Students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and others rally at a protest encampment by the Scientists Against Genocide on MIT’s Kresge Lawn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 22, 2024

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The Left’s Campus Protest Scam

From Black Lives Matter, to climate change, to the war in Gaza, the demand to hire more identity studies faculty and consultants is a constant

Michael Lind
May 16, 2024
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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Students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and others rally at a protest encampment by the Scientists Against Genocide on MIT's Kresge Lawn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 22, 2024

Scott Eisen/Getty Images

“The issue is not the issue.” This saying of the campus left is as true today as it was in the 1960s. Whatever the ostensible issue may be that provides the occasion for a nationwide wave of campus protests, the list of demands presented to university administrators by student protesters and allied outside agitators is remarkably similar—suggesting that the point of the exercise may lie closer to home.

For half a century now, the passion of idealistic students involved in campus protests that were purported to be about national and global issues—the Vietnam War, racism, police shootings, climate change, and now Israel’s war against Hamas—has been diverted into narrow efforts to multiply jobs and teaching opportunities for leftist professors, administrators, consultants and other foot-soldiers and clients of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In turn, these campus activists have helped to transform American universities from engines of upward mobility and economic growth to taxpayer-funded ideological indoctrination centers.

The modern era of left-wing identitarian studies programs on campus dates back to 1968, when a 133-day strike by students at San Francisco State College led to the creation of America’s first Black studies department. The protest at San Francisco State was dominated by a group called the Third World Liberation Front. The most prominent protest leader was George Mason Murray, who taught freshman English as a graduate student while serving as the minister for education of the Black Panther Party. According to The Daily Sundial, the student newspaper at San Fernando Valley State College:

An immediate, violent revolution of black people against “the fascist leaders of this country” was called for by Black Panther George Murray, addressing a crowd of about 300 in the open forum Tuesday … “A tide of fascism led by Lyndon Johnson is running rampant in America,” said the bearded Murray … Murray called Hubert Humphrey “a homosexual, freakish monster.” He further charged that the federal government was “full of homosexuals.” To confirm this he said that the atom bomb was copied after a man’s penis.

The acting president of San Francisco State, an English professor named S.I. Hayakawa, became a folk hero among moderates and conservatives in California following a widely publicized confrontation with the protesters. His celebrity helped Hayakawa win election in 1976 as a Republican U.S. senator from California; he served until 1983. But Hayakawa in fact had caved in to mob pressure and authorized the establishment of the Black studies program demanded by the radicals.

By 1980 hundreds of American universities followed the example of San Francisco State and established Black studies programs under various names. The civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, opposed Black studies programs as self-segregation: “These students are seeking to impose upon themselves the very conditions of separatism and inequality against which Black Americans have struggled since the era of Reconstruction.”

The demand to make indoctrination in the ideology of their subjects mandatory for graduation has obvious material benefits for the activist professors and the cronies and former students who are hired to teach the compulsory courses.

To increase their resources and personnel, the academics and bureaucrats who benefit from Black studies and other ethnic studies programs have exploited public outrage over the killings of Black Americans in confrontations with police, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. For example, in 2015 a new group of protesters began a sit-in outside of the office of Brandeis’ interim president, Lisa Lynch, with the hashtag #FordHall2015, a reference to the building whose takeover by radicals in 1969 led Brandeis to create the African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) Department.

Following the well-established conventions of contemporary campus extortion efforts, the protesters issued a list of demands that had little to do with the occasion of the protest, and which together amounted to a university jobs program and patronage scheme:

  1. Increase the percentage of full-time Black faculty and staff to 10% across ALL departments and schools, while prioritizing the following:
  2. Anthropology, Heller, History, HSSP, Fine Arts, IBS, NEJS, Sciences, Sociology, and Theatre.
  3. Increase the number of tenure tracks for Black faculty across ALL departments and schools.
  4. Implement educational pedagogies and curriculums that increase racial awareness and inclusion within ALL departments and schools.
  5. Mandate yearly diversity and inclusion workshops for all faculty and staff with optional workshops being offered consistently throughout the academic year.
  6. Employ additional clinical staff of color within the Psychological Counseling Center in order to provide culturally relevant support to students of all backgrounds.
  7. Increase funding of Black student organizations and programs.
  8. Appoint a Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion.
  9. Increase the admixture of Black students via the general admission process to 15$ within both undergraduate and graduate schools.
  10. Establish an Office of Ombuds within Academic Services …
  11. Increase minimum wage for all hourly paid university employees by 15%.
  12. Increase the number of professional development workshops specifically tailored for Black students.

