December 18, 2007
Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
There is an article in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education -- the trade publication of the academic world -- about professors being physically intimidated by their students.
"Most of us dread physical confrontation," the author says. "And so these aggressive, and even dangerous, students get passed along, learning that intimidation and implied threats will get them what they want in life."
This professor has been advised, at more than one college, not to let students know where he lives, not to give out his home phone number and to keep his home phone number from being listed.
This is a very different academic world from the one in which I began teaching back in 1962. Over the years, I saw it change before my eyes.
During my first year of teaching, at Douglass College in New Jersey, I was one of the few faculty members who did not invite students to his home. In fact, I was asked by a colleague why I didn't.
"My home is a bachelor apartment" I said, "and that is not the place to invite the young women I am teaching."
His response was: "How did you get to be such an old fogy at such a young age?"
How did we get from there to where professors are being advised to not even have their phone numbers listed?
The answer to that question has implications not only for the academic world but for the society at large and for international relations.
It happened because people who ran colleges and universities were too squeamish to use the power they had, and relied instead on clever evasions to avoid confrontations. They were, as the British say, too clever by half.
"Negotiations" and "flexibility" were considered to be the more sophisticated alternative to confrontation.
Most campuses across the country bought that approach -- and it failed repeatedly on campus after campus, when caving in on one set of student demands led only to new and bigger demands.
The academic world has never fully recovered. Many congratulated themselves on the restoration of "peace" on campus in the 1970s. Almost always, it was the peace of surrender.
In order to appease campus radicals, all sorts of new ideologically oriented courses, programs and departments were created, with an emphasis on teaching victimhood and resentments, often hiring people whose scholarly credentials were meager or even non-existent.
Such courses, programs, and departments are still with us in the 21st century -- not because no one recognizes their intellectual deficiencies but because no one dares to try to get rid of them.
One of the rare exceptions to academic cave-ins around the country during the 1960s was the University of Chicago. When students there seized an administration building, dozens of them were suspended or expelled. That put an end to that.
There is not the slightest reason why academic institutions with far more applicants than they can accept have to put up with disruptions, violence or intimidation. Every student they expel can be replaced immediately by someone on the waiting list.
In case of more serious trouble, they can call in the police. President Nathan Pusey of Harvard did that in 1969, when students there seized an administration building and began releasing confidential information from faculty personnel files to the media.
The Harvard faculty were outraged -- at Pusey. To call the cops onto the sacred soil of Harvard Yard was too much.
It just wasn't politically correct. And, as a later president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, could tell you, being politically correct can be the difference between remaining president of Harvard and having to give up the office.
Authority in general, and physical force in particular, are anathema to many among the intelligentsia, academic or otherwise. They can always think of some "third way" to avoid hard choices, whether on campus, in society, or among nations.
Moreover, they have little or no interest in the actual track record of those third ways. Having to learn to live with intimidation by their own students is one of the consequences.
Copyright 2007, Creators Syndicate Inc.