Social-justice turbulence at Haverford, self-abasing administrators, and some lessons

December 5, 2020 • 1:00 pm

I see that Quillette is now being demonized by many Leftists as some sort of “alt-right” or conservative website. And although some of their articles are indeed too Right-wing for me, most of the articles seem to be doing what I do—calling out the excesses of the Left, the same excesses that, I suspect, held back the predicted Blue Wave in November’s election. Further, it’s not a good idea to denigrate an entire website as a way of avoiding—or urging others to avoid—reading anything published there. Regardless of what you see as Quillette‘s overall ideology, you will benefit from reading some of its pieces, if for no other reason than some of the follies of the Left, which threaten a liberal government, simply can’t be found in mainstream media.

Here is one piece that will repay reading, although it’s long (my printout, in 9-point type, occupies 14 pages). This should keep you occupied on a cold December Saturday:

In some ways it’s nothing really new: the piece describes a meltdown at Haverford College, a posh and expensive school near Philadelphia. What’s unusual about this is that the students went on strike for several weeks, refusing to go to classes or, indeed, do anything college-related. What’s not new is that they issued a set of demands to the administration: the usual mix of the ridiculous to the tame. And the administration, to placate the outraged students, accepted nearly every one of those demands.

To me it’s a scary harbinger of my own school which, despite holding the line on some aspects of free speech, is showing worrying signs of encroaching wokeness. I’m worried that the University of Chicago will go the way of Yale, Middlebury College, Harvard, and now Haverford. But more on that in weeks to come.

The author of the piece, Jonathan Kay, is the Canadian editor of Quillette, and has cobbled together a thorough and engrossing summary of Haverford’s meltdown.  I’ll try to be brief, as I want to discuss his views on the future of fulminating college wokeness.

Earlier this year, before the death of George Floyd on May 25, Haverford was pretty much a school of comity. While there was discussion about various issues, there was not much about race, and a college committee in 2019 noted that there was, as Kay says, “little indication of mass discontent or ideological conflict.” This contrasts markedly with the many statements in the next few months, including some by administrators admitting that Haverford had long been a bastion of systemic racism.

All that changed with the death of Floyd and then the police shooting in Philadelphia on October 26 of another black man, Walter Wallace, Jr., who was bipolar and carrying a knife.  Because it wasn’t clear that the cops had a good reason to fire on Wallace, this predictably led to rioting in Philadelphia. Earlier, the racial unrest of the summer had led the College’s President, Wendy Raymond, to issue a statement of support for the black protestors, and the students began protesting the alleged racism of Haverford and issuing lists of demands.

After Wallace’s death, President Raymond and Interim Dean Joyce Bylander (the latter a black woman) issued a joint letter of anti-racism, but made the mistake of saying that students shouldn’t go to Philadelphia to protest because they could get infected with Covid-19 or “play into the hands of those who might seek to sow division and conflict especially in vulnerable communities.” (It’s not clear whom they meant.)

This statement (like others, reproduced in the article), urging students not to put themselves in “harm’s way”, enraged those students, who saw in it a line drawn between the poor black residents of Philadelphia and the entitled bubble of Haverford students.  A Zoom call ensued on November 5 in which the President, the black Interim Dean, and the black Provost, Linda Strong-Lee, talked to many of Haverford’s 1350 students. The students proceeded to revile the administrators in the call, as usual, but did so anonymously.

And the administrators proceeded to abase themselves:

The President:

Raymond presented herself as solemnly apologetic for a litany of offenses. She also effusively praised and thanked the striking students for educating her about their pain, while “recognizing that I will never understand what it means to be a person of color or be black or indigenous in the United States. I am a white woman with considerable unearned privilege.”

Not only did Raymond announce that she would be acceding to many of the students’ previously listed demands, she also reacted positively to the new requests that students put forward during the call. “All of the recommendations you’ve made here sound spot on and are excellent,” she said. “We can do those—and go beyond them.”

The Provost:

“I’ll just share that I hear your pain, and I know that this is something that rings hollow for you, but I am a black woman who has lived in a black body for 56 years,” responded Strong-Leek, in carefully measured tones that, among all the responses from administrators, seemed closest to escalating into something approaching candor. “My husband is black. My children are black. Every day, I worry about them and myself. Every day, I confront racism. [I’m] Looking forward to working with you and looking forward to making Haverford a better place.” She seemed to be fighting back her own emotions, but ultimately kept her composure.

The Interim Dean:

“I continue to listen and learn, and try to understand the ways in which the college has failed you and how I have failed you,” Dean Bylander calmly responds, ticking off seemingly well-rehearsed talking points. “[I] continue to be committed to trying to work to change and improve the experience of BIPOC students at Haverford.” Her face is a mask of deadpan professionalism. Or maybe she’d simply gone numb.

Eventually, the College acceded to virtually all the students’ demands. But by then the students had gone on strike, refusing to attend classes or extracurricular activities, with the intent being to disrupt the college, make them see how valuable people of color were in running the College, and to spend their time doing teach-ins and reading anti-racist literature. The strike lasted three weeks.

It wasn’t enough that there was a strike, for the striking students tried to punish those “scab” professors who insisted on holding classes during the strike as well as those students who opposed the strike, the latter keeping quiet lest they be forever demonized. Alumni banded together threatening to withhold donations to Haverford unless the students’ demands were met (this is a particularly effective way to effect college change: smack them in the pocketbook).

Social-media statements like this circulated (“Peanuts” is President Raymond’s dog, for crying out loud, and the poor mutt was threatened multiple times with death):

They threatened the President’s dog, for chrissake!

All of a sudden, where comity had reigned, the students, administration, and alumni discovered that all along the school had been a bastion of racism and bigotry:

The students appeared on Zoom under pseudonyms plucked from a list of past Haverford presidents and benefactors. The idea, a strike organizer self-identifying as “Henry Drinker” is heard to say at the 12:20 mark, was to co-opt the names “of the old white men who have made Haverford the racist institution that it is today.”

. . . These details help contextualize the mass email that Dean Bylander and President Raymond sent to the school community on October 28th, a six-paragraph message that student strikers would cite in the days that followed as proof of the “long tradition of anti-Blackness and the erasure of marginalized voices that have come to characterize the experiences of students of color at Haverford.”

From an article in the college newspaper by a student named Soha Saghir:

This campus has failed its Black students (especially Black women and Black nonbinary people), its students of color, and its FGLI [first-generation low-income] students—the very people whose labor is the backbone of this campus. These emails [from the administration] were just one more way in which you and this institution neither feel nor understand how tired, angry, and ready for change we are… In this pandemic, that labor has intensified in unimaginable ways… We are no longer asking for inclusion or diversity since that gives more power to the institution. Instead, we will disrupt that order. We will be going on a strike from our classes, our jobs (which we need), and any extracurricular activities. This campus can’t run without BIPOC. This is not just a reminder that we are valuable to you on campus, but that our lives, minds, and bodies matter.

There’s more, but what’s clear is that all of a sudden students discovered that the school, once peaceful and inclusive, was really a hotbed of racism. Did the school change in such a short period of time, or did outraged students confect a “structural racism” that didn’t exist.

I opt for the latter, having long lived on a liberal campus where such recent accusations fly in the face of the facts.

What bothers me about Kay’s piece is what looks like a correct diagnosis of why the administration caved completely to the students, abasing themselves, losing their dignity, and admitting to an institutional bigotry which didn’t exist. It’s because the administration has nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by standing up to the students. If true, that doesn’t give me much hope:

When campus meltdowns of this type occur, you often see conservative culture warriors demand that administrators take a hard line, demonstrate backbone, “grow a spine,” and so forth. But what is their incentive for doing so? It was once the case that a university president was able to balance different constituencies against one another as a means to achieve some kind of policy equilibrium—liberal students versus more conservative professors, administrators against alumni, this department versus that. But that doesn’t happen anymore: Thanks to the homogenizing effects of social media, all of these constituencies tend to be drinking the same bathwater from the same troughs, and so get caught up in the same social panics at the same time.

And Kay’s solution seems lame: “eventually the trend will reverse itself, and that will be prompted by the students themselves.”  Dream on, Mr. Kay: I don’t see this happening:

The process of sifting through these events at Haverford has convinced me that the ideological crisis on American campuses can’t be solved by administrators—not because they are beholden to critical race theory, intersectionality, gender ideology, postmodernism, or any of the other bugbears of conservative culture critics, but because they simply have no practical inducements for doing so. Ultimately, this is a crisis that is going to have to be addressed, if at all, by students themselves. And in this regard, I do see some green shoots of hope. Nick Lasinsky, a white undergraduate student at Haverford, wrote a beautiful and thoughtful piece called Why I’ve Chosen Not to Strike. And a black student named Khalil Walker wrote an amazing series of comments in which he demolishes the idea that Haverford is a hive of systematic racism. Our culture moves in cycles, and I predict that you will see more of these brave voices in months to come.

