Perspective: Welcome to ‘woke’ university

Is illiberal campus activism redefining American values?

Before 2020 began and life came to a screeching halt, it had grown obvious to observers of higher education trends that something very strange, even dangerous, was unfolding at universities across the country.

Perhaps the peculiar situation first became evident in the fall of 2015, when a group of Yale University students surrounded one of their professors and berated him for failing to protect them from offensive ideas, screaming, “You have created space for violence” and “I am sick looking at you.”

Maybe matters became clear when in early 2017 students at Middlebury College in Vermont attacked two speakers — the conservative scholar Charles Murray and Middlebury’s own liberal political scientist Allison Stanger — to prevent them from engaging in unsafe discussion. (Stanger left the incident in a neck brace.)

Or maybe the clarifying incident actually unfolded some weeks later on the other side of the country, in Washington state, when progressive student activists at Evergreen College chased a liberal professor named Bret Weinstein off campus for the crime of being the only white professor to remain at work during the campus’ racial justice “Day of Absence” — a day during which white people were asked to remain at home.

Illustration by Craig Frazier

A wave of purportedly liberal but decidedly illiberal activism — unleashed during the insufficiently progressive second term of President Barack Obama and cresting as the election of Donald Trump turned those disappointed progressives toward blind panic — consumed elite liberal arts colleges, the Ivy League and many large state schools.

Protesters shouted down speakers with whom they disagreed, or prevented them from coming to campus in the first place. Students routinely exerted pressure on school leaders to cancel events featuring nonliberal thinkers and figures. They learned to weaponize the university’s vast administrative bureaucracy against dissenters, filing formal complaints against other students and professors. Just as often as not, these complaints’ targets — who often faced lengthy and Kafka-esque investigations — were otherwise left-wing, but had used language in a manner contrary to the new dictates of modern progressivism.

Buzzwords within the world of college activism such as safe space, trigger warning and microaggression have entered the cultural lexicon. And they did not remain campus-exclusive expressions; rather, like the student-activists themselves, they graduated and joined the broader world.

But contrary to the expectations of those who thought real life would disabuse progressive young people of their more militant notions about the dangers of problematic speech, it was the activist mindset that triumphed.

The collective set of millennial progressive values with respect to racism, gender, speech and violence — derisively branded “woke-ism” by its critics, an appropriation of the progressive word for the idea that people need to wake up to the injustices around them — have come to influence every sector where elite opinion holds any sway: from the media to the corporate boardroom to the armed forces of the U.S. military.

“We all live on campus now,” observed the writer Andrew Sullivan in 2018. Three years later, it’s as if we live within the Oberlin College gender and sexuality department.

This means that we should look to the campus activist culture of the present to discover what our broader culture might resemble a few years from now. But of course, 2020 was a very, very strange year for students — and 2021 might be even stranger.

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The pandemic did not put an end to student activism, but it certainly focused the national media’s attention elsewhere. This may have given the public the false impression that 2020 was a quiet year for students, when in reality they were just as exercised as previous years.

“Campus activism is in full swing,” says Jennifer Kabbany, editor of The College Fix, a conservative higher education news website. “The pandemic didn’t even put a dent in it.”

Opposition to racism was the dominant theme of progressive activism last year, and it’s likely to remain in vogue for the time being. The keystone event, of course, was the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which prompted national protests over police violence and racial justice in city after city.

Campuses were much the same. Activists at a handful of universities, including the University of Minnesota, successfully pressured their administrations to cut ties with the police while others wrested promises that the campuses would grapple with more nebulous concerns about the racial climate.

To take just one example, Foothill College in California crafted a Black Lives Matter action statement at the behest of student demonstrators. This plan called for the college to hire both an African American “mental health ambassador” and also an expert “on racial trauma in the Black community to conduct a series of workshops, dialogue sessions and a student conference.” Indeed, mandates that administrators fix the ill-defined emotional and mental traumas of students of color have become perhaps the most common entry on activists’ lists of demands.

“Universities bent over backward to prove their dedication to being actively anti-racist in the wake of George Floyd,” says Kabbany. “Names were stripped from buildings, statues were yanked from the quad and mascots were retired.”

Much campus activism in the last decade has focused on the assumption that so-called problematic ideas — typically conservative ones, from the standpoint of the average young person — are not merely offensive but actively traumatizing. This theory was first popularized by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in their book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which explores how the pursuit of “safetyism” has undermined classical liberal values like free speech and due process on campus.

Offensive ideas, according to some student activists, harm their emotional well-being, which is an aspect of their overall health and safety. The university has an obligation to protect students’ safety, and thus it has an obligation to shield them from speech and expression that might hurt them. Efforts to de-platform conservative speakers like Christina Hoff Sommers, Heather Mac Donald and Ben Shapiro proceed straightforwardly from such logic.

This means that activist-led campaigns for a kind of censorship are likely to increase as the university grows more determined to meet unrealistic demands for safety. And of course campuses are very exercised about safety these days.

