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.
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:
• Wearing a funny costume? Is the humor based on “making fun” of real people, human traits or cultures?
• Wearing a historical costume? If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?
• Wearing a ‘cultural' costume? Does this costume reduce cultural differences to jokes or sterotypes?
• Could someone take offense with your costume and why?
These emails felt unfortunate but necessary. Gawkerwrote them up, but even the feeling among students was something like: Better an ounce of prevention-related headlines than, you know, a pound of the other type.
The emails became a part of the campus calendar. A week before Halloween? The please-don’t-be-racist email was going to go out. And usually they were signed by our old dean of students, Burgwell Howard.
Howard moved to Yale this fall. Students there received a similar email this October—and the email looked much the same to the one we got in 2010.
But I do feel like that past plays into the current discussion of what’s happening at Yale. Administrators are proliferating at nearly every campus in the country. Many professors and graduate students resent their reach; they feel that the various vice associate provosts are doing little more than shuffling papers and making busy work for themselves. This is part of the subtext when critics sneer that 13 different administrators signed Yale’s Halloween email.
But the Yale Halloween email emerged from professional experience as much as anything else. I’m no defender of administrators everywhere, but in light of what happened at Northwestern (and countless other schools where blackface has been a problem), the Yale email looks less like administrative overreach and more like historically informed prudence.
Maybe that will let us move on a bit from one particular he-said-she-said incident—as one Yale student, Aaron Z. Lewis, has already asked us to do.
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.
How do you explain the selection of a former software executive with no significant academic credentials as the leader of a four-campus university system? Answer: You take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse.
The tenure was controversial from the start. Wolfe ended the $400,000 subsidy for the University of Missouri Press in May 2012, said the press would close completely in July, and in October—after massive backlash—said it would stay open, after all.
Under his watch, the university ended a decades-old program to train students at Planned Parenthood, and stopped granting hospital privileges to the sole doctor performing abortions at the organization’s clinic in Columbia, MU’s main campus. The university also ended subsidies that allowed its graduate students to pay for health insurance.
I should add here that I’m a graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and my time there, 1998-2000, predated Wolfe’s presidency. But my conversations with former classmates, as well news reports, make it apparent that Wolfe’s decision-making wasn’t always popular.
In 2014, the University of Missouri football team generated $14,229,128. Coach Gary Pinkel recently received a salary increase from $3.1 million to about $4 million; Wolfe, by contrast, made $459,000 per year.
In the end, it was football that forced Wolfe’s resignation. After nearly two months of protests over racial incidents on campus—in which Wolfe’s response was seen as inadequate—the school’s football team announced a boycott. Thirty-six hours later, Wolfe was gone.
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:
These first true “social-media natives” may be different from members of previous generations in how they go about sharing their moral judgments and supporting one another in moral campaigns and conflicts. We find much to like about these trends; young people today are engaged with one another, with news stories, and with prosocial endeavors to a greater degree than when the dominant technology was television. But social media has also fundamentally shifted the balance of power in relationships between students and faculty; the latter increasingly fear what students might do to their reputations and careers by stirring up online mobs against them.
We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems was rising at their schools. The rate of emotional distress reported by students themselves is also high, and rising. In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54 percent of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months, up from 49 percent in the same survey just five years earlier. Students seem to be reporting more emotional crises; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them.
The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good. [...]
If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.
It appears you believe the instances of discrimination Mizzou has faced are “essentially nothing.” I presume you don’t attend my school, so I’ll try to paint a picture for you: the white-washed walls with shit-smeared swastikas and the turn-away of black girls at certain fraternity parties and the Confederate flag-adorned dorm rooms and the dirty slurs thrown out the window like garbage to the Asian students walking outside. So thus it has been a great culmination of many, many little nudges of disrespect and discrimination here and there—much like how Tim Wolfe and his driver bumped their car just so slightly into a line of black peaceful protestors during this year’s homecoming parade. You wouldn’t be able to feel the impact unless you stood very close, perhaps thigh-to-bumper, to this car, and it literally touched you firsthand. And so tell me, how much closer did it need to get before it ran them over completely?
