The Colgate student protesters should go back to kindergarten

Joanna Williams
Topics Free Speech

The new academic year had barely got going when students at Colgate University in New York staged a campus sit-in last week. Clearly, worries about student debt and uncertain job prospects have done little to quell the spirit of youthful rebellion. But this ‘peaceful demonstration in support of inclusivity’, conducted in what Tom Slater described recently on spiked as the ‘inevitable waves of nostalgia and hagiography’ surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, shows just how much student politics has changed in recent years.

The Colgate occupation, which involved more than 300 students, was intended to raise awareness of the ‘micro-aggressions’ experienced by black students at the university’s predominantly white campus. It was triggered by reports of racist remarks being made to students on public transport and the anonymous posting of racist comments on the social-networking app Yik Yak. In an online petition to garner support for the sit-in, protesters argued that ‘Colgate University, at this moment, has insufficient methods to address equity and inclusivity’.

Although finding out racist remarks were being made on campus would understandably concern most students, the lack of ‘equity and inclusivity’ at Colgate is clearly not in the same league as the entrenched racism that the civil-rights campaigners of Berkeley in the Sixties fought against. However, whereas the Berkeley students of 1964 demanded an end to in loco parentis legislation and fought for the freedom to campaign for civil-rights causes on campus, Colgate’s demonstrators want their university managers to intervene in campus life and monitor all aspects of staff and student interactions.

Colgate students issued a list of 21 demands, all of which the university has been very happy to meet. Some of the stipulations appear to be concerned with the image of Colgate, as projected by marketing managers and admissions processes. These students are clearly hurt by the accusation that they attend a less-than-diverse institution, and are essentially demanding better PR management so as to project a more tolerant, ‘inclusive’ image of Colgate to the outside world.

Some of their other demands, however, are more problematic. The protesters also want everyone in the university community to be engaged in ‘required and sustained diversity training’. Such training programmes teach people to confess to and monitor their inner-racist, urging them to speak and behave in a particular, officially sanctioned way. These programmes are the antithesis of intellectual debate as they prevent the free exchange of views and make people suspicious of themselves and each other.

What’s more, the protesters are trying to dictate what should be taught at Colgate. They are calling for ‘issues of diversity and intersectionality’ to be incorporated into a new core curriculum that would involve ‘explicit study and understanding of systemic power dynamics and inequities’. Not only would these proposals impact on the academic freedom of the faculty to teach as they see best, they would completely change the focus of higher education from the creation and transmission of knowledge to the inculcation of particular values.

Perhaps what the students really want is best revealed by their call for ‘cameras with audio’ to be introduced on the university’s shuttle-bus service, the Colgate Cruiser: ‘This initiative responds to reported instances of racism, aggression, and micro-aggression that take place on the cruiser.’ These students don’t want to be at university at all but back in the nursery where their every utterance will be monitored.

Where once students demanded their right to free speech so they could play an active role in the key political debates of their era, their counterparts today are requesting their freedom be curtailed to protect them from any perceived unpleasantness. To their shame, academics at Colgate and beyond have been all-too quick to demonstrate unquestioned support for all of the protesters’ demands.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She will be speaking at the debate Who gives a damn about ‘student satisfaction’? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London, on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

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Topics Free Speech