293 What’s Happened to the University?

In What’s Happened to the University:  A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilisation (New York:  Rutledge, c. 2017), Frank Furedi appraises developments during the past 50 years in institutions of higher learning.  He began his academic life as a student in 1965 and is now Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in the UK.  In his student days, universities were open to new ideas and touted the virtues of free speech and challenging ideas.  Subsequently, however, they became “far less hospitable to the ideals of freedom, tolerance and debate than in the world outside the university gate.  Reflecting on this reversal of roles has come about is the principal objective of this book” (p. vi).   Furedi’s distressed that students now seek to ban books that threaten their vulnerable psyches and protest speakers who  might offend a variety of sexual and ethnic groups.  The free speech mantras of the ‘60s have turned into speech codes; the former devotees of free speech have frequently become, as powerful professors, enforcers of censorship.  “Safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “microagressions” and “chill out rooms” (replete with play dough and “comfort” animals to relieve anxieties) indicate how many universities have in fact become infantilized.   Thus:  “Harvard Medical School and Yale Law school both have resident therapy dogs in their libraries” (p. 27).  

In some ways this culminates a project educators launched in the 1980s, making “self-esteem” their summum bonum.  Feelings, above all, must be massaged and potential hurts (e.g. poor grades or athletic defeats) eliminated.  Protecting children became a parental obligation easily transferred to the schools.  Parents now accompany and hover over children entering the university.  Administrators serve in loco parentis, not as they did a century ago, by regulating campus behavior, but by protecting students’ feelings, especially if they self-identify as members of certain “vulnerable groups.”  Wellness clinics, counseling services, ethnic and same-sex study centers all cater to psychological or emotional rather than intellectual needs.   Treating students as “biologically mature children, rather than young men and women, marks an important departure from the practices of the recent past” (p. 7).  As one might anticipate, “the more resources that universities have invested in the institutionalization of therapeutic of therapeutic practices, the more they have incited students to report symptoms of psychological distress” (p. 46).  

An incident at Yale University in 2015 illustrates this.  A university committee issued guidelines regarding appropriate Halloween costumes.  One faculty member, Erika Christakis, posted an email suggesting “that ‘if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended’ and concluded that ‘free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society’” (p. 17).  Students then denounced Christakis and her husband (a psychology professor who defended her) for racial insensitivity.  Yale’s President, Peter Salvoes, promptly met with tearful undergraduates and shared their felt distress.  Though not dismissed from their positions, Erika and Nicholas Christakis soon left Yale, casualties of the raging intolerance now widespread in academia.  Another incident further illustrates campus conditions.  “Caroline Heldman, a professor in Occidental University’s politics department, recalled that some of her students began experiencing PTSD-related episodes in her classes:  ‘there were a few instances where students would break down crying and I’d have to suspend the class for the day so someone could get immediate mental health care.’  Her antidote to this problem was to introduce a trigger warning on her course” (p. 42).  

  What really matters these days is one’s racial or sexual identity.   “Universities are singularly accommodating to the objectives of cultural crusaders” (p. 65).  To identify as an African-American or Native American or gay man or lesbian woman grants one status and authority quite apart from whatever one may think or say.  In addition, it’s especially important to stress the “victim” status of one’s group, even if the only obvious victims were ancestors who lived decades if not centuries ago.  Doing so enables one to invoke “social justice” and demand preferential treatment of some sort.  “Social justice” increasingly means protesting historic policies and personalities.  So students at the University of Missouri demanded a statue of Thomas Jefferson be removed from campus because he owned slaves.  Schools must be renamed if they memorialize anyone tainted with racist or sexist traits.   Selected cultures must be sacrosanct, making intolerable any “appropriation” of their dress, music, or food.  So many campus cafeterias dare not feature Mexican or Asian food lest students remonstrate!   And, importantly, only women can speak for women, only blacks for blacks, only Indians for Indians!  Authority comes purely from one’s ancestry, not from any scholarly expertise.  Consequently:  “The reverential and self-righteous tone of cultural crusaders echoes the voice of traditional religious moralists” (p. 64).  

