Kids Today! The Attacks on Students in a Proxy War Over Universities

by Neil H. Buchanan

What will happen to American universities in this post-rational age?  Things were not going all that well for colleges and universities even before Trump's presidency.  Republican-led budget cuts to state university systems, to say nothing of the increasingly anti-intellectual atmosphere in Washington and elsewhere, had already created a crisis atmosphere in academia.  But things will almost surely go further downhill from here.

As I noted in my most recent column, universities continue to be a favorite target of the political right in this country.  Along with the press, organized labor, and the minority of wealthy people who happen to be politically liberal (most obviously including the entertainment industry), America's universities are a source of irritation for right-wing politicians.

The basic problem, from a conservative politician's point of view, is that universities' best argument for existence is that they allow us to question established verities.  Question Authority is not just a bumper sticker.  We ask questions that conservatives consider settled and beyond reconsideration.  People in authority do not like professors as a group, because our institutional arrangements (especially tenure) make it difficult to intimidate us, to bully us, or to buy us.

That last sentence does sound a bit grandiose, however, so let me be clear that I am not claiming that what professors do is at all glorious.  We are hired labor -- skilled labor, we like to think, but still wage-earning drones.  Most of us keep our heads down and do not think about speaking truth to power at all.  There are no meetings devoted to discussing how important we are to the American experiment.  (OK, not many.)

Moreover, although it is difficult to intimidate/bully/buy us, it is hardly impossible to do so.  Professors chase grant money where it can be found, which gives moneyed interests a great deal of influence on what professors spend their time doing.  And we are no more brave than anyone else (maybe even less so), which means that a call from the dean (who might have received a call from the chairman of the state senate's education committee) can cause us to jump sky high.

Is there a deliberate political/partisan slant to this?  In a column last week, I noted that the claims that university culture leads to unfair bias against certain ideas are at best overwrought.  The big exception is economics, where the intellectual culture was overwhelmed by an unrelenting conservative methodological bias, not a liberal one.

I also noted that in law, which is one of the academic fields most under attack for ideological bias, there is no shortage of right-leaning professors turning out unapologetically conservative work.  Being in a numerical minority does not prove that one is being discriminated against, and conservatives' continued influence across legal academia -- most definitely including the top-tier schools -- suggests that the majority of liberal and liberal-ish professors are not being especially effective in crushing the opposition (if, indeed, that is their goal, which it is not).

But surely one could respond that conservative applicants for university jobs are told to trim their sails and not advertise their ideological beliefs.  Maybe, but that is what all candidates are told to do, if they want to maximize their chances of being hired.  And this also carries through to what we write after being hired and prior to receiving tenure.

How can this happen, if the majority of professors on a given faculty agree with a candidate's political views?  The answer is that hiring and promotion decisions -- even when they are controlled by the faculty rather than the obviously politically cautious administrators who now run the universities -- is not merely a matter of winning a majority of the votes (or, in some cases, a super-majority).  Minorities, even minorities of one, can derail a candidacy.

I know a person, for example, who was interviewed by all of the top law faculties in the country.  Although she ended up being offered a position at a very good school, several of the top faculties did not pursue her candidacy after two or three of their conservative members said that they would throw a major fit if this candidate was brought up for a vote.  Indeed, her advisors had told her not to be so openly political, but she naively believed that the quality of her work would be enough.  But the conservative professors at most of the top schools succeeded in blocking her candidacy.

If anything, then, the institutional structure of universities creates an atmosphere of extreme caution.  Post-tenure, some professors do become openly political, but by that point most of their colleagues have simply adapted to being cautious as a matter of habit.  (Frankly, there is also a lot of self-selection for this trait as well.)

Even so, universities have sufficiently overcome all of these moderating biases to produce various bodies of scholarship that are politically uncomfortable to the American right.  Telling biology professors -- even those who are registered Republicans -- that they should call evolution "only a theory" that should be taught in science classrooms alongside creationism does not produce the results that politically conservative activists hope.

In short, the American university is being attacked from the right because it is worth attacking.  Professors gather and publish evidence showing that in-person voter fraud is almost nonexistent, or that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder, or that immigrants do not commit disproportionate amounts of crime, or that women are not traumatized after getting abortions.  That upsets some people.

The legal academy is particularly under scrutiny, of course, because so much of our subject matter is politically salient.  For example, law professors (and the students they taught) do things like challenging Trump's Muslim ban, and Republicans take notice.

All of this means that the right's attacks on college students are largely a matter of fighting a proxy war.  It is difficult to imagine that right-wingers truly care about whether college students spend time thinking about which Halloween costumes might be offensive, but right-wing activists make a big deal about such small matters because they can be marshaled to the cause of proving that universities are a source of un-American subversion.

