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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The prolific Freddie deBoer from Purdue responds at length to the two Atlantic readers in this note. His post is well worth reading for anyone interested in this subject and the “turns” within academia—in Freddie’s case, quantitative research within English departments. Another reader joins the debate:

I’m a history graduate student at a large Midwestern research university, and I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow Midwestern research university reader’s assessment that the “cultural turn” has led many academics into an ever intensifying obsession with linguistic, rather than material, concerns.

But rather than further echo that brilliant point, I write to offer a ray of hope, at least from the field of history.

Teresa Watanabe of the L.A. Times reports on the rising dissent at Claremont McKenna College, illustrated in our earlier email from a CMC senior and a rousing editorial in the Claremont Independent:

One letter to the Claremont community, endorsed by nearly 300 students, expressed support for the broad goals to combat racial discrimination. But it called the use of hunger strikes to force the resignation of Mary Spellman, dean of students, “extremely inappropriate.” The letter also castigated the “cyber bullying” of students over an offensive Halloween costume, the filing of a federal civil rights complaint against Claremont and foul language used against administrators at a protest last week.

Details of that Halloween controversy covered in Notes here. And then there’s this tragic irony:

"This is a movement, not a moment." #claremontmckenna #concernedstudent1950

A photo posted by Liam Brooks (@liam.brooks) on

A reader writes:

I’m a senior at CMC. Thank you for writing the recent note about the protests at Claremont McKenna, as well as the note about the potential effects of letting student activists run campus. It captured exactly what is happening in the aftermath of last week at CMC.

I just wanted to let you know that, while many of the articles about CMC did a very good job capturing the very real racial issues on campus, there is another side to the story that is only now finally being spoken out loud by students. As a student body, many of us were fearful of being labeled “racist,” and we let our Dean of Students take the fall for deeply rooted institutional problems, sacrificing her in the name of rhetoric.

Several students and myself began to share these feelings yesterday on social media and through our blog. We asked alumni, students, faculty, and administration to send in letters of support for Dean Spellman. Some alumni are currently drafting a letter to President Chodosh, requesting him to ask Dean Spellman back to her position. Our message is articulated more clearly in our post, but the sentiment is exactly the same as the piece you wrote.

Many of the letters we have so far received are from students who relied on Dean Spellman for serious mental health support, and they’re heartbreaking. It turns out that wrenching a dean out of the community in the middle of the year has some negative externalities, as this social experiment is proving.

A reader suggests how racially-charged confrontations can not only escalate quickly but result in a disproportionate response towards people of a certain police profile:

Consider for a minute the controversy over the email Erika Christakis wrote at Yale regarding Halloween costumes: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are hallmarks of a free and open society...”

This advice strikes me as remarkably detached from the realities young African Americans have grown up with. A discussion of an offensive costume that escalates into a confrontation can end badly, and the record of the American carceral culture gives African American students plenty of reason to believe the police will hold them responsible if it does. Conor Friedersdorf observes that what happens at Yale does not stay there, but the reverse holds also: 40 years of an expanding American carceral culture affects what happens at Yale.

Have any thoughts along these lines? Drop us an email. Update from a reader:

This is, really, not a good set of options presented by Christakis. Going up to a drunk person at a party and telling them you are offended by their costume is unlikely to lead to the sort of productive academic debate that defenders of these remarks seem to be envisioning. Indeed, when “be quiet, or raise your objections at the moment when they are most likely to get you dismissed as a killjoy” is presented as the free speech argument, it is unsurprising that students respond with little respect for the idea of free speech thus presented.

Our initial roundup of blog commentary on Wednesday is here. Since then, Conor responded at length to criticism from Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker:

[Cobb] writes as if unaware that millions of Americans believe the defense of free speech and the fight against racism to be complementary causes, and not at odds with each other. The false premises underpinning his analysis exacerbate a persistent, counterproductive gulf between the majority of those struggling against racism in the United States, who believe that First Amendment protections, rigorous public discourse, and efforts to educate empowered, resilient young people are the surest ways to a more just future, and a much smaller group that subscribes to a strain of thought most popular on college campuses.

