When it was first posted last month, I had little desire to respond to a blog post in which Oklahoma Wesleyan University president Everett Piper railed against “victimization” culture on American college campuses. To an anonymous OKWU student who was apparently upset that a recent chapel talk about love (1 Cor 13) “made him feel bad for not showing love,” Piper was unapologetically unsympathetic:
If you want the chaplain to tell you you’re a victim rather than tell you that you need virtue, this may not be the university you’re looking for. If you want to complain about a sermon that makes you feel less than loving for not showing love, this might be the wrong place.
“This is not a day care. This is a university!”, he concluded.
Piper, as you may recall, withdrew his institution from the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) this past August, angry that its board hadn’t acted more swiftly to expel Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University after they decided to begin hiring LGBT employees. I feel like I’ve given him enough of my attention already this year.
Even after conservative commentator Rod Dreher then declared Piper “A Man Among Boys” for daring to “to stand up and push back against the student bullies, instead of grovel and coddle them,” even after Piper got the attention of The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times, I was still ready to ignore him.
But on Tuesday the post showed up twice on my Facebook timeline. First, a colleague complained that too many of his friends were sharing Piper’s “reprehensible” post without understanding the larger context of his behavior earlier this year. But second, a member of my extended family shared it — without comment, but having read some of her earlier posts, I knew that she was sympathetic to Piper’s concerns about “trigger warnings” and “safe places.”
So by the time a friend popped his head into my office yesterday afternoon to ask what I thought of “the Oklahoma Wesleyan post,” I was already 2000 words into my response.
While it will soon become clear that I am largely in agreement with my colleague who vented his frustration on Facebook, I do understand where my relative is coming from. Like me, she was a humanities major at a major national university; like me, she values the liberal arts, academic freedom, and having students encounter a wide diversity of viewpoints at a formative stage in their lives. Like her, I’ve been troubled by some of the excesses of anti-racism protests at institutions like Yale, Amherst, Smith, Claremont McKenna, Occidental, and the University of Missouri.
In general, I agree with David Cole that such activism underscores the importance of First Amendment freedoms like speech, petition, and assembly. But the demands and behavior of some of these activists have run counter to the same freedoms: e.g., the Yale student made infamous for her profane silencing of a Yale professor; the Amherst students who demanded disciplinary action against fellow students who posted free speech and “All Lives Matter” posters; the Missouri professor who tried forcibly to prevent a student photojournalist from reporting on a gathering in a public space; the Smith students who barred reporters from covering a sit-in, since “By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight.”
“This is a university!” ought to be a rallying cry for free expression, including dissent, protest, and the critique of dissent and protest. Here I’m sympathetic to students and other constituents who are trying to draw attention to the ways that university structures and cultures sustain racism — and to African-American scholars like Randall Kennedy and George Yancey, who have tried to complicate this narrative.
But this wasn’t Piper’s concern. Instead, he fixed attention on what he saw as a growing generational problem, exemplified by the student discomfited by the chapel talk on love:
Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic. Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims. Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”
…At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered. We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge. We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict. We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin. We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue “trigger warnings” before altar calls.
Here too, Piper is not alone. This week Inside Higher Ed reported that a survey of professors belonging to the Modern Language Association and College Art Association revealed considerable concerns about one of the practices Piper mentioned: 60% of respondents saw trigger warnings as dangerous for academic freedom and contrary to good pedagogy.
Or consider the arguments of one of the most prominent academic critics of recent student activism: social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Even before the protests at Yale and other schools, Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff warned of “The Coddling of the American Mind” in a prominent article in The Atlantic. They described a movement “arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Unlike earlier movements for “political correctness…
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
Now, the same survey I mentioned above also revealed that only 1% of respondents were required to use trigger warnings, and no more than 15% have even received requests for such warnings from their own students. The same college and university presidents that Dreher ridiculed have rightly rejected the worst of student demands in recent weeks. And, in any case, I think we ought to hesitate to take what’s happened at places like Yale and Amherst as evidence of broader trends in all of higher ed. (There’s a good argument to be made that what we’re actually seeing is some unraveling of the unhealthy culture of elite colleges. But that’s another post…)
But here’s what really bothers me about Piper’s post:
While it’s clearly intended to show strong leadership, it actually represents a failure of leadership.
“The first responsibility of a leader,” goes an already-tired maxim, “is to define reality.”
If so, then the job of every leader at this point in the 21st century is to find a way to communicate the following:
The world is complicated.
There is no easy solution.
And yet we need to make decisions consistent with our values.
We see evidence of failure in this respect every day in America’s seemingly endless presidential campaign. Now, I think that politicians across the spectrum are susceptible to this problem, but it’s been particularly true of the Republicans in the current field, for whom no answer seems too unsubtle. It’s the perfect climate for a demagogue like Donald Trump, who feeds angry unreality to the fearful and calls it leadership.
