Staged Emergencies: How Colleges React to Bias Incidents

Ashley Thorne

In many colleges today, teaching is but a subdivision of a larger mission, namely, to promote a vision of social justice. According to this vision, teaching about the world is not as important as changing it.

Social justice’s two-century-long history—in the tradition of Catholic social teaching; the Protestant Social Gospel; and competing perspectives in political philosophy (held by John Rawls, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, David Miller, and others), economic policy, and international human rights—has not given colleges and universities much pause. For in academia today, social justice is extolled as a movement toward “equality and solidarity,”1 “fairness,”2 “human rights,”3 and “giving voice to communities who have been forced into silence.”4 The ironic dark side of social justice, however, is that it can be used to justify systemic unfairness, including racial preferences in hiring, admissions, and scholarships; heavy taxes on the successful; and mandated political and social perspectives in debates about same-sex marriage, solutions to poverty, and environmental conservation. In other words, social justice activism forces egalitarianism and suppresses freedom of conscience. Those who uphold the new social justice orthodoxy see little need to delve into the difficult questions about natural law, the origins of rights and responsibilities, the principle of equity, the role of redistribution, and the many other aspects of justice that philosophers have struggled with through recorded history. Rather, they seem to assume that they simply know what is and isn’t unjust, and proceed directly to the question of how to impose their understanding on everyone else. On its College for Public Health & Social Justice website, for example, Saint Louis University astonishingly declares: “Social justice is not a concept to define; it is an action to be taken.”5

Freed from the encumbrance of contemplating the complexities of right and wrong and the often ambiguous and sometimes irresolvable nature of evidence,6 colleges urge students into activism and make it their mission to eradicate particular biases on campus. As Williams College president Adam Falk declared in a speech to the student body in November 2011, “Our task has been, must be, will be, to create a Williams that is free of racism, that is free of sexism, that is free of homophobia, and that is free of fear.”7

How Colleges Cultivate Political Correctness

“Social justice” has thus become the rubric for what we have learned to call politically correct thinking. The ways in which social justice (and political correctness) is advanced on campus have been evolving into a set of routines bordering on ritual that kick in when college administrators descry a “bias incident.” The stage for these staged emergencies is set very early.

From the moment they enroll (and sometimes even before), students are surrounded by messages about what they should believe. Everywhere, they see student groups poised against “hate,” presidential emails affirming “inclusivity,” courses on critical race theory, speakers with stories about overcoming “barriers,” protesters with “stop hate speech” signs, campus centers for social justice. They learn to adopt attitudes that, if not already picked up from junior high and high school, are ready-made for them in college.

Faculty members and administrators supply much of this. They provide examples of social justice, teach courses and seminars on how to become a “change agent,” and enjoin students to seek “the common good.” Freshman summer reading programs are one venue that administrators use to inculcate certain perspectives in students. The summer reading program formula presents the author as an inspirational hero whose example students should follow. At Sweet Briar College, for example, first-year and honors students were asked to participate in microloan assistance projects, taking their cue from Nicholas D. Kristof, who advocates microfinance for impoverished women in his book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.8 Yvonne Smith, cochair of Purdue University’s Common Reading Program, which had assigned No Impact Man—an account by Colin Beaven of his year without toilet paper and other wasteful possessions9—urged students to “see what they can do for the environment” and “engage in social issues” as they begin their college careers.10

While fostering activism in progressive causes, colleges also prime students to find bias everywhere.

“There is nothing more important than the safety of our community,” President Falk told Williams’s student body in the speech cited above. “Not our classes, not our sports, not our activities, nothing. And that’s why we’re here, right now, today, having stopped everything, until we get this right.”11


Stopping everything has become a surprisingly frequent occurrence at colleges. When something happens on campus that appears to some to be an act motivated by racial, sexual, or homophobic bias, quite a few schools cancel classes and take the occasion to cling to their positions on “tolerance.” The result is a skillfully guided and calculated performance of cancel-and-cling reaction. The goal is to make things “right.” In the wake of “hate crimes” comes a rush to establish specific moral principles. This morality play must demonstrate, first, that poisonous bias exists; second, that it must be expelled; and third, that the members of the community must examine themselves for conscious and unconscious forms of discrimination, then purge these festering thoughts by forcefully enunciating their commitment to diversity.