To provide “safe space” for culture groups leads to self-segregated dormitories, and there are now dorms reserved for blacks and other minorities at elite schools such as UC Berkeley and MIT!  These “safe spaces” for students protect them from  psychic and emotional hurts, shoring up their fragile self-esteem.  No debates are allowed, lest someone be judged wrong!  On many campuses, the notion that “criticism is violence” has gained traction, so teachers are warned to avoid even evaluating their students!  “It is an article of faith on campuses that speakers who espouse allegedly racist, misogynist or homophobic views should not be allowed to speak” (p. 103).  Challenging speakers, such as Heather Mac Donald and David Horowitz, are shouted down or prevented from appearing on campuses, for they might distress the feelings of some groups.  Advocates of safe spaces insist that “tolerance, affirmation and respect” therein provide a good environment for learning, though no empirical studies demonstrate such.  In fact, from Socrates onward it’s been assumed that learning advances when one is forced to examine his beliefs and test his presuppositions with a commitment to embracing even uncomfortable truths.  

Conjoined with “safe spaces” are the efforts to censor free speech which have accelerated since 1980.  Certain words simply cannot be uttered!  Though profanity (as traditionally understood) flourishes in dormitories and classrooms, legions of taboo words are now forbidden.  Thus one may no longer refer to his “wife”—though “partner” is allowed.  In elite universities one may proudly be a “Native American” but never an “Indian.”   “Censorship, which was once perceived as an instrument of authoritarian attack on liberty, is today often represented as an exercise in sensitive behavior management” (p. 102).  Even threatening ideas must be policed, with professors issuing “trigger warnings” that exempt sensitive students from exposure to them!  Classic texts, ranging from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye are now suspect!  Feminists especially object to reading classic texts they brand misogynist.   

Thus “microagressions,” even though unintentional and even unconscious, cannot be tolerated.  Lurking behind hurtful words there must be gravely immoral thoughts!   “You can’t think that” is now an acceptable policy on some campuses.  According to one influential theorist:  ‘“Many racial microaggressions are so subtle that neither target nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is happening.’”  But this may well make them “more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White Supremacists” (p. 119).  Generally speaking, only the ones who suffer from these verbal assaults really understand their evil.  An offense is in they eyes of the beholder!  Students on many campuses are now demanding the right to anonymously inform on their professors’ microaggressions and “Bias Response Teams” have been formed to enforce proper discipline on them.  To prevent hurt feelings, for example, UCLA now “prohibits people from asking Asian-Americans the question ‘Where are you from or where you born?’” lest they feel non-American.   Nor can you say “America is a land of opportunity” lest someone feel that such is not true for him (p. 109).  Correcting a student’s grammar may lead to complaints of “white privilege” and racial bias.  

The culmination of these developments, Furedi says, is “the quest for a new etiquette.”  Traditional ways, including chivalrous conduct, have generally dissolved.  To replace them we find what Jurgen Habermas “‘described as the juridification of everyday life’” (p. 125).  Yet exactly what kinds of behavior may now be condemned or approved and enacted into law remains undecided.  Administrative decrees, more psychological than philosophical in justification, seek to regulate activities but lack deeply moral (and especially religious) justification, so they quickly change and often defy common sense.   “The rhetoric of campus guidelines tends to avoid the language or right and wrong or good and evil, appealing instead to the therapeutic language of feelings” (p. 128).  To make sure feelings are protected, universities employ numbers of sensitivity experts and trainers and workshop “facilitators” to raise “awareness” and enforce speech codes and punish microagressions.  Millions of dollars are yearly expended to deal with “sexual harassment” complaints.  Students must be properly acculturated to the modern ethos, so Cambridge University now promotes “events ‘to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month, Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) History Month, International Women’s Day (IWD), International day of Persons with Disabilities (IPDP) and Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD)” (p. 135).  No victim groups may be ignored lest someone’s self-esteem decay!  

None of us really knows where this will all end.  But Umberto Eco was certainly prescient when he said that “‘even though all visible trees of 1968 are gone, it profoundly changed the way of all of us, at least in Europe, behave and relate to one another.  He added that ‘relations between bosses and workers, students and teachers, even children and parents, have opened up,’ and that therefore,’they’ll never be the same again’” (p. 134).  If Furedi’s right, universities have wasted their patrimony and may never regain their rightful place in modern culture.  

