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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Where the Yale Halloween Email Came From

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:

Many more readers are emailing their reactions to the tense situation at the University of Missouri. This reader doesn’t mince words:

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.

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.

Many readers are emailing hello@ to respond to this reader’s framing of the situation at the University the Missouri. One writes:

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.

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.”

Disagree? Drop me an email and I’ll air the most substantive counterpoints. Update from Krishnadev: The president is resigning.