The Ultras and Their Ultimatums

As we know, the term “diversity” is the buzzword of the century. Few public policy debates in the realms of business or education in this country are conducted without it. The use of racial/ethnic admissions preferences at public universities, for example, is often defended by grossly exaggerating the types of diversity they promote.

The ironies here are multiple. One is that the advocates of preferences, whether writing in the public prints or running amok on the quads, regularly demonize those who disagree in such a way as to threaten intellectual diversity in higher education. Another is that in making their case, they ignore (willfully, it seems, although that is not always clear) the legal and moral imperatives to colorblindness that are embodied in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once considered a monumental achievement by most Americans.

During the past year, both ironies have been on full display with the crescendo of racially charged conflicts on college and university campuses. From California to Maine, student activists have been demanding diversity training, along with large and rapid increases in faculty and student diversity—and, for good measure, “free tuition for Black and indigenous students,” to quote a statement from the web site of a new national student clearinghouse, the Black Liberation Collective. The collective also demands that “at the minimum, Black students and Black faculty” be “reflected by the national percentage of Black folk in the country.”

That pressure from students and faculty caused someone as distinguished as Christine Lagarde—whom not even Noam Chomsky regards as a war criminal—to withdraw as speaker, a mere week before the Smith College commencement two years ago, proved to be an ominous harbinger of our brave new world of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and imperious demands issued by student groups. The fresh crop of diversity activists is asserting hegemonic authority over university governance, and lashing out against opinions that diverge from the party line regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

This essay discusses controversies that unfolded at four premier institutions—Oberlin, Amherst, Wesleyan, and Emory—and reactions on the part of the schools’ administrations. Having examined the platforms promulgated on 86 campuses across the country (the Black Liberation Collective site covers all 86, but is less accurate than www.thedemands.org), I believe this group captures general tendencies and trends.

Oberlin College

As is typical of last year’s protests, the proclamation issued by the Black Student Union at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio is dominated by demands. Perhaps unusual, however, is how extreme they are—and the proclamation takes care to remind the school that they are “unmalleable,” that ignoring them will not be “tolerated,” and that noncompliance will “result in a full and forceful response from the community you fail to support.”

The authors of the Oberlin statement convey a cavalier attitude toward academic freedom, and seem oblivious to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other statutes that prohibit racial discrimination in hiring. Their proclamation demands that students more or less get to redesign the institution’s grading system; that there be workshops, limited to black students, conducted by “Black financial aid officers”; that a black woman be brought in to head the Jazz Vocal Department; and that

a mandatory professional development program be developed for faculty across departments in the College & Conservatory that will help facilitate their understanding of the ways in which racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and other forms of violent oppression inform and shape instructional methods for the disciplinary content of their courses.

The “content of this information” also must be “integrated in their coursework.”

It is ludicrous to maintain that “racial capitalism” and “settler colonialism” have shaped “instructional methods” used by every Oberlin professor and that almost every class needs to discuss them. An even more radical curricular demand is that, unless departmental requirements in “Western/Classical centered courses” are eliminated, all students be required to take “an equivalent course in the African Diaspora.”

The demand that “more Black faculty” be hired and retained by “all departments” gets quite specific, including everything from Geology to Creative Writing to “the ENTIRE Conservatory” (block capitals in original).

Regarding the makeup of the student body, the Oberlin activists want a four percent increase per year in black enrollment “from EACH of the Americas, the Caribbean and continent of Africa starting in 2016 to accumulate to a 40% increase by 2022.” The emphasis on Africa and the Caribbean surfaces elsewhere in the document, showing what a highly specific imperative diversity can become nowadays.

But that raises a problem. While foreign students would obviously offer serious contributions to cultural diversity, defenses of affirmative action in the United States typically emphasize that the ancestors of its African American beneficiaries were victimized by slavery and Jim Crow. Widespread pleas about the educational benefits (to the larger population along with the relevant minorities) of having a “critical mass” enrolled might also need modification if African and Caribbean students are lumped together with African Americans.

The document identifies three professors who must be “granted tenure immediately,” specifies six others who must be placed on the tenure track, and calls for the “immediate firing” of eight individuals, including an accounts payable supervisor; the “Associate Dean of Studies” for her “mishandling of students mental & emotional needs” (sic); the student health and counseling director; and a professor of music theory, “due to the racist undertones of his course as well as the ways in which he treats Black jazz students who take his course, which is rooted in white supremacy.”

