Don’t Let Students Run the University
Trying to get professors fired because you don’t like their views isn’t activism, Tom Nichols argued last week—it’s preening would-be totalitarianism.
Recent trends in student protests, Nichols wrote, constitute “a dangerous development—a triple threat to free speech, to the education of future citizens, and to the value of a college education.”
I am a recent graduate of Swarthmore College, and have at times found myself baffled or even frustrated by the protests there. However, the Organizing for Survivors (O4S) protests that occupied President Valerie Smith’s office were not simply “an occupation not over losing, but over not winning quite enough to suit” the students.
My view of the fraternities on Swarthmore’s campus used to range from neutral to slightly negative. That was until I started paying attention to the horrifying stories from survivors of assault by fraternity members, sometimes in fraternity buildings. It was a victory when the frats disbanded earlier this month. But without a permanent ban, a new group of students could easily restart a fraternity in a few years.
The article seems to be saying that schools should not tolerate student activism that aims to limit academic freedom. Swarthmore’s recent protests are not limiting academic anything. Students are not telling the provost what to do. They are not—at least currently—asking to end the tenure of any professors. They are asking an academic institution to take away buildings from groups that have allegedly practiced dangerous hazing rituals and hosted parties at which they turn a blind eye to, or even encourage, sexual assault and harassment.
If you want to put Swarthmore O4S protests in the context of any larger movement, I believe that they belong more in the #MeToo movement, which demands that institutions consider sexual assault to be unacceptable violence. These protests are not part of the trend Nichols calls “students somehow thinking that they’re the teachers.”
Last year, our school had to select a new vice chancellor for administrative services, who would oversee the university police. As student leaders who sat on hiring committees, it was critical to us that we amplify the voices of our school’s undocumented and black communities, who often felt threatened or endangered by police presence.
Student voices are essential in this type of decision making, but they must also be pervasive throughout the entire university structure. Why? Because students pay the majority of operational expenses at universities, which includes paying for administrative and faculty salaries. It makes sense that an institution designed and paid for by students should respect their input and support how they wish to grow, whether it’s inside or outside the classroom.
Student activism is critical in today’s era of hate and division, and institutions for learning are perfect incubators to train individuals on how to navigate institutions of life. If we do not allow students the space and agency to learn how to advocate for issues that they find important, how can we best prepare them to question and better the structures of the society we live in? Stifling that agency is, in itself, totalitarian.
Hieu Le and Izeah Garcia
Former Student Body President and Former Chair of the Associated Students Lobby Corps, University of California at Santa Barbara
Of course students feel like they own colleges and universities—many of them are mortgaging their future in the form of exorbitant student loans in order to attend. They’re often spending more of their future money than they are able to fully conceptualize on a four-year degree that they are fully aware no longer guarantees them anything more than a Walmart-greeter job. Of course the universities are coddling the students’ every whim; those students are a cash cow that allows the university to pay exorbitant administrative salaries—to the same administrators who capitulate because they know who butters their bread.
What we are seeing is not quite an erosion of the student-faculty relationship; instead, that relationship is being subsumed by the fact that the students are the customers, and the faculty are the store workers. Most members of the radical student body are, as you said, coddled and wealthy white students raised in a bubble of liberal moral purity. They want to speak to the manager.
The overwhelming majority of students enrolled in institutions of higher education in the United States are not engaged in the type of social activism Professor Nichols describes. This doesn’t mean that they don’t care about those issues; they simply don’t have the luxury to devote a substantial amount of time to them. In fact, in my experience as a professor, it seems that students don’t even have enough time to devote to their studies, because they’re working too many hours in order to earn enough money to pay their ever higher tuition bills. My students are most concerned about graduating and having the type of career that will allow them to live the American dream of a middle-class lifestyle.
St. Cloud, Minn.
There is little doubt that college students have gone too far in their demands, but perhaps Mr. Nichols could acknowledge that this is a problem faced by all professors, not merely those perceived as conservative.
Santa Fe, N.M.
Readers responded on Twitter:
The reason students running universities seems so outlandish to some is that we are now supposed to understand student empowerment in consumer/market terms. Students are supposed to exercise power only as consumers - through satisfaction surveys, etc. https://t.co/BH17sfveZw— Eoin Daly (@eoinmauricedaly) May 8, 2019
Many important points in this article but this paragraph about the shift to a therapeutic model of education is critical for understanding not just the bad behavior of a few students but also the bigger problem of mission creep.https://t.co/G4LVwXO2sA pic.twitter.com/UK7fHhm3Dd— Clay Routledge (@clayroutledge) May 8, 2019
Perceptive, from @RadioFreeTom on campus culture & recent protests. Not sure, though, about "confident assertion by faculty that they are there for a reason"--as recent episodes (Williams, M'bury, etc) show, profs often are allies of student extremists.https://t.co/gVtu3eKmoH— KC Johnson (@kcjohnson9) May 7, 2019
Eh, it's a question of balance. Nobody thinks students alone should run universities. But students should have an important voice in the governance of their institutions. So should faculty, staff, boards of directors, of course, but why exclude students? https://t.co/9kC9Ei1lRf— Peter Harris (@ipeterharris) May 7, 2019
As a political science professor, I can conclusively say that threatening to disband your own student org, and asking faculty to create a Black Studies program is not, in fact, "preening totalitarianism." I hoped @RadioFreeTom would avoid such hyperbole... https://t.co/CrZZ9Um8q8— Prof Kemi FG (@FgKemi) May 7, 2019
Tom Nichols replies:
Talia Borofsky objects that the Swarthmore occupation was not about trying to run the school, but about ensuring that fraternities, which were already removed from campus, remain banned forever. As is the case with student divestment movements, the activists not only want to effect change, but believe they are wise enough to instruct the administration on measures that will bind future generations of students to those changes long after they themselves have left the institution.
It is common to argue, as Hieu Le and Izeah Garcia do, that students have a role in governing their university because tuition is high. This make no sense. Paying tuition does not magically grant the student the knowledge or experience that would allow them to teach the classes, hire a faculty, or create a curriculum. They find it “totalitarian” that I would “stifle” student “agency,” but I find their comments to be a perfect example of the very problem I’ve raised.
More important, every argument that revolves around tuition conveniently ignores the fact that the students asked—and competitively applied—for the right to enter the university. They did not apply for jobs as deans; they petitioned for the privilege of matriculation. From the moment they accepted the offer of admission, they incurred obligations as students that go beyond writing a check, including the obligation to apply themselves to reason and learning rather than to hectoring and lecturing.
Chase Tindel identifies the entitled culture of client servicing that afflicts so many schools. When I began my teaching career at Dartmouth College some 30 years ago, I recall one of my exasperated colleagues telling me that he sometimes felt like “a clerk in an expensive boutique.” While I agree with David Wall—as I said in the article—that most students do not have the time or flexibility to engage in such activities, it has been a trend for decades at all colleges to ask for ever-increasing amounts of student input on everything from teaching to governance. The attempted bullying of faculty at wealthier campuses is a warning that years of such solicitousness have created unintended and unhealthy consequences.
Kevin Lavelle notes that professors of all political leanings are targeted by student activists, and he is correct, which is why I discussed the attack on Camille Paglia, whom no one will mistake for a conservative. Still, his point is well taken: The problem is not partisanship, but the belief by students of every persuasion that they should be in charge of the institution.
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