Recently, I was asked by a friend what to make of recent controversies at American colleges regarding “no platforming” tactics, the efforts of student activists to shut speakers they disagree with out of campus speaking opportunities. It’s an issue I think about often – as one of those few remaining leftists who remembers that civil liberties are essential to left-wing practice, as a college employee, and as someone who grew up surrounded by campus activism. I told my friend, only halfway joking, that I would think more of these efforts once college students had “no platformed” Barack Obama. Obama, after all, has far more blood on his hands than Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter. But, I also told her, I didn’t see that coming anytime soon.
Why? In part, it’s likely that the idea of no platforming Barack Obama would be far less popular among campus protesters than with Yiannopoulos or Coulter, even though there are plenty of radical critiques of Obama. However badly Obama failed left-wing ideals, with his complete failure to take on Wall Street, his expansion of our military entanglements, and his general moderation in a time demanding extremity, for many young left-leaning people Obama remains the kindly, progressive figurehead of political life. This reflects the “squashing” effect of college activism: the social and organizational dynamics of campus life can push your committed anticapitalist into the same groups and actions as your more conventional liberal Democrat. Furthermore, many college activists likely still have not really developed their exact ideological position.
There’s nothing wrong with those things. Political organizing is about forming coalitions, and part of the point of activism for young people is to sort out what, exactly, they believe. But analytically, this ideological confusion makes it harder for outside observers to draw the right lessons about what exactly the socialist left believes and what its tactics should be. The 2016 election saw liberal vs. leftist fights break out for more than a year, thanks to the Clinton-Sanders primary. Leftists criticized liberal Democrats relentlessly, and righteously, for the latter’s inability to conceive of a real alternative to austerity and neoliberalism. Yet I’ve been surprised to see many of those same leftists defend campus protesters at all turns, not seeming to understand that many of those same protesters will leave college life to become precisely the kind of upwardly-mobile Clintonite Democrats they despised during the election. That’s what a lifetime spent around college activists has shown me.
Besides, there’s another, more salient reason it’s hard to imagine a successful effort to shut down a speech by Obama or Hillary Clinton or a similarly prominent Democrat: there are few colleges or universities where such attempts would be tolerated, thanks to the culture and economics of the contemporary university. Though conservatives frequently attack higher education as a radical enclave, the institutional culture of the contemporary university is really far more aligned with institutional liberalism than radical leftism. The concept of the “deep state” has been debased lately, but in its original form – the idea that there is a bureaucratic class that persists within elected governments regardless of the outcomes of elections and which has its own interests that it asserts through subtle administrative power – is true of colleges, perhaps even more than of governments themselves. And the deep state of most universities is not radical but rather progressive. It’s not comprised of Sanders-style insurgents but of Clinton-style establishmentarians. It’s this class of people that college students have been petitioning, and so the presumptions held by that class of people represent the boundaries of what much contemporary college activism can achieve.
In particular, to ban an Obama or a Clinton from campus would be to risk offending the donor class that is so essential to the fiscal functioning of the kinds of private colleges where campus activism tends to flourish. I am hardly the first to point out that Republican state legislators have made great hay by claiming that public universities are leftist indoctrination machines, and that no platforming tactics should be used carefully given this potential backlash. The donors and alumni are the much less-discussed private college equivalent, and if anything, private colleges are even more in thrall to their interests than public schools are to the state.
Leftist defenses of campus activism have been almost entirely silent on the strange interplay between campus protesters and the administrators they petition, but that relationship is an absolutely essential facet of this discussion. In particular, we need to recognize that higher education has developed an entire set of administrators whose fundamental purpose is to prevent controversy from happening before it starts. I’ve come to call them the “Liability and Controversy Avoidance Class.” They are the diversity officers, the Title IX coordinators, the fixers of Greek life controversies, the public relations and marketing people who know just how much intersectionality language to pepper into their press releases.
I don’t think that none of these jobs are worthwhile; in fact some of them are essential. But anyone who cares about genuinely radical action on campus has to understand the way that universities have adapted to protests by treating them as a marketing issue to be managed. Sometimes university administrators are indeed the (potentially sympathetic) gatekeepers who hold the keys to students getting what they want. But as much as it may be in the short-term interest of those admins to give in to student demands, in the macro sense they have interests that are at best orthogonal to those of activists. And a student movement that fails to understand that risks finding itself defeated not in a romantic violent clash in the streets, but by the numbing power of middle management, by being shunted into committee, by being “handled.”