I predict otherwise. These woke and outraged students will, since they come from elite colleges, get positions of leadership in the media as well as in other colleges, for many of them will go on to become academics and administrators. And that will make colleges even more woke, and so on. There’s nothing on the horizon to break that cycle.

As I worry about this fate for my own university (our hard-line President, Bob Zimmer, will resign at the end of this academic year), I spend too much time—especially for an emeritus professor—fretting about the University of Chicago. For decades, we were the beacon of freedom of speech and academic freedom among American colleges. This uniqueness was in fact a selling point of the University, who advertised it to potential students and their parents. But it’s crumbling.

Now we stand on an equipoise that could easily turn us into Haverford, especially because many of our students are just as woke as theirs. While I still fight for freedom of speech here, it’s getting harder and harder, and the opposition gets louder and louder. What’s freedom of speech compared to the “harm” you cause by speaking your mind?

Before too long, we may see the time when the University of Chicago is no longer the model for colleges that want to encourage all sorts of discussion and discourage none. And I find that prospect discouraging.

26 thoughts on “Social-justice turbulence at Haverford, self-abasing administrators, and some lessons

  1. “Regardless of what you see as Quillette‘s overall ideology, you will benefit from reading some of its pieces, if for no other reason than some of the follies of the Left, which threaten a liberal government, simply can’t be found in mainstream media.” – Indeed! Also, it is always useful to have an insight into how other people with different views think.

    1. I originally thought of Quillette as a destination for non-orthodox leftists like Prof. Coyne (and myself) but it’s become clear that it really is a right-wing publication. Once they started publishing anti-environment screeds, climate denial BS, and other corporate apologist pablum, it was obvious. Still worth reading for the anti-woke stuff though.

      1. To be fair, every magazine seeks an audience that is willing to offer some support. You don’t keep your readers if half of your articles irritate them. I guess Claire Lehman just likes to have friends.

      2. May you care to describe what “climate denial BS” you witnessed there? Because as far as I know, they publish Mike Shellenberger, who is very far from being a climate change denier.

  2. One of the “demands” of the Haverford student strikers was “a framework to deal with problematic professors”. I would like to know how much the Haverford administration has acceded to that particular demand.
    I found the Quillette article particularly discouraging for two reasons. First, Haverford is a Quaker school with an ancient tradition of what I suppose should be called “Progressivism”; a place where the
    operatic charge of “anti-Blackness and the erasure of marginalized voices” is pure histrionic bullshit. Second, I was an undergraduate at Haverford in the supposedly terrifying, McCarthyite, conformist 1950s. During my final year, I organized a symposium on the American Left, with speakers from the CP, the SWP, and the SP. The meeting went off uneventfully, with no objection by anyone, although it later attracted a little interest from government snoops, which had no consequences. So much for the
    terrors of the 1950s at Haverford.

    In this millenium, Haverford seems to be headed in an Evergreenish direction, under the impact of our
    contemporary MaoCarthyism. A few years ago, an invited speaker as far from the Right-wing as former chancellor of the Univ. of California Robert Birgeneau was de-platformed. FIRE’s free speech ranking rates Haverford yellow rather than green, but at least not red. Today, one cannot imagine a student symposium there on, say, the pluses and minuses of imposed Diversity training sessions.

    Come to think of it, that experiment should be conducted. If the Heterodox Academy has a few
    beleaguered members at Haverford, I hope they will try to hold a public discussion on some topic of Liberal (old sense) thought—and we will see what happens.

  3. Kay’s article includes a slightly different interpretation of the administrators’ actions and statements: that they were a public relations exercise designed to placate the students without actually changing anything about how the college is organized or run. In both respects, the college is obviously not racist, so no change is actually needed. But some kind of response to the student strike was needed. Unfortunately, that has the appearance of caving to ridiculous demands by students. IDK the details, maybe there have been substantive concessions. But Kay suggested that that doesn’t seem to be the case so far.

    The students themselves don’t seem to realize they are being patronized and patted on the head. I wonder what the college is telling the parents of those students; parents paying full freight are in for something like $60K per year, and what Kay describes does not seem like value for money. But what do I know – my kids go to State U on a faculty member’s tuition waiver, thank goodness.

