Several weeks ago, University of Oregon president Michael Schill wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times condemning student protesters’ “tactic of silencing” speech they disagree with or find offensive.
Specifically, Schill argued that University of Oregon students used this tactic to prevent him from delivering a scheduled “State of the University” address earlier in October, storming the stage and shouting through megaphones about how his support for free speech perpetuates “fascism” and a “white supremacist” institution.
President Schill set the record straight about fascism, placing the term in historical context to show how student protesters wildly distorted its meaning. He hypothesized that the term’s “effective anti-authoritarian ring” might explain why it’s “thrown about so much these days.”
Schill also noted the irony of students accusing him of promoting fascism “during a protest in which they limit discourse.” The takeaway was that students at the University of Oregon (UO) and elsewhere must engage opinions they disagree with and ideologies that offend them if they want to affect meaningful change.
The op-ed seemed to coincide with a shift on college campuses this semester: After years of kowtowing to student demands, some university administrations are beginning to push back.
President Schill’s decision to condemn a disruptive student protest and use it to make a larger point in a very public venue contrasted starkly with Evergreen State College president George Bridges’ response to protesters who marched on the school’s administrative offices last spring, barricading some of the building’s entrances and exit doors with furniture.
They vowed to occupy Bridges’ office until their list of demands were met and told him he couldn’t go to the bathroom without a student escort—and Bridges complied.
Schill had been warned that students might protest his State of the University speech, so he recorded it in advance and emailed it to the entire UO community after protesters prevented him from delivering it in person.
In his email, Schill said he’d planned to announce a $5o million gift that would fund new academic programs, including “student success programs at the soon-to-be-built Black Cultural Center,” and new faculty chair positions.
He’d also planned to talk about fostering free speech and academic freedom at the university. “It is only through more speech and robust debate that we will heal the differences in our society, not by shouting down those who seek to speak,” he said.
The UO Student Collective responded with a statement on behalf of protesters listing their demands and arguing that Schill’s endorsement of free speech has repeatedly neglected marginalized voices on campus.
They called out his failure to “publicly condemn the increasing white supremacist propaganda and organizing” on campus and insisted that their protest was “an act of free speech—not a violation of it.”
They also noted that Schill had proposed a policy last year “restricting the time, place, and manner of student protest,” but swiftly revoked it when pushback from students was covered in the press.
Schill was a “demonstrated enemy” to free speech and was evidently going to “pursue this repressive policy once again,” they concluded.
Schill did not back down in the face of student opposition this time. Instead, he publicly pitted himself against student protesters.
A week later, protesters received an email from UO’s associate director for Student Conduct and Community Standards warning that their demonstration “may have violated the Student Conduct Code.”
The email proposed two options for resolving the matter: Protesters could avoid punishment by engaging in a “small group dialogue with a variety of Officers of Administration,” or they could contest the alleged conduct violations in a meeting with an “administrative conference.”
The debate has continued this week, and both sides are digging their heels in.
Protesters have rejected both options for addressing charges of conduct violations. In an open letter signed by the University Senate president and other prominent voices on campus, protesters called on the UO administration to “cease the punitive measures against students and engage in a dialogue without the cloud or threat of intimidation.”
President Schiff was not available for comment. Reached by The Daily Beast, UO spokesperson Tobin Klinger said the conduct process is “not designed to be punitive. In fact, we’re offering to waive any student conduct charges if the students come in and talk about their concerns with a member of the administration.”
He declined to comment further beyond stating that the university’s “main goal is for the conduct process to serve its purpose as an educational tool.”
Across the country, similar confrontations between students and campus authorities are unfolding.
Protesters at the College of William and Mary in Virginia were deemed to have violated the school’s code of conduct when they shut down a speaking engagement with an American Civil Liberties Union representative.
During the protest, one student accused the ACLU of using “the rhetoric of the First Amendment” to defend white supremacists. “The ACLU and liberals believe that legality determines morality,” the student said, adding that the Constitution “cannot be your moral compass” and reaffirming student protesters’ position of “zero tolerance for white supremacy no matter what form it decides to masquerade in.”
