Lately, college students have been ridiculed for asking college administrators to protect them from distressing speech. College students, the criticism goes, should expect to be treated as adults, not children. But if a new set of principles drafted for Fresno State University is any indication, the professors, administrators, and staff members charged with tending to the souls of students want to be treated like children themselves.
The draft principles were produced not by a social justice committee but rather by a faculty-led “Workplace Quality Task Force.” The task force, according to the campus paper, has been at work since early 2017 trying to define, with the help of nearly thirty focus groups, the “behavioral expectation” that campus employees have for each other. After all that, the draft reads as if it is meant to govern an elementary school classroom.
Fresno Staters “are Respectful,” which means, among other things, that they “listen with attention to all perspectives with the intent to understand,” “consider the impact of [their] communication,” and “honor [their] word and commitments.” Fresno Staters “are Kind,” so they “use words thoughtfully and [are] mindful of [their] actions.” Fresno Staters are “Collaborative,” so they “do [their] share and make space for others to shine.” They are “Accountable, so they “own responsibility for [their] behaviors and actions.”
These principles are unobjectionable on their face, but they are also for first graders.
Some critics worry that this embarrassing bit of fluff, if enacted, will somehow constrain free speech. Though they contain no sanctions, these guidelines are vague enough to catch a Socrates, no great respecter of fools, in their net. But I’m more concerned that the draft is an embarrassing piece of fluff. As Henry Reichman of the American Association of University Professors observes, there is almost nothing in the “principles” to indicate that Fresno State is a university, as opposed to a textile mill or daycare center.
Colleen Flaherty reports in InsideHigherEd that it’s hard to know what gap the new “Principles of Community: How We Treat Each Other” is meant to fill. One faculty member, in keeping with the grade school theme, proposes that they are meant to “reduce bullying problems,” but the overwhelming majority of faculty and staff at Fresno State find the “environment” there “welcoming and respectful.” This same survey found that employees were most distressed about pay, staffing, and the failure to address poor performance. I suppose that if you can’t address people’s real concerns, you let them eat principles.
What’s remarkable is that it looks as if, a bit of controversy notwithstanding, much of the faculty is ready to eat. According to the professor who invoked “bullying problems” to explain the reason for the effort, “basically the principles just say we should be nice to each other. How do you object to that?” He is chair of the academic senate. That the draft principles of the academic community have next to nothing to do with academic communities leaves him unperturbed.
As I noted, ideology is not to blame for the abject failure of a university to articulate in any way, much less live up to, its truth-seeking mission. Partisans of social justice seek to turn our universities into Sunday schools. The bureaucrats who manage universities as they would any other enterprise, and faculty who go along with them, are satisfied with less. They just want the kind of school in which all the children seem happy.