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Perspective: Netflix’s ‘The Chair’ makes one thing clear — students are running our universities

It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are on campus four years or four days or four hours. They are in charge

Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

“Ignore the students.” That was the advice I received from a longtime observer of higher education when I first started writing about the industry more than two decades ago. It’s not that the student experience doesn’t matter. But students are on campus for a relatively short period of time, he explained. It is faculty who shape the institutions.

To a large extent I found this to be true and it’s one of the reasons I began to write about tenure. What was this “job for life” arrangement doing to the labor market in higher education? What did it mean that professors so rarely left an institution after they had been there for a few years? And how did that encourage a kind of unhealthy groupthink rather than the academic freedom that tenure seemed to promise?

These days, though, such questions seem almost quaint. It is impossible to ignore the students anymore. Though they are still on campus for a relatively short period of time, they seem to be in charge of our colleges and universities. This inmates-running-the-asylum dynamic is on full view in the new Netflix mini-series “The Chair,” released a couple of weeks ago.

Starring Sandra Oh, the show follows the usual lines of academic satire. It is true that unlike David Lodge’s globe-trotting literary theorists in books like “Changing Places,” the professors in “The Chair” are not living the high life. But there is plenty of departmental politics, petty back-stabbing and sexual shenanigans. What’s different in the world of Pembroke University, the fictional prestigious school in “The Chair,” is that the students are calling all the shots.

The first way this becomes clear is that the new department chair is charged with getting rid of faculty with low enrollments. Though these are professors who have tenure, they are being pushed out because they have so few students. And the students are not interested in their classes because the professors do this boring thing called lecturing. They don’t try to make the material “relevant.” In one running gag of the show, Oh repeatedly asks her older female colleague to please read her evaluations. What she finds are responses not only irrelevant to the class, but personally offensive. Reasonably enough, she sets them on fire. The most popular professor, of course, is a black woman who encourages her students to perform songs about the lack of women in Moby Dick.

The real influence of students, though, is felt when a crisis occurs — or when they cause one. The popular professor Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass, makes an offhanded joke about — what else? — Hitler during his class. Students record the episode on their phones and pretty soon the entire campus is demanding Dobson apologize. Administrators — guided by the steady hand of communications professionals — say they don’t care about the context of the remark or academic freedom. What they care about is the school’s reputation and the students’ demands.

Dobson, who fancies himself a popular professor, holds a “town hall” on the quad to answer students concerns about his behavior. In a scene reminiscent of Nicholas Christakis’s 2016 confrontation with Yale students over whether it was okay for his wife to suggest that maybe we didn’t need to police Halloween costumes so much, Dobson tries his hand at reason and students offer illogical, if not moronic, sloganeering in response.

Dobson says: “Universities should be a place to uphold free discourse.” A student answers: “It’s all about free speech as long as you’re the one talking.” Hey! You’re berating a professor on the quad and there will be no consequences for you. Are you claiming you don’t have free speech?

Dobson says, “I want this to be a forum where everyone can voice their opinion.” A student says: “You’re a white tenured professor who writes op-eds for The New York Times. You really think this is an equal forum?” No one — not the university or the Constitution — guarantees you equal access to The New York Times op-ed page as part of your free speech guarantee.

A student compares Dobson’s joke to someone painting a swastika in a dorm. The professor says, “If you are suggesting that what I did is the same as propagating neo-Nazism, that is inaccurate. That is a willful misrecognition.” And the students ask, “Are you saying we misrecognized a Nazi salute? This is how it always goes. You do something that is objectively (messed) up and then when we call you out on it we get accused of getting it wrong.” What do you know? Sometimes — often! — 19-year-olds get things wrong. And it is the job of adults on campus to point it out.

But this is often the state of real-life campus affairs today, and instead of adults being able to offer instruction to kids on how to use reason to argue a point or why making a joke about Hitler is different than painting a swastika in a public place, they are being lectured by the kids. It is not that the faculty or administrators are blameless in all this. Since the 1960s they have been capitulating to student demands — demands for new fields of study, for university divestment, for higher grades, for better food. Last month, students at the University of Wisconsin demanded that a boulder be removed from campus because 100 years ago someone referred to it using a racial slur. And the administration did it.

Now it doesn’t seem to matter whether students are on campus four years or four days or four hours. They are in charge.