Blog No. 86, Part II. More on Racial Protests on Campus

In Part I, we considered some aspects of the recent wave of campus protests centered on perceptions of racism on campus, both individual and institutional. We continue that discussion here and begin with protesters’ attacks on individual college administrators.

The highly publicized events at the University of Missouri quickly led to the resignation of the President of the University and its Chancellor. It seems unquestionable that the President’s handling of racial tensions on campus had been far from deft. Yet what exactly he and his administration had done or failed to do was never quite clear. Was he negligent, or just slow to react, or insensitive? Were his failures worthy of a firing or forced resignation? There are insufficient facts to know, but the speed of the process, and the apparent lack of interest by protesters in discussion or negotiation was disquieting.  And, the decisive blow was apparently delivered when the football team threatened to go on strike, at a reported cost to the university of $1 million if the president did not resign. Even those who applauded the resignation may have been a bit uncomfortable, as we were, to see such power wielded by a football team. But the greatest significance of the uprising at the University of Missouri was the effect it had in stimulating protests, primarily by minority students, across the country.

The next prominent forced resignation occurred at Claremont McKenna University in California. In that case, student wrath forced the resignation of the Dean of Students after the Dean had written an email that was intended to be sympathetic and responsive to a student’s concern but was nevertheless deemed to be unacceptably insensitive. The Dean had replied to an email from a student forwarding an article describing feelings of minority students at Claremont that they were “marginalized:”

Thank you for writing and sharing this article with me. We have a lot to do as a college and a community. Would you be willing to talk with me sometime about these issues? They are important to me and the DOS staff and we are working on how we can better serve our students especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold.

I would love to talk with you more.

Instead of accepting the invitation for a conversation, the student circulated the email among her friends where the very reference to a “CMC mold” was taken to be a singular outrage. It became the focus of protests that, within days, led to the resignation of the Dean, an unfortunate and undeserved result in our view.

On the opposite coast, an even more widely reported controversy erupted at Yale University over the improbable issue of advice about Halloween costumes. The starting point was an email from a university body, the Intercultural Affairs Committee, asking students to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes that could offend minority students. That prompted a response from Erika Christakis, a faculty member serving, along with her husband, Nicholas, as supervisors (“Master and Associate Master”) of Silliman College, a Yale residence hall. Professor Christakis wrote an email to Silliman students expressing the view that students were capable of picking their own costumes without guidance from the university. Her email included the comment that “Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” (Christakis’s entire email can be read here).While Halloween costumes were also a source of controversy on other campuses, Christakis’s message seemed to us to be unobjectionable common sense.

At Yale, however, racial tensions had apparently been simmering for some time, and in that context Christakis’s email was deemed to be so inflammatory that it set off protests and a sit-in pressing a wide range of demands, including the dismissal of the Christakises as Master and Associate Master of Silliman. To his credit, the Yale President rejected demands for the dismissal of the Christakises from their positions at Silliman College. He did, however, present a broad menu of conciliatory (and not inexpensive) initiatives, (See, The Washington Post, “Yale President responds to protesters’ demands, announces new initiatives to ease racial tension.”) To their credit, the Christakises did not resign from Silliman College, but Erika Christakis has announced that she will not teach at Yale in the the Spring semester, and her husband will be taking a sabbatical. Thus far, the Christakises continue at Silliman College but whether they will be there next year, or at Yale in any capacity, remains to be seen. We hope they will persevere.

Student protesters have focused not only on current faculty and administrators but have also targeted historical figures. The most notable of these has been Woodrow Wilson, long-honored at Princeton where he was President of the university before becoming President of the United States. At Princeton, Wilson has been honored most notably by the School of Public and International Affairs which bears his name as well as a mural of him. Wilson was a commanding figure in international affairs during and after World War I whose influence on American foreign policy is still felt today. He was also a racist, born and raised in the South, and, as President, he imposed segregation throughout the federal government. His conduct in that regard is too egregious and well-documented to be ignored. But should it blot out his achievements? A great deal has been written recently about the Wilson issue at Princeton and the accompanying protest and sit-in, but one of the most sensible pieces, we think, was by Richard Cohen in a Washington Post column, “Wilson was racist, but he deserves our understanding.” Cohen argued that:

What’s lacking in the Princeton debate over Wilson, and similar debates elsewhere, is an appreciation for the word “and.” Instead, “but” is too often substituted, so that a person becomes one thing or another — not two things at once.

Cohen went on to cite a variety of historical figures having both noble and ignoble qualities, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson. Pondering their lives, and then returning to Wilson, he concluded:

Can Americans of color be expected to honor historical figures who hardly honored their ancestors and instead enslaved, exploited and even killed them? That can be hard. Still, we have an obligation to place historical figures in the context of their times and to accord them what they, in some instances, did not accord others: understanding. Woodrow Wilson was not one thing or another. He was one thing and another. It’s a lesson Princeton should teach.

How might Cohen’s approach be implemented? There may various ways, but one that occurs to us is to erect a tablet in the Wilson School of sufficient size to recount not only Wilson’s major accomplishments but his grievous failing.

