Back in 2016 an employee at a bakery in Ohio stopped an Oberlin College student who was shoplifting, and this resulted in a physical confrontation with that student and two others who attempted to interfere with the employee restraining the shoplifter until the police arrived. All three of these students eventually pled guilty to misdemeanor charges involving their illegal behavior, and in a time not so long ago the college likely would have meted out some other disciplinary action as well as an end to this whole unfortunate episode.
However, times have changed—dramatically.
With little apparent forethought regarding the ramifications and consequences of their actions, Oberlin College students launched an immediate boycott of the bakery due to the supposedly racist behavior (all the students involved in the shoplifting incident were Black) that was inherent in the arrests. In addition, the Student Senate passed a resolution calling the bakery management racist, which was shared via campus email across the college. Worse still, an Oberlin College Vice President encouraged the protests, provided campus resources to the protesters, and even personally distributed fliers accusing the bakery owners of racism. Finally, to add injury to insult, Oberlin College banned the products of the bakery from sale on campus, causing grievous economic harm to this local family-owned business.
Now six years later the verdict in the libel suit filed by the owners of the bakery has been delivered by an Ohio appeals court: Oberlin College has been ordered to pay the $6.3 million in legal fees incurred by the plaintiffs and has also been socked with $25 million dollars in punitive damages. Although Oberlin College tried desperately to position their behavior as a free speech issue, all they ended up with was a $31 million black eye. It would be little surprise if the college now decided to try an appeal of the court’s verdict—what would they have to lose at this point?—but it seems they are likely to be on the hook for a huge sum of money, regardless.
The mob mentality that drove this whole unfortunate affair is not restricted to only one college campus. Organized attacks on random individuals, elected officials, public figures, campus groups, outside speakers, faculty members, fellow students, local businesses and organizations, and many others whose viewpoints incur the wrath of the eternally aggrieved are now a regular feature of campus life. As with our society as a whole, outrage has become the preferred vehicle for garnering attention and obtaining validation.
Anyone who has ever been young remembers the blithe—and often blind—self-regard that almost defines young adulthood. It has ever been so, and this sometimes misplaced self-confidence in one’s own wisdom is the fuel that drives the risk taking that is a necessary component of maturation. An adventuresome spirit requires a sometimes unrealistic belief in the unassailable correctness of one’s own judgment, so young adulthood is typically the time of life when wise adult counsel is especially important.
At one time the many mentors available on campus—a professor, a Dean, a staff member, a dormitory supervisor, a coach, a chaplain, or local alum—were expected to provide a steadying hand of guidance and help students to understand the complexities and contradictions of the world around them. Unfortunately, it now seems to be the case that the sober adults are many times the cheerleaders and enablers of student excesses that teach few lessons which can carry over into responsible and successful adulthoods.
Passion is wonderful; intellectual vandalism is quite another matter altogether.
Many of our elite colleges and universities are failing to help students to understand how their individual rights are connected to their responsibilities toward others. The glaring and obnoxious example of this phenomenon now winding to a close at Oberlin College is but one instance of an institutional mob mentality that now pervades so many of our nation’s private colleges and universities. Name an elite private college or university in our nation today, and you need not dig too deeply to find sad episodes of mob justice that have harmed lives, careers, and businesses associated with those schools.
The founders of America were primarily concerned with circumscribing the powers of government in order to avoid tyranny. Having driven the English King and his servants from our shores, the architects of our Constitution were acutely aware of how our liberties must be guarded from abuses of power, and since its ratification in 1788 this extraordinary and durable document has done an excellent—though obviously not perfect—job of restraining the worst excesses of unchecked governmental power.
However, in recent years brutish and destructive powers have been less a problem in American government than in the non-governmental institutions of our nation—in particular at our private colleges and universities.
Unmoored from the legislative oversight existing at those public institutions of higher education funded with state tax revenues and beholden to legislative control, these often extraordinarily expensive private educational enterprises seem to have decided their proper societal role is to bully Americans with the economic power and public trust that has been granted to them. Whether this is a function that is reasonable, warranted, and helpful is a question worth raising, but during the censorious times we now live in, it is rare that anyone dares to ask.
When careers and money are on the line, a certain studied silence seems the preferred strategy. Inquiry might yield unwelcome answers that could prompt parents, students, and alumni to ask embarrassing questions—and eventually stop attending or supporting a particular school.
Multiple and depressing instances can easily be found of private colleges and universities abusing guest speakers and faculty while silencing students with threats of extra-legal punishments, poor grades, or expulsion.
Administrators, many of whom have been indoctrinated at leftist graduate schools of education, now see it as their duty to wield dictatorial power over the discourse permitted on their campuses. This has grated against our traditional notions of freedom of speech for many years, yet many private colleges and universities still choose to assert their own unfettered powers to abuse those deemed unworthy of the most basic protections enshrined in our Constitution. This combination of Woke administrators and punitive groupthink has been deadly to the free and open inquiry historically associated with higher education and has produced an intellectual terror that brooks neither interference nor dissent.
The question of why so many of those who should be the mentors are now the mischief makers is a worthy one. Although it is obvious that political norms on many private liberal arts campuses have shifted to the far, far left, this is not the whole story by any means.
Fear of becoming the target of an attack by campus Social Justice Warriors, who act with all the ferocious aplomb of Maoist Red Guards when they detect the least deviation from the approved orthodoxy of fear, panic, and paranoia, inhibits many who might otherwise step forward to suggest moderation of thought and action. It also must be noted that many jobs on campuses are now explicitly tasked with rooting out instances of bigotry—whether real or imagined—and those who love a steady paycheck will obviously be quick to rally to unsupported accusations and unthinking actions.
However, perhaps the most salient driving force behind the campus mob is both simple and depressing: We are experiencing the inevitable consequences of generations of broken homes, rotten role models, pharmaceutical companies and doctors numbing our children with powerful prescription medications, violent and sadistic entertainment, apocalyptic predictions of our imminent doom, an addiction to electronic devices that provide distraction but no real human connection, and the erosion of religion in our public and private lives. There are many villains in this story—and not nearly enough heroes.
Young people yearning for validation, retribution, and something to fill the emptiness in their souls are especially susceptible to the siren song of extremist thought. Disaffected youth have been the recruitment targets of demonic demagogues throughout the past century and a half, and we should shudder when we remember of how many bright university students once enthusiastically marched under the banners raised by the likes of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler.
We ignore the warnings emanating from the words and actions of the well-educated mob at our peril, and we should demand more accountability from those who encourage rage instead of introspection.
To continue as we are will cause us to lose yet another generation to the tenured merchants of hatred and divisiveness, who are today in control at so many of our elite private colleges and universities.