Education

How to Rein In Student Mobs

New York University students participate in a protest against then President-elect Donald Trump in Manhattan on November 16, 2016. (Bria Webb/Reuters)
At NYU, administrators threatened the protesters’ financial aid, and the woke warriors went back to their rooms.

Spare a thought for those knights of social justice, the student protesters. Motivated by the yearning for a better world, they sacrifice their time and energy in service to their ideals. They display courage, stamina, determination, and creativity in coming up with rhymes in their chants.

Except if you tell them they’re jeopardizing their financial aid or their housing. Then they fold immediately.

The extent of student fortitude was mapped out in a natural experiment conducted at New York University last week, when students vowed to occupy a student center around the clock (it normally closes at 11 p.m.) until their demands for a meeting with the board of trustees were met. A photo in the Village Voice showed seated students blocking access by taking up most of the space on a stairway. The underlying ideals appeared to be the usual dog’s breakfast of progressive fancies — something about divesting from fossil fuels, and also allegations of unfair labor practices.

NYU administrators showed little patience for the activists disrupting the proceedings at the Kimmel Center for University Life. But how to dissolve the protest? It turned out that there was no need to bring in the police. Ringing up the students’ parents was all it took. The phone calls advised parents that students who interfered with campus functions could be suspended, and that suspensions can carry penalties of revoked financial aid or housing. The students “initially planned to stay indefinitely,” notes the Voice’s report. “Instead, the students departed within forty hours.”

So the intended public display of solidarity with the oppressed classes and the besieged earth itself ended meekly. It was like the thrilling climax of Spartacus as reimagined by the writers of Veep: “I’M SPARTA — wait, what? Do I like my one-bedroom with eat-in-kitchen in Greenwich Village? Why do you ask?”

Flustered NYU students, unfamiliar with the proposition that open hostility to the university could be repaid in kind, reeled. A Puerto Rican student, Carlos Matos, told the Voice he didn’t expect administrators to call his father on him. “I don’t believe it is appropriate for NYU to use emergency contacts in this way,” he said.

NYU spokesman John Beckman told the paper that the tactic used by the school was “in line with our long-standing practice.” He insisted that the administration did not “threaten students about their housing or other financial aid, but it is simply the case that certain possible disciplinary outcomes — such as suspension — would have an impact on those matters.”

I suppose Beckman and I will have to agree to disagree on whether to inform a parent, “If your son doesn’t vacate the premises, it might blow up his financial aid” constitutes a threat. The point is: It worked! Order returned, unimpeded access to the student hangout was restored, and students were generously freed from their monotonous sit-in and pointed back in the general direction of the classroom.

The default position on many campuses is to cower before the mob. Each time a college or university does so, it invites more disruption.

Higher ed’s decades-long policy of backing away from acting in loco parentis was, at least momentarily, reversed. What else might happen if other universities and colleges rediscovered the positive effects of asserting authority rather than recoiling from it? What if, for instance, Middlebury had withdrawn financial aid and/or housing from dozens of students for disrupting the speech of an invited scholar, Charles Murray, last March? What if Middlebury had even hinted at the possibility it might do so? Middlebury would almost certainly become a much more welcoming place for the free exchange of ideas, hence almost certainly more in line with its supposed ideals as an institution of learning. Instead, after the debacle in which Murray was subjected to (in the words of PEN America) a “lawless and criminal attack” that “marks a new low in this challenged era for campus speech,” the college merely issued a meaningless pile of paper reprimands ranging from probation (just the ordinary kind, not even the double-secret variety) to disciplinary letters being placed in the students’ files.

Instead of maintaining order, the default position on many campuses is to cower before the mob. Each time a college or university does so, it invites more disruption. At another New York City campus, the City of New York Law School, the dean announced there would be no punishment for the students who disrupted a speech this month by an invited guest, law professor Josh Blackman. The disruption was a clear violation of university policy establishing the right to speak without “abuse — physical, verbal, or otherwise from others supporting conflicting points of view.” Last April, the administration of Claremont McKenna College allowed a mob to prevent students and faculty from attending a scheduled speech by author Heather Mac Donald.

At times, campus mandarins give in to the mob before the mob even forms: When a group at St. Olaf College proposed to invite conservative columnist Ben Shapiro to speak, its president refused, alluding to the possibility that his arrival would cause a replay of campus disruptions that had occurred a year earlier for unrelated reasons.

NYU shows us that it’s possible to maintain order on campus, even in the face of the strenuously aggrieved, with a tactic as simple as a phone call. If it disabused the protesters of any notion that the world must stop and listen to them any time they’re feeling feverish with injustice, it did them a favor. Undergraduates often joke about how ill-prepared they are for life after graduation, “out there in the real world.” Colleges and universities should seize the opportunity to teach the real-world fact that being woke is not a license to interfere with other people’s business.

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