The Misguided Crusade Against Students

A Tale of Two States

On October 17th, the New York Times published a stirring op-ed, in which Kashauna Cauley reveals that the University of Wisconsin system adopted a rule that

punishes any of the 182,000 students at the state’s 13 public colleges who disrupt campus speeches and presentations. A student can be suspended or expelled for engaging in violence “or other disorderly conduct,” but it’s unclear what constitutes such behavior. The argument behind the new policy is that students need to listen to all viewpoints and opinions. This rationale pretends that the anti-protest policy protects all discourse, but it excludes the views of the students who are protesting.

But that’s not the only threat to free speech in the air. Here on the west coast, Michael Schill has a real problem.

Who is Michael Schill?

Why, he is the President of University of Oregon, the storied a̶c̶a̶d̶e̶m̶i̶c̶ real estate lawyer, the top grant writer. Indeed, on October 23rd, he “had planned to announce a $50 million gift that would fund several new programs.”

A $50 million gift to the University of Oregon will be used exclusively for “strategic investments,” not for ongoing university operating costs. “This will permit me to find in the university great ideas and kick-start them; give them the seed capital money to get going,” UO President Michael Schill says.

In a climate of rising tuition costs that threaten to push vulnerable students out, Schill is the man with the answers, ready to express them using his first amendment rights. But then, something terrible happened. According to The Daily Caller, “University Of Oregon Students ‘Exercise[d] Free Speech’ By Shouting…” and the state of the university speech was suppressed, so much so that Schill reports,

I ended up posting a recorded version of the speech online.

On October 23rd, President Schill himself was suppressed all the way into that same New York Times Opinion section that covered the chilling UW decision, where he told the world how this uncivil behavior has soiled his fair campus (emphasis added):

Armed with a megaphone and raised fists, the protesters shouted about the university’s rising tuition, a perceived corporatization of public higher education and my support for free speech on campus — a stance they said perpetuated “fascism and white supremacy.”

Can you believe that they think supporting free speech (and ra**ing t***ion) is white supremacy? Golly! But be warned, fair administrator, lest you say the wrong free speech thing. Neil Gorsuch has chimed in to say that civility is not an excuse to suppress disagreement.

With a tone that is not petty, Schill notes:

It is also ironic that they would associate fascism with the university during a protest in which they limit discourse

and proceeds to limit the students’ allotment of discourse to the following phrase: “expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.” He deems this “awfully close to the language and practices of [white supremacists and fascists].”

Let us momentarily relax the limit, thanks to The Oregonian:

We’re here because we believe that the university inherently belongs to the students, and over the years the university has been taken away from us… Each student here brings at least $100,000 to this university. That is our level of investment. Since we are the only ones bringing in money to this university — I don’t see Schill being in a hundred thousand dollars from his own pocket book, I don’t see any of them bringing any money. The students are the ones that bring the money, so then why are our demands completely and utterly destroyed and ignored? No longer. Our demands will be heard, we will be heard, we are the students, we will not be ignored, expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.

I’m sure that the university’s president is downright flustered at this characterization, because it erases the $50 million that he tirelessly received from an anonymous donor for the express purpose of opportunistic investment. How anyone could accuse him of privileging corporate machinations above the needs of students is anyone’s guess.

La Calavera Catrina, by Jose Guadalupe Posada

Are the kids all right?

Now, I try to be a fair critic. I don’t doubt that the students have been treated unfairly or dismissively, but I don’t know what other avenues they have tried already, if any, and it’s conceivable that they skipped over ways to have their voices heard and worked with, to get their university back in a timely fashion. I believe that the recent college cohorts have grown biased toward actions that carry a feeling of immediacy. The general cultural shift toward the inner subjective experience has led to more stunts like these partly because the impact on the participants has become as important or more important than the impact on the outer system. The list of demands grows for the sake of mutual inclusion and acknowledgement that has been sucked from campus life by an increasingly capitalized system. These actions are not unlike play, giving students a chance to feel out organizing and make mistakes and learn to act independently, without the supervision of the old guard. I am reminded of Erika Christakis, whose email to students I believe was unfortunately cherry-picked to furnish a similar student action:

I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: 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, [uncivil]? 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. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power?

