Sanitizing Higher Education

The intellectual damage caused by forcing the university to admit academically ill-prepared minority students is seemingly endless, but just when it seems that matters cannot get any worse, they do.

The latest installment of this crusade now occurs at the University of Illinois-Urbana, a school where I taught political science for 28 years, so I know this nonsense first hand. Here’s the sorrowful tale (for a Harvard version, see here).  

According to the 45% of those who responded to a recent on-line survey of 4800 U of I students of color (black, Asian, Hispanic and multi-racial) during the 2011-12 academic year, a quarter reported that their classroom contributions “have been minimized because of race” and they were “made to feel inferior because of the way they spoke." Fifty-one percent felt that they were stereotyped and a third reported that their classroom participation was minimized while 25% believed that were not taken seriously due to their race.

In addition, 40% also felt uncomfortable on campus, especially in fraternity and sorority housing. Much of this comes under the heading of micro-aggression -- classmates seemed reluctant to sit near them during class, white students hinted that minority students owed their U of I admission to affirmative action and how during class discussion they were often called upon to supply a “racial minority view.” Such is the nature of this unconscious micro-aggression that asking a dark-skinned student where he or she was born is deemed harmful. Indeed, the denial of white racism or white privilege is itself a form of racial micro-aggression (p. 3 of the report).

As a professor who long taught race-related topics, allegations of classroom micro-aggression are particular relevant. The report abounds with illustrations of this barely hidden hostility, but the following two excerpts must suffice:       

I have noticed that being a man of my race and stature, many of my white peers in classrooms will have expressions or comments of disbelief towards me when I make an intellectual remark or if I get a concept that they may be struggling with. (African American, Male)

When working in groups with my classmates, I was always given the easy portion of the project because they assumed that I was not capable of doing the harder parts. (African American, Female)          

Tellingly, no defense witnesses are called. The victim’s beliefs are sufficient to convict. I can only imagine the indignation if professors could (even anonymously) counter these allegations and cross examine the accuser. How many students would actually level the accusations?

Though I did not teach at the U of I when this survey was conducted, I’m pretty sure that the reactions of these offended students is accurate for the simple reason that many blacks and Hispanics are in over their heads. Beginning in 1975 I regularly taught classes with affirmative action blacks (the university at that time identified them) and their academic deficiencies were obvious (but not true for Asians). Their classroom comments were often uninformed and thus treated with disdain judged by the facial reactions of their smarter classmates. Their grades were also often dismal.

Now, how is all this thinly veiled hostility to be fixed (and here I assume that most of this effort will focus on black and Hispanic students given the overall success of Asians)? The report calls for such remediations as more faculty training to facilitate less hostile class interactions, lessons for instructors on how to avoid stereotypes, increasing self-awareness of prejudice among white professors, adding racial bias items to teacher evaluation forms and, perhaps most relevant for faculty, including “diversity engagement” in the tenure and promotion decisions (i.e., so tenure will not require following the party line).    

For students, there would be a General Education requirement about race, white privilege, and inequality in the United States plus a course about people of color in both Western and Non-western settings. Then increase the opportunities for inter-group dialogue and team building plus more workshops on cultural competency and tolerance and, perhaps most frightening, create mechanisms for students to report perceived racial micro-aggressions (emphasis added). That is, students will be enlisted as Politically Correct spies. One can only be reminded of the Spanish Inquisition’s efforts to stamp out the slightest traces of religious heresy. The list is a truly breathtaking compendium of Stalinist measures to impose a political orthodoxy.  

Does anyone honestly believe that it is possible to sanitize university life, eliminate these often invisible, inherently subjective micro-aggressions? Keep in mind that a professor who encourages a lively give-and-take discussion will invariably be guilty of micro-aggression. And if this remediation feat were accomplished, would blacks and Hispanics then graduate in record numbers and go on to productive careers? Would the world improve if the University of Illinois advertised itself as an ever-so-caring place of learning where nobody was ever offended or forced to feel bad about their racial or ethnic groups? If subtle racism is as debilitating as alleged, what explains widespread black failure in the racism-free sciences? Or is physics and chemistry similarly infected but beyond the ken of whites?  

Expunging micro-aggression is especially daunting since these black students from Kindergarten onward have been marinated in paranoia-like victimhood. Moreover, for countless academically struggling minorities, this bogus explanation of their academic insufficiency is the perfect excuse and one that cannot be challenged since disputation itself proves debilitating white racism. Why study in such a poisonous environment? And without hard work, performance of these minority students will decline yet further and there will be even more perceived micro-aggression (low grades will certainly become micro-aggression). 

For professors valuing their careers large areas of social sciences terrain will become terra incognita. Why risk offending sensitive souls by venturing into anything that deals with race? But, if one must venture forth on topics like crime or affirmative action, just drink the Kool-Aid and flatter the sensibilities of hypersensitive minority students, even this entails lying. If some black students believe that the Black Panthers were just a free breakfast charity, don’t argue (I once faced such a black student who vigorously made this argument). Better yet, hire racial ideologues to teach everything that touches on race, since they will surely avoid offending black students. In today’s university, in a contest between truth and keeping the peace, the latter always wins.         

Down deep none of this concerns racial micro-aggression. I seriously doubt that the University of Illinois administrators buy this nonsense or are likely to accept the report’s recommendations beyond a few symbolic steps. The entire enterprise is really about inventing “scientific” excuses for black and Hispanic academic failure (black enrollments are down at the U of I). Administrators know full well that multiple remedial programs have failed for 50 years and this new proposed hypercoddling will join the rest. To repeat, if anything, eliminating all discomfort guarantees an incomplete though psychologically satisfying education, just what struggling minority students need. So, like primitive people facing yet more draught, the calamity must be blamed on something, perhaps an evil spirit, spiteful gods or even witchcraft.

Lastly, imagine what happens when these mollycoddled students join the workforce? They will be shocked by any criticism and may even sue to protect their delicate egos from those who disagree with them. Who would hire such employees even with a University of Illinois degree?