Campus Protests: It's Complicated

How safe a space should a university campus be? And how should individual sensibilities and feelings get balanced against the need to address and solve the conflicts -- of ideas, rights and inequalities? Hal Ginsberg takes a look at recent turmoil.

/By Hal Ginsberg/ I'm a hard-core liberal progressive definitely.  Or perhaps I'm a progressive liberal.  Anyway, I'm one or the other unless I'm both.  Conservative ideology in my view is morally and intellectually bankrupt.

 Back in the last century, my somewhat more moderate – but still definitely liberal – father and my teenage self debated this.  When the argument heated up, he would put his hand on my shoulder and say “my son, surtout pas trop de zèle.”  Okay, maybe he didn't always say “surtout pas trop de zèle” but I'm pretty sure he did at least one time.  And if he didn't he should have.

By this dad meant don't be overly zealous.  Don't be too certain you know the truth or that there even is a truth.  The expression is attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand who on the eve of the French Revolution reportedly cautioned his staff not to act emotionally when choosing among various military and diplomatic responses.  A count's son and one of the most powerful men in the monarchy before the Revolution, during the Terror Talleyrand managed to keep his head and increase his power and influence while nobles all around were losing theirs.

 More recently philosopher Isaiah Berlin described how Talleyrand's dictum came to mind when he watched a man with blood streaming down his face flee a mob during the Russian Revolution.  Berlin explained that legitimate outrage at the Tsar may have animated the Bolsheviks early on.  But their zealotry to cleanse Russia of his oppressive legacy and insistence that any dissent was treason ultimately led to equally bad or perhaps even worse repression.

 Generally, I pooh-poohed my Democratic dad's cautious incrementalism.  No zeal, really?   I'm not supposed to be outraged at poverty, racism, American imperialism, the war on drugs, circumcision.  No compromises, I'd thunder.

 Mostly, I still feel that way.  But reading about events at America's temples of higher education over the past few weeks reminds me of my dad's wisdom –  not to mention Talleyrand's and Berlin's.

 Unsurprisingly, our colleges and universities mirror the seething caldron that is America today.    Race, class, and generational tensions are leading to highly publicized conflicts and causing deep divisions on campuses.  Debates over what forms of expression should be protected and whether offensive speech should be punished are leading to demands to defund publications and causing administrators and student government leaders to resign.

 At the University of Missouri, a coalition of African-Americans students, graduate student instructors, reproductive rights activists, and the Mizzou football team succeeded in forcing the school's president to resign.  The concerns of this disparate group included the administration's failure to investigate several incidents involving racism against black students, cutbacks in the provision of health care to graduate students and instructors, and a doctor's loss of clinical privileges in the University of Missouri Healthcare system because he was performing legal abortions at an off-campus clinic.  In a much-discussed incident, activists led by a professor physically evicted an ESPN student reporter from a campus field  -- a public place – when he tried to interview protesters.  

 Roiling racial controversies at Yale have led to demands for the dismissal of the “Master” of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis and his wife “Assistant Master” Erika Christakis.  Erika Christakis drew the ire of Sillimanders of color when she questioned the wisdom of an administrative request that students respect the sensibilities of fellow students when selecting Halloween attire.  The students argued vociferously that Erika was insensitive to the pain caused when whites wear blackface or dress as stereotypical Latinos.

 At Claremont McKenna College, the dean of students and the president of the junior class resigned after admitting that they demonstrated insensitivity to various minorities on campus.  The dean's mistake was sending out an email asking for feedback on how to best help students who don't “fit the ‘CMC mold’.”  Students of color took this to mean the dean didn't view them as normative students.  Their protests led her to step down.  After a Halloween photo was posted on Facebook of the junior class president with two students wearing stereotypical Mexican bandito costumes complete with handlebar moustaches, sombreros, and ponchos, she too resigned.

