Reporter's Notebook

Debating the Campus Protests at Mizzou, Yale, and Elsewhere
Show Description +

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.

Show None Newer Notes

'Look From the Heart—at the Action, Not the Race'

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.

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.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Rob had a really great post this morning asking why American college students don’t strike the way students at universities around the world sometimes do. There are a variety of theories—you should read the piece—but I was struck by this quote from Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York who researches student activism:

“Students in the United States today are living in conditions of economic precarity that didn’t exist in the 1960s,” he said. “As students have gotten poorer on average, tuition has gone up. And so they’re getting squeezed on both sides. They have a lot less ability to withstand the effects of … losing a semester, because if that happens, they’re gonna be screwed.”

That rings true, but I think it undersells the effects of rising tuition on campus, and what that might do to student activism. It’s not just that students have to pay more, which makes them more nervous about losing money. As tuition rates have risen—and particularly as state governments have drawn down funding for public universities—public and private universities have both increasingly come to look at students as sources of revenue. (For-profit universities just take this idea to its logical conclusion.)

That means that students come to be seen as “customers” by college administrators, and in turn they start to see themselves that way too. That has radical effects for how they interact with the university. Instead of being part of a bigger community, composed of scholars, teachers, learners, and others—a sort of “academical village,” to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase—students show up, get the service for which they’ve paid, and leave with a diploma. Doing that leads to inevitable economic decisions: prioritizing fancy dorms, high-quality facilities, and popular eating options over faculty hiring, for example. Professors complain that students feel entitled and comfortable asking for better grades.

But it also makes it harder to see why you’d go on strike. Striking only makes sense if you see yourself as part of the integrated community, where the university’s direction is determined by a negotiation between adminstrators, faculty, students, and staff. If you’re a customer, though? Even leaving aside what you can afford, paying tuition, and then going on strike seems less sensible if you think classes are a product that you’ve purchased. It’s like going to Chipotle, paying for your burrito, then refusing to eat it.

Our initial roundup of blog commentary on Wednesday is here. Since then, Conor responded at length to criticism from Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker:

[Cobb] writes as if unaware that millions of Americans believe the defense of free speech and the fight against racism to be complementary causes, and not at odds with each other. The false premises underpinning his analysis exacerbate a persistent, counterproductive gulf between the majority of those struggling against racism in the United States, who believe that First Amendment protections, rigorous public discourse, and efforts to educate empowered, resilient young people are the surest ways to a more just future, and a much smaller group that subscribes to a strain of thought most popular on college campuses.

Conor concludes, “Defenders of the First Amendment aren’t distracting from attention from racism—they’re preserving the tools necessary to struggle against it.” Then Sally Kohn wrote a piece for us diametrically opposed to that view:

[W]hat students from Yale to the University of Missouri and beyond are protesting is a pervasively one-sided definition of offensive behavior that these colleges and society in general still propagate. To this point, as [Cobb noted], “the student’s reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not.”

Consider, for instance, those in the chattering class who have readily bought into the idea that police feel under attack (as the result of the Black Lives Movement) and at the same time express deep skepticism—if not outright mockery—of people of color who feel under attack by police and by society. This divergent tendency isn’t about evidentiary standards. It’s about race—and the inclination to believe in the righteousness and inherent goodness of white people while perpetually doubting and demeaning people of color. As Roxane Gay wrote for The New Republic:

We cannot ignore what is truly being said by both groups of protesters: That not all students experience Yale equally, and not all students experience Mizzou equally. These conversations were happening well before these protests, and they will continue to happen until students are guaranteed equality of experience. They are still being forced, however, to first prove that it is worth opening a conversation about either.  

Greg Lukianoff, who co-authored our cover story on campus PC and coincidentally found himself at the center of the uproar at Yale, takes stock of the tumultuous week. Greg is heartened that most Yale students “have answered speech with more speech”:

There’s been a lot of discussion about how the issues at Yale are much bigger than Erika and Nicholas Christakis, and that’s certainly the opinion of many students. Earlier this week, Yale students refocused the narrative and engaged in a thoughtful, powerful demonstration of student activism through a “March of Resilience” to express solidarity for students of color, and a forum to discuss race and diversity on campus. [...] On Tuesday, Yale’s president and the dean of Yale College issued a welcome reaffirmation of the necessity of freedom of expression at the institution. Now, the institution must make clear that Yale supports Erika and Nicholas Christakis and they will not face punishment or termination for their role in starting a national conversation about the importance of free speech on campus.  