An incident of perceived “hate”—a racial epithet written on a wall, for example, or a rope in the shape of a noose found on campus—can galvanize the zeal that colleges cultivate. What happens next is sometimes hard to link to particular actors, but a general pattern has emerged in the outraged reaction that follows “hate crimes.” The administration casts itself as supportive of “the students”—as if the students have collectively suffered a grave indignity. The administration says in essence, and in a tone more reassuring than authoritative, “We agree with your righteous anger at what has happened and we stand with you in solidarity.”

Often the president, deans, and faculty show their support by canceling classes and planning activities in their place that will supposedly help the community process what has happened. Frequently these programs include outside lecturers or performers brought in to educate students on creating a culture of acceptance, social justice, and “healing.” By that point, however, the students have already been trained to agree with such messages.

From Dartmouth to Oberlin to Bowdoin to Princeton Theological Seminary to Williams, a pattern has emerged: The administration pushes politically correct attitudes on students and students adopt them; a “hate” incident occurs and the campus reacts with outrage; the administration replaces classes with diversity vigils.

Real Talk at Dartmouth

In April 2013, Dartmouth College’s Office of the President booked Jessica Pettitt, “a social justice and diversity consultant and facilitator,” for a day-long teach-in that replaced all classes.12,13 A series of episodes had thrown the campus into turmoil. It all began at an event for prospective students that was interrupted by a group of current students calling themselves RealTalk Dartmouth, who drowned out the program chanting, “Dartmouth has a problem!” (More specifically, the group shouted that Dartmouth was plagued by “homophobic and senseless graffiti,” “a racist Indian mascot,” and “sexual assault.”)14

In the days following the demonstration, some students, writing on a private website for the Dartmouth community that allows users to leave anonymous comments, criticized those who had hijacked the event. Some comments were antagonistic and some sounded violent. One commenter asked, “Why do we even admit minorities if they’re just going to whine?” Another wrote, “Wish I had a shotgun. Would have blown those [expletive] hippies away.”15 Dartmouth’s interim president Carol Folt, along with four deans, the directors of security and of athletics, and the interim vice provost subsequently sent a letter to the Dartmouth community to announce that classes would be canceled the next day, which would be spent on “alternative programming,” including a faculty meeting, a message from Jessica Pettitt, a community gathering, a complimentary lunch for the community, and faculty- and staff-led teach-ins.16

The backlash at Dartmouth attracted national attention and is an instance of a campus that saw a need for an intervention by way of social justice training. It is an example of activism that started out student-led and became administration-run. Students participated in, but did not lead, the day of programming. The chairman of Dartmouth’s board of trustees, Steve Mandel, wrote later that week that the decision to cancel classes “was made to address not only the initial protest, but a precipitous decline in civility on campus over the last few months, at odds with Dartmouth’s Principles of Community.”17,18

In response to “bias” incidents on their own campuses, other institutions have had reactions similar to Dartmouth’s cancel-and-cling routine.

Solidarity at Oberlin

In the middle of the night in early March 2013, a person was spotted on the Oberlin College campus who appeared to be dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman. By 3:00 a.m., the academic deans were meeting to investigate; by 5:00 a.m., Oberlin’s president had canceled the day’s classes; and by 5:30 a.m., working groups were organizing a rally. One dean gave the protesters money to buy coffee and breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts. Another dean announced that student workers would have no consequences for not coming in to work that day.19 The college issued an announcement that a “Day of Solidarity” would replace regular classes. The day included a teach-in led by the Africana studies department, a march to demonstrate “solidarity,” and a “We Stand Together” convocation in the chapel.20 By coincidence, the Day of Solidarity had actually been scheduled in advance as a response to other words written on flyers and campus walls during the previous month. These were documented by Oberlin Microaggressions, an anonymously authored website.21

