November 29, 2015

HARDIN | In Defense of Disruption

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This year, college students across the country have united to demand the end of the systemic racism and classism that plague our system of higher education. While the demands of student protesters vary from campus to campus, in the broadest sense the fight boils down to a call for increased representation and accessibility for historically disadvantaged groups of students and faculty as well as a demand for improved administrative accountability.

Over the past 20 years, the share of Black undergraduates attending America’s most elite four-year colleges, which include selective private colleges as well as large public research universities, has remained relatively flat at an average of 6 percent of the student body, due in part to an increased reliance on standardized testing that disadvantages minority students. To put this in perspective, the U.S. Census reports that around 15 percent of college-age Americans are Black. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education reports that in 2013, Black and Hispanic individuals comprised only 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively, of the total number of faculty and staff members at American postsecondary institutions.

Representation is important — identity grants the experience necessary to achieve a wider range of perspectives — but increasing numbers alone won’t solve the issue that these colleges primarily serve affluent students who already benefit from private resources composed of family assets, better-quality high schools and stronger social connections. In addition to the need for student body diversity, we need diversity of curriculums, faculty and support systems for the students who are able to matriculate into these universities.

There is a lot of work to be done. In spite of this fact (or because of it), it is often tempting to flatten student protesters into two-dimensional versions of the complaints we’ve been ignoring for decades. By characterizing them — and Millennials in general — as entitled, selfish and lazy individuals, they become shadows of the hard-working, self-sufficient idealizations of previous generations. Their claims, then, cannot be seen as material in value. Our misguided faith in the meritocracy of the American college system, in which any individual can succeed with hard work and a little bit of luck, might cause us to mistakenly interpret the disproportionately small minority representation in postsecondary institutions as a product of their own choices and not as a result of the compounded disadvantages they face on the path to higher education.

There should be little doubt regarding both the legitimacy of the demands made by these students as well as their legitimacy to make these demands in the first place. As some of the most prominent institutions in American life, universities set the example for all to follow. When Black students and allies call for the resignation of a college president in response to his failure to condemn racist remarks, as in the case of Ithaca College, they echo the lives of the 304 Black people who have been killed by police so far in 2015. These are not isolated incidents.

Why, then, in one of the most racially divisive years in recent history, have claims emerged that college students are “coddled?” No one is saying that students should be sheltered from every single idea that they may disagree with or that upsets them. Besides being condescending and paternalistic, this dismissal of legitimate claims threatens to undermine the entire call for equality with the simplistic assertion that these students are merely “overly sensitive.”

Furthermore, dismissing the need for tolerant campuses ignores the very obvious fact that the students who stand to benefit the most from more inclusive environments, typically minority groups who have been historically disadvantaged and marginalized, have had, on average, the most persistent exposure to these “upsetting ideas,” which has become somewhat of a euphemism for general discriminatory speech.

While the First Amendment contains no protection for “hate speech” (though it does contain exceptions for “true threats” and “fighting words”), this is commonly accepted as one of its limits. Groups that already suffer from systemic discrimination are more vulnerable to hate speech than privileged groups. Universities, above all, should be promoting civil discourse and maintaining student safety; colleges should not be tolerating hate speech and hurtful actions as normal modes of expression. Banning racist Halloween costumes (Yale) and questioning the need for buildings named after Ku Klux Klan apologists (Princeton) would be a good place to start.

Demanding a fair campus does not need to be incompatible with the tenets of free speech, but these two forces are constantly presented as being at odds with each other. Free speech is one of the most important American freedoms, and it is vital to the principles of our system of higher education. A tolerant and inclusive campus does not need to threaten free speech; this is a false dichotomy. Asking students, faculty and staff members to be conscious of intentional language choices is not the same as waging a war on free speech.

At its best, this type of political correctness is an awkward and clumsy but well-intentioned attempt to be conscious of our language and to treat people with respect. At its worst, it doesn’t really exist in any form other than as a dismissive rhetorical tactic used by those who feel uncomfortable when confronted with conversations that call to attention their own privilege. On an individual level, confronting privilege requires a complete overhaul of our understanding of self. There is immense personal guilt in acknowledging that levels of freedom and access to opportunities vary greatly based on arbitrary factors like country of birth, race, wealth, gender and sexual orientation, to name a few. In response to this, our responsibility as individuals is to be consciously anti-racist by listening to the oppressed, recognizing the legitimacy of their suffering and taking action. On a larger scale, addressing inequality on college campuses will require our collective acknowledgement that our institutions are fundamentally flawed.

Before we worry about whether or not college students have become too sensitive, we should first ensure their safety, emotionally as well as physically. We cannot remain indifferent to, or worse, critical of, the demands of student protesters and allies. We are all exhausted. But for what it’s worth, having to hear the complaints of these students every now and then is far less uncomfortable than having to live through the daily oppression they face.

Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Free Lunch appears alternate Mondays this semester.