Sometimes a single incident efficiently summarizes a larger trend. So it is with New York University’s selection of its new president, Linda Mills, a licensed clinical social worker and an NYU social work professor. She researches trauma and bias, as well as race and gender in the legal academy. She is a documentary filmmaker and teaches advocacy filmmaking. She serves as an NYU vice chancellor and as a senior vice provost for Global Programs and University Life. In all these roles, Mills is the very embodiment of the contemporary academy. The most significant part of her identity, however, and the one that ties the rest of her curriculum vitae together, is that she is female, and thus overdetermined as NYU’s next president.
Mills is part of the Great Feminization of the American university, an epochal change whose consequences have yet to be recognized. Seventy-five percent of Ivy League presidents are now female. Nearly half of the 20 universities ranked highest by Forbes will have a female president this fall, including MIT, Harvard, and Columbia. Of course, feminist bean-counters in the media and advocacy world are not impressed, noting that “only” 5 percent of the 130 top U.S. research universities are headed by a black female and “only” 22 percent of those federal grant-magnets have a non-intersectional (i.e., white) female head.
These female leaders emerge from an ever more female campus bureaucracy, whose size is reaching parity with the faculty. Females made up 66 percent of college administrators in 2021; those administrators constitute an essential force in campus diversity ideology, whether they have “diversity” in their job titles or not. Among the official diversity bureaucrats installed in their posts since July 2022, females predominate: the vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of California, San Diego; the vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion at UCLA; the vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Maryville University in Missouri; the chief diversity officer and vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the School of Education at the College of Charleston in South Carolina; the vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at Kansas State University; the associate dean of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at the University of Kansas School of Law; the vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of California, Santa Cruz; the vice president for inclusion and community impact at Herzing University in Wisconsin; the associate provost for faculty and diversity initiatives at Muhlenberg College (this associate provost also became Muhlenberg’s first chief diversity officer); the first chief officer of culture, belonging, and community building at Delta College in Michigan; the vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh; the vice provost for faculty diversity, equity, and inclusivity at the University of Texas, Austin (a lateral move from the position of managing director of diversity in UT’s office of the executive vice president and provost); the vice president for equity, culture, and talent at Prince George’s Community College—all are female.
Mirroring the feminization of the bureaucracy is the feminization of the student body. Females earned 58 percent of all B.A.s in the 2019–2020 academic year; if present trends continue, they will soon constitute two-thirds of all B.A.s. At least 60 percent of all master’s degrees, and 54 percent of all Ph.D.s, now go to females.
Female students and administrators often exist in a co-dependent relationship, united by the concepts of victim identity and of trauma. For university females, there is not, apparently, strength in numbers. The more females’ ranks increase, the more we hear about a mass nervous breakdown on campus. Female students disproportionately patronize the burgeoning university wellness centers, massage therapies, relaxation oases, calming corners, and healing circles. Another newly installed female college president, Dartmouth’s Sian Leah Beilock, claims that the two “most pressing challenges of our time” are the “mental crisis among young people” and climate change. College institutions “really have a part to play in how we support students” suffering from that mental health crisis, Beilock tweeted recently. (A psychologist, Beilock specializes in improving female success in science by combatting performance anxiety, making her another overdetermined choice for university president.)
Female dominance of the campus population is intimately tied to the rhetoric of unsafety and victimhood. Females on average score higher than males on the personality trait of neuroticism, defined as anxiety, emotional volatility, and susceptibility to depression. (Mentioning this long-accepted psychological fact got James Damore fired from Google.) Victorian neurasthenia has been reborn on campuses today as alleged trauma inflicted by such monuments of Western literature as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Hearing an argument that chromosomes, not whim, make males male and females female is another source of alleged existential threat.
