We have seen a loss of integrity in educational leadership. Leaders and administrators appear to lack energy, vision, commitment, or even the moral wherewithal to stop the bad things we have seen happen on college campuses. A sort of sickness in college culture has taken hold. You can see it everywhere as colleges and universities both magnify and fall victim to invidious currents of violence and hate. That is why one feels emotional to encounter one educator – in this instance Lt. General Jay Silveria – defend foundational values of the school he leads, the United States Air Force Academy:
Air Force Academy
Silveria speaks in response to racial slurs written on students’ white boards at the academy’s prep school. To oppose racial slurs is not a controversial position. What draws your attention to Silveria’s speech is his forceful manner, his emphasis on dignity and respect for all, and his emphatically repeated command to anyone at the academy not willing to treat others with dignity and respect: “Get out!” “Get out!” We do not want you here, you do not belong here, and we want you out as fast as possible.
These words are so sorely missed from leaders at other colleges. At my own alma mater, Reed College, students shouted at guest speaker Kimberly Peirce, “Fuck you cis white bitch!” They wrote similar words on posters placed around the auditorium. Dean of the Faculty Nigel Nicholson admonished student protesters in a letter published online and in the student newspaper. Significantly, you did not hear the president say that students who treat guests that way are out. Not surprisingly, campus activists have worked successfully this fall to shut down the college’s freshman humanities course, by invading professors’ classrooms.
All around the country, activists use violence, threats, and intimidation to scare people they do not like away. These tactics are not different from the behavior of racists who want to intimidate and scare black students at the Air Force Academy or anywhere else. The broad application of Silveria’s words – treat others with dignity and respect, or you are out – is so welcome. Until now, we have heard nothing clear and forceful on this matter from any college president. Instead they let Maoist protesters – whose tactics are indistinguishable from those of neo-Nazis – have the run of the place.
What do you suppose made prep school students at the Air Force Academy think they should do something like that? Has academic culture reached a point where any type of intimidation on campus appears to be worth a try? Do academic leaders want to see self-destructive bigotry and moral intolerance flourish on their campuses? Every college president in the country should watch General Silveria’s talk. If they cannot see a connection between his emphasis on dignity and respect, and aggressive hatred that spreads from group to group among our students due to poor leadership, they should watch it again. Find your voice. Make a difference. Remove students from your communities who aim to intimidate and create fear. To tell those students to get out shows moral courage we have not heard from anyone until now.
Let me tell you why behavior of students at Reed, Middlebury, William and Mary, and other colleges dismays me. I enrolled at Reed as a transfer sophomore in fall 1973. Earlier that year, in January, the U. S. ended its involvement in the Vietnamese civil war with a prisoner exchange. For several years shortly before I arrived, Reed’s campus underwent a period of disruptive anti-war protests. They became so serious, protesters threatened to take over the campus. The normal activities of learning and study at Reed became difficult to carry out.
Provost of the College Marvin Levich, Professor of Philosophy, said, “Not at my school.” He led faculty, students, and administrators in opposition to the protesters. Many credit him with holding the school together, mindful of its mission, at a time when institutions large and small failed to do so. It cannot have been easy for him, as his position excited virulent criticism from other people on a small campus. I had Professor Levich for a class in aesthetics my senior year. He sat on my thesis committee. I wish I had seen the role he took at Reed several years before, when I was a senior in high school, but in the end I’m glad I arrived on campus after its time of trouble.
As an introduction to my remarks about Reed’s situation now, have a look at some of these open letters from the college’s president, John Kroger:
President Kroger has been busy on the subject of racism, I’d say. Reedies Against Racism won’t let him rest. No wonder. President Kroger’s first response in the list above is dated November 16, 2016, only five days after the appalling demonstration of abusive tactics at Kimberly Peirce’s talk. Every student who participated in that demonstration should have been out the door by that time. Instead, they occupied the admission office! President Kroger politely asks that they leave:
Finally, I respectfully request that you discontinue or relocate your protest from the admission office. It is not fair to our staff to prevent them from doing their important work with prospective students and their families. We must engage with inclusive governance practices to make changes and allow the educational program and the business of the college to move forward.
Can you believe this? College presidents all over the country imitate this kind of language. Do they pick it up in the processed food section of the grocery store? Of course not. They pick it up from each other. No one wants to stand out. We hear forceful words only from a general in the United States Air Force. The only difference between the intimidation practiced by racists at the Air Force Academy and the anti-racists at Reed is that, with strength in numbers and fair winds of a putatively good cause behind them, Reed’s anti-racists dare to come out of the woodwork.
They also dare to challenge Reed’s president – his office, his reputation, and his authority – but he does not seem to recognize it. Listen to Jay Silveria’s remarks. Beneath the surface you hear, “Get out now, because when I find out who you are, you are really not going to like it.” When John Kroger writes out his mumbo jumbo to campus activists, they deride him behind his back, snicker at him and plan their next outrage.
How do we know that is their reaction? Because a year after students shouted at Kimberly Peirce, Fuck you cis white bitch! – a guest invited on behalf of all Reedies – President Kroger still deals with the same kind of disruption, except now his own faculty members are targets. Did he think his pusillanimous response after the first round would somehow transform his proximate enemies into civil students who would honor his leadership, his college, or his professors? For nearly a year, he has written one letter after another that sounds off-the-shelf from the processed food section. At last on September 25, 2017, he declares:
The college will use Reed’s established honor process to respond to today’s protest in the Vollum lecture hall. This process will determine what disciplinary measures are appropriate. The goal of the honor process in this—as in all matters—is to hold community members accountable for their actions while seeking to restore and maintain an inclusive living and learning environment that helps all students to be successful at Reed.
Even when he decides to take action against his adversaries, he sounds weak. He is the president. If he had gathered the entire Reed community to give a speech like Silveria’s on November 12, 2016, the day after students attacked Peirce, do you think President Kroger would have the situation he has now? Of course he would not. Student protesters challenged him, openly. Let him demand – not request – that students who use obscene language to attack a guest speaker Get out! I am not sure what militant students would have done, but I can say this confidently. He would not write to inform them politely, nearly a year later, that he plans to initiate the honor process to “determine what disciplinary measures are appropriate.”
Reedies Against Racism have to be saying, “Good God, we’ll graduate before he kicks us out!” We disrupt, abuse and threaten faculty members until they cancel their classes, we trash his school and make it a by-word for academic weakness across the nation, and he politely informs us about his response to “today’s protest in the Vollum lecture hall.” After all the protesters have done, do you think they care about the honor process? For people who adopt thuggish tactics and practices, honor processes look like an ironic joke.
One thing to say about Jay Silveria’s remarks: they are not polite. Think carefully before you say, of course, Silveria speaks against racism, and so do students at Reed. Think carefully before you argue that Jay Silveria and Reedies Against Racism both line up on the same side: the anti-racist side. Reedies Against Racism inhabit the same mental and emotional spaces – and use the same practices – as racist groups that claim allegiance to Richard Spencer. Hannah Arendt pointed out in Origins of Totalitarianism that Nazis and Communists came from the same cloth. So it is today for white supremacists and anti-racists. They love to fight each other because their hate and moral vacuity run so deep.
Nothing in President Kroger’s letters expresses consciousness of the threat to liberalism posed by students on his own campus. In fact, Reedies Against Racism declared themselves enemies of liberalism quite a while back. Now they aim to bring down one of the nation’s premier liberal arts schools. I would like to see Marvin Levich address those students. He would tell them, “We made a mistake when we invited people like you into our community. Now we intend to correct our mistake.”