The col­lege cam­pus’s cult of fragility

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will is syn­di­cated by the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group. His email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­ Ge­orge Will Colum­nist

The be­gin­ning of an­other aca­demic year brings the cer­tainty of cam­pus episodes il­lus­trat­ing what Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han, dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor and ven­er­ated politi­cian, called “the leak­age of re­al­ity from Amer­i­can life.” Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are in­creas­ingly sus­cep­ti­ble to in­tel­lec­tual fads and po­lit­i­cal hys­te­ria, partly be­cause the in­sti­tu­tions em­ploy so many peo­ple whose tal­ents, such as they are, are ex­tra­ne­ous to the in­sti­tu­tions’ core mis­sion: schol­ar­ship.

Writ­ing last April in the Chronicle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, Lyell Asher, pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Lewis & Clark Col­lege, noted that “the kudzu-like growth of the ad­min­is­tra­tive bu­reau­cracy in higher ed­u­ca­tion” is partly a re­sponse to two prin­ci­ples now widely ac­cepted on cam­puses: Any­thing that can be con­strued as big­otry and ha­tred should be so con­strued, and any­thing con­strued as such should be con­sid­ered ev­i­dence of an epi­demic. Of­ten, Asher noted, a ma­jor­ity of the aca­demic bu­reau­crats di­rectly in­volved with stu­dents, from dorms to “bias re­sponse teams” to fresh­man “ori­en­ta­tion” (which of­ten means po­lit­i­cal in­doc­tri­na­tion), have grad­u­ate de­grees not in aca­demic dis­ci­plines but from ed­u­ca­tion schools with “two mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics”: ide­o­log­i­cal or­tho­doxy and low aca­demic stan­dards for de­grees in va­porous sub­jects like “ed­u­ca­tional lead­er­ship” or “higher-ed­u­ca­tion man­age­ment.”

The prob­lem is not anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism but the “un-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism” of a grow­ing co­hort of per­sons who, lack­ing tal­ents for or train­ing in schol­ar­ship, find vo­ca­tions in mi­cro­manag­ing stu­dent be­hav­ior in or­der to com­bat imag­ined threats to “so­cial jus­tice.” Can any­one ona cam­pus say any­thing sen­si­ble about how the ad­jec­tive mod­i­fies the noun? Never mind. As Asher said, group­think and po­lit­i­cal in­tim­i­da­tion in­evitably re­sult from this ever-thick­en­ing layer of peo­ple with sta­tus anx­i­eties be­cause they are par­a­sitic off in­sti­tu­tions with schol­arly pur­poses.

The Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute’s Heather Mac Don­ald says that be­tween the 1997-1998 aca­demic year and the Great Re­ces­sion year of 2008-2009, while the Univer­sity of California stu­dent pop­u­la­tion grew 33 per­cent and ten­ure-track fac­ulty grew 25 per­cent, se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tors grew 125 per­cent. “The ra­tio of se­nior man­agers to pro­fes­sors climbed from 1 to 2.1 to near-par­ity of 1 to 1.1.”

In her just-pub­lished book “The Diver­sity Delu­sion: How Race and Gen­der Pan­der­ing Cor­rupt the Univer­sity and Un­der­mine Our Cul­ture,” Mac Don­ald writes that many stu­dents have be­come what tort law prac­ti­tion­ers call “eg­gshell plain­tiffs,” peo­ple who make a cult of fragility — be­ing “trig­gered” (i.e., trau­ma­tized) by this or that idea of speech. Asher cor­rectly noted that the lan­guage of trig­ger­ing “con­verts stu­dents into ob­jects for the sake of ren­der­ing their reactions ‘ob­jec­tive,’ and by ex­ten­sion valid: A stu­dent’s trig­gered re­sponse is no more to be ques­tioned than an apple’s fall­ing down­ward or a spark’s fly­ing up­ward.” So the num­ber of things not to be ques­tioned on cam­puses mul­ti­plies.

Stu­dents en­cour­aged to feel frag­ile will learn to re­coil from “mi­croag­gres­sions” so mi­cro that few can dis­cern them. A Univer­sity of California guide to mi­croag­gres­sions gave these ex­am­ples of in­sen­si­tive speech: “I be­lieve the most qual­i­fied per­son should get the job” and “Ev­ery­one can suc­ceed in this so­ci­ety if they work hard enough.” Frag­ile stu­dents are en­cour­aged in “nar­cis­sis­tic vic­tim­hood” by ad­min­is­tra­tors whose vo­ca­tion is to tend to the in­jured. These ad­min­is­tra­tors are, Mac Don­ald ar­gues, “de­ter­mined to pre­serve in many of their stu­dents the thin skin and solip­sism of ado­les­cence.”

Nowa­days, rad­i­cal in­tel­lec­tu­als who are ea­ger to be “trans­gres­sive” have dif­fi­culty find­ing re­main­ing so­cial rules and bound­aries to trans­gress: When all icons have been smashed, the icon­o­clast’s lot is not a happy one. Sim­i­larly, aca­demic ad­min­is­tra­tors whose mis­sion is the elim­i­na­tion of racism have dif­fi­culty find­ing any in col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties whose stu­dent ad­mis­sions and fac­ulty hir­ing prac­tices are shaped by the re­lent­less pur­suit of diver­sity.

Ex­plicit racism hav­ing been sub­stan­tially re­duced in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try for con­sul­tants (and cor­po­rate diver­sity of­fi­cers, aca­demic deans, etc.: UCLA’s vice chan­cel­lor for eq­uity, diver­sity and in­clu­sion earns more than $400,000) has de­vel­oped around test­ing to de­tect “im­plicit bias.” It is as­sumed to be ubiq­ui­tous un­til proven other­wise, so de­tect­ing it is steady work: Un­de­tectable with­out ar­cane tests and ex­pen­sive ex­perts, you never know when it has been ex­punged, and govern­ment su­per­vi­sion of ev­ery­thing must be minute and un­end­ing.

And al­ways there is a trickle of pe­cu­liar lan­guage. The as­so­ciate vice chan­cel­lor and dean of stu­dents at the Univer­sity of California, Berke­ley — where the Divi­sion of Eq­uity and In­clu­sion has a staff of 150 — urges stu­dents to “lis­ten with in­tegrity.” If you do not un­der­stand the pe­cu­liar pa­tois spo­ken by the acad­emy’s ad­min­is­tra­tors, try lis­ten­ing with more in­tegrity.

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