It’s a fact I enjoy repeating that until the 20th century there were no universities in Venice. Any young Venetians who wanted to study—or whose families wanted them to train to take on the family business—had to go to the mainland for higher education, far away from the city itself. The reason for this was that the administrators of the Venetian Republic did not want rebellious, ideological and idealistic youth protesting in the streets of the capital. This fact jumps to mind now because it illuminates an obvious truth: universities are, and always have been, hotbeds of anti-status quo sentiment.
When I first sat down to write a reply to James and Wendy Ball’s letter to the editor I had to rapidly give up the attempt because, I realised, they didn’t have a single, central argument I could respond to. Rather, the missive comprised of multiple conservative complaints about Duke, its administration and the broader left wing climate on American college campuses. Though I should have just stopped there, the Balls’ characterisation of the university was based on a lot of misconception and poor reasoning and I am, unfortunately, a terrible pedant. Tragically, I couldn’t let their letter go unanswered—so I’m going to try and address some of their flatly incorrect ideas in this letter.
(Also, I should note before I continue—in direct contrast to the Balls, I am yet to donate any money to Duke and I relied heavily on financial aid through my time as an undergraduate. I hope this does not lessen my right to speak in their eyes.)
The lynchpin assumption at the centre of Mr and Mrs Ball’s concerns is the idea that campuses have been lately infiltrated by nefarious left wing sentiment. As the story about Venice illustrates, radicalism and what we might anachronistically label progressivism are not new features of the academy. They weren’t new in the student protests of 1968; they weren’t new during the 1832 June Rebellion made famous by Les Miserables; they weren’t even new when The Great Butter Rebellion happened at Harvard in 1766—though that protest could reasonably be considered a little less political than the others.
Universities are by their very nature young places and they will stay as such even while we as individuals grow older and more conservative. The ideas at the bleeding edge of leftist thought will change, however, and this might well make it seem as though the young are rapidly radicalising. While I apologise for any ideological vertigo this might cause you, I’m afraid it doesn’t actually point to any dangerous new trends on college campuses. Even the idea that faculty have suddenly been infiltrated by indoctrinating leftists is patently untrue—William F. Buckley decried that trend back in 1951 and goodness knows the graduating classes of ’51 through ’16 have, for all their collective political power, fallen some way short of transforming America into a communist paradise.
There also seems to be a belief in the Balls’ epistle that their criticisms are apolitical—as though by supporting undocumented students, allowing Muslims to visibly worship and letting the Women’s Department challenge Trump, Duke is behaving in an improperly political manner. But politics and ideology are integral to everything a university does, and while doing these political things is at least entirely consistent with Duke’s fundamental mission, to not do them would be naked hypocrisy in the service of conservative ideology. If Duke believes anyone with the potential to flourish and contribute to the community deserves a spot at Duke regardless of their background, it would be wildly political to bar undocumented students. If Duke believes in religious equality and cultural exchange, it would be plainly political to stop the call to prayer on the quad—and of course it was in the end. (Also, side note: how could the attempt to have the adhan at The Chapel possibly be construed as Duke “advanc[ing] the activities of one favoured religious group at the expense of another”? I don’t want to worry the Balls, but if they’re concerned about one religion being more visible than others on campus, there’s a cross on the university logo and the Chapel bells ring twice for service every Sunday). Finally, if Duke believes in literally any notion of straightforward reasoning or common sense then they can’t stop their Women’s Studies Department from being wary of a president who literally admitted on tape that he gropes women without their permission. (Another quick aside—if Duke having a feminist Women’s Studies Department scandalizes you, just wait ‘til you hear about the Marxism and Society program).
I’ve noticed that since I graduated in May, The Chronicle has removed the Disqus reaction buttons from their articles—probably a good thing, because otherwise I can only imagine the number of angry “Disagree” and “Really?” responses I’d have leering furiously at me from the top of this page. You are, of course, entitled to disagree with me; and indeed the Balls are welcome to stop donating to an institution they do not politically support. But I would urge them to reconsider. The points of contention they list are examples of the university moving towards, not away from, the fuller realization of its social mission—and if some political disagreements are enough to rupture their relationship with so cherished a thing for them as Duke, then perhaps it’s the Balls who’re participating in a so-called “climate of intolerance.”
Bron Maher is a Duke 2016 graduate and a former Chronicle columnist.
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