Events at Reed College in November 2016, then at Middlebury College in March 2017 made me think more about illiberal sentiments at liberal arts colleges than I usually do. I graduated from Reed College several decades ago, then after graduate school taught politics at Carthage College, a small school in Wisconsin. My family now lives in New England, one state over from Middlebury in Vermont.
I arrived at Reed as a transfer sophomore shortly after the Vietnam war ended. The campus had just settled down after a period of unusual turmoil that centered around the war. Today different issues affect campus politics, including questions about free speech. I have tended to discount the significance of these conflicts, as collegiate restrictions on speech have not seemed to spill into our larger political culture. Then the conflicts became violent.
The perversions of intellectual freedom we have seen on campuses during the last decade or two have gradually devolved into Maoist struggles, complete with self-appointed enforcers to indoctrinate, intimidate, and if those don’t work—assault. How did we reach a point where efforts to stop speech exceed efforts to promote it?
The operative principle of campus speech activism appears to be: my own right of free speech—that is, the space I need to think freely—requires me to keep you quiet. This principle applies to people who disagree with me, but it does not apply to me. In this respect, campus speech activism represents an instance of asymmetric power.
Think of how principles of asymmetric coercion and power work in other settings. They are so obnoxious in democratic institutions that we do everything we can to preserve open interactions, as well as equal rights for everyone involved in those interactions. Why should we accept asymmetric coercion and power rather than egalitarian interactions on college campuses?
The Greenburg Distinguished Scholar Program at Reed College invited Kimberly Peirce to visit the campus in order to speak with students and faculty about her film, Boys Don’t Cry. Read about her November visit to the campus in Robby Soave’s account titled, Leftist Students Shouted ‘Fuck You Bitch’ at the Gay Director of a Pro-Trans Movie, Boys Don’t Cry. The intimidating ugliness of free speech enforcement actions comes through in Soave’s report:
The students’ unbelievable rudeness crossed the line into a kind of censorship when Peirce tried to speak: the students simply shouted over her. Eventually they let her talk, but some students continued to yell things like “fuck your respectability politics” and “fuck you scared bitch.”
By now you want to ask, why weren’t these students disciplined? If you talk to guests that way – visitors to campus who deserve the highest possible courtesy – what does that say about the college who invited you to study there? Why would any graduate of the college ever want to donate another penny to such a school? Do you actually want people everywhere to regard your school as home to filthy-mouthed, closed-minded Red Guards?
A little over fifty percent of Reed students receive financial aid. Proportionally and by probability, roughly half the protesters at Peirce’s November visit had support from generous donors among the school’s alumni. How many donors, would you guess, are happy to see their money spent to support would-be Maoist enforcers, who patrol the campus to descend on visitors with signs and epithets calculated to intimidate anyone who crosses them?
Suppose a fraternity or sorority invited a black scholar or filmmaker to speak to their group about transgender issues, and members of the audience shouted down their guest with epithets like “Fuck you cis bitch!” Would that Greek organization be permitted to stay on campus? If not, why are students at Reed who did the same thing allowed to stay?
Consider then the college deans’ main response to students’ enforcement action. Dean of the Faculty Nigel Nicholson published a letter in the college’s newspaper, the Quest, addressed to the entire Reed community. He admonished members of the community that we do not treat guests this way, then concluded: “I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct, and I hope that as a community we can reflect on what happened and make a determination not to repeat it.”
Dean Nicholson’s letter represents a more vocal and literate defense of liberal values on campus than we have seen elsewhere. Yet higher education administrators, including Dean Nicholson, seem ready to soften their response to currents of suppression they encounter on their campuses. Nicholson’s hope “that as a community we can reflect on what happened” sounds a little like a mild parental scolding: “you may have misbehaved, but we still love you.” Nicholson is not addressing his children, however, and students who address the college’s guests this way ought to expect the college to disown them.
Without a reprimand that includes a clear determination to expel students who repeat the offense, slightly soapy admonishments mean that people on campus become ultra-careful about who they invite to speak. If ill treatment of a guest is at all possible, scratch the person from the list of candidate speakers. The enforcers will have their way, so long as they remain on campus.
Yet before the beginning of each academic year, college leaders decide which students are worthy to participate in the school’s academic life. Deans and other leaders also set standards for who remains on campus to receive a degree, which is the college’s endorsement of their character. Why would extreme inhospitality to a guest not be cause for suspension or dismissal?
