By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – The ivory towers of college campuses, it turns out, are neither ivory nor towers.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
They’re pretty much just like everyplace else.
In the past few days, protests regarding racism on college and university campuses have made national news.
At the University of Missouri, those protests escalated over a year’s time to a crescendo. Angered initially by what they considered to be a lackluster if not insensitive response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, an increasing number of students on that campus began protesting. Some other, racist students pushed back by placing swastikas in conspicuous places.
The tensions built to the point that student protestors blocked the university president’s car during a parade in an attempt to get him to engage with them and their concerns. He refused to leave the car. That prompted one student to stage a hunger strike and black members of the football team to refuse to play until the president, Tim Wolfe, was removed from office.
Wolfe resigned – and the school’s chancellor also was demoted.
The turmoil at Missouri wasn’t the only the sign of tension on America’s college campuses.
Yale Universityalso h as experienced a steady stream of on-campus protests of racist policies and incidences.
Here in Indiana, Purdue University President (and former Gov.) Mitch Daniels sent a short letter to the campus community complimenting everyone for avoiding the tumult plaguing other colleges and universities and for supporting free speech.
Daniels’ letter provoked mixed responses. Some members of the Purdue community couldn’t tell whether he was disavowing racism or arguing that no expression, however racially insensitive or offensive it might be, would be discouraged.
In all likelihood, he was saying both.
The Wall Street Journal loved the Daniels missive. In its best grumpy grandpa voice, the paper opined that it was about time an adult showed those uppity youngsters on America’s college campuses who was in charge.
Elsewhere, everyone seemed to wonder just when the serpent of disenchantment entered into the well-sculpted gardens of the nation’s institutions of higher education.
There are at least three things to understand about this soon-to-be winter of discontent on our college campuses.
The first is that, however Eden-like they may be landscaped to appear, college and university campuses are not places for people to escape from reality. We Americans have struggled with issues of race, inclusion and tolerance from our earliest days as a nation. It’s unrealistic to assume that conflicts over what has been called America’s original sin won’t carry over into every part of American life.
The second is that free speech is messy. Too many people seem to think that free expression means being able to say anything and not have anyone get upset. It’s the Donald Trump take on free speech: If I say something really confrontational and offensive and you get angry, you’re being “politically correct” and oppressing poor little billionaire me.
Robust free speech protects not just a speaker’s right to say what he or she thinks, but also the listener’s right to be offended – and to protest in response. We preserve free speech not to strip expression of consequence, but because what we say and think does matter. Ideas have consequences.
The third thing to note is, contrary to The Wall Street Journal’s dyspeptic harrumphing, today’s college students are neither stupid nor spoiled. They see a country and a world in which the path to the pursuit of happiness seems to be narrowing while both political parties proclaim their devotion to equality of opportunity.
Because they know the margin of error seems to be growing smaller and smaller, today’s young people – on the left and the right – are less tolerant of barricades of privilege, white or otherwise. If life is going to be a footrace and all the prizes are going to go to the swiftest, they want the starting line to be the same for everyone.
They want us to mean what we say. They want America to mean what we say it means.
That’s why the ivory tower is crumbling, if it ever existed.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.