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Cashing in on the Culture Wars

The University of Chicago takes on safe spaces with an eye toward its brand
University of Chicago Quad

The University of Chicago’s Dean of Students, Jay Ellison, recently became a folk hero of sorts on the right flank of the culture wars after sending out a blunt warning to the incoming U of C freshman class. To the hand-wringers worried about creeping “political correctness” on the American campus, Ellison’s letter was sweet sauce. Laying out the U of C’s pedagogical mission, he pointedly stipulated that the school’s long-standing “commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” Within hours of the letter’s publication, the familiar tropes of our academic culture wars were once more engaged. Trigger warnings and safe spaces were hotly derided or righteously defended, depending on which side of the ideological railing disputants were on.

And just as predictably, these familiar set-tos missed the larger point. Once more, the anxious reading public was marched through a litany of formulaic questions: Are students being “coddled”? Are things like trigger warnings and safe spaces a threat to open academic inquiry? Is political correctness stifling higher education? But in the overheated climate of PC warmongering, the most important questions tend to go unasked. Many, for instance, like Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Beth McMurtrie, seem to take for granted that Ellison “very likely had no idea his words would add fuel to the national debate over academic freedom and the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings in higher education.” Of course he did. That was the point. The far more momentous, and dispassionate, question we should be asking in the wake of Ellison’s anti-PC broadside is this: How was it deliberately calculated to enhance the value of the University of Chicago brand?

If this sounds unduly harsh, just consider the marketing dilemmas that face Ellison’s home institution. The University of Chicago is consistently ranked among the top 5-10 universities in the world. And by far, the school’s prestige draw comes from its “uncommon” commitment to hardcore academic study. Chicago prides itself on an ethos of near-masochistic academic achievement, neatly captured in the school’s unofficial motto: “UChicago: where fun comes to die.”

Even so, the school’s credo of hitting the books extra hard had not, until recently, played to the same chosen crowd that so agreeably inhabits the leafy campuses of its older Ivy League rivals. As recently as 2005, Chicago was admitting around 40 percent of its undergraduate applicant pool—a number that seemed distressingly high to the higher-ed administrative caste, particularly when compared to Harvard’s far more exclusive 9.1 percent. To fend off the gnawing concern that these stats had negative implications for U of C’s academic reputation, administrators gamely suggested that the school’s applicant pool was self-selecting. Only the truly “uncommon” students UChicago is known for would apply; and those who wouldn’t get in anyway wouldn’t even bother.

Ellison’s letter may feel a like heroic defense of intellectual freedom, but in the admissions arms race consuming America’s elite campuses, it’s a much more potent weapon in the U of C’s attempts to close the exclusivity gap. The same freshman class Ellison was sternly admonishing emerged out of a U of C applicant pool with a record-low acceptance rate: just 7.9 percent—at last snugly within the Ivy League’s single digit cap. This breakthrough translates into an enormous boon to the perceived prestige value of a U of C undergraduate degree.

Simple supply-and-demand orthodoxy dictates that the most prestigious institutions are the hardest ones to get into. Boosting the number of applicants a university can say “no” to is, particularly in today’s competitive higher-ed market, a tremendously effective marketing strategy that bolsters the prestige of its brand. And, in view of this broader trend, it’s also a cunning strategy of brand differentiation to position the U of C as a hard-nosed, anti-PC environment at a moment when Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard have fielded a lot of unwelcome recent publicity as prime examples of “political correctness run amok.” The market-savvy administrators of U of C clearly have deemed this a prime opportunity to amend the school’s informal motto—Chicago is now a place where both fun and the righteous airing of PC grievances can go to die.

To be sure, in enhancing the host institution’s prestige, U of C administrators like Ellison are only doing their jobs. But what’s important here is that these kind of market-driven exercises in brand management play virtually no role in the debate over political correctness on college campuses. Instead, we focus obsessively on the timorous outlook of fragile millennial students and the professors who enable them; meanwhile, the administrative apparatus behind the scenes is understood as somehow separate. It’s not. The debate about “political correctness” on campuses is posed as a cultural problem, a psycho-generational problem, but it is, at bottom, a money problem. And no one has more say over money matters than the university administration.

Discussions about the depths and roots of political correctness at universities are overwhelmingly concerned with figuring out what has changed about students—what cultural, technological, political factors have made them simultaneously so averse to open debate and so instinctively tyrannical as they tamp down the speech of their critics and adversaries? Celebrated articles like “The Coddling of the American Mind” by journalists and professional PC-baiters Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are a case in point. They seek to provide forensic breakdowns of the troubled psyches of millennial students, while ostensibly documenting the neutering effects of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and debate protests.

