• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Our Republic Will Withstand College Students Protesting

Some thoughts in the aftermath of recent events.

November 12, 2015

When I gave three cheers for student protests on Monday, it was because, in my experience, students are far too deferential to institutional authority, often absorbing an ethos that removes any sense of personal agency or freedom, the practicing of which I believe to be central to the undergraduate experience.

I understand this flies in the face of some of the “new PC” and “coddled students” narratives floating around, but I see those problems rooted in a culture where students expect authorities to protect them and solve their problems, as opposed to using their power to solve problems for themselves. If we want students to stop being “coddled,” we have to encourage them to self-advocate as strongly as possible.

Judging from some of the public comments here, there, and elsewhere, in the wake of protests at the University of Missouri and Yale, we apparently have much to fear as student “mobs” consisting of “thugs” engage in not just “un” but “anti” democratic actions meant to intimidate and destroy their political opposition.

If this is true, I’m trying to figure out how in just over a year, students at an elite university like Yale turned from William Deresciewicz’s "Excellent Sheep" into dangerous radicals who have the power to tear our very republic asunder.

Fortunately, I encountered Mark Oppenheimer writing in Tablet about the current controversy at Yale surrounding dueling administrative messages over culturally insensitive Halloween costumes that triggered a series of student protests (clearly rooted in much longer-simmering problems), one of which targeted for dismissal a faculty couple, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, who serve as house “masters” at one of the Yale residencies.

Oppenheimer’s essay was enlightening to me because of his particular perspective, having received both undergraduate (’96) and graduate (’03) degrees at Yale, before returning as an adjunct lecturer in 2006. His vantage point as student in one era and faculty in another gives him a particularly acute insight into how the specifics of the culture at Yale intersect with larger social issues and attitudes.

Oppenheimer argues that there is an ongoing issue when it comes to inclusiveness and providing a secure environment for minority students at Yale, and that these issues need to be taken seriously. He also sheds light on why the controversy over Halloween costumes, something that from the outside seems trivial relative to other issues, flashed into such a heated dispute. Oppenheimer says that associate house master Erika Christakis’s letter, “upset so many students in good part because it came from an administrator, and Yale students have a peculiar relationship with their administrators, whom they see less as bureaucrats facilitating their education than as surrogate parents—an association that Yale historically has encouraged, indeed touted.”

Oppenheimer believes that the specific culture of Yale, which encourages a kind of extreme version of in loco parentis embodied by the house “masters” is at work, “As master and associate master of Silliman College, Nicholas and Erika Christakis are not just figureheads: To 450 students, they are the mom and dad, the ones who superintend conversation, bonhomie, and alcohol-free fun for women and men old enough to drive, to vote, and, in other countries, to be drafted into the armed services.”

For students of color, Oppenheimer argues that Christakis’s email read like a betrayal, “So, when an associate master appeared to side with white kids who might assemble offensive Halloween costumes over black or brown kids who would be offended, she was, in effect, siding with one sibling over another.”

In this context, those extreme emotional reactions that so many seemed to find out of the bounds of “rational” discourse take a different shape, not as a statement of political conviction, but a cry of distress as to what is viewed by the students as a personal betrayal.

Oppenheimer argues that within the particular dynamic of Yale, students are “residents,” but they are “never full citizens.” “Rather, they are—they choose to be, and covet their position as—junior participants.”

Oppenheimer notes the same phenomenon I observe in students, that Yale students are extremely deferential to the adult authorities in charge. Students show “obsequious fealty” and are all too often looking to appeal to authority, and in seeking redress for grievances often seek relief from administration itself, rather than engaging in direct action[1].

In the videos of students protesting in front of the Christakises, Oppenheimer sees “hope” and asks for more protests. Oppenheimer wants students to “feel some derision toward us. I want them to feel unafraid. I want them to be capable of swearing. I want them to see us as flawed peers, fellow grown-ups -- not as mom and dad. Because if they see us as fellow adults, with strengths but also grave weaknesses, then they may realize that the solution to undermining Greek life on campus, or offensive, racist costuming at Halloween, is going to come from the entire Yale community -- them included.”

I join these sentiments. I look forward to a future where students take actions that don’t require, in Oppenheimer’s words, “the strong fist of administrative authority.”

Maybe we see something of that future at Missouri, where the protests have been student-led (including a hunger strike, and the football team threatening not to play) and rather than appealing to administration to fix longstanding problems, sought the actual replacement of an administration that had lost the confidence of the community. Many people find these events objectionable, but to me, the actions seem in concert with well-established norms for non-violent protest and direct action.

As happens, things got messy. Protesters, including faculty, at Missouri engaged in a heated exchange with student press that involved some shoving and a call for “muscle” by Professor Melissa Click to remove photojournalist Timothy Tai from the scene.

Click was justifiably criticized. While journalists don’t have a right to specific “coverage” of an event (they can’t coerce cooperation from subjects, for example), they have as much right to occupy public space as anyone else, and any attempt to evict them is wrong, something even Click acknowledged upon reflection as she apologized to Tim Tai (who was exemplary in his knowledge of and calm insistence on his rights) and the community at large.

