On September 4th, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University will enjoy the rare honor of having a guest speaker introduced by Gov. Doug Ducey. The visit from the governor is all the more unusual because the speaker –Robby Soave, an associate editor at the Koch-funded Reason.com, and recent author of Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump – has a history of disparaging Arizona’s public universities and their students.
Soave purports to champion the university as a site of free exchange, but his attacks on Arizona’s institutions of higher learning reveal the deeply ideological reasons that he receives such a warm welcome from Republican leaders like Ducey. By sensationalizing familiar conservative bugaboos like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” which Soave characterizes as frivolous student demands to be shielded from encounters with viewpoints that challenge their own, he distracts the real challenges facing our public universities and their students.
In a 2017 Daily Beast article entitled “Freedom of Thought is on Life Support at the University of Arizona,” Soave lampooned a list of demands published by a committee of marginalized students at U of A that aimed to increase support for underrepresented students, arguing that these students were fighting for a university that will “coddle their minds and safeguard emotions.”
What he fails to mention, however, is that many of the students’ demands were not focused on cultural issues, but on their need for merit-based scholarships and emergency funds at an institution that has recently faced radical cuts in state appropriations spearheaded by our Republican-controlled legislature.
Soave represents these struggling undergraduates striving to find their political voice as a cabal of malevolent power brokers capable of bringing an institution to its knees. His true regard for them comes out in his conclusion: “If they are indeed marginalized,” he quips, “other students might well conclude that it’s preferable they remain so.”
His book singles out an on-campus advertising campaign at ASU designed to make students aware of resources for managing anxiety. After a juvenile aside on the attractiveness of ASU’s undergraduate women (he refers to them as “girls” and cites Maxim magazine as a source), Soave argues that “ASU is sort of a college, and sort of group therapy,” and part of a nation-wide trend toward the transformation of universities into institutions that value the comfort of students over the meaningful exchange of ideas.
This story is not original to Soave, but is dutifully intoned by a legion of right-wing intellectuals weekly, and has gained remarkable traction among Republican voters. It is also an utter misrepresentation of the university classroom as I have known it.
This week, I will step in front of a class of students at Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, to teach our signature first-year seminar on the history of human culture and thought, “The Human Event.” My first class will include a discussion of the difficult material we will cover, and its potential impact on students with PTSD and other mental health issues. We will then dive into a yearlong exchange about the multicultural history of ideas that does not shy away from the ugly facts of racial and sexual violence.
I have taught hundreds of students at ASU; not a single one has ever disrupted my classroom with a spurious demand for a “trigger warning” or a “safe space.”
My informal discussion of these issues with colleagues at ASU and around the country suggests that my experience is not unique. While many university faculty face occasional annoyances with student activism and university policies, these issues simply do not constitute the most pressing challenges to our institutions or our students.
The student mental health crisis Soave crassly dismisses, on the other hand, is real. At ASU, I have struggled to help overwhelmed students who are taking on decades of debt despite balancing the demands of academics with those of a full-time low-wage job. I have consoled students rattled by encounters with armed white nationalist protesters on the streets of downtown Phoenix. I have mourned with students whose families have been torn apart by deportation.
In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled “Diversity, Inclusion, and Anti-Excellence,” Bret Stephens, one of Soave’s fellow critics of campus culture, frames his familiar jeremiad in terms that expose its true aims. Stephens suggests that universities should promote an appreciation of a “masterliness…whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic.” By ridiculing the activists and policies that seek to extend the inclusivity of Arizona’s public institutions of higher learning, Soave is promoting a similarly anti-democratic message.
I understand the relationship between inclusivity and excellence quite differently. The ASU charter is anchored by a phrase that many of us in the ASU community can recite by heart: our university measures its excellence “not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes, and how they succeed.” More of us who value our public universities need to stand up to defend the liberatory ideals expressed in this statement.
Alex Trimble Young is an Honors Faculty Fellow at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. The views expressed here are his own.