Possibly a similar approach could be taken at Yale where the “Halloween protests” came after earlier demands that the name of John C. Calhoun be removed from one of the residential colleges at Yale. Calhoun was a Yale graduate, a Southerner who lived and died before the Civil War, and a passionate defender of slavery. In the eyes of some observers, the decision to rename Calhoun College should not be difficult. Calhoun had less of a connection to Yale than Wilson had to Princeton and his name is less familiar today than Wilson’s. Yet he, too, was a figure of considerable accomplishment.  Calhoun served as Vice President under Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson and later as Secretary of State under John Tyler. His place in history was primarily associated with his service in the Senate where he was one of the “Great Triumvirate” or the “Immortal Trio” of Congressional leaders, along with his Congressional colleagues Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In 1957, a Senate Committee selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators of all time. According to some scholars, Calhoun “was a public intellectual of the highest order…and a uniquely gifted American politician,” and “probably the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking.”

Nevertheless, Calhoun College may not survive as such much longer, but if so, a question may be where the process will end. Of Yale’s twelve residential colleges, all were named for white men, four of whom were slave owners, and a fifth wrote pro-slavery tracts. Indeed, the namesake of the university itself, Elihu Yale, was involved in the slave trade, and Yale’s President Salovey has has felt obliged to state that changing the name of the school would not be considered. We can understand, admittedly from a distance, the discomfort and resentment that a black resident at Calhoun might feel, particularly when passing under the latter’s portrait. On the other hand, earlier Calhoun residents took the situation more in stride:

The Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. said he and other black members of the Calhoun class of 1973 focused their activism elsewhere. Still, they referred to the college with a wink as “Calhoun Plantation.” “We were there to prove Calhoun wrong,” he said. “We wanted to make the rest of society believe we belonged at places like Yale.”

We hope that today’s students feel that they have no need to prove their place at Yale. Perhaps they might then summon a jauntier attitude toward Calhoun’s portrait with a thought something like “You are wherever you are, but I’m right here enjoying Yale. How do you like those apples, you old buzzard.”

The third historical figure to come under recent attack is Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a soldier in the British army, who served in America during colonial times, most notably in the French and Indian War. Today his name is borne by a town in Massachusetts and the prominent college located there. He had a lengthy career and honorable reputation that was marred some years ago by the discovery of correspondence in which he had called for infecting Indians with small pox by furnishing them with contaminated blankets. The evidence is hazy at best as to whether his direction was ever carried out or had any effect, but it was a shameful order, particularly viewed through 21st Century eyes. Protesting students at Amherst have not demanded that the college or the town change its name, but have focused on “Lord Jeff “as the unofficial nickname and mascot for its athletic teams. The students demanded the issuance of a statement by the Amherst President condemning the “inherent racist nature” of the mascot and urged that it be removed from all apparel, memorabilia etc.

Although the demand against Lord Jeff was the most widely publicized, it was only number seven in a total of eleven demands. The demands arose from a sit-in lasting several hours at which student after student rose to speak of his or her feelings of alienation and isolation at Amherst.  The resulting manifesto included a demand that the President and the Chairman of the Board of Trustee each issue rather all-encompassing apologies for “our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latino racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.” According to The New York Times, Amherst’s President, Carolyn A. Martin “said she was eager to listen to and work with the protesters, but was not in a position to apologize for the sins of history or institutional forces she did not control.”

At Amherst, pushback at student demands appears to have come primarily from alumni.  (Students and faculty have reportedly voted in favor of replacing Lord Jeff, while he has drawn support from alumni and his fate rests with the trustees.) At other schools, vigorous pushback has come from some students and faculty as well as alumni.  Administrators are faced with the difficult responsibilities of attempting to respond to the needs of minority students and keep peace on campus while protecting freedom of speech, maintaining valued traditions and hoping not to alienate alumni (including those who provide important financial support.) Doing all that will not be easy.

Despite the constitutional restraints on racial preferences in admissions, colleges and universities have been remarkably successful in assembling diverse student bodies. (For example, the Times noted that Amherst “prides itself on its diversity — only 42 percent of Amherst students identify themselves as white.”) It appears, however, that the schools have been considerably less successful in figuring out how to make diversity work in practice. We do not believe the answer lies in campaigning against insensitivity at the expense of free speech or attempting to create safe-spaces or establishing ethno-centric facilities to please particular constituencies. One answer, if there is one, might lie in developing programs and projects outside the classroom creatively designed to attract students of differing backgrounds. Giving students opportunities to work together, to get to know each other and to form personal relationships may be the best remedy for stereotyping.

Some help must also come from the minority students themselves, whom we would urge to step back and take another look at their own situations from a different perspective. Specifically, whatever their personal backgrounds may have been, they are now among the elite and that status not only creates stress but ways of dealing with it. In reducing or managing stress of various kinds, it is often helpful to focus on the greater needs of others, say, those in minority communities across the country. For example, feelings of alienation and isolation at a Princeton, Yale, Claremont or Amherst are doubtless real, but surely they do not compare with the daily stress of a young black man in a crime-ravaged neighborhood whose priority is to avoid being shot by a neighbor or by the police. If students feel impelled to protest, perhaps there are worthier targets than occasional slights or slurs from fellow students or the sins of bygone figures.

Indeed, preoccupation with perceptions of campus hostility carries with it its own baggage. As Randall Kennedy observed:

Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.

Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.

One thought on “Blog No. 86, Part II. More on Racial Protests on Campus

  • The “inflated sense of victimization” statement is very apt, and would seem to describe some of the campus protests. Current instances of victimization deserve a strong response, it is a stretch to see some of the recent campus protests as falling in this category. Many university students are inclined to be political and social activists, and I suspect they feel powerless to change most of the very real national and international issues that concern them. Local campus issues are much more within their grasp, whether historical or however inflated. Too bad when campus authorities are overly responsive, but they do often face a tough determination.

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