By Susan Mulligan at US News
It was students in California who birthed a new era on college campuses, one in which collegians would demand to be included, to be treated like adults and to have a very public say on such hotbed issues as civil rights and the Vietnam War. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964 became a defining moment in a nationwide trend, with students insisting they would not be silenced on some of the most controversial issues of the day.
A half-century later, campuses are again the site of unrest and tension, but it’s not about making speech more free – it’s about curtailing hurtful speech and expression, whether displayed in a dormitory name, a Halloween costume or the would-be reporting by journalists barred from covering a protest for fear they won’t parrot the demonstrators’ views. Instead of warring, united, against the campus administration and government officials, students are facing each other down, demanding both diversity and a separate place to express their differentness. Professors worry about offending students in class with provocative texts or topics, while college administrators – far from being asked to let the young adults fight their own battles – have been asked to step in as arbiters in the conflicts among the students themselves.
While the students’ anxieties are clearly genuine (hunger strikes have been employed at the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College), their struggle is radically different from that of an earlier generation. The buzzwords of the antiwar students of the ’60s – free speech, free love and down with the “Establishment” – have been replaced by phrases that make contemporary college life sound like a war zone. Safe spaces. Trigger warnings. Cultural appropriation.
Conservatives have derided the new campus environment as so-called political correctness run amok, with both professors and administrators forced to limit key college experiences – learning new things and being exposed to different points of view – in the name of preventing real or manufactured outrage over offensive comments or behavior.
But experts say there are many other factors involved. There’s the inevitable vulnerability of the bubble-wrap generation, those young people whose baby boomer parents adjudicated fights their children had with their friends and defended their kids against complaints from teachers about behavior or study habits. There’s the idea – not so new, notes Greg Lukianoff, who has written extensively on the topic of the modern campus environment – of the student as customer, a high tuition-paying consumer college administrators don’t want to agitate. There’s also social media and the Internet, which have made young people accustomed to immediate responses (even in the midst of complicated conflicts), and which have enabled them to curate their own, reaffirming news.
“It’s been frustrating, watching the sort of speech [suppression] shift over from administrators to students,” says Lukianoff, author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate” and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for free speech on campuses. “Students should be aware that these tools are not always going to be on their side,” he adds, referring to students seeking to quell hurtful speech and expression. “Make sure you imagine the [environment] you’re creating.”
Protests at the University of Missouri (where the president, Timothy M. Wolfe, resigned after complaints he had not responded adequately to racist and anti-Semitic acts on campus) have been accompanied by a slew of me-too demonstrations and campaigns across the country, largely at private institutions. Students at Yale University erupted in anger and frustration after a dormitory associate master wrote a lengthy email to the community suggesting that students did not need to have the administration telling them what Halloween costumes to wear, even if those costumes offended some fellow students. Students demanded that the writer of the email, Erika Christakis, (who did not defend potentially offensive costumes, but noted that students could look away or let the wearer know of his or her insensitivity) resign. University President Peter Solovey declined that demand, but did agree to create a multi-disciplinary center and proposed hiring four new instructors to teach the “histories, lives and cultures of unrepresented and under-represented communities.”
Other protests occurred at Smith College in Massachusetts, Georgetown University in the nation’s capital (where students held a sit-in to demand, successfully, that the university change the names on buildings named for university officials who participated in the sale of slaves), Ithaca College in New York, Claremont McKenna College in California, Princeton University in New Jersey, Purdue University in Indiana, Occidental College in Los Angeles, Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the University of Alabama. In many of the cases, students demanded the resignations of a campus president or dean, with limited success. And specific grievances have centered on matters that critics say fall into the arena of free speech: a costume choice, comments made by a professor in class or on social media (or even the subject matter of a class).
Freedom of the press, too, was challenged at two of the schools. In Missouri, students (and a professor, who has since apologized) sought to bar a student news photographer from a demonstration in a public space. At Smith, where students held a sit-in in solidarity with the Mizzou protesters, media was also banned unless, an organizer said, they agreed to explicitly state in their articles that they supported the students’ movement. Smith College’s administration did not agree, but did not interfere. “Smith does not support a ban on media. We do support the students’ right to set the rules for their event,” spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel explains in an email.
At the University of Kansas, a communications studies professor has been targeted by students who are demanding she be fired after using a racial epithet in class, which they say fit with a pattern of “unacceptably offensive” behavior. By many accounts, the professor, Andrea Quenette, did not use the word to attack or insult a student. During a discussion about race relations, she told the class that as a white woman, she had not seen visible evidence of racism on campus, noting specifically that she had not seen the n-word spray-painted on University of Kansas buildings.
Students experienced “shock, anger and pain” at her verbiage, protesters said in an open letter, and answered the n-word with the t-word – also potent after the recent attacks in Paris and Mali. “Most immediately concerning are the ways this terminology functions as terroristic and threatening to the cultivation of a safe learning environment,” the letter reads. Quenette is on paid leave she requested while the matter is being investigated.
Students, too, are feeling silenced by what critics say is an overreaction to real or imagined slights against a demographic group.