From Reed to Middlebury
When I first read the news about treatment of Kimberly Peirce during her visit to Reed in November, my response was, “Great, now my own school has fallen victim to the ugliest kinds of campus speech suppression.” After that I let it go: too many things to think about during the run-up to the holidays. Then last week, Middlebury College had an even uglier episode, where students attacked a female faculty member who moderated – or tried to moderate – Charles Murray’s on-campus lecture. They sent her to the emergency room.
Reed and Middlebury are like sister schools on opposite sides of the country. Both stand not only for liberal thinking in arts, sciences, and humanities, but also for high standards of scholarship and personal behavior. When masked thugs set fires and smash windows at Berkeley, you find yourself saying, “What do you expect? That’s Berkeley.” That’s not fair to students of good character at California’s largest university, but Berkeley has a history. Reed and Middlebury have their own histories of activism, but efforts to suppress free speech have not generally been part of their traditions.
Let’s return for a moment to the nature of Professor Nicholson’s letter. He admonishes the entire student body in his letter, especially in his conclusion. Earlier he refers to speech enforcers as some students. Reed hosts a small number of young scholars. If Nicholson did not know the enforcers’ names, he might have asked them to identify themselves. Alternately, he could have learned their leaders’ names. Yet he decided to let them stay anonymous. Given the letter’s concluding sentence, it effectively asks all students to do their part to prevent uncivil treatment of campus guests in the future.
Does that seem fair to you? I’m going to estimate the number of militant enforcers at a little over a dozen. In a student body of approximately 1,400, that equals one percent. Most of the remaining 99%, some of whom came to hear Peirce speak, are already appalled, disturbed, and ashamed of their fellow students’ behavior. They wonder how they wound up on a campus where people treat guests that way. They suddenly wonder how the enforcers will treat them if they step off the PC reservation.
Yet the dean lets the enforcers work their ways of intimidation – via handwritten signs and obscene threats – behind the veil of anonymity that all coercers crave. That’s why selected thugs at Berkeley and Middlebury wore masks. They want to draw attention to the violence they inflict, but they do not want their victims to identify them. Enforcers at Reed, and most at Middlebury did not wear masks – neither did they introduce themselves to their victims. Allison Stanger, injured faculty member at Middlebury, said the enforcers would not even look her in the eye. Mobs seldom do.
Colleges like Middlebury and Reed go through careful selection processes to determine who becomes a member of their communities. Some conditions of membership – most of them academic expectations – are written down. Most of the social expectations for community members are customary. You won’t find a rule in the student handbook that says, “Don’t call guests a fucking bitch.” Yet it’s still a rule. Deans who lead the community ought to identify students who violate this standard of behavior, then have a talk with each one, individually. Pointedly ask if the student wants to remain a part of the community, after having betrayed the college and the ideals of free exchange that it represents.
A student who walks out of the dean’s office after such a talk would know that the next time they participate in an enforcement action, they are gone. Their friends would know it, too. Word would circulate that other enforcers who practice intimidation on campus may find the deans less lenient the next time around. They would understand that if you breach unwritten rules, expectations that underpin the college’s reputation across the country, you can take the academic credits you’ve earned to some other college that welcomes your Maoist proclivities. Reed has plenty of applicants on its waiting list who understand how to treat guests.
Everyone recognizes that our civic culture is in trouble. Eric Liu writes in The Atlantic about civic engagement in our country, especially since the November election. He argues that our interest in citizenship and participation informs a sense of how to behave in political groups:
Citizenship in a republic requires not just literacy in power but also a grounding in character. Power literacy means understanding systems of law, custom, and institutions—and acting with skill to move those systems. Civic character is more than personal virtue. It is about character in the collective—mutuality, reciprocity, respect, service, justice—and the prosocial ethics of being a member of the body.
All of these qualities apply to college communities as well as a whole republic. Schools claim to shape the whole person, within a healthy community. That means they prepare students for citizenship, first as members of a campus body, then as members of other groups they may join after they graduate. I would say, based on student behavior, that leaders of Reed, Middlebury, and hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country do not know how to develop these qualities of character in the students who come to their campuses. If they do understand how to develop these qualities, they ought to get moving, fast.
On March 2, 2017, Charles Murray visited Middlebury College to discuss his book, Losing Ground. The event had the standard format: an address, with discussion of his remarks and the book to follow. Speech enforcers at Middlebury College shut down the event, and in a riot that followed, injured Allison Stanger, a member of the faculty at Middlebury. She suffered a twisted neck and a concussion.
