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.”
For some Americans, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it’s the story they want to believe.
This article was published online on May 10, 2021.
Most of the people who come to Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, come for the windows—masterpieces of Tiffany glass in the cemetery’s deconsecrated church. One morning before the pandemic, I took a tour of the church along with two other visitors and our tour guide, Ken. When my eyes adjusted to the hazy darkness inside, I could see that in each window stood a saint, surrounded by dazzling bursts of blues and greens and violets. Below these explosions of color were words that I couldn’t quite make out. I stepped closer to one of the windows, and the language became clearer. Beneath the saint was an inscription honoring the men “who died for the Confederacy.”
When the richest of the rich split up, the usual dilemmas are mixed in with the fate of enormous charitable efforts and billion-dollar stock holdings.
When Bill and Melinda Gates announced on Monday that they would be ending their 27-year marriage, they tweeted intandem that they “no longer believe [they] can grow together as a couple.” The reasoning wasn’t unusual for a 21st-century divorce, but their private emotional journey has highly atypical financial implications: Between their personal holdings and the charitable foundation they started together, the amount of money they control—somewhere around$180 billion—is roughly equal to the annual GDP of Kazakhstan or Qatar.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which they launched 25 years after Bill co-founded Microsoft, is one of the biggest private charitable foundations in the world, with an endowment of about $50 billion. In a sense, the jobs of its 1,600 employees and its investments in malaria prevention and early-childhood education have rested on the bedrock of Bill and Melinda’s marriage.
Unless you’re extraordinarily wealthy (congrats on that), your experience of working through the pandemic has probably been miserable. If you’ve had to work in person, your days have been dangerous and precarious. If you’ve been able to work from home, you’ve had an enormous privilege. But devoid of choice and novelty, remote work has lost some of its romance for office workers who previously dreamed of ending their commute. In home offices around the country, the wallpaper has begun to yellow.
WFHers have been working longer hours and more weekends than before the pandemic, and they’re more likely to report loneliness, depression, and anxiety than people working in person, according to Gallup. At the end of April, nearly 66 percent of respondents to a Morning Consult poll said they wanted to return to the office as soon as possible. Half of remote workers even miss their commute. But these data aren’t as conclusive as they might look. In the same Morning Consult poll, 84 percent of respondents said they enjoyed remote work. Gallup found that remote workers reported better overall well-being and higher engagement than those in the office. Many office workers also seem to be more productive at home, even in the middle of a disaster.
In February 2020, I traveled to New York to celebrate a zeroth birthday and an 80th birthday. First, I saw a close friend’s baby, who had been born only a month earlier. The next day, I went to my grandmother’s birthday party at a crowded Italian restaurant near Times Square.
I would say that this experience made me think about aging and what the alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss (of all people) called “the Great Span”: the way that seemingly distant history is only a few lifetimes away. But this would be a writer’s white lie. I think about time’s bucket brigade probably too much, and I am constantly looking for tidy anecdotes. Weeks earlier, I had already written in the notes app of my phone: “When my friend’s baby is my grandmother’s age, it will be 2100.”
Adored guru and reviled provocateur, he dropped out of sight. Now the irresistible ordeal of modern cultural celebrity has brought him back.
This article was published online on March 2, 2021.
One day in early 2020, Jordan B. Peterson rose from the dead. The Canadian academic, then 57, had been placed in a nine-day coma by doctors in a Russian clinic, after becoming addicted to benzodiazepines, a class of drug that includes Xanax and Valium. The coma kept him unconscious as his body went through the terrible effects of withdrawal; he awoke strapped to the bed, having tried to rip out the catheters in his arms and leave the intensive-care unit.
When the story of his detox became public, in February 2020, it provided an answer to a mystery: Whatever happened to Jordan Peterson? In the three years before he disappeared from view in the summer of 2019, this formerly obscure psychology professor’s name had been a constant presence in op-ed columns, internet forums, and culture-war arguments. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in 2018, sold millions of copies, and he had conducted a 160-city speaking tour, drawing crowds of up to 3,000 a night; premium tickets included the chance to be photographed with him. For $90, his website offered an online course to better understand your “unique personality.” An “official merchandise store” sold Peterson paraphernalia: mugs, stickers, posters, phone cases, tote bags. He had created an entirely new model of the public intellectual, halfway between Marcus Aurelius and Martha Stewart.
For a few weeks this spring, the United States was a world leader in vaccines, administering shots to a larger share of its population than even the United Kingdom or Israel. But since the middle of April, our vaccine campaign has stalled. The average number of people getting a first or single dose is down almost 50 percent from its peak on April 13.
