Reporter's Notebook

Debating the Campus Protests at Mizzou, Yale, and Elsewhere
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Scroll down to find all the staff notes and reader reactions to the controversies over race and free speech on college campuses. (A similar debate on campus PC and mental health is here, spurred by our Sept ‘15 cover story.) Join the discussion via email.

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Activism Outside Academia

A Honduran Garifuna who crossed the border illegally with her children gets help from a housing activist at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church. (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

A reader writes:

Enjoying the recent Notes. One thing your reader alludes to is that it’s much easier to study and argue about the “language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum” than the facts on the ground. I am not an academic, but in my own field, law, I am aware how much easier it is to work with words on the page and in law books than to get out and do the messy work with witnesses, etc.  

Similarly, it seems to be easier to catch someone—e.g., using the word “thug” to refer to protesters in Ferguson—and get that person fired than to actually do anything about relations between police and the black community or the long exclusion of many African Americans from the the fruits of American prosperity. I wonder if this easiness factor might play a bigger part than we imagine.

A reader who would probably agree with that sentiment is Andrew Chen:

First of all, thanks for keeping so much Dish-ness alive at The Atlantic, and for providing a forum for robust, intelligent debate. I’m a public interest lawyer currently under a two-year-fellowship to run a clinic for homeless youth in Los Angeles. Public interest lawyers tend to be a pretty liberal bunch; I voted for Barack Obama twice and am likely to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary.

And yet I, too, have become increasingly frustrated and angry over time with the authoritarian tendencies of student activists on college campuses. For some reason, the Mizzou anti-journalist chants touched a nerve, and I put down my thoughts here.

TL;DR: The attitude evinced by these protestors shows that, philosophically, they seem to have abandoned any belief in the individual worth or dignity of those who disagree with them. This is not only morally repugnant, but is also probably going to doom the progressive movement in the long run (which to me, is terrifying).

From the reader’s long and excellent post:

Put simply, political capital is a thing. There is only so much time, media attention, and political will to get things done.

As an addendum to the Claremont McKenna note, check out this compelling scene. It centers on an Asian American immigrant student who brings some nuance to the discussion—but she’s physically interrupted and then accused of “derailing” the protest:

Over to Yale again, here’s a perspective from a reader with close ties to the school:

For context, I am a proud Yale and Silliman graduate and father of a current Yale student. The Christakises made two mistakes, one of substance and the other of timing and symbolism. Power is what threatens free speech. The Christakises recognized in the IAC’s email the power imbalance between the administration and the students; as professors and scholars, they related easily to students who might feel stifled by pressure from administrators.

What they didn’t think about was the power and privilege imbalances among the students themselves—something they have no personal experience of—and the fact that offensive speech can be an instrument of power rather than of resistance to power.

The ideal of the university is not to simply be a forum for free speech per se.

The college’s Dean of Students just resigned amid pressure from student activists:

Mary Spellman announced her decision in an email to the student body. She wrote, in part: “To all who have been so supportive, please know how sorry I am if my decision disappoints you.  I believe it is the best way to gain closure of a controversy that has divided the student body and disrupted the mission of this fine institution.” The announcement came one day after student protests at the college, where many demanded more inclusive programs for what they call marginalized students, which include students of color, LGBT students, disabled students and low-income students.

At the 43:55 mark of the video seen above, Spellman responds to calls that she resign. At 49:35, two students announce a hunger strike until she does. Here’s the crux of the controversy:

In the past few days, an “offensive”email sent by Dean Spellman was widely circulated on Facebook and prompted calls for her resignation. In the email, Dean Spellman responded to an article that voiced concerns by a student of color, stating that she wants to better serve students “who don’t fit our CMC mold.” Her comment outraged several students of color, and the email was cited as another example of institutional racism at CMC.

The junior class president also just resigned, stemming from a Halloween photo she posed in that contained two blonde women in Sombreros and mustaches:

When it’s a threat of planned violence:

Howard University confirmed it was increasing security on its Washington, D.C., campus following an anonymous death threat posted online on Wednesday night. [...] The FBI confirmed the threat in a statement early Thursday afternoon. “We are aware of the online threat and have made appropriate notifications," the FBI said in a statement to the Washington City Paper. “We urge anyone who has information about the threat to contact the Metropolitan Police Department or the FBI.”

The threat was posted on a forum that appears to be a 4chan board, a photograph of the post has been shared widely on Twitter and Instagram.

Krishnadev covered the anonymous threat directed at the Mizzou campus yesterday, and since then there’s been a second arrest. For some context on these stories, here’s a review of the case law on “true threats”:

The First Amendment guarantees every person the right of free speech, but that right is not absolute

A liberal-minded reader worries about it:

My fiancee is a Mizzou alumna, and we got into a brief squabble about this the other night. It’s frustrating because she kept insisting that I wasn’t there and couldn’t know what the protesters had endured during their time on campus. She wouldn’t hear my argument that preserving free speech is important no matter what the situation, even though I agree with the cause of the protesters just as much as she does. I couldn’t seem to make her understand that their situation doesn’t excuse their attempted suppression of the free speech of others.

Once that line has been crossed, all the opposition has to do is say “but they did the exact same thing.” And they can hit back with the same approach but with much more cultural and institutional power behind it.

In other words, inroads to authoritarian behavior, even in the service of a noble cause, always lead to the use of authoritarian behavior against the people who first look to it as a line of defense. By preserving First Amendment rights, the protesters might make a slightly longer road for themselves in the short term, but they will also ensure that road doesn’t lead them into a box canyon of their own making.

