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.
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.
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.