Brandeis capitulated almost completely.

In 2015 the polling website FiveThirtyEight, relying on information gathered by a website called The Demands, listed the demands of campus protests following the death of Michael Brown. The most common demands presented by campus “anti-racist” protesters to university administrations in 2015 were “Increase diversity of professors” (38%), “Require diversity training” (35%), “Fund cultural centers” (25%), “Require classes for students” (21%), and “Increase diversity of students” (21%). None of these policies would increase the safety of Black civilians—or those of any race—in altercations with police. The manifest if unstated purpose of all of these reforms was to expand the bureaucratic empires of campus ethnic studies programs.

The thinly disguised, self-serving lobbying of the ethnic studies programs never stops. On March 3, 2024, the editorial board of The Georgetown Voice, a student newspaper, wrote: “For over 50 years, student activists have pushed for the establishment of ethnic studies programs at universities across the United States. Currently, 43 American universities offer degrees in ethnic studies, and waves of students have demanded that Georgetown implement a similar degree.” Noting that Georgetown already has a “Black studies department,” the student paper called on the university to “work with the existing Black studies department and establish programs in Indigenous studies, Asian American studies, and Latinx studies. The editorial board calls on the Office of the President and the Provost to cluster-hire a group of tenure-line faculty members in these fields who would launch a pilot program in ethnic studies and advance a university-wide ethnic studies pedagogy.”

The Georgetown Voice is described as a “student-run magazine.” Having worked on student newspapers and magazines at the University of Texas and Yale, I find it hard to believe that the student editors came up with phrases like “cluster-hire,” “tenure-line” and “pedagogy” without prompting from faculty members with financial and status interests in the debate.

Inspired by the success of Black radicals and their allies in using mob pressure to force universities to create institutions which left-wing faculty could control with little or no outside supervision, radical Chicanos, Asian Americans, and left-wing gays and lesbians have campaigned to create their own academic ghettos which could serve as ideological indoctrination camps for future cadres of young sectarians.

You can get a sense of the scholarly depth of these race- and gender-focused programs from MIT’s Consortium for Graduate Studies in Gender, Culture, Women & Sexuality, which recently hosted a “roundtable” of professors to discuss “Erotic Methods”: “In queer and trans studies, BDSM, dungeons, public sex, erotic vomiting, and other dissident acts are crucial venues for re-organizing hegemonic formations of gender, class, and race, dragging colonial histories to the present, and inventing sexual futures … We invite panelists to consider how sex, erotics, and intimacy operate in their research, pedagogy, art-making, and activism.”

Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.

Needless to say, non-Hispanic white heterosexual “cisgender” progressives have been left without any “studies” programs of their own. In recent years, however, white leftists have discovered that they can overcome the stigma of a white skin if they paint themselves green. This explains why environmentalism, formerly known as “conservationism,” once the preserve of patrician Republicans who liked to hike and fish in unspoiled wilderness, has become a de facto ethnicity for many non-Hispanic white progressives—some of them, no doubt, descendants of those high-net-worth Republican conservationists of yesteryear who happily combined a love for the outdoors with support for eugenics programs to sterilize lesser races. The whiteness of the green left has not gone unnoticed. Some years ago, some pollsters asked respondents what they pictured when they thought of an environmentalist, and the most common image that came to mind was that of an annoying blond woman lecturing people.

In 2023 at Cornell, green student protesters using the ALL CAPS style favored by serial killers and crotchety old coots on the internet issued their ritualistic list of demands: “We call on Cornell to declare a CLIMATE EMERGENCY and mobilize all its forces to address the climate crisis by enacting the following six changes, EXPEDITIOUSLY.” (What do we want? Decarbonization! When do we want it? Expeditiously!)

