Sometimes when someone holds up a mirror to show us when our actions are ugly, we see the ugliness but blame the mirror. We fail to recognize our own reflection. That’s the case at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where a new student group is under fire for holding up a mirror.
The Cardinal Conservatives hosted its inaugural event a few weeks ago: an “affirmative action” bake sale, at which cookies and brownies were sold at different prices according to the race of the customer. The point was to demonstrate the injustice of college admission policies that show preference to students of particular races. A sign hung over the table that specified, “This is a Satirical political protest.” Apparently some Wesleyan students need cue cards to recognize irony.
The affirmative action bake sale is one of the most common venues for campus conservative protest. It seems every time a student group hosts one, the college or university tries to shut it down. At Wesleyan, the bake sale wasn’t shut down, but the campus reaction to it has been unusually vehement, and the student bakers have ended up getting scorched.
By the end of the week after it took place, the Student Free Press Association reports:
...the bake sale ha[d] launched multiple events, an editorial and an op-ed condemning the event in the student newspaper the Argus, personal email from teaching faculty to a student involved with the bake sale, and a summons for the Cardinal Conservatives to appear before a student government body to explain the bake sale. Student groups hung banners in the student center this week in a coordinated reaction to the bake sale event.
The professor who reproached the student via email, Claire B. Potter, wrote, “I cannot tell you how hurtful this event was to many of your fellow students, whose admission to this university, and presence in our classes, is an honor to them and a privilege to our community.” She said the bake sale had caused much “harm” to “a great many students of color and their allies.”
Mytheos Holt, a recent Wesleyan graduate, discusses these emails at Phi Beta Cons, noting that Professor Potter’s personal blog is appropriately titled “Tenured Radical.” He also points out that Potter’s framing this as a problem because it was “hurtful” implies that “If a form of political speech might possibly offend minority students and their ‘allies’ (whatever that means), that form of political speech is de facto racist, regardless of whether it relies on true premises, or makes a cogent point.”
The Friday after the bake sale, students held a rally to express their anger with its hosts. Later that day faculty and students hosted a forum to address “our campus climate and deeper societal issues that acted as catalysts for this event.” The invitation was sent to the entire student body from the Chief Diversity Officer and Dean for Diversity. The Cardinal Conservatives stood their ground at the forum, but they were vastly outnumbered and faced continual ad hominem accusations. A member of the group said, “it was literally around 100 people (including students, professors, administrators, admissions officers) against the two of us who organized the bake sale.”
The student said such hostility speaks ill of the school as a marketplace of ideas:
I personally think that it is important for Wesleyan—and other institutions that do the same thing—to realize that what it's doing is toxic, and that it actively discourages independent thinking and intellectual debate that considers more than one side of the story while penalizing students who challenge the norm. That is a true disgrace for any educational institution.
Indeed, civil debate is a first principle of the academy. As Danny Blinderman, a freshman at Wesleyan, wrote in the student newspaper the Wesleyan Argus, “Debate is the lifeblood of a healthy academic establishment.” Any institution that attempts to shut down debate is unhealthy—not only disgraced but also diseased.
Looking at the big picture of what happened at Wesleyan, three takeaway points stand out:
1. Racial preferences are offensive – that’s why people found the bake sale offensive.
An editorial in the student newspaper (not available online) says that the Cardinal Conservatives “lured student in with the façade of charity and set them up to be offended.” The editorial authors say they want conservatives’ voices to be heard, “But not this way.” That students and professors called the bake sale “hurtful” only proves the CCs’ point: that the racial preferences are hurtful to people and to higher education.When confronted with this ugly reality, students and faculty members closed their eyes to the truth. They saw that there is something deeply wrong about charging different customers different prices for cookies, but they refused to see how using different admissions standards for different students is deeply wrong. So in effect, opponents of the bake sale got exactly the right message but failed to learn from it.
2. The confusion over whether Wesleyan has an affirmative action policy is revealing.
Over and over, opponents of the bake sale denied that the university used affirmative action. They in effect accused the protesters of not knowing the facts. One banner hung in the student center read, “The Wesleyan admission office does not have an affirmative action policy.”
A student newspaper article quotes Nick Petrie ’12, a member of Wesleyan Diversity Education Facilitators (WesDEFs), saying:
The response was more about the way in which the Cardinal Conservatives represented affirmative action through the bake sale, which was misleading, and that they were creating a straw man and then framing the debate to fight that straw man that doesn’t actually exist—partly because affirmative action isn’t practiced as such at Wesleyan and partly because that type of affirmative action [involving racial quotas] is outlawed everywhere now.
The same article claims, “Wesleyan has a diversity policy relating to student admissions, but not an affirmative action program for students.”