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During spring break in 2006, the captains of Duke University’s lacrosse team hired two strippers, including twenty-seven-year-old Crystal Magnum, to perform at an off-campus party.  Such events were not particularly notable, since 20 or so had occurred at the university that year.  But Magnum subsequently claimed to have been raped, provoking a sensational series of events carefully recorded by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson in Until Proven Innocent:  Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case (New York:  St. Martin’s Press,  c. 2007).   Added to the incident itself, illustrating the sexual tone of today’s universities, it’s a disturbing story laced with racial tensions, political aspirations, faculty prejudices, administrative cowardice, and media malpractice.  Though dense with details, the book fully engages the reader, alerting him to some the troublesome aspects of 21st century culture.

Though best known for its basketball prowess, Duke’s lacrosse team was a perennial powerhouse, routinely competing for national championships.  Accordingly, the team featured many fine athletes, often graduates of elite prep schools where lacrosse was emphasized.  These athletes were, moreover, generally outstanding students, bound for the graduate and professional schools which train the doctors and lawyers their parents envisioned.  The stripper, on the other hand, had a checkered background, marked by a failed marriage, illegitimate children, prostitution, and mental problems.  But she was poor and black, born and reared in Durham.  And the lacrosse players, with one exception, were white, the sires of wealthy families.  The two strippers’ performance lasted all of four minutes, in part because Magnum was apparently too drunk to stand, much less dance.  She and her colleague, Kim Roberts, departed the house, though Magnum  passed out on the back stoop.  She said nothing to Kim about being raped, nor did she say anything to a security guard who subsequently called 911 and tried to help her, nor to the police who responded.  Taken to the hospital, she was examined by doctors and nurses, who found no signs of rape.  Finally, however, a feminist nurse who considered herself an advocate for rape victims filed her own report, and it became the basis for later rape accusations.  Throughout the process Magnum’s story continually changed, so it was not clear exactly what had transpired with the lacrosse team. 

When police received information regarding the incident, a Durham detective well-known for his antipathy to Duke students took charge of the investigation.  He had no interest in interviewing Kim Roberts, who best knew what actually happened.  When another policeman interviewed her, six days after the alleged rape, Roberts declared the sexual assault story “a crock,” and her handwritten statement “contradicted Magnum on all important points” (p. 57).  The lead detective also refused to consider any data regarding Magnum’s career as a prostitute, though in time one of her associates testified to “taking her to jobs in three hotels with three different men” on the nights preceding the lacrosse party.   The detective also failed to interview the doctor who had actually performed the pelvic exam when Magnum was admitted to the hospital.  When shown pictures of all the lacrosse players, she could not identify any of them with certainty, and one of those she fingered was nowhere near the party that night.  

Taking an even greater interest in her case was District Attorney Michael Nifong, who envisioned it leveraging his political career in the coming election.  He needed the support of the black community in Durham as well as the liberal professors at Duke, so he quickly discerned how supporting Crystal Magnum’s rape accusations would ultimately enable him to win the upcoming election.  In a series of inflammatory press releases, Nifong branded the Duke athletes “rapists” fully deserving the vigorous prosecution he would pursue.  Many of his statements were demonstrably false, but newspapers and media outlets across the nation soon picked up on the case, almost unanimously assuming the guilt of the players accused.  Virtually everywhere there was a simple objective:  “Lynch the privileged white boys.  And due process be damned” (p. 121).  Writers for the New York Times and TV personalities such as Nancy Grace and Joe Scarborough cheered the mob of outraged folks determined to punish the “rapists.”  Few journalists cared to find the truth!  (Amazingly, the most balanced publication dealing with the case was Duke’s student newspaper!)   Inevitably, Jesse Jackson showed up, trumpeting his support for an abused black woman, and the local NAACP applauded Nifong’s every move!  

