Universities Try to Force a Consensus About Kyle Rittenhouse

Instead of using his acquittal to promote vigorous discussion, many administrators sent out statements decrying the verdict.

Kyle Rittenhouse
Sean Krajacic / Getty

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs, and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

At universities, the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse should be an opportunity to study a divisive case that sparked complex debates about issues as varied as self-defense laws, guns, race, riots, the rights of defendants, prosecutorial missteps, media bias, and more. If administrators were doing their jobs, faculty and students would freely air a wide variety of viewpoints and have opportunities to better understand one another’s diverse perspectives. Instead, many administrators are preemptively imposing their preferred narratives.

The Rittenhouse saga began in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, amid rioting that followed the police shooting of a Black man. Rittenhouse, then 17, armed himself with an AR-15-style rifle and walked into the chaos, claiming that he intended to protect the community. He wound up shooting three men, killing two. Last week, a Wisconsin jury found him not guilty of murder, crediting his claim that, at the moment he fired, he feared for his life and acted in self-defense. This, many analysts argued, was a plausible conclusion to draw from Wisconsin law and video footage and testimony presented at trial.

More than 2,000 miles away, administrators at UC Santa Cruz felt otherwise. Chancellor Cynthia Larive and Interim Chief Diversity Officer Judith Estrada issued a statement that began like this:

We are disheartened and dismayed by this morning’s not guilty verdict on all charges in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse … We join in solidarity with all who are outraged by this failure of accountability.

UC Santa Cruz is a public institution with roughly 19,000 students and 1,000 instructors who, one can safely say, do not all share the same viewpoints. But Larive and Estrada emphasized their personal feelings and openly pledged solidarity (meaning “unity or agreement of feeling or action,” by one definition) with others based on whether they too feel angry. This is posturing, not engagement with a campus community. I wrote to Larive and asked her to clarify why the jury should have found Rittenhouse guilty, if that’s what she meant by “failure of accountability.” A university spokesperson, Scott Hernandez-Jason, responded, “The campus message speaks for itself.”

Indeed, it does. America has never known a time without sensational murder trials that seize the public’s attention and inflame passions. I have an old-fashioned answer to how a university should behave in these cases: It should stay neutral and promote reasoned analysis and debate. But Larive and Estrada made a different choice. And they aren’t the only university leaders who have done so in the days since the verdict. Rather than encourage independent scrutiny, administrators on many campuses have issued statements that presuppose answers to hotly contested questions, and assert opinions about the not-guilty verdict in the case and its ostensible significance as though they were matters of community consensus.

The whole episode is an illustration of a bigger problem in academia: Administrators make ideologically selective efforts to soothe the feelings of upset faculty members and students. These actions impose orthodoxies of thought, undermining both intellectual diversity and inclusion. “Certainly,” declared a statement by Dwight A. McBride, president of the New School, “the verdict raises questions about … vigilantism in the service of racism and white supremacy.” In reality, many observers are far from certain that, when 12 jurors concluded that a white man shot three other white men in self-defense, they were saying anything about white supremacy.

There are exceptions in which administrators try to contextualize the Rittenhouse case in educationally useful ways. “Just this week,” wrote Gillian Lester, the dean of Columbia Law School, “we have seen the 11th hour commutation of a death sentence in Oklahoma, the long delayed reversal of two convictions in the assassination of Malcolm X, and—just today—the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, a case decided against the backdrop of deep divisions in our national discourse about criminal justice.” Note the attempt at neutrality in phrasing and analysis.

Lester’s schoolwide email went on to acknowledge varying viewpoints and cast them as an occasion for academic inquiry:

This trio of decisions has become a flashpoint for passionate debate about our systems of criminal procedure, the presence of structural racism in the application of law, and the moral and political context against which we judge the adequacy of our legal system.

That reaction was worthy of what Lester called a “community devoted to the study of law and justice.” And she promised “a program where we can come together to share reactions, feelings, analysis, and ideas.”

But most top-down proclamations from administrators are unnecessary: As the Brown University professor Glenn Loury explained last year, they either affirm platitudes or present arguable positions as certainties. “We, the faculty, are the only ‘leaders’ worthy of mention when it comes to the realm of ideas,” he insisted. “Why must this university’s senior administration declare, on behalf of the institution as a whole and with one voice, that they unanimously—without any subtle differences of emphasis or nuance—interpret contentious current events through a single lens?”

That’s precisely what Douglas M. Haynes, UC Irvine’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion, did in a statement that presented a highly subjective personal analysis as if it were fact. “The verdict,” he declared, “conveys a chilling message: Neither Black lives nor those of their allies’ [sic] matter.” But other observers, including UC professors, disagree that it conveyed that message and believe that statements like Haynes’s are inappropriate coming from administrators speaking in their official capacity.

While expecting neutrality from university administrators now sounds idiosyncratic, it was once a lodestar for many academics. The principle was articulated most famously in a 1967 report that a committee led by the legal scholar Harry Kalven produced for the University of Chicago. The mission of a university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge, it reasoned, and a university faithful to that mission will challenge social values, practices, and institutions. “A good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting,” the Kalven report asserted. But “the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student,” not the university itself, nor the administrators who speak for the whole. “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”

Greg Lukianoff, who leads the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that defends the rights of students and faculty, told me that every time universities speak on a controversial issue they send the message, “This is a space with certain orthodoxies,” and “that has done long-term harm to the unique marketplace of ideas that higher education is supposed to be.” Though the bully pulpit is something university leaders can use, Lukianoff said, “they should be very sparing.”

The university, Kalven’s committee believed, should not compromise its neutrality even to pursue worthy goals, such as social justice:

It is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives … If it takes collective action … it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree.

This inclusive neutrality “arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity,” the report concluded. “It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.” Doing so offers “the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.”

At the New School, McBride described a starkly different ethos:

I don’t know immediately how to parse the Rittenhouse verdict at a university where students, faculty, and staff work so tirelessly and passionately for social justice. Therein may lie the answer in this moment: when we don’t know yet what to say, let’s take solace in each other. Let’s unite in our shared commitments and values. I am grateful to be part of this community that is so driven to confront inequality, unpack systemic racism, challenge oppression, and create positive change.

Tellingly, McBride continued:

While we don’t know what to say, we know what to do, which is to act to build stronger communities, unite amongst ourselves, and use our scholarship and research in service of social justice.

He’s not calling for searching, candid discussion among people with diverse views. He’s presuming that the community is united in one collective view––and, what’s more, that the community is somehow united both in not knowing what to say and in knowing what to do about it! And what about professors and students who disagree that the verdict was unjust, or feel upset by inaccuracies in media coverage, or believe that Rittenhouse was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, or worry that widespread criticism of the verdict is undermining the jury system?

Indeed, there are as many different views of what’s wrong in the world as there are individuals on a campus. People also differ widely in which news events, if any, they find upsetting. Students and faculty should challenge university leaders who, as if speaking for their entire communities, put forth subjective assessments and notions of what everyone else thinks or “must” do. These administrators tell the group what they think it wants to hear, create incentives for people to hide other views, and harm everyone’s ability to inquire and to learn from one another.