One of the striking patterns of the past autumn’s Black Lives Matters student activism was the surprising weakness of college administrators in the face of relatively mild challenge. A few students occupy an office for a few hours, a student threatens to go on hunger strike, the football team cancels a practice, a few Twitter hashtags go out, and Boom! the students get what they want, more or less. The inversion of power between students and administrators goes beyond the speed with which colleges have acceded to students’ requests (or replaced Presidents who have failed to do so), though: it is visible even in the face-to-face interactions between administrators and students. Take a look at Princeton’s President, Chris Eisgruber, listening in pained silence to the angry denunciation of his institution by a young student, and tell me that being a college president is looking like an enjoyable, let alone empowering, profession:
One perspective on this dynamic is that the youth and enthusiasm of the protesters and the justice of their cause is a power unto itself, that the ancien regime cannot help but bow before. But now as always, youth, enthusiasm, and a just cause (plus a buck fifty) will just about buy you a cup of coffee. Even in our era of Entitled Youth, it’s hard to believe just any set of student demands, no matter how loudly yelled, would be met with the same obsequiousness.
One clue to the origins of this dynamic came a few days later, when the NY Times editorial board weighed in, endorsing the protesters’ position that Woodrow Wilson was unworthy of having a building named after him. More recently, an even more staid and stolid institution has expressed its agreement and approval of the protesters: the alumni magazine that Princeton uses to succor present and future donors and keep them engrossed in the orange-and-black:
In some ways, this is a natural evolution of the increasing importance that racial inclusion has taken on in academic environments. Since the civil rights movement, racial inclusion has in the United States been the central measure of whether an institution has stood by its ethical commitments. Universities and academics were, more than any other institutions, the ones that pursued and promoted that measure of legitimacy, as it was meanwhile incorporated into law in the form of disparate impact legislation and a large portion of federal regulations; clearly their commitment to that ideology extends beyond affirmative action in admissions. Universities seemingly sincerely believe that their role in the world would diminish if they were seen to be non-inclusive institutions. (Seen to be is perhaps the operative term here, since visible diversity is what is most important.) When that ideology turns against the institution itself, what can a college president do but bow before it?
But there probably is still one more source of the inversion of power. Colleges and Universities garner an increasing portion of their donations not from the ordinary millionaires of old, but from the mega-rich created by our New Gilded Age. While the merely rich probably swing conservative in their political beliefs, this is not at all clear of the very richest people in the world; Carlos Slim, for example, #2 on the 2014 list, is the largest shareholder in the New York Times whose editorial board endorsed the protesters, and speakers aligned with the Black Lives Matters protests are have been regular guests at Aspen Ideas, Davos, and similar gatherings of the global rich. Whether Eisgruber is bowing before an impassioned undergraduate– or before the Davos Set’s priorities– is hard to know.