Conor concludes, “Defenders of the First Amendment aren’t distracting from attention from racism—they’re preserving the tools necessary to struggle against it.” Then Sally Kohn wrote a piece for us diametrically opposed to that view:

[W]hat students from Yale to the University of Missouri and beyond are protesting is a pervasively one-sided definition of offensive behavior that these colleges and society in general still propagate. To this point, as [Cobb noted], “the student’s reaction elicited consternation in certain quarters where the precipitating incident did not.”

Consider, for instance, those in the chattering class who have readily bought into the idea that police feel under attack (as the result of the Black Lives Movement) and at the same time express deep skepticism—if not outright mockery—of people of color who feel under attack by police and by society. This divergent tendency isn’t about evidentiary standards. It’s about race—and the inclination to believe in the righteousness and inherent goodness of white people while perpetually doubting and demeaning people of color. As Roxane Gay wrote for The New Republic:

We cannot ignore what is truly being said by both groups of protesters: That not all students experience Yale equally, and not all students experience Mizzou equally. These conversations were happening well before these protests, and they will continue to happen until students are guaranteed equality of experience. They are still being forced, however, to first prove that it is worth opening a conversation about either.  

Greg Lukianoff, who co-authored our cover story on campus PC and coincidentally found himself at the center of the uproar at Yale, takes stock of the tumultuous week. Greg is heartened that most Yale students “have answered speech with more speech”:

There’s been a lot of discussion about how the issues at Yale are much bigger than Erika and Nicholas Christakis, and that’s certainly the opinion of many students. Earlier this week, Yale students refocused the narrative and engaged in a thoughtful, powerful demonstration of student activism through a “March of Resilience” to express solidarity for students of color, and a forum to discuss race and diversity on campus. [...] On Tuesday, Yale’s president and the dean of Yale College issued a welcome reaffirmation of the necessity of freedom of expression at the institution. Now, the institution must make clear that Yale supports Erika and Nicholas Christakis and they will not face punishment or termination for their role in starting a national conversation about the importance of free speech on campus.  

Absorbing the events at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere, Nicholas Kristof, the liberal New York Times columnist, worries about the state of the political left right now:

We’ve also seen Wesleyan students debate cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of “The Vagina Monologues” because they felt it excluded transgender women. Protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith.

This is sensitivity but also intolerance, and it is disproportionately an instinct on the left.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Rob had a really great post this morning asking why American college students don’t strike the way students at universities around the world sometimes do. There are a variety of theories—you should read the piece—but I was struck by this quote from Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York who researches student activism:

“Students in the United States today are living in conditions of economic precarity that didn’t exist in the 1960s,” he said. “As students have gotten poorer on average, tuition has gone up. And so they’re getting squeezed on both sides. They have a lot less ability to withstand the effects of … losing a semester, because if that happens, they’re gonna be screwed.”

That rings true, but I think it undersells the effects of rising tuition on campus, and what that might do to student activism. It’s not just that students have to pay more, which makes them more nervous about losing money. As tuition rates have risen—and particularly as state governments have drawn down funding for public universities—public and private universities have both increasingly come to look at students as sources of revenue. (For-profit universities just take this idea to its logical conclusion.)

That means that students come to be seen as “customers” by college administrators, and in turn they start to see themselves that way too. That has radical effects for how they interact with the university. Instead of being part of a bigger community, composed of scholars, teachers, learners, and others—a sort of “academical village,” to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase—students show up, get the service for which they’ve paid, and leave with a diploma. Doing that leads to inevitable economic decisions: prioritizing fancy dorms, high-quality facilities, and popular eating options over faculty hiring, for example. Professors complain that students feel entitled and comfortable asking for better grades.

But it also makes it harder to see why you’d go on strike. Striking only makes sense if you see yourself as part of the integrated community, where the university’s direction is determined by a negotiation between adminstrators, faculty, students, and staff. If you’re a customer, though? Even leaving aside what you can afford, paying tuition, and then going on strike seems less sensible if you think classes are a product that you’ve purchased. It’s like going to Chipotle, paying for your burrito, then refusing to eat it.

