The Corner

Placating Protesters Damages the Campus Climate

Back in the ’70s, student protesters found they could pressure university administrators into giving in to their demands — and they have been doing it ever since. Most of our campuses today are festooned with an array of “diversity” courses (sometimes mandatory), multicultural centers, chief diversity and inclusion officers, initiatives to make the faculty more diverse, and so on. But that has not kept the peace with the protesters, who can always find something more that will supposedly make the campus truly “inclusive.”

One university where this has been playing out for a long time is the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison. In this Pope Center article, emeritus professor W. Lee Hansen writes about the most recent, unhappy developments there. He argues that, far from making UW a place of harmony where students can get on with learning, they will make the campus climate worse. It is being racially balkanized and the school’s increasing efforts at stamping out everything that might bother a student in one of the numerous “marginalized groups” will impede discussion of anything more controversial than sports. The administration’s moves, Hansen writes, “are apt to reinforce the unhealthy, separatist ideas that have been driving black student protests for the last few years.”

Particularly troubling is the school’s ramped-up campaign against “microaggressions.” Assuming that students in the numerous officially protected groups are so fragile that they will be harmed and feel “excluded” if anyone should utter anything they don’t like hearing, the school has “training” to help students avoid microaggressions, backed up with a bias-reporting system to snare offenders. The result, Hansen writes, is “to avoid trouble, students would be well advised to always choose their words with extreme care and perhaps even keep their mouths shut.”

Last year, the UW Board of Regents approved a strong statement favoring free speech on campus, but the obsession over eliminating speech that isn’t supposedly consonant with “diversity and inclusion” will undermine it.

Instead of harping about microaggressions, the university should try instructing students on the values of free speech and robust debate, Hansen argues. (Yes, but that would lead to more protests from the sort of students who cannot be appeased and go ballistic if ignored, so it won’t happen.)

Hansen puts his finger on the root of the problem, which is that the university has lost sight of its real job of educating students: “Above all, they need to know how reasonable, educated people in a university setting converse and interact in a civilized way.” UW’s current mania over “bias” and “microaggression” merely “encourages students to complain about each other when they should be learning how to reason with each other.”

If the higher-education bubble is deflating, as I think it is starting to, this is one of the reasons — the fact that so many higher-ed leaders are incapable of saying “no” to silly demands that waste resources and undermine academic integrity.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.