But if the political version of this is to suggest that building walls and registering Muslims will provide security (or that ignoring climate change will resolve that particular problem), then the equivalent in higher education is to set up false binaries about the nature of learning:
Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them. This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.
As I’ve written before, Christian colleges (not uniquely, but in particular) regularly present themselves as “safe places” — “safe” in that there’s less abuse of alcohol and drugs and less sexual violence on such campuses, but also (for some of them) that conservative parents can rest assured that their children will be “safe” from the values and ideas of secular culture. And in a myriad of ways, Christian colleges do teach students that life is about them — their preferences, their time, their flexibility, their future earnings…
Yet such schools also are places to learn. And I do believe that being convicted of sin is part of what it means to learn in such settings. As I told our community at the start of the current semester, “your time at Bethel should convince you of this: you, the body of Christ, are both crucified and crucifying. If pain and suffering afflict the world, it’s at least partly of Christian making.” The Christian liberal arts, I argued, ought to convict “us of how we, the body of Christ, extend the crucifixion into our own time.”
However, the ultimate purpose of a chapel talk or any other educational “altar call” is not “to make you feel bad,” but to turn you towards Jesus Christ. (A name mentioned not even once by Piper.) The “primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith” is not “your confession,” but your conversion.
And sin, like holiness (as I’d hope the leader of a Wesleyan institution should know), is both personal and social.
So this claim from Piper begs to be noticed: “We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin.” Yes — and yet we live in a society in which it’s abundantly clear that race continues to matter a great deal. Christian colleges need to name and address that reality. Instead, Piper simply waved aside the problem; for him, student anti-racism seems little more than one version of victimization culture. (“Anyone who dares challenge them is… [among other terms he listed] a ‘bigot’…..”)
Asked about his post by the New York Times, Piper said that it wasn’t meant to be about race, but a black student activist at Mizzou was understandably upset: “Growing up as a Christian myself, I can’t imagine Jesus writing a letter like that.”
For indeed, black lives matter. Not because others don’t, but because so many lingering disparities suggest that, decades after desegregation and a century and a half after abolition, those whose ancestors could be enslaved or terrorized on account of their skin color can continue to expect injustice, even at the hands of those whose job it is to enforce justice.
Now, it’s worth noting that (by 2012 IPEDS data) Oklahoma Wesleyan has proportionally more students of color than most of its former CCCU peers: one in four vs. one in five. But both figures are far below the national rates for higher education. (It’s not at all evident that most Christian colleges feel “safe” to students — or employees — of color.) And I can’t shake the memory of this tweet from Everett Piper, offered just before he pulled OKWU out of the CCCU over sexuality:
Why was he already suspicious of the CCCU? Piper linked to a post by Eric Teetsel, who argued that the CCCU “has come to function as an outlet promoting the same progressive agenda found at most American institutions of higher education.” In particular, Teetsel (recently hired by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio) criticized the Council for hosting a conference on racial and cultural diversity. Piper added that he and his institution “declined attendance at this conference because of this very thing.”
It’s bad enough that Piper would quit the CCCU rather than help its membership to deal with the challenges of reconciling fidelity to Scripture with love of (LGBT) neighbor, and Christian conviction with Christian unity. But his “Day Care” blog post shows him to be uninterested in complexity of other sorts.
I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I don’t know what other conclusions to reach:
Confusing defiance for courage, statements like Piper’s pander to a segment of the population that refuses to accept that America is still shaped, to some extent, by its original sin. This from a leader whose actions in the CCCU debate served to position his school to appeal to a segment of the Christian population that is unwilling to have a much-needed conversation about one of the most pressing, complicated issues of the day.
In a country undergoing the kind of demographic, cultural, and intellectual change that the United States is experiencing right now, we desperately need leaders who are comfortable with complexity.
We need politicians, university presidents, CEOs, clergy, community organizers, and others who will take the time to listen to multiple narratives, to empathize with diverse members of divided communities, and to hold ideas in tension. We need leaders who can do all this and yet still make prudent decisions that extend long-held values forward into a fast-changing future.
If anyone should be equipped for this kind of leadership, it’s people who follow a God of paradoxes. As Richard Hughes writes of Luther’s theology of the cross, “In this upside-down world of redemption, life emerges from the throes of death, the first are last and the last are first, and the Christian is the one who is simultaneously justified and a sinner” (How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, p. 88). The leaders of this kingdom are servants, of their enemies as much as anyone. They hold convictions, in utter humility.
Rather than hold up a young adult for ridicule, they confess their own sins. And, in the process, they confess a Lord who made people feel at once uncomfortable and loved.