‘Social justice warfare’ slows liberal arts school enrollment
Universities known for being hotbeds of campus protest and liberal activism are struggling with declining enrollments and budget shortfalls, and higher education analysts say that’s no coincidence.
Take Oberlin College. According to a document leaked to The Oberlin Review, the school’s student newspaper, the small liberal arts college famous for social justice hoaxes has had trouble attracting and retaining students, missing this year’s enrollment mark by 80 and racking up a $5 million budget deficit in the process.
William A. Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School who runs the Legal Insurrection blog, said the “most obvious culprit” in Oberlin’s dwindling admissions is “relentless social justice warfare.”
“Social justice warfare at Oberlin has been more intense and sustained over a longer period of time than at most schools, and has come to define Oberlin in the media,” Mr. Jacobson said. “The resulting mockery and derision, even in liberal publications, has damaged the Oberlin brand.”
Surveys support the notion that, in the era of Trump, conservatives have become more skeptical about the value of a college degree.
The polarizing presidential election was felt in the dip in applicants at some top-tier colleges such as Ohio’s Kenyon College.
“This is a year in which you were vulnerable if you were a small liberal arts college in a rural red state and you attract a significant portion of your student body from the East Coast or West Coast, which would certainly be the case with Kenyon,” Diane Anci, Kenyon’s vice president of enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid, told the Ohio school’s Kenyon Collegian newspaper.
A study published by the Washington-based Pew Research Center in July found that just 36 percent of Republicans believe colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country, down from 54 percent two years ago.
Gallup released a poll in August that found just 33 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents had a “great deal or quite a lot of confidence in higher education.” Sixty-seven percent said they have “some or very little” confidence in academia.
High school counselors report that, in the past few years, parents have been more likely to express concern about sending their children to schools with progressive reputations.
“Many won’t consider Oberlin or Wesleyan, and Brown is completely off the table,” one counselor told Inside Higher Education in June.
The problem may be especially pronounced among the nation’s heartland. Inside Higher Education reports that several prestigious, small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest have missed their enrollment marks this year.
Some college administrators have taken notice. According to Inside Higher Education’s annual survey, 52 percent of admissions directors from public colleges and 28 percent from private ones said they were stepping up their recruitment of students from rural areas in the wake of the presidential race.
Declining enrollments have previously been observed at colleges and universities that became notorious for chaotic campus activism, including the University of Missouri and Evergreen State College.
By some estimates, enrollment at the former is down 35 percent since fall 2015, when student protests helped launch the Black Lives Matter movement.
Meanwhile, Evergreen faces a $2.1 million budget shortfall this year since students took over the campus last spring, barricading themselves in the library, berating administrators on a regular basis and forcing one dissenting professor to teach off campus out of fear for his safety.
A spokesperson for Oberlin College did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times.
The school’s problems cannot be traced to a single incident but to several.
In February 2013, mass hysteria ensued after racist and anti-Semitic flyers and graffiti began to appear all over campus. Classes were canceled, meetings were held and students began to see racism around every corner, including when someone reported seeing a member of the Ku Klux Klan on campus. It turned out to be a woman walking around wrapped in a blanket to keep warm.
Not only that, the perpetrators behind the racist paraphernalia turned out to be two progressive students, one of whom was confirmed to be an Obama supporter, trying to get a reaction out of their classmates and the administration.
Rather than admit the whole thing was a hoax and move on, the Oberlin administration doubled down on a social justice agenda, including the implementation of a privilege and oppression “reorientation” for first-year students.
In the ensuing years, Oberlin students would go on to make frequent demands of the university, ranging from the end of culturally appropriated meals at the dining hall, such as General Tso’s chicken and sushi, to the elimination of grades below a C.
In 2015, after the University of Missouri protests, the Oberlin Black Student Union issued a 14-page letter making 50 demands of the administration. They included exclusive “safe spaces” for black students and the elimination of graduation requirements for classes in Western civilization.
Last November, Oberlin students targeted Gibson’s Bakery, a beloved store in Oberlin, Ohio, after an employee called police when he saw someone attempting to shoplift by concealing two bottles of wine under his jacket. The accused shoplifter turned out to be a black Oberlin student.
The Black Student Union, Oberlin Student Senate and College Democrats spearheaded a boycott of the bakery and organized protests outside of the store. Even the Oberlin administration, responding to calls from Black Lives Matter supporters on campus, stopped purchasing goods from the bakery.
Three students involved in the incident ended up pleading guilty to attempted theft and aggravated trespassing. As part of a plea deal, the students acknowledged that the bakery’s actions were “not racially motivated” and that the store was “merely trying to prevent an underage sale.”
Most of the enrollment deficit at Oberlin came from a smaller-than-expected freshman class, which totaled 742 instead of a projected 805.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said that dropoff is more serious than it may appear.
“That doesn’t sound like an astonishing number of people not coming, but weighed on a percentage basis, that’s a huge drop in just one year,” Mr. Wood said. “And Oberlin has for some time been struggling to make its classes. This wasn’t just some negligence: ‘Oh, we didn’t realize that we had to try harder to get students.’ They’ve been trying really hard to get students, and students just aren’t coming.”
He said Oberlin can easily recoup the $5 million deficit by cutting the “apparatus of political correctness” that has swelled in the past several years. When that happens, he said, it will be a sign that the school is serious about reform.
“The signal that I would look for is when they begin to divest from the large number of personnel who are employed wholly because of their political orientations,” he said. “When that happens, I think we will have seen a college that has decided to reposition itself in the market. Until then, it’s all just show.”