Monday, November 16, 2015

The Rise of the College Crybullies

By Roger Kimball

For more than a week now, the country has been mesmerized, and appalled, by the news emanating from academia. At Yale the insanity began over Halloween costumes. Erika Christakis, associate master of a residential college at Yale, courted outrage by announcing that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society” and it was not her business to police Halloween costumes.

To people unindoctrinated by the sensitivity training that is de rigueur on most campuses today, these sentiments might seem unobjectionable. But to the delicate creatures at Yale’s Silliman College they were an intolerable provocation. What if students dressed as American Indians or Mexican mariachi musicians? Angry, hysterical students confronted Nicholas Christakis, Erika’s husband and the master of Silliman, screaming obscenities and demanding that he step down because he had failed to create “a place of comfort, a home” for students. The episode was captured on video and went viral.

At the University of Missouri, Jonathan Butler, the son of a wealthy railroad executive (2014 compensation: $8.4 million), went on a hunger strike to protest what he called “revolting” acts of racism at Mizzou. Details were scanty. Nevertheless, black members of the university football team threatened to strike for the rest of the season unless Tim Wolfe, Mizzou’s president, stepped down. A day or two later, he did.

Emboldened, student and faculty protesters physically prevented reporters from photographing a tent village they had built on public space. In another shocking video, a student photographer is shown being forced back by an angry mob while Melissa Click, a feminist communications teacher at Mizzou, shouts for “muscle” to help her eject a reporter.

What is happening? Is it a reprise of the late 1960s and 1970s, when campuses across the country were sites of violent protests? In my book “Tenured Radicals: How Politics Have Corrupted Our Higher Education,” I showed how the radical ideology of the 1960s had been institutionalized, absorbed into the moral tissues of the American educational establishment.

As one left-wing professor wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “After the Vietnam War, a lot of us didn’t just crawl back into our literary cubicles; we stepped into academic positions. With the war over, our visibility was lost, and it seemed for a while—to the unobservant—that we had disappeared. Now we have tenure, and the work of reshaping the universities has begun in earnest.”

“Tenured Radicals” provides an account of that reshaping, focusing especially on what it has meant for the substance of a college education. The book includes a section on “academia and infantilization.” But when I wrote in 2008, the rhetoric of “safe spaces,” “microaggressions” and “trigger warnings” had not yet colluded to bring forth that new academic phenomenon, at once tender and vicious, the crybully.

The crybully, who has weaponized his coveted status as a victim, was first sighted in the mid-2000s. He has two calling cards, race and gender. By coincidence Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, was involved in the evolution of both.

Race came first. In 2001 Mr. Summers made headlines when he suggested that Cornel West—then the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor and eminence in the African and African American Studies Department at Harvard—buckle down to some serious scholarship. (Mr. West’s most recent production had been a rap CD called “Sketches of My Culture.”) Mr. Summers also suggested that the professor lead in fighting the scandal of grade inflation at Harvard, where one of every two grades was an A or A-.

A national scandal erupted. Black professors at Harvard threatened to leave—Mr. West soon decamped to Princeton—and the New York Times published a hand-wringing editorial criticizing Mr. Summers, who quickly recanted, noting that the entire episode had been “a terrible misunderstanding.”

Then came gender. In 2005 Mr. Summers spoke at a conference on “Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce” at MIT. He speculated on why there aren’t more women scientists at elite universities. He touched on several possibilities: Maybe “patterns of discrimination” had something to do with it. Maybe most women preferred to put their families before their careers. And maybe, just possibly, it had something to do with “different availability of aptitude at the high end.”

What a storm that last comment sparked! “I felt I was going to be sick,” wailed Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at MIT, who had walked out on Mr. Summers. “My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow, low,” Ms. Hopkins said. “I was extremely upset.”

Once again, Mr. Summers recanted. He published an open letter to the Harvard community. “I deeply regret the impact of my comments,” he wrote, “and apologize for not having weighed them more carefully.” It was too late. By May 2005 his faculty had returned a vote of no confidence 218 to 185, with 18 abstentions. By February 2006 he had been forced to announce his resignation.

These two incidents, partly because they involved such a high-profile institution, marked an important turning point. The pleasures of aggression were henceforth added to the comforts of feeling aggrieved.

The toxic fruits of this development are on view not only at Yale and Mizzou, but throughout the higher-educational establishment, where spurious charges of “systemic racism,” “a culture of rape” and sundry other imaginary torts compete for the budget of pity and special treatment.

Even as I write, Amherst College is exploding with nonnegotiable demands from a student group that the president apologize for (among others things) Amherst’s “institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx 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.” Really, you can’t make it up.

Read the rest here.

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