Why Are Colleges So Eager to Police Speech But So Reluctant to Address the Campus Rape Epidemic?

This week, Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan took a long look at the suspension of a rugby team at the University of Mary Washington over a vulgar, sexist “pub song” sung at a celebration and surreptitiously videotaped. At first glance, the tale looks like a gendered repeat of the racist SAE Oklahoma frat story, except further digging by Ryan reveals it was not quite the same situation.

The November party was not an official team function, and only one of the rugby team members who is actually on the lease was in attendance. Furthermore, school administrators and sources close to the team agree that of the 46 players on the team, only eight were present at the house party on the night of the recording; the other 38 were in Maryland for a game, according to two individuals affiliated with the program. A source estimates that of the dozens of students in attendance at the party, some were varsity athletes who play non-club, NCAA sports at UMW. Many were women.

Instead of a positive discussion resulting from the discipline of the team, Ryan describes a campus torn apart, with both rugby players and campus feminists feeling “unsafe,” targeted by rage and online threats. Her piece implies that the administration acted in self-interest, out of fear of bad PR and the threat of being accused of fostering a “hostile environment.” Yet their blanket punishment of the team won’t make the campus safer.

This article and others that have surfaced recently — such as the Laura Kipnis fracas at Northwestern — suggest the question: Is the campus rape epidemic creating a sense of powerlessness that is resulting in excessively zealous punitive action when there’s offensive speech on campus?

If students are walking from class to class feeling like their campuses are fertile territory for assault, I can understand being particularly furious at sexist stunts like the rugby team’s song or the insensitivity that students say Kipnis showed. Furthermore, administrators can show solidarity with minorities and feminists easily by condemning awful speech much more easily than they can meaningfully change campus power structures, thereby risking alienating moneyed alumni who are invested in sports, fraternities, and the status quo.

This is what I’ve been puzzling over recently, as I follow news reports on one hand that talk about how inept universities’ responses to the nationwide rape epidemic have been, and on the other read op-eds that bemoan an increasly chilling climate around speech and the exchange of ideas on campus. I think what disturbs professors the most is that students, whom they expect to join them in anti-authority sentiment, are actually asking administrators to do things like punish unruly rugby teams, disinvite speakers, and create safe spaces.

It makes sense that there’s a clash here; after decades of an untreated sexual assault problem (and, we can add, unexamined racially hostile environments), some students now want more administrative involvement in campus life. Faculty, for obvious reasons, want less; administrators are their bosses. In her much-discussed New York Times op-ed on Sunday, Judith Shulevitz echoes Laura Kipnis in saying, “it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago.”

As budgets shrink and academic job prospects dwindle, professors are justified in seeing their livelihood and freedom under threat. And there’s no question, anecdotally at least, that many faculty members are feeling frustrated by students’ increasing demands on them. “I think professors should actually teach students the nuances that distinguish ‘feeling triggered’ and ‘feeling uncomfortable/offended,'” a friend who has worked as a college film class TA for several years told me today. “But, of course, that involves a degree of extra work that underpaid university professors (rightfully) may not want to put in.”

Yet the thing is, I’m not sure that there’s a massive difference in how students feel today versus how they once did. I was my college paper beat reporter on identity politics (though the topic didn’t have that name at the time). So I covered campus blowups just a decade ago. They were similar in tone to the ones I’m reading about now: slightly histrionic on both sides, with a truth that lay somewhere in the middle. Students who were aggrieved almost always had a right to be. What upset them (and me, when I was part of student protests) was often a general feeling of disenfranchisement and marginalization, a feeling that no one  — not administrators, not more powerful or privileged students — cared about them at all. By protesting or demanding someone’s resignation or punishment, they were at least able to get attention to their cause and get their points heard.

The difference between then and now, in my mind, isn’t in how students are feeling, but in the power they have to do something about it. Rather than being laughed at, social justice types have become more dominant on campuses, and are actually able to get their agendas taken seriously because administrations are scared. There’s also a question of language. “The difference is that young people today have names for things that we didn’t have when I was in undergrad ten years ago,” says my TA friend. “The issues existed then, but we didn’t talk about them the same way, because online feminism was still in its infancy. College students today have so many resources at their disposal, so I think they’re learning to articulate concepts earlier than any of us did.”

That means that some concepts will be articulated poorly, or overused (like “privileged,” “triggering,” and “unsafe”). Yet such is the fate of much political jargon. I think so many of us are used to feminists and other social justice advocates being the unheeded angry kids in the corner. Thus, seeing this faction actually gain a modicum of power and effectiveness may be jarring to feminist pundits’ sense of self-definition, combined as it necessarily is with their justified fear of wielding authority (critics of power have a good reason to fear it).

But I also wonder if, by engaging this debate so vigorously, we haven’t stepped into something of a trap. The more attention paid to campuses being “namby-pamby,” as Shulevitz essentially calls them, the more justification in the national climate for further budget cuts, for further dismissal of the results of academic and scientific work, and the more justification for dismissing genuine concerns about rape and assault as overblown hysteria.