Campusland, by Scott Johnston (St. Martin’s Press, 336 pp., $27.99)
When reasonable observers look at what’s happened on college campuses in recent years, their reaction is often, “You can’t make this stuff up.” So perhaps it’s not surprising that the novelist Scott Johnston decided that he didn’t have to. In his new satire, Campusland, he rips stories straight from the headlines and drops them into his plot. Take the $50 million that the fictional Devon University offers for diversity initiatives to placate protesters who think that the school isn’t woke enough—it sounds an awful lot like Yale’s recent $50 million diversity investment. Is the girl who crawls around campus with a ball and chain attached to her leg to symbolize the oppression of sexual assault a fictional character, or the infamous undergraduate “mattress girl”?
Campusland’s plot centers on a young English professor, Ephraim Russell, trying to get tenure. Straight white males teaching the works of other (dead) straight white males hasn’t gone over well on campuses for years, but in the age of social justice and social media, critics have more effective tactics. After learning that Russell’s class would be reading Huckleberry Finn, members of the Progressive Student Alliance show up and start reading passages with the N-word aloud, filming the scene and then selectively editing the professor’s comments. The video goes viral and, voilà, an investigation is launched.
Johnston has an ear for the conversations going on in classrooms these days. There’s a chapter called “I Feel Like” because, of course, that’s how students begin almost all their classroom discussions. One student tells a professor, “I told you how the lack of minority representation in this course’s syllabus really upset me, and I don’t feel like you acknowledged my feelings.” When the professor explains that a general consensus exists about which books belong in a course on nineteenth-century Romanticism and Realism, she responds, “Whose consensus? Other people of privilege? I think we all know the answer to that, don’t we?”
Things go from bad to worse when Russell must appear before the Bias Response Team. His interrogators won’t tell him who has made complaints against him or even how many complaints there are. They’re only trying to “ascertain the facts of the case.” When Russell suggests that Huckleberry Finn, rather than being racially offensive, was “the most powerful antislavery message of its day,” the head of the tribunal tells him, “what concerns those of us on the Bias Response Team is not what effect the book had on the prosperous people who could afford books in the nineteenth century, but what effects it has on our community today.” This lack of interest in historical context plagues almost every discussion about race, class, and gender on campus today. Activists are obsessed with every historical slight affecting minorities and scorn any attempt at perspective.
Johnston is just warming up with racial politics on campus. His portrayal of a Title IX investigation is a representative and frightening account of what happens when a man is accused of any kind of inappropriate behavior on campus. That the alleged perpetrator is not allowed to confront his accuser; that no lawyer is allowed in the room; that the same person in charge of the investigation is also the judge (and possibly the executioner); and that colleges fear losing federal funding if they don’t comply with these ridiculous rules—all this is presented in dramatic but accurate fashion. If you want to scare the young men in your life starting college this fall, highlight these passages.
Perhaps the most true-to-life portrayal of a campus figure is that of Milton Strauss, the president of Devon and the classic spineless administrator. Strauss prides himself on his buddy-buddy relationship with students—they want to take selfies with him—his ability to keep donors happy, and his appeasement of radical faculty and students on campus. Looking around campus on his morning walk, he notes the ugliness of one of the buildings, built in the brutalist style of the sixties. “Hmm, best to keep his opinion to himself. There were some things the president of Devon University simply couldn’t say. Actually, a lot of things, but Milton didn’t dwell on this.” If college campuses these days look like the inmates are running the asylum, it’s because they are. Adults keep their opinions to themselves.