Students brought homemade posters to the Day of Solidarity. One read, “‘AND THEN OBERLIN SAID F*** HATE.’ THAT WILL BE OUR LEGACY.” Another read, “ONE DAY IS NOT ENOUGH.”22

The marchers chanted “No justice! No peace!” Afterwards, a professor of politics who had been part of the march reflected on the slogans from the day and suggested that they lacked force. He wrote in the Oberlin Review that the campus community needed to clarify what it was that they actually wanted: “We reaffirmed our values—justice, equality, diversity—but what do we mean by them?…What counts as justice in this context?…From whom do we seek justice?”23 He wasn’t asking the Oberlin community to rethink their clichéd demands, but rather to do a better job defining them.

On the day of the rallies, one student breathlessly confided to the Huffington Post, “In all of my feelings of frustration and anger, I’m feeling just driven and motivated to make progress, and I think I can definitely speak for some of my cohorts and some of my peers that that’s definitely where we’re trying to channel a lot of our emotion: in pressure and you know, a requirement from the administration to be accountable and to make something happen now, fast, and something tangible.”24

When Oberlin’s board of trustees met for its regular meeting later that week, it set aside time to make a unanimous resolution applauding those who had participated in the Day of Solidarity.25

Although one student had reported seeing a person in a white hood and robe, another told the police that at about the same time he had seen a person walking around wrapped in a blanket against the cold.26 No person in KKK regalia was ever found, and the police suggested that the reported sighting may have been mistaken.

Not until August 2013 did the story come out that the preceding month-long series of supposed hate crimes were perpetrated by two pro-Obama students, Dylan Bleier and Matt Aldan. Bleier admitted to campus police at the time, “I’m doing it as a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”27

Police reports shortly after each incident revealed that these two students were the culprits, and had acknowledged committing acts of vandalism, which they saw as “a joke” for the purpose of “shock value.” Another student who knew them said that Bleier and Aldan were “troublemakers” but not racists, and that “considering they were trolls [people who anonymously stir up conflict], they were kind of getting what they wanted out of people getting so upset about it.”28

Bleier and Aldan were suspended in the spring, soon after they were caught, but Oberlin did not inform the campus community that the incidents were pranks rather than real threats until the Daily Caller broke the story in August. Oberlin’s communications staff then issued a public statement saying, “These actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real.”29

But the fear could have been dispelled much earlier. Why did the administration go on letting the campus believe that the epithets were written out of racist hostility?

Michelle Malkin, an Oberlin alumna who has chronicled dubious hate crimes and hoaxes, including numerous ones at Oberlin in the 1980s and 1990s, returned to Oberlin in 2006 to give a speech in which she said, “[L]iberals see racism where it doesn’t exist, fabricate it when they can’t find it, and ignore it within their own ranks.”30 After the 2013 incidents at Oberlin, Malkin wrote that hoax hate crimes are often performed by minority students engaged in “raising awareness about hate by faking it.”31

By hiding the truth about the pranksters’ identity, Oberlin actually perpetuated “fear and disruption,” and gave the hoaxers what they wanted.

Beyond the Bowdoin Hello

At Bowdoin College in early 2011, the N-word was found written on a whiteboard on a student’s dorm room door. Soon afterward, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster sent an all-campus email condemning the graffiti and inviting students to a town-hall meeting to discuss it.32 Over two hundred students attended the discussion, and a group of them organized a rally called “I Am Bowdoin” in which students, faculty, and staff stepped forward one-by-one to declare their identities, which mostly pertained to race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion.33 The Bowdoin Orient Express quoted Dean Foster expressing his support for “I Am Bowdoin” in advance:

“In my experience, student culture shifts because of the efforts of students, not because ‘the administration’ says it will be so,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Orient. “I’m glad to see students stepping up and taking initiative and I plan to be there to support them.”34

After the rally, Bowdoin’s president Barry Mills wrote in a Bowdoin Daily Sun column:

