You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

If ever a seven-year-old book could be called timely, it’s Jonathan Zimmerman’s Campus Politics, as relevant today as when it was published in 2016.

A former Peace Corps volunteer and public school social studies teacher, Zimmerman is a professor of the history of education at Penn and the author of impressive studies of college teaching, free speech and student protest. He has also published a global history of sex education, a history of conflicts over the teaching of history and morality in public schools in 20th century America, and a study of the one-room schoolhouse as a national icon and as a useful symbol for liberal and conservative educational agendas.

Campus Politics’ theme can be summed up in the headline of a 2019 essay by Professor Zimmerman: “College Campuses Should Not Be Safe Spaces.” I think it’s fair to call the author a civil libertarian and someone who is close to a free speech absolutist in academic settings.

Campus speech codes and free speech zones, which persist despite repeated adverse court rulings, trigger warnings, and prohibitions against the use of offensive, hateful, trauma-inducing words and racist, sexist, transphobic, antisemitic and Islamophobic speech “build a wall against beliefs and remarks that might injure or harm us.” They promote flaccid group think, moral myopia and the gravest threat to academic inquiry, self-censorship.

Today, Professor Zimmerman need not worry. The more selective and well-resourced private and public campuses, especially his, are anything but spaces free of boisterous, animated, strident, and often hyperbolic speech.

While elite campuses have experienced some minor protests with the advent of unionization and the Divest movement, by and large, these protests were pretty tame, and often could be best classified as information sessions. They were routinely walked around or ignored. And while students use such rallies to gain an audience and attention, they are fairly local and tend to disperse quickly. Even the Black Lives Matter protests were more of a way for a campus community to convene and discuss how to manage tough issues than true full-throated calls-to-action.

The demonstrations, protests and sit-ins about Israel and Gaza, however, are unlike what campuses have seen for years. I think most campuses are not prepared to know what to do, especially in an era of free speech, DEI, external political pressures and many other “collision points.”

It may well be the case that social media, activist groups and a sensationalist media have exaggerated the level of campus protest. My local newspaper claimed that “More than a thousand UT students walked out of classes to support Palestinians,” but I saw nothing approaching that number, though there were, indeed, a lot of gawking onlookers.

The& New York Post, in tabloid fashion, ran a headline that claimed that “Jewish students at MIT blocked from attending classes by ‘hostile’ anti-Israel protesters.” But my sources say that this was, in fact, false. The demonstrators numbered only about a hundred and blocked no one.

Yet there can be no doubt that university administrators do face difficult challenges. Many presidents and provosts are spending their days, nights and weekends on the actions of a very small population of student activists. This means that senior leadership is not fulfilling its central responsibilities, focusing on research and teaching, raising money and tackling big problems.

Here are four questions that campus leaders must address:

  • Can campuses sustain a principled commitment to freedom of speech in the face of today’s highly contentious, emotionally charged issues involving Gaza and Israel?
  • Is it possible for colleges and universities to balance the freedom of faculty and students to promote controversial and even extreme ideas while ensuring that the campus and classrooms do not become hostile or exclusionary learning environments?
  • Is the canopy of academic freedom so broad as to protect any expression of opinion by a tenured faculty member?
  • Are elite colleges unintentionally encouraging and incentivizing students to voice extreme or hyperbolic opinions and to engage in protests that disrupt the educational process?

Campus protests are nothing new—though their frequency has ebbed and flow. There was a peak in the 1960s and early 1970s, when over half of all campuses experienced protests, rallies and demonstrations. Student participation in protests climaxed in 1969, when 28 percent of collegians took part in a demonstration, then shot up again in the 1990s (when 25 percent participated in a protest) and again around 2015.

I am myself old enough to have witnessed six decades of campus activism, and to take part in some of it. Let’s take a look at ten dimensions of change over time.

  1. What was, in the 1960s, a bitterly adversarial relationship between administrators and students—often reflecting student resistance to invidious, patronizing and paternalistic university rules—has been replaced by a degree of comity and intensive communication (and, yes, in some instances, even coddling).
  2. Participants in protest have grown much more diverse, reflecting higher ed’s shifting demographics and the greater willingness of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds or marginalized populations to speak up and assert their interests.
  3. The progressive campus left has won many victories, apparent in the proliferation of departments, programs and centers for student groups that were previously marginalized coupled with reform of gen ed requirements to emphasize multiculturalism, greatly expanded campus support services, and the establishment and growth of diversity, equity and inclusion offices.
  4. The faculty, especially in the humanities, anthropology, and sociology, and staff have gravitated leftward, with fewer, particularly outside business and STEM and practical or vocational fields, decidedly moderate in politics.
  5. Activists demands increasingly focus on matters that do not directly touch on student life or campus conditions, but, instead, focus on the institution’s moral commitments. For example, you have likely seen the calls to divest from fossil fuel and private prison companies or boycott or divest from companies doing business with Israel. Moreover, these calls are often accompanied by demands for a greater institutional commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  6. There is also a greater emphasis on students’ psychological well-being and “a somewhat diminished concern—sometimes bordering on outright skepticism—about the right to free speech”—especially words that are regarded as demeaning, degrading or harmful.
  7. The language of social justice, with its emphasis on systemic and structural inequities, power (including the power of discourse), and stress on issues relating to identity and ecology, and of psychology, “from complaints about subtle microaggressions to demands for in-class ‘trigger warnings,’” have become part of campuses’ lingua franca.
  8. Social media, which now allow activists to connect not only across individual campuses but across the country, have made organizing easier and encouraged cross-institutional emulation and imitation.
  9. Anonymity in protests, motivated at least in part by risk aversion and careerism, has become much more common.
  10. Whereas in earlier eras of campus unrest “students demanded less regulation and supervision from their universities,” students, in recent years, have “called for more administrative action and regulation, not less,” including “checks and controls on expression that might insult, threaten, or offend” students with marginalized or racialized identities.

