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College administrator comes up short in analysis of shout-down crisis

Posted: October 23, 2017 at 10:02 am   /   by

(Paul Mirengoff)

Writing in the New York Times, Michael Schill, president of the University of Oregon, criticizes the “misguided” student protest movement that is assaulting free speech on college campuses. Schill knows of what he speaks. His attempt to give a “state of the university” speech was thwarted when protesters shouted him down. Schill ended up posting an outline of his speech on the internet.

Schill says many of the right things about the protest movement. He goes so far as to say that fascism, which the protesters claim to be stifling, “fundamentally is about the smothering of dissent.”

Two things strike about Schill’s article, though. The first is his boast about the concessions he has made to leftist protesters. He writes:

In 2015, I had been president of the University of Oregon for all of three months when protests erupted around the country over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A group called the Black Student Task Force organized a protest right outside my office. I invited the students in for a discussion, and although the matters we discussed, about systemic racism and educational opportunity, were emotionally charged, we established a respectful dialogue. More important, the discussion led to change.

The University of Oregon engaged in a searching and difficult historical examination of racism at the school. We doubled the number of black faculty members, created new programs to enroll more black students, started an African-American lecture series, and raised $1.6 million to build a new black student cultural center. We also invested in symbolic change by removing the name of a former Ku Klux Klan leader from one of our residence halls and replacing it with the name of an illustrious black alumnus.

Understandably, Schill is bothered by the fact that, even after making these concessions, leftist students persist in viewing the institution he runs as perpetuating “fascism and white supremacy” and, in fact, have upped the ante from (apparently) peacefully protesting to shouting him down. He seems to have missed what I think is the real lesson here: You can’t buy off militants through quota hiring, lecture series, and renaming buildings.

How does a university protect free speech against an insatiable left-wing mob assaulting it? That’s the second thing that struck me about Schill’s speech. He declares:

[W]hat to do about speech that offends vulnerable populations and how to protect speech and safety at the same time presents a difficult challenge, but that makes the issue that much more important.

As with any important discussion, emotions can run high. But the only way to create change is to grapple with difficult issues. Nothing can be gained by shutting them out.

Schill thus seems to conclude, contrary to what I hoped was the thrust of his article, that his main concern arises when leftists shout down university officials and others he thinks speak inoffensively. When it comes to speech that “offends vulnerable populations,” the calculus changes and a difficult balancing of interests is required.

This view is far from a robust defense of free expression on campus. Indeed, it is obviously inadequate to deal with the crisis that exist there.