American colleges and universities are increasingly corporatized. Within the pernicious corporate culture of campuses exists a kind of campus politics, where student activists police expression and activities in order to create “safe spaces” or protect particular marginalized groups from trauma.
While critics of student activists often argue these students are too sensitive or desire coddling, the dynamic demands a larger analysis. Something has changed on campuses to impact activism and the ways in which student groups go about building and trying to win political victories on campus. It has more to do with the way in which campuses have become more tightly controlled by corporate bureaucrats.
To talk about this topic, Freddie deBoer, a writer and academic living in Indiana, joins the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast. He is a continuing lecturer at Purdue University.His work has been published by In These Times, Jacobin, Salon, Los Angeles Times, and POLITICO. He recently had his piece, “Why We Should Fear University, Inc,” published by The New York Times. We spend the entire episode talking about his piece and other related issues, which are symptomatic of the corporatization of American college campuses and universities.
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Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Freddie deBoer.
RANIA KHALEK: Let’s start off by talking about the piece you wrote for The New York Times recently. It’s called “Why We Should Fear University, Inc,” against the corporate taming of the American college. It’s a wonderful piece, and you touch on identity politics on campus and among students, and you connect to the corporatization of universities. Can you start out by explaining your argument?
FREDDIE DEBOER: Anybody who listens to this podcast is probably aware of a whole new mini-genre of essays that are lamenting campus culture — by authors like Jonathan Chait, who I should hasten to say I very much do not like and a whole host of other people. There was a big one in The Atlantic recently called, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” And the argument is that college students these days have a combination of identity politics and a service mentality to education and have grown up in a sort of helicopter parenting kind of households, which have left them incapable to being exposed to ideas they don’t like.
And the idea is that these students are ruining the educational experience because they have politicized every notion of contrary ideas, and sort of forbidden them. So, the idea is if I’m an undergraduate and I don’t like an idea I just declare it politically problematic. I declare that I’m feeling trauma about it, and that I need to find a safe space in which to avoid it.
I felt for a long time as a college educator my whole life, someone who grew up in academic households, someone who has spent his whole life on campus, that there is something to these critiques. There is something changing on campus, and I do think it’s pernicious. But I don’t think that the origins are actually what these people think.
Particularly, as a Marxist, my interest is finding structural and economic causes for these kind of social changes. Base determines superstructure, not the other way around. So to sort of conclude the reason we’ve seen these major changes in colleges is because of the sort of personality defects of undergraduates just seems totally unsupportable to me.
Instead, I argue in the piece that what’s really happening is that the American university has undergone a corporate turn. It’s been undertaking this corporate turn for many decades. By corporatism, I mean that specifically we’re moving from a tradition feudal model of a university system, which is where universities were these loose confederations of academic units that had their own internal rules and policies and cultures, to a corporate model, where you build this immense bureaucratic architecture.
So these schools have an enormous amount of administrators. The number of administrators has increased exponentially over the last several decades. This creates a sort of bureaucratic structure in which every aspect of university life is managed according to the dictates of some administrator, some bureaucrat. And that has interfaced with these claims from students that they’re feeling traumatized, that they’re being victimized by politically unpalatable ideas in a way that causes the university to respond in a legalistic way.
One of the things that we know about bureaucratic structures and that we know about corporate structures, they respond to claims of offense not by looking for what it’s in the best interest for the people who say they’re offended but in a self-defensive way for the institution. So, what’s really happening when you see the rise of things like trigger warnings or safe space—It’s not that the university cares so much about whether their 19-year-old students think that they’ve been traumatized but that they want to avoid legal liability and they want to avoid bad public relations.
And my claim is that this condition ultimately robs those students of their own agency because what ends up happening is students turn to authority to give them permission to protest, to give them permission to resist, rather than organizing from below. That’s my basic point.