However, in nearly all such discussions, the university—as an institution of free thought, debate, intellectual rigor, etc.—is held as a constant, the sacred repository of a venerable tradition under attack. Indeed, it’s precisely because we’re so uncritical in our awe of the cultural archetype of what a university should be (and always, we’re told, has been) that the notion of today’s students hammering away at its timeless foundations can seem so outrageous. But universities have been changing drastically for a while now, and students are not necessarily at the center of that change. American universities have a long, messy, and proud history of student activism. What is decidedly new is not the presence of politically demanding students, but the corporate re-structuring of universities. The corporatization of higher education has funneled the wide reach of student dissent and dissatisfaction into the complaint boxes of rapidly growing administrative apparatuses that are primarily concerned with tuition flow, alumni donations, and brand value.

In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Lukianoff and Haidt write eloquently about students exhibiting psychologized symptoms such as “mental filtering” (cherry-picking one negative detail in a situation and focusing on it exclusively). That criticism, however, applies far more accurately to Lukianoff and Haidt themselves, since their manifesto conspicuously filters out the experience of actually working as a professor at an American university. In their introduction, for instance, they cite the much-circulated Vox article “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me” to help set a very specific but familiar scene. “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students,” they write in a tone of mounting cultural horror, “to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Something, the authors darkly suggest, is rotten in the state of academe.

The debate about “political correctness” on campuses is posed as a cultural problem, a psycho-generational problem, but it is, at bottom, a money problem.

Lukianoff and Haidt cite the article about this pseudonymous liberal professor’s “terror” exclusively for the purpose of describing a problem on campus that, in their telling, is “driven largely by students.” But the authors never mention the most pressing and immediate source of this liberal professor’s fear: the economic precariousness of non-tenured faculty. Contingent, part-time college instructors now make up more than 50 percent of the teaching labor force at American universities. These overworked, easily dismissed knowledge workers are a true professional “precariat”; 31 percent of them live near or beneath the poverty line. “The academic job market is brutal” the terrified liberal professor writes. “Teachers who are not tenured or tenure-track faculty members have no right to due process before being dismissed, and there’s a mile-long line of applicants eager to take their place . . . In this type of environment, boat-rocking isn’t just dangerous, it’s suicidal.”

Against this stark economic backdrop, the worst cases of political correctness limiting free speech at universities are the ones no one hears about. They don’t make headlines like when controversial speakers are disinvited due to student protests. Far from serving as fodder for heated protests or pundit grandstanding, they pass away silently through telltale gaps in the critical discourse that is supposedly a university’s stock in trade—a pronounced lack of controversial or polarizing material on syllabi, or prim silences from professors holding their tongues as class discussions take an unpredictable or potentially “boat-rocking” turn. And it’s important to insist here that the militancy and emotional fragility of students isn’t the core concern. Professors have never backed away from getting students emotionally worked up, challenging their common knowledge, even offending their sensibilities. Indeed, a go-to truism of liberal-arts pedagogy at places like Chicago has always been that professors aren’t doing their jobs if they don’t actively challenge their students.

These days, however, members of the downwardly mobile professoriate are far more worried about simply hanging on to their jobs and making ends meet. When professors today say they fear their students, they’re really saying that they’re afraid their students’ reviews and complaints will get them fired. What professors fear are the changing administrative policies that have pinned the fate of their job security to the same unstable consumer logic behind Yelp reviews and the reputation economy. The image of the wise, hard-nosed professor who upends her students’ assumptions about the world, who provokes and guides heated debates in class about subjects that may offend as much as they enlighten, rests on a whole host of factors that no longer enter into the crabbed, anxiety-driven working life of the casually employed academic. Nor do such factors typically emerge in our debates about political correctness at universities. Three in particular are worth highlighting.

First, tenure for faculty is disappearing—and along with it the sort of job security that once made university teaching an attractive long-term career. Now the lion’s share of college teaching jobs goes to part-time (adjunct) instructors and non-tenure-track faculty. Overworked and underpaid, these custodians of knowledge, who can end up making less than actual custodians, are often unable to give students the time and attention they deserve. What’s more, the hand-to-mouth nature of their professional life denies them the intellectual luxury of giving measured classroom attention to any material carrying the faintest whiff of controversy. Like any other precariously employed service worker, these classroom docents well understand that offending or disenchanting an influential customer could easily get them fired.

