Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jonathan Zimmerman (Oxford University Press, 146 pp., $16.95)

Over the last two years, American universities have been roiled by student protest, largely focusing on race relations. The election of Donald Trump inspired hostility unseen in decades. Most recently, a number of respected conservative speakers have been shouted down and even attacked at elite campuses when attempting to deliver talks.

A common lexicon of grievance has emerged, derived from the vocabulary of social-justice movements, identity politics, and therapeutic culture. Students speak of “feeling unsafe,” of “facing hostile environments,” of “lacking agency,” of “suffering trauma,” and of “being triggered.” In response, institutions routinely validate student complaints with apologies, resignations, firings, concessions, promises, and simple groveling. “In no instance,” writes Jonathan Zimmerman in his 2016 book, Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, “did a prominent college leader take issue with the protesters; instead, every president and dean dutifully lined up behind them.”

Since Trump’s election, dozens of colleges have sent campus-wide emails ostensibly aimed at helping students cope with the emotional turmoil occasioned by his presidency, axiomatically understood as disastrous. Priority is given to emotional comfort rather than putting current events in a historical context.  Iowa State University, for example, created a “relaxation station,” where students can color and sculpt with Play-Doh while soothing music plays.

Whereas previous generations of student activists “typically fought to remove administrative rules and restrictions on campus . . . today’s students often demand more of them,” writes Zimmerman. “Indeed, almost every published demand during the November 2015 protests ‘against’ college administrations actually required more college administration.” Moreover, activists often seem unwilling to pay any serious price for their activism. They demand (a favorite activist verb) that absences be excused, that material be re-taught, that exams be delayed or dismissed, and that expectations for performance be lowered and grading standards eased.

A professor of education and history at New York University and author of a 2002 book on the culture wars in American schools, Zimmerman has published widely on the education system’s handling of controversial material and programs. His new book’s question-and-answer format (standard in Oxford’s useful What Everyone Needs to Know series) should prove especially friendly to general readers. For example, the ripped-from-the-headlines chapter “Psychology and Campus Politics” poses and answers the following questions: “When did the psychology of college students become a public issue?” “What are microaggressions?” “How did microaggressions become a cause of campus concern?” “What are trigger warnings?” “Are today’s students coddled?” The book is reasonably well indexed and contains useful source notes.

Though a man of the Left, Zimmerman writes even-handedly. Liberals often defend political correctness as nothing more than decency and politeness—“kindness”—maliciously mislabeled by bigots and racists. While recognizing the obvious—that ugly epithets and stereotypes hold no place in civil discourse—Zimmerman nevertheless demurs, asserting that PC “spawns ideological orthodoxy,” closing down the range and terms of debate deemed permissible by students and professors alike. He quotes Harvard professor Randall Kennedy, who recognizes that students are manipulating the administration and professoriate with hyperbolic claims of victimization. Kennedy warns that “in the long run . . . reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization.” Zimmerman ruefully notes that, even though federal courts have repeatedly struck down speech codes, “many universities retained [them] or added new ones, even in the face of judicial decisions prohibiting them.”

Zimmerman reminds readers that most college students have no time to create lists of unreasonable (and unreasoned) demands. They are too busy taking classes, working part-time or even full-time jobs, looking after family members, and volunteering in community or campus organizations while they work toward a degree. The struggling part-time student enrolled at Northwest State University’s Anywhere Branch Satellite Campus is far more typical of American college students than the screaming, hyper-privileged co-ed on the Yale quad. Most college students remain normal, reasonable young people—though the loudest voices have undoubtedly had a disproportionate effect.

The author’s evenhandedness seems to desert him, though, in his discussion of Middle East Studies programs, in which he sides with the defenders against the detractors, who charge that these programs are biased and politicized. He says too little about the role social media play in campus political turmoil. And he ignores the issue of hoax racial incidents, an underreported scandal. Zimmerman has done an admirable job of showing why minority students might feel aggrieved or excluded and why white students report that they are “walking on eggshells, always afraid of being called racist.” Surely hoaxes do nothing to alleviate either situation.

Zimmerman concludes with a heartening vote in favor of the sort of robust freedom-of-speech protection recently championed at the University of Chicago. “The best route to real civility,” he writes, “turns out to be free speech, which teaches us how to disagree across our differences instead of keeping silent about them.” This vote of confidence in free expression is badly needed in a time when so many faculty seem willing to condone violations of it.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images


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