Power on Campus: Fundamentalists Have the Last Laugh

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. At places such as Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Missouri, presidents are resigning and faculty are trembling. Ham-fisted protesters are demanding an end to free speech. Halloween costumes have become a disguise for racial oppression. To regular joes and pundits alike, this burst of campus outrage can seem puzzling. But there is one group to whom this phenomenon would make perfect sense.

A brief review of the cases:

The episodes can tell us a good deal about the real levers of power on campus. Who doesn’t have power? Administrators charged with insensitivity toward systematic racism and oppression. They get the boot, and fast, if they seem to oppose racial inclusivism.

Who else doesn’t have power? Students who want bread-and-butter economic reforms of higher ed. Even when a million students protested for lower tuition and lower student debt, it didn’t generate the same feverish buzz as these recent racial protests. To my knowledge, no university president has resigned because his or her school is expensive.

Who else is out? Even protesters against racial insensitivity, if they try to use physical coercion. When that happened recently at Missouri, for instance, the offending bully resigned and even sympathetic leftist pundits agreed that the protesters weren’t “always-wise.”

Just as informative, these protests tell us who really has power on campus. Who has it? Football teams. Duh. But even those athletes are energized by a surprising fact.

The real power on campus these days comes from an ancient but complicated moral idea. We might call it “the impulse to orthodoxy.” It can be tricky to understand, especially since no one is talking about it in those terms. The impulse to orthodoxy includes a moral two-step: Not only must people behave in a moral way, but they must actively seek out and root out those who fail to understand the proper reasons for moral action.

How does this ancient idea work in today’s campus protests? The successful campus protests these days insist not only that school leaders fight racism. More telling, protesters are fired up by the idea that they are under a moral imperative to expose and exclude all those who do not adequately understand the nuances of systematic racism.

At Missouri, for example, system president Tim Wolfe eventually resigned due to a perceived lack of administrative action against repeated racial incidents. The protesters wanted more than new policies. They wanted Wolfe out. Why? Because Wolfe personally seemed to misunderstand or even belittle complaints about systematic racism. One student leader went on a much-publicized hunger strike until Wolfe was kicked out. The student, Jonathan Butler, explained that only the ouster of Wolfe would make the school “a better place.”

At Yale, too, the impulse to orthodoxy has caused some observers to scratch their heads. On one level, it seems like a slightly hysterical protest about a fairly reasonable request. Faculty masters Nicholas and Erika Christakis suggested that students might relax about Halloween costumes. So what’s the problem? Morally orthodox students could not stand Christakis’s suggestion that they simply “look away” from offensive outfits. For the orthodox, looking away from immorality is as bad or worse than the immorality itself.

A similarly insufficient zeal damned an administrator of the elite Claremont McKenna College in California. Dean of Students Mary Spellman wrote a sympathetic email to a student who complained about racial insensitivity. So what’s the problem? Spellman included a line about non-white students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” To protesters, such language smacked of a hidden, intolerable insensitivity.

In all these cases, school leaders and faculty are under attack for two reasons. First, they are accused of displaying an inadequate understanding of and zealousness about racial inclusivity. The oft-confusing part, though, comes from the second reason. The impulse to orthodoxy demands that such inadequate agreement be tirelessly sought out and ruthlessly purged. It is not enough to apologize. Campus protesters feel free to use any coercion, stamp out any speech, if those things seem to promote immorality.

Today’s racial protesters will be surprised at the people who might understand them best: Protestant fundamentalists. As I’m finding out as I research my new book, the history of fundamentalist higher education is mostly the story of a similar impulse to orthodoxy. Beginning in the 1920s, it was not enough for fundamentalists simply to protest against secularization of the academy. It was not enough simply to disagree with the theological implications of evolution. Rather, for fundamentalists since the 1920s, it was necessary to demand that schools purge all such things. When that didn’t work, fundamentalists opened their own schools, places such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, and Bryan College.

Throughout their histories, fundamentalist colleges have taken drastic action to purge any hint of compromise. In 1961, for example, Wheaton scientist Russell Mixter had to offer elaborate apologies to those who thought he might have accepted mainstream evolutionary theory.

These days, similar drastic action is wracking the campus of Bryan College. Faculty who seem not to be sufficiently zealous in their embrace of a young earth are being shown the door.

Of course, the specific moral ideas are extremely different. At fundamentalist colleges, the dangerous trends were toward theological modernism and evolutionary science. At today’s elite mainstream colleges, the moral imperative demands the removal—root and branch—of those who don’t sufficiently act against systematic racism.

Yet the impulse remains the same. The moral imperative of orthodoxy requires more than just a certain set of ideas. It implies a tireless and ruthless dedication to root out all those who do not adequately understand or embody those ideas.

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