We should encourage our students to continue to grapple with all of this, and it is essential for the leadership of the College to be a part of the effort. Our faculty and staff are also critical participants, but I am personally motivated to encourage our students to take the lead role. We, as a College, should not try to socially-engineer away these tensions, nor should we take over for our students.35

President Mills then met with a group of students and offered one among them, Nylea Bivens, a paying job to work over the summer planning a ten-day program called “Beyond the Bowdoin Hello: Act, Listen, Engage.”36

The program took place in January 2012 and was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, the Office of Multicultural Student Programs, residential life, and student activities, as well as several academic departments and programs—Africana studies, gay and lesbian studies, gender and women’s studies, the sociology and anthropology department, the philosophy department—and a number of student-led organizations, including the Bowdoin Student Government.37

Among the guest speakers38 who participated in “Beyond the Bowdoin Hello” were Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, a book about her experiment in living on minimum wage;39 Tim Wise, whom Cornel West once called, “A vanilla brother in the tradition of (antiracism and antislavery fighter) John Brown”;40 and Steve Wessler, a “human rights educator, trainer and advocate” who “works with schools, colleges, non-profit organizations, healthcare institutions, law enforcement agencies, work places and communities to prevent bias, harassment, discrimination and violence.” 41 Ehrenreich, Wise, and Brown are all professional speakers who make a living at least partially from paid engagements at Bowdoin and other institutions.

Bowdoin’s programming in reaction to one offensive word fits the wider pattern. That pattern begins with an incident (which in many cases is not even investigated to find the individual perpetrator), centers on soul-searching for the entire community, and culminates in further social justice inculcation.

Symbols at Princeton Theological Seminary

At Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in 2011, the student group Seminarians for Life distributed a series of flyers around campus that aimed to show connections between abortion and racism. The group had planned a screening of the documentary Maafa 21; the poster for the film that they put up was titled, “Black Genocide in 21st Century America.”42 Around the same time, the group posted another flyer, “Klan Parenthood,” published by the pro-life organization Life Dynamics, the cover of which featured a drawing of an abortion doctor wearing a Klan hood.43

A student acting on her own behalf put up two other flyers several months later. One, by Human Life Alliance, quoted Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, who once wrote, “We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”44 Encircling this quote box was a picture of a noose. The flyer also contained a cartoon that sought to draw a parallel between slavery and abortion. It showed a slave girl on a platform getting her teeth checked by a potential buyer, and someone in the crowd saying, “I know it’s wrong, dear. But we mustn’t impose our morality on others.” The other flyer was a Black History Month bulletin that quoted Deuteronomy 30:19, “So that you and your descendants may live, CHOOSE LIFE,” accompanied by an image of a black father embracing his infant son. On the back it read: “SOCIAL JUSTICE FOR ALL.”45

The flyers ignited outrage on campus—not at the racism associated with abortion, but at the images and quotations used. In response, PTS held an evening gathering called, “Know the Facts: Race and Symbols in American History,” sponsored by the Student Government Association, the Women’s Center, and the Association of Black Seminarians.46 Ironically, the images on the event’s poster contained similarly inflammatory images, including a photograph of Klansmen and a burning cross, and drawings of a slave ship and a slave auction.47

It’s worth noting that this episode was a rare instance in which the offending party was already known. Perhaps the lack of an anonymous culprit explains why the campus did not shut down: the fear factor—the idea that “it could be any one of us”—was absent.

I attended this event and observed that it was set up as both a therapy session and a rehearsal of racial grievance. One of the panelists introduced herself as a multicultural counselor and declared that she was there to help provide “healing.” Another speaker, a PTS professor of African American religion and literature, said that the images on the flyers were intended to “mock, degrade, instill fear, and insult.”

No one (at least overtly) encouraged censorship or advocated that the Seminarians for Life or the student who put up the flyers be punished. But it was clear that everyone thought they had acted in the wrong and were to blame for “much, much damage.”

