The Punishment Problem

K-12-Blog

By Mark Bauerlein

Why don’t administrators punish students when they disrupt lectures and classes?

That question underlies what happened this month in Georgia.  Governor Nathan Deal signed into law a campus free speech bill that sets rules for all the public colleges and universities in the state.  Stanley Kurtz’s account of the action is here.

First, Kurtz says, the law “discourages speaker disinvitations.”  If a student group or faculty members invite a speaker to campus and protests ensue before the visit, the event must nonetheless proceed.

Second, the Board of Regents must establish “a range of sanctions” that will apply to any students who disrupt an event and shout down a speaker.  That doesn’t mean occasional booing or peaceful demonstrations outside or vigorous questions and objections that allow the speaker to respond.  The law only bears upon behavior so boisterous that it effectively shuts down the event.

This requirement of punishment has proven the most controversial element in this bill and others like it.  More on this below.

Third, the bill provides for an “annual oversight system” that guarantees that sanctions are actually carried out should disruptions occur.  There will be no bureaucratic stonewalling or prevarication.

Fourth, the law asks the Board of Regents to monitor the “institutional neutrality” of a school regarding “matters of public controversy.”  Faculty members, student groups, and other denizens of the campus may argue at length on those matters, but the school cannot take an official position relative to them.

The bill is a firm move in the direction of free speech and against the disrupters, though Kurtz goes on to mention a few points that were removed from the original version.  They include positions on free speech zones, security fees, and due process.  Kurtz believes those elements will probably be addressed next year and the law will be strengthened.

But to get back to the punishment issue: why have college leaders let the disrupters off with a small rebuke or no action at all?  That may be the most frustrating factor in the whole affair of campus shutdowns.  A few 20-year-olds get upset and act out.  No surprise there.  But security officers, in some cases, haven’t moved against them, and afterwards administrators haven’t held the protesters accountable for their actions.  Why?

One is tempted to say that deans and provosts and presidents agree with the protesters.  They don’t like Milo and Ben Shapiro any more than the angry students do.  They’d much prefer to keep those voices off campus entirely, and if they can find some way to cancel the appearances in advance, they won’t have to countenance statements and ideas they consider abhorrent.

But this assumption is only half-correct, and maybe not that much.  Yes, high-level administrators lean left, and in the case of deans of diversity hard left.  But when individuals get to the level of president, provost, and dean of the entire college or university, they have to function more as bureaucrats than as ideologues.  They have too many financial and managerial issues to handle for them to judge things and people first and foremost by their politics.  It isn’t conservative ideas that bother them.  It is the prospect of a conservative speaker sparking unruly students to protest, the result being a great big headache for campus leaders.

When a disruption occurs, then, the president makes a calculation. What response will protect the brand?  What will bring the least amount of publicity?  What will keep high school seniors from refraining from applying to the school next year?

The infamous Missouri episode is a prime example of what college leaders wish to avoid.  The year following the protests, applications plummeted and a financial crisis arose.  African American high school students who might have applied to Missouri had second thoughts.  After all, the protesters alleged that that campus was a racist habitat.  White high school students shied away, too, but for a different reason.  They wanted to go to college to study, get a degree, and have fun along the way.  A campus with so much tension, where even the football season was in jeopardy (the black football players threatened to boycott), didn’t look promising.

Apparently, the leaders of many schools don’t believe that stiff punishments will improve situations like the Missouri case.  The African American condition in higher education is a delicate one.  Overall, the achievement gap between whites and blacks hasn’t narrowed very much in recent years.  The enrollment gap has closed a bit, but not so much the graduation gap.  We still see the black presence in STEM courses minimal.

It produces a fair degree of resentment among African American students, and college leaders are embarrassed to have those numbers publicized.  College leaders are, in fact, highly intimidated by those students.  Some of them are in their 60s and have living memory of what happened in lunchrooms and on buses in the 1960s before and just after the Civil Rights Act was passed.  They recall the thunderous tones of George Wallace, “Segregation now . . .”  Yesterday I spoke at an event in Arizona and afterwards a woman came up to me to describe segregated bathrooms at the University of Florida when she was there in 1960.  That was 58 years ago, but for her it was still a live factor in her understanding of current social conditions.  You could see that from the expression on her face.

But we must qualify how this moral authority is interpreted by a college president.  It’s not so much that he fears the angry black students themselves.  He fears their authority among journalists and the media and off-campus advocacy groups.  If they camp out in the hallways outside his office, the press will cover it and he’ll have to respond.  Punish them, or have them removed from the building, and attention and criticism will escalate.  The last thing the president wants is for someone to start comparing his campus to Selma.

That will tarnish the college seal, especially in the eyes of the ones who really count: next year’s applicants.  Yes, if a college did levy stiff sanctions, including a few expulsions, people across the country would cheer.  Hardly anybody sympathized with the Yale girl whose temper tantrum was seen by everyone. To be an undergraduate at a super-selective institution that is a gateway to the upper-middle-class, and where distinguished professors listen carefully to your woes, looks to 90 percent of the country an extraordinary bit of luck.  As she shrieked her misery and insulted the professor repeatedly, most of us wanted to see her hauled away.

As far as I know, though, nothing happened to her.  Perhaps Yale believed that punishment would only extend the controversy.  Adult Americans would like to have seen her penalized, but it might not play well with the top high school seniors in the country, especially those of color.  “A student gets overwrought and speaks out, and now she’s on the verge of suspension?” they think.  “Maybe I better look at Princeton.”

When we comment on episodes such as this one, we must keep that target audience in mind.  As Kurtz notes, leaders of public higher education in Georgia vigorously opposed this bill.  I attended one hearing in the state capitol and gave brief testimony, but not before listening to the heads of University of Georgia and Georgia State University speak against the bill at length, especially the punishment provision.

And yet, I wonder if they really meant it.  They must realize that if students expect to be sanctioned if they block the doors to an auditorium or won’t stop hooting from the back, the number of disruptions will drop considerably.  But they don’t want to be seen as judge and jury.  They don’t want the responsibility.

If, however, the state demands that they mete out punishments, well, it’s not their fault.  If the letter of the law says such-and-such, and an oversight mechanism is looking over their shoulder, you can’t blame them.  They have no discretion.  Should anyone say to them, “You must change this law!” they can respond, “We tried our best to stop it from ever coming into being.  We really tried.”

Georgia legislators, in other words, have done college leaders a big favor.  With sanctions on the books, few episodes will take place.  Protesting students looking for a target will have to bypass the president.  When they gather beneath his window after one of their brethren has been punished for a shout-down and chant, “No sanctions, no sanctions!” he can open the window, lean out, and inform them, “You’re in the wrong place – the state capitol is four miles that way – we’ll get you an Uber.”

 

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