Dear Class of 2020,
Best of luck as you enter the American university system. You’ll need it.
You’re beginning your college career as the country deals with deep racial and political division, and the college system dwells on such divides. Last fall, these tensions sparked protests on campuses across the United States, attracting massive national media attention.
History will likely repeat itself this year. Roughly one in 10 of your upperclassmen have already said they expect to participate in similar protests this semester, according to one recent UCLA study. You’ll be invited, or perhaps pressured, to join in.
Since last fall, I’ve read through thousands of pages of public records about how colleges and universities are handling protests, as well as controversy surrounding race and gender. The revelations buried in these records might help you, so here they are, along with some friendly advice.
First of all, you’re in the spotlight. The left-leaning press will highlight any perceived racial or gender-based slight, while right-leaning media is eager to make an example of PC culture on campus run amok.
So it’s easier than ever for student activists to place themselves on a national pedestal, at precisely the most vulnerable and error-prone period of young adulthood. Thanks to ubiquitous camera phones, your mistakes can live online long after they might otherwise have been forgotten.
Take Jonathan Butler, Mizzou’s hunger striker. He gained national prominence as a civil-rights activist last fall — then was dropped by a national speaking bureau after videos leaked showing his cringe-inducing rants on women and low-income workers.
The lesson: Be careful of the standards you set for your peers; you may be held to the same expectations. That doesn’t mean you should avoid activism. But it does mean that you’ll need to be far more mature and wise than the college students of past generations. You’ll be well-served to show grace and kindness.
Too many professors, mired in identity politics, teach that being offended is a virtue. That doesn’t just create unrealistic expectations about behavior on campus; it leads to absurd ends.
For instance, the Colorado School of Mines changed the nickname of its athletic center after a single student claimed “The Mine Shaft” was a phallic allusion “supporting rape culture.” That same tendency had University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators debating whether students’ “Three Blind Mice” Halloween costume was offensive to the disabled, and whether they should write upguidelines to help students come up with inoffensive costume ideas for next year.
It’s not just that such silly reactions make schools look foolish. Hysterical responses to non-offenses create a false moral equivalency to real acts of bias that are occurring on campus.
Records sadly reveal that nary a university is free of bigotry, from swastikas and slurs carved on campus property to race-based brawls between roommates. These incidents are roundly condemned, yet occur frequently enough to horrify students and administrators alike.
But because you’re entering college at a time of such division, it’s easy for the ignorant acts of the worst person on campus to gain national attention and to define your university — if you let them.
Your upperclassmen have often interpreted isolated incidents of bias as evidence of systemic racism. They’ve gotten administrators and faculty fired and demanded rewritten curriculums. In the most extreme cases, they’ve demanded to be sheltered from controversial ideas and speakers, depriving themselves of an opportunity for critical thinking and debate in the name of avoiding “offense.”
Somewhere along the way, they’ve forgotten that they’re at college to learn, not to educate.
Don’t make the same mistake.
When students use an indiscriminate wrecking ball to address troublesome incidents on campus, it scares the donors and alumni who love your college. I’ve read through hundreds of letters where universities’ most ardent supporters express frustration and disappointment, vowing to cut off donations.
Some of your upperclassmen will argue that donors’ tightfisted reaction to student activism is itself evidence of a broken system. Maybe so. But in that case, there’s an even more pressing need for you to protect free speech and safeguard dissent. The right to offend becomes even more important if you want to speak truth to power.
I don’t envy the enormous challenges you’ll face, but I hope you can rise to the occasion.
Jillian Kay Melchior is Heat Street’s political editor and a fellow at the Steamboat Institute and Independent Women’s Forum.