 For running an op-ed that criticized aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Wesleyan Argus student newspaper received scathing criticism and is now facing severe budget cuts.  At Dartmouth just a few days ago, during the campus blackout in solidarity with Mizzou, protesters marched through the library shouting “black lives matter” in students' faces and according to at least one report yelled “fuck your white tears” to a woman who began to cry.

 These controversies are alike in certain obvious ways.  They all involve disputes over the meaning and legitimacy of various expressions on campuses.  Regardless of the school, the students demanding change have been mostly uncompromising but the justness of each cause varies as do the responses of administrators.  Nevertheless, there is one common factor.  Various commentators from both left and right insist on filtering complex dynamics into simplistic narratives that suit their political predilections.

 For conservative pundits and self-appointed free speech advocates, Mizzou, Yale, Wesleyan, and Claremont McKenna are object lessons in the follies of liberal education.  Writing before the Dartmouth protest became news, George Will mocked Yale President Peter Salovey for meeting with upset Yalies and “hearing the[ir] cries of help”.  Will doesn't deny that some kids may find stereotypical costumes hurtful and could lead to a hostile campus environment.  But he is indifferent, if not downright hostile, to these concerns. 

 Jonathan Chait argues in New York magazine that the Yalies calling for the Cristakises  to be dismissed, the Wesleyan Argus defunders, and the Mizzou who urged suppression of the student journalist symbolize a totalitarian movement that brooks no dissent, with antecedents in 20th century Marxist governments.  Like Will, Chait is unmoved by the causes of the students whose actions he decries.

 Will and Chait refuse to accord even a patina of legitimacy to the student protesters.  But the protesters do have defenders in the media.  Elias Isquith at Salon says the students are “mad for a reason.”  “Too many well-meaning people . . . aren't listening.”   In the New Republic, Roxane Gay wrote:

 In the protests at Mizzou and Yale and elsewhere, students have made it clear that the status quo is unbearable. Whether we agree with these student protesters or not, we should be listening: They are articulating a vision for a better future, one that cannot be reached with complacency.

I'm with Isquith and Gay to a point.  We absolutely should listen to the students.  I think they had the better arguments at Mizzou and Yale.  But we should also demand civility and properly directed outrage, rather than profanity and the shotgun approach that some at Dartmouth employed when they verbally assaulted fellow students in the library.

 Regarding the calls to defund the Argus, the Wesleyan students are wrong to expect newspapers – especially their op-ed pages –  to be “safe” places.  By publishing a reasoned critique of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Argus was challenging its readers – exactly what it is supposed to do.  Likewise, it would have been nice to see the students of color at Claremont McKenna accept what appear to be genuinely sincere apologies from the dean and the junior class president rather than to continue to press for their resignations.

 Of all the campus players, and in light of Talleyrand's call for reason not passion in times of crisis, Yale President Peter Salovey and Wesleyan President Michael Roth have responded best to the university upheavals.  The Yale Daily News published (November 17) Salovey's response to the Yale protesters.  In “Toward a Better Yale”, Salovey announces a number of measures to improve the experience for Elis of all colors. 

 These include better funding for campus centers, reduced work requirements for students receiving tuition breaks, and the creation of a permanent university center for race, ethnicity, and social identity studies.  Salovey deserves kudos for focusing on legitimate concerns of the protesting students rather than trying to shame them for alleged immaturity and intolerance.

 Roth penned a remarkably thoughtful and measured opinion piece for the October 25 Hartford Courant.  In it, he decried calls to punish the Argus but also noted:

 While economic freedom and political participation are evaporating into the new normal of radical inequality, while legislators call for arming college students to make them safer, puffed-up pundits turn their negative attention to what they see as dangerous calls to make campuses safer places for students vulnerable to discrimination. But are these calls really where the biggest threat to free expression lies? I fear that those who seize upon this so-called danger will succeed in diverting attention from far more dangerous threats.

President Roth is echoing the advice of three great scholars – Talleyrand, Berlin, and my dad – “surtout pas trop de zèle.”