By Alix Rule. Rule is a doctoral student in sociology at Columbia University.
What is actually at stake in the recent conflicts at American universities? As on-campus skirmishes escalate into free-floating culture wars, two key points have been missed. First, many of these controversies have pitted students against professors. Second, when seen in that light — as conflicts between students and professors — few have anything to do with free speech. At Yale, for example, Erika Christakis, the assistant head of a residential college, volunteered her thoughts on a message that discouraged racist Halloween costumes: in her opinion, as a specialist in child psychology, “young people” should dress up as they liked. Students found her email infantilizing and offensive; they communicated those reactions forcefully. The head of the college, Christakis’s spouse, defended her position and her right to share her views. He was soon backed by other faculty. Students intensified their protest, and called for the couple to resign from their mentorship positions.
But Christakis’s freedom of speech wasn’t being threatened — not in the sense that an authority tried to limit it. Neither the state nor her employer sought to censor her, nor even a voting majority. She was taken to task for something she wrote, by undergraduate students.
What, then, did “free speech” mean to the many professors, at Yale and beyond, who went out of their way to side with Christakis in defense of the idea? To judge from the outpouring, they were concerned about preserving the university as a space for genuine debate, where even uncomfortable opinions can be encountered and everyone can learn from their differences. Of course — where there is no risk of formal power being exercised — that knife should cut both ways: it should mean not just that students be open to learning from the disagreeable opinions of their professors but also the other way around.
The question we should be asking is why these fights have been so bitter. Laura Kipnis’s collision with sexual-assault activists at Northwestern was another high-profile example; print versions of the debate have been equally nasty, touched off by features like “I’m a Liberal Professor and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.” The issues occasioning the controversies are not equivalent. Yet in these conflicts and others, both sides see themselves as progressive, desiring a more just campus and society. Both support Black Lives Matter and want their universities to be more inclusive; both include self-characterized feminists. Why have their arguments been framed as contests in which only one side can win?
The sense of vulnerability expressed by today’s undergraduate activists has attracted a lot of attention — first from the left and now from a delighted right. Writing in the New York Times, Todd Gitlin, who teaches at Columbia University, went further than most professors to empathize with the protesters at his university (and mine). He hypothesized that students’ feelings of insecurity had a foundation, namely “mountainous debt loads,” the destabilization of work, and careers that “dissolve into serial jobs,” before concluding that students should, effectively, man up.
Well, maybe. Isn’t it simpler to believe that students feel vulnerable for the reasons they claim? Police who are paid to protect people are instead shooting black citizens, the courts that are supposed to be holding people to account are not punishing them, and the silence of universities about these issues makes what are supposed to be places for truth-telling look pretty hypocritical. The other major context for the visibility of student protest is the wave of federal Title IX investigations into the handling of campus rape, an area that universities have long claimed authority to mediate despite the institutional conflicts of interest involved. Here, attention has revealed that many universities have been worse than negligent in dealing with the students who entrusted themselves to the schools’ internal processes.
Students’ vulnerability makes them emotional — and of course justified emotion is the basis of any social critique. And maybe the students’ impulse to cast their professors as part of an older generation that is complicit with enduring patterns of injustice is likewise understandable. Other cohorts of student protesters have gotten away with it, after all: many of the professors involved in these same disputes, including Gitlin, identify with an earlier generation whose critique of “the system” has gone down in history, and not for its subtlety.
Students then and now have often failed to distinguish their professors from the institutions at which they work. But in casting so much recent student activism as a danger to the intellectual freedom they value, professors are also conflating their students, particularly (tuition-paying) undergrads, with university administrations and the forces to which they are responsive.
Like students’ own, professors’ sense of vulnerability is not merely psychological. In the case of adjunct instructors and researchers — who, as everyone has grown tired of reading, do an increasing proportion of academic grunt work — the grounds for that feeling are obvious, urgent, and of the kind Gitlin suggests: debt, precarious jobs, zero ability to plan for the long term. They (we) need unions.
Tenured faculty also have legitimate reasons to feel vulnerable. The response of universities such as my own to the guidelines issued by the federal Office of Civil Rights as it began investigating student Title IX complaints makes for a case in point. The OCR guidelines say that “responsible employees,” to be designated by a university, are required to report cases of sexual misconduct. Columbia and other universities responded by designating virtually all academic employees who have regular contact with undergraduates as mandatory reporters. This means that any conversation with an undergraduate that refers to what might count as sexual “misconduct” must be reported to the university’s administrative staff for Title IX scrutiny, even if doing so is against a student’s wishes.
The effect of this policy, if heeded, would be to shut down frank talk about sex on campus — and to restore the silence in which administrators handled rape allegations before the guidelines. Rules like this make it impossible to take seriously university-sponsored efforts at “community conversation” about “sexual respect” — to quote administrators at my own institution. Such a policy relieves universities of the fraught and lawsuit-laden burden of saying when sex should be punishable, by quietly devolving the risk in these decisions to professors, research scientists, and graduate teaching assistants. (Columbia has since begun to argue before the National Labor Relations Board that T.A.’s are not employees at all, with the aim of demonstrating that they have no right to unionize.)
If students and professors are feeling vulnerable and embattled, one group is secure, and has, perhaps, been made more secure by our squabbles. Americans have been hearing for a long time about how bloated the administrative budgets of universities have become. Yet administrators, and the lawyers and consultants they hire, aren’t sitting idle. They are working hard to protect the brands of the institutions they work for and the security of their endowments. Passing legal exposure from the institution to the individuals who work there is just one way of dealing with the tricky issues that threaten to alienate a university’s stakeholders — be they parents, donors, or future alumni. There’s no reason to imagine that this process has any respect for the university as a space for genuine debate, where one might encounter unpopular opinions. Academics who worry about academic freedom are right to, but in focusing on student protests, their attention has been in the wrong place.
The recent pattern of campus conflict shows us that we are confronting a university in which both students and faculty lack real control over the way their institutions are organized and managed. Observers have pointed out that the ambivalent outcomes of today’s student activism owe much to the fact that universities are increasingly run like corporations. But they write about the “corporate university” as though we know what that is. I’m not so sure that, collectively, we do.
Campus politics badly needs a way of talking about what’s going on inside the university right now, cast in light of the systemic concerns that affect our lives outside it. Figuring out what the corporate university is, making that understanding public, and calling for something better is a solid project for campus activism. It’s a basis on which different generations of activists — generations that are different demographically, in addition to being different in political style and idiom — can start talking to one another. A critique of the corporate university would shift the debate from whether academic work needs the protection of unions to how to make these organizations strong, democratic, and responsive enough to their members that they can function on campus as alternative poles to administrative power — and make sure universities remain the bulwarks of free expression that they claim to be.
It also might be a way to win. After ignoring calls to address hate speech against students of color for months, the president and the chancellor of the University of Missouri resigned when the football team threatened a strike that would have cost $1 million within a week. Clearly, the athletes understood what the corporate university was.
In the meantime, university administrations and their allies have been opportunistic in playing up whatever side of these conflicts suits them, assimilating outrage at campus sexual assault and claims to free speech with equal haste. The worthy ideals that have mobilized students and professors come to mean less and less. In the month following the resignations at Missouri, a Republican legislator in the university’s home state introduced a bill that would revoke the scholarship of any student athlete who “calls, incites, supports or participates in any strike.” Students and professors will not always agree. But both groups would benefit if they were more careful in describing their targets, and perhaps more imaginative about where they find their friends.