The student activists have no concept of free debate, intellectual stimulation, or respect for differing perspectives. They, their parents, teachers, and mentors should be ashamed at their behavior. No matter how valid or invalid you think their message is, their tactics are disreputable and childish.
Another reader is more considered in his criticism:
I read “The Coddling of the American Mind” a while back, and the outrage of various microaggressions propping up around American campuses strike me as a pretty straightforward result of general breakdown in civil American discourse. As the students themselves admit, what they are looking for in college is not actually intellectual examination, but identity and community.
That desire for community strikes me as a product of those people’s inability to find comfort in the broader American community. And that inability, in return, seems like product of identity Balkanization in America, in which the notion of “being American” has broken into several different competing tribes of mutually exclusive “American” types, with different values, different notions of reality, and an increasingly existential intolerance for competing “American” identities.
This idea has been readily studied on the right, in conservative terms. The insulating effect of right-wing media, the literal separation of communities, suburbs, and gerrymandered districts into ideological camps, and a widespread literature implying cultural persecution at the hands of liberals—those phenomena have created an intolerant right, the sort that hero-worships Donald Trump or Ben Carson and has difficulty believing “facts” presented by any source they haven’t already legitimated.
I think some people—like myself, unfortunately—think of the “left” as being more progressive, tolerant, and open-minded. But all this news about colleges rightfully challenges those assumptions. What’s happening here is that left-wing ideologies are ossifying into community identities, in opposition to right-wing ones. And now that left-wing ideas such as “tolerance” are becoming less about actual ideas and more about symbols around which a community can gather, tolerance is becoming more sacred, easier to threaten, and more intolerant to perceived threats.
In other words, being liberal in the U.S. right now—like being conservative—is less about ideas and more about identity. The effects of that are showing.
Another reader notes the identity politics animating the far right at the moment:
I am so tired of the perpetual whining by conservative reader at The Atlantic regarding people of color being victims. I mean, I’ve spent the last 48 hours seeing a social media brouhaha regarding the minimalist red cup design at Starbucks being “shots fired in the war on Christmas.” I mean, as your anonymous Hispanic reader put it, “I simply don’t know what precisely will satisfy these perpetually aggrieved people.”
Emma covered the Starbucks cup brouhaha this morning.
It’s too easy, and also rash and risky, to criticize people on the basis of perhaps-out-of-context social media snippets.
So let me compliment someone! You may already have seen the video below, shot this afternoon at the University of Missouri. The drama involves a photographer who wants to take pictures of the student protestors who have wrought such change at the university, and the students and their supporters who want him to go away.
The point the photographer makes is that they’re all standing on public property, and just as they have a First Amendment right to protest, he has a First Amendment right to record what is going on. And, as he points out, to document it for history.
You see the photographer from the back at the start of this video; you’ll figure out which one he is very quickly. What struck me as the encounter intensified was his unflappable, always polite, but unrelenting insistence on his First Amendment rights, as they are insisting on theirs. You can hear the main discussion starting around time 1:20.
I’ve learned that the photographer is named Tim Tai; the site on which he displays his photography is here. He has said this evening on Twitter that he doesn’t want to be the focus of the story, which is proper and gracious. But in real time, under mounting pressure, he shows intellectual and emotional composure anyone in our business would admire. The way the students (and some professors) are dealing with him is the way I’ve seen officials in China deal with reporters, which is not a comparison that reflects well on them.
Sincere congratulations to someone who this morning had no idea he would be in the national eye. But he turned out to be, and behaved in a way that reflects credit on him and the calling of news-gathering. Update Admiration as well to Mark Schierbecker, the video journalist who recorded the entire episode. Update-update And some of Tim Tai’s earlier photographs of the protests, for ESPN, are remarkable.
For the less glorious parts of this encounter, you can start with the account in Gawker. Hint: a Mizzou journalism communications professor is among those shooing him away.
The largest point that many opposing Tim Wolfe’s resignation are missing isn’t that he is responsible for the racism on campus, but that he failed to address the racism continuing on his campus. He should have known better, especially as president of the state university of possibly the most divisive state in race relations, historically and currently.