Among the biggest drivers of change are far-reaching shifts in campus demographics. As the more selective institutions have grown more diverse, activists from historically underrepresented groups and their allies have grown more outspoken and assertive.

Professor Zimmerman also suggests that William Deresiewicz’s argument—that shifts in parenting practices, including the increasing prevalence of a hovering, highly protective style of helicopter parenting with its near obsession with their offsprings’ safety and psychological well-being—may help explain why recent students are more likely than their predecessors to expect their institutions to conform to their wishes and meet their needs.

Professor Zimmerman contrasts that attitude with the Port Huron Statement, “the now-classic 1962 college protest manifesto,” in which the “students resolved to ‘wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy.’” Today, his book argues, students “typically demand more layers of administration, which they invest with ever greater powers of bureaucratic control.”

Professor Zimmerman concludes his book by calling on students to act up. To boycott fraternity events that they find offensive. To organize teach-ins on topics neglected by the official curriculum. To produce their own online newspapers and blogs. As he puts this:

“if you want gender-neutral bathrooms to better accommodate transgender students, don’t wait for some administrator to create them; just walk around campus and post all-gender signs on bathroom doors …”

In a recent opinion essay in the Washington Post, entitled “The cancer of antisemitism is spreading. Colleges must take the right stand,” Lawrence Summers, the economist and Harvard’s past president, writes that “it is the responsibility of university leaders … to assure” that their institutions “are sources of moral clarity on the great questions of their time.”

Professor Summers is asking the impossible. If he thinks that our campuses can forge a moral consensus, especially from the top down, he totally misunderstands the contemporary university’s raison d’etre.

I don’t believe that universities can or should provide moral clarity, but they can certainly offer nuance, complexity, context, and perspective.

I understand the calls for universities to assert a firm and principled commitment to freedom of speech. But we needn’t worry about such speech: Thunderous speech will take place no matter what campuses say or do. What we need are forums where universities can stage the kinds of unfettered discussions that take place nowhere else in our society.

It’s time, in my opinion, to revive the teach-in—and it would be best if it were students, not faculty or administrators, who organized such events.

A truly effective teach-in on the conflict involving Gaza and Israel would provide essential historical context and diverse perspectives and multiple viewpoints. It would critically evaluate evidence, arguments and narratives. It would seek to avoid generalizations and simplifications and stimulate a more profound comprehension of the different points of view. Above all, I hope it would promote empathy and understanding by focusing on the human dimensions of the conflict.

The objective should not be to present a partisan view—though debates and controversies shouldn’t be avoided. Rather, the goal would be to do what universities do best: inform, contextualize and, above all, pose questions, exploring issues of inevitability and contingency, pathways not taken and, yes, rendering judgment about past and present choices and decisions.

What might such a teach-in cover?

It might begin with the historical backdrop: the late 19th and early 20th century development of Zionism as one of a number of competing Jewish responses to modernity and antisemitism, and the emergence of Arab nationalism and the growth of a distinctive Palestinian identity. It might then look at the British Mandate era and the conflicting promises that Britain made to various groups. It might then turn to the efforts by Zionists and the indigenous Arab population to end British rule, the politics of partition, and the 1948 war and the Nakba—in each case laying out the contrasting and competing historical narratives. Subsequent historical presentations might focus on landmark events, including the Suez Crisis, the 1967 and 1973 wars and their consequences.

Of course, however, much of the teach-ins focus would be on the relatively recent past: Israeli and Palestinian and Arab politics (including the shift away from a more Marxist-informed politics), U.S. foreign policy, and the various peace negotiations and Intifadas. There might also be discussion of the laws of war.

But I would hope that there would be an equal emphasis on multiple narratives, and especially on the human dimension of the conflict drawing upon literature, memoirs, films, art works and journalistic accounts to convey the experiences of individuals affected by the conflict.

Perhaps feelings are too raw for such an event to take place. Even on my largely apolitical campus, there is a great deal of rage, passion, fear, suspicion and rage boil over. But if we can’t stage such events at a university, then higher ed truly has lost its primary purposes—to serve as this society’s arena for unfettered discussion and debate.

Let me end with one last thought. I do think that college leaders, faculty and students don’t appreciate how potentially fragile and vulnerable our colleges and universities are. The real threat they face isn’t from major donors shutting their pocketbooks. If elite institutions are viewed negatively—as bastions of privilege and political extremism—there is likely to be a political response, especially if a Republican were to win the presidency and the GOP were to gain control of Congress.

Government at all levels could do real damage to the leading private research universities. It could further tax endowments. It could eliminate property and income exemptions. It could reduce government grants or channel funding away from the elite private research institutions. It could launch repeated investigations of campuses for antisemitism or political bias. It could encourage or support or even initiate lawsuits against DEI policies.

Perhaps instead of issuing an unending stream of apologies, university leadership needs to send a statement that says: “Hey, we have other stuff to do. Here are the rules; if you break them, that’s it. Be activist. Be supportive of your causes. But do so on your own. Remember, you are here to get an education from the best academics in the world. Our job is to make sure you get that. If you want something more, seize the day.”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma