The president of Oberlin College—a famously leftwing school that recently made headlines for student protests against “cultural appropriation” of ethnic food in dining halls—has issued one of the most forceful rebukes of campus activist intimidation of any academic authority figure to date. Whereas many college presidents have made their best efforts to appease social justice protesters (mostly by promising to spend more money on the protesters’ preferred campus programs), President Marvin Krislov of Oberlin responded to a list of demands—which included firing specific faculty members, granting tenure to others, creating segregated “safe spaces” for black students, and paying student activists for their efforts—by firmly declining to negotiate:
Some of the challenges outlined in the document resonate with me and many members of our community, including our trustees. However, some of the solutions it proposes are deeply troubling. I will not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement. Many of its demands contravene principles of shared governance. And it contains personal attacks on a number of faculty and staff members who are dedicated and valued members of this community.
The students concluded their list of demands by saying, “these demands are not suggestions” and threatened “immediate action” if they were not heeded. So who knows what, if anything, they will have in store for the Oberlin administration in the coming semester. But it’s also clear that campus activists regard capitulation as a sign of weakness, not solidarity—just ask President Christina Paxson of Brown. So whatever response the activists are planning would probably have been just as bad, if not worse, had Krislov tried to placate them by promising a new campus diversity center or convened a committee to make courses less, as the activists put it, “westernized.”
At the same time, for critics of modern university political culture, it’s hard not to feel at least a modicum of appreciation for the activists’ willingness to attack certain academic orthodoxies. As Ross Douthat (no supporter of campus Jacobinism) has written, academic administrations have “long relied on rote appeals to the activists’ own left-wing pieties to cloak its utter lack of higher purpose.” The Oberlin activists seemed to sense this: In their list of demands, they criticize the College for using “the limited number of Black and Brown students to color its brochures” and suggest that its ideals of “equity, inclusion, and diversity,” as recited by campus administrators, are meaningless. On that front, they are not entirely wrong: The academy’s worship of diversity is in many ways a hollow exercise, a type of collective virtue signaling motivated more by a desire to boost rankings and market itself than by any comprehensive idea of justice.
Repudiating campus protesters, in other words, isn’t enough to fix the modern university. But to the extent that it shows that the people running the academy still have some moral spine, it’s a good start.