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What’s Happened to the University?

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What’s Happened to the University?

March 7, 2018
Education

Heather Mac Donald and Frank Furedi discuss the hostility to free speech that has provoked disturbing incidents on campuses across the country and the ideology behind safe spaces, micro-aggressions, and trigger warnings. Their discussion, from a Manhattan Institute event held in June 2017, was moderated by City Journal contributing editor Howard Husock.

American universities are experiencing a profound cultural transformation. Student protests designed to shut downalternative opinions have become frequent and sometimes violent. Frank Furedi's What's Happened To The University? A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilisation explores the origins of the anti-free speech climate at U.S. and U.K. universities.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She has written extensively about political correctness on campus and was a recent target of student protests at several colleges, where she had been invited to discuss her New York Times bestseller, The War on Cops.

Frank Furedi is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent. He has published articles in major newspapers in Europe and the United States and is the author of 17 books on topics including intellectual culture, parenting, education, and the politics of fear. Furedi is a frequent guest on British T.V. and radio.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson:  Hey, everyone. Welcome back to 10 Blocks. This is your host, Brian Anderson, I’m the editor of City Journal.

Coming up on the podcast, we have a special treat for listeners.

As many of you know, our contributing editor, Heather Mac Donald, the Thomas Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is probably one of the most provocative political commentators in America today.

In April of last year, Heather was invited to speak to students at Claremont McKenna College in California, about policing, Black Lives Matter, and her bestselling book, the War on Cops.

When she arrived, Heather was greeted by hundreds of angry activists bent on preventing her talk. Though these protesters did manage to disrupt the event, the story subsequently set off a media fire storm.

Not long after that controversy, we held a live discussion with Heather to talk about her experience at Claremont and at other campuses. It was an event entitled “What’s Happened to the University?”

And today we’re delighted to share that conversation with you on the podcast.

Heather was joined by two others on the stage.

Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist from the University Kent, and the author of a number of books on college free speech.

And the first voice you’ll hear after the intro is that of City Journal’s Howard Husock, who moderated the discussion.

Howard Husock: It's my pleasure to introduce our speakers tonight. From the University of Kent in the U.K., where he's the Emeritus Professor of Sociology, is Professor Frank Furedi.  He's the author of the book which is featured at the bookseller's table in the back, "What's Happened to the University?: A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation." 

It's the latest of about a dozen books that he's published, an impressive list since 2001, including, "Authority: A Sociological History," particularly intriguing.

Heather MacDonald, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor to "City Journal," and the author of, "The War on Cops," a most timely book which has really galvanized discussion around the nation.

I'd like to try to set the scene for this discussion about academic freedom and the upheavals that we've been seeing around the country by asking Heather to set the scene for us by actually recounting, in a compressed fashion, the incident to which Greg referred.

What actually happened when you were at Claremont McKenna, and, as Bob Dylan once asked, how did it feel?

Heather Mac Donald:  As one who does not believe in discussions of feelings, I'm a little reluctant to get into that, but I guess if forced I will share some with you.

The day before I was supposed to speak at Claremont McKenna, I got an urgent one of those red-flagged emails from one of the administrators that they'd gotten wind of a brewing protest, and they were thinking of moving the event to a building with fewer plate-glass windows and better means of egress.  This was not exactly reassuring.

The Facebook protest had said, "We refuse to give fascism a platform.  We refuse to have Heather MacDonald speak."  Recall these are the people that purport to be against unbridled exercises of power.

When I got to campus, they had decided to keep it in the original venue known as the Athenaeum on Claremont McKenna College because they hadn't heard any further agitation going on, but I was put in what was essentially a safe house with the blinds drawn, from which I couldn't see the event venue, but I could hear what was happening, which was increased chanting and increased drumming. 

I saw a girl walk by with her face covered.  This is a petite blond with her face all covered with a Palestinian head scarf with a bullhorn amplifier on her back.  Underneath my safe house on the stairs were students sort of guarding me, and I did not have the courage to wave to them, I'm afraid.

I will admit, without wanting to adopt the same sort of model and rhetoric of the victimologist [phonetic], that it did cross my mind to imagine what it felt like in the French Revolution as you hear the mob growing evermore hysterical.

So I was brought into the Athenaeum via a secret passageway with police escort to a huge, empty room.  What had gone on, which again was outside of my vision, was that students, 300 of them, had blockaded the building, completely making mincemeat of the little police barricades that were erected to try to keep the entrances open.

The police, as is typical in our Black Lives Matter era now, stood down.  They didn't want to offend the student darlings and they certainly didn't want to be caught on video using force, so the students took over.  The protocol was that the white students were supposed to stand between the police and the students of color because, of course, the campus police at Claremont would have been so brutal to the students of color.