    1. Very early on Nov 3rd, even before Biden won the electoral college, when folks were worried about the havoc T. could still wreak, someone curtly posted ‘We’ve solved that problem, we can move on.’

      Ignoring all the harm McConnell and cowardly Republicans did in the aftermath encouraging Mr. “Never Surrender, Never Concede™. ”

      So maybe students will’ just declare victory and move on.

  4. There are some articles at Quillette that fail to interest me, but I have not yet been turned away by any article that is too right-wing, conservative or just plain wrong. I recognise that many people would dislike the titles and even more so the content, but if the articles say nothing that could be remotely be construed as hate-speech by a reasonable person, why not read them and discuss them in their lively comment section? If you find yourself unable to do that, I suspect you have decided there are “horrible people” who must not be allowed a voice at all. As rotten and useless I find that position, I still enjoy the fact that some can, by their self-proclaimed virtue, place themselves right into that (non-existent) category!

      1. Yeah, I didn’t think they should have elicited a response from creationists, but they seemed to regard that as a normal academic response to an academic argument. I was given the chance to respond, but didn’t want to.

  5. My name is Haverford and I’m a institutional racist.
    I struggled in my ignorance but now I’m woke I can see for the first time…
    the sun DOES rise in the west and my head was on back to front.

  6. We’ll know things are bad at Chicago when a new administrative regime there effectively subordinates the Kalven Principles—either explicitly or de facto—to some sort of woke virtue display. As Eddy in Absolutely Fabulous was always reminding us, ‘cheer up—it may never happen’. I don’t think it’s inevitable, even though at times the abandonment of the principles of free inquiry seems unstoppable. The major pushback in the recent Abbot case puts future administrations on notice that there’s a big constituency out there that will not tolerate such abuses, and that constituency probably includes quite a few donors who the school would very much prefer not to lose. As long as that kind of very strong response to things resembling this Haverford debacle continue at
    Chicago, my guess is future Presidents there will tread quite cautiously.

  7. Apparently the striking students didn’t omit the obligatory antisemitism:

    When a college group called Friends of Israel tried to add its name to the list of strike-supporting organizations, it was blocked from doing so, with student activists telling members of the group to “get the fuck off the document” and “fucking choke.”

    1. Jews: the one minority that can be both the victims of the most hate crimes per capita (by a very, very wide margin) and still never included in “minorities.” The people who, only about 80 years ago, had all the Western governments reject their immigration from Germany, causing Hitler to move to his “Final Solution.” One of Hitler’s initial ideas was getting Western governments to take Germany’s Jews, but they all said no. Not even one Jew. Instead, those Jews ended up in camps or on the run. The ones who didn’t die lost everything.

      But fuck ’em, right? Those damn privileged Jews.

      The antisemitism of the “woke” crowd really lays bare their complete dishonesty about their motives.

  8. I hate to say I agree with you here, professor – just going by the trend lines so far. “We’re all on campus now” as we see these ideological memes recently burst out of universities and infect the (still lower) reaches of the media, etc.
    D.A., J.D., NYC

  9. Sad, I’m a Haverford grad, class of ‘90.

    It was always a liberal campus but one of the aspects that differentiated it from some other small liberal arts schools was that it was marked by thoughtful liberalism, not radicalism. It’s a Quaker school and respectful disagreements with others had been a part of the core values of the school for a long time. It was when I was there.

    It was at the start of the earlier “political correctness.” Trend of the late 1980’s. Most of my friends fun of the uptight nonsense of the politically correct. An acquaintance of mine started a satiric newsletter poking fun at them called Sensitive Mail (“Male”) that was a big hit at the time

    I’m hoping this current trend won’t last. I’ve stopped giving them money a few years ago. I refuse to support knee jerk lefty power plays. And the administration is completely misguided. Sad.

  10. In connection with student groups like the Haverford strikers, a group of student organizations at McGill, including the Anthropology Students Organization, “demand the removal of Professor Philip Carl Salzman’s Emeritus status”. See: https://www.mindingthecampus.org/2020/12/04/add-me-to-the-list-of-canceled-professors/

    So, the Canceleers can even come for those of us who are retired, like our host. I suppose we had best
    watch our steps. Will they next, I wonder, demand that images of cancelees be air-brushed out of group photos of faculties, symposium gatherings, and so on? This method of keeping the population safe was often used in a large, widely admired, Eurasian polity of the last century.

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