My thoughts on recent campus fracases

This topic feels over-covered by other sources, but still I would like to see these points receive more attention:

1. I don’t trust early media reports on such matters, and so I am reluctant to offer judgment on a variety of the specifics.  That includes Yale, Mizzou, and other places.  For most or maybe even close to all readers, the proper context probably is missing and perhaps some of the facts are being garbled.

2. Universities have the right to regulate speech and also behavior on their premises, just as a corporation does or a hotel might do.  There is no infringement of freedom of speech when a university acts in this manner.  Public funding does introduce some complications, but even there residual regulatory rights exist.

3. Subtle linguistic cues, social barriers, bigotries of expectations, and segregations can in fact harm students and shape their future life prospects.  That said, I am mostly skeptical about the ability of universities to undo these social mechanisms by conscious social engineering of the immediate environment.  Some gain can be achieved, and some of the worst harms can and should be avoided, but it is a mistake to expect too much from universities in this regard.

4. My personal preference is to see controversial ideas discussed and debated openly on campuses,more so than is currently the case.  Those ideas are going to be out there anyway, so let’s have universities contribute to shaping the broader social discourse.  For instance imagine that more advanced forms of genetic engineering someday become possible, and parents can selectively abort an embryo with a higher chance of being gay.  Do we really want to be in a position where universities have shied away from discussing this issue for decades?  I say no, realizing that in the meantime some peoples’ feelings will indeed have ended up being hurt.  If you are gay, and sitting in a classroom discussion of this topic, or maybe you just have a gay friend — whatever — I doubt if there is a fully comfortable way for this discussion to proceed.  Yet the rest of the world is going to be talking about this, the internet above all, and making the university a “safe space” won’t make the broader world one, if anything the contrary.

5. The natural tendency for administrators is to want to minimize internal disruption, even if that is sometimes at the expense of having a broader world impact.  I thus believe many administrators overinvest in political correctness, at least from a Benthamite, utilitarian point of view.  See #4.

6. The upshot of this all is that lower tier administrators will be sending fewer all-student emails in the future.  And some presidents may be less interested in improving the quality of their football teams, or starting such teams in the first place.  I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

7. Most of the world knows very, very little about the details of these events.  They see there is a mess, and they think something is wrong with universities, students, parents, administrators — everyone.  No matter what happens from this point, universities have messed up and lost this round rather badly.

For this post I am indebted to a discussion with Stephen Macedo and two of his students, but of course they are not to be implicated in my opinions one way or the other.


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