The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro embarrasses himself and his university with insulting rant

A graduation at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

These days, university presidents tend to have very few “academic” responsibilities. Academic functions are typically delegated to the provost and other university officials, while the president schmoozes and hobnobs with donors, politicians and other individuals who affect the university’s bottom line.

Some university presidents like to speak out on current issues, especially those related to higher education. Here, it seems to me, they have one primary responsibility — to model the best values of a liberal (in the broad sense of the term) education by being honest, civil and respectful of dissent. Indeed, if university presidents can’t adhere to these values, they should either not be presidents or keep their mouths shut.

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Unfortunately, in a recent convocation speech to new Northwestern University students, President Morton Schapiro utterly failed to meet even the minimum standards of appropriate discourse. According to a report in the Daily Northwestern, which a university representative tells me is “accurate from what I recall,” Schapiro called people who deny the existence of microaggressions “idiots.” He also stated that people who think students “shouldn’t be warned to prepare yourself psychologically” for “potentially traumatic content, such as the Holocaust or lynching of black people,” are “lunatics.”

First, I don’t think anyone denies the existence of what have come to be known as “microaggressions.” But many reasonable people believe (a) that it’s disingenuous or harmful to call an unintentionally insensitive comment an “aggression” of any sort; (b) the concept of microaggression is being used not to encourage cross-cultural understanding, but to serve a particular, invariably left-wing political agenda; and (c) related to (b), the concept of microaggression is applied selectively so that it does not encompass even intentional hostility to Christians, conservatives, “Zionists” and others. Schapiro thus framed the debate dishonestly and then compounded that failure by calling those who dissent from left-wing campus orthodoxy “idiots.”

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Regarding trigger warnings, without getting into a detailed discussion of under what circumstances students should be warned of potentially traumatic course content, it’s hardly “lunacy” to expect adults (and college students are adults) to generally be able to confront the horrors of human history without constant warnings of traumatic content. After all, the United States, like other nations, sends 18-year-olds off to war to experience true horrors firsthand, so it’s a bit strange to think that merely hearing or reading about what other people experienced is too much for a typical college student to handle. Indeed, as a product of Jewish day schools, my education even in early elementary school was saturated with the traumas of Jewish history, including the Holocaust, pogroms, the Inquisition, the Judean revolts against Rome and Rome’s subsequent vengeance, and so on. I can’t say for sure how this affected our psyche (if at all), but my classmates and I managed to get through the school day without trigger warnings and without being “triggered.” That doesn’t mean trigger warnings for college students are always a bad idea. But “lunacy” to generally oppose them?

Schapiro also addressed the issue of campus “safe spaces.” Once again, instead of addressing a legitimate concern — that the concept of “safe spaces” is being used to insulate ideologically driven students from opinions they disagree with — Schapiro chose to insult critics of safe spaces, suggesting they are simply rich and insensitive to racial injustice: “The people who decry safe spaces do it from their segregated housing places, from their jobs without diversity — they do it from their country clubs,” Schapiro said. “It just drives me nuts.”

As I said, university presidents who can’t be honest, civil and respectful of dissent either should keep their mouths shut or shouldn’t be presidents. At the very least, Schapiro should publicly apologize. A resignation would not be disproportionate.