At Western Washington University, a public institution with roughly 15,000 students, a group of leftist activists calling itself the Student Assembly for Power and Liberation has issued a sweeping list of demands that would radically reshape its school. The demands pose a direct challenge to academic freedom; threaten free speech; and would arguably harm the very students from historically marginalized groups that the activists truly want to help. Whether one thinks that the campus climate at Western Washington is wonderful or requires reforms, however, the particular agenda put forth by these activists is deeply misguided.
That doesn’t make these students villains.
Their experiences and grievances are worth trying to understand, no matter how unpracticed they are at expressing them by committee. (If current students have specific stories of unjust treatment or examples of unjust policies they want to share, or if other readers want to weigh in, they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
But their existing demands show how well-intentioned students in an ideological bubble can rally around measures that would destroy their institution. This is especially so when their agenda is thick with ideology and bereft of fact-finding or empiricism. They evince very little understanding of the fences they want to tear down.
* * *
The student activist demands are posted here.
They call for a new “College of Power and Liberation” to teach social justice ideology, enough funding to hire 10 tenure-track faculty members, and activist “decision-making power over the hiring of faculty,” guaranteeing viewpoint discrimination.
The activists call on administrators to construct a brand-new building for the college; to build and fully staff a new library to serve its students; to create work study positions for at least 20 percent of the new college’s students; and a $50,000 “opening event” that will bring together “eminent scholars from the interdisciplinary fields that have grown out of social-justice movements, marking the beginning of the momentous history of the College of Power and Liberation and the reemergence of a serious commitment to Ethnic and Gender studies on Western’s campus.”
Despite their call for tens of millions of dollars in new outlays in the near future, no information is presented about the effect that these changes would have on tuition; nor about how many present or future students––including students from historically marginalized groups––would enroll in such a college or major in its subject areas. Would the new college best meet the needs of disadvantaged students? Or would it most benefit students, including white students from wealthy backgrounds, who want to pursue collegiate majors inflected with social-justice ideology?
The Committee for Social Transformation would also control a new dorm, reviewing applications and deciding who could live there. The likely result would be the ideological segregation of students, undermining the intellectual diversity that is a core benefit of residential life.
The petition goes on to call for $45,000 annually to compensate “students and faculty doing de-colonial work on campus” and the creation of a 15-member student panel, dubbed the Office for Social Transformation, “to monitor, document, and archive all racist, anti-black, transphobic, cissexist, misogynistic, ablest, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, anti-semitic, and otherwise oppressive behavior.” This panel would have the power to investigate and discipline students and faculty members and to fire even tenured faculty members.
“We demand the recognition of an unsafe classroom environment due to the oppressive behaviors articulated above as a severe offense,” the petition states, “and a justifiable cause for an investigation of tenured faculty that could lead to discharge.” It is difficult to imagine Western Washington University attracting high-quality hires, or maintaining a classroom environment conducive to free inquiry or vital discussions about race, so long as a student panel could revoke tenure for thought-crimes.
Bruce Shepard, the president of Western Washington University, said this about the demands:
The proposal would fundamentally contradict our policies, practices, mutually bargained contracts, and federal law and policy on such matters as faculty evaluation and discipline, student conduct and discipline, the investigation of alleged racist behaviors, and the planning of facilities, spaces and residence halls. I further find, in the proposal, language possibly threatening our core commitments to campus-wide inclusivity and, again possibly, to academic freedom. The proposal is also problematic, for it would have large budgetary impacts but is missing a critical component of any complete proposal; namely, a credible approach for funding.
In other words, get serious. Inside Higher Ed reached out to the student activists and published their response:
"We believe it’s the responsibility of admin and faculty to find the necessary funding. If they can find the funding for a brand-new athletics gym to boost their recruitment rates, they can find the funding to support their most vulnerable students," the group said in response to the president's note that their proposals lacked a plan for funding.
Of course, there is no evidence to suggest that this agenda would actually help the most vulnerable students on campus, and many at the institution would contest that assumption.
The response offered by the student activists continued:
And as for their legality:
"We recognize that some of the demands seem out of the bounds of current possibility and legislation. However, we also recognize that the current political, legal and social conditions that we are in use federal, state and campus legislation to enforce systems of oppression that disproportionately set students of marginalized identities up for failure and exploitation … To see the fruition of the demands that we have brought forward, it is necessary for us to push away from the existing frameworks.”
That evades the core problem: Whether or not “existing frameworks” need to change, the activists addressed their demands to a man who lacks the institutional power to change them. The idea that the Washington legislature would stand by while Western Washington spent millions that it doesn’t have, even as an activist-run Committee for Social Transformation expelled students and terminated tenured faculty, is laughable. And lawsuits from disgruntled faculty members and students alone could bankrupt the institution if it began to violate their due-process rights so flagrantly. The vast majority of adults observing campus life know this.
Yet many of these adults will refrain from criticizing these student activists out of a misguided sense of solidarity with young people whose hearts are in the right place. Some will even suggest that criticism is tantamount to “silencing” these activists.
The students should not be vilified. They’re well-meaning young people. But patronizing deference, especially from older progressives allies who know better, will shortchange them. The sooner these Western Washington students are critiqued as rational adults, the sooner they will learn how ineffective their approach to seeking change will be if they try it in the real world, which they’ll soon enter.
The false solidarity of bitten lips will only encourage students to persist on their current course, which ensures that any legitimate grievances they have won’t be addressed. Anti-racism is too important to be ceded to wrongheaded, doomed campaigns. And what will it take, beyond calls to effectively abolish tenure and academic freedom, for more faculty members and observers to defend liberal values?