I’m not sure Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury College, understands what happened at her institution during this progression from a visiting scholar standing on an auditorium stage to a riot outside the student center. The relatively small but mobile riot that occurred on her campus placed Middlebury, and higher education in general, in a state of emergency. The emergency is not principally about matters of free speech, though it begins there. It is about use of violence against faculty members who stand for free speech. If students on any campus can attack faculty members with impunity, colleges and universities may as well close their doors. Their enterprise is finished.
You should read both of President Patton’s letters addressed to the Middlebury community. I will not try to parse them in a lot of detail, but I will draw attention to a one-sentence paragraph halfway through her March 3 letter: “We will be responding in the very near future to the clear violations of Middlebury College policy that occurred inside and outside Wilson Hall.” She would not declare her intention to respond in the ‘very near future’ if she intended to respond. She would just do it. Many days have come and gone since the riot, and she has still not done anything except write two letters.
Watch for more news from the school. You may hear more expression of concern about the tension between inclusivity and free speech. What you will not hear is news that students responsible for the attack on Professor Stanger have been booted off the Middlebury campus forever. You will not see a list of their names on the Middlebury website, so people can identify those who brought so much discredit on themselves and their college. The president may respond that outside agitators harmed Professor Stanger, not Middlebury students. If that is the case, let’s have a look at the video evidence. Let’s have a look at the eye witness reports. Apprehend the people who assaulted Allison Stanger, whether students or not.
As I read President Patton’s first letter, I don’t see anger or indignation in her words. Students have just assaulted one of her faculty members. Yet consider her response:
Today our community begins the process of addressing the deep and troubling divisions that were on display last night. I am grateful to those who share this goal and have offered to help. We must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value, while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and the other factors that too often divide us. That work will take time, and I will have more to say about that in the days ahead.
Last night we failed to live up to our core values. But I remain hopeful. Last evening, several students, faculty, and staff representing a large spectrum of political perspectives remained in Wilson Hall to discuss the events and to talk about building bridges. Their ability to reach across differences in a rigorous but respectful way was a stark contrast to the events that preceded it. I firmly believe these are the Middlebury values that we have lived so long and that we must strive to embody in the future.
It sounds rather like college president-speak to me. Do they have a workshop where college presidents learn to write like that? She wants to “discuss the events and to talk about building bridges.” What good does that do when she has criminals running around her campus, smug and filled with false remorse because they could assault a professor and give her a concussion without getting caught? More than a week later, they sit in their dormitories, eager to plan their spring breaks so they can get out of Dodge until things cool down. When they return for the last several weeks of the academic year, who do you suppose will expel them then? The people who wanted to discuss their assault and build bridges right after the riot occurred?
Now let’s turn to President Patton’s second letter to the Middlebury community, dated March 6. Packed with more president-speak, she refers early in the letter to an investigation that will take some time. Then she says the college will cooperate with the Middlebury police department. Don’t cut your toe nails too short while you wait for investigators to report their findings. When people in authority tell you they want to conduct a thorough investigation, you know what that means.
Students are not going to cooperate with local police. College investigators will do what college investigators do: take care to protect Middlebury’s reputation. In this case, the college’s reputation is already in ruins, so people appointed to bring violent students to account have little motivation to act expeditiously. They can only hope Middlebury’s reputation gradually recovers as memories of the March 2nd riot fade.
After her anodyne discussion of accountability, President Patton warms to her favorite topic: building community. Why would she want to talk about community immediately after she declares justice for students who attacked a faculty member will be slow and uncertain? Local police generally do not want to get involved in campus troubles, nor do college leaders want them to. Let’s move on to discussions of community before people notice the missing element of punishment.
If I’m a student at Middlebury and see a faculty member attacked with impunity, I just want to get out of there. I’m not that interested in community at that point, because I know I’m part of an institution that harbors bands of rabid students who threaten everyone who disagrees with them. Moreover, the president herself seems willing to let them remain part of the so-called community.
In that atmosphere, President Patton has this to say: “This was an extremely difficult episode, especially because in the last year we have worked so hard to affirm that Middlebury is committed to unlocking the potential and brilliance of every student…. If you are here, it is because you earned your way here, and you belong.” Well I’ll be. The rioters earned their way here, so we’re going to accept them because they belong. Let me tell you something, this episode disturbs people on and off campus not because Middlebury’s president and faculty work so hard to unlock the potential of every brilliant student who comes under their care. It disturbs people because students attacked a faculty member, and you have not apprehended them yet.
