Conor Friedersdorf: Camille Paglia can’t say that
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.
Read: The two clashing meanings of “free speech”
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.