The Deepening Divide on College Campuses

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If you’ve been on The Atlantic the past few days, you’ve probably seen the two popular posts from Conor on the controversies roiling the University of Missouri and Yale University. Gillian responds to the latter post:

The events at Yale over the past weeks have provoked a great deal of conversation, but little effort to understand or acknowledge the cultural and institutional biases at play. In their responses, many have made the same mistake that my friend did [by dressing in blackface], assuming that individual actions can be divorced from their broader context, or from the larger and more troubling legacy of racial discrimination in America. But they can’t.

Continued here. Robby Soave at Reason sees a historical irony:

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these students’ censorious actions is how profoundly conservative they are. By communicating an expectation that their master or president protect them from unsightly Halloween costumes, or promise them no more hurtful words will be said at their expense, students are essentially calling for a return to campus life under in loco parentis. [...] Half a century ago, student activists liberated themselves—partly, at least—from in loco parentis: the paternalistic notion that college administrators should serve as watchful guardians, restricting students’ activities and rights in order to provide a safe environment for them, the way a mother or father would.

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait tackles both campus controversies and ties them to his broader concern over “renewed left-wing hostility to freedom of expression”:

Political correctness is a system of thought that denies the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender. It manifests itself most prominently in campus settings not because it’s a passing phase, like acne, but because the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others. The phenomenon also exists in other nonacademic left-wing communities, many of them virtual ones centered on social media, and its defenders include professional left-wing intellectuals. [...]

That these activists have been able to prevail, even in the face of frequently harsh national publicity highlighting the blunt illiberalism of their methods, confirms that these incidents reflect something deeper than a series of one-off episodes. They are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first-order goal. People on the left need to stop evading the question of political correctness — by laughing it off as college goofs, or interrogating the motives of p.c. critics, or ignoring it — and make a decision on whether they agree with it.

But Daniel Drezner at the Washington Post downplays the situation at Yale—namely the viral video of the student screaming at the faculty member and an op-ed written by another student—as basically the behavior of college goofs:

One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent. [...] If you are older than 22 and reading this, imagine for a second how you would feel if professional pundits pored over your undergraduate musings in real time.

Purdue University’s Freddie deBoer, however, feels the tension on his own campus:

One part of my life, the part that engages with the broader political conversation, is filled with well-meaning liberal and left people who say “oh, there’s no illiberal attitudes among college students — that’s all a conspiracy by the conservative media.” These people, generally, are not on campus. Meanwhile, my extensive connections in the academy, and my continuing friendships with many people who are involved in the world of campus organizing, report that this tendency is true — and often justify it, arguing that this illiberalism is in fact a necessary aspect of achieving social justice.

Shifting back to the Missouri campus, Balloon Juice’s Betty Cracker succinctly sums up the problem with how the protestors pushed back the media:

This isn’t a George W. Bush rally; there are no “free speech zones.” If you want to escape reporters, it’s pretty simple — leave the public space.

Media critic Erik Wemple chronicles the actions of the non-students at that standoff:

These three university employees had a chance to stick up for free expression on Monday. Instead, they stood up for coercion and darkness. They should lose their jobs as a result.

The most infamous of the three, communications professor Melissa Click, just resigned her courtesy post at the journalism department, but her job is still intact. Now there’s a report that the Missouri University Police Department is monitoring speech:

[T]he MUPD asked “individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions” to call the department’s general phone line “to continue to ensure that the University of Missouri campus remains safe.” [...] In the email, MUPD readily admits that hurtful or hateful speech is not against the law. But, they write, “if the individuals identified are students, MU’s Office of Student Conduct can take disciplinary action.”

David looks more closely at the issue. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh is alarmed by the MUPD email:

[T]here’s not even any claim that they’re just trying to find evidence of crimes, or trying to answer speech with more speech. Here a university is urging students to call the police whenever they hear “hurtful speech,” precisely so the university “can take disciplinary action” against the speakers. This is the new face of the modern university.

What do you think? Email and I’ll post the strongest arguments from any side of the debate. By the way, here’s a recent update to the school newspaper controversy we covered at Wesleyan University in September:

[T]he Wesleyan Student Assembly affirmed a resolution to restructure how The Argus is funded. The resolution is complicated, but it would substantially decrease The Argus’s printing budget; money saved this way would be put toward stipends for writers at various campus publications that don’t publish as frequently as The Argus. The WSA claims the purpose of the resolution is to “reduce paper waste,” by printing The Argus less frequently. The exact details haven’t been hammered out yet, but Argus editors expect their funding to be cut by $15,000 [the total budget is about $30,000].

If you’d like to highlight other controversies over campus speech across the U.S., drop me an email. Update from a reader:

This reminds me of a related controversy at Brown University last month in which their school paper published a couple of controversial op-eds. The response wasn’t to argue against what was written, but to complain that they shouldn’t have been published in the first place because of how it made some people FEEL.

As one student said, “When an institution like The Herald, the university’s oldest newspaper, posts this type of article, our comfort in this space is taken away.” I found this quote particularly shocking; she actually believes she should be made to feel comfortable when reading a newspaper! The exact opposite is true, especially of op-eds. You should be agitated and challenged and made to think, not reflexively look to stop the conversation because of your discomfort.