Liberal Academia Hoist with its Own Petard

Toward the end of my years as a college teacher, I was accused of being a racist. I can’t recall the exact date in the late seventies when this happened, because, like Ben Carson, I couldn’t anticipate than an isolated incident would presaging the volatile climate of racial relations in academia. But the memory of that bizarre situation has resurfaced in light of similar unsubstantiated charges of racism against college faculty and administration now echoing with unexpected fury on many college campuses.

In all my long years of teaching, working at other jobs, raising a family, and dealing with people of all beliefs and ethnicities, being called a bigot was about the last thing I expected. But there it was, in a hastily scribbled note full of hate and left on my desk after an evening public speaking class in which most of the students were highly-motivated adults. My accuser was an attractive, bright black woman, whose motivation was to get best grade with the least effort

In her note, she called me a “prejudiced white witch.” (The last word was actually spelled with a “b”. ) She raked me over the coals for giving the other two women in the class higher grades on their speeches solely because they were “lily white”. Those are the two specific phrases that stick in my mind.

Naturally, I was dumbfounded and deeply disturbed by the contents of the note. I also recall being afraid that she might try to accost me as I walked across the campus to my car. It had turned dark by then, and I am a small woman. Still, I decided to make my way, instead, to the office of the evening dean of instruction.  

I showed him the note and his demeanor grew grave. He told me that such behavior by a student was unacceptable and would not be tolerated. (This hackneyed phraseology has become so routine as to be utterly meaningless.)  He said he would look into the matter. I got the impression he planned to pass the note along to some high-up in the academic food-for-thought chain.

But I never heard further from him about the incident He had apparently capitulated to the degree of avoiding trouble by ignoring it.  It being close to the end of the semester, I gave the student a passing grade (“C”). And I was never offered an evening class under that dean’s jurisdiction again.

Not long afterwards, I took a different career path. And until the recent complaints of “white privilege” and other racially-infused rhetoric at Mizzou and other colleges, I had all but forgotten that unpleasant episode.

 But now I wonder how the gestalt of higher education could have changed so much over the years. How did the students’ perception of faculty alter so drastically from authority figures to mere equals, capable of being challenged -- and even derided -- at will?  

These days even teachers on the lower grades are not necessarily accorded the respect due them. Clearly, “the new normal” is nibbling around the edges of traditional education.

There was a time when a teacher’s rule was law. It may not have been as heavy-handed as the corporal punishment reflected in James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

                                     “It can’t be helped; it must be done

                                      So down with your britches and out with your bum.”

But students of all ages understood that their shenanigans in the classroom were further punishable on the home front by humiliated, displeased parents, who rarely questioned the classroom teacher’s judgment. That is not universally the case anymore. Whether this switch in behavior (or lack of it) evolved from societal “movements” toward equality and against authority, or if is the result of complacent parents and their spoiled offspring, the classroom paradigm between those who teach and those who are taught is undergoing a seismic shift.

Meanwhile in the colleges and universities, like-minded faculties have generally coalesced into a solid sense of hubris. The unsettled youth of the Vietnam War era and beyond became left-leaning professors, over 95% of whom are avowed political liberals intent on transferring their wisdom and worldly vision to malleable college kids.

Even though these professors may have been rebels in their own youth, they seem to expect unquestioned fealty from college students. Still, they prefer to consider themselves mentors, not meanies; buddies, instead of fussy profs. Their indisputable edge is that they control the all-important grading system, and thus hold in their leftie hands the fate of all graduates about to enter the real world. This power play has worked very well for the liberals of academia. Until now.

Enter confrontation. And condemnation. And color. All of a sudden, college faculties and administrators aren’t getting the respect they feel they have earned through their warm embrace of political correctness, man-made climate change, and America’s posture of leading from behind. They are being challenged -- sometimes, in fact, attacked -- in ways they find incomprehensible. After all, confrontation has always been something liberals avoid, except with those with unacceptable ideas. But who would expect a wave of chaos on campus over something called “white privilege”? How could they possibly be included in such a category?

After all, what Democrat-voting deans or faculty members would be characterized as intolerant and privileged? If anything, they have bent over backwards to assure that all people of color – and don’t forget (liberal) women! -- feel welcomed and appreciated. Yet, now this! As was the case with the college dean whom I approached those many years ago, the president of the University of Missouri has opted out of personally confronting the stressful situation. He resigned, choosing cowardice over the taunt of continuing criticism.

Also tendering his resignation effective the end of this year is the university Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who will assume another role within the university as director of research facilities development. And while both of these high-paying administrators have resigned, other faculty members have been quick to sense the ugly winds of unrest by allying themselves squarely with the grievance gang.

A scary confrontation went viral, showing Mizzou Communications assistant professor Melissa Click angrily ordering student reporters off the campus and even threatening them with bodily eviction. She provided the muzzle, and pleaded with protestors to match it with the “muscle.” Dr. Click has since apologized and is also reported to have resigned, but that’s only from a “courtesy appointment.” She’s still very much on the college staff.

The pacifist armies of academics, up until now tolerant and secure in their left-leaning doctrine, are finding themselves hoist by their own petard. No doubt they will do whatever it takes to capitulate, especially if it’s a matter of tenure and personal security.