Although the images and quotations were meant to encourage African Americans to choose life for their unborn children and to see that abortion had been deployed against their flourishing in the past, somehow the actions of the Seminarians for Life were turned into racism. The rehearsal of racial grievance hinged on the word “amnesia,” which the panelists repeated several times. When asked why some black people supported the Seminarians for Life,48 the panelists said that these African Americans had “historical” or “cultural” amnesia, and that they had accepted a set of false memories propagated in American history. Several white students embraced the anger. Calling themselves allies in the fight against “white privilege,” they said they wanted to “know when I’m being racist” and requested the help of their black friends to do so.

Ultimately the moral outrage at PTS was a pretense that the images were racist when the flyers were clearly pro-African American. Behind the charade was a turf war for the terms “racism” and “social justice,” which appeared in the Seminarians for Life flyers.49 The academic Left will not cede this rhetoric—or images representing “social justice” and “racism”—to a conservative cause. Not once were any points about African American abortions from the flyers discussed. One speaker said, “The issue was not about abortion. It was about the images.” In focusing exclusively on the images, the panelists foreclosed any opportunity to discuss issues surrounding abortion, which made it clear that the PTS community should follow suit.

Outside Princeton, that turf war is heating up. In the blogosphere in recent months, feminist writers have published posts with titles such as “Hijacking Social Justice Language” and “5 Ways Anti-Choice Organizations Are Co-Opting Social Justice.”50 These essays are full of scorn for conservatives who would dare try to wield the rhetoric of social justice. That’s not to say that the rhetoric is effective for conservatives; it may well not be. But the Left is doing its utmost to keep social justice language exclusive to itself.

Claiming Williams

Claiming Williams Day—a day of programs planned by a committee of staff, faculty, and students—became an annual tradition at Williams College on February 5, 2009, about one year after students found the N-word and images of male genitalia scrawled on several doors on February 2, 2008.51 In response, then-Williams president Morty Shapiro and some student council members had called for campus-wide discussion.52 This discussion prompted students to create a “Pact Against Indifference and Hate” on February 6, signed by more than one hundred students affirming that they “see hatred and indifference here and now.”53 A February 12 email to all Williams faculty requested that on an appointed day they read the pact at the beginning of every class.54

Student gatherings also inspired an “awareness rally” and the birth of a student group called “Stand with Us,” which went on to found Claiming Williams Day. In May 2010, after the second annual Claiming Williams Day, the faculty voted to have it added to the regular academic calendar.55

In November 2011, history repeated itself: Someone wrote “All N*****s Must Die” on a fourth-four hallway in Prospect Hall. Again all classes and events were canceled, and President Falk wrote a letter to the Williams community condemning the “hate crime” and announcing an event that “we expect all available students, faculty, and staff to attend.” He also wrote that the cafeteria would not require swipe cards so that students could eat lunch for free.56

At the event, Falk told students, “For me it was like being punched in the gut” when he heard what had happened. “It’s our job now to respond, to heal our community.”57 Writing on PJMedia in late December, Roger Kimball indicated that anonymous sources at Williams told him that “the culprit is known to students and is in fact a minority student,” but that the person’s identity was not public knowledge.58

Claiming Williams Day continues to be observed yearly. On that day, in place of classes, students attend lectures pertaining to race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, and other identities given by Williams faculty and staff as well as outside experts. The 2013 guest speakers included Melissa Harris-Perry, host of a self-titled show on MSNBC and national speaker on race and gender issues, Carmen Ortiz, a United States attorney nominated by President Obama, and Diane Rosenfeld, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and advocate for preventing sexual assault on campus. At Claiming Williams Day Rosenfeld gave a presentation based on her essay, “Who Are You Calling a ‘Ho?’ Challenging the Porn Culture on Campus.”59

Recurring Themes

Common elements appear in each of these campus reactions. Perhaps the first thing to note is that small liberal arts colleges seem to be especially susceptible to shut-down in the wake of “hate” incidents. Such incidents also occur at public and large universities—and brouhaha results on those campuses, too—but it is logistically easier to bring a small school to a halt. The missions of these schools may also play a role in the way they handle anonymous incidents of presumed bias. The purpose of the liberal arts is supposedly to make a person freer (as in the Latin liber). On the “Philosophy” page of Roanoke College’s website is an explanation of what a liberal arts education is intended to free the student from: “isolation within ourselves…reliance upon received opinion…entrapment within the conventions of our present place and time… superficiality and distraction…purposelessness.”60 But for many liberal arts colleges today, the main entrapments from which education must offer freedom are those of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

While these are certainly snares to be overcome, they are not the only or even the main snares confronting modern American college students. Many liberal arts colleges, however, treat them as if they are, and these schools therefore define their goals in terms of social solidarity. Williams’s mission statement extols “open-mindedness,” “commitment to community,” and “concern for others.”61 Oberlin prides itself on its “commitment to social engagement and diversity.”62 Bowdoin’s mission speaks directly to the issue of bias, declaring a firm “commitment to creating a moral environment, free of fear and intimidation, and where differences can flourish.”63 Princeton Theological Seminary “seeks to engage Christian faith with intellectual, political, and economic life in pursuit of truth, justice, compassion, and peace.”64 Colleges with missions so centered on social inclusiveness seem to be the ones with the strongest reactions to bias incidents.

Another common element is that while the administration and faculty make a point of supporting students on one side of the issues, they leave other students out. The students in the PTS Seminarians for Life were exercising their rights to advocate for their cause when they put up flyers drawing attention to an issue where faith and politics intersect. Their actions were the very embodiment of the seminary’s mission, stated above. But the students were portrayed as racist hate-mongers whose message was not even worth considering. Nor was there any support at Dartmouth for the students whose event was boorishly hijacked by protesters.65 Only when students wrote unpleasant things about the boorish protesters did the administration decide it was time to intervene.

A third recurring theme in these staged emergencies is that they have a budget. Speakers brought in to make presentations at a “Claiming Williams Day” or a “Beyond the Bowdoin Hello” charge honoraria. As noted above, one Oberlin dean gave student protesters money for a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast, another told students in an email that they didn’t need to report to their campus jobs that day, and the presidents of Williams and Dartmouth arranged for free lunches during days of “alternate programming” in lieu of classes. Of course, such days have other costs that come with diverting attention from academic pursuits. For a start, instructors have less time to cover the semester’s material, and students get less instruction for their tuition.

Finally, colleges’ readiness to react and eagerness to show concern present incentives for hoax crimes. As discussed above, the Oberlin culprits behind the series of incidents in spring 2013 admitted that they did it for “shock value” in order to “see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”66 As quoted above, a student speaking about the Oberlin hoaxsters called them “trolls”—people who stir up controversy just for the sake of causing a spectacle—and said the vandals had gotten “what they wanted out of people getting so upset about it.”67

What happened at Oberlin is far from an isolated instance. Perhaps the most infamous campus hoax crime is documented by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson in Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.68 Among the many other documented campus hoax crimes in recent years are those committed at Trinity International University (2005), George Washington University (2007), the University of Virginia (2007), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2011), Central Connecticut State University (2012), University of Wisconsin at Parkside (2012), Montclair State University (2012), and Vassar College (2013).69

John Leo observed in a March 6, 2013, Minding the Campus posting, “Fake rapes and fake attacks on minorities are no longer unusual on campuses. One reason is the post-modern theory that there is no truth, only voices and narratives. If the narrative is all-important, why bother with facts? Why not sell the narrative directly?”70

People commit hoax crimes—both on campus and off—to sell a narrative.71 They want, first of all, to present proof that racism or homophobia is alive, rampant, and close to home. They also want to make others see groups of people as perpetual victims who need increased protection.72

Hoaxes are often but not always exposed—but by then the campus has already accepted the narrative. Oberlin actually wasn’t far off when it said that the damage “was real.” In some cases, students figure out that the incident was a hoax, but the administration has become so invested in the narrative it refuses to back down. This appears to be what happened at Williams and Oberlin.

