A Brief Response to Professor Sam Crane’s Article “Conservative Privilege on Campus” – Christopher Weihs ’15

I would first like to thank Professor Crane for writing an admittedly “uncomfortable” article for me to read regarding conservatives at Williams. That being said, I offer, in the spirit of civil and robust debate, my equally “uncomfortable” response:

I agree with Professor Crane that procedural symmetry is important. That is, funding for unofficial student groups like “Uncomfortable Learning” can and should follow certain guidelines, but the conceptual framework of his article is troubling. Just consider the context he provides: “A very small conservative group” has nefariously leveraged their privilege into dollars, bringing speakers to campus in an ideological alliance with the “right-wing media.” For students who are, in fact, conservative, that’s not exactly apocalyptic. 

This context, whether true or not, suggests an irreparable ideological fault-line running through campus–minority conservatives and majority liberal. Sadly, Professor Crane’s contention that conservatives on campus somehow don’t follow the rules contributes to that division.   

I think the larger intellectual challenge is to avoid these generalizations. To his credit, Crane admits ideological labels are fluid, particularly among academics, but the same is true with students. I might, for example, lean left on social issues but consider Paul Ryan something of a political hero of mine (full disclosure: he is). A “liberal” friend might believe strongly in an inclusive immigration policy but spurn environmentalism.

Thus I would challenge faculty and students at Williams to view the issue of political ideology without such rigid classifications. This might seem self-evident, but I think this recent debate serves as a useful reminder that labels, even those such as “liberal” and “conservative,” can lead to misinformation and misunderstanding. Political diversity comes in many shapes and sizes.

I might also challenge the assumption that student groups such as “Uncomfortable Learning” are instruments of outside conservative moneyed interests. This approach to the problem ignores the very fact that the students themselves choose the speakers. Sure, we can criticize access to resources, but we should not criticize how they are used. These speakers represent debates some in the community (but, clearly, not all) are willing to have. In some ways, these extra resources provide an effective balancing tool against entrenched beliefs at Williams.

I can’t speak for all conservatives on campus because that broad a label ignores the reality of individual experience, but I would say the idea that conservatives want some sort of “special attention or treatment” is disingenuous. Unless of course, special treatment means fair treatment. I would gladly accept that privilege.

8 thoughts on “A Brief Response to Professor Sam Crane’s Article “Conservative Privilege on Campus” – Christopher Weihs ’15

  1. One of the things most troubling to me is that Zach Wood has indicated that UL unable to arrange enough security for Suzanne Venker to make her visit to the Williams College campus safe.

    See, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/inside_higher_ed/2015/10/williams_college_uninvites_suzanne_venker_after_student_backlash.html

    I think one of the best things the college can do to save face in the future is to make sure there is adequate security for future UL events. I’m sure that the same donors paying for the speakers would be happy to cover the additional security costs too.

  2. Dear Christopher,

    Thanks for your post. A couple of things:

    1) you write that I believe “UL” has: “leveraged their privilege into dollars…” This is not quite my meaning. I am arguing, perhaps not clearly enough, that the privilege is rooted in the dollars. It is not my position that conservatives are inherently privileged (some might want to argue that) but that this particular conservative group gains a certain privilege from the money they can access. If the money were not there, neither would the privilege. There were conservative students at Williams before “UL” but they were not privileged because they did not have exclusive access to significant amounts of money. Indeed, all other student groups at Williams are not privileged because they do not have access to such funds. If “UL” were to operate under the same rules as all others, they would not be privileged, and I would no longer have an argument.

    2) Yes, names are oppressive. I would like to avoid them, too (I am more of a Daoist in terms of philosophy of language than a Confucian). But there is a way they are unavoidable. Here is some text from an announcement of a “UL'” event from this past May: “One of the most concerning trends on college campuses over the last several decades has been the increasing monopoly over academic culture by an orthodox ideology.” What is meant here by “orthodox ideology”? It is the thing that must be balanced or countered. Here is a more specific framing of the “problem”(http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/19135/): Williams has “….has created an atmosphere in which academics and intellectual debate are heavily influenced by left-leaning scholars, and a diversity of opinions – especially conservative ones – do not openly flourish.” So, “left-leaning scholars” is the problem and more “conservative” ideas are the solution. Now, all of these terms are open to multiple interpretation but I think the intention is clear. It’s something like: liberal orthodoxy is so oppressive that extraordinary measures must be taken to overcome them on campus. This is not my personal invention. It is, I believe, a widely circulated assertion.

    I have quoted this next source on another thread, and I do not want to beat a dead horse, but it is relevant here:

    “….I gave a talk here at Williams College last night. The paperwork from my speakers’ bureau said I was being brought in by the Young Republicans. But, as the guy caught with a tranny hooker said to the cops, either there was some mistake or this was a clever ruse. I was in fact brought in by a group of impressive kids called simply “Uncomfortable Learning.”

    “I gather that the group is called this because, at Williams, if your group sounds conservative or libertarian, then lots of students will simply tune out, shun, or dismiss you. I get it, but I can’t say I love this sort of thing in principle. Indeed, it’s a bit ironic given that I was there to give my Tyranny of Clichés talk, which puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of owning labels and not hiding behind clever euphemisms.

    “…”Uncomfortable learning” appears to be working because while kids find it easy to be closed-minded about conservatism, they are intrigued by “uncomfortable learning.” It sounds so subversive. It’s like when Chief Wiggum won’t let his kid Ralph play in his gun storage room. When little Ralph tries to get in, egged on by Bart, Wiggum exclaims, “What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?””

    (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/376580/america-eats-itself-jonah-goldberg)

    This was written in April, 2014; so, the notion that “UL” is a conservative project, even if its name does not express this, is hardly a new one, nor one that is peculiar to me. Perhaps “conservative” as a name or label misses some of the truth, but there is also a truth that attaches to it as a description of “UL”

    3) My primary objection is precisely the access to resources. I have never intervened against or obstructed any student group’s invitation of any speaker. Indeed, I believe hashing out such decisions are a great learning experience. Perhaps if “UL” had worked within the usual procedures their members could have engaged in various meaningfully uncomfortable learning experiences. That is my main issue: access to outside resources and evasion of rules that others have to follow.

    • I’m just laughing at Crane’s intransigence at this point. I think it is pretty clear that anyone on the Williams campus can set up an unofficial group and secure outside funding to further its activities. This isn’t some secret power that only UL can access. Any group with the ambition to follow this strategy can make it work.

      The larger issue and truly significant issue, in my view, is that the UL organizers believed they could not muster the security resources necessary to protect Suzanne Venker’s safety. Since liberal students greatly outnumber conservative students at Williams College, it makes sense that open-minded conservative students are in need of greater security resources, especially when the ire of the left has been aroused on Facebook and other channels.

      It doesn’t make any sense to me to suggest UL is an example of “conservative privilege” when its organizers are feeling so threatened and vulnerable that they need to cancel highly visible public events.

      • Is it too late to get any of that militarization money from the Homeland Security Dep for our very own campus security?

        I jest…but I do think your claims about insufficient funds for “adequate security” are similarly misplaced. If you check around (even just sauntering over to the student articles section), there were no violent threats made against the safety of the speaker, nor the organizers. Mean words were said–hands and blood and all–but nothing constituting a violation of safety.

        In fact, the organizers have made clear from the start this counter-movement was to manifest as a silent poster-holding protest: “Our intention was never to silence, censor, interrupt or intimidate Venker or the leaders of UL in any way. The supposed risks of violence, chaos and interruption were all conclusions that the leaders of UL arrived at without evidence or consultation with the protest organizers.”

        Check out the words on the student section of this website–or if you’re truly bored–the original protest FB group.

      • Dr. Drew,

        I’m someone similarly invested in all this, and I’m deeply sympathetic to what UL is doing. You are barking up the wrong tree. This security threat is nonsense. There are very legitimate issues to be raised here about unfairness and openness at Williams, but a lack of security available is absolutely not one. CSS at Williams is a very apolitical body that does its job responsibly and effectively (too effectively sometimes!).

    • Prof Crane — Thanks for your thoughtful response. Certainly agree with you on the funding part. As for labels, really interesting points. I would just say I’m hoping for more consideration of the nuances of these political labels in these debates. Labels which I believe offer too little and assume too much. — Best, Chris

  3. I hear that UL couldn’t gather security because they told staff about the event past the OSL deadline. This is not a security issue, or liberal administrative issue. It goes to the point that Professor Crane is making. UL is not following the rules and they are not a recognized student group.

  4. Part of my job as a consultant to colleges and universities is helping them secure funding to predict and stop violent behavior through the use of behavioral assessment teams (BATs). It would be extremely difficult for BAT programs to work on school campuses if administrators ignored the fears expressed by vulnerable, outnumbered students like Zach Wood. Gavin de Becker teaches us that we should learn to trust our fear instinct as a reliable tool for self-protection. I recommend his book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence.

Leave a Comment