Absorbing the events at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere, Nicholas Kristof, the liberal New York Times columnist, worries about the state of the political left right now:

We’ve also seen Wesleyan students debate cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of “The Vagina Monologues” because they felt it excluded transgender women. Protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith.

This is sensitivity but also intolerance, and it is disproportionately an instinct on the left.

A reader suggests how racially-charged confrontations can not only escalate quickly but result in a disproportionate response towards people of a certain police profile:

Consider for a minute the controversy over the email Erika Christakis wrote at Yale regarding Halloween costumes: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are hallmarks of a free and open society...”

This advice strikes me as remarkably detached from the realities young African Americans have grown up with. A discussion of an offensive costume that escalates into a confrontation can end badly, and the record of the American carceral culture gives African American students plenty of reason to believe the police will hold them responsible if it does. Conor Friedersdorf observes that what happens at Yale does not stay there, but the reverse holds also: 40 years of an expanding American carceral culture affects what happens at Yale.

Have any thoughts along these lines? Drop us an email. Update from a reader:

This is, really, not a good set of options presented by Christakis. Going up to a drunk person at a party and telling them you are offended by their costume is unlikely to lead to the sort of productive academic debate that defenders of these remarks seem to be envisioning. Indeed, when “be quiet, or raise your objections at the moment when they are most likely to get you dismissed as a killjoy” is presented as the free speech argument, it is unsurprising that students respond with little respect for the idea of free speech thus presented.

"This is a movement, not a moment." #claremontmckenna #concernedstudent1950

A photo posted by Liam Brooks (@liam.brooks) on

A reader writes:

I’m a senior at CMC. Thank you for writing the recent note about the protests at Claremont McKenna, as well as the note about the potential effects of letting student activists run campus. It captured exactly what is happening in the aftermath of last week at CMC.

I just wanted to let you know that, while many of the articles about CMC did a very good job capturing the very real racial issues on campus, there is another side to the story that is only now finally being spoken out loud by students. As a student body, many of us were fearful of being labeled “racist,” and we let our Dean of Students take the fall for deeply rooted institutional problems, sacrificing her in the name of rhetoric.

Several students and myself began to share these feelings yesterday on social media and through our blog. We asked alumni, students, faculty, and administration to send in letters of support for Dean Spellman. Some alumni are currently drafting a letter to President Chodosh, requesting him to ask Dean Spellman back to her position. Our message is articulated more clearly in our post, but the sentiment is exactly the same as the piece you wrote.

Many of the letters we have so far received are from students who relied on Dean Spellman for serious mental health support, and they’re heartbreaking. It turns out that wrenching a dean out of the community in the middle of the year has some negative externalities, as this social experiment is proving.

Teresa Watanabe of the L.A. Times reports on the rising dissent at Claremont McKenna College, illustrated in our earlier email from a CMC senior and a rousing editorial in the Claremont Independent:

One letter to the Claremont community, endorsed by nearly 300 students, expressed support for the broad goals to combat racial discrimination. But it called the use of hunger strikes to force the resignation of Mary Spellman, dean of students, “extremely inappropriate.” The letter also castigated the “cyber bullying” of students over an offensive Halloween costume, the filing of a federal civil rights complaint against Claremont and foul language used against administrators at a protest last week.

Details of that Halloween controversy covered in Notes here. And then there’s this tragic irony:

The prolific Freddie deBoer from Purdue responds at length to the two Atlantic readers in this note. His post is well worth reading for anyone interested in this subject and the “turns” within academia—in Freddie’s case, quantitative research within English departments. Another reader joins the debate:

I’m a history graduate student at a large Midwestern research university, and I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow Midwestern research university reader’s assessment that the “cultural turn” has led many academics into an ever intensifying obsession with linguistic, rather than material, concerns.

But rather than further echo that brilliant point, I write to offer a ray of hope, at least from the field of history.

Occidental College is the latest campus to join the domino effect of students calling for the firing of top administrators. One of the activists occupying the office of the vice president since Monday is Olivia Davis, who outlines here the demands of Oxy United for Black Liberation, which include “Hir[ing] much needed physicians of color at Emmons Wellness Center to treat physical and emotional trauma associated with issues of identity” and the immediate removal of President Jonathan Veitch:

As a white, cis, affluent, heterosexual man he has the privilege to not have to consider the violence I face everyday. … [T]his movement is a manifestation of the daily microaggressions, discrimination, and other facets of marginalization we come to know as our college experience. It looks like a white student cussing me out my freshman year, calling me stupid when I told him that he couldn’t essentialize the existence of Black people to struggling through crime and poverty in “the hood.” It also looks like the time that I heard an entire room of white students say n***a at a party my first year. It’s the time that my professor refused to speak up in class when a white student referred to black men as “threatening and violent.” And again the time that I watched womxn -- black womxn -- around me encounter gross amounts of misogynoir when reporting their sexual assaults. It is everyday that I have to walk through this institution internalizing all of the psychic violence enacted on black students and students of color that makes me believe that I do not belong here.

