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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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.

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.

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 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.

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:

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:

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:

If you’ve been on The Atlantic the past few days, you’ve probably seen the two popular posts from Conor on the controversies roiling the University of Missouri and Yale University. Gillian responds to the latter post:

The events at Yale over the past weeks have provoked a great deal of conversation, but little effort to understand or acknowledge the cultural and institutional biases at play. In their responses, many have made the same mistake that my friend did [by dressing in blackface], assuming that individual actions can be divorced from their broader context, or from the larger and more troubling legacy of racial discrimination in America. But they can’t.

Continued here. Robby Soave at Reason sees a historical irony:

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these students’ censorious actions is how profoundly conservative they are. By communicating an expectation that their master or president protect them from unsightly Halloween costumes, or promise them no more hurtful words will be said at their expense, students are essentially calling for a return to campus life under in loco parentis. [...] Half a century ago, student activists liberated themselves—partly, at least—from in loco parentis: the paternalistic notion that college administrators should serve as watchful guardians, restricting students’ activities and rights in order to provide a safe environment for them, the way a mother or father would.

New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait tackles both campus controversies and ties them to his broader concern over “renewed left-wing hostility to freedom of expression”:

Political correctness is a system of thought that denies the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender. It manifests itself most prominently in campus settings not because it’s a passing phase, like acne, but because the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others. The phenomenon also exists in other nonacademic left-wing communities, many of them virtual ones centered on social media, and its defenders include professional left-wing intellectuals. [...]

Some remaining emails from readers on the tumult at Yale:

I think there’s a lot going on in the muddle on campus. Some of the (lack of) discussion resembles an internet argument, for example. I’ve recently had quite a few online encounters where I think I was mostly agreeing with the other person, but because we weren’t using 100 percent identical premises and language, we wound up arguing anyway. And “Walk away, he doesn’t deserved to be listened to” from the Yale student sounds awfully like “Don’t feed the trolls” to me. Christakis is not a troll, of course, but the internet is where most people of my generation got their debating skills, such as they are.

Another reader is more pointed in his criticism of the discourse:

Perhaps this new methodology of social justice has its roots in a religious-like zeal in which all disagreement and dissent must be stamped out. Has anyone else noticed how “privilege” is like the fundamentalist version of “original sin”? Then if you challenge them, they can say the worst possible things about you with no recourse or shame—provided they are less “privileged” then you.

A law professor makes a couple of key distinctions in the Yale saga:

Ms. Christakis’ e-mail seems to conflate the wishes of a white preschooler to dress mimicking a fictitious, animated, individual, and named Asian character with the desire of college-age, mostly white, often male students to costume themselves as nameless, de-individualized black, Asian, or other persons of color. Small children of any background need neither excuse, justification, nor explanation for wanting to costume themselves as fictional characters. Children who do so typically mean no harm and cause no harm. Little kids just want to have fun.

However, in the vast majority of cases, college “kids” are legally adults.

Two stories written by our reader for The Maneater in 1990

Earlier this week we heard briefly from a staff member of The Maneater, the student newspaper at the University of Missouri. Now a former staffer writes in:

I was a journalism undergrad at Mizzou 20 years ago (‘93) and immediately began working for The Maneater. I spent the next two years covering black student government (and white), as well as the black and white fraternity systems, all of which were 100 percent segregated—not by policy, but because people chose not to intermingle and sit amongst each other.

I tried endlessly to make black friends. I covered their communities for two years. I still had no friends. As an outsider—someone from Colorado on a campus that largely draws students from in-state—I couldn’t understand the anger and hostility I encountered, nor fathom why none of the black students would even give me a chance to talk to me, to find out who I am. I became frustrated and eventually gave up when so many black students couldn’t care to even recognize that I was their ally; I was someone eager and willing to help. But they were so standoffish and frankly “blind” to any difference between different white people.

This year, black students protested the annual Homecoming parade. They were doing that 20 years ago too; it was my first cover story I wrote for The Maneater.

A domino effect is underway:

The protest was organized by the group People of Color at Ithaca College to express their concerns about racism on campus. They called for a vote of no confidence against Ithaca President Tom Rochon, as well as for Rochon to step down. During the protests [Wednesday], The Ithaca Journal reports, one student asked, “How can a campus dedicated to preparing us for the real world not actively foster growth to our consciousness of oppression and privilege?”

Haidt and Lukianoff touched on Ithaca in their September cover story, and the details are disturbing:

A liberal-minded reader worries about it:

My fiancee is a Mizzou alumna, and we got into a brief squabble about this the other night. It’s frustrating because she kept insisting that I wasn’t there and couldn’t know what the protesters had endured during their time on campus. She wouldn’t hear my argument that preserving free speech is important no matter what the situation, even though I agree with the cause of the protesters just as much as she does. I couldn’t seem to make her understand that their situation doesn’t excuse their attempted suppression of the free speech of others.

Once that line has been crossed, all the opposition has to do is say “but they did the exact same thing.” And they can hit back with the same approach but with much more cultural and institutional power behind it.

In other words, inroads to authoritarian behavior, even in the service of a noble cause, always lead to the use of authoritarian behavior against the people who first look to it as a line of defense. By preserving First Amendment rights, the protesters might make a slightly longer road for themselves in the short term, but they will also ensure that road doesn’t lead them into a box canyon of their own making.

Here’s a more historical view from a “graduate student in the humanities at a major Midwestern research university”:

There’s an aspect of the recent campus “political correctness” debates that seems to be missing in all of the discussions of millennial fragility, standards of civility, and so on. There is, after all, a reason that the college campus has been the epicenter of this current wave of “P.C.,” and it isn’t simply attributable to youthful demographics or politically liberal professors. It’s the product of a larger trend in academic scholarship within the social sciences and humanities over the last three decades or so, usually called the “cultural turn.”