After the usual demands for the divestment of university funds from fossil fuel companies and zero-carbon emissions by the campus by 2035 (which would have no measurable effect on anthropogenic global warming), the fifth demand is an institutional power grab by left-wing professors and their student disciples: “Recognize and integrate leaders from climate justice communities in the design and implementation of university transformation.”

If moderate and conservative university officials during the first wave back in the 1970s and 1980s hoped that far-left ideologues would leave the rest of the university alone if they were given their own sandboxes to play in, they have been proven wrong. A frequent objective of the pseudo-scholars in the left-wing activist programs on campus is to manipulate students into demanding that a university require all students to take required courses in their own bogus subjects like anti-racism studies, gender studies, and climate change activism.

For example, the University of California at San Diego now requires all students to take a mandatory climate change course if they hope to graduate. In 2019 University of Maryland climate change protesters included in their list of demands, along with divestment from fossil fuels by the university, a demand that the university impose a “university sustainability general education requirement” on all undergraduates. Who would teach the enormous number of new required courses in “sustainability?” The left-wing environmentalist activists on the faculty, of course, along with their colleagues and former students, who could be hired to expand the institutional empire of green studies at UMD.

The demand to make indoctrination in the ideology of their subjects mandatory for graduation for all students in all degree programs—including medical and engineering programs, as well as Ph.D. programs in the hard sciences, where “diversity statements” are now routinely required from new hires—has obvious material benefits, increasing work and pay for the activist professors and the cronies and former students who are hired to teach the compulsory courses. Moreover, the professors in these sub-intellectual studies programs undoubtedly sense that they are privately held in contempt by many university administrators and regents and donors who value traditional subjects with well-defined subject matters and greater degrees of intellectual rigor, like the sciences and engineering and medicine and law. What delicious revenge it must be for thinly educated and poorly qualified leftist academics to persuade gullible students to camp out in the quad and yell until the university agrees to force those hated chemistry majors and business majors and computer programming majors to take a course in ethnic studies or LGBTQ ideology or climate change activism in order to graduate?

In addition to making their subjects mandatory for students in every degree program, another strategy of institutional empire-building used by leftist academics and bureaucrats on campus involves scattering their fellow sectarians throughout traditional departments, “boring from within” to redefine those disciplines in a way that aligns them with anti-racist/feminist/queer/environmentalist ideology. The colonization of traditional disciplines is well underway at Brown, according to Time:

If you are in Ada Smailbegovic’s English-lit class at Brown, you get some unusual assignments. For Earth Poetics: Literature and Climate Change, students spend time following squirrels and sparrows around. They sit and observe seasonal changes and record their thoughts in blogs. They also watch films and read poems about fishing communities in the U.S. and Canada, comparing patterns of human migration to the life cycle of salmon and the movements of the tides.

(Tuition for Brown in 2024-25 will be $68,612, adding up to a four-year expense of $274,448.)

The clearing of tent encampments on a number of universities by police during the present anti-Israel protests does not mean that most universities will not capitulate to some or all protester demands later, when public attention is focused elsewhere. Already Brown has bowed to pressure and agreed to a vote on divestment from Israel. The Rutgers administration has also agreed to consider divestment from Israel and—you saw it coming, didn’t you?—agreed to “develop anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism training for all administrators and staff.” All that training means more work and money for existing left-wing faculty and perhaps the hiring of additional left-wing bureaucrats or nice paychecks for external consultants who will develop expertise in anti-Arabophobia training overnight. Northwestern has agreed to create a segregated community center for the exclusive use of “Middle Eastern, North African, and Muslim students” and has promised to fund five fully paid undergraduate scholarships for Palestinian students and two professorships for visiting Palestinian faculty.

The kaffiyeh may have replaced the kente cloth, but the self-serving strategy in which leftist professors persuade naive students to blackmail university administrators into giving them more subsidies, status, and institutional power has not changed since Black Panther Education Minister George Murray led the movement for Black studies at San Francisco State in 1968. Decades from now, when today’s campus protests have receded into history, their legacy may be the permanent transformation of American universities from engines of upward mobility and scientific progress to fairgrounds with expensive tickets and midway tents on a quad, displaying exotic varieties of leftist identity politics.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.