A Honduran Garifuna who crossed the border illegally with her children gets help from a housing activist at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church. (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

A reader writes:

Enjoying the recent Notes. One thing your reader alludes to is that it’s much easier to study and argue about the “language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum” than the facts on the ground. I am not an academic, but in my own field, law, I am aware how much easier it is to work with words on the page and in law books than to get out and do the messy work with witnesses, etc.  

Similarly, it seems to be easier to catch someone—e.g., using the word “thug” to refer to protesters in Ferguson—and get that person fired than to actually do anything about relations between police and the black community or the long exclusion of many African Americans from the the fruits of American prosperity. I wonder if this easiness factor might play a bigger part than we imagine.

A reader who would probably agree with that sentiment is Andrew Chen:

First of all, thanks for keeping so much Dish-ness alive at The Atlantic, and for providing a forum for robust, intelligent debate. I’m a public interest lawyer currently under a two-year-fellowship to run a clinic for homeless youth in Los Angeles. Public interest lawyers tend to be a pretty liberal bunch; I voted for Barack Obama twice and am likely to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary.

And yet I, too, have become increasingly frustrated and angry over time with the authoritarian tendencies of student activists on college campuses. For some reason, the Mizzou anti-journalist chants touched a nerve, and I put down my thoughts here.

TL;DR: The attitude evinced by these protestors shows that, philosophically, they seem to have abandoned any belief in the individual worth or dignity of those who disagree with them. This is not only morally repugnant, but is also probably going to doom the progressive movement in the long run (which to me, is terrifying).

From the reader’s long and excellent post:

Put simply, political capital is a thing. There is only so much time, media attention, and political will to get things done.

As an addendum to the Claremont McKenna note, check out this compelling scene. It centers on an Asian American immigrant student who brings some nuance to the discussion—but she’s physically interrupted and then accused of “derailing” the protest:

Over to Yale again, here’s a perspective from a reader with close ties to the school:

For context, I am a proud Yale and Silliman graduate and father of a current Yale student. The Christakises made two mistakes, one of substance and the other of timing and symbolism. Power is what threatens free speech. The Christakises recognized in the IAC’s email the power imbalance between the administration and the students; as professors and scholars, they related easily to students who might feel stifled by pressure from administrators.

What they didn’t think about was the power and privilege imbalances among the students themselves—something they have no personal experience of—and the fact that offensive speech can be an instrument of power rather than of resistance to power.

The ideal of the university is not to simply be a forum for free speech per se.

The college’s Dean of Students just resigned amid pressure from student activists:

Mary Spellman announced her decision in an email to the student body. She wrote, in part: “To all who have been so supportive, please know how sorry I am if my decision disappoints you.  I believe it is the best way to gain closure of a controversy that has divided the student body and disrupted the mission of this fine institution.” The announcement came one day after student protests at the college, where many demanded more inclusive programs for what they call marginalized students, which include students of color, LGBT students, disabled students and low-income students.

At the 43:55 mark of the video seen above, Spellman responds to calls that she resign. At 49:35, two students announce a hunger strike until she does. Here’s the crux of the controversy:

In the past few days, an “offensive”email sent by Dean Spellman was widely circulated on Facebook and prompted calls for her resignation. In the email, Dean Spellman responded to an article that voiced concerns by a student of color, stating that she wants to better serve students “who don’t fit our CMC mold.” Her comment outraged several students of color, and the email was cited as another example of institutional racism at CMC.

The junior class president also just resigned, stemming from a Halloween photo she posed in that contained two blonde women in Sombreros and mustaches:

When it’s a threat of planned violence:

Howard University confirmed it was increasing security on its Washington, D.C., campus following an anonymous death threat posted online on Wednesday night. [...] The FBI confirmed the threat in a statement early Thursday afternoon. “We are aware of the online threat and have made appropriate notifications," the FBI said in a statement to the Washington City Paper. “We urge anyone who has information about the threat to contact the Metropolitan Police Department or the FBI.”

The threat was posted on a forum that appears to be a 4chan board, a photograph of the post has been shared widely on Twitter and Instagram.

Krishnadev covered the anonymous threat directed at the Mizzou campus yesterday, and since then there’s been a second arrest. For some context on these stories, here’s a review of the case law on “true threats”:

The First Amendment guarantees every person the right of free speech, but that right is not absolute

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.”

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: