When Privileged Students Protest

I heard about the protest a day before arriving on campus. A group called the Diaspora Coalition at Sarah Lawrence College, an elite liberal-arts school about an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, had put out a list of demands online and announced that they were going to occupy a campus building.

I had been invited to campus by President Cristle Collins Judd as part of a series called “Differences in Dialogue.” The plan was to explore the challenges and opportunities of living in a diverse democracy, when diversity means both the differences you like and the differences you don’t like. My interlocutors were the Washington University in St. Louis political philosopher and law professor John Inazu, and Nancy Cantor, the president of Rutgers University at Newark and an alumna of Sarah Lawrence. Both are friends and colleagues. John is probably a click or two more conservative than me, and Nancy maybe a click or two more liberal, but we all view the racism and conspiracy theories of the current Republican Party as anathema.

I’ve been to many campuses where protests had made national news (Yale, Princeton, Swarthmore, Oberlin, Amherst, maybe a dozen or so more), but I have never actually been in the middle of one myself, at least not since my own undergraduate days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. So I approached with a sense of curiosity.

The event was well attended. There were Sarah Lawrence board members, people from the local community, students, and faculty members all streaming into the auditorium. A handful of friendly student activists stood outside the doors handing out copies of the Diaspora Coalition’s manifesto. I saw many more heading upstairs to fill the balcony area of the theater. It all felt very neighborly.

As our conversation on stage unfolded, I was struck by a story John Inazu told about his father, who had died only a few weeks earlier after a long battle with cancer. John’s father had been born in Manzanar, one of the ten camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. His parents were prevented from holding him as a baby. John shared this detail in a steady, even voice, his tone sharpening our sense of the tragedy and injustice he described.

Somehow, John’s father went on to become the kind of American patriot who joins the military and remains committed to it for the rest of his life. John’s brother is a cop. John himself is military, and even worked for a time at the Pentagon. While he was in graduate school, he took classes with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who asked how a Christian like John could reconcile his faith — which Hauerwas believed ought to commit him to pacifism — with involvement with the American military. It was a lot for John to consider. When he tried to talk it over with his father, it became clear that it was not a conversation his father was interested in having. For him — this man who had been born in an incarceration camp set up by the United States Army — military service was a high ideal.

The story reminded me how unwise it is to guess at people’s views based on their identities or experiences. I had hoped that we could discuss this complexity with the audience during the question-and answer period.

But right as that part of the program began, there was a rustle in the balcony and a discernible shift in mood. Sixty students stood up as a collective, raised their fists in the air, and declared that they were taking over the space. One by one, they began reading statements of protest from their smartphones. Each statement followed the same formula. A typical one went like this: “As a person who benefits from white privilege but is oppressed by heteronormativity, I call out Sarah Lawrence College for further oppressing its already marginalized students and call on President Cristle Collins Judd and the college to immediately agree to all demands issued in our manifesto.”

Eight students read statements, many of which began with a ritual confession of white privilege (a pattern which served to underscore the fact that most of the speakers were white). After each statement, the students chanted, “No justice, no peace,” waving their fists in the air.

About half the students directed insults at Judd, whom some called, with a sneer, “Cristle.” After they spoke, Judd stood and said, in a sharply contrasting tone of earnest politeness, something to the effect of, “We hear you. Thank you for making your views known. I have met with you before and will meet with you again to discuss your demands. Now can we allow members of the audience who have questions of our panel to ask them?” She was met with jeers.

The night closed with a spokesperson of the Diaspora Coalition demanding of the panelists on stage that we immediately go on record in support of their manifesto. A dozen cellphones were up, recording the moment. John, Nancy, and I somehow managed to communicate that we appreciated the students’ energy and resolve but hadn’t studied the manifesto enough to sign on.

The next morning, a colleague and I were scheduled to meet with a smaller group of faculty members, administrators, and students. The driver who picked us up from the hotel to take us to the meeting joked with us, “Did you know the students are asking for free detergent? Why can’t they be like the rest of us and just handwash their clothes with regular soap when they run out?”

“But what do I know,” she continued. “I’m just an hourly employee with a high-school education. These Sarah Lawrence kids are going to run the world. In fact, they already do.” I couldn’t tell if it was bitterness or irony in her voice. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t pride.

