What Colleges Should Do About Campus Chaos

What Colleges Should Do About Campus Chaos

Boards of trustees at the campuses afflicted with student unrest need to take decisive action. The rest of us need to apologize to millennials.
Paul Bonicelli
By

Examine the chaos at the University of Missouri, Yale University, Claremont McKenna College, and Ithaca College, and you will find two sources for it: lack of leadership and lack of mission.

More institutions of higher education will fall prey to this chaos when students understand just how much power they have to cow their feckless administrations. Only trustees and administrators can solve this problem, and if they don’t do so quickly, their institutions will increasingly become nothing but Montessoris of political correctness for adults.

The lack of leadership and of a defining and unifying mission are equally problematic and feed one another. Take the leadership dearth. While there are plenty of administrators driving up the cost of tuition, all with convoluted titles empowering them to manage narrowly defined silos, no one seems to be actually in charge when there is a problem on campus.

Administrators and Faculty Deserve Some Blame

Staffing and programming proliferate to appease and entertain students, from rock-climbing walls to four-star dining. Offices are created with goals like moving the campus into using transgender pronouns. And all manner of helps are available for students who need remedial work because they were not ready for college.

Yet for days we have watched administrators, faculty, students, and journalists be insulted, cursed at, shouted down, and threatened. Faculty and staff have been hounded into resignation at two schools without any higher-ups stepping forward to quell the riotous atmosphere, demand respectful and reasoned debate, and, more importantly, assert university authority over students and rabble-rousing faculty.

Where are the tenured faculty who have nothing to lose by standing for reason, free speech, and fair treatment for those being abused and run out on a rail?

It is not just administrators who are at fault. Where are the faculty in all of this—that is, the ones not being hounded out of their jobs by the mobs as at Yale and Missouri? Where is the American Association of University Professors? Where are the tenured faculty who have nothing to lose by standing for reason, free speech, and fair treatment for those being abused and run out on a rail?

If tenure has any value any more, surely it is for such as this. But not a peep do we hear. Why is that? I assume it is because they, like the president of Claremont McKenna, are too busy trying to appease the mobs. Or maybe they are like this guy, a liberal professor who is afraid of his students.

So, yes, administrators can be a pandering, weak, and cowardly lot with no clue how to actually administer their institutions. But why are they like that? Well, some are like that I suppose out of temperament; or maybe a desire to hang on to title and salary as long as they can. Maybe some were taught in their graduate programs of higher education administration that the job is all about making the campus a home—a safe place, if you will—rather than an institution of learning that requires hard intellectual work, with recreation being simply an earned respite before the toil begins again.

Such a mentality would surely put an administrator so trained on guard for student discomfort. But perhaps there is a mitigating circumstance.

But Also Consider the Trustees’ Responsibility

Maybe administrators fear that their disconnected and aloof boards will not back them up if the campus becomes turbulent. Better to dispense with justice and just do whatever is necessary to return the campus to calm before it gets the trustees’ attention.

University boards, unlike for-profit corporate boards, rarely pay attention and have little stake in what goes on.

I don’t doubt this is the case in many situations. University boards, unlike for-profit corporate boards, rarely pay attention and have little stake in what goes on. Some pay attention to athletics (that’s why the Missouri situation escalated to tragicomedy as it did, because the football team and their coach weighed in early and strongly); others pay attention to whether their grandfather’s name will be put on a building.

Otherwise, they are checked out. They are so checked out that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a fine organization, had to be created a few years ago to tell trustees that their institutions are not teaching the basics of a college education and call upon them to do their duty and fix the problem. (When I say basic, I do mean basic. What ACTA calls for is a great step forward and the most many institutions could hope to accomplish, but it is essentially less than what high schools taught our grandparents as a matter of course.)

Sending Everyone to College Is Another Contributor

I mentioned at the outset that the chaos on campuses today is due to a lack of leadership and a lack of a unifying mission. This mission thing is a big deal. A few generations ago, our society did not assume everyone would go to college. Those who did attend went in much the same spirit as those who had studied in the first universities the church founded 900 years ago in the West, which the Enlightenment gave a great boost.