Chants were things like, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Heather Mac has got to go," "From Portland to Greece, F the police," "Shut down the F-ing fascist." 

So I was in the room.  Nobody else was, except for a contingent of police officers.  I gave my speech to an empty room and to the buffet that had been planned.  I was supposed to have met with students beforehand and talk with them about my book.

By the way, what I was going to say that was so violently unacceptable to these students was that there is, in fact, no police agency more dedicated to the proposition that Black Lives Matter and that there is enormous unreported support for the police and minority communities.

There were counter-protesters.  One guy brought a sound system to try to play "Stars and Stripes Forever."  The audio cable was promptly stolen.  A student from the campus alternative newspaper that was trying to live stream found himself attacked.  A faculty who tried to get in was basically beaten up.

So I gave my speech to an empty room.  It was live-streamed.  The university is very proud of itself that it allowed me to livestream my talk.  But what was most disconcerting was the few people that were in the room were not paying attention to me.  They were riveted by what was happening outside.

Students were pounding on the plate-glass windows and shouting.  The lectern had been moved before the speech away from the windows, so that when the lights went on inside I would not be visible.  So I was put, basically, behind an actual transparent-opaque wall.

I took two questions via livestreaming, and at that point the police decided they could no longer protect my safety.  An escape plan was quickly devised and I was hustled through the kitchen and into a waiting police van, and sped away to the Claremont Police Department.

So it was not the high point of open-mindedness in academic history.  That's for sure.

Howard Husock:  I know our hats are off to you for going through that.

Heather Mac Donald:  Thank you.

Howard Husock:  I think what we're going to do in this panel discussion is to figure out how we came to this.  I want to start with Frank and ask him for his view, as encapsulated in his book.  How did we get to this point?

Frank Furedi:  I think you have to remember that the horrible experience that Heather had is really just the tip of the iceberg, because fortunately, they are still very rare.  But for every terrible mob scene that Heather described there are large numbers of banal, everyday incidents that are going on within classrooms, within seminars and in cafeterias all over in all the universities.

To me, that's far more of a problem, that when you walk around and talk to people you have to deal with the fact that a lot of students, for example, are self-centering themselves.  For example, there would have been a lot of students on that campus who were horrified by what happened, but at the moment they haven't got the moral and the intellectual resources to do very much about it.

Instead of reacting and instead of supporting you, what they do is they censure themselves, or alternatively they acquiesce or pretend it's not happening.  They kind of conform to the prevailing climate.

The main challenge that we all face is that at the moment the current - - works in such a way that they're the ones that dominate campus culture or campus life, and everybody else just either reacts to it defensively or alternatively goes along with it.

So the question becomes how we deal with and how we manage these things.

Howard Husock:  I think the conventional wisdom is this is put in political terms.  "PC enforcement mobs" of some kind that Heather's views are what are being objected to.  In your book you have a slightly more nuanced take.

Frank Furedi:  I think what's really important to realize, because you're all American, is that it actually has very little to do with any of the American institutions, the American laws, or anything specifically American, because pretty much the same kind of atmosphere, the same kind of cultural processes are at work in Canada which is a very different political system than the American one.

If you look at Australia or if you go on an Australian campus, very similar attitudes have crystalized and work in the same way, and also in England which is, again, a very different political system.  Yet miraculously, in all of these different places with very different political traditions and institutions, they are the same cultural zygotes [phonetic] on campuses.  So why is that?

What I argue in my book is that it actually has nothing to do with 1960s radicalism, or very little.  There is no real continuity.  I mean, I'm probably the oldest person in this room.  I've been in campuses since 1965 as a student, so I've seen it all, and there's very little in common with 1960s radicalism.

Also, the main impulse behind it does not begin at the university.  If you go and talk to children when they are five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten, they've already been through a process of a culturalization where they come home from school with smiley faces.

I still remember my son the first time he came home, age nine, with 20 smiley faces, you know, a little Einstein.  I said, "Well, how come you got so many smiley faces."  He says, "We all did."  Everybody in the classroom got smiley faces.

So you had the suggestion in schools, instead of socializing young people into proper values, teaching them character, teaching them resilience, what we do is we validate them.  That's the basic approach.  We validate them.  We affirm them.  We raise their self-esteem.  We teach them that they are relatively perilous, weak individuals, who need continuous therapeutic support of some form or another.

For example, in my country in England, it got to the stage where safe-space pedagogy was introduced in schools a long time before students began to demand safe spaces at universities.  We had a situation in England where, for examine, trigger warnings--you all know what trigger warnings are and the demand for trigger warnings. 

