Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri—known as Mizzou—resigned early today, brought down by…well, it’s kind of hard to say.
A helpful timeline of the case indicates that it started with two cases in which black students at Mizzou said they had racial epithets shouted at them, and one in which a swastika was scrawled on the wall of a bathroom in a university building. In all three of these cases, nobody knows who did it or why. But they were taken as proof of “systemic racism” at the university, and protesters howled for Wolfe’s resignation. Throughout the case, Wolfe issued condemnations of racism, acknowledgements of the justice of the protester’s cause, and apologies for not seeming to take them seriously enough—which, as we should know by now, are all the signs that he’s doomed and will eventually be forced to resign.
Wolfe was targeted, as one protest group put it, because he was “‘not completely’ aware of systemic racism, sexism, and patriarchy on campus.” I love the “not completely.” It reminds me of the old rule about totalitarian revolutions: first, you go after the counter-revolutionaries, then you go after the insufficiently enthusiastic. So Wolfe had to be removed for failing to show immediate and total compliance toward their political agenda.
This reaction makes sense only as a raw power play, as student agitators demonstrating that they can get rid of anybody they want to, that they run this place.
The Mizzou case, along with others like it, raises a question about whether our institutions of higher learning even deserve to exist—not because they are really “systemically racist,” which no one actually believes, but because of their inability to assert any kind of rational response to the student agitators. If administrators don’t have the nerve to re-assert the actual educational purpose of the institution, this makes a pretty good case that it’s time to burn the universities to the ground (metaphorically speaking, of course) and start over from scratch.
Take a similar case from the higher end of higher ed. Yale is in the middle of a similar upheaval that brings the issues more clearly out into the open. This one began when a Yale dean circulated an e-mail warning against “culturally insensitive” Halloween costumes. One Yale professor, Erika Christakis, replied with a reasonably worded e-mail that basically asked everyone to relax and stop being so uptight and condescending. It reads, in part:
Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.
It’s interesting to note how much this is an expression of the old liberal pieties about freedom of expression that the contemporary left has thoroughly rejected. So you all know what’s coming next.
The response was an angry mob of student activists demanding the resignation of…her husband, Nicholas Christakis. Because every good progressive knows it’s a husband job to control his little woman, don’t you know. Actually, they went after Nicholas Christakis because as Master of Silliman College, he was slightly higher up the administrative pecking order. And when you’re after power, you want to take down the most important target.
The key part of the exchange, which was caught on video, comes when a frenzied student screams at Christakis, “It is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students…. It is not about creating an intellectual space!”
Well, there you have the issue in a nutshell. There is an old debate about whether the purpose of education is to “socialize” students, to train them in conformity to the assumption and norms of the era—or whether the purpose of education is to, you know, actually teach people stuff, to give them the knowledge and tools they need to become effective, independent thinkers. The mob at Yale knows where it stands. To hell with all that intellectual stuff. We want the university to enforce conformity by complying with whatever demands we laid down in our latest tantrum.
Notice also that all this claptrap about “safe spaces” is a dodge. The protesters are so concerned about “safe spaces” that they formed into an angry mob to surround a lone individual and shout obscenities at him. Where is the safe space for the Christakises?
Obviously, this isn’t about safety and comfort at all. It’s about raw power. It’s about whose demands will get met whenever they make them—and who will be sacrificed to those demands.
The most prescient thing said about this kind of student protest culture was an observation made by Ayn Rand back during the first go-around, in the 1960s. The purpose of all the marches and sit-ins and riots, she wrote, was to condition students to accept mob rule. Here we are fifty years later, and this is quickly becoming the openly declared purpose of universities.
This is higher ed’s time for choosing. If this is the new purpose of the universities—to nurture a crop of activists trained at whipping up angry mobs, and a generation of college graduates conditioned to submit to those mobs—then there is no longer any purpose served by these institutions. There is certainly no justification for the outrageous claim they are making on the economic resources of the average family, who sends their kids to schools whose tuition has been inflated by decades of government subsidies.
The universities have done this to themselves. They created the whole phenomenon of modern identity politics and Politically Correct rules to limit speech. They have fostered a totalitarian microculture in which conformity to those rules is considered natural and expected. Now that system is starting to eat them alive, from elite universities like Yale, to Mizzou, and on down.
They created this Frankenstein monster, and it’s up to them to kill it before it kills them.