It is exactly this transfer of power that is being protested. These actions may not effectively cut the direct path to the fulfillment of their demands, but they create experience that will serve the participants who go on to work on issues of local, national, or global import.

But I’m twenty-five and a half years old, which means I, like Michael Schill, already know everything. To ask so much calm, perceptive problem-solving of students who are frequently occupied with competing financial sacrifices, is simply unjust. It is the duty of us wise empowered professionals to adapt, and grapple and reshape whatever forms the discontent of the vulnerable and inexperienced take. The issues are no longer as cut-and-dry as the right to vote, or to sit at the same lunch counter, but the old “hurting your own cause” line remains a naked bid at misdirection. It’s just an excuse to look away from the hard problems. Perhaps musing about the contours of free speech is just another demographic’s form of ineffectual play.

But based on the footage, it’s an open-and-shut case anyway, right? It wasn’t really about his position on free speech to begin with! The president will simply hear these students at the appropriate time and place, when he has reference documents at hand, and can work out the problems in a respectful manner. If he keeps dodging, they will keep pushing, but instead he will simply invite them to his office like he informed the Daily Emerald he did in 2015, with the Black Student Task Force. That ended in the allocation of $1.6 million for a Black Cultural Center, so surely he’s open to sit and chat.

Not so.

That’s a group of people who are able to convert protest into meaningful change, but today’s [protest] group will never be able to do that, because they don’t want to listen. I’m always open to discussing with any student in a structured environment where they want to sit down and they want to have a discussion. I didn’t sense that that’s what they wanted. That’s not what they asked for — it’s not the way they behaved.

I don’t know, boo hoo? The kids are drowning in debt that’s not quite head-high “on average,” but since they didn’t have their calendar out it wasn’t sincere enough for you to extend your treasured and mature olive branch? It’s just not as big a deal as you’re making. Van Jones made this point really well on Forum recently, and it applies here too. It’s 45 students whose pain you ignored. If you acknowledge their pain, you get to brag about your anonymous donor. Is their struggle not part of the state of the university? Do you even care?

To Schill’s credit, he does acknowledge that it would be wrong to prohibit their behavior by rule, like the University of Wisconsin did. That would be a worrying trend, wouldn’t it?

And we’ve just learned that law enforcement is now trying to criminalize the act of existing nearby when an edgelord breaks a window. Just this summer, Congress saw a mortifying level of support for a bill that would criminalize support of BDS, unless the supporter purchases at least one SodaStream©, which remains poised in committee as of this writing. Where is the weight of the crusade, Mr. Schill? Who stands to be trampled?

What is worth turning the national discourse to worry about?

Un-Fairgrounds!

Another student protester did offer more context on the free speech issue that the University President had vaguely alluded to.

“Over the summer there has been a huge proliferation of neo-Nazi propaganda plastered all over campus,” Landeros said, adding he feared it could escalate to a violent hate crime. “We’re here to stand against that.”

What do you do when one source of speech materially overwhelms a space? The “nothing” option is known as www.4chan.org/pol/. It moves as fast as its largest clade of bumraged perma-squatters can repost bizarrely specific ethotheories.

To ignore that freedom of speech is a material issue, is to demean that most primary of rights. People like Richard Spencer and Ben Shapiro get free money skimmed from the long centralized accumulations of ROI upon historically ill-wrought seed capital, to spread their junk. A university that supports free speech offers institutional and material support to the speech of people not endowed with free money skimmed from the long centralized accumulations of ROI upon historically ill-wrought seed capital. Unheard, unacknowledged, the bodies are driven to the gears of the institution.

And this exact behavior is nothing new. Its legacy reaches back to a time, Cauley writes, “in 1918, when students disrupted a talk by the historian Robert McNutt McElroy.” Back then, you couldn’t even put a recording online, and it still never escalated to real suppression. Let’s fix our priorities.

I will give Michael Schill the last word, not wishing to rob him of his exciting $50 million announcement. “It’s not going to be a formal process. That’s one of the luxuries of this,” he said. “I can grab opportunities as they arise.”