Add on top of that the adolescent traumas that so obviously haunt some of academia's fiercest critics, along with a palpable sense of intellectual insecurity, and you end up with a full-on attack on every aspect of campus culture.  The current incarnation of that attack is the endless complaints from the right about "political correctness," a term that I continue to place inside scare-quotes because it has no independent meaning other than "views that political conservatives think are given too much importance."

Is there a case to be made that American college students sometimes go overboard?  Sure.  We are talking about a group that starts with some 17-year-olds and runs up to the early twenty-something years.  Experimentation is the coin of the realm, and we see the results of trial-and-error all the time.

A few years ago, a big deal was made of a tweet by a freshman superstar quarterback at a football powerhouse school, which basically said, "Why do I have to study?  I'm here to play football!"  This unsurprisingly made news, because it supposedly proved that student-athletes are not students.  My reaction, however, was that one could have found equally juvenile tweets from thousands of 19-year-olds: "I don't want to take English, I'm just here to be an engineer!"  "I'm a humanities major, so why do I have to take science distribution requirements?!"  "I just want to have sex!"

The point is that no one should have to defend everything that college students do or say in order to justify what universities do.  Professors try to instill habits in their students that will make them clearer thinkers who will carefully research and think through questions (and know how to formulate the most fruitful questions).  Even if we ultimately succeed, it is a process.

But the defense of academia goes beyond that.  One of the biggest problems that professors complain about is students' apathy.  Rather than worrying about hordes of students protesting against everything on campus, we actually worry that they care about nothing at all.

Earlier this week, I defended the Middlebury College students who protested a special all-campus lecture by Charles Murray.  The critics of those protesters claimed that the protests proved that the students were afraid to engage with unpleasant ideas -- an old line of attack that is currently shorthanded by calling students "snowflakes."  My response was that this attack is nonsense, because people have to make choices all the time about what to read and what to study.

For example, I do not even read all of the responses to my own columns (from online comments, on Twitter, in emails sent directly to me, and so on).  Why not?  Some commenters are familiar to me and have a track record of writing fatuous nonsense, so I know in advance not to waste my time.  Sometimes, I am simply too busy doing other things.  That I do not take every opportunity to engage with direct criticism could mean that I am a snowflake, I suppose, but it is hardly proof positive.

One could object, however, that Middlebury students are not tenured professors with advanced degrees and years of experience in figuring out which sources of information are worthy of their attention.  True enough, but they are not entirely ignorant of the world around them, either, and I would honestly rather have them think skeptically about the choices that they are given (including by me) than to accept everything without question.

As it happens, I agree that Murray was not worth their time.  But the editorial board of The New York Times waxed poetic, saying that because of their protests, "Middlebury students had no chance to challenge him on any of his views. Thought and persuasion, questions and answers, were eclipsed by intimidation."  I honestly believe that challenging him on his views would almost certainly have been pointless, because speaking events like that are generally not exercises in thought and persuasion -- and because Murray's track record is not that of a man who is interested in give-and-take.

Even if I am wrong about that, however, the point is that the Middlebury students retain the same rights as everyone else to say no.  If universities are doing their jobs even reasonably well, some students will become more critical of received wisdom, not less so.

If the students were mistaken in thinking that Murray's speech was a bad use of their college's resources and prestige as well as their own time, then that is a shame.  It is not a sin against free inquiry.

Again, however, we can hope that everyone can learn useful lessons from the events at Middlebury (as well as recent events at other campuses, all of which are distorted and hyped by the right-wing echo chamber).  As Michael Dorf noted to me in an email after my last column was published:
Protesting outside a speech is surely fine, and a protest—even a temporarily disruptive protest—inside a speech can be justified. But even when the university has made a terrible choice to bestow what is in effect an honor on a terrible person saying bullsh*t, I think a commitment to free speech means that after the short disruption concludes, the protesters should permit people who want to hear the speaker do so—by marching out or even by getting arrested if that is their preference.
Quite so.  My statement that the students were not defiling the very essence of what universities stand for is obviously not a statement that no one did anything wrong or regrettable.  (Again, I am leaving aside the reports of some acts of physical aggression to focus here only on the expressive part of the protests.)  If I had my way, the protests would not have been carried out in exactly the way that they were.

Nonetheless, we are talking about a process through which young people are trying to figure out how to proceed in a world in which they are asked to think critically, to be open-minded but not gullible, and to try to seek knowledge honestly.  I am never surprised when things do not play out as well as I would like.

In the end, however, we need to ask why stories like this catch fire with even the non-Fox News press.  The answer is that right-wingers in this country have succeeded in convincing liberal-leaning news outlets that students and their professors are closed-minded, based on a series of distorted anecdotes and the observation that conservative views are not as popular on campuses as liberal views currently are.

If there is evidence to support such an argument, let it be presented for inspection.  As it stands, these anecdotes about supposedly biased professors and closed-minded students do not withstand scrutiny and do not prove what they are said to prove.  But their constant repetition certainly serves the purposes of those who wish to attack the legitimacy of American universities.