Theo Menon, a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Minnesota, introduced a resolution in the school’s student association aimed at creating an annual September recognition for the victims of 9/11. It was shot down, Menon says, because people were worried the observance would contribute to Islamophobia. Menon, who is mixed-race and says he does not experience racism on campus, says he does not see his resolution as an attack on any religion, but simply an effort to honor the dead.
“To me, an institution of higher learning should be a place where I can have my ideas challenged and develop as a person,” Menon says. “I can’t believe this is happening on college campuses, where we are supposed to be engaging in discussion and debate about what we believe about the world.” A spokeswoman for the student association, Emma Mazour, says in an email that the main discussion about the non-binding resolution centered on its implementation challenges. Menon says that is not the case, as he offered an amendment to create a simple shared remembrance (such as via a mass email) instead of a harder-to-organize moment of silence.
Regardless, muzzles have replaced megaphones on campus in many cases. And Bettina Aptheker, one of the leaders of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, is concerned at the trend.
“As abhorrent as some speech is, and I certainly think [some] is, the administration of a university should not be in the position of policing it, because it’s a very slippery slope,” says Aptheker, who is now a feminist studies professor at the University of California–Santa Cruz. “A lot of us liberal types or radical types could say racism is on the upswing, and I agree with that. But I don’t think the solution to that is restricting freedom of speech,” she adds.
Students in the recent demonstrations are looking not for liberty but for protection – a “safe space,” in the modern lexicon. But that term (Lukianoff says he can’t trace its origin) means far more than a dormitory impenetrable to intruders, also connoting a place where students, especially minority students, can be themselves, expressing their own struggles as an underrepresented or underserved group.
Paradoxically, that also means having minority groups deliberately segregating themselves from the rest of the campus on which they feel alienated.
“It’s a place, either a physical space or not a physical space, where you’re allowed to talk about these feelings without feeling you have to defend your position,” says Rachel Lee, 21, a Korean national and a junior at Claremont McKenna College. Students at the college recently forced a dean to resign after she responded to an article by a Latina student from a working-class family – who wrote of feeling out of place at the small college – by saying the school needed to do more to welcome students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”
“This is the case on a lot of campuses where people say, ‘Maybe you’re being too sensitive, or wrong in believing something,'” adds Lee, explaining the calls for campus cultural centers for African-Americans, Asians and Native Americans.
But calls for a “safe space” can also create a dangerous one for professors, says Lukianoff. In the Kansas case, for example, students calling for Quenette’s dismissal say she is contributing to an “unsafe learning space.” And the standard gets even more complicated with the demand for “trigger warnings,” advance notice of a class topic or verbiage that might offend some students.
Rani Neutill, a former Brandeis University professor who once taught a class on sex and the cinema, wrote in a Salon post about how a student requested she give notification in an email the evening before class about any material in a film clip that might set off a student with a particular sensitivity. At Duke University, a freshman wrote on Facebook earlier this year that he would not read the book “Fun Home “ as assigned for class because its sex scenes, which include lesbian sex, would force him to compromise his “personal Christian moral beliefs.”
And it doesn’t stop there. “Cultural appropriation,” or adopting an element of someone else’s culture, is also under fire on campus. That concern led the University of Ottawa to drop a yoga class designed to include students with disabilities because the age-old meditative exercise is taken from a culture victimized by colonialism. It’s also why it’s just not right, for example, to wear a glitzy sari for Halloween if you’re not actually Indian, says Susan Scafidi, a Fordham University law professor who teaches a class in fashion law. “Cultural appropriation really goes beyond the idea of mocking someone. It has to do more with the commodification or true assumption of someone’s culture,” she says.
The Associated Students of the University of Washington this year prepared a six-minute video advising students on what not to wear for Halloween to avoid cultural appropriation, including grass skirts and leis (which the students say offend Pacific Islanders), drag attire (unless you actually are gay and are expressing that side of yourself) and karate outfits (unless you’ve earned the belt)
Lukianoff thinks the protections don’t prepare students for post-college life. “I think we’re teaching this generation of students the intellectual habits that will make them anxious and depressed,” he says. “If they think there will [always] be someone out there with the power to police” speech, “that’s setting students up to be constantly enraged and frustrated with the world.”
While the Halloween costume hysteria has been lampooned in the press, Lee says there are much more serious issues facing minority groups on campus – and that the discussions of cultural appropriation and names on buildings are merely easier outlets for students’ frustrations. Indeed, the Yale student magazineDOWN includes powerful and disturbing descriptions of discrimination against African-American female students, suggesting minority students’ sense of alienation is very real, and can’t be fixed by renaming buildings and policing Halloween attire.
“I think part of the reason why this movement has been so hard is because it’s really hard to pinpoint what’s wrong, what exactly is the cause of the problem,” Lee says. “Why do people feel so alienated? It’s not like they don’t have friends from other races.
“Although the dean [at Claremont McKenna] has resigned, you can’t say it’s the dean’s fault,” she adds. “It’s a campus climate sort of thing that is inevitably formed by the students.”
Whether the beleaguered university presidents and deans can solve the problem is another question. Meanwhile, the battle over free speech rages on.