The University of Missouri seems to have done a few things right over the past several days.
After weeks of protests, during which high-ranking university officials showed insensitivity, at best, to the fears and anxieties of black students who grappled with displays of outright racism on campus, two of them, Timothy Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri System, and R. Bowen Loftin, chancellor of the flagship campus in Columbia, resigned.
Their departures sent a signal that the university system finally understood the urgency of the challenges facing students of color on campus.
But something else happened that was equally salutary and gratifying: Mizzou, as the Columbia campus is known, declined to accept the resignation of a white university professor whose response to the fears of black students about violent threats may have been thoughtless but was hardly malicious. When some of Dale Brigham’s black students contacted him to say they were too afraid to come to class, he urged them to attend: “If you give in to bullies, they win,” he said.
Given an epidemic of college campus shootings, not to mention racially tinged attacks such as the June massacre at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, Brigham may have underestimated his students’ distress. (On Wednesday, police arrested Connor Stottlemyre, a student at Northwest Missouri State, and Hunter Park, who attends the Missouri University of Science and Technology, on suspicion of making threats via social media.) Still, Brigham was hardly harsh or uncaring. He didn’t warrant the outrage that followed from some students, and he didn’t deserve to be run out of town on a rail.
In handling those episodes differently, university leaders demonstrated an appropriate distinction that colleges ought to try to teach — a lesson in perspective, in judgment, in balance. But those lessons are too often given short shrift in an environment of instant social media outrage.
Campuses across the country, from Stanford to Yale, have been roiled with racial tensions over the past several months. Last March, for example, a video went viral that featured University of Oklahoma fraternity members singing a racist chant. Two students were expelled, and the campus chapter of the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was disbanded.
That was appropriate. That sort of in-your-face racial animus should not be tolerated on any campus — or in any workplace, for that matter.
By contrast, some college campuses have struggled to contain what have been called “microaggressions,” slights and insults that are surely impolite and perhaps offensive. But in so doing, some colleges have not only limited free speech, but they have also led students to believe that they have a right to expect a world where they won’t be offended.
I’m sorry to have to bring this news, but no such world exists.
The value of a good college education lies in teaching students to consider unpopular or unconventional ideas, to choose among competing philosophies, and even to hold onto diametrically opposed ideas at the same time. In other words, a decent college education, especially the traditional liberal arts degree, teaches students to think.
You can learn to think deeply only if you are occasionally presented with novels, images and lyrics that make you uncomfortable, that move you past your comfort zone, that provoke you. You learn which of those ideas are worth keeping and which you should reject.
Students cannot get that education if speakers who are unpopular in some quarters are banned and if well-respected literary texts are abandoned. Shakespeare can seem anti-Semitic, and Mark Twain puts the N-word in the mouths of some of his characters. So do Harper Lee and countless other great writers. And literature endorses so much sexism — starting with the King James version of the Bible — that it’s hard to know where to begin. Yet, a good education requires that we wrestle with those elements that make us squirm.
As a former college professor, I know that’s not easy. I also know that complaints about feeling offended come from liberals and conservatives alike: I taught my students, many of whom hailed from conservative households, to be very cautious about “facts” gleaned from Fox News. Some weren’t happy. But isn’t that what college is for?
(Cynthia Tucker Haynes won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Students listen at a press conference at Traditions Plaza at Carnahan Quad, on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri, November 9, 2015. REUTERS/The Maneater/Elizabeth Loutfi