KHALEK: You mentioned Jonathan Chait. He’s written about this, and you explained argument he puts out. One thing I have noticed about this is there is this tendency on the left to be in denial about the fact this happening or to really have an analysis about why it’s happening. It leaves it to people like Jonathan Chait to end up being the person writing about how the left is all PC without the analysis you just gave.
DEBOER: Right. A lot of times people resist this narrative because it sounds too much like something a conservative says. This is the thing that happens to me all the time. When I talk about things that have happened in my own life, so things I have specifically encountered on campus, people will often say, well, that sounds like some conservative nerd.
I’ve told stories in the past like, for example, I knew a very sweet and dedicated black kid from Georgia. He was someone who was interested in campus politics, and he confessed to me that he had felt ejected from campus politics because he had once said that he felt that there was something as innate gender differences and this had basically caused him to be chased out of left-wing politics on campus. And, that’s something that actually happened.
The fact that it appears to fit a right-wing narrative of how campus politics works does not mean that it is untrue. And this is part of the problem now is everything is so polarized where anyone who makes arguments like Jon Chait’s or anything that seems like its an argument like Jon Chait’s gets lumped into this anti-PC narrative. Often, it’s sort of regarded as a trojan horse for political conservatism.
KHALEK: Yeah, no, and that’s why I’m really happy you’re writing about what you’re writing about. But you get attacked pretty heavily when you say stuff, especially since you’re this white guy saying it. Did you get attacked for the Times piece?
DEBOER: I should say the overall response was very positive. So, for example, I got a bunch of people attacking me for wanting to repeal Title IX, which is interesting because I don’t think we should repeal Title IX and I did not say that. [laughter] I took a lot of eat in that sort of direction.
A lot of the criticism went like this: Title IX is one of the most effective tools that people have to address gender grievances on campus and so, even if my individual observations are correct, by appearing to go against Title IX, I somehow do the work of conservatism for it. And my response to that is that if you believe in an institution like Title IX, then you need to defend it from its own excesses.
Title IX is just a tool. It is a tool by the way that is enacted by power, by government power, by state power, by bureaucratic power. And so, absolutely, Title IX should endure and people should take advantage of it where they can. But you have to think of it strategically and recognize that it is part of the same power structure that we’re fighting.
KHALEK: That’s a good point because one of the things about using it tactically is if you’re not, if you’re doing things—I know with the one teacher who was sued by female students because she wrote about rape in a way they did not like—There’s always this potential of it being used against you.
The issue I write about most is Israel/Palestine. And one thing that pro-Israel organizations on campus have done is they’ve started to use Title IX-like legislation to sue pro-Palestine groups claiming they’re creating an unsafe environment for Jewish students. It doesn’t always work, but it does lead to shutting down debate on campus.
There is this potential of it being used not just by pro-Israel students but also conservative students. If students on the left start demanding safe spaces, like some of them are, and wanting to shut things down, what’s to stop someone from shutting me down, like a conservative group from shutting me down when I go speak on a campus?
DEBOER: I think one of the real problems we have on the left is—Look, there has been some real progress made. I think there’s a lot of really interesting and vital grassroots and left-wing organizing going on right now. But I think that some people have mistaken the fact that the media has fallen in love with things like the vocabulary of intersectional politics, for example. And they mistake that for an enduring kind of political victory.
Part of what I try to bring to the table is the weight of history. So, I grew up at Wesleyan University, which for those who don’t know is one of the kind of most freakiest left-wing schools in the country. It was the basis of PCU, which is a movie skewering left-wing political culture. In fact, the movie was written by one of my father’s students. And I also come from a long line—
I was a campus activist. When people assume I just want to denigrate campus activists, I was a thirty-hour a week antiwar activist when I was a college student, which wasn’t that long ago. And I have come up through these movements before and so one of these things that I know about students who are very strident activists on campus is they have a tendency to burn out and became apolitical.
So, some of my former antiwar comrades—Very few of them have gone the full 180 and become Republicans, but what’s happened to a ton of them is they’ve become these kind of apolitical liberals who don’t really engage in politics at all. Because when you engage in this way and when you are seeking out offense wherever you can, that’s not a sustainable path.