Going through the Motions

When a “bias incident” occurs on campus, the response process is ready-to-go. College leaders spring into action with “this-is-not-a-drill” promptness to activate a seemingly pre-established plan.

Such plans are becoming just as important to colleges as other emergency protocols. For instance, Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, provides diversity-related resources for teaching and professional development. One of these is a set of suggested steps to take in “responding to bias incidents.” After focusing on safety and conducting an investigation, the college or school’s leadership should “Denounce hateful acts and address fears,” while making sure to “Involve everyone—teachers, counselors, staff, administrators, students, parents and community members—in finding solutions.” Ultimately, the goal is to “Work towards unity.”73

With this kind of procedure in place, administrators swoop in and orchestrate a response calculated to confirm the message they want students to receive—a message many students learn to crave. The protesters disrupting the Dartmouth event had internalized it. So had the students organizing the I Am Bowdoin rally, the authors of the Pact Against Indifference and Hate at Williams, the white “allies” at Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Oberlin student who expressed “feelings of frustration and anger” in her Huffington Post interview.

That same Oberlin student said that she and her peers were anxious to see the administration “make something happen now, fast, and something tangible.” The pressure to enact a histrionic response works both ways between students and administration. College leaders know they must drop everything and generate a reaction ritual. But it isn’t drudgery. For presidents, deans, and other members of the campus bureaucracy of enlightenment, a time of cancel-and-cling is a pinnacle moment—and the perfect opportunity to teach the doctrines of political correctness in a setting where students are susceptible to emotional manipulation.

Again, the narrative is all-important. As campus ideology moves from the more passive “tolerance” movement—which calls for mere acceptance—to the more assertive “social justice movement”—which calls for transformative action, it has been easier than ever to convince students to take up the banner. They already know there is a culture of hate and fear on their campus. The only question is what they will do about it.

And so the staged emergency drill, drilled into students for years now, has become second nature. Students and administrators alike play their parts in the performance.


Staged emergencies, cancel-and-cling, and the general habit of ballooning small incidents into institutional crises fraught with moral meaning are not about to fade quickly from the landscape of liberal education. College communities are, in some ways, made-to-order for witch hunts and mass hysteria. In years past, college authorities attempted to model a level-headed response to the excitable excesses of students.74 These days, the administration seems more often to egg on the excitement, sometimes against the more sober judgment of many of the students, who can see the excess plainly enough. The administrations in these incidents ally themselves with small but vocal activist factions among the students, and often fund those activists’ efforts to turn a small incident into a “teachable moment.”

Perhaps because students circulate through the system in four years, they lack sufficient historical memory to know that when these crises occur they are being gamed by their college administrators, some of whom owe their livelihoods to keeping identity group grievances alive and who benefit directly in the form of professional recognition and additional resources when trouble brews. Helping the pot boil over from time to time may seem a small price to pay for raising campus consciousness of social justice.

What can be done in these circumstances? Good responses can come from many sources. It was an undergraduate student, Danielle Charette, who stood up to the “Mountain Justice” students when they commandeered a meeting of Swarthmore’s board of trustees.75 It was the Amherst College chancellor who faced down a group of alumni trying to censor a conservative faculty member whose views on abortion and gay marriage they disliked.76 At Bowdoin, much of the resistance to the administration’s grievance group dramaturgy has come from the college’s alumni.

Probably the best long-term answer is simply persistent efforts to focus public attention on the ready willingness of college administrations to bend the truth, scant due process, and plunge their campuses into educationally disruptive nonsense. The staged emergencies lose their punch when the public laughs at them. Mistaking a shivering student for a Ku Klux Klan member is a bit of hyperactive imagination in a student primed to see hate lurking all around her, but it is an act of irresponsibility for campus officials to jump to the conclusion that bucolic Oberlin is under siege by the forces of racism. When social justice becomes the chief focus of a university, its administrators immerse the campus in performance and lose sight of reality. Public accountability can help them regain it.

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