In two separate incidents over the past several weeks, two college theater departments have canceled productions after students objected to the content of the plays. These troubling episodes of self-censorship suggest that universities’ capitulation to student demands is interfering with their ability to fulfill their core educational purpose.
In late October, reports emerged that the theater department at Brandeis University had canceled a planned fall production of a play based on the comedy of Lenny Bruce by acclaimed playwright and Brandeis alum Michael Weller. The play, which centers around the efforts of a fictional Brandeis student to perform a Lenny-Bruce-inspired comedy routine on a modern-day campus, was meant to be a provocative exploration of how Bruce’s works might be received on campus today.
One of the students leading the opposition to the play told The Brandeis Hoot:
“The issue we all have with it is that [Weller] is an older, straight [sic] gendered, able-bodied and white man. It isn’t his place to be stirring the pot,” said Andrew Childs ’18 in a phone interview for a Hoot article published on Sept. 29. Andrew Childs is an Undergraduate Department Representative for the Theater Arts Department and a member of the season’s “play selection committee.”
Then, this week, the theater department at Knox College in Illinois canceled a production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan” after students objected to the play’s depiction of Asians, as well as to the possibility that white students would be cast in roles that might otherwise have been played by students of color.
In an editorial supporting the student protesters, the editorial board of The Knox Student wrote:
The theatre department is a very white department—like many departments at Knox—and it needs to acknowledge that they are coming from a place of privilege and prejudice. They need to listen to their students when they voice their concerns about not only the plays the department produces, but interactions with insensitive faculty and problematic syllabi.
To prevent future problems such as this play, and to be proactive in upholding values of true diversity, the theatre department—and other departments at Knox—need to engage in planned periods and workshops of interactive dialogues with their students. Students should not feel as if they are being silenced or do not have a space to speak within their own department. They should be encouraged to share their opinions and feel that they are being treated as if they are valid. To try to convince students of color that a play they feel is racist is in fact not racist is silencing their opinions.
The offended students at Knox and Brandeis were within their rights to protest the staging of these productions. And the theater faculty there were within their rights to cancel them: Self-censorship is not a violation of the right to free speech or academic freedom per se.
But these incidents indicate that student demands are having a powerful chilling effect on even the curricular decisions of university faculty — and to me, that calls into question whether universities are, in the current climate, abdicating their core responsibility to educate students for fear of offending them in the process.
This concern was at the core of a letter from an English professor at Knox, published in the student newspaper, regarding the cancellation of the Brecht play. Professor Emily Anderson wrote:
Works of art are artifacts, things crafted by actual people with real experiences. In studying them, each of us is obligated to be made uncomfortable. Becoming thoughtful citizens of the world requires that we confront sexist, racist, classist and colonialist texts. It also requires that we confront the texts that upend our sexism, racism, classism and colonialism.
It is these confrontations that teach us who we are, what we do and what we must change. Artifacts, art, texts—they require us to take a bold step back.
If I, as a person identified as white, cannot rightfully teach Edward Said’s Orientalism because I am not Palestinian and did not suffer the cultural oppression that Said suffered, I cannot explain how his theory of Orientalism undoes the arguments put forth by the white, imperialist critics who preceded him. Worse, my students can’t talk about it.
Every time faculty capitulate to student demands that unpopular or controversial speech be excised from the classroom (or, by extension, from the theater in the case of a theater department), students are emboldened to continue making such demands. Indeed, in recent years, FIRE has seen an unprecedented number of faculty facing student demands for discipline over their germane, protected classroom speech — something that, at least in my own anecdotal experience of nearly 13 years at FIRE, used to be more sacred.
Now, universities often feel like more of a corporate environment, in which students are seen as customers to please rather than as minds to open. And as Emory professor Mark Bauerlein wrote several years ago in The New York Times, this has had a deleterious effect on the once-revered role of faculty on campus:
You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfill. Only our assistance with assignments matters. When it comes to students, we shall have only one authority: the grades we give. We become not a fearsome mind or a moral light, a role model or inspiration. We become accreditors.
I think universities are at something of a crossroads at this moment. Are they going to abdicate their educational responsibilities and simply become degree factories, where in exchange for $270,000 (the approximate cost of four years at Brandeis, according to the university’s website), students come to campus, tell faculty and administrators what they are and aren’t willing to learn, and leave four years later with a degree but without an education that has challenged them in any meaningful way? Or are they going to push back against the illiberal impulses of students who seek to avoid engagement with material that might cause, as the Diversity Committee of the Knox Student Senate put it, “emotional distress”?