As students, we are willing to let our academic performance suffer in order to ensure our survival. This is why creating safe spaces and protecting marginalized students should be the responsibility of the administration.

In the op-ed, Davis doesn’t cite anything that Veitch did to trigger the calls for his ouster, not even something as small a poorly worded email that forced out Claremont McKenna’s dean, an impolitic remark that precipitated the removal of Mizzou’s president, or an email about Halloween costumes that threatened the jobs of two faculty members at Yale. The most tangible thing Davis cites: “Veitch has been given over 49 demands from three different groups of students; only 3 of those demands have been met.” (The full list isn’t provided.) And she completely dismisses the defense of Veitch by the chair of the Board of Trustees:

Lost in the coverage of the Paris attacks was a disturbing dispatch from Dartmouth on Saturday. A Black Lives Matter protest on Thursday spilled into the campus library:

“F*** you, you filthy white f***s!” “F*** you and your comfort!” “F*** you, you racist s***!” These shouted epithets were the first indication that many students had of the coming storm. [...] The flood of demonstrators self-consciously overstepped every boundary, opening the doors of study spaces with students reviewing for exams. Those who tried to close their doors were harassed further. One student abandoned the study room and ran out of the library. The protesters followed her out of the library, shouting obscenities the whole way.

Students who refused to listen to or join their outbursts were shouted down.  “Stand the f*** up!”  “You filthy racist white piece of s***!” [...] Another woman was pinned to a wall by protesters who unleashed their insults, shouting “filthy white b****!” in her face.

And those epithets were just confirmed by protestors themselves:

… back when they were protesting apartheid, not microaggressions:

Occidental alum Margot Mifflin wrote a short piece for The New Yorker back in 2008:

On February 18, 1981, a student at Occidental College, Barack Obama, delivered his first public speech. As the opening speaker at a rally protesting Occidental’s investments in companies that were doing business in apartheid South Africa, he stood with one hand in his pocket, spoke in declarative spurts, and showed no sign of being the orator who would become President nearly twenty-eight years later. Before he could say much, he was carried off by two students pretending to be oppressive Afrikaners. [...]

The rally was not, as advertised, entirely about apartheid. It was about the racial issues smoldering on our own privileged, largely white campus, a subject some of the speakers passionately addressed. Students of color felt marginalized, and the faculty was not diverse. “We call this rally today to bring attention to Occidental’s investment in South Africa and Occidental’s lack of investment in multicultural education,” Obama said, before he was carried off. Though the rally had no effect on the former (the college didn’t divest), Occidental’s minority population, which is now over forty per cent, has since quadrupled.

Thus making Occidental the 13th most diverse liberal arts college among hundreds in the U.S., as I noted in a roundup of the unrest there. And expect more:

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Norman B. Green speaks with cadets participating in the Florida Classic football game held on Nov. 22, 2014. The cadets' efforts coincided with the nation's largest football rivalry between two historically black colleges (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV)

A thoughtful, nuanced email from a reader:

My name is Chris Martin. I was in the U.S. Marine Corps Infantry (specifically: the 81 mm mortar platoon, of Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines) from 2007 to 2011. After a combat deployments to Ar Ramadi, Iraq, and Marjah, Afghanistan, I was honorably discharged. From 2011 to 2015 I attended Denison University, a liberal arts college in Ohio, where I was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in economics.

(I provide all of this information, because I agree with Mr. DeBoer of Purdue’s assertion that it is important for vocal critics to identify themselves, as an indicator of the strength of their beliefs.)

During my time in college, I saw little of the protesting, or linguistically manipulative actions that, prior to the attacks in Paris, were making headlines at The Atlantic. That said, I did read “The Coddling of the American Mind” when it first came out, and I found myself nodding in agreement throughout much of the article.  

It is obvious, and fitting in my opinion, that social activism in the U.S. has been overshadowed lately by acts of violence by ISIS in Egypt, Beirut, and Paris.  Violence, the prospect of violence, and fear always seem to grab peoples' attention more roughly than almost anything else. The world grieves for ISIS' victims this past week, as they ought to.

During these recent tragedies, and the student protests sweeping campuses across the U.S., I find myself intrigued by the term “safe spaces.”