Victims and Microaggressions: Why 2015 Was The Year Students Lost Their Minds

Renaming controversies, fights over language, ‘microaggressions,’ protests against college administrations—students in 2015 seemed to spend more time whining than learning.

12.27.15 6:15 AM ET

Before 2015, playing beer pong and pulling all-nighters were the activities most associated with the college experience. That all changed this year.

From large public universities in America’s heartland, like the University of Missouri, to small private colleges along the coasts, like Claremont McKenna College in California, student outrage spread like mono at a frat party.

A new lexicon to cover hot-button campus issues—“microaggressions,” “safe spaces,” “yes means yes”—entered the mainstream as college protests earned increasing national interest, far beyond the academic bubble.

2015 saw a dramatic wave of college protests and cries for change arguably unlike any since the 1960s Vietnam War demonstrations—and to some outside the campus confines, this latest iteration took an extreme and baffling turn in terms of student demands.

Affirmative Consent and Due Process: The New Wave of Sexual Assault Reform

2015 was the year that Emma Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia University carrying her mattress across the stage as the ultimate symbol the school had failed her as a sexual assault victim. 

It was also the year that her accused rapist, Paul Nungesser, filed a federal complaint against the school, citing gender discrimination under Title IX for “condoning a hostile educational environment” against him, even after he was cleared of sexual assault charges.

The same Title IX protections that sexual assault victim advocates were using to create sweeping federal reforms began to be used by the (almost uniformly) male students who were expelled or suspended.

"I think that what’s happening is that the pendulum has swung so far over to the side of unfair campus proceedings that lawyers for some of the accused students are trying everything they can to get a fair hearing,” civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate told The Daily Beast in April.

The sentiment that sexual assault reforms had gone too far and now violated the rights of the accused to a fair investigation and trial was voiced by a number of law professors in 2015. 

In February, more than a dozen professors at the University of Pennsylvania publicly expressed their concern in an open letter. “Due process of law is not window dressing… All too often, outrage at heinous crimes becomes a justification for shortcuts in our adjudicatory process.”

“Yes means yes,” or affirmative consent, became an even more prominent objective. 

Late in 2014, California made “yes means yes” the legal definition of consent, and New York did the same in July of this year. Many colleges have independently adopted “yes means yes” as their standards for consent.

However, what “yes means yes” entails isn’t always clear.

A far-left, feminist, LGBTQ activist at Oxford University in the U.K. resigned from her many leadership roles because she “failed to properly establish consent before every act.”

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Annie Teriba released a public apology for the act. She didn’t specify what exactly happened, but she admitted to another incident in which “whilst drunk in a club...I had touched somebody in a sexual manner without their consent.” 

Teriba’s public apology was met with little sympathy. She appeared to largely be vilified by her peers. The Oxford University’s Student Union’s (OUSU) Women Campaign found Teriba’s statement to be “unfortunately, rife with apologism.”

However, the debates and concerns over sexual consent weren’t limited to universities.

One of the most famous rape trials of the year stemmed from an incident at St. Paul’s, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire. 

Owen Labrie was accused of raping a then-freshman female student when he was a senior. Labrie was acquitted of the most serious charges, but convicted of three misdemeanor counts of sexual assault for the “Senior Salute,” a school tradition of seniors picking women for physical encounters.

Labrie was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail.

The Race to Rename: Furor Over Mascots, Monuments, and Buildings

Another lightning rod was the student-led campaigns to rename pretty much any hall, dorm, or mascot whose namesake would be considered racist, sexist, or culturally insensitive by 2015’s standards. 

A wide range of properties and portraits were suddenly deemed offensive because students, apparently, hadn’t realized that revered Founding Fathers owned slaves, and that most beloved and wealthy Americans born before the 20th century did not treat women, homosexuals, and people of color with great respect.

At Amherst college in Massachusetts efforts to rename the school’s unofficial mascot Lord Jeff picked up steam. 

Students did not want to have a mascot honoring a British general, Lord Jeffery Amherst, who supported spreading smallpox to Native American during the French and Indian War.

There were more than a few objections to the noble fight, not least that removing the names of racist figures cannot rectify their past sins—nor does it help those in the present day understand history’s darker moments and complexities.

Removing admired statesman but horrendously pro-slavery John Calhoun’s name from a college at Yale, or racist but respected president and designer of the League of Nations Woodrow Wilson’s name from his school at Princeton, also do not rectify modern inequalities.

“It’s not doing the hard work of education,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor Alfred L. Brophy told The Daily Beast. “Once you do the renaming, everyone forgets.”

