Letter to the Editor: President Schapiro erred in defending campus oversensitivity in convocation speech

I was dismayed to read about Northwestern president Morton Schapiro’s remarks to the incoming freshman class in Wednesday’s edition of the Daily. His full-throated defense of “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings” — coupled with his admonition about the seriousness of “microaggressions” — betrays a misunderstanding of why critics disdain today’s expanding culture of campus coddling. Virtually nobody disagrees that it’s healthy for people of all ages to seek refuge with like-minded peer groups and “let their guard down” from time to time, as Schapiro put it. Hardly anyone would object to a professor giving his students a heads-up when, say, lynching or genocide is scheduled to be the subject of a particular lecture or assignment. And those who bristle or roll their eyes at claims of “microaggressions” are by no means advocating mean-spiritedness or rudeness.

The issue is the over-application and weaponization of these concepts to stifle and delegitimize opinions that depart from the prevailing zeitgeist. For instance, when students become hysterically “triggered” by Halloween costume guidelines (Yale) or use “safe spaces” to shut out the press and avoid any form of accountability for their actions (Mizzou), there’s a problem. When the pseudo-scientific term “microaggression” is flung about promiscuously to cut short reasoned debate or dodge the adult reality of sometimes encountering uncomfortable words and ideas, there’s a problem. One fundamental purpose of a great university is to expose its students to new ideas and to challenge their worldview. Another is to encourage critical thinking.

Instead, when a toxic form of “political correctness” is permitted to take root, the fallout can be unreasonable and detrimental. Consider an unfortunate episode from this past May. After a retired three-star U.S. Army general was recruited from Stanford to take the helm of NU’s impressive new global studies institute, he was hounded out of his position before he even arrived on campus. Some critics sneered that Gen. Karl Eikenberry was a “non-academic career military officer” whose presence on campus would represent “belligerence” and be problematically “tainted by US bias,” according to a Chicago Tribune article. This esteemed leader’s background and worldview offended (microaggressed?) the ruffled (triggered?) sensibilities of a vocal minority faction of faculty and students, so they brayed until they claimed “victory.” That unjust outcome was an embarrassment to the university — one, I should add, that Schapiro rightly resisted. But such are the wages of an environment in which aggrieved offense-taking is incentivized and rewarded.

Ultimately, I share Schapiro’s goal of fostering a respectful community that embraces the spirit of the Golden Rule. But as much as it pains me to side with the University of Chicago over my own alma mater, I believe the administrators in Hyde Park who recently dealt a pointed blow to rampant oversensitivity got it right and are doing their students a great service. And as a proud, engaged NU alumnus who admires his stewardship of the university, I hope President Schapiro doesn’t genuinely view me — or his counterparts at UChicago — as “idiots” and “lunatics,” as he indicated in his convocation speech. We can do better than that.

Guy Benson
Fox News contributor and Townhall.com political editor

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