It occurred to me that the Sarah Lawrence student protesters had quite naturally assumed the position of the weaker party vis-à-vis the college’s administrators. But from the van driver’s perspective, by going public in a self-righteous way, the students had widened their audience to individuals who had a very different understanding of what constituted identity privilege and who held it.

To the high-school educated, hourly employee that drove Sarah Lawrence students and visitors around, it was the college students she chauffeured around campus, regardless of race, gender or sexuality, who had quite a bit of power.

Yet of all the forms of privilege named the previous night (heteronormativity, cis-genderism, white privilege), access to education did not come up. None of the speakers mentioned their identities as Sarah Lawrence students, though that particular identity is likely to play a very significant role in their lives.

In his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, the political scientist Robert Putnam observes that the American socioeconomic order can be neatly divided into three categories. Those who have a high-school education or less occupy the lower third; those with some college the middle third; and those who have completed college the upper third. A host of other quality-of-life indicators — occupation, income, health, social status, self-identity — are quite straightforwardly predicted by level of education.

These findings include people with any kind of college degree. If you attend a name-brand selective institution, your chances of success in the knowledge economy are significantly higher than those of the student who attends a local commuter college. Consider this: There are something like 2,500 four-year residential nonprofit institutions of higher education in the United States. These institutions are what most people reading this publication normally think of as “college.” If you attend a top-250 institution, you are in the top 10 percent; if you attend a top-25 institution, well, you are surely smart enough to do the math in your head. If the selectivity of these schools maps on in any way to success in the current economy, you have just positioned yourself in the upper reaches of the top third of American society.

If you are at an elite college like Sarah Lawrence, you probably know this, which is why you (or your parents) went to the trouble of positioning yourself to be admitted to such an institution in the first place.

If money is half of the social identity known as class, the other half is prestige. And this is where attending an elite college makes an unambiguous difference.

In a recent book called The Tyranny of Merit, the political philosopher Michael Sandel argues, “Elites have so valorized a college degree — both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social esteem — that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate.”

Sandel discusses a study in which social psychologists surveyed college graduates across both the United States and Europe, asking them how they felt about a range of disfavored groups, including obese people, gay people, and ethnic and religious minorities. Across nations, college-educated people ranked those who are poorly educated as the group they liked the least. Moreover, while people reported some embarrassment at their other prejudices, they were proud of the fact that they looked down upon the poorly educated. After all, if you graduated from college, you’ve merited your good life. If you haven’t, you deserve your fate. This logic is one instance of what Sandel describes as the “weaponization” of college degrees.

“Higher education,” he writes, “has become a sorting machine that promises mobility on the basis of merit but entrenches privilege and promotes attitudes toward success corrosive of the commonality democracy requires.” That is an academic description of a dynamic that, for our driver, occasioned visceral anger. Imagine what it’s like to be the high-school educated, hourly employee, ferrying around Sarah Lawrence students as they discuss their oppression in the back of your van.

President Judd met us at the door for a chat before the morning session began. I asked her if she’d been disturbed by the behavior of the students the night before. Not especially, she replied. Sarah Lawrence was an activist campus, and she was proud of that. The only thing that frustrated her was that some of the students had spurned her offer to take part in budget conversations. “I don’t disagree with many of their demands,” she said to me. “But meeting all of them would cost millions and millions of dollars. I want them to be part of the process of how a college raises and apportions its funds. That’s a learning opportunity for them.”

The most strident student activists didn’t see it that way. Judd recalled that they had said it it was their responsibility to make demands and her responsibility to make budgets. That attitude concerned her. She wanted Sarah Lawrence graduates to go into the world with high ideals and the capacity to put those ideals into practice.

I had a sense that moment of just how hard it is to be a college president these days. You want to support your student’s lofty principles and their right to protest, but also help them be constructive and pragmatic. It’s a tight needle to thread.

The morning meeting was characterized by the kind of conversation I associate with an excellent liberal-arts seminar — searching and civil, motivated by a desire to understand, not to condemn. Judd attended, as did several faculty members and a handful of the students who had protested the night before.

One of them was a Muslim international student from South Asia, a region whose culture and religions I know something about. She had joined the protest but had not been one of the speakers. I asked her if she felt represented by the Diaspora Coalition, both in substance and style. Somewhat, she said, but not fully. I wondered whether it was part of her cultural identity to sneeringly call educational leaders by their first names. Her response went something like this: “That would never happen where I come from, and I don’t like when it happens now,” she told me. And then, as if she understood exactly the point I was getting at, she said: “In the name of supporting minority identities, I have been part of things that violate my own identity, including rudeness to teachers and other educational leaders.”

I asked why students sign on to the coalition’s manifesto if they don’t feel properly represented. There was a strong culture of talking about minority identities on campus, she said, but only in ways that emphasized one’s marginalization. And there was a palpable fear of breaking the mold. If you questioned the paradigm of “minority identity means being hopelessly oppressed,” or spoke of your own particular minority identity as an asset or a privilege, you risked being “Sarah Lawrenced” — the particular form of cancellation that existed in the student culture on that campus.

I have visited something like 150 campuses over the last 10 years, and I can confidently report that most days at most colleges are good days. Most days at Sarah Lawrence are also, I’m sure, good days. The campus has wonderful educators and energetic students. I just happened to experience the buffet of activist excess in a concentrated period of time on that particular campus. I’d certainly been witness to parts of the whole in other places. I have been a part of several discussions where a handful of strident activists effectively silenced a variety of voices in the name of promoting diversity. More than one student of color has quietly observed to me that, in the name of promoting minority identities, they have had to suppress part of their own.

This should concern us. A college ought to be a place where individuals can share half-formed thoughts, precisely so those thoughts can be fully baked by a community of learners in common pursuit of the truth.

In his wonderful book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia University, remarks that on any list of America’s great contributions to human civilization — jazz, baseball, the Constitution — our four-year residential colleges and universities would rank near the top.

We Americans ask a lot of our colleges. They define what makes an educated person, and they do their best to raise a generation of students up to that standard. They create knowledge, help set the nation’s priorities, and serve as mini civil societies. They are models for diverse democracy.

At their best, our higher-ed institutions help young people explore the nuances of individual identity while also building bridges across groups. Consider this: Over half of the private colleges in the United States were started by religious communities, and remarkably few restrict admission to their own group. This is an astonishing feature of American society. Institutions created to form people within one tradition now commonly serve as platforms that bring together and advance people from a range of traditions.

The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that “a central purpose of higher education” is “to initiate students into conflict.” A diverse democracy will inevitably have countless legitimate conflicts. Precisely for this reason, civic spaces that specialize in teaching people how to engage in such conflicts through language and politics rather than violence are essential. Those who learn these skills are well-positioned to become a society’s leaders. “Only from the university,” MacIntyre says, “can the wider society learn how to conduct its own debates, practical or theoretical, in a rationally defensible way.”

It is precisely because the underlying structure of the institution is so strong and stable that it can hold together such a wide array of identities and such radically divergent views. It is no wonder that John Courtney Murray, the great Jesuit philosopher, viewed universities as a symbol of the kind of political community required to hold together the diverse groups and divergent views that make up a healthy pluralistic society. It is in the university, Murray argued, that creeds can war intelligibly.

Colleges are a place of awakenings. And they are places that build the foundation for awakenings to come. I wonder how those students at Sarah Lawrence will remember that Differences in Dialogue event. Perhaps the story of John Inazu’s father, a man born in a prison who later became a fervent supporter of the United States military, will have stayed with them. Perhaps they will turn it over in their minds and think to themselves, “People are not like Russian nesting dolls — an outer doll of physical appearance encapsulating predictable inner dolls of experiences, politics, aesthetics, and so on. Instead, people are endlessly complex and fascinating. You can never tell simply from someone’s group identity how they will experience the world, or know from their experience what conclusions they will draw.”

All of this reminds me of my own journey from strident activist to institution builder. As an undergraduate, I was the student who berated the provost about the budget, shouted down speakers I disagreed with, and harassed fellow students whose views I didn’t like. I am grateful now for all of the staff, faculty, and administrators who gently guided me toward an activism of the outstretched hand rather than the raised fist. I scoffed when they spoke to me, but the seeds were planted.

Perhaps some of the student activists I encountered at Sarah Lawrence College will go on to build institutions of their own. Perhaps they will look to hire a truly diverse staff — Catholics and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, high-school graduates and members of the educational elite — and find ways to appreciate all of their identities. Perhaps they will say that the first time they considered the importance of budgets was when the president of their alma mater invited them to discuss how their values might be reflected in the key operating document of the institution. Perhaps they will speak of that discussion fondly, forgetting entirely how they spurned the invitation when it was first offered.

This essay is adapted from We Need To Build: Field Notes For Diverse Democracy.

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