Whether these activists realize it or not, what they are demanding would annihilate existing procedures of university governance, invite lawsuits, and bring sanctions from the American Association of University Professors. (Check the AAUP’s mission statement: it jealously guards “the norms of academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance” along with “the economic security of faculty” and other academic professionals.)

Amid the roiling controversy, Oberlin’s president, Marvin Krislov, deserves special commendation. He stands out from administrators at the other affected campuses because he has responded so vigorously, protesting both the “personal attacks” on faculty and staff who are “dedicated and valued members of this community” and ultimatums that “contravene principles of shared governance.”

Amherst College

The demands of the “Amherst Uprising” were less radical and, mercifully, more concise than those aired at Oberlin. The activists on the Massachusetts campus concentrated on removing their school’s “Lord Jeff” mascot and soliciting apologies (from selected administrators) for white supremacy, xenophobia, mental-health stigma, and a dozen related “isms.” And although the protesters issued a short deadline for compliance with their demands, it was retracted after exchanges with the college’s president and other administrators.

On the other hand, there was something distinctly ominous about one of their demands: It was directed against expression that had issued from their fellow students in connection with Amherst’s Black Lives Matter Awareness Week. I quote it in full:

President Martin must issue a statement to the Amherst College community at large that states we do not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the “All Lives Matter” posters, and the “Free Speech” posters that stated that “in memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri Protests: Free Speech.” Also let the student body know that it was racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus and beyond who are victim to racial harassment and death threats; alert them that Student Affairs may require them to go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.

“All Lives Matter” posters had been put up by what appeared to be a small contingent of students who oppose abortion. They, along with the students who signaled their opposition to the escalating University of Missouri protests, hold opinions that have been deemed intolerable. The perpetrators ought to be forced to undergo “extensive” racial/cultural reeducation, and additional punishment looms if a “formal complaint is filed.” Another demand was that the school’s honor code be rewritten to reflect a “zero tolerance policy” for racial insensitivity and “hate speech.” Were it adopted, we may infer, future posters that challenge the agendas of the Amherst Uprising, Black Lives Matter, or comparable movements would likewise be candidates for administrative sanction.

To be sure, there was dispute over what exactly transpired at Amherst as these clashing students made known their views. As anti-abortion “All Lives Matter” posters were displayed to compete with “Black Lives Matter” posters, some of the latter had apparently been defaced—or replaced by the other posters. It is up to the college’s administration, of course, to treat the parties to such controversies fairly. Alas, in her letter to the campus community, Amherst President Biddy Martin seems to have cast her lot against diversity in posters. The people invoking free speech to criticize the Amherst Uprising, she said, were “making hasty judgments.” But how is free speech not threatened by the call for the squelching of reasonable posters that address important controversies?

The head of the Amherst College Republicans reported that his group’s event advertisements had routinely been torn down, and that at least one of its events had been obstructed. The general tone on campus did not portend much sympathy for his group, though. The Amherst Student printed letters celebrating the Amherst Uprising and/or Black Lives Matter Awareness Week from at least 11 academic departments. A letter from the Department of Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies called for more “dialogue” between those who disagree on these issues—but then denounced the All Lives Matter students as “poster vandals” and “internet trolls.” Certain views are favored on campus as a general matter (and to see how admissions preferences can feed into that privileging of views, see Ken Masugi’s Law and Liberty essay on UCLA here).

Wesleyan University

Wesleyan is notable as an example of the kind of retribution against a newspaper that used to result in landmark court cases like that of John Peter Zenger.

The paper that students at the Connecticut school put out twice a week, the Wesleyan Argus, published an op-ed late last year criticizing Black Lives Matter. The piece, written by undergraduate Bryan Stascavage, asked impertinent questions: “Is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive?”, and are the tensions it is stoking “setting the conditions of the more extreme or mentally disturbed individuals to commit atrocities?”

Stascavage cited the group’s more inflammatory chants, writing that “if vilification and denigration of the police force continues to be a significant portion of Black Lives Matter’s message, then I will not support the movement”—but that “I do support many of the efforts by the more moderate activists,” for “there is a reason why so many have shown up to protests across the country: there is clearly something wrong. . . . The system is clearly failing many.”

Spirited replies to this student would have been appropriate, as well as a challenge to any facts he got wrong. What ensued, however, was a wave of intimidation, and the kind of hysteria for which Mizzou has become famous. As reported by Catherine Rampell in the Washington Post, “within 24 hours of publication, students were stealing and reportedly destroying newspapers around campus. In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage through tears, declaring that he had ‘stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore.’”

