What’s the Matter With Vassar?

Published April 4, 2013

National Review Online

A sad and at times bizarre story out of Vassar shows how profoundly troubled America’s colleges now are. The campus fossil-fuel divestment campaign that’s swept across the nation over the past few months has intensified the atmosphere of leftist indoctrination now typical of many schools, turning classic notions of education as the free exchange of ideas into a distant memory. In the blink of an eye, fossil fuel producers have been turned into the equivalent of apartheid enforcers, while the Occupy movement has risen from the dead to become a free-ranging campus mob.

Our harrowing tale of political correctness run amuck will show Vassar’s fossil-fuel divestment campaign stoking a climate of fear that touches not only conservative students, but even moderates, who dare not draw the ire of this new campus crusade.

Yet a climate of political intimidation was present at Vassar well before the advent of the divestment movement, and it’s worth attending to that background before turning to today’s divestment debate.

Consider a September 2012 opinion piece by sophomore Luka Ladan in Vassar’s student paper, The Miscellany News. Ladan tells of election-year political science classes that regularly devolve into snickering sessions aimed at Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and other Republican candidates. Professors take the lead, teaming up with liberal students to mock Republicans and anyone else who leans right. The Vassar students I’ve contacted (some afraid to speak for attribution) largely confirm this picture. Sophomore computer science major Jarret Holtz, told me, “I don’t feel that [conservative students at Vassar] are able to freely express their views at all.”

How could they be, when Vassar has found semi-official ways of engaging in partisan politics. Take Vassar’s “College Committee on Sustainability” (CCS), part of the school’s officialstructure of governance. About a week before the 2012 election, the CCS website pointed to the upcoming vote and told students to educate themselves on the issues by following the news. CCS then suggested that students consult three leftist sources of national news and opinion (no other national sources were provided), GristMother Jones, and Aljazeera. Following-up just before election day, CCS reminded students about these outlets and urged them to vote. CCS did add that it was not the place of Vassar’s sustainability committee to endorse particular candidates. Yet given its recommendations for reading, few can doubt which political party this official arm of the college was supporting.

Vassar’s fossil-fuel divestment movement is a product of this thoroughly politicized campus atmosphere, where students feign boldness by inching just a bit to the left of the school’s semi-official political posture. So it’s no surprise that on February 24, the Vassar Student Association passed a divestment resolution by a margin of 23-1. As with the “debate” on fossil-fuel divestment at Harvard, no student prior to that vote mounted a challenge to the fundamental premises of the movement: that fossil-fuel producers are “public enemies” every bit as contemptible as South African apartheid, that catastrophic levels of global warming are imminent, and that America’s fossil-fuel industry can be effectively shut down by government fiat without massive social harm.

In the wake of this near-unanimous but ill-informed student vote, Vassar’s Moderate, Independent, Conservative Alliance (MICA), led by junior, cognitive science major Julian Hassan, invited Alex Epstein, President of the Center for Industrial Progress and a proponent and defender of America’s conventional energy industries, to speak at Vassar. In doing so, Hassan and MICA crossed a red line. In effect, they started the debate that should have begun long before any student vote on divestment was taken. That’s when the spit hit the fan.

Picking up on Epstein’s book title, Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet, Hassan posted links to what he called MICA’s “Vassar Loves Fossil Fuels” campaign on student facebook pages, and placed event slips for the Epstein talk in student mailboxes. Posters advertizing the lecture were promptly covered or ripped down, and widespread campus ridicule followed. Hassan says that at this point, his room lock was broken. Who broke it or why is unknown, yet the timing is curious. Hassan now had legitimate concerns for his safety.

Then came an opinion piece in The Miscellany News denouncing MICA’s invitation to Epstein. Students Jeremy Bright and Will Serio, both former presidents of MICA, argued that ridicule had rightly been heaped on the Epstein invitation and objected to an attempt to “redirect the discourse” on divestment by challenging the core premises of the movement. In other words, Bright and Serio objected to a real debate.

The divestment campaign consistently fails to acknowledge the massive the social and economic costs that would follow a federally mandated phase-out the fossil-fuel industry, a point Epstein forcefully and thoughtfully brings across in his talks. Yet Bright and Serio said that it would have been smarter to have students to mock Epstein’s YouTube videos for free than to shell out $2,430 in student funds to bring him to Vassar to speak.

I am far from taking the divestment campaign’s founder and leader, Bill McKibben as my guide in such matters, but if even McKibben was willing to respectfully debate Epstein at Duke University, why shouldn’t Vassar students hear from Epstein as well? And if Vassar’s Political Science, Sociology, and International Studies Departments can serve as official co-sponsors of a teach-in on behalf of the extremist and openly anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement, how is inviting an libertarian defender of American industry to Vassar out of bounds?

It gets worse. After bemoaning the supposed waste of student funds on Epstein in the Miscellany, Serio and another student privately approached Hassan and pressured him to pay Epstein the agreed-upon fee not speak at Vassar. When I wrote Serio to ask why, he said that he’d wanted to avoid the “imminent negative campus response” to Epstein’s talk. He also claimed that since Vassar’s student government had already passed a divestment resolution, the lecture would only “[reignite] an issue that had already been settled.”