We had a situation students where high school students were told that you don't have to listen to lectures about suicide or lectures about difficult subjects because we know you're going to be traumatized by this.

So already by the time they come to the university they basically are validated to the point at which they feel that they are entitled to validation.  They actually feel that they are entitled to be told that they are kind of nice people and if you don't validate them then that's a cultural crime.

Howard Husock:  And so for you, the discussion of safe spaces and trigger warnings, these are not rationalizations.  These are real feelings that have been inculcated [phonetic].  It's a kind of extra-political analysis that you offered.  Does that sound right to you, Heather?

Heather Mac Donald:  Well, I recommend Professor Furedi's book to everybody.  It's an astounding compendium of a cultural shift with examples that are mindboggling.  One of the great discoveries of it is how the whole Anglo world has been taken over by this.  So it's a must-read.

However, I disagreed to a certain extent with both FIRE's Jonathan Hades [phonetic] and Professor's Furedi's diagnosis, because I think a psychological explanation is not right.  I think this is an ideological issue.

Note that white male students on campus, heterosexual white male students, are perhaps the most stigmatized, the most vilified group on campus, and they are not demanding safe spaces.

Greg rightly says, "Well, what happened in 2013?"  Arguably, at that point we reached the critical mass of the dominant ideology in the universities for the last 20 years, which is victimology, and particularly racial victimology.  Universities today are dedicated to the proposition that the U.S., Canada, Australia, or Britain, represents a literally threatening environment of bigotry and oppression to people of color.

You have minority students at Brown meeting with the provost and demanding that they be exonerated from any kind of academic expectations, like showing up to class, because they have to protect their right and ability to exist on the campus of Brown.

This type of model and rhetoric is now standard, and the idea is that to be a minority on campus is to be at literal risk of your life.

As far as I'm concerned, the threat to free speech, the betrayal of the academic mission of rational discourse, of civil disagreement, is of course a terrifying development, but it is not the worst aspect of academic culture today.

The worst aspect is this cultivation of racial victimology and the belief in permanent endemic [phonetic] racism.  Even if we were to allow civil debate, that racial victimology would persist, and it is poisoning civil discourse.

Frank Furedi:  Can I just come back on that?

Howard Husock:  Yes, please.

Frank Furedi:  Everything you described, except for one thing, is absolutely true.  I don't think the debate is between psychological, political or cultural, because what we're seeing is an intertwining of all of these trends.

I think where I actually disagree with you is if you actually look at the dynamics of it.  Who are in the forefront of promoting these things?

As it happens, in England it's in Oxford and Cambridge University, which is the equivalent of Yale, Harvard, and Ivy League universities here.  If you look at the leaders of the movement, they're not people of color.  They're not minorities of any sort.  They come from the most privilege background.  They're all white.  A very large percentage of them are actually white heterosexual men.

In my experience they are as busy demanding safe spaces as anybody else is.  Actually, the safe-space movement began with feminists off-campus, but men on campuses just loved it.  If you went to a private school in upstate New York, or in England to a public school that was a privileged school, you went through the whole business.  You arrive on campus, and a safe space is your maguey [phonetic].  This is really what you are really into.

The interesting thing is that in all of these colleges it has been the white privileged students who have led the way, and then constructed an alliance with people.  In England the expression is "slumming it."  What they're doing is, they look for minority of various sorts and kind of converge and establish a relationship with them.

It seems to me that you should focus on the ideology.  The ideology should be taken up.  We overlook the fact that American - - Society is failing to socialize its young people, that the American education system, instead of educating young people for freedom and independence, it teaches young people to become passive and to feel victims.  That's really where the victim mentality really begins to kick in.

Unless we confront the problem way before these kids get to universities, unless we do something with our educational system, then this problem is going to get worse. 

One point that hasn't been mentioned at all is to look at the speed that these changes have occurred.  I don't know that you noticed that one day you hear about trigger warnings.  Somebody mentions it, murmurs it, and you say, "It's just going to go away.  It's just some bunch of idiots," you know, in a university.  "It's just going to go away."

In a month, it's mainstreamed, institutionalized.  One day you hear about the fact that there's a new identity group on campus.  They have trends.  They have this and they have that.  You say, "Well, they're just playing games," or you know, "What are these children doing?  It's going to go away."

Within a month it's like everybody loves them and it becomes this new cause that needs to be catered to and cultivated.  So the change is very, very rapid.

The problem for me is that if this dynamic is anything to go by, and if you really understand the dynamic, then the situation is going to get worse unless we do something about it.

