I rarely praise university administrators, but then, I rarely have the opportunity to do so. For once, an opportunity presents itself:
The provost did not mince her words about the opinions of a professor on her campus. His views were racist, sexist and homophobic, she wrote in a statement this week. They were “vile and stupid,” she said, and “more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.”
But the provost, Lauren Robel of Indiana University Bloomington, was equally clear on another point: The First Amendment prohibited the university from firing the professor, Eric Rasmusen, for expressing those views. “That is not a close call,” wrote Professor Robel, who also teaches at the law school.
The unusually candid statement quickly drew attention from students, academics and lawyers, many of whom praised the provost for publicly excoriating the professor’s opinions while respecting one of the nation’s basic freedoms.
For once, a provost who’s struck the right balance between bureaucratic amoralism and opportunistic, pseudo-moralistic pandering. She’s absolutely right: firing Rasmusen is not a close call; neither is condemning him. The only close call is whether he should have been hired in the first place, but that ship has sailed.
And yet, while I agree with both the style and substance of Robel’s comments, a few issues come up in the article that deserve independent comment, having to do with the uninformed moral zealotry that seems to animate a lot of college students nowadays, on all sides of the political spectrum. Students who profess to be physically afraid of the likes of Lisa Durden, Williamjames Hoffer, Eric Rasmusen, or the BDS movement are simply bullshitting us, or trying to. They, and the pseudo-therapeutic appeal to “safety” they keep relying on, should be called out for the obvious fraud that it is.*
Consider some of the student responses to Rasmusen at IU, as reported by the Times:
Still, some students said Indiana University should take further action, and accused its leaders of hiding behind the First Amendment to protect the professor.
On campus on Friday, students were still talking about the controversy, even as many packed up for a week of vacation that runs through Thanksgiving. Selena Drake, a senior studying law and public policy, said she understood that speech needed to be protected, but argued that the provost’s denunciation did little to protect students.
“Her expressing her concerns doesn’t really do anything for us,” said Ms. Drake, 22. She said Professor Rasmusen’s public posts alone were enough to make his classroom a hostile environment for female, gay and black students.
How is invoking the First Amendment hiding behind it? Against what do these students have to be “protected”? To what more, exactly, are they entitled from a university administration over and above what IU’s administration has already done? The answers to this short answer quiz are: it isn’t, nothing, and nothing.
Yes, Rasmusen is an asshole. The world is full of assholes. Unless a student has a specific, verifiable complaint to make against Rasmusen’s in-class conduct, Drake’s demands here are just entitled foot stamping. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to students of this ilk that there are times when students make the classroom a hostile environment (especially the most vulnerable faculty members, adjuncts; consider the Lisa Durden case I mentioned above). When they do, there is rarely a remedy for it on the instructor’s part except to grin and bear the conduct of the little assholes. Message to students: if we can do it, you can do it. Welcome to the real world.
But the claim itself is a fraud. In fact, the provost had done something for them. They just wanted to insist that it wasn’t enough:
The provost agreed, and said the university had altered its policies to allow students to transfer out of Professor Rasmusen’s class and ensure that no one will have to take it to satisfy degree requirements. The university will also make Professor Rasmusen grade student assignments without knowing whose they are, in an attempt to dispel fears that his “expressed biases would infect his perceptions of their work.”
If a student reads the professor’s opinions “and has effectively been told, ‘You don’t belong here,’ I don’t want those students to have to take a course from this man,” Professor Robel said, adding that she did not want students to feel forced to carry “an unfair backpack of bigotry into a classroom.”
I agree completely with Robel. I particularly applaud the anonymous review policy. But let me change the subject a bit.
Has it occurred to these students that professors sometimes get students they don’t want in class? How about the student who goes around calling his classmates “niggers” and “bitches”? Or the student who never shows up for class, then sends an email that asks, “Did I miss anything”? Or the student who systematically files frivolous grade appeals? Or the student who won’t stop texting, or won’t shut up when someone else is talking, or comes into class an hour late and demands to be marked “present”? Has it occurred to any of these demanders-of-more-from-the-university that a lot of university classrooms are filled with a lot of warm but not altogether sentient bodies that shouldn’t be there? It’s not as though we can tell the registrar that we don’t want them in our sections. Where I teach, as a de facto matter, we can’t even prevent them from registering over the enrollment cap for a given section because it would be “perfect for my schedule.” Why do students think they get such a raw deal if they can transfer out of an instructor’s class and bypass it as a requirement, but faculty can’t transfer problematic students out and bypass them?
For people who love to go around “OK boomering” the rest of the world, there are times when today’s woke students really just sound like people of any generation whose verbal behavior seems driven by a large stick up the ass:
“It sucks having to do the whole cancel-culture thing,” Ms. Okland, 23, said. “But nothing will happen unless he gets all this internet flak, and the school does. It’s the weird pull of, you kind of have to post about things like that.”
Yeah. That’s why I just have to post this.
Response: Give him all the internet flak you want. But why does the school deserve any? What crime have they committed but to bend over backwards to protect you from even the smallest hint of malfeasance on his part? In attacking “the school,” such students are, objectively speaking, attacking tenure. Easy enough for them. Not so easy for the rest of us. And a real failure of moral imagination, to boot. By the way, if students think Rasmusen is bad as a professor, what do they think it’s like to have to deal with him as a colleague? The average student will be rid of Rasmusen in four or so years. Not the average faculty member.
The irony is that I teach at a non-tenure-granting institution. Nominally, I’m on a three year review. Nominally, I’m also on a one-year renewable contract. But de jure, the Employee Handbook tells us in no uncertain terms that we are employees at-will. We can be fired for any reason or none, with none given when we are. I could get fired for writing this post because I could get fired for anything. That has never stopped me and never will. Only one thing can. But a challenge to anyone who thinks it easy to pull off: try it sometime.
Just a little reality check: untenured faculty run a gauntlet that none of these students ever face. No one kicks them out of school for failing one quiz, or cheating on one paper, or smoking one joint, or for one violation of the alcohol policy. Untenured faculty get fired for a lot less than that. You want something to complain about? Become an academic. But until then, dial it back and deal.
*As someone who’s commented repeatedly on the Parkland shooting, and taught in the West Bank, I’m the last person to deny that educational institutions face actual, lethal threats. And as someone who sympathizes with Antifa, I’m a fan of “cancel culture.” My point is that people don’t become “threats” to anyone’s safety simply because they say things that make other people “uncomfortable” or even frighten them. Fear is not always reasonable. When it isn’t, the people to be blamed for their unreasonability (or even cowardice) are those with the unreasonable fears, not those alleged to have “provoked” them, even when the would-be provokers have false, offensive, even delusional views.