November 13, 2015 | Commentary on Higher Education, Political Thought, Civil Society

The Face of Mob Rule in Higher Education

America's universities are supposed to be places where students can get an education. The vast majority of students want that. Some, however, do not. They want a "safe space" where their strange ideas about society can be aired without criticism, and where they can unilaterally punish other students for failing to toe the mass line. These student activists want blood.

At Yale University, a number of members of the Black Student Alliance physically surrounded an administrator and berated him for standing up for free speech and are now demanding his resignation. With the scene caught on camera, one can easily see how tense the situation was.

In another example, the now-ex-president of the University of Missouri, Tim Wolfe, resigned. His resignation came after more than 30 members of the football team threatened not to play unless he was forced out. Their claim was that, in unspecified ways, Wolfe failed to eradicate "structural racism" on campus.

These situations have much in common, and the story is becoming a familiar one.

First, both situations involve student activists disrupting education, allegedly on behalf of education. At Yale, the activists claimed that allowing free discourse and debate and challenging their assumptions threatened the "safe space" they thought Yale was.

At Mizzou, activists claimed that failing to deal with "structural racism" was harming their education. Both groups of students listed not specific harms, but rather vague interests in feeling good at their university.

Second, both situations involve administrators being asked to clamp down on the free expression of other students. At Yale, students were upset that Yale administrators were not clamping down on Halloween costumes. At Mizzou, students wanted more unspecified action against perceived racism on campus.

Third, both situations involve menacing groups of students who appeared ready to get physical. At Yale, for example, students physically encircled the administrator, shouted him down, and got very close to him. At Mizzou, students physically surrounded the car of Wolfe and demanded he exit the vehicle into the mob.

This pattern is becoming more prevalent on American campuses. In the name of education, education is being disrupted by intolerant student activists, harming the experience for everyone else. At my alma mater, New York University Law School, a small cadre of students is complaining about Halloween decorations that included a man hanging from a noose, because such a decoration was "harmful suicide imagery."

These students, complaining about harmless decorations at an optional fall party, are attempting to assert disruptive political control over all aspects of educational life.

If one accepted all of the claims and agreed with the political aims of the student activists, one might think it advisable to close such unrepentantly bigoted universities down.

A more moderate response by university officials, however, would be to take their job as educators seriously. If a student seeks to disrupt the safety or education of another student, punish the disruptor.

If that were to happen, colleges would once again become "safe spaces" for free thought and expression.


-Andrew Kloster is a legal fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Andrew Kloster Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

This piece was originally distributed by Tribune News Service