Another reader is on the same page:
The left has been “coaching” people to see themselves as victims with no power since the 1960s and probably longer than that. This man was fired or resigned because he demonstrated that he does not have the political skills or common sense it takes to lead a public university. As president of the school, he has to represent the whole school, and if that was the best answer he could provide to these kids, no matter how irrational they were/are, then he failed to do his duties.
This reader likewise has little sympathy for Wolfe:
This is the Ferguson Effect. However, contrary to your reader, minority students have in fact been “coached up and primed” to believe that their daily victimhood is not worth protest.
They have been “coached up and primed” that when presented with the opportunity to become educated, one should simply be happy to be in school, getting an education to better self and community. To me, these students and professors at the University of Missouri have rejected this complicity in an oppressive system and are now demonstrating a new active mentality growing in the public consciousness. This is a loud signal that a climate of quiet racism will no longer be ignored as accepted background noise only heard by the few. Now it will be confronted like the issue it is—loud, frustrating, complicated, and tragic.
So this is not the story of a poor administrator being unfairly persecuted; this is a story of a pained population finally being fairly heard.
Here’s a very different view from an Asian American female reader:
Did you hear about the feminist activist going on a hunger strike until her university head resigned because he failed to stop sexual violence on campus? Of course not, because that didn’t happen. Even though violence against women by men dwarfs racial violence both on campus and in society at large, one would be hard pressed to find a feminist who thinks a university administration can take any viable action to utterly banish sexual assault, let alone misogyny in general, especially misconduct neither on campus, nor by students. Yet women continue to go to class despite an appreciable chance of sexual assault, let alone derogatory comments.
This current crop of race activists seems to think a utopian world free of all racial prejudice is in our grasp and it is some conspiracy of “white supremacy” to prevent it from becoming reality. The first thing a rational person grasps is that there are outliers in life, and it would take a dystopian authoritarianism to stop them in most cases.
I’m all for on-going fostering of a climate of kindness and pluralism on campus, but you can’t stifle free expression at a university. What I see in these activists is a combination of immature expectations coupled with authoritarian leanings. They think they can outrage their way to utopia, and it is a damning statement on our prevailing educational philosophies that they have been allowed to reach this point in life with that mentality intact.
An outsider’s view:
I am reading this from afar, being a foreign reader who has never experienced the U.S. college system first hand. Many aspects of American culture eventually filter through to us here in the UK, however, so I observe these events with no small amount of interest.
I am not sure of the causes of this strange new ultra-illiberalism amongst students, nor do I know how widespread it really is. But what I do know is that where it is encountered, it must be met with resistance rather than compromise. Appeasement has no positive effect and will only drive ever more extreme demands. Colleges find themselves on the front line in confronting this peculiar new threat to free society, and I hope they are prepared to live up to the principles of free speech, free inquiry, and personal liberty that underpin the academic tradition.
That comes from a reader slack-jawed over the escalating situation at the University of Missouri and the calls for its president to resign:
Maybe this is the real Ferguson effect: People who have been coached up and primed to believe that they are victims, who want to be a part of some kind of important historical movement, to the point that they’re seeking confrontation over essentially nothing.
A couple of people supposedly said mean things, one of them on campus and one of them not on campus, none of them backed with any kind of evidence. A group of students confront the university president, obviously looking for offense, and find it by simply misrepresenting what he says to them—something that he pretty clearly anticipated with his answer.
For this, he MUST be fired, a cause so important that one student has vowed to literally DIE before he accepts the president’s non termination, and others have pledged to take a month off from the activity that defines their actual reason for even being present on this campus. Of course, no one can really say why he is responsible for any of these incidents, why they would not occur with a different president, or for that matter, whether they even actually occurred. But he MUST go because reasons.
From a Hispanic reader:
I simply don’t know what precisely will satisfy these perpetually aggrieved people. Maybe if we put white people in cages. I don’t know. And this is coming from a person of color who is not seeing the grievous racism these professional offendees are perpetually griping about. And another career is going to be destroyed because the offender didn’t provide “the right answer.”
Starting the process will rein in a president who is undermining American ideals—and bring the debate about his fitness for office into Congress, where it belongs.
On January 20, 2017,Donald Trump stood on the steps of the Capitol, raised his right hand, and solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He has not kept that promise.
