Don’t Let Students Run the University

Trying to get professors fired because you don’t like their views isn’t activism—it’s preening would-be totalitarianism.

College students demonstrate at the University of California at Berkeley
Stephen Lam / Reuters

When did college students get it into their head that they should be running the university? The distressing trend of students somehow thinking that they’re the teachers began in earnest in the 1960s, a time when at least some of the grievances of campus protesters—from racism and sexism to the possibility of being sent to die in Southeast Asia—made sense.

A more noxious version of this trend, however, is now in full swing, with students demanding a say in the hiring and firing of faculty whose views they merely happen not to like. This is a dangerous development—a triple threat to free speech, to the education of future citizens, and to the value of a college education.

It is no surprise to find Camille Paglia, a professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts who has been outraging people across the social and political spectrum for three decades, embroiled in one of these controversies. Paglia proposed to give a talk titled “Ambiguous Images: Sexual Duality and Sexual Multiplicity in Western Art.” According to a letter released by two student activists, “a gender non-binary creative writing major” had “brought this lecture to the student body’s attention through social media and raised their concerns to Title IX and other University administration about the school giving Camille a platform.” This led to a group of students demanding that Paglia (who self-identifies as transgender) be removed from the faculty “and replaced by a queer person of color.”

So far, they’ve failed, but Paglia’s survival in Philadelphia hasn’t deterred budding activists elsewhere from mistaking themselves for presidents and provosts. In Vermont, students at Middlebury College have threatened to disband their own student government if the school does not respond to a hodgepodge of demands ranging from greater student presence in the administration to the creation of a black-studies department. Many years ago, I taught at Dartmouth College and lived in Vermont just up the road from Middlebury; just 1.1 percent of the population of Vermont, the whitest state in the nation, and 1.9 percent of Middlebury’s is black. That might make recruiting faculty for a black-studies department a challenge for any institution in the region, but students also want a two-year plan to create an LGBTQ center, hire more counselors who are “femme, of color, and/or queer,” and “provide a more robust health service for transitioning people,” proposals that are likely to be especially expensive for a small institution in rural New England.

Meanwhile, a student group at Sarah Lawrence College that calls itself the Diaspora Coalition occupied some of the school’s offices—because of course they did—and demanded that the conservative professor Samuel Abrams, the author of an October New York Times op-ed criticizing diversity-related events at the school, have his tenure reviewed by a “panel of the Diaspora Coalition and at least three faculty members of color.”

This is inimical to the entire premise of tenure and academic freedom, but the students weren’t stopping there. They also demanded that “the College must issue a statement condemning the harm that Abrams has caused to the college community, specifically queer, Black, and female students, whilst apologizing for its refusal to protect marginalized students wounded by his op-ed and the ignorant dialogue that followed.” They demanded that Abrams issue “a public apology to the broader SLC community and cease to target Black people, queer people, and women.”

I am mildly impressed by any student group outside of the United Kingdom that tries to use whilst in a statement, but beyond that, this is the kind of demand that sounds like it could have come out of China during the Cultural Revolution—if Maoists had been as obsessed with race and sexuality as they were with class.

This is not activism so much as it is preening would-be totalitarianism. If college is to become something more than a collection of trade schools on one end and a group of overpriced coffeehouses on the other, Americans have to think about how we got here and how to restore some sanity to the crucial enterprise of higher education.

First, we have to recognize a shameless dereliction of duty among faculty and administrators. Student activism can be an important part of education, but it is in the nature of students, especially among the young, to take moral differences to their natural extreme, because it is often their first excursion into the territory of an examined and conscious belief system. Faculty, both as interlocutors and mentors, should pull students back from the precipice of moral purity and work with them to acquire the skills and values that not only imbue tolerance, but provide for the rational discussion of opposing, and even hateful, views.

Instead, in the name of respect and relevance, even tenured faculty sometimes quail before the anger of people barely out of high school. Paglia has always been a notable exception here, and it is encouraging to see Swarthmore College’s president, Valerie Smith, refusing to meet with student protesters unless they end their occupation of college offices. (The students want the fraternities disbanded, which happened; they want a promise from Swarthmore that they will never come back. They’re staging an occupation not over losing, but over not winning quite enough to suit them.)

Overall, unfortunately, the typical reaction to such events is to “hear” the students and to allow them to stomp on the very traditions of rational inquiry they’re supposed to be learning while in college.

To some extent, unbridled and performative student activism is a disease of affluence. Young people who are working their way through school or who are immersed in difficult subjects have less time, and often less economic flexibility, to engage in protest.

Indeed, students at Brown University noticed the time-consuming nature of changing the world, and in 2016 demanded less schoolwork so that they could devote more effort to their “social-justice responsibilities.” As one anonymous undergraduate told the Brown school newspaper, “There are people breaking down, dropping out of classes, and failing classes because of the activism work they are taking on.” A senior with the wonderfully appropriate name of Justice Gaines told the paper, “I don’t feel okay with seeing students go through hardships without helping and organizing to make things better.”

As I wrote in a book titled The Death of Expertise, much of this, at institutions both great and humble, proceeds from a shift in the late 20th century to a kind of therapeutic model of education, which prioritizes feelings and happiness over learning. Colleges take the temperature of their students constantly, asking if they feel fulfilled, if they like their courses, and if they have any complaints. Little wonder that the students have made the short and obvious jump to the conclusion that they should be in charge.

Indulgent parenting may play a crucial role here. In an era when celebrities and plutocrats will drop nearly a half million dollars to get their children into the University of Southern California—no offense intended, Trojans—it is easy to imagine that mom and dad are not going to insist on tough love and adult advice when their children call them to complain that their grades are suffering because they were skipping class while trying to get on their professor’s post-tenure firing squad.

Changing this culture will be hard, but it starts with the confident assertion by faculty that they are there for a reason and know what they are doing. Students must be reminded that they petitioned the institution for entry, and not the other way around; they asked the university to allow them to enter into a contract in which the professors are obligated to educate them and they are obligated to fulfill the requirements that will allow those professors to recommend them to the university for graduation.

This last point is especially important. The contract is not just a bill for client services from the university’s dutiful employees. It is a promise by the students to accept instruction, rather than to give it.

“Students have obligations to teachers,” the Georgetown University professor Father James Schall wrote in the late 1980s. “I know this sounds like strange doctrine, but let it stand.” What Schall—a magisterial teacher who became a friend as I passed through my graduate education—meant was that students could emerge as peers and educated citizens only by recognizing their own responsibilities in the transcendentally important pact between students and teachers.

Schall passed away recently, much to my great sadness. And I could not help but wonder if the traditions of a university where students are required to embrace the importance—and the joys—of rigor, tolerance, commitment, self-discipline, and courageous inquiry is being buried with him.