Perhaps I am an outlier on this, but for me, the dispute over press coverage and its aftermath are just as much a positive byproduct in terms of the broad educational mission of universities as the protests themselves[2]. Conflict arose, things got heated, discussions ensued, and this particular problem got sorted out as the protesters and Professor Click recognized both a tactical and ethical error. Professor Click apologies, Tim Tai (a student) accepts it, and we move forward to whatever is next.

Based on my own observations of the last several days, and informed by the spirited discussion[3] of the comments in my own previous post, I come away with the following thoughts, all of which are subject to revision, but feel pretty solid to my way of thinking at the moment.

1. The best way to deal with student protest is to both encourage it and to take it seriously. Students deserve a seat at the table as part of their own communities. As Roxane Gay argues in New Republic, “Student Activism Is Serious Business,” and many of the grievances raised are legitimate and longstanding. At Missouri, in the wake of the protests, a man was arrested for “suspicion of making a terrorist threat,” against black students at Missouri after threatening on Yik Yak to “shoot every black person I see.” Maybe this is ridiculous, twisted, racist bravado, but regardless, if I was a black student, I would not have wanted to walk through that campus following that threat. I do not know what college administrations can do about these things, but I do know, thanks to the activists at Missouri, the university community will be tasked with answering this question.

Taking protests seriously also requires protesters to be serious, and means administrations must decide what they can and cannot due in response. Too often, the administrative move is to either ignore or alternatively placate protesters by caving in to demands which may or may not be reasonable and consistent with institutional values[4]. Administrations need to do the work of education, rather than instant public relations calculus. This may get painful and messy at times, but it beats the alternative of lurching from crisis to crisis without a compass to guide decision making.

2. Students lack institutional power, but they have leverage. This is perhaps particularly true of student athletes in big money sports. While the protests at Missouri have been building for months and span numerous issues, the tipping point appears to be the actions of the football team. I sort of hope the NCAA is shuddering over the prospects of wide swaths of athletes recognizing that they have the power to grind the gears of a multi-billion dollar industry that is dependent on their labor to a halt.

3. Protests that occasionally descend into emotional overreaction by individuals inside of the protest should not be automatically invalidated by those actions. The idea that protests must religiously adhere to “rational discourse” at every turn seems to be…I don’t know…anti-human nature and an unreasonable standard for public discussion. We all lose it from time to time, and often regret it upon additional thought. We should grant protesters the same grace we’d like for ourselves from others[5].

4. These things are always more complicated than we can know. Mark Oppenheimer’s testimony, as well as things like this annotation of the Christakis letter by a Yale alumna show that there are very school-specific factors interacting with other larger social issues. While the internet makes it easy (and fun) to practice our cultural warriorhood on these incidents, there’s always going to be something virtual bystanders are missing.

In that vein, I hope that those of us who work in education remain open to listening to the testimony of students regarding their experiences. If students tell me that they do not feel safe in a way that prevents them from engaging in the work of the college or university, I am obligated to first listen before I judge. Many students of color at Yale and Missouri have given testimony that their own campuses are hostile. We cannot dismiss these concerns until we have investigated, while at the same time being honest with students about the institutional limits to provide “safety.” My hope is that among educators, concern for student welfare trumps politics.

5. We will never separate protests from politics, but we can try to maintain some healthy perspective and stay grounded in our individual values as we discuss these issues. In the IHE story regarding Professor Click, I was pleased to see that some regular Inside Higher Ed commenters who I know to be no friends of the liberal professoriate nonetheless recognized that Professor Click apologized and need not face additional punishment. That others are calling for not only Professor Click’s dismissal but her prosecution for “battery” would be distressing, if the hypocrisy weren’t so apparent.

6. The republic will indeed stand. In the history of student protests, our present examples are rather tame. The idea that politically correct run-amok young people are going to somehow subjugate the nation to their totalitarian ways is belied by the generations of college students (including those whelped during the original campus PC hysteria) who have managed to graduate and be assimilated just fine into our democratic capitalist society.

Yale is never going to stop producing more hedge fund managers than political radicals, I promise.

[1] An example Oppenheimer uses is students appealing to administration to censor fraternities that engage in inappropriate or sexist behavior, rather than organizing a boycott of the parties where these behaviors students find objectionable occur.

[2] It also raises the issue that “press” is not an objective third party, but an institutional actor that can be critiqued and interrogated as well. Many perspectives on this can and should be shared.

[3] We had some pretty good fun, a little high dudgeon, a little mockery, and some actual substantive back and forth, all of which I engaged in myself. And we did it all without any death threats.

[4] If a speaker is invited to campus, the speaker should speak, and protesters should protest. This happens all the time, so we should know how to do it by now.

[5] Nicholas Christakis agrees, saying on Twitter, “No one,  no(t) students exercising right to speech should be judged just on basis of short video clip.” This statement and the fact that no specific action has been taken yet at Yale indicates to me that the community is in the midst of a difficult process of sorting through these issues. The final result is yet to be known, but I see this as encouraging.


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