An article in Forbes, entitled “The Reckoning with Campus Culture After Hamas,” articulates an argument that is being voiced, in hushed tones, by many administrators at elite colleges and universities: that these institutions have been too tolerant and too accepting of the actions and priorities of student activists that are at odds with these schools’ core purposes and values.
Passionate campus protests are, of course, nothing new. At my campus, 30 years ago, Texas Longhorn athletes marched through campus to demand a more inclusive curriculum and a more diverse student body. At Wesleyan, around the same time, protesters organized a hunger strike and threatened to handcuff the president. Their demands included upgrading the African American Studies program to a department, increasing the number of faculty members of color, requiring sensitivity training for campus police and undertaking “a comprehensive study of race relations on campus.”
Yet there is a sense that something changed over the past decade at the nation’s most selective and well-resourced institutions, which goes beyond speakers being shouted down or vocal demands for divestment from companies engaged in fossil fuel production or doing business with Israel. These campuses, many fear, are becoming more fragmented and fractured, more politicized and polarized, more activist and less academic and accepting—and less open-minded and forbearing.
“A fish,” we are told, “rots from the head down,” and it’s perhaps not wholly surprising that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression ranked Harvard dead last in its commitment to academic freedom.
In a blistering recent article, John Tierney, for three decades a New York Times reporter and columnist, denounces Harvard and its new president and past dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, for exercising a double standard on free speech on campus. Among the cases he cites are those involving Roland Fryer (who was suspended for two years following a sexual harassment investigation that was widely considered to be seriously flawed), Carole Hooven (who was accused of “transphobic and harmful remarks”), David Kane (after he brought Charles Murray to speak), Kit Parker (whose class on policing techniques was canceled after critics claimed that the techniques were unethical), J. Mark Ramseyer (who faced scrutiny over a scholarly article on Korean comfort women) and Ronald Sullivan (who was dismissed from his position as dean of Winthrop House after he joined Harvey Weinstein’s defense team).
But the problem goes beyond academic freedom.
In a recent blog posting, Fredrik de Boer decries that failure of administrators and most faculty members at elite institutions to push back against a set of trends that he considers toxic:
“The rise of illiberalism among college students, growing threats to free expression and academic freedom, an institutional assumption of profound emotional fragility among students and an associated paternalism towards them, the dominance of a certain identity-obsessed approach to left politics, the rise of an abstract and academic vocabulary that seemed destined to alienate regular people.”
There’s a growing consensus among many administrators at the elites that things tilted far too much into the student-first territory and that contrarian points of view were not sufficiently protected.
One of the oddities of elite higher education is that these institutions have become absurdly difficult to get into, and yet applicants want to get admitted precisely because they are exclusive. Then, when the students arrive, many feel enormously guilty and struggle to rectify their lottery win.
On the one hand, student activists tell administrators that they are complicit with racism, genocide and global warming and environmental devastation, while at the same time, these very students are willing to take “blood money” and resources from the very institutions that they deplore and accuse of a host of offenses. Nor, postgraduation, will they redact where they went to college.
So let me say this: most of those students are well minded and want to make a better world. But they have no idea about what to do with their energy and passion. The elite universities themselves have let them down by not helping them redirect their rage into pragmatic and productive directions.
Having a die-in is one thing. Seizing the opportunity to educate others, to raise money for humanitarian relief or to advocate through political channels is certainly less sexy but also more meaningful and impactful.
Undergraduates and graduate and professional students at elite private institutions have much more power and influence than in the past. They have a seat at the table and a voice in most major campus decisions. (For example, a student who, reportedly, helped co-organize the shouting down of a federal judge at Stanford Law School is now on the search committee for the school’s new dean.)
These students no longer, thank goodness, are willing to tolerate sexist (or worse) behavior in labs or the underfunding of women’s sports and a host of other abuses. It’s imperative, in my opinion, that students’ voices be heard and that they be in the room where it happens.
After all, much needs to be done to make improvements, fix policies, update systems, overcome traditional academic paralysis and make life better for everyone, both students and those who work with them. It’s a wonderful thing that there are now formal channels (including union negotiations) that students can use to instigate institutional change.
But, I fear, for many in the TikTok generation, visibility too often means going viral and doing things that get picked up and get a reaction—even if, ironically, those things cut against the activists’ own values. For example, protesting the lack of a hate speech policy by engaging in hate speech to underscore its harm. (That how one undergraduate student president eventually got booted out of that position).
Institutions, which hate bad PR, tend to give in. Yet there is more and more fatigue at having to respond to a Twitter explosion or a Fox News article or a New York Times op ed. Increasingly the response is “Who cares what X has to say?” Even when big donors or alumni scream “no more,” there’s a temptation to respond curtly, “Thanks for your input.”
Elite higher education is currently in a strange, uncomfortable place. Activist students, in the words of the fast food burger ad, want to have it their way … but also apparently without any consequences or genuine sense of responsibility. That’s not wholly surprising. They see few relevant role models as they engage in activism and try to promote change. Certainly not from the self-described activist scholars who teach them.
Many students are impatient and don’t trust campus leadership, but they haven’t formulated a constructive path forward. When you hear students telling a dean to launch a helicopter brigade to deliver relief or airlift people in response to a natural disaster or civil unrest abroad, let alone end the conflict in the Middle East, it’s hard not to scoff. The challenge is to channel their idealism in a more productive way.
Of course, for all the media focus on protests and outspoken students, the overwhelming majority have their heads down, just trying to get their degrees. But these students, too, are extraordinarily privileged, and they need to be encouraged do more to make the world a better place.
Those with particular leanings might work on projects dedicated to struggling regions or their own neighboring communities. The best-funded institutions have the apparatus to make the world a better place. These institutions might well support engineering students to go to a challenged region and work with locals in a respectful way to develop, for example, clean water solutions that will have a lasting impact.
The elites are, right now, at a loss about what to do. These institutions have lost their moral compass, and many of these students are floundering. These institutions need to look for a path forward. Let me suggest one.
In the recent past, there was a lot of talk about the value of requiring young people to perform national service. The benefits would be huge. Participants might develop leadership, organizational and communication skills. They’d interact with people unlike themselves while doing genuine good by providing disaster relief or tutoring services or preserving the natural environment and reducing pollution. They’d take part in a shared endeavor that’s larger than themselves.
That didn’t happen, certainly not at the scale this society needs. But what if students at elite institutions were required to sign a social contract as a condition of attending their university? By this, I don’t mean a contract to behave in a civil manner or to respect their classmates, but to take part in a public service activity. The aim is not to restrain conduct, not to have a chilling effect, but to have a shared purpose.
The goal is to ensure that these privileged students work together to make change happen for the purpose of helping others, directly and meaningfully.