets, and coercion if we don’t.

Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro epitomizes University Inc.’s nimble diversity apologist. Making a case for safe spaces in the Washington Post, he recounted an incident he admitted was hearsay:

A group of black students were having lunch together in a campus dining hall. There were a couple of empty seats, and two white students asked if they could join them. One of the black students asked why, in light of empty tables nearby. The reply was that these students wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages. The black students politely said no.

Schapiro went on to say:

We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.

I wonder what really happened. I would like Schapiro to explain what he means by “uncomfortable learning.” I doubt those were the words used by the white kids. What Schapiro deems a “unilateral” and objectionable intrusion looks like a big nothing-burger. In any case, is a blacks-only cafeteria table a safe space, or is it something else? Whatever the right answer, I can’t understand why it’s racist and shocking if white kids are unwelcoming or exclusionary, but if black kids self-segregate, it’s “deserved” and somehow virtuous on their part.

Schapiro added that a recent white graduate:

argued that everyone needed a safe space and that for her, as a Jew, it had been the Hillel house. She knew that when she was there, she could relax and not worry about being interrogated by non-Jews about Israeli politics or other concerns.

I’m glad Schapiro flagged the Gestapo-like, light-bulb-in-the-face inquisitions that Jewish students at Northwestern can face from Gentile classmates to seal his case.

In the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 25, with Lewis and Clark’s president Barry Glassner, Schapiro extols campus efforts “to enact the American ideals of opportunity, diversity and unity,” concluding that “the surprise isn’t that there’s friction on campus these days, but how well this unique experiment actually works.”

But the “unique experiment” doesn’t work so well, according to their own account:

For every student who complained about inauthentic ethnic food in the cafeteria, to cite one well-publicized example, exponentially more Asian and Asian American students endured insults and snubs based on jealousy, stereotypes or outright hatred. Likewise, for every example of students demanding safe places or trigger warnings so as to avoid material they consider offensive or upsetting, innumerable LGBT students and students of color found themselves in situations where they were affronted or physically threatened.

This grim representation of campus life strains credibility and experience. A sign of progress in higher education, by Glassner and Schapiro’s lights:

the most selective schools — those with applicant pools large enough to fill their classes many times over — have transformed their student bodies, going from among the least diverse to among the most.

Yes and no. The Wall Street Journal reports that Asian Americans – about 5% of the U.S. population – make up 22% of the class of 2019 at Princeton, 21.8% at Yale, and 21.1% of the admitted class at Harvard. Jews – 2% of the U.S. population – comprise 10% of undergraduates at Princeton, 12% at Harvard, and 27% at Yale. In any case campus diversity is almost purely ascriptive. Colleges and universities have never been more insistent on ideological uniformity. What does “diverse” even mean?

No matter how badly protesters behave or irresponsible their demands to suppress opposing views, they know there will be few consequences. Sympathetic academics are mindful of their positions. Legal sanctions empower them. Education officials and media take their side.

Repressing inherited knowledge and closing down open discussion not only leave institutions vulnerable to intellectual novelties, charlatans, and raw aggression. They test the academy’s future and raison d’être. In such circumstances, the University of Chicago’s exasperation with campus injustice collectors and defense of free expression is welcome and overdue.

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