Instead, he has mounted a concerted challenge to the separation of powers, to the rule of law, and to the civil liberties enshrined in our founding documents. He has purposefully inflamed America’s divisions. He has set himself against the American idea, the principle that all of us—of every race, gender, and creed—are created equal.
Insights into the little-studied realm of last words
Mort Felix liked to say that his name, when read as two Latin words, meant “happy death.” When he was sick with the flu, he used to jokingly remind his wife, Susan, that he wanted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played at his deathbed. But when his life’s end arrived at the age of 77, he lay in his study in his Berkeley, California, home, his body besieged by cancer and his consciousness cradled in morphine, uninterested in music and refusing food as he dwindled away over three weeks in 2012. “Enough,” he told Susan. “Thank you, and I love you, and enough.” When she came downstairs the next morning, she found Felix dead.
During those three weeks, Felix had talked. He was a clinical psychologist who had also spent a lifetime writing poetry, and though his end-of-life speech often didn’t make sense, it seemed to draw from his attention to language. “There’s so much so in sorrow,” he said at one point. “Let me down from here,” he said at another. “I’ve lost my modality.” To the surprise of his family members, the lifelong atheist also began hallucinating angels and complaining about the crowded room—even though no one was there.
Dr. Sherman Hershfield woke up one morning and was surprised to find himself behind the wheel of his car. Somewhere between his Beverly Hills apartment and his practice in the San Fernando Valley, the silver-haired physician had blacked out. Somehow he’d avoided a crash, but this wasn’t the first time. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he admitted.
Apart from his frequent blackouts, Hershfield was in fine health for a man in his 50s. He was tall and lean, ran six miles a day, and was a strict vegetarian. “I believe a physician should provide exemplary motivation to patients,” he once wrote. “I don’t smoke and have cut out all alcohol.” Hershfield specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and for decades had helped patients with brain injuries learn to walk again and rebuild their lives. Even with his experience, Hershfield didn’t know what was wrong inside his own head.
America’s largest internet store is so big, and so bewildering, that buyers often have no idea what they’re going to get.
Updated at 5:28 p.m. ET on January 17, 2019.
There’s a Gatorade button attached to my basement fridge. If I push it, two days later a crate of the sports drink shows up at my door, thanks to Amazon. When these “Dash buttons” were first rumored in 2015, they seemed like a joke. Press a button to one-click detergent or energy bars? What even?, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance reasonably inquired.
They weren’t a joke. Soon enough, Amazon was selling the buttons for a modest fee, the value of which would be applied to your first purchase. There were Dash buttons for Tide and Gatorade, Fiji Water and Lärabars, Trojan condoms and Kraft Mac & Cheese.
The whole affair always felt unsettling. When the buttons launched, I called the Dash experience Lovecraftian, the invisible miasma of commerce slipping its vapor all around your home. But last week, a German court went further, ruling the buttons illegal because they fail to give consumers sufficient information about the products they order when pressing them, or the price they will pay after having done so. (You set up a Dash button on Amazon’s app, selecting a product from a list; like other goods on the e-commerce giant’s website, the price can change over time.) Amazon, which is also under general antitrust investigation in Germany, disputes the ruling.
Big tech companies now trade at one of the smallest premiums in history.
On September 28, 2018, tech died.
That’s according to a widely circulated eulogy prepared by Vincent Deluard, a strategist at INTL FCStone, a financial-services company. “If technology is everywhere, the tech sector no longer exists,” he wrote. “If the tech sector no longer exists, its premium is no longer justified.” When the Financial Times got its hands on the document, it leaned into the death thesis, declaring: “The tech sector is over.”
In news reports, death has several definitions. When it applies to a person, it means the end of life. When it applies to a company or industry, it means the end of growth. Print is dead, live TV is dead, and Millennials killed American cheese; but you can still read a print newspaper with the TV on while eating a cheeseburger.
Astronomers have produced the best measure yet of the planet’s signature bands.
Saturn has confounded scientists since Galileo, who found that the planet was “not alone,” as he put it. “I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked-for, and so novel,” he wrote. He didn’t realize it then, but he had seen the planet’s rings, a cosmic garland of icy material.