What’s notable about that date? Well, it just happens to be the same day that the CDC and the FDA recommended a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
This is a coincidence too big to ignore, and so a lot of people haven’t ignored it. Several analysts and health-care experts have slammed the U.S. government for bringing America’s incredible vaccine acceleration to a sudden halt. (The Johnson & Johnson pause was lifted after 10 days). But a closer look at vaccine progress and polling suggests that this might not be the whole story.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that elite parents, in possession of excellent jobs, want to get their kids into college.
“It is a truth universallyacknowledged,” Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In early-19th-century society—an aristocratic world of inherited wealth—marriage occupied center stage. A good spouse was an all-purpose resource: essential for moving up in the world, as for Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, or for sustaining a dynasty, as for the object of her affections, Mr. Darcy.
School and work were not a path to wealth and status—certainly not for women, nor even for men. Elites were indifferent to education and disdained work. The landed gentry in Pride and Prejudice look down on Elizabeth’s working uncle, no matter that he gets his income from “a very respectable line of trade.” The economic facts on the ground supported their antipathy. The highest-paying jobs tended to be in government. But even at the end of the century, an elite English civil servant made just 17.8 times the median wage, and his American counterpart just 7.8 times. Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year from inherited capital was more than 300 times the median wage.
The artist’s new record—and the accidental controversy it caused—shows how mysteriousness can be a kind of defensiveness.
If you’ve searched St. Vincent on Twitter in the past few weeks, you haven’t seen chatter about the goofy soul sound of the 38-year-old rock star’s latest singles. You’ve seen snarky tweets about an interview that is mainly of interest to die-hard fans and people addicted to Twitter drama.
In late April, the journalist Emma Madden posted—and then deleted—a Q&A with St. Vincent that the artist’s press team had allegedly tried to stop from being published. A publicist said the singer thought that the questions had been too “aggressive.” In reality, Madden had gently asked about St. Vincent’s forthcoming sixth album, Daddy’s Home, and the situation that had loosely inspired it: St. Vincent’s father getting out of prison in 2019 after committing stock fraud. The artist’s unremarkable—though sometimes terse—answers normally would have gotten little notice. Instead, reports that she had tried to kill the piece ignited a few days of online blood sport. Commentators puzzled over her conduct, dissed her music, questioned her politics, and mocked the concept behind Daddy’s Home.
The job of a news reporter today is to declare what you can’t yet know to people convinced that they already do.
The job of a news reporter today is to declare what you can’t yet know to people convinced that they already do.
Journalism on deadline has always been stressful. A gruff editor orders a reporter to simplify controversy, and submit the copy in a couple of hours. The shortcut is this: When you fail to become an expert, phone one. So journalists hold the mic up (officials) and down (“man on the street”). Both directions contain peril. Officials know things but want things, while civilians rarely know what they’re getting into. Contemporary journalism adds a third source: the online gush, with its clips and comments and unintended consequences.
Whom to trust has become an urgent quandary after a series of cases—the murder of George Floyd, the death of Officer Brian Sicknick, the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant—in which early claims got so much wrong. A partial answer is easy: Stop believing the authorities. But those who speak for victims are not always accurate either.
The Tesla CEO’s SNL performance was neither redemptive nor entertaining. But it served a classic purpose: glossing over his real power.
However your 2021 is going, what’s undeniable is that after Donald Trump left office earlier this year, a strange cultural quietude settled upon America. No one would dare call it peace. But the audiences for TV news and online media immediately shrunk. Rather than fretting quite as much about an imminent civil war, commentators have been arguing about sexy hip-hop videos. Saturday Night Live, the rare 21st-century entertainment that most Americans seem to maintain some awareness of, has been adrift: Millions of viewers have been sitting out the 2021 season. The show’s most notable segment this year was about sassy icebergs.
Recently, though, America has appeared to be auditioning a new candidate for prime agitator of profitable controversy: Elon Musk. When SNL announced that the 49-year-old Tesla CEO would host last night’s show, it kicked off a national argument with all-too-familiar overtones. Musk is a billionaire commanding a personality cult with trollish tweets. He’s a self-styled savior of mankind who also downplayed the threat of COVID-19. He’s a white man who thinks he’s funny but who really, really isn’t. Some pundits chided SNL for elevating a figure who has used public platforms to bully and spread misinformation. Others cheered open discourse and capitalism. Musk’s fans dreamed of him plugging their favorite cryptocurrency, Dogecoin. SNL appeared all but sure to bust its ratings slump.