By Greg Forster
As students arrive back at college this fall, the state of community on campus has been a hot topic all summer. It’s usually framed as a tradeoff between student rights to free speech and the solidarity of the community. In fact, giving students back their rights is the only hope to get real community back as well.
It’s an open question whether a mainstream college can be anything like a community today. The question has been raised by news stories ranging from the special graduation ceremony for black students at Harvard University to the violent attacks on speaker Charles Murray at Middlebury College (which went unpunished, establishing tacit university approval of the violence) to the campus-wide anarchy at Evergreen State College.
Stories like Middlebury and Evergreen State, as well as the pushing out of unfairly targeted faculty at Yale University and other recent events, show how coercion in the name of community actually undermines community. More and more heavy-handed tactics are used to expel allegedly hateful or unacceptable speech. The stated goal of this coercion is to establish community. But it polarizes the campus and incentivizes more conflict.
The dominant group, on the political Left, learns from these episodes that getting offended brings power. Stigmatizing people and destroying their lives pays off. By crushing their victims, they establish themselves as the people who must be kept happy if peace is to be maintained.
The oppressed minority group, on the political Right, is also incentivized to escalate the conflict. Increasingly, conservative students conclude that they are desperately besieged, and fighting back with equally divisive tactics is the only realistic response to their oppressed state. Worse, conservative websites and activists make big bucks circulating stories of on-campus outrage for clicks and donations.
Of course, these high-profile confrontations are only more obvious examples of the underlying principle of the normal power structure in the university. Just check out the University of Oklahoma’s webpage on its mandatory student diversity training. It’s a horrifying recital of coercive tactics, clearly designed not to educate students about diversity (which would be valuable) so much as to manipulate, threaten, and control them so they don’t think the wrong things. There’s a whole section of the mandatory training called “Learning to Interact.” If you claim the right to teach me how to interact with others, you are trying to put yourself in control of what I am allowed to think.
Learning and education can only happen where people are free to speak and interact spontaneously so they are able to think for themselves. Community can only happen where people are free to speak and interact spontaneously so they are able to have authentic relationships.
Community has to be voluntary. You can't build community by arbitrarily expelling some of the community’s members on political grounds. That destroys the bond of mutual commitment that constitutes the community.
Real community exists where people who are different look at each other and say, “we are stuck with you; you are one of us whether we like you or not.”
Harvard’s black commencement ceremony is the exception that proves the rule. Contrary to widespread misperception, it was a great expression of community. It was a student-run, unofficial event that took place two days before the official ceremony, and thus did not affect it. Anyone was permitted to attend the event.
In other words, a private student group held its own event on campus, celebrating something it wanted to celebrate—its positive sense of its own identity and achievements. That’s a perfect example of what happens in real communities. It’s no more a threat to the solidarity of the broader, multiethnic university than a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” button.
Here is how this exception proves the rule: Much of the anxiety in response to this event arises, perhaps unconsciously, from the knowledge that not all students enjoy the same right to do this kind of thing. A conservative student graduation would probably have been shut down, or at least harassed and marginalized, by the university administration. If you don’t think so, you don’t know what it’s like to be a conservative student on an Ivy League campus.
“You’re allowed to have your own thing, but we aren’t allowed to have ours” is the thought in the back of people’s minds when they say to the organizers of events like the black graduation, “you’re being divisive when you insist on having your own thing.” If everybody could have their own thing, nobody would care.
Granted, this is not the only factor. There has always been some anxiety about ethnic identity in America, given our national commitment to trans-ethnic political principles (“we hold these truths…”). Some people have always gotten nervous about “Kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons. But it would be naïve to think that the response to the black graduation wasn’t greatly exacerbated by the sense on the Right that university administrators have their thumbs on the scales of justice.
As the campus meltdowns of the past spring show, schools have to get ahead of these problems before they start. When the crisis comes, it’s too late to defuse the tensions of polarization. Community can only be built when there is no urgent need to build it.
- Formalize student speech and association codes: In response to recent disruptions, some schools (including Princeton University) have strengthened their formal, public commitment to defend students’ rights. Every school should do this; public schools with recalcitrant administrations should be forced to do it.
- Reform diversity training: Gather students representing a broad array of constituencies—Right as well as Left, Christian as well as other religions—and give them real power to introduce reforms in diversity training. Let them spend a year just talking to each other about how to own one another first, and then another year working on specific reforms. The small army of diversity professionals in the administration should coordinate and support but not lead this effort.
- Penalize those who use coercion: Evergreen State College is belatedly awakening to the need for disciplinary action against students who seek to silence dissent by force. In fact, given that a university strives to be not only a community but a community of learning, violence deployed against speech acts should be punished with special severity.
- Celebrate real community: Organize student events, like debates, that establish the bonds of community—of mutual commitment to one another—across lines of difference.
Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including "John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus" (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of four books, including "John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness." He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.