University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

I’m not going to join  the criticism of the students at Yale, because I don’t know all that they’re going through. From a distance the symbolic things (like emails about Halloween costumes) that spark massive reactions often appear out of scale. Straws that break camels’ backs appear weightless.

So just two thoughts to share inspired by recent events.

Universities shouldn’t be in this business

A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College. That archaic paternalism is not just linguistic.

I’ve previous argued that, although they do have legal and ethical obligations to respond to sexual assault on campus, colleges shouldn’t be in the business of investigating and punishing those crimes. They are terrible at it, their intervention downgrades sexual assault from crime to (student) women’s issue, and the campus system separates sexual assault (and its activists) on campus from the problem in the wider society. It’s a paternalistic system.

I’m equally skeptical about their role in protecting people from racism. One of the Yale students arguing with Nicholas Christakis, the “master” of one of the university’s residential colleges, in a widely shared video, said:

As your position as master it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students that live in Silliman. … It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!

In fact, when Christakis took the job, he was quoted as saying:

The residential college system is one of the most distinctive features of Yale. Its virtue lies in the way it provides an intellectual, social, and moral home for students, and Yale is remarkable for its commitment to this kind of education.

Colleges have ethical and legal obligations to prevent and respond to racist discrimination and harassment on their institutional terrain. But everyone deserves a safe space where they can develop their social and moral foundations, in which to build communities and from which to launch their interventions into the wider society. Should universities be the ones to provide it — do only those admitted to Ivy League schools need this? Aren’t students adults, capable of waging the struggles to create their own social spaces? Some people offer a similar argument about the college athletes that make billions of dollars for their universities and the entertainment industry. The university is providing them with moral uplift and team spirit (so paying them would only undermine the pure motives of that effort). But left to their own devices, couldn’t student athletes negotiate a better deal for themselves?

Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough. (When I showed up to the University of Michigan — three years out of high school — it was my great fortune to have a dog, my excuse for never living in a dorm.) A system of houses staffed by faculty moral overseers is a structural mechanism for the prolonging of adolescence. This retards students’ development as adults and sets them further apart from the wider community, people who don’t have paternalistic institutions devoted to the construction of their moral selves in safe spaces — people who build civic institutions, and rely on the law and politics to safeguard their interests. Students rely on the cloistered campus system at their own risk, and its a shame that this social isolation (for better and worse) is concentrated among elite students.

Turning outward

It’s possible this system also encourages students to turn their activism inward, toward themselves, rather than outward to the wider social world. Here I am speaking generally, and explicitly not talking about the Yale students currently in the news, the most visible of whom (as in the video I linked) may or may not be involved in organized politics, I don’t know.

I’m old enough to remember documentaries about the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. That was a protest movement that grew out of student civil rights activists who wanted to promote political causes on campus. In the most famous incident, Jack Weinberg – fresh off a summer trip to support the civil rights movement in the South – was arrested as he staffed a table on campus for the Congress of Racial Equality, and students blocked the police car he was in for 32 hours.

That student movement was inspiring partly because it seemed to represent the selfless attempt by college students to use their privileges – and the education they were receiving – to intervene progressively in the wider society, on issues like civil rights, war, labor, feminism, and the environment. They were fighting for their right to carry that outside work onto the campus. (In my day at Michigan, leftists opposed the deputization of campus police, and the implementation of a non-academic code of conduct, for fear they would be used to squelch student activism.)

One way to think about that distinction in today’s terms is adult versus adolescent. It was students’ engagement in those adult politics that germinated the alliances that were so threatening to the powers that were.

One of my favorite speeches is Mario Savio’s from that movement, in 1964 (he starts at 0:22):

Savio was a Freedom Summer veteran who wanted to organize for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on the Berkeley campus. In that speech, he’s objecting to the production by the university of students as commodities for future employers — objecting, in one sense, to the success of the university’s mission if it means severing the ties between student activists and their work in the wider world. That’s one movement at one moment, but it’s an important one.

Of course students need to advocate for themselves. The Free Speech Movement advocated their right to political activism. In contemporary activism, Black Lives Matter unites the struggles of college students with the plight of the Blacks facing police everywhere.

USA Today
USA Today

The argument for outward facing connects to the paternalism question, because the more students are integrated with the real world off campus for their social and moral community-building needs, the more their politics might be drawn outward as well — and the public might be more supportive of them in return.

5 thoughts on “University paternalism and the outwardly-focused student movement

  1. “A lot of people were taken aback by the casual way that Black students refer to Nicholas Christakis as the “master” of Silliman College.”

    This means “I was taken back”. No one else is. In all the school systems derived from England (India, South Africa, Connecticut), teachers were called “master”, the principal was called “headmaster”.

    I do not even understand the splitting hairs between shreiking students and Silliman; Silliman clearly said “intellectual, social, and moral home “.

    “Living in dorms and university-sanctioned fraternities and sororities is bad enough”. From this line onwards, I am barely able to comprehend what you are saying. Throughout the world, dorms (and to a lesser extent, fraternity homes) are the norm for student living until 21. This has worked for hundreds of years. In the 1960s, people living in dorms were leaders in free speech movements. What caused the inward focus in 2010s? There are so many valid answers: helicopter parents, selective victimhood, minority-majority disengagement. To assume that a large number of students are interested in this circus is a major misunderstanding.


  2. Interesting take, but I think there may be other factors that explain the inward focus. For example, compared to the 1960s, students today are less white, far less male, and less economically advantaged. Surely, their demographic composition plays some role in determining the issues they find important, including campus climate issues around race and gender.

    Students today also pay a lot more for school and are preparing for a more challenging labor market, and universities are more market-oriented and consumer-driven. Because of this, I suspect students today are more likely to demand a satisfactory consumer experience from universities and to voice displeasure when that doesn’t occur.

    Also, many young people were raised under what Lareau calls the “logic of concerted cultivation.” She argues that this parenting style became apparent among the middle-class in the early 1990s. According to her theory, those raised under it learn to become more assertive with authority figures such as teachers and administrators, and they also develop a sense that they are entitled to a stimulating, safe, and rewarding daily life.

    Finally, students today of traditional college age are further away from what is widely considered full-fledged adulthood (e.g., leaving home, finishing school, being financially independent, getting married, and having a child) than their peers were in the 1960s. This may also explain why their activism is less engaged with the adult world beyond the college campus.

    In any event, it appears this brand of activism, along with the help of social media, is having an impact (to what end, I’m not sure). Case in point; the president of the University of Missouri resigned earlier today.


    1. I do not believe UM has much to do with social activism of students; basically, the higher paid football coach “fired” the president.


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