Concerning the late unpleasantness on America’s college campuses, a few things stand out:
First, the relatively small-beer character of the protestors’ complaints. For the most part, they run the gamut from the decidedly trivial (Halloween costumes that some found offensive) to the atmospherically objectionable (going to a school associated with Woodrow Wilson), but not much beyond. The protestors themselves seem to be conscious of the triviality problem. At a number of schools, for example, they have distanced themselves from their particular grievances, insisting that attention be paid instead to the “spirit” animating their concerns.
Diverting attention from specific accusations dispenses with the necessity of dealing with accuracy and proof while simultaneously opening the door to a broader political agenda, in which topics like “institutional racism” and “white privilege” can occupy center stage. That is the real agenda, at least among the savvier protestors, who want to impose (among other things) racial and sexual hiring quotas and compulsory sensitivity training courses for their peers and professors. After that, it’s on to ideological censorship of syllabi.
Which leads to the second distinctive feature of the protests: the almost universal pusillanimity of college administrators, who seem to be competing with one another on how fast and how far they can accede to protesting students’ demands. It’s a close race at the moment, but based on preliminary returns, it looks as if President Eisgruber of Princeton is leading the pack. One can count on a few fingers the number of college presidents who have spoken out against the coercive presumptions and remedies of student demonstrators.
It was equally the case, alas, during 1960’s, when campus protest was a popular parlor pastime. While most schools bent, folded, and mutilated their mission in order to placate students, one (and arguably only one) major university came through with its virtue intact. It was the University of Chicago, thanks to the courageous leadership of Edward H. Levi. Confronted with the occupation of the administration building, Levi, while warning the protestors that they were in violation of university rules, bided his time until he had broad support among the faculty. Then he cut off the heat and the lights (it was winter). The demonstrators staggered out and were later disciplined. A large number were expelled; an even larger number were suspended.
Even more important than his decisive executive action was Levi’s articulation of the distinctive mission of the university: its devotion to, and protection of, the life of reason in the pursuit of truth. The purpose of the university is not to make students comfortable, but to teach them the art of disciplined learning, which from time to time may make them very uncomfortable indeed. It is astonishing, and sad, that so few academic leaders today seem to understand the simple and profound principle that lies (or should lie) at the heart of the institutions that have been entrusted to their care. If there is to be compulsory education for college faculty and administrators, let it begin with the study of Edward Levi ‘s reflections on the purpose of higher education. And let it go on from there to a study of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University.