One of the things I’m trying to tell people is this is not a unique moment where the left is about to win this guaranteed victory. Politics is cyclical. In the early ’90s at my father’s campus, a lot of the things that are happening today were happening then and then there was a backlash. And we need to think about what happens in the future when this stops being cool, right? When the social side of politics turns again and suddenly we’re on the defensive again when there’s a Republican in the White House—and there will be eventually.
How are we going to these tools? Anything that we create, the structures of offense that we create, the other side has the ability to take advantage of as well.
GOSZTOLA: What about this campaign to get rid of the student newspaper at Wesleyan University simply because it happened to publish a conservative op-ed that Black Lives Matter students or students sympathetic to Black Lives Matter were upset by? How do you view this happening on a campus?
DEBOER: Having grown up on Wesleyan, I spent my whole life surrounded by Wesleyan students—
KHALEK: My condolences
DEBOER: —No, it’s alright. I actually have a lot of admiration for many of them. As ridiculous as many of them can be, there’s a lot of good things about them. I first learned about Israel and Palestine. I first learned about Palestinian solidarity as a 14-year-old hanging out with some of my father’s students. I first learned about all kinds of political campaigns that we’re going on. It’s like, you know, these people are 18, 19, and 20-years-old, and they don’t always have the best perspective on things.
I really classic thing about Wesleyan is you have people who make really principled arguments against racism and sexism and who fight injustice in their political lives, but then they go into the community in which I grew up, the town in which Wesleyan is located, and they will berate a waiter for taking too long to bring their food. Or, they’ll use the word townie, which is like a comma for Wesleyan students. And townie is a term loaded with class-bias.
So, this newspaper thing—I’m disappointed but not surprised. But, again, it really demonstrates what I am talking about in the New York Times piece, which is these students had a problem with something published in the paper. They didn’t go and start a grassroots campaign by leafleting. They didn’t start their own alternative newspaper, which I think would be a fantastic idea. They didn’t try to sort of say here’s why you’re wrong and here’s why you’re right. They immediately moved to defund the paper, which means they immediately went and they appealed to authority. Their first instinct is to appeal to authority and say fix this for us and not we’re going to fix this on our own.
And that’s exactly what I am talking about. I mean, Black Lives Matter is a rejection of establishment power, among other things. It’s a movement that says the rot within our society, the racism and the rot, comes from within its institutions, and we need to start a ground-up grassroots movement to replace those institutions.
I find it very telling and very depressing that these students say to themselves not we’re going to replace The Argus, which is the newspaper in question, with our own institutions, but they rather say let’s go find power and make a request of power. And that’s exactly what I am talking about. It’s a kind of activism predicated on the idea that you make change not by tearing down old systems but by appealing to people at the top of those systems.
GOSZTOLA: Then, in line with the piece you wrote, The Argus responds [to student outrage] in a way that a corporation might respond because they want to repair their image.
DEBOER: Right, exactly. So it becomes a public relations campaign, and what gets lost in the public relations fight is the actual vital ideas that are hidden underneath. So, look at the Laura Kipnis that Rania mentioned before.
Laura Kipnis was the Northwestern University professor, who published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She said that she felt there was a Puritanical or Victorian sexual politics on campus, and that she didn’t think that relationships on campus between professors and students were necessarily all bad. She had Title IX cases filed against her.
When the Title IX cases got filed, everything got sucked up into the legal apparatus. If a student makes a claim, a Title IX claim, the federal government is obligated by law to respond. The university is obligated by law to respond. And so what happens is instead of this sort of grassroots resistance to what Kipnes said to the students, it all got handed to a series of bureaucrats. It became a lawyers’ problem. So, that vital energy—whether you believe with the protesters or not, and I didn’t—but that sort of vital protest energy got diverted into this administrative mechanism.
