Over the past six months, college campuses have been swept by protests focused on issues of race, equity, policing, and criminal justice. The protests have raised hard, important questions. Whether or not one finds a given claim persuasive, this kind of robust engagement is commendable and wholly in accord with the best traditions of higher education.
Of course, even casual observers of higher education are well aware that all of this energy has been accompanied by a seamier, more troubling side. Similar to the nation as a whole, protests have sometimes given rise to violence and physical intimidation. Champions of social justice have demanded that colleges investigate, discipline, and terminate faculty members who fail to hew to the campus consensus.
In one of the summer’s all-too-typical instances, hundreds of members of the Princeton community signed an “anti-racist” faculty statement, demanding, among other things, that the university create an “internal committee” of people “who are actively anti-racist” to supervise teaching, research, hiring, and university practices. When one classics professor, Joshua Katz, wrote of his refusal to sign the letter, he was immediately and heatedly denounced — including by his university president.
The challenge for university leaders is clear: to honor and respect the tough issues that have been raised while firmly safeguarding higher education’s commitment to civility, intellectual engagement, and free inquiry. On that count, Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro penned a letter last week that can serve as a tutorial in what it looks like for a college leader to be both responsive and responsible. Since June, the group “Northwestern University Community Not Cops” (NUCNC) has been urging the university to disband its police force and cut ties with the police. Those efforts have led to protests, which have recently grown violent and included the vandalism of local businesses. In response to all this, last week, Schapiro issued a public letter. In part, it read:
Dear members of the Northwestern community,
Over the weekend I received many messages of concern about protests organized by some of our students, among others, who are demanding the abolition of the Northwestern University Police Department.
We, as a University, recognize the many injustices faced by Black and other marginalized groups. We also acknowledge that the policing and criminal justice system in our country is too often stacked against those same communities. Your concerns are valid and necessary, and we encourage and, in fact, rely on your active engagement with us to make your school and our society equitable and safe for everyone. That said, while the University has every intention to continue improving NUPD, we have absolutely no intention to abolish it.
Northwestern firmly supports vigorous debate and the free expression of ideas — abiding principles that are fundamental for our University. We encourage members of our community to find meaningful ways to get involved and advocate for causes they believe in — and to do so safely and peacefully. The University protects the right to protest, but we do not condone breaking the law.
What started as peaceful protests have recently grown into expressions that have been anything but peaceful or productive. Crowds blocked the streets of downtown Evanston and nearby residential areas, disrupting businesses and local families, defacing property and violating laws and University standards. Some of the instigators appear not to be Northwestern students at all, but rather outside activists.
While the protesters claim that they are just trying to get our attention, that is simply not true. Several administrators — including our Provost, Deans, Interim Chief Diversity Officer and Vice Presidents for Research and Student Affairs — have held numerous discussions with concerned students, faculty and staff, and I am participating in a community dialogue tomorrow evening that was scheduled weeks ago . . .
I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the overstepping of the protesters. They have no right to menace members of our academic and surrounding communities. When students and other participants are vandalizing property, lighting fires and spray-painting phrases such as “kill the pigs,” we have moved well past legitimate forms of free speech . . .
An essential aspect of education is the discernment of actions and consequences. If you, as a member of the Northwestern community, violate rules and laws, I am making it abundantly clear that you will be held accountable.
If you haven’t yet gotten my point, I am disgusted by those who chose to disgrace this University in such a fashion. I especially condemn the effect of their actions on our friends, neighbors and other members of our community who are trying to sustain viable businesses, raise families, study and do research, while facing a global pandemic and the injustices of the world without losing their sense of humanity.
I’ve not always been a big fan of Schapiro’s. But this strikes me as a case of a university leader getting it exactly right. Campus leaders need to acknowledge dissenting voices, make room for their critics, and tend to all members of their community. Their students and faculty have every right to raise their concerns ardently and even aggressively. At the same time, there are campus rules and laws in place, and those should be applied even-handedly — against law-breakers, bullies, and vandals, whether they are of the right or the left.
Now, it’s fair to note that those of us troubled by campus monoculture sometimes paint with a broad brush when it comes to the troubling state of higher education. One consequence is that we may not take the time to recognize this kind of leadership as often as we should. Of course, campus protesters, too, tend to paint over-broadly and in simple hues. For instance, whatever the protesters’ feelings about the police, polling shows that black Americans overwhelmingly reject calls to “abolish the police” — in fact, 81 percent of black Americans say that they want a police presence in their neighborhoods that’s equal to or greater than what’s currently in place. While the protesters may wish it were otherwise, they don’t speak for a significant constituency. This is one reason why responsible campus leaders have not and will not simply accede to such demands.
How have Northwestern’s protesters responded to Schapiro’s effort to distinguish peaceful protest from destructive vandalism? His response was fiercely denounced in a letter from the faculty in the university’s Department of African American Studies — a letter that has been endorsed by the faculty in the Departments of Anthropology, Asian American Studies, History, Latino Studies, and Sociology. It prompted a blistering response from NUCNC, which took to Twitter to declare that “Morty [Schapiro] does not have the knowledge, tools, or desire, to engage with our demands or to address the needs of Black students” and that “he is racist + unfit for his job.”
Here’s hoping that Schapiro stands firm, and that he finds the support he needs and deserves as he does so.