So too the Duke administrators (most especially President Richard Brodhead) and professors (especially from the African-American and women’s studies programs) began to loudly denounce the lacrosse players, apparently committed to the notion that any woman claiming to have been raped must be telling the truth.  Here was an illustration of the “morality tale” of “virtuous black women brutalized by white men” (p. 66).  The Duke faculty launched hysterical attacks on the lacrosse team.  (Many professors simply resented the fact that many thought of Duke in terms of its athletes, while they wanted the institution to bask in an aura of academic excellence.)  Many had a deep commitment to the feminism on display in the yearly “Take Back the Night” rallies.  And virtually all of them wanted to publicly bear witness to their racial sensitivities and liberal proclivities.   To some teachers, the players should be punished for rape  “‘whether it happened or not’” since it would help compensate “‘for things that happened in the past’” (p. 170).   Even as evidence proving the athletes’ innocence steadily mounted, Duke’s professors “served as enthusiastic cheerleaders for Nifong,” and “for many months not one of the more than five hundred members of the Duke arts and sciences faculty—the professors who teach Duke undergraduates—publicly criticized the district attorney or defended the lacrosse players’ rights to fair treatment” (p. 105).  The more radical the professor (e.g. Houston A Baker, a past president of the Modern Languages Association) the more the mainstream media loved to interview him!  Long before the trial, these professors simply assumed the men were guilty—and, of course, an illustration of how America is a racist, sexist society!  Only one lonely professor, a chemist, dared stand up and defend his friend, the lacrosse team’s coach!  In the judgment of Thomas Sowell:  “‘The haste and vehemence with which scores of Duke professors publicly took sides against the students in this case is but one sign of the depth of moral dry rot in even our prestigious institutions’” (p. 117).  

Fortunately for the lacrosse athletes, several had parents with the means and connections to assemble a strong legal defense team.  These lawyers early saw the flaws in Nifong’s accusations and found solid evidence (especially DNA) upholding the innocence of their clients.  All of the players cooperated with the police, submitting to lie detector exams and volunteering the blood samples requested for DNA tests, which proved to be the “biggest defense bombshell, since the State Bureau of Investigation reported that “‘no DNA material from any young man tested was present on the body of this complaining witness’” (p. 162).  Then the athletes’ attorneys demonstrated “the staggeringly conclusive evidence of innocence, and of probable Nifong misconduct” (p. 302).   Violating an operating rule for prosecutors, Nifong had refused to even look at evidence collected by defense attorneys, something “unheard of” in legal circles, pushing his case through a grand jury and bringing it to trial.  But in time the evidence would, in fact, become public and the athletes were vindicated.  

Cracks in the prosecution’s case began with blogs such as Liestoppers dissecting the mainstream media’s presentations.  Articles in the New York Times were shown to be filled with egregious errors, deliberately omitting crucial evidence countering Nifong’s claims.  Then a few TV programs—most notably Sean Hannity’s—questioned the assumed guilt of the lacrosse athletes.   Students on the Duke campus—many resenting the malicious role their professors played in the process—increasingly sided with the team and believed that Crystal Magnum had lied.  Ultimately CBS’s 60 Minutes, after a lengthy investigation, declared “the rape claim was a fraud and Nifong was guilty of outrageous misconduct” (p. 282).   When Nifong faced the defense attorneys in a preliminary hearing, his case quickly unravelled.  It became clear that he and one of his expert witnesses had conspired to hide evidence, and he dropped the rape charge.  He “had engaged in grossly unethical—perhaps criminal—misconduct, and the case against the lacrosse players was a travesty” (p. 317).  He lost face, soon resigned his office, and would finally be disbarred.  His effort to punish the innocent “may well have been the most egregious abuse of prosecutorial power ever to unfold in plain view” (p. 356).  In sum, Nifong was guilty of “demonizing innocent suspects in the media as rapists, racists, and hooligans; whipping up racial hatred against them to win an election; rigging the lineup to implicate them in a crime that never occurred; lying to the public, to the defense, to the court, and the State Bar; hiding DNA test results that conclusively proved innocence; seeking (unsuccessfully) to bully and threaten defense lawyers into letting their clients be railroaded” (p. 356). 

But even more shameful than the district attorney was the Duke faculty and administration!  Even when the evidence proved the lacrosse athletes innocent, activist professors remained belligerent and unrepentant!  Eight-seven professors published a letter repudiating any efforts to make them retract or apologize for their slanders.  Instead, they attacked the bloggers, students, and journalists who defended the athletes.   So too the NAACP, The New York Times, and other powerful organizations refused to retract their slanders or seek to do justice to the maligned men.  Even if they did no wrong, it seems, they represent what’s wrong in this nation’s racist/sexist/classist society!   Anyone concerned with the justice in America needs to know what happened at Duke—and is still happening in other sectors of the USA.