2015 also saw a ridiculous twist in the renaming battles. While there may be a legitimate debate over how to handle monuments and buildings named for people who are clearly racist, sexist, and homophobic by today’s standards, a group of students at a Pennsylvania college wanted a building renamed because the name merely sounded like a racially charged act.

At Lebanon Valley College, some students demanded that the campus building Lynch Memorial Hall be renamed. 

The “lynch” in it is not to honor the brutal and often racist mob murders, but to pay tribute to a beloved college president, Clyde A. Lynch. That Lynch not only led the school through the Great Depression and World War II, but spent his last years helping displaced refugees resettle in the U.S.

Safe Space and Microaggressions: The Language of Student Outrage

Before 2015, “safe space” and “microaggressions” were terms that were almost unanimously foreign to anyone who hadn’t attended or worked in a liberal arts community.

But “safe space” emerged as one of the most-oft repeated terms in the college protests. 

At Mizzou, student protesters formed a human shield and shoved reporters, shouting “No media, safe space.”  

At Yale, a sophomore identified by the Daily Caller as Jerelyn Luther shouted at Nicholas Christakis, a professor and head of the dorm Siliman College, that his job was “not about creating an intellectual space” but a “place of comfort and home,” a variant on the “safe space” ideal.

Some of the students’ efforts to create “safe spaces” also involved demands that challenged or even violated basic freedom of speech tenets.

In October, Brown University had a free-speech debacle when the main student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald, denounced two columns defending Columbus Day and, shortly after publishing, removed one from its website.

A free-speech controversy also erupted in September at Wesleyan University in Connecticut over a student-authored oped criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. 

After being published in the school newspaper, The Argus, a group of students started a petition to boycott and cut funding for the publication, stating that permitting the op-ed to run “neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future.”

Here, the “safe space” argument appeared to be used as a way to ban a voice that didn’t support a specific view or agenda. 

The Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) voted to slash The Argus’s print budget

While supporters of the cuts claimed they were made to reduce paper copies for environmental reasons, Robby Soave wrote in The Daily Beast that these justifications were “transparent euphemisms for censorship.”

The tension surrounding language deemed acceptable or not by students was seen most clearly in the obsession with “microaggressions.”

The term was used to encompass any number of ills on college campuses.

At Oberlin College in Ohio, students recently decried inadequately prepared sushi and banh mi sandwiches as forms of microaggression. 

Tomoyo Joshi, a junior, complained to the Oberlin Review that “if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”

At Fordham University in New York, students gathered in November to share their stories of microaggressions, which ranged from a Jewish student complaining a friend gave her a menorah, to a Puerto Rican student being mad her roommate mistook her for white.

At Claremont McKenna College in California, anger over a photo of junior class President Kris Brackmann standing with girls dressed in sombreros and ponchos led to her being forced to resign.

The real blow at Claremont McKenna, though, came for Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Mary Spellman. 

She was effectively forced to quit her post after students erupted in anger—two even threatened hunger strikes—when she reached out to a woman who said she felt out of place at the school as a minority.

“We have a lot to do as a college and a community. Would you be willing to talk to me about these issues?... We are working on how we can better serve students, especially those that don’t fit our CMC mold,” Spellman wrote in an email. The phrase “don’t fit our CMC mold” set off a storm of outrage, as if Spellman had called the student a racial epithet.

Sociology researchers Jason Manning, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, and Bradley Campbell, an assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles, argue that there is a new moral culture apparent in students’ seemingly extreme reactions to microaggressions.  

To a certain degree, students’ “high sensitivity to slight, such that verbal offenses or even disagreements merit a serious response” reflects the “culture of honor” that pervaded the early 19th century when “men fought duels, insults were taken seriously,” Campbell and Manning wrote for

Instead of relying on guns (thankfully), students want authority figures to provide the swift, sharp recourse. 

“We have obligations like being in class, but we can’t focus on those things because we have to focus on being alive,” one female student at Brown University wept, not specifying what exactly threatened her daily physical survival.

“The idea you would complain to others, asking for college administrators to intervene, we called that a victimhood culture,” Campbell said “Today victimhood takes on a certain status, honor, or dignity.”

Campbell said he doesn’t think this culture of victimhood or the college protests will die down any time soon.

“We expect it to increase,” said Campbell. “The reactions to these events are not likely to reverse the trend.”

Citing Spellman being forced to step down from her post at Claremont McKenna College, Campbell explained that “getting someone's resignation doesn’t mean there will be fewer complaints. There will be more because they were successful.”

But being successful in short-term goals may hurt students’ long-term goal of creating a diverse, accepting community.

“It’s not likely to lead to harmony,” Campbell said. “We see these things as promoting a lot of new conflicts.”