Conflict avoidance has become the great growth industry of the American college. Conservatives have, in recent years, made much of the various missteps involved in Title IX enforcement on campus, claiming that the tendency of universities to trample on due process in adjudicating Title IX complaints tells us something about modern feminism. They’re wrong. Rather, Title IX enforcement tells us something about the nature of bureaucracy. In particular, it tells us that people employed by an institution will always serve the needs of that institution first. Title IX ostensibly empowers administrators to pursue sexual inequality claims on campus with the backing of the federal government. But what it actually produces in practice is a small army of college employees whose real job is preventing colleges from absorbing the worst consequences for failing to achieve sexual equality. That is, by virtue of being employed within these institutions, even the most ethical and passionate Title IX enforcement officer ends up playing a defensive role on behalf of the institution. This is not an indictment of anyone’s integrity; it’s a statement about the nature of institutions.
A friend of mine worked a Title IX job for several years. She’s one of the most committed and informed feminists I know. When she started, she described her position as a dream job. But she ended up leaving after only a few years, burnt out by the drudgery and frustration of a job that combined the bureaucratic morass of the university with that of the federal government. And when she left, she said that she had come to understand that the very nature of Title IX and similar regulation means that the purpose of positions like hers would inevitably be a matter of avoiding litigation for the institutions that paid her salary. That is the inevitable tradeoff: a law that creates real punishments for organizations will compel those organizations to create structures designed to avoid those punishments.
That’s not a reason to abolish Title IX; I remain a supporter of the law, in broad strokes, because we need to give the effort to achieve gender equity on campus teeth. But the fact remains that a Title IX enforcement officer paid by a university will by necessity place the university’s needs above that of students. The same can be said of the diversity officers that are now being employed by more and more universities. In response to the student uprisings at schools like Yale, Amherst, and Oberlin several years ago, many institutions set about hiring administrators to ensure that minority students on campus feel included and safe; some of them have built or are building new minority student centers or similar structures. (The tendency to respond to student demands by cutting checks is another hallmark of the college administration playbook.) Those goals are laudable. But the same constraints on Title IX officers will surely afflict these diversity officers, and again regardless of their personal integrity.
That’s important for everyone to understand, because increasingly the act of being a campus protester involves petitioning administrators for what you want. The archetypal behavior of protest groups during the brief campus uprising, after all, was to submit a list of demands to the college board or president. I don’t find this some sort of strategic mistake, but I do think it’s remarkable just how many college activists I meet treat asking administrators for things as the end-all, be-all of protest. And as that belief spreads, so too do the conflict avoidance strategies. Crucially, at most schools these strategies will never involve just telling students “no.” Rather, they will delay rather than deny, give students some of what they want rather than all, and always affirm the righteousness of what the students are doing and the legitimacy of their complaints. It turns out that the discourse of social justice is compatible with administrativ-ese, if only a conflict avoidance officer really puts their mind to it.
Besides, the problem with appealing to authority is that sometimes authority says “no.” And while the courageous protesters at the University of Missouri – and their successful campaign to depose the school’s president – show that you can eventually raise the stakes for administrators dramatically, there will also always be times when the authority has the wherewithal just to turn you down. At that point, the strategy of petitioning authority collapses. So look at Oberlin, which is often taken by conservatives to be the nadir of loony campus politics and by liberals as an example of principled campus resistance. Oberlin student protesters presented the school’s president with a controversial list of demands, which included things like dictating aspects of curriculum and firing specific campus faculty and staff. They also insisted that their demands list was non-negotiable. So Oberlin’s president didn’t negotiate – he just said “no.” By coupling the extremity of their demands to a preemptive rejection of negotiation, the students had given him all the cover he needed. I haven’t heard much of that effort since; I assume many of the framers of the document have graduated and gone on to live their post-collegiate lives. (That’s another structural issue with campus organizing: the ability of establishment power to run out the clock.)
None of this is intended as some scathing indictment of campus activists. It is, instead, an attempt to analyze conditions in campus politics without romance. As I have said before, and will say again, the best way to understand current campus political controversies is as a negotiation between competing interests under neoliberalism. That’s true no matter how much integrity, passion, and savvy the student organizers possess. It’s just an observation of the endless layers of control that we’re living under in neoliberal capitalism – that we’re all living under.
Sadly, I find this conversation almost impossible to have in left spaces. Many leftists I know – smart, committed people who are ordinarily capable of thinking critically and with nuance about people with whom they broadly agree – have adopted a stance of blind support to campus activists, no matter what their goals or tactics. I understand this impulse, emotionally and socially. It’s a dark time and we’re looking for solidarity wherever we can. Campus attracts so much left-wing attention because it feels like one of the only places where we feel like we can win. But the conditions there are very specific and very idiosyncratic, and the tactics and strategies that work in the collegiate space are unlikely to work in the workplace or society writ large. But if we insist on seeing college activism as an integral part of left practice, then I also insist on seeing it clearly, on looking at it with sympathetic but critical eyes. To do so, we must be willing to ask uncomfortable questions about the nature of that work.