That the American university is in crisis is a statement that now commands wide agreement.
What are students complaining about? That Yale and other elite universities are mired in outdated conventions and ideas, which exclude and discomfit students who don’t “fit the mold.” For conservatives, and even for many moderates, these claims are mysterious: There are few institutions in American life that are so utterly beholden to the left and its principal tenets. But that doesn’t seem to impress the radicals. And so what happens is that students’ particularized grievances — an “insensitive” administrative email, perhaps, or an alleged “white girls only” party or, at Mizzou, a “poop swastika” drawn in a public bathroom — are transformed into abstract condemnations of entire schools. A university’s “racial climate” — which can include anything and everything about it — is deemed insufficiently “sensitive” or “inclusive.”
Of course, nebulous accusations that an entire institution is “insensitive” are nearly unfalsifiable, especially when these charges are ultimately grounded in feelings or, as the phrase goes today, students’ “lived experiences.” Indeed, it sometimes seems that the unfalsifiable nature of so many of these muzzy claims is quite deliberate. It is virtually impossible to quarrel with feelings. Muddled language makes for muddled minds, and muddled minds make for easy, unanswerable indictments.
Our administrators, who ought to act with prudence and foresight, appear helpless in the face of these indictments. Consider President Salovey’s email to the Yale community this week. Without any fight or pushback — indeed, with no thoughts as to burdens versus benefits — he capitulated in most respects to the demands of a small faction of theatrically aggrieved students. Within his prolix “letter to the community,” there was but one good idea: a reduction in the student income contribution, which rather ought to be done away with entirely and replaced with something like the law school’s career options assistance program.
Aside from this, three main proposals stand out: the further funneling of resources toward the “intellectually ambitious and important fields” of race, ethnicity, gender, inequality and inclusion; the doubling of cultural house funding; and mandatory diversity training for faculty and staff, as well as new orientation programs that “explore diversity and inclusion.”
These are all bad ideas, for many reasons. But if President Salovey sees any downsides, one would never know it from his message. The only hint of reservation that can be found in Salovey’s email is his brief assurance that our commitment to eradicating racism and discrimination in no way “conflicts with our commitment to free speech.” Although one would hope that this assurance is valid, it is also largely beside the point.
What is wrong with Salovey’s plan for Yale, and the direction in which he is taking our fine university? The diversity behemoth is an enormous waste of academic time and energy. The cultural houses arguably contribute to campus-wide racial balkanization at least as much as they diminish it. Mandatory diversity training presents a grave threat to intellectual honesty and rigorous inquiry, because it assumes the truth of propositions that must ultimately be tested by empirical study. The proliferation of hyper-ideological “studies” majors takes us further, as Glenn Loury put it, “onto a slippery slope that slides down into intellectual mediocrity.” The growing amount of time Yale students spend thinking about racial injustice is taken away from acquiring useful analytic skills and concrete knowledge in a broad range of subjects vital to our world’s future, and from learning to think carefully, rigorously and quantitatively, including about race and social inequality. These shortcomings have little to do with threats to free speech.
The true crisis of the American university is one of cowardice and craven capitulation. If free speech is to have meaning, people must have the courage to speak. My suspicion is that many students and faculty agree with at least some, if not most, of these assertions. Yet few dare to say so. And even fewer will argue for their merits.
That refusal to speak up is unfortunate. Campus radicals see themselves as moral crusaders, as champions of a secular “social justice” creed. They are not nihilistic relativists without a point of view. Rather, they want the university’s authorities to accede to their vision, to accept their point of view and their grievances without resistance. But that presents the university with a true “teachable moment” — to show our so-called activists, gently but firmly, why their view of reality, of the university’s role and of what’s best for society’s future, is shallow, hollow and misguided.
H. L. Mencken once said that democracy tends to degenerate into a “mere combat of crazes.” He might just as well have said the same about the modern American university.
Do those who run Yale care to prove him wrong?
Isaac Cohen is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .