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What to do when your students can’t handle a single word?

Shut down the class, for one

Two examples from the past month serve as both a dismal reminder of where we are in higher education and as a harbinger of things to come there. The first: Southern Connecticut State University recently suspended a professor because he sang along to a rap song that included the lyrics “I am a happy nigga.” To be fair, given the current campus climate, it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do—but it was also self-evidently harmless, the professor himself a plainly good and friendly fellow with no racial animus at all. Indeed, Triffin himself, by his own admission, is the father of a biracial child, which one generally doesn’t expect of actual racists. It was a rap lyric. Big deal.

Big deal indeed; after a student backlash, the school put him on leave and vowed to hold some sort of silly symposium to address the non-controversy. As College Fix editor Dave Huber noted at the time: “Such is the nature of contemporary academia.” But it doesn’t stop there.

At Princeton around the same time, a distinguished professor emeritus, Lawrence Rosen, cancelled a class after referring to the same racial slur—not using it, mind you, but simply referencing it in a purely academic context. In a discussion on “oppressive symbolism,” Rosen asked his class: “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a nigger?” Merely mentioning the word was too much for some students, some of who, variously, argued with Rosen for the entirety of the class and filed a complaint against him afterward. Rosen, who is surely aware of the hell that a professor can be put through for ticking off campus activists, decided to cancel his class outright. Though one sincerely wishes to see professors stand up to their campus bullies, you can hardly blame Rosen for wanting to dodge the cannon fire and move on with his life. 

These two incidents reveal, if any more proof were needed, the shockingly anti-intellectual climate on so many campuses today. For all appearances, the students who were outraged by these two professors’ utterly benign behavior are not simply oversensitive or overpoliticized; they are opposed to basic rational thought. It is plain to anyone who thinks about it for a few moments that these instructors did not deserve to be targeted in any way at all. Never the matter: They had done something to offend the exceedingly delicate sensibilities of the campus vanguard, so they had to go.

One is obliged to point out that, comparatively speaking, the number of students who made a stink in these cases was actually fairly small. But that is the most troubling thing of all. A tiny percentage of students can, if they shriek and bawl loudly enough, have an outsize and oppressive influence on campus over the most meaningless of affairs: One professor suspended, another cancelling his class altogether, all for behavior that barely warranted a raised eyebrow. If you are not yet deeply alarmed by this—you should be.

MORE: Prof suspended for singing along to ‘happy nig-gah’ rap song, calls punishment overreaction

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