White supremacist upsurge puts US universities under pressure

Colleges must lead students in critical thinking ‘not protect them’, says one leader

May 24, 2017
Neo-nazis holding American flag. White supremacists
Source: Alamy

Emerson College seemed a curious place for flyers to appear promoting white supremacist organisation American Vanguard.

The university, in the heart of Boston, usually regarded as a liberal city, is ranked friendliest in the country towards gay and lesbian students.

These and other reasons may be precisely why it was targeted, said the university’s president, Lee Pelton, who is black.

“I believe the purpose there was to intimidate our campus with the hope that we would respond or react in a way that they could then use to recruit members broadly,” Dr Pelton added.

The incident highlights the complex new reality for American universities dealing with what research suggests are previously unseen levels of hate on campuses, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president.

A report from the US Anti-Defamation League says that white supremacists have engaged in what the ADL calls an unprecedented campaign to recruit students on campuses. The organisation has confirmed 104 incidents in which campuses were blanketed in white-supremacist literature, more than half since Trump took office in January.

University students are “prime targets”, the ADL report said, because they are still making up their minds about what they believe. White supremacists also consider universities “bastions of anti-white propaganda”, one leader of the movement, Jared Taylor, has written.

That only further complicates universities’ efforts to deal with this issue. Built on a foundation of free speech, some have had to contend with violence among supporters and opponents of controversial speakers. Several have tried to ban speakers, eliciting even more criticism from both left and right – and in the case of the University of California, Berkeley a threat from Mr Trump that its cancellation of a talk by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on safety grounds could endanger its federal government funding.

At Middlebury College, students physically attacked the political scientist Charles Murray, who argues that differences in IQ among races are genetic. And after white supremacist leader Richard Spencer spoke at a hall at Texas A&M University, which had been reserved for him by a private citizen, that institution changed its policy to require that future speakers be sponsored by recognised on-campus groups.

Mr Spencer also appeared at Auburn University using the same strategy – in a room booked under another name – and when the university tried to stop him, a judge granted Mr Spencer an injunction, in effect meaning that the talk would go ahead.

If hate speech is at record levels, so is this reflex by universities to ban provocative speakers, said Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan organisation that defends free expression.

“This is as bad as I’ve seen it,” Mr Shibley said.

Like Dr Pelton, Mr Shibley suggested that white supremacists see universities as places where they can generate publicity for their positions. Much of the white-supremacist activity at US universities has come from outside organisations such as American Vanguard and the group Identity Evropa, dedicated to preserving “white European culture”.

They “know that campuses are places likely to be very hostile to their beliefs, and places where students have and always have had more inclination to engage in activism, and by doing that they can get attention”, Mr Shibley said.

Instead of helping their students to learn to balance opposing views, Mr Shibley added, “a huge number of [universities] are handling this the wrong way”, through what he called “speech-policing”.

There are other ways that universities have been put in corners. When it was disclosed that the head of Identity Evropa was a student at California State University at Stanislaus, angry activists leafleted the campus demanding that he be expelled. They also distributed the telephone numbers of administrators. The university removed the leaflets.

University students are also being enlisted in the fight against extremists. Using grant money from the federal Department of Homeland Security, they are designing social media campaigns to discourage hate.

“We’re trying to get people involved with government in more positive ways,” said Dacia Messing, who studies criminal justice at Metropolitan State University of Denver and is part of a group that won one of these grants. The aim is to “find people on the edge and give them a chance to be heard and talk directly with them about how things aren’t quite so conspiratorial”, she added.

The $10 million-a-year grant programme is continuing under Trump, a department spokesman said, but “is under review”.

At Emerson, said Dr Pelton, the situation is being used as a teachable moment.

“Our job is not to protect to students,” he said. “Our job is to ensure that our students have critical thinking skills that will permit them to engage all ideas with a critical eye.”

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Reader's comments (1)

A more reasoned headline would speak of the political Right pushing back against the sustained push by the Left. Having said that, I'm all for encouraging students to think rather than trying to tell them what to think. Teaching critical thinking and how to evaluate arguments was something practised years ago, even in schools, but has long disappeared. Without the ability to argue cases with reason and logic society risks falling even further into physical confrontation over the most minor of issues.