A spokesperson for the university said the protest was “unacceptable” and that the administration was “taking appropriate action” against students and reviewing protocol to prevent a similar disruption in the future.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen student protesters who disrupted a speaking event at Columbia University were informed that they may have violated the university’s code of conduct.
The students had stormed a Columbia College Republicans event with Tommy Robinson, an anti-Islam activist from the U.K., shouting at him as he attempted to speak via video chat. Some allegedly attempted to unplug the video and audio equipment.
Suzanne Goldberg, Columbia’s executive vice president for University Life and rules administrator, reminded students ahead of Robinson’s speaking event that it is “foundational to Columbia’s learning and teaching missions that we allow for the contestation of ideas,” including ideas that are “deeply unpopular, offensive to many in our community, contrary to research-based understandings, and antagonistic to University tenets.”
Goldberg also stressed that while the university strongly rejects the views of “white supremacist, anti-Muslim, and similar speakers,” adjudicating which ideas outside speakers can express on campus would pose “serious risks to academic freedom.”
Protesters disrupted the event anyway, prompting Goldberg to issue a statement detailing the “limits to protest” according to university conduct rules: “Talking or making noise when it is the speaker’s turn to talk, interfering with the speaker’s audience members’ view, or being in the front of the room while the event is taking place unless the event organizers have given permission to do so.”
Columbia University provost John Coatsworth issued a separate statement reminding students that interrupting, shouting down, or otherwise disrupting an event is a violation of university conduct, and that individuals who engage in this behavior may face sanctions “up to and including suspension” for the rest of the semester.
“I think administrators are finally starting to understand the actions that they have passively encouraged or, at the very least, tolerated when allowing students to disrupt speech that they disagree with,” said Ari Cohn, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Cohn maintains a database of event disruptions on college campuses dating back to 2000, and calculated that substantial event disruptions since 2016 accounted for 44 percent of all event disruptions catalogued since 2000. Between 2016 an 2017, at least 16 speaking events were canceled during the event or shortly before the event was scheduled to start.
Cohn said the violent fracas at Middlebury College earlier this year—involving a “mob” attacking controversial author Charles Murray and professor Allison Stanger—has been a wake-up call for universities.
“Administrators should be responsive to student concerns, but there’s a limit to how much they can bend to student demands, particularly when they’re advocating for censorship,” said Cohn.
Condemnation of disruptive protests isn’t limited to university administrators. Last September, a group of student activists called Reedies Against Racism (RAR) began boycotting Humanities 110, a required year-long course for freshman at Reed College, a small, liberal arts university in Oregon.
RAR said Hum 110’s required “Eurocentric” and “Caucasic” texts “perpetuate white supremacy.” RAR began conducting in-class protests, forcing professors to either cancel class or do their best to teach amidst the disruption.
One of the first Hum 110 professors to ask that RAR not occupy her classroom was Lucía Martínez Valdivia, who describes herself as mixed-race and queer.
Valdivia told protesters that she suffered from PTSD and that their opposition made it difficult to deliver her lecture. Demonstrators initially agreed to sit quietly in the lecture hall, but later accused her of being “anti-black,” a “race traitor,” and a “gaslighter” for making marginalized students doubt their oppression—all without providing specifics to back up their charges. The administration did nothing.
Two weeks ago, The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Valdivia headlined “Professors like me can’t stay silent about this extremist movement on campus.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast, Valdivia remarked that readers have accused her of being hypocritical for referencing her own identity in a column that warns against the pervasiveness of identity politics on campuses.
“That’s kind of the point: The fact that I have to perform these identities in order to be heard is problematic,” she said. “It feels cheap.
“I would really love for us to be able to take each other’s ideas seriously on the grounds of our ideas as individuals, rather than subjecting them to this complex algorithm that plays out before we decide how much we’re going to listen to somebody,” Valdivia continued. “My identities matter very much for me, but they matter separately from how I think.”
This isn’t to say that many students have good reason to fear for their safety, particularly with Donald Trump as president.
“There are real fights to fight—in Portland! I’ve been verbally attacked by white supremacists 10 blocks off of Reed campus. White supremacy is there if you want to fight it. It’s just a lot scarier to fight that than it is to fight a syllabus.”