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.”
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whomever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
Three particular failures secure Trump’s status as the worst chief executive ever to hold the office.
President Donald Trump has long exulted in superlatives. The first. The best. The most. The greatest. “No president has ever done what I’ve done,” he boasts. “No president has ever even come close,” he says. But as his four years in office draw to an end, there’s only one title to which he can lay claim: Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had.
In December 2019, he became the third president to be impeached. Last week, Trump entered a category all his own, becoming the first president to be impeached twice. But impeachment, which depends in part on the makeup of Congress, is not the most objective standard. What does being the worst president actually mean? And is there even any value, at the bitter end of a bad presidency, in spending energy on judging a pageant of failed presidencies?
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
The new president must not repeat Obama's mistakes.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, the nation was facing concentric crises: the immediate, house-on-fire disaster of rolling bank closures; the broader economic depression; and, beyond that, deeply entrenched problems that the depression had highlighted, including elderly poverty. Roosevelt’s first 100 days addressed the first two crises with historic directness. He reopened the banks and directly employed thousands of Americans through measures such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Then, near the end of his first term, he signed the Social Security Act, which has reduced senior poverty and become one of the most popular federal programs in the United States.
President Joe Biden also faces concentric crises, which move outward toward the future as you unpeel them: the biological threat of the pandemic, the economic recession, and, beyond that, the entrenched problem of child poverty. He also has to contend with the problem casting a shadow over the whole century, the existential crisis of climate change.
What should have been a week-long celebration of the resilience of American democracy has turned into a dark circus. Instead of citizens lining Pennsylvania Avenue to cheer and greet a new president, all of downtown Washington, D.C., is an armed camp. Soldiers patrol the streets while workers clean excrement off the walls of the Capitol, a perfect tableau for the end of the short and ghastly age of Trump.
We are expecting far too much of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris if we think they can fix all of the damage Donald Trump did to the republic. Presidents and vice presidents are not wizards. They cannot rewind history. They cannot single-handedly make us better people.
However, I do believe that Biden can inspire the American people to regain one of the most important virtues Trump destroyed: seriousness, our understanding that ideas, actions, and words matter.
The quiet in the streets of D.C. today was a fitting end to the noisiest political era many Americans can remember.
Donald Trump’s presidency concluded not with mutiny in state capitals or an attempted attack on his successor, but with a calm, conventional ceremony in an otherwise quiet city.
Walking through Washington, D.C., today, the silence in the streets was the sound of a country not quite ready to exhale. It was a fitting end to the noisiest era of American politics that many Americans can remember.
If this had been a normal Inauguration Day, in a normal year, the National Mall would have been covered with hundreds of thousands of shivering people hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president. The streets of the capital would have been packed with out-of-towners ready to pay $25 a head to visit the Spy Museum, and lining up at sidewalk vendors’ tables to buy Kamala Harris–themed merch. But the only civilians I saw downtown during the ceremony were a few committed joggers and a clutch of Joe Biden supporters lingering outside the White House. The showing was so small that journalists seemed to outnumber the revelers; I watched as reporters interviewed the same handful of attendees, over and over again.
Trump leaves behind a wounded nation, and it will take time to heal.
So what if he was bad at it?
The five years of the Trump era—which began with his descent down the gilded escalator in Trump Tower in 2015 and are ending with a massive military presence in the nation’s capital to protect the transfer of power to his successor—brought a sustained assault on self-government. This assault was most often futile, almost always buffoonish, and, as the conversion of the seat of the federal government into an armed fortress demonstrates, unquestionably real.
Throughout the Trump era, some have argued that Trump’s incompetence rendered his authoritarian aspirations inconsequential.
“Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like ‘plotting’ implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks,” wrote the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in October, describing the president as a “noisy weakling.” Douthat has since re-evaluated his position, but for a long time he was the most articulate proponent of the argument that Trump was not as dangerous as his opponents believed.
In Washington, D.C. today, Joe Biden took the oath of office shortly before noon, becoming the 46th president of the United States of America. In front of a small, socially distanced, and well-guarded audience on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in. The singers Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks performed; the poet Amanda Gorman gave a reading; and Biden delivered his inaugural address to the nation. Gathered below are scenes from a unique moment in American history.
Trump’s pardons sent an unmistakable message, capping the corruption of his tenure in office.
“Drain the swamp.”
Of all Trump’s lies, that was one of the most puzzling. It’s not just that Trump himself was and is crooked, or even that he so obviously likes and admires crooks. It’s that Trump’s particular form of crookedness was exactly the kind of crookedness that people have in mind when they imagine Washington, D.C., as a “swamp.”
Trump’s first Manhattan real-estate deal—the first deal on which his employer-father allowed him to take the lead—was the redevelopment of a bankrupt historic hotel near New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The deal needed complex permissions from the city and the state. To obtain those permissions, Trump hired the famous fixer Roy Cohn. Cohn secured him a $400 million tax abatement plus other special favors, including a waiver of all urban-preservation rules. After the deal was done, the city official who bestowed the favors was hired as a partner in Cohn’s law firm. A decade later, that official went to federal prison for corruption crimes.
Hopefully one day, getting vaccinated will mean you no longer need a mask. But not yet.
Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, James Hamblin takes questions from readers about health-related curiosities, concerns, and obsessions. Have one? Email him at email@example.com.
Dear Dr. Hamblin,
I’m still confused about what our lives will be like after we are vaccinated. As I understand it, it will still be possible to get the virus, but hopefully the course won’t be as severe or life-threatening. And we are going to have people who won’t even get the vaccine. Do you foresee us still wearing masks for the next year or two? I hate to even type this question.
New London, New Hampshire
I can’t wait to stop wearing masks. I want to go out without a mask so badly that I’ve been dreaming about it. That’s how far the pandemic has lowered the ambitions of my dreams.