All of a sudden, instead of a bunch of students who are reacting and resisting Laura Kipnes’ message, it’s about a bunch of university lawyers and government lawyers and Laura Kipnes’ lawyers and representation hashing it out in a legalistic way. And that is fundamental failure for the left-wing because we need to speak for the human side of things that come up from the bottom, not from the top-down administrative side.
KHALEK: One thing that I found kind of funny that you said but it’s totally true in your piece is you mention, despite all these attempts to create safe spaces, you pass by a fraternity house and you’ll just have a deluge of epithets thrown at you just for walking by. Because fraternity houses are just cesspools of gross awful people. It’s not necessarily changing that dynamic whatsoever. It’s just this inter-left thing it seems in the social sciences specifically.
DEBOER: I often think of the left these days as the middle brother, who gets hit by the older brother. The middle brother knows that he can’t hit the older brother so he turns around and punches the younger brother.
If you go to an academic conference these days, people tend to be walking around on eggshells totally afraid of giving offense because we’ve developed these systems to completely police our own behavior for anything that could be potentially presented as threatening or harmful or offensive.
Meanwhile, on campus, there are these giant houses which every Friday and Saturday night get filled with a bunch of drunken teenagers, who take advantage of each other, who say horrible racial slurs, who say horribly homophobic things. Because we tighten our grasp on those places we do control, and, meanwhile, the biggest problems are in the places we don’t control.
The frat kids don’t care if you quote bell hooks at them. Intersectional politics has no bearing in the frat house, and that’s the problem the left can’t confront right now. It just grasps more and more tightly on the people that already agree with it, and it punishes the people who step out a little bit of line. But the actual conservative power base, actual reactionary power, exists in a completely different realm.
Because we don’t have any other tactics now other than social shaming, because the only thing we know how to do is get our gang together on Twitter and say we don’t think you’re one of the cool kids, that means that anyone who doesn’t give a shit about what you say on Twitter becomes someone we can’t reach. And that’s the fundamental problem.
GOSZTOLA: One thing I was wondering if you would address is the other side, which is the guests or the speakers who come to campus. One thing that gets a lot of attention among the left-wing are comics or artists, who talk about not wanting to go to a college campus or university because they’ll be shamed. They’re afraid of being socially shamed for using the wrong phrases or words. On one hand, you have lefty people suggesting they’re probably going to say something racist or ignorant and they don’t want to be held responsible for those thoughts.
On the other side, they’re worried they’re not going to get the chance to speak and do what they do for a living as a professional. So, how do you negotiate this issue in campus life?
DEBOER: I think one of the big things to point out is all of this presumes that people from out groups are so incredibly vulnerable and weak that they can’t exist on a college campus, where they know somebody out there is saying something ignorant or stupid.
I think that Bill Maher is a total asshole. I would never pay any money to go and see him. I think it is insulting to the character of Muslim students to think that if he goes and he gives a show on campus those Muslim students are so weak and so vulnerable they can’t even exist in the geographic proximity of him as he is saying those things.
Once upon a time, our argument was that people from these groups were strong. We used to argue that people of color were strong. We used to argue that women were strong. We used to argue that disabled people were strong.
When you have this kind of offense detective mentality, when you’re always looking for anything that might harm the feelings of people, what you’re presuming is that those people can’t possibly live in a world in which they might be occasionally offended or insulted. I think that is a terrible way to proceed.
There was a piece on the website Everyday Feminism that said we should always avoid saying phrases like, “I see what you mean,” or, “I stand with you,” because those things are ableist. So, the idea is that a disabled person, someone who can’t stand, someone who has a disability, will hear, “I stand with you,” and that will offend that person so much that it will hurt them and cause them trauma.
Whatever else you want to say about that notion, it presumes the utter weakness of the people you claim to be speaking for. And that’s such an inherently insulting kind of point of view on what it means to be a person from an out group right now, where we are representing in bulk people as being necessarily unable to deal with the world as it actually exists because they come from marginalize groups. I think that’s very wrongheaded and very insulting.
For the rest of the interview with Freddie deBoer, listen to the full interview here.