I have long been a critic of Northwestern University and its president Morton Schapiro for policies undermining free speech and academic freedom. In the past, I have contrasted the vastly different approaches of my two alma maters, Northwestern and University of Chicago, the latter taking a courageous stand in favor of free speech rights. Chicago rejected the premise of safe zones on its campus. Conversely, Schapiro has ridiculed those questioning the need for “safe zones” as “lunatics” and denounced “absolutist” views of free speech. At the same time, his school has refused to discipline students who prevent professors from teaching objectionable classes. Now, Northwestern students have moved from attacking classes on campus to assaulting police in downtown Evanston. Schapiro is expressing shock at the conduct despite his controversial history of enabling students who are intolerant of opposing views.
Students were calling for the disbanding of the Northwestern police department and marched into downtown Evanston. They proceeded to hurl “rocks and bricks at police officers,” point lasers at police officers’ eyes to blind them, and damage property.
Schapiro called such acts an “abomination.”
After years of ridiculing free speech advocates, Schapiro found his own home being defaced and picketed. It is a cycle that has become familiar as those who enabled such conduct in the past have found themselves denounced as reactionaries.
Schapiro never supported violence and correctly condemned the recent attacks on businesses and police. However, he has long been one of the most prominent advocates of protections from free speech rather than for free speech on campus. He is viewed by many as yielding to the rising intolerance on campus while treating the exercise free speech as potentially harmful to students. This includes his advocacy of “safe zones” to protect students from the trauma and harm caused by dissenting views or opposing values. Under his leadership, Northwestern has been given the lowest rating for the protection of free speech by groups like FIRE. While he later walked back calling free speech advocates “idiots” in a commencement speech, he remains one of most vocal voices against free speech protections.
My principal objection however is to environment that he has created on campus by his failure to lead and to act. I previously discussed the incident involving a Sociology 201 class by Professor Beth Redbird. The class examined “inequality in American society with an emphasis on race, class and gender.” Redbird came up with an interesting comparison for her students by inviting both an undocumented person and a spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to separate classes. Members of MEChA de Northwestern, Black Lives Matter NU, the Immigrant Justice Project, the Asian Pacific American Coalition, NU Queer Trans Intersex People of Color and Rainbow Alliance organized to stop other students from hearing from the ICE representative. However, they could not have succeeded without the help of Northwestern administrators (including Dean of Students Todd Adams). The protesters were screaming “F**k ICE” outside of the hall. Adams and the other administrators then said that the protesters screaming profanities would be allowed into the class if they promised not to disrupt the class. They promised not to disrupt the class. As soon as the protesters were allowed into the classroom, they prevented the ICE representative from speaking. The ICE representatives eventually left and Redbird canceled the class to discuss the issue with the protesters that just prevented her students from hearing an opposing view.
The comments of the Northwestern students were predictable after being told by people like Schapiro that some offensive speech should be treated as a form of assault. SESP sophomore April Navarro rejected that faculty should be allowed to invite such speakers to their classrooms for a “good, nice conversation with ICE.” She insisted such speakers needed to be silenced because they “terrorize communities” and profit from detainee labor. Here is the face of the new generation of censors being shaped by speech-intolerant academics like Schapiro:
“We’re not interested in having those types of conversations that would be like, ‘Oh, let’s listen to their side of it’ because that’s making them passive rule-followers rather than active proponents of violence. We’re not engaging in those kinds of things; it legitimizes ICE’s violence, it makes Northwestern complicit in this. There’s an unequal power balance that happens when you deal with state apparatuses.”
These students were identified in interviews by name. They had no fear of any consequence in stopping a professor from teaching a class at Northwestern. They were right. The official response to students shutting down a class to silence an opposing view resulted in a statement that the actions of the students were “disappointing that the speakers were not allowed to speak.”
The environment on campus has become increasingly confessional and cringing. We recently discussed how the Northwestern Law Dean declared publicly “I am James Speta and I am a racist.” He was followed by Emily Mullin, executive director of major gifts, who said, “I am a racist and a gatekeeper of white supremacy. I will work to be better.”
Yet, it is the disruptions of classes and events that is most unnerving at Northwestern. The University was finally compelled to act when students prevented former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, including forcing their way through windows and doors in a takeover of the event. As we discussed, one of the students declared “There’s a limitation to free speech. That ends at overtly racist old white dudes.” The response from Northwestern? Small fines. That’s right. So students stop an event with a former cabinet member and, according to a university statement, a “small number of individuals” were each given $125 citations by the department for interfering with certain duties of a police officer. When students on campus sought to pass a simple resolution over the denial of free speech on campus this year, it was tabled by the student government. When the student newspaper simply covered disruptions of student events by protesters, the editors from The Daily were forced to apologize for their coverage. The objection was that the photos and coverage of students taking over the events were “retraumatizing and intrusive.”
It now appears that Schapiro has moved from the “disappointing” to the “abomination” stage. It only took his own house to be defaced and police to be attacked in the streets of Evanston.