But even this is an understatement of the deeply, economically unbalanced nature of the student-instructor relation at American universities—which brings us to the second unacknowledged driver of today’s PC conflicts on campus. With students and their families paying more for the four-year college experience than ever, and with that massive payment transforming the paying academic public into an elite client class, students now enjoy more power than ever in the administration of higher education. More than consumers, these students are regarded as high-end investors. And this new class of student-investor has every right to be more demanding about his or her projected return on investment. Indeed, the high-profile campus dustups over this or that “PC” controversy are merely the traces of a tide that’s already risen, an academic market that’s already been reconfigured. If critics of rampant thought-monitoring on campus are as distressed as they say they are, if compromising the soul of education is so abhorrent to them, they should be far more horrified by the widespread correlation between rising tuition costs and grade inflation.

University administrations have been all too happy to give in to the demands of student-investors, resorting to drastic action like disinviting controversial speakers or firing provocative professors. More than this, though, administrations are beholden to wealthy alumni donors. And the timing of UChicago’s letter makes all the more sense when there is a growing fear among administrators that wealthy alumni are withholding donations if they feel their universities are getting “too PC.” What is playing out on college campuses is not a power struggle between students and professors, but a calculated risk assessment by administrators who are deciding which investors are more worth appeasing: students or donors.

These are the real-world limitations to open academic inquiry and debate at universities presently overrun by a culture of corporatism, not political correctness. As Fredrik deBoer puts it, “If students have adopted a litigious approach to regulating campus life, they are only working within the culture that colleges have built for them. When your environment so deeply resembles a Fortune 500 company, it makes sense to take every complaint straight to H.R.” The problem is that HR departments at corporations are there to manage employee concerns in ways that minimize the legal and/or financial exposure of their company managers. And the de facto HR divisions at universities are there mainly to manage consumer concerns while stoutly advancing the financial and legal interests of the university itself.

As Tom Cutterham has argued, the widely publicized student-led struggles over campus curricula, trigger warnings, and the like actually suggest that students are becoming more empowered by the critical thinking skills they’re learning, not less.

Students are perceiving and challenging the power dynamics embedded in discourse, history, and everyday interactions. While certain cases of overblown “political correctness” stoke worries that the whole university culture is at risk, such concerns are largely unfounded. The vast majority of students across the country are debating and working out amongst themselves, through trial and error, just how to handle and implement trigger warnings and safe spaces, while also preserving the substantial demands of open academic inquiry. This kind of collective hashing out of core issues is precisely what students are supposed to do at college.

Beneath all the sound and fury of our PC wars on campus, the real problem is that universities are not responding to students as students, but as consumers. Students have an inordinate amount of power, and that’s not their fault. In this corporate system, professors are not the challengers of knowledge and protectors of pure reason they’re imagined to be. Under the past protections of tenure, and following the ideal of uncoerced academic inquiry, professors were able to productively challenge students to learn and to experience all the attendant discomforts of having their inherited worldviews challenged, while still having the university backing to protect their jobs. None of the central elements of this system were forced to follow the dictates of the market—nor should they, ever.

Now, though, professors are more like temp workers, or comedians at an open mic night who have about fifteen seconds to get the crowd on their side before the catcallers and hecklers drown them out. Before blaming “coddled,” politically correct students—and certainly before celebrating the University of Chicago’s stance against trigger warnings and safe spaces—one should ask: is this the sort of environment that is deeply conducive to the “free exchange of ideas”?

Many are feeling angry about what seems to be a fundamental threat to free academic inquiry and the spirited clash of ideas that makes the university such a noble cultural institution. That anger is a good thing, but it’s pointed in the wrong direction. The publicized outcries of politically demanding students and the drastic administrative actions that can result from them are not the cause, but rather the symptom, of a corporate university system more concerned about ratings, money, and reputation than the effective conduct of student education. These outcries are saying something important about the state of higher education—namely, that learning and the collegiate experience generally are screwed over by an administrative regime for which “prestige” is primarily defined by money and brand value, not knowledge. But the more that pundits and political leaders continue to push a false narrative that scapegoats “coddled” students and liberal “political correctness,” the more people will continue to focus on the wrong thing, and the worse the problem will get. “A dog,” as David Foster Wallace put it, “if you point at something, will look only at your finger.”