Consumerism meets identity politics
This is Part 2 of a two-part series. The first examined Oberlin College’s “Jewish problem.”
When Nathan Heller’s “Letter from Oberlin: The Big Uneasy” appeared in The New Yorker (May 30) his sub-headline asked: “What’s roiling the liberal-arts campus?”
At least for some Jewish students, Oberlin’s obstacles to Jewish life are signs of two roiling processes: “identity politics” and higher education’s drift toward business models in which students primarily are customers.
From its origins in 1833, Oberlin College has been at the forefront of social changes. In particular, no institution in the United States has an older coeducational baccalaureate program. As well, before the Civil War, members of the Oberlin community were active in movements to abolish slavery. The college advertises that it “regularly admitted African American students beginning in 1835.”
Oberlin’s avant-garde history influences student applications and admissions, as well as faculty recruitment – and some unexpected campus activities. For example, in December 2015, unnamed members of the Africana community referred to Oberlin’s legacy and/or public relations when they delivered to the administration an undated multi-page list of “demands not suggestions,” which included a “four percent annual increase in black student enrolment”; “divestment from all prisons and Israel”; “that spaces throughout the Oberlin College campus be designated as [segregated] safe space for Africana identifying students” (exclusively?); that several professors (identified by name) should be subject to “immediate firing”; and that other professors should be given preferential treatment.
Oberlin College proclaims efforts to ameliorate affronts or afflictions perceived by cohorts such as African-Americans, Muslims, students with physical handicaps and non-heterosexual students. A “Campus Climate Report” (May 19, 2016) also includes a section on problems experienced by some Jewish students, but does not specifically deal with reports that “progressive” protesters who confront other forms of bigotry often deny the significance of antisemitism.
This phenomenon occurs on other campuses, too.
In August, the Washington Post published an op-ed focused on “an Iranian Jew,” Arielle Mokhtarzadeh, who traveled “to attend the annual Students of Color Conference” at the University of California, Berkeley. There she found: “Over the course of what was probably no longer than an hour, my history was denied, the murder of my people was justified, and a movement whose sole purpose is the destruction of the Jewish homeland was glorified. Statements were made justifying the ruthless murder of innocent Israeli civilians, blatantly denying Jewish indigeneity in the land, and denying the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered.”
Also in the Post, Molly Harris, a student at McGill University, addressed students just beginning post-secondary education: “Get ready to meet new people, learn things that fascinate you, and figure out who you are and who you want to be.
“If you’re Jewish, you should probably also prepare yourself for the various forms of anti-Israel sentiment, and maybe even antisemitism, you’re likely to encounter on your new college campus.
“In the past year alone, as a Jewish student at McGill University in Montreal, I’ve been called a ‘Zionist b—.’ I’ve been told several times that Jews haven’t suffered (never mind the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms and centuries of violence and marginalization leading up to the Holocaust). I’ve seen my friends mocked for their Judaism in crude, hateful language on popular anonymous social media platforms.”
Following his May “Letter from Oberlin,” Heller again wrote in The New Yorker (Sept. 1): “Students … may try out defensive ethno-racial flag waving, religious and political dogmas, athletic and fraternal self-segregation…. My work elsewhere has made me think that this isn’t just an Oberlin, or liberal, thing.”
Indeed, on Aug. 5, the New York Times printed a front-page article about racial and identity politics at many campuses. This reporting was not about Oberlin, but it named other “small, selective liberal arts colleges” as well as Ivy League universities. An Amherst graduate said, “As an alumnus of the college, I feel that I have been lied to, patronized and basically dismissed as an old, white bigot….”
But perhaps Oberlin still is a cultural leader. In an Aug. 27 article, the Times mentioned Oberlin as a counter example to the University of Chicago, which sent first-year students a letter saying Chicago did not support “trigger warnings” and did not condone “safe spaces” nor disruptions of speakers. (Disclosure: I was a Chicago faculty member from 1968 to 1970.)
In Frank Bruni’s June 23 New York Times essay about Oberlin – as one of the campuses “roiled the most by struggles over political correctness” – he wrote: “Students at Oberlin and their counterparts elsewhere might not behave in such an emboldened fashion if they did not feel so largely in charge. Their readiness to press for rules and rituals to their liking suggests the extent to which they have come to act as customers – the ones who set the terms, the ones who are always right – and the degree to which they are treated that way.”
Bruni built upon a poignant essay about “Customer Mentality,” written in February 2014 for Inside Higher Ed by a Western Carolina University assistant professor of English, Nate Kreuter. When students transformed into customers, Kreuter observed concomitant re-purposing of campus infrastructure, curriculum and faculty.
Bruni provided photographs of water parks with pools and slides on campuses, and described campus entertainment complexes, golf putting greens and other resort-like amenities. He also wrote: “Small wonder that grade inflation is so pronounced and rampant, with A’s easy to come by and anything below a B-minus rare.”
Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore, told Bruni: “There’s a big difference between teaching students and serving customers.”
Kreuter in 2014 noted that the student-as-customer business model had adverse consequences within and beyond academic programs: “The impulse to protect the brand also frequently compels universities to shirk responsibility when missteps or scandals occur, rather than immediately taking responsibility and corrective action.” He argued that administrators may “protect the brand” in instances of “high-profile college athlete crime” or sexual assaults or injuries from fraternity hazing.
