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Student Protest: Rebels Without a Clue

Some students blame Chelsea Clinton for NZ. Others demand fabric softener.

Screenshot from viral video
Source: Screenshot from viral video

Repeatedly pointing her finger inches from Chelsea Clinton’s chest, a young woman at NYU (sporting what appears to be a Bernie Sanders campaign tee shirt) lambastes the pregnant Clinton. “Forty-nine people died because of the rhetoric that you put out there,” the young woman rages, referring, one assumes, to Clinton's condemnation of antisemitic rhetoric. Onlookers snap their fingers. Clinton was on campus because she had been invited to participate in a vigil for the victims of the New Zealand massacre.

Twenty miles away at Sarah Lawrence College, students calling themselves the "Diaspora Coalition" staged a sit-in, claiming they planned to continue to occupy an administrative building “until an agreement is made with — and signed by — senior members of the Sarah Lawrence administration.”1 They have a twitter account (@TheDiaCoalition) and an Instagram account (@thediasporacoalition), and asked for donations “for food and resources.” Among the top three demands, “All campus laundry rooms are to supply laundry detergent and softener on a consistent basis for all students, faculty and staff.2

Yes, that sounds ridiculous. But more concerning than their need for fabric softener is the fact that it is now de rigueur for students to make “demands” of college administrations, and for administrators to comply. At some point in the past few years, respect for the experience, knowledge, and authority of adults on campus seems to have deteriorated. It is no coincidence that concurrent with these incidents, people on social media are criticizing the late Maya Angelou for a video clip in which she scolds a teenager for calling the elder by her first name. (Later in the clip, Angelou apologizes for “being so short” with the teen, but does not apologize for insisting that the girl address her with respect.)3

Only those in power can legitimately make demands. This is why it can be adorable when toddlers do it. Toddlers think they are in charge, but they aren’t (when parents do their job). “Mommy WILL sing Twinkle Twinkle” is hilarious. “The College WILL designate housing with minimum capacity for thirty students of color” is not. When college administrators do their job, students are not in a position to make demands. Requests and recommendations, certainly. Start a conversation, absolutely. Make demands? No.

Among the Sarah Lawrence students' demands:

We demand that Samuel Abrams’ position at the College be put up to tenure review to a panel of the Diaspora Coalition and at least three faculty members of color. In addition, the College must issue a statement condemning the harm that Abrams has caused to the college community, specifically queer, Black, and female students, whilst apologizing for its refusal to protect marginalized students wounded by his op-ed and the ignorant dialogue that followed. Abrams must issue a public apology to the broader SLC community and cease to target Black people, queer people, and women.” (Emphasis in the original)

In October, 2018, Sarah Lawrence professor Sam Abrams published an anodyne piece of social science research in the New York Times.4 After having surveyed 900 “student-facing administrators,” he found that college administrators are (wait for it) … liberal. As he put it, “liberal staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by the astonishing ratio of 12-to-one. Only 6 percent of campus administrators identified as conservative to some degree, while 71 percent classified themselves as liberal or very liberal.” In previous research he cited, Abrams found that faculty “report a six-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative professors.” This is the op-ed that "wounded" students and "caused harm." This is the impetus for the harassment he faced, the vandalism of his office door, and the ugly, unsupported accusations.

Of course, students are free to demand anything they want. They can demand to be relieved of their homework, get a tenured professor fired, and be served free gumbo if they want—as the students at Evergreen State College did in 2017. But the recent trend of college administrations acceding to students' illiberal demands is likely to create a generation of students with Suigenesis Fragilis: Fragile Self Disorder. As I wrote in 2017 about an incident at Wellesley College, "invoking the language of harm not only stunts students’ growth as critical thinkers, it risks inculcating in them a fragile self-concept that cannot withstand the 'injury' of objectionable ideas."

Further, while administrators must allow students to protest, it is incumbent upon those administrators to reject anything that violates individual rights. Professors must have academic freedom, and allowing students to engage in a “tenure review” of a professor should be a nonstarter. As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (where I work) declares, “While students may call for censorship, college administrators and other agents of the college (including student government bodies) may not accede to any such demands.”5

It’s possible that the students have some legitimate ideas about what should change at their college. Fabric softener aside, a larger percentage of students at Sarah Lawrence than at most other highly selective colleges come from the bottom economic quintile.5 Finding housing for winter break can be a challenge for these students, so pushing for winter break housing is not unreasonable. But framing their ideas as “demands,” and including among them the censorious, the malicious, and the illiberal makes it difficult for people outside of academia to take them seriously—and should make it equally difficult for those within academia.

Unfortunately, too often it doesn’t.



2. DEMANDS: Westlands Sit-In 50 Years of Shame


4. Abrams, S. (2018). Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators

5. FIRE Statement on Student Protests and Demands (March, 2019)

Special thanks to Twitter's @KeikoinBoston who provides phenomenal research in her topical threads.

Patel, V. (2019). Yes, Students at Sarah Lawrence Are Demanding Free Detergent. But There’s More to It Than You Might Think.

Video of protester and Chelsea Clinton courtesy of Amee Vanderpool on Twitter