This widespread eagerness to deny that Wesleyan uses affirmative action shows a desire not to be associated with racial favoritism. It implies that affirmative action is actually distasteful, and says in effect, we wouldn’t do a thing like that.
But after all these claims, several groups at Wesleyan have gone on the record in defense of affirmative action. One commenter—who goes by “acknight” and who appears to be Arielle Knight, a student worker in admissions andwho says she “helped to plan the Student of Color admitted student program”—wrote on a student-run blog, “Wesleyan doesn't have the luxury of being colorblind because that isn't the reality of the world we live in. Resources and access fall along decidedly colored lines.”
“Acknight” also wrote,
As someone who who [sic] works in the admissions office, I can't tell you how many white, upperclass students from New England come into the office and say that they want to go to a school that is diverse. They say they are sick of being in places where everyone looks and thinks in the same way. Frankly, Wesleyan's commitment to diversity, from a business standpoint is a response to consumer demand.
So diversity is a marketing ploy to attract white students. But if the strategy here is to satisfy demand for a certain racial makeup, what will happen if the general will changes and the ideal student body becomes one without any racial diversity?
Additional damning evidence was given by 34 faculty members who jointly signed an article titled “In Support of Affirmative Action.” They wrote that in an effort not to discriminate, “The University, therefore, has both an institutional responsibility to seek out the most talented people and a social obligation to further the goal of achieving equality of opportunity.”
Achieving equality of opportunity and seeking the most talented people are worthy goals. But the faculty members contradict themselves (in a sentence lifted from the University’s official Affirmative Action Statement):
Wesleyan, therefore, makes concerted efforts to recruit, employ, and promote qualified members of minority groups, women, handicapped individuals and disabled veterans, and Vietnam-era veterans who qualify for the positions for which they are being considered, as is the case for all other candidates who do not fall under the groups covered by the laws.
Aileen Yeung, president of the Cardinal Conservatives, points out in an article on CampusReform.org that this should say instead, “Wesleyan makes concerted efforts to recruit, employ, and promote qualified members of society.” And leave it at that. Why single out certain identity groups if all of them really are given a fair shake?
The faculty article concludes that “These institutional commitments have been misconstrued as a system of ‘racial preferences’ (or worse, a ‘racial quota’ system).”
So we’re left in some confusion. Does Wesleyan have an affirmative action program for student admissions or not? These faculty members would have us believe that Wesleyan’s version of affirmative action is just another term for equal opportunity, and that no race is given preference.
Certainly “affirmative action” and “racial preferences” ought to be understood as separate and distinct concepts. “Affirmative action as it was originally conceived did mean equal opportunity, but over the years it has come to mean something more like racial spoils.
Thus we have the worker in the admissions department declaring that “Resources and access fall along decidedly colored lines.” The 2003 book The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College shows proof of this. Author Jacques Steinberg, who was permitted to follow a Wesleyan admissions officer for a year, described in detail how race could boost students’ chances of being admitted. At one point he wrote, “But sometimes, to forge that balance, the standards to which a white applicant were held were eased for a nonwhite applicant.”
The bake sale didn’t propagate misinformation—its attackers did. Those who saw affirmative action for what it really is claimed in error that Wesleyan was not a party to such foolishness; and those who knew that affirmative action did take place characterized it as a noble undertaking. Both parties were wrong, and the way they contradicted each other made the whole situation that much more ridiculous.
3. Arguments attacking the bake sale distracted from the real issue and never provided a compelling case defending affirmative action.
Danny Blinderman cut to the heart of the matter when he wrote:
How can someone argue against Affirmative Action if they are afraid that they will be accused of being racist? How can someone voice an opinion if they are afraid that they will be stigmatized because of it? When people create such an inhospitable environment for debate, it is a sign that they don’t think their ideas hold water, or are afraid to find out one way or another.
It is always easier to demonize the other side than beat them fair and square. All of the signs and editorials by Affirmative Action supporters have focused on the nature of the bake sale itself. Not one of them has tried to make the present policy stand up on its own merits. Not one. Everything has been about “preserving minority rights,” or how crass and ill-conceived the bake sale was.
Ultimately, Blinderman observed, this was the story of a failed debate. The Cardinal Conservatives sought to start a conversation and instead got shouted down and stigmatized. They held up the mirror and the university condemned its own reflection.
What can Wesleyan and other colleges and universities learn from the bake sale and its aftermath? Of course they can learn to see the truth about racial preferences: that it fails to correct and only perpetuates a system of inequality. They can also learn to listen to dissenting voices, or at least not to condemn those who differ from politically correct orthodoxy. Finally, they can improve their institutional health by fostering an atmosphere of respect, open-mindedness, and civil debate. Only then can the free exchange of ideas thrive.