What University 'Snowflakes' Are Really About

A key factor feeding the campus "safe space" culture.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

America’s privileged students at elite colleges and universities continue to be traumatized by speech they find “hurtful” and “threatening.” Last November at Yale it was a faculty email suggesting that students should lighten up on policing Halloween costumes for racial insensitivity. At the University of Missouri, some students were offended by the administration’s failure to investigate and punish alleged racial slurs. A Harvard student recently told FOX News’ Meghan Kelly that displaying the American flag in a dorm room or just being in the same class with a pro-life student is hurtful and insensitive. Now students at Emory University are experiencing “pain,” “fear,” and “frustration” over messages supporting Donald Trump that were written in chalk on campus sidewalks. At Scripps College, #Trump2016 written on a dorm whiteboard was called “racist” and “intentional violence.”

There’s been no end of commentary on these incidents. Some have correctly pointed out that they are the fruit of nearly four decades of the progressive and leftist transformation of the university. Once a protected space for truth, independent thought, and free speech, now universities are training centers for left-wing cadres and commissars intolerant of political heresy and opposing points of view. Listen to the vice-president of the Missouri Students Association, responding to questions about the professor who had asked for “muscle” to scare off a journalist covering a protest. “I personally am tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.”

Other critics blame a culture of permissive parenting and a therapeutic obsession with children’s feelings that have led to demands for “safe spaces,” speech codes, and rigorous surveillance of “microagressions.” A callow youth at Yale demonstrated this change, hysterically shouting to a professor and master of a campus residence, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! . . . It is about creating a home here!” Another Yale student in an article for the student paper wrote, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain!” The university’s role of being in loco parentis now means recreating the pampered indulgence of childish feelings that many affluent students have became used to at home.

These analyses are revealing, and the weird incoherence of this combination of Marx and Oprah has been neatly captured by William Voegli in an essay for the Claremont Review of Books: “The compassion commandos of 2015 are history’s first revolutionaries to mount the barricades in the name of their own emotional fragility.” Yet there are other causes of the “snowflake” phenomenon.

Start with federal law. Sexual harassment and Title IX legislation employ vague and subjective language that invites legal complaints no matter how obviously absurd. Once harassment proscribes actions or words that create an “intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment,” as sexual harassment law puts it, then the standards for defining these subjective terms will be set by the hypersensitive, the neurotic, or the Machiavellian opportunist. So too with Title IX, which says no one will “be subjected to discrimination” on the basis of sex. But who will define what constitutes “discrimination”? Students like the one quoted above, who echoes sexual harassment law with her phrase “hostile and unsafe learning environment.” 

This degradation of law to the level of irrational, subjective perceptions can be seen in the language of university “harassment” or “hate speech” codes, which are created to avoid run-ins with the feds over violations of sexual harassment laws. But it’s not just sex that is at issue. Any protected class, which includes selected minorities and sexual identities, is given the same protection from behaviors deemed offensive to their identities. Expand this proscription of “hostile” and “intimidating” to politics and ideology––a natural progression of such open-ended law given the prevalence of multicultural identity politics––and you get the “snowflake” phenomenon. Thus political speech that disturbs someone can be proscribed as a violation of harassment and discrimination laws policed by federal agencies.

This brings us to the eagerness of college administrators to take seriously such complaints and appease the complainers. They do so not just because they may agree with the ideology of “diversity” and grievance politics. Whether they do or not, any institution that receives “federal financial assistance,” in the words of Title IX––which comprises, with few exceptions like Hillsdale College, almost every public and private university and college in America–– is bound by federal law. Alleged infractions must be investigated and punished, unless a school wants the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Department of Education, backed by the coercive power of the state, to get involved. And don’t forget the possibility of private lawsuits based on these laws, the loss of federal funds, and the risk to an institution’s accreditation. 

