Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, where I work, has been commended from outside the university for a statement reprimanding violent and bullying protesters, including students. The protesters called for an end to Northwestern University police. In doing so, they demolished one of the main university entrances and the shops in Evanston, ironically showing why the police force is necessary in both the university and the city.
Schapiro’s statement was extracted from the Wall Street Journal. It has been cited as a model for other university presidents by referees of national discourse such as David Brooks. Frederick M. Hess welcomed Schapiro to the National Review and directed his encomium entitled “Northwestern President Offers a Tutorial in Campus Leadership”.
For the most part, the statement was very solid indeed. Schapiro demanded that those who break the law be held accountable: “An essential aspect of education is recognizing actions and consequences. If, as a member of the Northwestern Community, you break any rules and laws, I make it clear that you will be held accountable. ”
He also evoked the tactics of protesters who surrounded his house in the early hours of the morning, calling him “piggy” and shouting at him with explosives. While these protesters may not have broken any laws (although there may be rules against loud noise in residential areas at this hour), they are violating the norms of a university that requires its residents to have rational discourse and not abuse. This type of behavior undermines the whole ethos of a university. It’s not a debate, it’s intimidation. As Schapiro said:
If you haven’t understood my point yet, I am disgusted by those who chose to shame this university in this way. In particular, I condemn the impact of their actions on our friends, neighbors and other members of our community who seek to sustain viable businesses, raise families, study and research while facing a global pandemic and the injustices of the world without to lose their meaning to humanity.
But even when the outside world praised Schapiro, many of the departments he administered – including African American studies, anthropology, and political science – denounced him. A university-wide letter attacking his testimony received more than a hundred signatures from professors and minor administrators. Perhaps encouraged by this support, Northwestern students again confronted Evanston police with bricks and other forms of violence last weekend and received a reprimand from the city’s Democratic Mayor.
It is a sad fact that many professors in the Northwest and across the country are all too willing to sacrifice the core ideals of a university to their leftist ideology, even if the student behavior that Schapiro rightly denounces is reminiscent of that in societies that were either totalitarian or on their way there. Both Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution and Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness – excellent books I recently read to prepare for turbulent times – show cases of student intimidation that facilitate the collapse of civil society. Schapiro is absolutely right to oppose such behavior, and his faculty proponents are deeply wrong. The assignments go beyond the university.
Schapiro promoted a culture that makes it more likely that students, gripped by an unchallenged sense of self-righteousness, will act as he rightly condemns now.
Yet this Northwestern University professor can only give Schapiro a single cheer. Protesters who passed his house needed to denounce their improper and violent tactics.
Previously, his statements at public events never focused on violence, which was anchored in many protests in the communities around Evanston and Chicago, where the university has a campus. As a colleague at the university noted, he was hardly confident that Schapiro would have denounced such behavior if protesters had shown up at his home that night instead of in Schapiros. And not because Schapiro limited himself to statements about events that have a direct impact on the campus. He regularly denounces incidents of police brutality in other parts of the country. He referred to the murders of George Floyd and others as “murders” before such matters were decided in court. Judging by his past performance, one could say that Schapiro’s statement echoes the old saying by Irving Kristol that a liberal only becomes conservative when he is attacked by reality.
Additionally, during his tenure, he acted and failed in ways that created a culture of political and educational conformity and intolerance on campus. This type of culture makes it more likely that students, gripped by an unchallenged sense of self-righteousness, will act as Schapiro has now rightly condemned.
Unfortunately, Schapiro’s record has contributed to this culture. First, he’s a big fan of “safe spaces”. Indeed, he has called those who are concerned about their effects “madmen”. He mistakenly simply analogizes “safe rooms” with the decisions of the students to hang out together voluntarily. Of course, nobody contradicts such bottom-up student decisions. The danger is that the university creates “safe spaces” in which some ideas are not wanted. This choice is largely at odds with the ideal of a university where rational debate should always be encouraged, just as irrational bullying should always be discouraged. And the university’s decision to create safe spaces for some and not others gives those who receive the imprimatur a sense of superiority, leading to a sense of impunity and ultimately the kind of actions that Schapiro refused to do.
Second, during his tenure, the university has become a place of political conformity where radical left-wing students, some of whom were the villains in Schapiro’s house, are unlikely to experience any intellectual setback. A recent example took place at the university’s Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies. Schapiro elected a retired general and diplomat, Karl Eikenberry, to head the center. Eikenberry, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is hardly a conservative movement since he was ambassador to Afghanistan under President Obama. But his centrism and military experience sparked a revolt by left-wing liberal faculty members that derailed his appointment. While Schapiro endorsed the appointment, he never called out ideological raiding for what it was.
Now, under a new director appointed by Schapiro, this international center is offering research grants in support of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. While some of these goals are the ones that no one can object to, others are controversial and naked left-wing liberal. One example is the goal of expanding access to “reproductive rights”, which is of course a euphemism for rights that include the right to abortion. It is wrong for a university to grant research grants to advance the goals of a political organization or movement. Unfortunately, Schapiro himself announced that the university supports the Paris Agreement on climate change. University administrators must stay out of politics by avoiding a position on issues of political controversy. In this way, a variety of ideas can be promoted and a climate of conformism avoided.
Third, Schapiro directed the closure of the university spirit in more subtle but also more fundamental ways. It is evident, for example, that some key departments prefer knowledge approaches with a left-liberal political value. For example, in the history department, recent attitudes focus on seeing history through the prism of race, gender, colonialism, or empire. The administration of Schapiro was responsible for accelerating these trends. The departments want to hire new staff, of course, but the administration has a lot to say about the subareas the departments are hired in, and I’ve heard from colleagues at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that the university tends to grant “critical” slots ” As traditional methods and areas. A president must be open to various methods at the university. Schapiro failed to be vigilant in this essential task.
Wisdom is welcome even when it comes too late and reacts to behaviors that are difficult or impossible to ignore. The culture of extremism and conformism that arouses such behavior is not unique to the Northwest and is sadly prevalent in many major universities across the country. So unless Schapiro and college presidents everywhere roll back their advocacy of political and intellectual conformity, we can expect to see more of this, as well as more events like the one Schapiro rightly condemned.