When students claim to be felled by ideas that they disagree with, the feminized bureaucracy does not tell them to grow up and get a grip. It validates their self-pity. On taking the helm of Barnard College in 2018 before ascending four years later to Dartmouth, Beilock pledged to ensure that the college was an “inclusive environment free from fear and hate.” Both terms are overwrought. There is nothing at Barnard or any other American campus that could rationally be cause for “fear” (apart from the possible incursion of violent street crime from surrounding areas); there has never been a more welcoming, supportive, and tolerant institution in human history than a college campus, at least toward humanity’s traditionally marginalized groups. Likewise, “hate” can be found here only under its new definition as a disfavored ideological position—the position, say, that seven-year-olds should not have premature knowledge of sexuality forced upon them via in-school “gender” instruction.
Given the ubiquity on campuses of the language of vulnerability, it is fitting that Linda Mills’s social work specialty is trauma. Her trauma research has centered on domestic violence, where the concept has legitimate applications. But the claim that NYU is a place of pervasive unsafety will likely get an additional boost from Mills’s ascendancy. In her letter of introduction as NYU’s president-designate, Mills adopted the fateful vocabulary of hurt and trauma. “We are a community that is hurting,” Mills asserted, especially after the “traumatic effects” of the pandemic. (The real hurt was inflicted by the unnecessary lockdowns, whose victims were not NYU’s bureaucrats, professors, or even most of its students, but rather small-business owners deprived of livelihoods and children whose parents did not have the capacity to homeschool them. The record does not reflect an effort by NYU’s leaders to combat those lockdowns.)
Mills portrayed the U.S. as endemically biased: “In the United States and elsewhere, we are struggling to address persistent inequalities and discrimination, whether based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or other factors.” This by-now reflexive condemnation of alleged American bigotry is at best an awkward, and at worst an irrelevant, importation into a president’s first message to her university. In an alternative world, Mills might have celebrated the joy of learning and the grandeur of the Western tradition. But in any case, the real “struggle” should be to close the academic skills gaps whose effects the academy then attributes to racism.
The parade of horribles continued: “Hate crimes are on the rise.” Mills and her audience picture white Trumpists beating up blacks, Asians, and gays, notwithstanding the fact that hate-crime suspects are disproportionately black. Invocation of climate change? Check. Invocation of the “constant threat of gun violence,” which, like climate change, can “feel overwhelming?” Check again. (Actually, the only people facing a “constant threat of gun violence” are residents of inner-city neighborhoods, who may be caught up in the dozens of fatal black-on-black shootings that occur daily across the country. The answer to that threat is proactive policing, a solution that most college presidents would dismiss as racist.)
Mills issued an invitation to a “university-wide conversation, starting today.” That conversation would address how NYU might “create and sustain a fully inclusive community where everyone can thrive.” The invitation was doubly tendentious. Such “conversations” (i.e., one-way harangues) have been going on nonstop for the last decade—see Beilock’s 2018 pledge to ensure that Barnard was an “inclusive environment free from fear and hate.” Second, the implication that NYU is not already a fully inclusive community is absurd. The groups whom Mills and her colleagues insist are being excluded are in fact preferred at every juncture, whether in admissions or hiring. If the beneficiaries of those preferences do not “thrive” at the same rate as members of non-preferred groups, it is because their academic skills are, on average, weaker. That weakness is the reason for preferential policies in the first place.
Other aspects of Mills’s CV are equally emblematic—her research on race and gender, her oversight of NYU’s Abu Dhabi satellite as senior vice provost for Global Programs and University Life, her directorship of NYU’s film Production Lab, and her collaboration with Chelsea Clinton on a documentary. (Filmmaking is not the liberal arts’ comparative advantage—books are. But the filmification of the humanities continues apace.)