Howard Husock:  Let me just try to play with this friendly disagreement, if you will, in the question of, "Is it an ideological versus a socialization underlying matter?"  It seems to me it's typically politically conservative speakers who are challenged.

Let's say Ta-Nehisi Coates came to the campus.  Would white conservative students then feel threatened because they're being accused of racism and then try to block Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So why isn't it ideological?

Frank Furedi:  It is ideological, but the ideology is not the driving force.  The point is that if you look at, for example, conservative students on campus, they are very different ideologically than lefting-students are.

Yet when push comes to shove, when they feel sort of under pressure, you'll find that members of the alt-right are just as likely to play the victim card as the social justice warriors.  I think it's very, very interesting that there's a mirror image process that's kind of unfolding in front of our eyes.

I find it very disturbing when people who argued for free speech and against censorship yesterday, that all of a sudden feel that they need to shut down the free speech of an anti-Zionist, potentially anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish speaker.  There is kind of a double-standard that has been built in.

I think that the mirror image whereby all the youth are ultimately playing the victim card is what we should be disturbed about.

Howard Husock:  So not confined to the left, is your strong view.

Frank Furedi:  Yeah.  As it happens, I mean, they're the main guilty party at the moment.  But what I'm worried about is that whenever there's any kind of reaction by conservative students, instead of independent standing up for freedom and putting forward a clear, liberal ideology--"liberal" in the proper sense, what we really are all about--they kind of fall back on the safe space sort of therapeutic argument, just like their nemesis.

Howard Husock:  Heather, you've written a lot about sexual harassment suits on campus, which is a corollary to what's been going on.  You wrote about what you call a kind of a neo-Victorianism that's emerging about the need to have these codes for sexual behavior and all of this stuff as a kind of safe space, if you will.  Don't you think there's a cultural aspect to all of this as well?

Heather Mac Donald:  Not necessarily, because I think the whole campus rape [phonetic] myth is also ideological.  It's a feminist take on the alleged rape culture that is Western society.  I agree that I think that the anti-BDS [phonetic] movement is a very good counter-example, that you do have more right-wing, you know, the David project or whatever, so you have Jewish students claiming that they are victimized on college campuses, which I would say is also not particularly believable given the academic success of Jewish students.

But I still think that the dominant motive here overwhelmingly grows out of the narrative of racial oppression.  I can't speak specifically to the leaders at Oxford and Cambridge, the white male leaders there.  But my guess is that they are demanding safe spaces not for them, not for a white male - - member, but on behalf of minorities or trans students, or females that are oppressed.

To be honest, I think that the claim of psychological injury is a pretext.  I don't believe it.  I don't believe that these people are literally feeling psychological injury.  I think they are leveraging that rhetoric in order to make their case against the hetero-normative, racist--I can reel off one of the petitions that went around against me after Claremont McKenna, transphobe, Colonialist, white privilege, - - .

But to point to Professor Furedi's point about the speed with which this stuff gets absorbed, another example is that the Justice Department of the United States has an office called the COPS [phonetic] Office, which was created under Bill Clinton to dole out money to police departments to allow them to expand their size during the 1990s, when we still had rising crime rates.  So it's a fairly kind of white-bred-type institution.

But in the final year of the Obama Justice Department they published a report on policing in American that had a sidebar on the concept of intersectionality.  Now, you probably have to be into campus politics to have heard about intersectionality, but this is a very - - concept that rates the hierarchy of victimhood, and saying that if you can check off multiple victim boxes in the great totem pole of victimhood, so that you're not just black, and you're not just female, and you're not just trans, but you're also disabled, you are like the best victim ever and you're intersectional.

So the COPS Office and DOJ would be talking about intersectionality.  If you see how it's used on campus, it's kind of mindboggling.

Frank Furedi:  Can I just say something about one point?  Heather was suggesting that it's inconceivable that people would really be as mentally or emotionally upset as they pretend to be.  Obviously, there is an incredible - - performance in all this, especially when the cameras are around.  People cry and they hug each other, and being in the middle of all that is a bit like a medieval passion play [phonetic].  You almost expect people to kind of hit themselves.

So there's the performative [phonetic] element to that.  But you know, I've been a chief examiner in my department for 20 years.  I remember 20 years ago when it all began to happen.  What happened is that exams would occur, and usually about two people out of a hundred would report mental health problems, or their girlfriend left them or their boyfriend left them, and that meant they were so traumatized they couldn't do their exams.

I used to laugh about it and I'd say, "Well, you know, tough.  Go do your exams."  Ten years ago the number increased to about 15% of students.  By the time I stopped being an examiner, one out of four students sort of used these excuses not to write their exams, and we allowed them not to do their exams.