Even worse, given that apprehension can be difficult, the president gives no indication in her letters that she cares to lead those charged with apprehension, or take personal responsibility for the job. Instead we read apparently endless reflections on community, free speech, balancing interests among diverse groups, and on and on and on. Meantime students who violated every principle of civility that defines the college’s existence think, “My goodness, they’re not going to do anything! We’re going to sit on our pillows and talk about community while Dr. Stanger recovers from her concussion. Mental note: send Professor Stanger a get well card.”
The college may yet come up with a plan to punish members of the mob who attacked Professor Stanger. It looks doubtful to me right now. One report from a student already says that Professor Stanger’s neck injury was an accident, due to jostling in the crowd. Look for more excuses. I predict the president will not expel one student from campus for the events of March 2. Nor will the president name the students who attacked Professor Stanger. Lastly, President Patton will not try to explain why she withheld punishment and identification. If college leaders cannot identify the attackers, they appear incompetent or lazy. If they can identify the attackers, pressure from parents and others, plus shame will keep them from publicizing their names.
Andrew Sullivan, in his article on intersectionality, may invest the violence at Middlebury College with more meaning than it actually has. He does a deep analysis of people who don’t know how to think. That is honestly where political discourse on campuses like Middlebury has arrived. When you encounter an idea that makes your brain turn to mush, it is either meaningless or poorly expressed. In either case, don’t waste your time with it.
Student leaders infuse their political justifications with language so dishonest and self-serving, no one cares what it means anymore. Think of chief pig Napoleon, and his audacious self-justification in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Speech enforcers use similar nonsense to explain why their actions do not constitute suppression of speech.
Sullivan analyzes the incredible state of Middlebury enforcers’ reasoning. They seem ready to justify their actions with mere excuses. Small children can offer better reasons for their intemperate behavior. Instead, enforcers seem to act from astringent ideologies and obtuse states of consciousness. Their ideology seems in a constant search for concepts and arguments to justify their immoderate persecutions.
So far from unlocking enforcers’ brilliance, as Middlebury’s president Laurie Patton claims, a few determined but deluded students at Middlebury seem to create an arcane shelter for untethered thought. When their thoughts encounter unwelcome disturbance from outside – a guest speaker the enforcers do not like – the evil spirit must be exorcised, to use Sullivan’s words, just as Puritan enforcers had to exorcise evil spirits from Salem in pre-modern New England.
More sobering still, these tides of primeval sentiment would not influence enforcers so thoroughly without leadership from faculty. Melissa Click’s “I need some muscle over here!” and its organizational equivalents become essential conditions for suppression of speech on campuses across the country. Remarkably, few consider campus suppression of speech out of the ordinary now. That is the way colleges and universities do business. We need a college president to stand and say, “This has to stop. It’s not going to happen on my campus.”
A similar stand occurred in Britain during the late 1970s. Violent industrial strikes racked Britain through most of the decade. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, she said, “This is going to stop.” And it did. The violence did not stop immediately. Her efforts to restore peace roused substantial opposition. Yet the stand she took against labor violence lasted through her ten years in office, and indeed, has held until today. Impatient students and many others have waited a long time for stiff, principled resistance to enforcers who appear ready to rule one campus after another.
No leader in America’s academy has had courage to rebuke campus speech enforcers in a way that says, “You are on notice. You violate our institution’s code of civil behavior, and you are out of here.” Students would test the threat soon enough. Then the president ought to make good on it. Campus security officers ought to escort uncivil or violent students directly from the scene to the dean’s office. Call students’ parents to let them know an interview to initiate expulsion is underway. When you warn students ahead of time, you can act with dispatch. The faster you remove uncivil students from campus, the better.
If faculty protest, tell them they can take the matter up at the next faculty meeting. Then come prepared. Ask other faculty members to speak up for you.
If parents protest, direct them to the college’s counsel. Make sure they have received the correct tuition refund.
Explain your position to the college’s trustees. Tell them why you have acted as you have.
If students protest, apply the same rules of civility you used in the first instance.
Stake your job on the issue, and fight the battle alone if you have to. Possibly the right of free speech in the whole country depends on the outcome. Thatcher had few allies at the beginning of her fight. As her cause found some success, more people became willing to stand by her. Politics works that way.
What is the alternative? To go the way of Middlebury College, an institution that used to stand for academic integrity.
Related letters from Middlebury’s website
Asymmetric power – Related to a double standard, but includes intimidation and coercion as well. This kind of power relationship aims to deny other parties a right or privilege you claim for yourself. Characterized by macroaggressive self-assertion.