Hundreds of institutions of higher education are expected to require students to be vaccinated — including the entire University of California system — but many will also require masks and social distancing, regardless of vaccination status. Duke University, for instance, has mandated COVID-19 vaccination — or valid proof of medical or religious exemption — as well as weekly testing for its student population.

The idea that campuses are uniquely unsafe places doesn’t make much sense, regardless of the kind of threat being considered: They are not particularly crime prone; the young people who disproportionately make up the campus are far less at risk of a negative COVID-19 health outcome; if encountering conservative ideas is truly emotionally traumatizing, there is no place where one is less likely to encounter such a thing. Yet the perception that safety is in short supply and it’s the university’s job to do better has been quite the toxic mix. There’s every reason to expect it to be worse as pandemic restrictions extend themselves into the 2021-22 school year.

Indeed, it certainly appears as if the powers that be are trying to re-create the exact conditions of the late Obama-era campus experience. The person most directly responsible for the witch hunts that became commonplace on campus in the 2010s is likely to return to prominence: Catherine Lhamon, Obama’s assistant secretary for civil rights within the Education Department.

During her tenure, Lhamon enforced a set of arbitrary rules relating to Title IX, the federal statute that mandates sex- and gender-based equality in education. The Obama Education Department took the view that Title IX did not require mere nondiscrimination, but also obligated the federal government to take decisive action against problematic words and deeds of a sexual nature. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights advised public universities and colleges that they could lose federal funding unless they proactively investigated all accusations of sexual misconduct, and also instructed school administrators to adjudicate these cases in a manner that fundamentally deprived the accused of any opportunity to defend themselves.

What resulted were trials without defense attorneys, witnesses and, in some cases, judges: The government strongly recommended a single-investigator model, empowering a lone official to decide the merit of the charges and rule accordingly. These procedures were so brazenly unfair that hundreds of wrongfully expelled students eventually filed suit, with the majority prevailing in court.

Regardless of the outcome of individual cases, the mere presence of such a powerful weapon — trial by Title IX — became a vital tool for activists. It was not just actions that triggered Title IX: Mere speech could be just as problematic.

At Northwestern University, in spring 2015, a feminist professor was investigated under the auspices of Title IX because she wrote an article that criticized student-activists on her campus for using Title IX to settle scores. “My point in citing this legal morass,” wrote the professor, Laura Kipnis, “was that students’ expanding sense of vulnerability, and new campus policies that fostered it, was actually impeding their educations as well as their chances of faring well in post-collegiate life, where a certain amount of resilience is required of us all.”

But according to federal education bureaucrats, Title IX forbade retaliation, and thus any criticism of the activists was illegal. Kipnis was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by her university, but as far back as 2013, campus victims’ rights activists have rallied under the banner Know Your IX to spread awareness of the power of this statute. Some within the group have even had the Roman numeral IX tattooed on their ankles.

Lhamon left her post as Donald Trump became president, and the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, put her best efforts toward reforming the Obama-era Title IX guidance.

By the end of Trump’s presidency, DeVos had crafted much narrower guidance that guaranteed basic due process rights for anyone who had to undergo the proceedings. Importantly, her revised guidance mandated that accused students and professors would have the right to an attorney, to know the charges against them and to confront the person leveling the charge. These commonsense practices — which are foundational to the very concept of justice in the Western world — were sadly absent during her predecessor’s regime, but DeVos took important steps to remedy the situation.

Well, everything old is new again: In May 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Lhamon to the same job she held during the Obama years. Lest anyone worry that Lhamon had gone soft, she reiterated during her July confirmation hearings that she did not believe innocent-until-proven-guilty was a necessary component of Title IX adjudication. 

Assuming that she does indeed return to her old post — her nomination is awaiting action by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after a committee deadlocked over it earlier this month — she will be well-positioned to reequip campus activists with their favorite weapon.

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Speak with progressive activists — as I did for my 2019 book, “Panic Attack,” a chronicle of modern campus protest tactics — and they will mostly tell you they feel frustrated that so few of their goals have been met.

But in reality, their activism has racked up an impressive number of victories. Indeed, it’s conquered the culture and infiltrated countless American institutions. Corporations now engage in competition to flatter the activist mindset: Consider Coca-Cola coming out swinging against Georgia’s voting restrictions or Ben and Jerry’s deciding not to serve ice cream in occupied Palestine. The latter is hard not to read as a straightforward endorsement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a protest movement on many campuses against the state of Israel.

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The pandemic has not diminished the zeal of the student activist, nor provided much reason to expect that norms of free speech and due process are poised to reassert themselves on college campuses. In theory, now would be an ideal time for administrators to reset students’ expectations for what healthy participation in campus life looks like. In practice, they will probably continue giving the loudest and most aggrieved members of their community exactly what they want. Why stop asking for it now?

It’s worth keeping in mind that there was just one group that earned a pass from enforcers of pandemic restrictions in the government and medical community: last summer’s anti-racism protesters. According to the expert consensus, fighting for progressive justice is good for one’s health. Expect more of this prescription.

Robby Soave is a senior editor of Reason magazine and author of the forthcoming book “Tech Panic: Why We Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Facebook and the Future.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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