As time passed, the intolerant reactions to this single newspaper op-ed took a more organized form. A week after it appeared, over 150 students, alumni, and staff signed a protest petition; in addition to their demands, they implemented a “boycott” of the Argus that included “disposing of copies of the Argus on campus.” The petition apparently led to the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s passing a resolution to cut the newspaper’s printing budget by roughly half (but the fate of the resolution after passage was unclear).

Under public pressure this intense, the young journalists running the Argus were not able to muster a Zenger-like response. They not only printed an apologetic editorial—Rampell calls it “groveling”—but placed it on the front page. Among the many things for which the Argus staff apologized was that Stascavage’s piece was published “without a counter-argument in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement alongside it. . . . Representing more diverse views, backgrounds, and stories in The Argus is a goal we set for ourselves last semester.”

More heartening was the statement on the situation from Michael Roth, Wesleyan’s president, Joyce Jacobsen, its provost, and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias. While granting that “structural racism in general and police brutality in particular” afflicted American society, they informed Wesleyan students that there is no “right not to be offended”; they also condemned harassment of the school newspaper and attempts at censorship by the campus Left.

Emory University

The agenda put forth by students at Atlanta’s Emory University is unusually long-winded and garbled, at least in its preamble. Overall, however, the platform clearly falls at the temperate end of the protest spectrum. The Emory students refrain from demonizing individual professors or students, and call for actions that even Republicans might welcome, such as establishment of “an institutionalized academic support hub for Black students to have access to and to receive tutoring, specialized study skills, and career mentoring.” And the ban they propose seems reasonable to me: getting rid of Yik Yak, an obnoxious new social media app that tells a mobile phone user what gossipy or incendiary comments are being emitted by anonymous users in the surrounding area.

The Emory activists, though, unknowingly trespass on academic freedom with their demand concerning student evaluations of faculty. Their redesign of the evaluation form would include

at least two open-ended questions such as: “Has this professor made any microaggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, and/or other identity?” and “Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability, and class identities?” These questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors.

They conclude: “We demand that these questions be added to the faculty evaluations by the end of this semester, Fall 2015.”

How many sessions in a typical sociology, women’s studies, or ethnic studies course proceed without the professor conveying a barb that would make a typical Republican, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Confucian, or Hindu feel “microaggressed” in connection with his/her “identity”? The authors probably didn’t think through the possible ramifications of getting what they want. They would doubtless be shocked if, after the adoption of the new evaluations, complaints alleging leftwing political bias outnumbered complaints about microaggression.

The reference to “ability” in the second question should also raise a red flag. Speaking as a teacher, I can say that we strive to care for students of all ability levels, but we’re also obliged to indicate errors (and other performance lapses) that reflect a student’s shortfalls in ability. Apparently the Emory students intended to protect students with disabilities. But maybe they didn’t only mean that. One could want from them—along with more than a few weeks’ time in which to accomplish their wish list—a little more self-scrutiny as to clear expression of “demands.”

Professors might be disappointed by many things that are now taking place in higher education. But unfortunately, it is no surprise when our students, taking the time and trouble to organize themselves to address the political and social matters of the day, write sloppily; assume that massive institutional changes can occur in weeks or months; and fail to grasp how hard colleges and universities have been striving since the 1960s to hire and retain faculty of color.

What has truly been a surprise, at least to me, is the eagerness of today’s student activists to stamp out dissent. Of course, their faculty allies are implicated here, as are college administrators who appear fearful of speaking truth to power (Princeton’s president having provided one memorable example of flaccidity). Some have shown backbone in the face of unreason, as I have pointed out above. That is grounds for, if not celebration, then a certain amount of relief.

Outrage at the killings of Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and others, is more than justified. Police misconduct must not stand. As far as our university students are concerned, there are well-documented instances of racist abuse, and I personally have reasons to grant that on many campuses, minorities are often subjected to awkward or inconsiderate remarks. Yet the absurdity echoing from so many of the activists’ claims and demands makes a mockery of their cause. Strangest of all is that they seem not to realize that most faculty and administrators sympathize with their concerns, and that the conservative or otherwise dissenting students who have the courage to challenge them enrich the actual diversity of their college experience.

The President whom most of them admire (as do I and most of my university colleagues) was asked not long ago about the proliferating campus conflicts. After noting that “being a good citizen, being an activist, involves hearing the other side,” Barack Obama exhorted us “to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work.” The most valuable demands, I’m tempted to infer, are usually the ones we make on ourselves.