Higher education in the United States is taking its lumps these days. Its failure to equip college graduates for the world of work is regularly being lambasted by business men and politicians. So, too, with its ever-escalating tuition and room-and-board price tags. Congress is getting into the act by investigating for-profit (horrible phrase!) private post-secondary schools promising vocational training with jobs at the end. And revered institutions are making rookie mistakes like Harvard’s first inviting and then cancelling an on-campus Black Mass.
Heads are being scratched and questions raised about who is leading these institutions. A good example of higher ed’s questionable leadership has been demonstrated in the conduct of recent graduation ceremonies. Serious institutions appear to be vying with one another to embarrass themselves by whom they invite as speakers to provide the capstone educational experience for their graduating students. As if college students haven’t had enough sports, TV and movies, this year’s featured speakers include such public intellectuals as Stephen Colbert, Bill Cosby, Payton Manning and Sandra Bullock. The Commencement Season in higher education should be renamed the Silly Season.
Then there are the misfires, the distinguished individuals whose invitations were rescinded or who chose to cancel because of their potential to offend a segment of the students. Among those potential offenders are women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis; former Secretary of State Condi Rice at Rutgers; International Monetary Fund president and director Christine Lagarde at Smith and former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau at Haverford. These embarrassing cancellations come against a recent background of campus protests and university building seizures for the latest fashionable offensive: micro-aggressions.
It is a little difficult to get a handle on the “micro-aggression” issue because … well … the issues are small. Small, as in “possible slights resulting from using the wrong word in referring to a person of color’s label”. Or, as in Dartmouth’s failure to establish a policy to ban the school’s Indian mascot — despite being an institution historically hospitable to Native Americans. Or in the incomprehensible insensitivity of college administrators in implementing policies based on structural racism, classism, ableism, sexism and heterosexism.
Half way through my investigation of what is meant by “ableism” I was distracted by a memory. When I was a young faculty member at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, I learned an important lesson on what a university community is supposed to be. It was a tumultuous time in America. The Civil Rights movement was in high gear; the war in Vietnam had divided the nation; the drug culture and the sexual revolution were gathering steam. Students and faculty were distracted from their studies and deeply involved in debates about how we as individuals and as a nation should respond to these new events and conditions. The conversations and arguments were intense, but civil. But then something happened.
A group of students entered the administration building, went to the office of the president, Edward Levi, and announced that they were going to occupy his office until the University of Chicago submitted to their demands. What those specific demands were has faded from my memory, but, in general, they were for the university to take various public positions on the war and selected social injustices. As was the style of the day, these demands were made with much bravado and high decibel speechifying. As was also the style of the day, friendly representatives of the media were there to chronicle this great transformational moment. President Levi, however, would not play ball.
Instead of sitting down to negotiate with them, or setting up a special joint faculty-student committee to study their petition, or calling 911 for a SWAT to rescue the university, he calmly packed his briefcase and delivered a short speech. He told the protesters that this is not the way a university works. A university is about the free exchange of ideas, about rational dialogue, about “the life of the mind”. Coercive force had no place in such a setting. He gave the now unsettled group a chance to withdraw, but when they didn’t, he told them they were violating university rules and would be disciplined. He then led his staff out of the administration building and set up quarters in a nearby site.
Over the next few days, the Chicago newspapers and TV crews were crawling all over the campus, busy interviewing the all-too-available protestors and trying to get a response from the president. He, in turn, just kept letting it be known that a university does not negotiate with a gun to its head. He would not violate the idea of a university by responding to or even recognizing the demands. While the protesters kept talking and writing press releases, the press, itself, saw that there was no real action, let alone bloodshed, and they went off to cover other stories.
After 21 days of pizza and beer and washing themselves and their clothes in restroom sinks, the disappointed protesters slipped out of the building. President Levi, presumably after the cleaning crew’s work, quietly returned to his office. The protest was broken and, true to his word, each of the offending protestors was brought up before the university’s disciplinary board and sternly dealt with. They had joined a university community, benefitted from its riches, deliberately violated one of its core principles and were now excluded from it.
I have thought about this long ago event often in recent weeks. At the risk of being revealed to be an “area-ist,” I feel compelled to point out that the overwhelming quantity of these commencement speaker cancellations and micro-aggression protests are occurring in the American Northeast, the academic nerve-center of the country and the home of the Ivy League. It has been said that the politically incorrect movement has hatched at and spread from the humanities departments of these area colleges and universities. In the midst of musing about why the Northeast’s higher education is in the vanguard of all this silliness, I received an email from Noel Moore, an Illinois friend, who had just been to his son’s graduation at a mid-western institution, Purdue University in Indiana.
Purdue graduation was simultaneously a step back to a more traditional and confident America as well as a look forward to what could be if we dare to stay true to our principles.
How many universities today could create a convocation stage with a Men’s Glee Club, a great band, a ultra-sophisticated video background and side screen show, as well as a Catholic priest delivering two convocations (one quoting Mother Teresa) and a former Republican Governor and University President presiding as keynote speaker? To top it all off, the student body and crowd were decidedly a cross section of Asian, Indian and European as well as African and Arab culture. Where in the world of higher education today can one hear the audience sing a ripping rendition of the national anthem in countless accents?
Three honorary degrees were given; one to a African American engineer — a Purdue grad and accomplished entrepreneur, another to a two-sport athlete, WWII pilot, and former CEO of not one but two large companies, and finally to a former astronaut, doctor of medicine as well as engineer and holder of 17 patents.
Where were the protests? you might ask. There were none.
Where are the unemployed students amongst the approx. 1700 grads? There must have been a few but we did not meet any.
What would not be fixed in this country if we fired the Ivy League and put the Big Ten in charge of Washington? Very little.
Or maybe hired college administrators in the mold of the University of Chicago’s (the Midwest again!) Edward Levi.
Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS’s “This Morning”, ABC’s “Good Morning America”, “The O’Reilly Factor”, CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org