In all my years of reporting on campus conflicts, this is the most appalling instance of political correctness I can recall. That students would advocate paying an articulate libertarian conservative not to speak on campus signifies the near-collapse of the ethos of classic liberal education. If Epstein’s views were as indefensible as Serio claims, questioning him in person would be precisely the way to expose that. Any way you slice it, students would learn from the talk. Yet Serio would prefer to spend thousands in student funds to prevent the dreaded Epstein from speaking.

Inadvertently, Serio has revealed the harm of the divestment campaign. Politicizing college endowments is the surest way to kill free debate on campus. Once a school takes an official stand on an issue of public controversy, campus opponents are effectively silenced. In Serio’s eyes, even a hastily-passed and ill-informed student divestment resolution sufficed to delegitimate further debate. After speaking to a number of Vassar students, I’m convinced that avoiding the anger and ridicule of divestment proponents is the reason even campus moderates felt the need to distance themselves from the Epstein invitation.

I don’t want to be too hard on young Mr. Serio. (Half the point of college is to make mistakes.) I’ve read some of his writings and they’re thoughtful and non-doctrinaire. Ultimately, students like Serio are responding to an atmosphere of political pressure and cramped debate that the administration and faculty have allowed or encouraged at Vassar. Political intimidation among Vassar’s students flourishes on the model provided by adults.

Ripped-up lecture ads and demands that Epstein be paid to walk away from Vassar were only the beginning. Shortly before Epstein’s lecture, a Vassar student issued a bizarre threat on his facebook page. Lashing out at “‘Middle-class’ Industrial Capitalist A**holes” (no asterisks in the original), he threatened to walk in on Epstein’s talk and do physical damage to himself, horrifying the audience as a way of disrupting the lecture. This alarmed MICA and prompted a call to campus security, which was present at the event as a result.

At the lecture, maybe thirty people (about a third of those present, not counting the 130 online viewers) waited in the audience to launch a pre-planned walkout, to be signaled when a protester interrupted the talk to read a statement attacking Epstein. A number of the protesters entered the room wearing masks of former Vice-President Cheney. Non-protesting students told me that the masked protesters turned the room tense and uncomfortable, since their presence implicitly threatened some sort of disruption. Others said the protesters were using “Occupy tactics” (Occupiers who vandalize businesses typically wear masks). I was also told that a number of the students who walked out were veterans of the Occupy movement.

Vigorous but peaceful protests outside a lecture with masks and street theater are fine, of course. Interrupting a talk is different. It’s got nothing to do with education, for one thing. As Epstein wrote me afterwards, “While some bodies walked out of the room in the middle of the speech, their minds never really walked in.” And a brief interruption tolerated becomes a precedent for more serious interruptions down the line.

The students I contacted were angry about the walkout and embarrassed for Vassar. The protesters, on the other hand, tweeted a proud picture with a poster they’d ripped down. These students may fancy themselves courageous, but hiding behind masks and refusing to risk public contradiction by questioning a political opponent is cowardly.

As for the talk itself, you can watch it on video. The walkout comes at about 29 minutes into the tape. You can hear students criticizing the protesters as they leave. (A brief video with a better camera angle on the walkout can be found here.) But the real takeaway from the video is that, agree or disagree, the dreaded Epstein laid out a perfectly reasonable case for the importance of fossil fuels and the dangers of putting the industry that produces them out of business without an economically viable substitute. The notion that a talk like this is out of place at a an institution of higher education is pernicious. If anything, students desperately need to hear Epstein’s side of the story.

I asked Vassar’s administration for a comment on the walkout, the ripping down of ads for the talk, and on the threat by a student to harm himself at the talk as a protest. Acting Vassar College President, Jonathan Chenette has so far addressed only the walkout. Chenette’s statement, forwarded to me by Vassar, emphasizes that Epstein took the walkout in stride (true), yet added that the students who “[exited] rather than engaging” had “lost an opportunity for exchange and questioning.” (I have some serious concerns about this statement, but I’ll raise them when I reproduce the full text in a follow-up post.) My first response to Chenette’s statement is that it won’t do much to address the underlying problems at Vassar, which run deep.

There may be faculty at Vassar who still respect the ideals of liberal education as classically understood. Notwithstanding that, Vassar appears to have passed a tipping point beyond which these ideals no longer meaningfully operate where they’re most needed. Classes filled with courteous and respectful discussion don’t mean much if students dare not raise questions that half the country might ask.

Is Vassar an isolated case? Unfortunately, no. In light of the extraordinary report on Bowdoin College just released by the National Association of Scholars, the corruption of liberal education at Vassar appears to be the rule, not the exception. Meanwhile, the fossil-fuel divestment campaign sweeping across America’s campuses has greatly magnified an already egregious situation. This is a dilemma for the country. Vassar’s problem is our problem now.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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