The contemporary university is always on the prowl for new sources of income to support its burgeoning bureaucracy. That means going abroad and overlooking violations of academic morality that would be disqualifying locally. Drag queen story hours are celebrated on American campuses, but they might not be welcomed in Abu Dhabi, where cross-dressing is illegal. The Sharia-inspired legal code in the United Arab Emirates allows for execution for homosexual sex acts. But students in Abu Dhabi pay full tuition at higher rates than American students, so NYU’s bureaucrats will focus their attention on what Mills calls “persistent” discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the U.S. To date, one supposed exemplar of such allegedly persistent discrimination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, has not called for the criminalization of homosexual sex, or for its capital punishment.
The most far-reaching effects of the feminized university are the intolerance of dissent from political orthodoxy and the attempt to require conformity to that orthodoxy. This intolerance is justified in the name of safety and “inclusivity.” It turns out that females and males assess the value of debate and the legitimacy of speech restrictions unequally. The 2022 FIRE College Free Speech Rankings reported “stark” differences in whether female and male undergraduates would allow speakers with “offensive” ideas (such as the belief that abortion should be illegal) to come on campus. In the 2021 FIRE rankings, over 40 percent of students at Barnard and Wellesley (women’s colleges, all) supported the use of violence against dissenters. In a 2018 Knight Foundation survey of over 4,400 college students, reported in Quillette, 71 percent of males agreed that protecting free speech is more important than promoting an inclusive society; 59 percent of females agreed that promoting an inclusive society is more important than protecting free speech. Two-thirds of male psychology professors from top universities polled in 2021 believed that pursuing truth was more important than pursuing social equity if the two conflict; around a third of male respondents said that the issue was “complicated.” Fifty-two percent of female psychologists answered that the issue was complicated, while only 43 percent prioritized truth. A 2017 YouGov survey of over 2000 U.S. adults found that 56 percent of men said that colleges should not protect students from offensive ideas, whereas 64 percent of females said that they should. Men support the development of knowledge that explains reality, even if such knowledge threatens egalitarian norms, whereas females are more willing to suppress such scholarship if it poses “potential moral threats,” as Quillette put it.
As long as the rhetoric of safety, threat, and trauma remains dominant, the push to shut down non-progressive speech will continue. And now the traumification of everyday life, like other modern academic trends, is fast spreading outside the campus. Emotional-healing coaches help the public “navigate” trauma in the “space of healing and self-development,” as a press release for one such coach, Rebeccah Silence, put it. The media operate in full trauma mode. The use of the word “trauma” in New York Times news stories rose by nearly 30 percent between 2020 and 2021 and by nearly 300 percent from 2000 to 2021. In a June 22, 2022, email to the paper’s senior editors, a Times standards editor said that he was sympathetic to this impulse. After all, the standards editor wrote, “mass shootings, a pandemic, war, the murder of George Floyd and an attack on the U.S. Capitol” had left “wounds, shock and scarring in their wake.” A college president could not have put it better. But trauma, the editor suggested, didn’t need to be the Times’s “go-to term for any and all stress, pain, suffering, scarring, shock, agony and wounds.” Alternatives? How about: “stress, pain, suffering, scarring, shock, agony and wounds,” the editor proposed. The possibility that Times news coverage would simply dial back the hysteria was apparently inconceivable.
Colleges have been the conveyor belt into the outside world of safetyism, of the belief that minorities in the U.S. are endemically victimized, and of the ideas that words wound, that certain beliefs equal hate, and that such “hate” should be banned. Linda Mills may not fully subscribe to all those concepts. But she is part of a monumental shift in university life that has put such propositions into widespread circulation and that affects the principles by which we govern ourselves. The feminized university would be unlikely to choose the motto NYU adopted at its founding in 1831, reflecting its working-class, non-entitled self-image: Perstare et Praestare (Persevere and Excel). Excellence is now understood to underwrite white male privilege. Perseverance, absent a helping bureaucrat, is too much to ask of students who are, as irony-proof Princeton protesters put it several years ago, sick and tired of being sick and tired. A better motto for today (not in exclusionary Latin, of course) would be: Fight hate and recover from trauma!
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