Those who went to college until only about 40 years ago were that small part of society with the intellectual drive, ability, and interest for obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

Those who went to college until only about 40 years ago were that small part of society with the intellectual drive, ability, and interest for obtaining a bachelor’s degree. The university—a term that referred to the unity of all knowledge—had a very specific mission: to train and educate those in the coming generation who would lead society. Everyone else stayed on the farm, apprenticed in the trades, or joined some emerging industry.

As the centuries rolled on and the agricultural then industrial revolutions swept the West, a greater need for skilled labor and managerial talent meant opportunities to attend trade school or learn business and management skills. Slow and steady growth in the needs of commerce and society meant more educational opportunities, but still it was not expected that everyone would go to college. You went because it was necessary for you to be what you felt called to do in life.

Much has changed in the last half-century. By a combination of the GI Bill, the athletics complex, and the misguided notion that the only noble work for the middle class or lower middle class is white-collar work attained by completing a bachelor’s degree, attending a four-year college is now considered almost a birthright for Americans.

No Magic Wand Can Make Everyone Ready

Social pressure is enormous. But just because some say everyone should go to college and make it possible for them to enter does not mean that ill-prepared and disinterested people will succeed at a university. Nevertheless, we do say they should go; we do make it possible via easy admissions and taxpayer largesse; and they do go, but many do not succeed, thus the retention and student debt problems overwhelming us now.

Just because some say everyone should go to college and make it possible for them to enter does not mean that ill-prepared and disinterested people will succeed at a university.

As a professor and long-time university administrator, I’m familiar with the pressure on institutions to enroll ever more students. I know well the sense of entitlement to earn a degree that animates the higher education world. But facts are stubborn things. Many people entering university—after years spent in lackluster public schools—are not academically prepared for it, nor are they emotionally suited for it.

Some would be better off going to community college, or studying a trade (recall Sen. Marco Rubio’s appeal for more welders); others would do well to start off working and go back to school later if their professional path calls for it. My colleague Rachel Lu at The Federalist explored this in depth.

But we should all be able to agree, especially faculty and administrators, that there are many people in our universities today who are not really ready for it. We do indeed agree on this, but certainly not in public. You can hear administrators in their conference rooms and faculty in their lounges attest to this truth. But not a word in public lest you be called an elitist or classist or some other vacuous term leveled without allowing discussion.

Doing Everything Isn’t a Mission

So we don’t really have much of a unifying mission for universities anymore. They do many things and fill many desires of the public and their constituents; and the larger they are—some are the size of small cities—the more they try to do.

If the boards of the various institutions in turmoil right now don’t like what is happening on their campuses, they should engage immediately.

Athletics is a huge part of it, so are the arts; and they all claim to be preparing students for life as competent and educated citizens ready for the professions. Except they are not succeeding at that. Hundreds of thousands of graduates leave the campuses every year with huge debts and no job prospects, holding diplomas in subjects that no employer wants and without the basic ability to read, write, do math and think as a college graduate should be able to.

Employers report this regularly, as well as their frequent need to actually train and educate their own employees in subjects college should have covered. I haven’t even mentioned employers’ frustration with laziness, lack of initiative, and the need for hand-holding and close supervision, which meets with resistance and rudeness.

Who is to blame for this lack of mission focus and accountability for the outcomes? Ultimately, it is the boards. Accreditors and governments hold the board accountable for mission and outcomes.

Accreditors and governments also expect universities to do all the social engineering that causes the proliferation of administrators, offices, and programs. But if the boards don’t like it, they should resist. They certainly engage when it is athletics or some other of their interests being harmed. They should also hold their administrators accountable.

If the boards of the various institutions in turmoil right now don’t like what is happening on their campuses, they should engage immediately, and not simply to replace the merry-go-round of presidents and chancellors we could be about to see since the University of Missouri got the ball rolling.

Start by Re-Establishing Order

But first things first. To fulfill a mission, they need to reestablish order. Good luck with that, given the size of their institutions, the way they have been operating the last 50 years, and the outrage they will encounter should they try to take on these mobs. But the trustees are the only ones who can. For example, they can immediately pass into their bylaws (or reaffirm) the following principles:

  • Free speech is sacrosanct.
  • Spirited, informed, and respectful debate is the lifeblood of a campus, and is not only protected but expected.
  • Academic freedom includes the idea that professors teach and students learn, and no one gets to call for relief because they heard an opinion they did not like.
  • Allegations against any student, professor, or staff member are simply that until proven via due process.
  • Only official policies can be the basis of charges against any member of the campus community. No member of the campus community will be held liable for allegations that are not grounded in policy (student outrage notwithstanding).
  • Administrators, faculty, staff, students, and guests will be treated with respect and dignity; abuse of persons or property of any kind will not be tolerated, and will be subject to penalties that can include dismissal.
  • Any alterations to these policies must be approved by the board, so important are they to that body and the institution’s health.