Here’s a more historical view from a “graduate student in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university”:

There’s an aspect of the recent campus “political correctness” debates that seems to be missing in all of the discussions of millennial fragility, standards of civility, and so on. There is, after all, a reason that the college campus has been the epicenter of this current wave of “P.C.,” and it isn’t simply attributable to youthful demographics or politically liberal professors. It’s the product of a larger trend in academic scholarship within the social sciences and humanities over the last three decades or so, usually called the “cultural turn.”

A domino effect is underway:

The protest was organized by the group People of Color at Ithaca College to express their concerns about racism on campus. They called for a vote of no confidence against Ithaca President Tom Rochon, as well as for Rochon to step down. During the protests [Wednesday], The Ithaca Journal reports, one student asked, “How can a campus dedicated to preparing us for the real world not actively foster growth to our consciousness of oppression and privilege?”

Haidt and Lukianoff touched on Ithaca in their September cover story, and the details are disturbing:

Two stories written by our reader for The Maneater in 1990

Earlier this week we heard briefly from a staff member of The Maneater, the student newspaper at the University of Missouri. Now a former staffer writes in:

I was a journalism undergrad at Mizzou 20 years ago (‘93) and immediately began working for The Maneater. I spent the next two years covering black student government (and white), as well as the black and white fraternity systems, all of which were 100 percent segregated—not by policy, but because people chose not to intermingle and sit amongst each other.

I tried endlessly to make black friends. I covered their communities for two years. I still had no friends. As an outsider—someone from Colorado on a campus that largely draws students from in-state—I couldn’t understand the anger and hostility I encountered, nor fathom why none of the black students would even give me a chance to talk to me, to find out who I am. I became frustrated and eventually gave up when so many black students couldn’t care to even recognize that I was their ally; I was someone eager and willing to help. But they were so standoffish and frankly “blind” to any difference between different white people.

This year, black students protested the annual Homecoming parade. They were doing that 20 years ago too; it was my first cover story I wrote for The Maneater.

Some remaining emails from readers on the tumult at Yale:

I think there’s a lot going on in the muddle on campus. Some of the (lack of) discussion resembles an internet argument, for example. I’ve recently had quite a few online encounters where I think I was mostly agreeing with the other person, but because we weren’t using 100 percent identical premises and language, we wound up arguing anyway. And “Walk away, he doesn’t deserved to be listened to” from the Yale student sounds awfully like “Don’t feed the trolls” to me. Christakis is not a troll, of course, but the internet is where most people of my generation got their debating skills, such as they are.

Another reader is more pointed in his criticism of the discourse:

Perhaps this new methodology of social justice has its roots in a religious-like zeal in which all disagreement and dissent must be stamped out. Has anyone else noticed how “privilege” is like the fundamentalist version of “original sin”? Then if you challenge them, they can say the worst possible things about you with no recourse or shame—provided they are less “privileged” then you.

A law professor makes a couple of key distinctions in the Yale saga:

Ms. Christakis’ e-mail seems to conflate the wishes of a white preschooler to dress mimicking a fictitious, animated, individual, and named Asian character with the desire of college-age, mostly white, often male students to costume themselves as nameless, de-individualized black, Asian, or other persons of color. Small children of any background need neither excuse, justification, nor explanation for wanting to costume themselves as fictional characters. Children who do so typically mean no harm and cause no harm. Little kids just want to have fun.

However, in the vast majority of cases, college “kids” are legally adults.

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. [...]

One interesting bit of context to the kerfuffle at Yale:

I was a student at Northwestern University from 2009 to 2013. During that time, a small number of students on campus did some pretty racist stuff. In 2009, two graduate students wore blackface to a Halloween party; a few years later, more than a dozen kids dressed up in varying types of redface and blackface for an outdoor “Beer Olympics” party. Both incidents produced student anger and campus discussions.

Incidents like these exist on two levels simultaneously. On the one hand, they are offensive to many students, a betrayal of the idea of college as a respectful and enlightened place. On the other, they are very bad PR. So to head off both negatives, university administration began emailing students a week before Halloween, reminding kids not to dress in blackface or do something to mock other people’s race or religion. It included this set of questions:

Jeff Roberson / AP

Before the controversy that resulted in Tim Wolfe’s resignation as the president of the University of Missouri, there was the controversy in 2011 over his hiring.

Like his predecessor, Gary Forsee, the former Sprint CEO, Wolfe came from the world of business rather than academia. He had spent years at IBM and Novell— years the university system hoped would help in fundraising and cost-cutting.

But as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said in an editorial at the time:

In the coverage of the campus protests this week, two small details reminded me of the central thesis of our September cover story from Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (debated by readers at length here). They argue that a new heightened climate of political correctness is fueling the anxiety and catastrophizing of many students that could be harming their mental health more than the perceived slights would otherwise.

The first detail is the following excerpt from Missouri Students Association letter that spurred the resignation of the university’s president and then chancellor (the whole version of the letter was released on Twitter):

The mental health of our campus is under constant attack. We asked the University to create spaces of healing and they failed to do so.

Second, from the list of demands issued to the university last month by the activist group Concerned Student 1950:

VII. We demand that the University of Missouri increases funding and resources for the University of Missouri Counseling Center for the purpose of hiring additional mental health professionals — particularly those of color, boosting mental health outreach and programming across campus, increasing campus-­wide awareness and visibility of the counseling center, and reducing lengthy wait times for prospective clients.

Here are the relevant excerpts from Haidt and Lukianoff: