Guest post by Marty Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
As a faculty member of the four-campus University of Missouri system, I watched with a mixture of amazement and horror at the events that unfolded last fall, when a relatively small group of student protestors at UM-Columbia, joined by the school’s football team, forced the resignation of UM president Tim Wolfe as well as UMC Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
Amazement, because perhaps never before have so few students been able to get so many college administrators to display so much cowardice over so little provocation, as the Mizzou protests have emboldened the radical left to hold campuses hostage to threats of disruption all across the country. Horror, because perhaps never before have we seen quite this combination of totalitarianism and stupidity at work on college campuses, making a mockery of so-called higher education.
The late 1960s also saw campus demonstrations, but they at least could be understood as reactions to the vilest forms of racism, along with anger over the Vietnam War. Although there remain legitimate concerns about racial and social justice today, we clearly now live in a much more inclusive society and there is no major war taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Notwithstanding ongoing challenges we face, things are arguably getting better and better, even as we feel worse and worse.
Moreover, when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University fifty years ago, PC had not yet taken root. I do not recall experiencing the kind of police-state atmosphere we now see, exemplified by an email that went out to Mizzou students following the Wolfe and Loftin resignations, asking anyone witnessing “hurtful” comments to report the name of the perpetrator to the campus police for possible disciplinary action.
The same collegians who utter obscenities at university officials and their peers claim a right not to be “offended” or made “uncomfortable” by even the slightest counterpoint to their worldviews, their psyches so fragile as to require “trigger warnings” in advance of any ideas that might deny them a “safe space.” A growing number of commentators, both liberals and conservatives (from Nicholas Kristof to Roger Kimball), have criticized these sophomoric types as “snowflakes,” “Little Robespierres,” and “crybullies.”
Their faculty and administrator enablers have been called worse, and rightly so, for preaching about the importance of “diversity” and then failing to defend those who would dissent from the protestors and dare to contemplate politically incorrect thoughts. Many such leaders are planning to impose a “cultural competency” curriculum, which cannot help but conjure up the ideological reeducation camps administered by Pol Pot in Cambodia and Mao in China.
No “Animal House” movie sequel could do justice to the current campus follies.
Take Mizzou, for example. I have no idea how valid the complaints of Mizzou students are regarding the existence of a climate of racism on campus. Truthfully, I doubt anyone can say for sure. Has anyone bothered to do a reliable survey of the 35,000 students in Columbia? No. So what we have is a group called Concerned Student 1950 and assorted faculty (including Melissa Click, the Communications professor and Lady Gaga scholar whose notion of academic freedom and a free press is to bar campus journalists from a public area occupied by protestors) raising hell. They have articulated concerns, cited anecdotal evidence of various recent racist incidents in the community to support their claims, and produced a set of demands including instituting a racial awareness and inclusion program, hiring of additional black faculty, and other proposed reforms.
Never mind that Wolfe was preceded by a black UM President (Elson Floyd), that the president of the UMC student body is black, that the Homecoming queen is black, that just a few months ago a multicultural office official at Mizzou held a workshop parroting the University of California-Berkeley’s admonition to faculty and staff not to use such “micro-aggressive” language as “the most qualified person should get the job,” or that the black graduate student whose hunger strike led to the climactic events of November 9 hardly seemed the victim of “white privilege” he was protesting against, given the fact his father earned over $ 8 million last year as a railroad company executive.
In Columbia, as in most communities, the local campus is probably the single most diverse place in town, yet the site of the largest grievance industry (over racism, sexism, classism, or whatever). These days one can never do enough to remedy “discrimination.”
My own campus, UM-St. Louis, itself will probably suffer from the fallout from Mizzou, as there is talk of a compulsory anti-racism training video administered to all faculty and staff. It does not matter that UMSL has among the most diverse minority student populations in the state (with African-Americans comprising 18 percent of our student body), that in my department alone one-third of the faculty are African American, that there has been a university-wide “cultural diversity” curriculum requirement for decades, that we have had a black chancellor (at a time we were called a “racist” institution), that we have a “Chief Diversity Officer” and a “Chancellor’s Diversity Council,” that as recently as 2013 we received a national “Higher Education Excellence in Diversity” award, or that our Chancellor, Tom George, models “diversity,” including – unlike many of his counterparts – tolerating diversity of ideas, even from folks like me.
It could be worse. Look at what is going on elsewhere, including at our finest universities.
Even before the Mizzou incident, Yale experienced turmoil over a memo circulated by its Intercultural Affairs Council instructing students in proper Halloween attire, urging them not to wear “insensitive” costumes (say, Mexican or Native American garb) that might border on “cultural appropriation.” The wife of the head of a residential college at Yale (appropriately a professor of early childhood education) elicited the f-word from irate students who called for her resignation when she emailed that Yalies were capable of making Halloween selections on their own and that “the ability to tolerate offense is the hallmark of a free and open society.” Yale President Salovey, in response, said he heard the student protestors’ “cries for help,” suggesting just how scary the ivory tower is becoming.
Not to be outdone, Columbia University saw several hundred students gather on the quadrangle in November to chant “We love black criminals,” extending to rapists and murderers the same warm welcome the school had given Iranian president and Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a few years earlier. But just watch the howls should someone like Dr. Ben Carson be invited to campus.
Meanwhile, Princeton Tigers showed they could be as silly as Mizzou Tigers or Columbia Lions. Several students staged a sit-in at President Eisgruber’s office, insisting that buildings and programs named after Woodrow Wilson, the former Princeton president and former U.S. president, be renamed due to his “racist legacy.” They seemed ignorant of the fact they were calling for expunging an iconic figure long considered the father of American progressivism and the liberal welfare state as well as the exemplar of liberal internationalism through his creation of the League of Nations after World War I.
Such is the take-no-prisoners attitude of the current generation of college revolutionaries, who, not content to stop with the purging of slave-holding Founding Fathers such as Washington and Jefferson from our pantheon of national heroes, are now mining the twentieth century for more possibilities. Eisgruber’s reply was that he would consider removing a mural of Wilson for starters. Princeton also banned the title “masters” of residential colleges. What’s next – renaming Master’s degrees?
The University of Ottawa has canceled a yoga class over a cultural appropriation of a non-Western practice. The University of Vermont has held a three-day retreat for students who “self-identify as white” to “confront their white privilege.” Students at Lebanon Valley College have demanded the renaming of Lynch Hall due to its racial overtones, dishonoring a former college president and – who knows? – raising the possibility that U.S. Attorney-General Loretta Lynch might not be considered as a commencement speaker.
And the beat goes on.
There are very real problems of racism, poverty, and other concerns that deserve attention and, indeed, protests. But they risk being ignored and inviting a backlash as there is growing resentment against what even the left-leaning Kristof has called the “sanctimonious bullies” who are dictating demands and turning universities into insane (er, mentally challenged) institutions.
We each have to decide where we stand on these issues. Me? I self-identify as an old white guy who just hopes that the Thomas Jefferson Library on campus will still be around when I retire.