Media pundits agree: college students are politically correct, infantile whiners who can’t tolerate discomfort regarding their values or sense of identity. Versions of this narrative have become common in recent months as student activism has increased around issues of sexual assault, race-based discrimination and hate speech.
Descriptions of exaggerated behavior are trendy: Judith Shulevitz’s article for The New York Times in which she expresses concern about student hypersensitivity has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times since it was published in March. One anecdote from Shulevitz’s article, describing students’ creation of a “safe space” for sexual assault survivors that featured a video of puppies, has been recycled by thousands of other media outlets.
At Princeton University, we saw an uptick in student activism during the past academic year, including demonstrations and social media campaigns. I’ll admit that, like every college administrator, I’ve encountered a few student activists who are strident or immature. Some students reflexively oppose everything proposed by “the establishment,” and some don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression. These activists undermine their own causes by making themselves ripe for caricature.
But we should resist this dismissive depiction of college students, which uses the most egregious examples to mischaracterize the full range of activism. It’s seductive to buy in to this distortion because it allows colleges and universities, as well as the general public, to play down the causes for concern.
We can’t allow trivializing stories about the beliefs and behavior of a few students to distract us from the responsibility to prevent unfair and discriminatory experiences for those with minority identities.
Explicitly bigoted events still happen with painful regularity on campuses. This year, Bucknell University expelled three students for racist comments made on a radio program, and the Westchester County district attorney’s office is investigating images of swastikas and nooses spray painted in dormitories at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus. The University of Oklahoma closed a fraternity chapter after video footage surfaced of a racist chant by the chapter’s members.
When incidents are so extreme, colleges and universities typically respond with reprobation and swift disciplinary action. But many of the barriers to an inclusive campus climate are more nuanced and difficult to address. When students challenge their institutions about these issues, they are expressing real concerns about real experiences.
When Harvard undergraduates launched the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in 2014, they used self-portraits to express the subtle ways in which they were made to feel isolated or stereotyped. “You don’t sound black … you sound smart,” one student recalled being told. The campaign has since spread to more than thirty universities on four continents.
Two new studies confirm that these interactions -- ranging from the small slights often labeled “microaggressions” to outright harassment -- are common and have lasting effects. One study (Caplan and Ford, 2014) describes the ways in which racism and sexism on four campuses undermined students’ academic performance and ability to take advantage of extracurricular offerings. A second project that surveyed students of color at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Harwood, Choi, Orozco, Huntt and Mendenhall, 2015) found similar outcomes.
On another front, student activists have pushed college administrators to respond more aggressively to sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Cases like the recent rape trial at Vanderbilt University get the most attention, but evidence continues to accumulate that the risks in general, particularly for young women, are inexcusably high.
In June, both a University of Michigan internal survey and a broad-based Washington Post poll reported that one in five women say that they were sexually assaulted in college.
These negative personal encounters are being exacerbated by anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak. These apps, which work within a restricted radius close to campus, have become a well-documented vehicle for anonymous abuse, including racist, homophobic and sexist statements as well as threats of mass violence.
Examples like these remind us that issues of campus climate and safety are not just the fantasies of thin-skinned students. On the contrary, coping with these experiences requires resilience.
I won’t claim that students on my campus always knew how to organize effectively, or that their indignation was always well expressed. Contrary to the media portrayals, however, they were consistently constructive. Stimulated by the episodes of police brutality nationally, our students worked with faculty members and administrators to apply the problem-solving skills they were learning in the classroom and make recommendations to enhance the campus climate locally. Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments sponsored forums and referenda that provided useful feedback.
Let’s not allow cherry-picked examples and silly stereotypes to distract us from the responsibility of colleges and universities to guarantee equitable experiences. Nor should we underestimate the meaningful role that student activists can play.
This year is the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University decided that they would no longer tolerate segregated lunch counters. As the sit-ins spread to multiple cities, anxious college leaders disavowed the protests and tried to persuade the students to halt.
We can be grateful that the Greensboro students ignored their elders. Our students will ignore us, too, if we waste the opportunity to work with them to create the fair, inclusive environment that they deserve.