That’s the easier recommendation I have in mind for trustees. Fulfilling it will go a long way toward reasserting the authority of the trustees and administrators and quelling the chaos. If students continue to disrupt and abuse people on campus as they have been doing, at least the universities will be on firmer ground in establishing order.

As it is right now, there is not much clarity on many campuses about who is in charge and what traditional and obvious rules of university life are to be respected.  If trustees fear the mob in trying to bring order through these actions, I trust they will hasten to enlist the aid of their political friends, just as they do when they want taxpayers to build a stadium.

Here’s the Long-Term Solution

I have another recommendation that will be much harder for trustees and administrators to carry out, but if they do not I fear they will lose any chance of solving the root of their problem. They must attend to their mission.

Governing boards of all campuses need to come to terms with what they are, what they are trying to do, and whom they are serving.

Governing boards of all campuses need to come to terms with what they are, what they are trying to do, and whom they are serving. The progressive Left has succeeded in taking over the ethos and operations of most universities and colleges. That is clear. I have to admire them; conservatives have been far less interested in academia, and that’s to our and the nation’s harm, since higher learning should be about more than one officially approved voice.

What has the Left succeeded in? Well, many things, but there are two most damaging. One, they have divided everyone into silos based on the minutiae of academic specialty so there is no “university” anymore, really. Knowledge is treated as fiefdoms, and there is no core by which all students come to discuss, debate, and learn about the most enduring ideas—like free speech and debate.

Second, they have divided everyone by grievance, special privilege, race, and ethnicity. Students on their own didn’t come up with the ideas and slogans they are shouting; the people who run education taught and prompted these.

Trustees have to determine what kind of institution they want. Do they want to be a place that coddles young adults, acceding to their never-ending demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings, and racially segregated healing spaces? In sum, do they want to pretend to believe that the mob is really deprived and abused by the university simply because it confronts them with ideas in class they don’t want to hear, or with administrators that don’t say yes and amen to every student grievance?

These Kids Are Compensating for Their Ineptitude

Or do they want to be what they are supposed to be: a university, one of the greatest institutions the West has given the world? You see, I have a theory. I don’t think most of these kids are really looking for safe spaces, healing places, etc. They know good and well that they are very privileged and can access all kinds of amenities and services.

So many have accomplished little. They know it, and they are looking for a way to feel good about themselves.

What most of them and not a few of the faculty and grievance administrators want is affirmation. They want their self-esteem bolstered, they want people to listen to them and say they are important.

This is a huge problem for millennials and the generation following on. So many have accomplished little in the way of learning or other achievements. They know it, and they are looking for a way to feel good about themselves. When people in this state of mind refuse to take advantage of the opportunity to better themselves, and to focus on learning and working, then they will turn to some other way to boost their self-esteem.

Although their elders are at fault for a lot of it, we all pay for it. As T.S. Eliot said, half of the problems in the world are caused by people trying to feel better about themselves.

Each institution has to determine for itself these questions, and they should do so with this understanding: a university or college does not simply belong to the current student body. It belongs to a long chain of interested persons: alumnae, the board, donors (and, in many cases, taxpayers), faculty, staff, and students. It is up to the boards to insist that every constituent’s interests be respected and not simply those of whoever is on campus yelling the loudest at the moment.

It will require courage of the board and the administration. But quite frankly everything about higher education’s receding value could be at stake if they do not rise to the occasion.

As a conservative, it is tempting to watch while the progressive revolution eats its own, and to mock the Left as they look on embarrassedly at what they have wrought. But we shouldn’t do that. We all suffer when this much foolishness is given this much free reign over society.

Paul Bonicelli serves as director of programs at the Acton Institute. His career includes a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation as assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development; as a professional staff member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives; and as an official delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.

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