One Cheer for President Morty Schapiro

Morton Schapiro, President of Northwestern University, where I work, is getting widespread praise from outside the university for a statement rebuking violent and bullying demonstrators, including students. The demonstrators were calling for an end to the Northwestern University Police. In the process, they vandalized one of the main entrances of the university as well as stores in Evanston, thus ironically showing why police, both in the university and town, are necessary.

Schapiro’s statement was excerpted in the Wall Street Journal. It was held up as a model for other university presidents by arbiters of national discourse like David Brooks. Frederick M. Hess hailed Schapiro in National Review, running his encomium under the title, “Northwestern President Offers a Tutorial in Campus Leadership.”

The statement was indeed for the most part a very sound one. Schapiro called for those who broke the law to be held accountable: “An essential aspect of education is the discernment of actions and consequences. If you, as a member of the Northwestern community, violate rules and laws, I am making it abundantly clear that you will be held accountable.” 

He also called out the tactics of protestors who surrounded his home in the early morning hours calling him “piggy” and shouting expletives at him. While these protestors may not have been violating any laws (although there may be rules against loud noise in residential areas at that hour), they are violating the norms of a university, which contemplate that its denizens will engage in rational discourse, not abuse. This kind of behavior undermines the whole ethos of a university. It is not debate but intimidation. As Schapiro said:

If you haven’t yet gotten my point, I am disgusted by those who chose to disgrace this University in such a fashion. I especially condemn the effect of their actions on our friends, neighbors and other members of our community who are trying to sustain viable businesses, raise families, study and do research, while facing a global pandemic and the injustices of the world without losing their sense of humanity.

But even as the outside world praised Schapiro, many of the individual departments he administers—including African American Studies, Anthropology, and Political Science—denounced him. A university-wide letter attacking his statement garnered more than a hundred signatures from professors and minor administrators. Perhaps encouraged by this support, Northwestern students again confronted police in Evanston this last weekend with bricks and other forms of violence, earning a rebuke from the Democratic mayor of the town.

It is a sad fact that many professors at Northwestern and around the country are all too ready to sacrifice the core ideals of a university to their leftist ideology, even when the student behavior that Schapiro rightly denounces is reminiscent of that in societies which were either totalitarian or on their way to becoming so. Both Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution and Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness—superb books that I recently read to prepare for turbulent times—feature incidents of student intimidation that facilitate the breakdown of civil society. Schapiro is absolutely right to stand up to such behavior and its faculty abettors are profoundly wrong. The stakes go beyond the university.

Schapiro has encouraged a culture that makes it more likely that students, seized by an unchallenged sense of self-righteousness, will act in the ways that he now rightly condemns.

And yet this Northwestern University professor can muster only a single cheer for Schapiro. It took protestors coming by his house for him to denounce their unbecoming and violent tactics.

Previously, his statements on public events have never focused on violence embedded in many of the protests around communities surrounding Evanston and Chicago, where the University has a campus. As one colleague at the university remarked, he was hardly confident that Schapiro would have denounced such behavior if protestors had shown up at his house instead of Schapiro’s that night. And that is not because Schapiro has limited himself to statements about events that directly affect the campus. He regularly denounces incidents of police brutality in other parts of the country. He labeled the killings of George Floyd and others “murders” before such matters have been adjudicated in court. Judged by his past performance, one might say that Schapiro’s statement reflects the old adage of Irving Kristol that a liberal becomes a conservative only when mugged by reality.

Moreover, during his tenure, he has acted and failed to act in ways that have created a culture of political and educational conformity and intolerance on campus. That kind of culture is one which makes it more likely that students, seized by an unchallenged sense of self-righteousness, will act in the ways that Schapiro has now rightly condemned.

Schapiro’s record sadly has contributed to this culture. First, he is a great fan of “safe spaces.” Indeed he has called those who worry about their effect “lunatics.” He wrongly analogizes “safe spaces” simply to the decisions of students to voluntarily hang out together. Of course, no one objects to such bottom-up choices by students. The danger is when the university creates “safe spaces” where some ideas will not be welcome. That decision is largely antithetical to the ideal of a university, where rational debate is always encouraged, just as irrational bullying should always be discouraged. And the university’s choice to create safe spaces for some and not for others gives a feeling of superiority to those who get the imprimatur, leading to a sense of impunity and eventually to the kind of actions Schapiro decried.

Second, during his tenure, the university has become even more a place of political conformity in which radical left-liberal students, some of whom were the miscreants around Schapiro’s home, are unlikely to receive any intellectual pushback. One recent example took place at the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at the university. Schapiro chose a retired general and diplomat, Karl Eikenberry, to lead the center. Eikenberry, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is hardly a movement conservative, having been Ambassador to Afghanistan under President Obama. But his centrism and military experience led to a revolt by left-liberal faculty members who derailed his appointment. While Schapiro supported the appointment, he never called out the ideological mugging for what it was.

Now this international center under a new head appointed by Schapiro is offering grants for research in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. While some of these goals are ones to which no one can object, others are controversial and nakedly left-liberal. One example is the goal to expand access to “reproductive rights,” which is of course a euphemism for rights that include the right to abortion. It is wrong for a university to direct grants to research designed to advance the goals of a political organization or movement. Unfortunately, Schapiro himself has announced that the University backs the Paris Accords on Climate Change. A university administration must stay out of politics by eschewing a position on matters of political controversy. That is the way to encourage a diversity of ideas and to avoid a climate of conformism.   

Third, Schapiro has presided over the closing of the university mind in more subtle, but also more fundamental ways. It is obvious, for instance, that in some key departments, approaches to knowledge with a left-liberal political valence are favored. For instance, in the History Department, most recent hires are focused on seeing history through the prism of race, gender, colonialism, or empire. Schapiro’s administration has been responsible for accelerating these trends. Departments naturally want to make new hires, but the administration has a lot to say about the subfields in which the departments will hire and I have heard from colleagues in the faculty of arts and sciences that the University is more likely to grant slots to “critical” than traditional methodologies and areas. A president must maintain an openness to diverse methodologies at the university. Schapiro has failed to be vigilant in this essential task.

Wisdom is welcome even if it comes late and in response to behavior that is difficult if not impossible to ignore. The culture of extremism and conformism that generates such behavior is not unique to Northwestern and sadly prevails in many important universities throughout the nation. So unless Schapiro and college presidents everywhere reverse their abetting of political and intellectual conformity, we can expect to see more of it, as well as more events like the one Schapiro has rightly condemned.