The trouble was that at a certain point, when people start talking about their mental health problems, they do begin to internalize their own rhetoric.  One of the things that we're finding on campuses is that when you talk to these young people they genuinely are traumatized.  It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We know from human history that if psychologically you play a certain part and you dogged the status of a victim, no matter how privileged you are, you are going to feel hardened [phonetic] by it, no matter what.  Every single sort of smile that a person makes towards you will be miscommunicated as a sign of disrespect.  What we're finding is that actually we do end up with young people being mentally disoriented and confused. 

My argument is that if it was simply the case that they were playing at mentally ill, it would be a much easier problem to deal with.  It would be much easier to expose that to confront that or to isolate it.  But when you have people just being literally paralyzed, literally frozen to the ground, you know, when Trump gets elected or England Brexit gets voted through, my university begins to look like a clinic.  It is a clinic.  It as - - become a clinic.

People end up being what they kind of pretended to be.  So in that sense we are talking about a public health problem.

Heather Mac Donald: But I think the data shows that actually, compared to Baby Boomers, Millennials have less mental health problems.  There's less drug addiction.  There's less suicide.  There's less depression.  I think your performative analogy is absolutely right.  You have self-engrossed narcissistic students acting out little psycho-dramas of oppression--and here's the key part--to an appreciative audience of diversity bureaucrats. 

There's a co-dependent relationship between the ever-expanding diversity bureaucracy that is self-dedicated to the proposition of endemic American racism and oppression.

My guess is, if you could take away the diversity bureaucrats, so nobody would be paying these students with any attention for their little fits, it would go away very quickly.

Howard Husock:  Well, let's talk about that.  What is the best way forward.  Greg urged us to be of good cheer about all this.  It's a little hard after these discussions.  But there's a cry to - - for civility, and Heather said we need civility to be restored.  Is that the best kind of wedge to get back to a freer campus, in your view?

Frank Furedi:  I think we need to work on different levels.  I think that everybody in this room can play a positive role, depending on your status and your resources.  It seems to me that whatever we do, we've got to address the students.  I think we need to build up a larger cohort of students who are able to stand on their two feet, who are independent-minded, who actually think that freedom and democracy are good things, but most of important of all, students who feel confident to kick back against all of these developments.

Initially they will be a minority, but the way that I look at it is that there are already a large number of students who feel like that.  It's just that there is no mechanism through which they can gain a voice.  They are pretty much on the defensive.

I think whatever we couldn't do in terms of providing the moral and the intellectual resources to strengthen those young people by educating and training them.  In England, one of the things is Amywalvan [phonetic], which is providing them with classes on how to speak in public.  It's really, really important.  It's all done in public.

If you can get more young people to get up on their two feet and debate and argue in public, the same age as their opponents, that makes a huge difference.

Howard Husock:  I must say, I never felt that was a cultural shortfall of the United Kingdom, but that may be just me.

Frank Furedi:  Come to England and you will see.

Howard Husock:  Heather, is it an argument?  Is it discipline?  Is it alumni?  Is it alumni not contributing?  What can change things?

Heather Mac Donald:  Well, I think it's not going to change unless we confront head-on the lie that campuses are filled with racism and that American society is filled with racism.  Students are claiming they want to shut down speech because they thing it is literally threatening their existence because they're so at threat by racism.

So I think everybody has to start telling the truth.  The next time the students demand to shut down a speaker or a safe space, and claim that they are oppressed on an American college campus, that college president should stand up and say, "Are you kidding me?  You are the most privileged human beings in history.  You have at your fingertips the thing that Pahle [phonetic] sold his soul for, which I knowledge.

"You have books.  Every book that has ever been written is available to you.  My faculty are not bigots.  What I find so amazing is the students make these claims that they are oppressed by racism.  They're basically saying that their faculty are racist.  There has never once been a college president that had the balls to get up and say, "My faculty wants everybody to succeed.  There has never been a more compassionate, tolerant environment in human history."

If he wanted to be really accurate he could say, "There's not a single faculty search that is not one, mad desperate search to find minority candidates and we are admitting students with racial preferences."

If you really want to end this you use meritocratic [phonetic] admissions, because there is nothing that is more driving minority students' sense of being oppressed than the fact that they're being admitted with lower qualifications, and that is an extraordinary handicap to put on them.

They have two options.  When they end up at the bottom of their class, which is what happens, whether it's in law school or undergraduates, they have two alternatives.  They can say, "I am not qualified," or they can say, "I am surrounded by systemic racism."  Guess which one they choose?

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