For administrators, then, the path of least resistance is to investigate the alleged infractions, and propose remedies that will appease the complainers and get the television news cameras off campus. And if Constitutionally protected free speech and academic freedom are the victims, that’s a small price to pay for avoiding a career-ending orgy of bad publicity.

Finally, the common perception of these students as just spoiled, immature, entitled neurotics is only partly true. The real instigators of these incidents are savvy progressive student activists who know that most faculty agree with and support them, and that most administrators are careerist invertebrates fearful of bad publicity and blowback from trustees and the media. These student Alinskyites leverage photogenic protests and marches into academic lucre in the form of more scholarships, “research centers,” and faculty hires that will expand the progressive influence over the institution, especially over curricula, hiring, programs, admission criteria, and academic policy. 

A perfect example of this dynamic can be seen in the response of Yale president Peter Salovey to the incident on his campus last November. First there is some embarrassing groveling: “I have never been as simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community — and all the promise it embodies — as in the past two weeks. You have given strong voice to the need for us to work toward a better, more diverse, and more inclusive Yale. You have offered me the opportunity to listen to and learn from you.” But employing the multiculturalist dog whistles “diverse” and “inclusive,” and flattering self-righteous entitled whiners by anointing them as Socratic sages, are just preludes to the real business––doling out academic protection money.

Race, ethnicity, and other aspects of social identity are central issues of our era, issues that should be a focus of particularly intense study at a great university. For some time, Yale has been exploring the possibility of creating a prominent university center supporting the exciting scholarship represented by these and related areas. Recent events across the country have made clear that now is the time to develop such a transformative, multidisciplinary center drawing on expertise from across Yale’s schools; it will be launched this year and will have significant resources for both programming and staff.

And that’s just the beginning of the payola. Four new faculty positions will be filled to research and teach the “histories, lives, and cultures of unrepresented and under-represented communities,” and Yale will add “additional teaching staff and courses in Yale College starting in spring 2016 that address these topics.” Fifty million dollars is committed to “enhance faculty diversity,” by which he means hiring not the children of Scots-Irish West Virginia coal-miners, but “protected” groups like blacks and “Hispanics” no matter how affluent their parents or how laden with social capital. 

But this academic Santa Clause is just getting started. There will be a new administrative position created to help the Faculty of Arts and Science in its “diversity efforts.” Yale will make “funds available to improve existing programs and develop new ones — both during orientation periods and beyond — that explore diversity and inclusion and provide tools for open conversations in all parts of the university about these issues. Programs may take the form of trainings, speaker series, or other ongoing activities.” New “pathways” for reporting discrimination, and new “measures to strengthen mechanisms that address discrimination” will be created with significant “input” from students. 

But not just faculty, staff, and administrators will profit from this blood money. 

Financial aid policies for low-income students in Yale College, the subject of a spring 2015 report by the Yale College Council, will also see improvements beginning in the next academic year. Details will soon be announced, and will include a reduction in the student effort expectation [which probably means lowering GPA standards for receiving aid] for current students. In the meantime, funds for emergencies and special circumstances [compensation for the trauma of microagressions?] already available through the residential colleges, and the financial aid offices are also being reviewed and increased. 

Finally, what capitulation to totalitarians would be complete without self-flagellating “reeducation” programs? 

Educating our community about race, ethnicity, diversity, and inclusion begins with the university’s leadership. I, along with the vice presidents, deans, provosts, and other members of the administration, will receive training on recognizing and combating racism and other forms of discrimination in the academy. Similar programs will be provided to department chairs, directors of graduate and undergraduate studies, masters and deans, student affairs staff, and others across the university. 

It is safe to say that all this largesse will amount to at least hundreds of millions of dollars distributed to faculty, staff, administrators, and students, especially those “of color” no matter how privileged. And that’s what the “snowflakes” are really about: activists who extort and leverage money and power from institutions of higher education that have abandoned their mission to transmit knowledge and turn students into independent critical thinkers worthy of political freedom. 

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