The New Face of Campus Unrest

Students anonymously bullying teachers online in class? Not the enhanced learning we had in mind. by MORTON SCHAPIRO

In 2001 I co-wrote an op-ed, “When Protests Proceed at Internet Speed,” arguing that the Internet would make it much more difficult to maintain civility on college campuses. Economists have a dismal prediction record, but that one was spot on. Seemingly every day brings a new crisis, a new set of issues that threatens to disrupt the lives of students, professors—and college presidents.

The explosion of social media has taken this disruption to a level unforeseen in the digital dark ages of 14 years ago. Dealing with campus community members on Facebook,Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Vine and Yik Yak has become a high-stakes challenge, and who knows what will emerge next? At issue, as it often is on America’s campuses, is the limit to free expression.

ENLARGE

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Three professors at Eastern Michigan University were recently attacked during class on Yik Yak, a smartphone app that allows folks within a limited geographical range to share anonymous messages. Upon seeing those comments, which apparently included insults concerning sexuality and appearance, one of the professors threatened to resign. Cyberbullying by students while a teacher is up in front of the class? Not exactly what we had hoped for in using new communication tools to enhance classroom learning.

The other day officials at the University of Rochester demanded that Yik Yak identify the names and email addresses of students who posted racially offensive and threatening comments or advocated burning down part of the campus. And don’t forget the racist YouTube video that went viral, leading to the expulsion of two students at the University of Oklahoma on March 10.

Any attempt to hold people accountable for what they say will rile up the “free speech at any cost” advocates, but any defense of First Amendment rights will lead to campus unrest and hand-wringing. So where to draw that elusive line?

I’m not a lawyer; few university presidents are. But most of us have access to high-powered legal advisers. Sometimes state and federal laws are clear enough to make the decision, but usually they are not. And don’t expect to find agreement among your senior administrators. In a crisis the interests of those in student affairs, public relations, the legal counsel’s office, fundraising and faculty governance seldom align.

What’s a president to do? I have learned over 15 years in this job at two institutions that you better have a compelling reason to punish anyone—student, faculty member, staff member—for expressing his or her views, regardless of how repugnant you might find those views.

Freedom of speech doesn’t amount to much unless it is tested. And if the First Amendment doesn’t matter on college campuses, where self-expression is so deeply valued, why expect it to matter elsewhere?

A decade or so ago, I returned from Shabbat services at my synagogue to learn that a student had hung posters mocking the Holocaust Remembrance Day posters distributed in the dorms. The message had been turned into a celebration of Hitler’s birthday; the picture of concentration camp victims had for some reason been replaced by a marijuana leaf. It is hard to imagine a more disgusting display.

But here is the question we asked: Did the student hang those posters randomly, or instead single out the rooms of members of groups targeted by the Nazis such as Jews, blacks and gays? If it had been the latter, it might have constituted verbal assault. But it was the former, and in our view that was protected free speech. This wasn’t an easy decision, or perhaps the most expedient, but it was the right one.

Northwestern University’s student government recently approved a resolution requesting that the university divest from six companies that “are profiting off the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.” Many alumni found this highly offensive. Meantime, a faculty member wrote a controversial op-ed that questioned new policies on relationships between professors and students.

It might be relevant to remind people that elected student representatives have every right to recommend whatever they want, just as the administration has every right not to abide by what they suggest, and aggrieved students have a process to adjudicate harassment charges against a faculty member. It seems inappropriate to me for a college president to comment on a student vote or faculty op-ed, but I understand why others might disagree.

While I wish there were accepted principles to guide every response, I don’t know of any. Presidents are regularly asked how we would have responded to a particular incident. When we deflect the question, some think we are closing ranks. But I’m often not sure what I would have done.

The context of an incident matters, and it is near impossible for outsiders to glean the facts during the public battles that ensue after a high-profile event. College community members deserve to be in a safe and supportive environment, and it is our job to nurture that environment.

Yet any time your actions supersede a defining national tenet such as free speech, you better be sure you are making the right call. Whatever the decision, critics will come out in force—with social media leading the way and making a trying situation even more challenging.

Mr. Schapiro is president and professor of economics at Northwestern University.