A Times essay (Sept. 4, 2016) by a Yale faculty member, Jim Sleeper, argued that right-wing “wealthy donors” exaggerate negative impacts of political correctness, while they promote more potent poisons. But he also agreed that: “Most university leaders serve … pressures to satisfy student ‘customers’ and to avoid negative publicity, liability and losses in ‘brand’ or ‘market share.’…”
Oberlin College’s publicists like to recall the institution’s abolitionist era rather than its place in the history of the Anti-Saloon League and Prohibition. So perhaps it is not surprising that Prof. Joy Karega could post anti-Jewish materials and conspiracy theories for many months, and that Oberlin administrators and trustees reacted only last March, after Karega generated condemnation both online and in worldwide print media – likely to harm Oberlin’s brand.
At the University of Lethbridge, Prof. Anthony Hall’s “globalization studies” promoted “open debate on the Holocaust” and claims that the 2001 destruction of New York’s World Trade Centre was a “Zionist job.” Administrators tolerated Hall for 26 years – suspending him only this month, after news stories about “possible violations of the Alberta Human Rights Act.”
During my one-to-one conversation with Oberlin College president Marvin Krislov in April, he told me that many students gave Karega high ratings. From a marketing perspective, favorable student evaluations may help justify annual tuition above $51,000 – costs above $66,000 including room and board. But if students give high ratings to a predilection for bigotry and conspiracy theories (and lack of scholarly accomplishment) then something has gone wrong with their education.
Bruni’s essay asked, “But what does the customer model [of college students] do to their actual education?” One Oberlin graduate responding to The Atlantic in December 2015 wrote: “There is now an atmosphere of close-mindedness, intellectual submission, conformity and fear.”
College and university emphasis on marketing to customers likely is linked to cost.
Tuition – and every other post-secondary education expense – has increased at a pace beyond general inflation (or household income gains). Consequently, total student debt in the United States now is about $1.2 trillion, according to the August Forbes – exceeding total credit card debt or the total of automobile financing in the entire American population.
This precarious state of affairs may be a response to reported correlation between higher education and greater lifetime earnings or lower unemployment; but correlation does not indicate cause and effect. Bruni refers to “an expectation among many students that their purchase of a college education should be automatically redeemable for a job….” But, as Kreuter wrote, “A post-secondary education is not a guarantee of success. It is not the straightforward purchase of a better future. It never has been.”
At Oberlin, in fact, the student newspaper published an article in March 2014 stating that “40% of [our] 2013 graduates are unemployed, and one-third of graduates are working in positions that do not require a degree.”
Of course, many Oberlin students and graduates have priorities other than high-income jobs; but one unidentified correspondent, writing to The Atlantic in December 2015, stated: “Oberlin students [do] want what other college students are asking for, whether they phrase it this way or not: better control of the college’s money.”
Oberlin, unlike most American campuses, has no fraternities or sororities. Historically, students lived in residences supervised by the administration, which also oversees most meals. So, students see what Oberlin does with funds for their food. But why have many top-tier media published articles discussing campus food complaints at the college?
The emphasis of complaints has not been that the food tastes bad, has dubious nutritional value, etc. Oberlin food complaints instead focus on meals that particular students deem to be culturally inappropriate or disrespectful. Mainstream media regard Oberlin’s food criticisms as curiosities sufficiently ludicrous to entertain a wide range of readers; but these cultural food fights are quite logical outcomes when the student-as-customer model meets racial and identity politics at the topic of food.
Likewise, identity issues can lead students to denounce “cultural appropriation,” not only in meals, but also in other aspects of life – clothing, terminology, music, books, even the curriculum. Novelist Lionel Shriver says that, if she did not reject criticisms of “cultural appropriation” in literature, then “all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old, five-foot-two-inch white women from North Carolina.”
And, as customers, students can demand not to take certain courses. At Oberlin, one of the “unmalleable” demands in December 2015 was that, in the Oberlin Conservatory, “seeing as how most jazz students are of the Africana community they should not be forced to take courses rooted in whiteness” of classical music.
In the New York Times, Krislov wrote: “American higher education is at a crossroads, as it was in the 1960s when college students were galvanized by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.”
But I do not accept that anti-Zionist petitions or Africana demands for specific foods and segregated “safe spaces” in Oberlin buildings somehow are comparable to my classmates’ efforts in the 1960s civil rights movement and later protests against U.S. war policy in Vietnam. (On the campus of Kent State, one of Oberlin’s neighbors, U.S. National Guard troops shot and killed unarmed students during anti-war protests in May 1970.)
In spring of 2016, one student on the cusp of graduation said, “I’m going home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”
Marc Chafetz explained – in the New York Times – why that remark disturbed him: “I graduated 41 years ago…. Oberlin changed me profoundly. I found out how little I actually knew about the world, and it unleashed a hunger to learn that has never dissipated.”
No matter what identities students bring or what paths they follow afterward, higher education should involve them in exploration and intellectual discovery – and civil encounters with one another.
Ned Glick lives in Vancouver. His baccalaureate is from Oberlin College and his PhD is from Stanford. After teaching at the University of Chicago, he had University of British Columbia appointments in mathematics, in statistics and in the faculty of medicine. He retired to emeritus faculty status in 1992.