On the first day of classes this semester I was picking up my Timber’s tickets at the Office of Student Involvement desk. As I was filling out the form, a student walked up to the desk and asked the girl behind the desk whether the university added new gender neutral bathrooms on campus. The girl, along with her supervisor, struggled to provide an answer to the question. “This campus makes me more and more uncomfortable,” the student said as they walked away in frustration.
Today university campuses are powerful cultural drivers.
In an incident that occurred a couple of years ago, the football team at University of Missouri threatened to boycott all football related activities until the University President, Tim Wolfe, resigned, accusing him of mishandling several racially charged incidents on campus. The president did resign two days later.
Last February, the administration at the University of California, Berkeley cancelled a an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos two hours before the event was set to begin. Protests of the speaker caused $100,000 worth of damage, according to CNN.
Anne Coulter’s speech last April was also cancelled due to safety concerns. The campus in Berkeley has witnessed recurring clashers of extremist groups from the far right and the far left.
Last June and closer to home, in Olympia, organizers of an equity event at Evergreen State College called for white students to leave campus for a day. The event was challenged by a professor who cited free speech concerns and was promptly labeled a racist. Thousands took over the administration building and made demands of college president George Bridges to improve equity measures.
These issues did not bypass Washington State University either. Former WSU College Republicans President James Allsup resigned after being exposed as one of the participants of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Even though WSU president Kirk Schulz condemned racism and Fascism via Twitter and university-wide email, in my Twitter feed I still find criticism directed at the president Schulz for not doing enough to prevent similar occurrences.
On Aug. 31, The Daily Evergreen, WSU’s student newspaper in Pullman, reported that “multicultural student organization leaders” met with President Schulz and made demands for improving “campus climate, multicultural programs and representation of minority communities.” Chijioke Emeka, president of the Black Student Union, said that the administration cannot remain silent on these issues and that the students are “tired of being ignored and will no longer stand for it.”
It is important to note that President Schulz will not likely follow the path of Tim Wolfe–he said the requests made by student leaders “are reasonable.” Schulz also assured the students that his administration is working to come up with a satisfactory policy to clarify the line between hate speech and free speech.
Students, however, don’t come up with these demands on their own. In our classrooms, we are taught to resist oppression in any way possible and to expect that our demands will be met. And social justice is frequently used as leverage or a bargaining card that is seldom argued or trumped. Opposition, no matter how reasonable, to anything framed as of social justice, is often labeled as an expression of bigotry and hatred.
Here I want to make a disclaimer and say that in no way to I seek to endorse any form of racism or injustice. Establishing social justice is extremely important and can be very powerful in its proper context.
However, on American college campuses social justice has become the ultimate moral standard. In nearly every class or campus event there is a discussion about how it is important to invest resources into the campus climate, to hire diverse staff, admit minority students and improve or implement diversity training for faculty and first-year students. In one of my English classes dedicated to literary theory I found myself discussing whether the US Women’s National Soccer team should be paid as much as the Men’s team and writing a paper about how Disney misrepresents the the Native population.
It is important to maintain an open and accepting environment on campus, but not at the cost of academics. Unfortunately, there is very little discussion on what the university can do to attract qualified faculty or how to improve instruction.
In my opinion, the conversation needs to shift from what students need to feel comfortable, to what students need so that they can develop competitive job skills, enduring values, and most importantly, character. I sometimes wonder why no one brings up the issue of character and the importance of qualities such as integrity, perseverance and responsibility. Students shouldn’t be told that the society must kneel before them. Instead, they need to be provided with the ability to navigate a world that is full of pain and unmet expectations.
Merely stating that ideologies such as fascism or communism are bad is not enough. The discussion must go deeper. Students need to be taught the bloody lessons of those ideologies and learn to think critically about why they don’t work. And most importantly, they need to be given the space to make their own conclusions and be responsible for them. As a rule in our classes, ideas related to social justice are presented as statements that are not to be disputed. But that’s counterproductive. The battle must first be fought on the inside, in the hearts and minds, and not through a sweeping condemnation or schooling of an entire society. Such methods are shades of totalitarianism.