From Earth, the rings look solid, but up close, they are translucent bands made of countless particles, mostly ice, some rock. Some are no larger than a grain of sugar, others as enormous as mountains. Around and around they go, held in place by a delicate balance between Saturn’s gravity and their orbiting speed, which pulls them out toward space.
Scientists got their best look at the planet nearly 400 years after Galileo’s discovery, using a NASA spacecraft called Cassini. Cassini spent 13 years looping around Saturn until, in September 2017, it ran out of fuel and engineers deliberately plunged it into the planet, destroying it. More than a year later, scientists are still sorting through the data from its final moments, hoping to extract answers to the many questions that remain about Saturn.
For someone who actively avoids criticizing the president, Senator Jim Risch has a lot to say about how he will deal with Trump.
It’s a familiar pattern: President Donald Trump’s Republican allies disagree with him on a major issue. They send statements and tweets, and repeat talking points on cable news. But will those in positions of power actually stand up to the president when they are at odds with him?
For Jim Risch, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a big test could come if Trump decides to withdraw from NATO, the military alliance with Europe that the U.S. has led for more than 70 years, as he has reportedly suggested he may do.
“There is zero appetite in the United States Congress to leave NATO,” Risch told me on Wednesday. “Fair statement?” he asked, turning to an adviser. “Maybe one voice,” the adviser joked. Risch amended his statement: “Almost zero appetite.”
Aides on Capitol Hill fear that a dramatic government failure may be the only thing to force President Trump and the Democrats back to the table.
As the longest government shutdown in American history lurches toward its fifth week, a grim but growing consensus has begun to emerge on Capitol Hill: There may be no way out of this mess until something disastrous happens.
This is, of course, not a sentiment lawmakers are eager to share on the record. But in interviews this week with congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle (whom I granted anonymity in exchange for candor), I heard the same morbid idea expressed again and again.
The basic theory—explained to me in between weary sighs and defeated shrugs—goes like this: Washington is an impasse that looks increasingly unbreakable. President Trump is dug in; so is Speaker Pelosi. Democrats have public opinion on their side, but the president is focused on his conservative base. For a deal to shake loose in this environment, it may require a failure of government so dramatic, so shocking, as to galvanize public outrage and force the two parties back to the negotiating table.
It’s not meant to be comforting, but somehow it is.
If you ever find yourself sinking into the plush blue couch of Dr. Jane Prelinger, you should know that she doesn’t want you to call her Dr. Prelinger. In her office, even when you’re on the couch and she’s facing you from her chair, looking at you through heavy eyeliner and the frame of her white-blond bangs, she insists: You’re just two humans. “It’s Faith and Jane,” she told me when I was in that position. “Here, it’s human to human.”
Jane is an existential therapist. She sees a lot of different clients with a lot of different problems, but she thinks all of those problems can be reduced to the same four essential issues: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom.
Existential therapy isn’t new. Its roots go back to the existential philosophers of the 20th century, and specifically to Jean-Paul Sartre, who summed up his philosophy in 1943 when he wrote that humans are “condemned to be free.” Unlike other animals, humans are conscious and aware of their own mortality—but that means they have the possibility, and responsibility, of deciding in each moment what to do and how to be.
Gorgeous and weird, lichens have pushed the boundaries of our understanding of nature—and our way of studying it.
Science is sometimes caricatured as a wholly objective pursuit that allows us to understand the world through the lens of neutral empiricism. But the conclusions that scientists draw from their data, and the very questions they choose to ask, depend on their assumptions about the world, the culture in which they work, and the vocabulary they use. The scientist Toby Spribille once said to me, “We can only ask questions that we have imagination for.” And he should know, because no group of organisms better exemplifies this principle than the one Spribille is obsessed with: lichens.
Lichens can be found growing on bark, rocks, or walls; in woodlands, deserts, or tundra; as coralline branches, tiny cups, or leaflike fronds. They look like plants or fungi, and for the longest time, biologists thought that they were. But 150 years ago, a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener suggested the radical hypothesis that lichens are composite organisms—fungi, living together with microscopic algae.