Political Correctness

'Unbridled and Performative Student Activism Is a Disease of Affluence': Camille Paglia Edition

Some students at the University of the Arts want the firebrand feminist fired. Where did they get the idea they should be picking faculty?


Camille Paglia, the controversial literary and social critic who identifies both as queer and trans, is drawing fire yet again. Students at her own institution, the University of the Arts (UArts) in Philadelphia, are calling for her to be fired. An online petition, currently with over 1,300 signatures, reads in part:

Camille Paglia should be removed from UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of color. If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the University must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault.

Another demand in the petition is that, if she can't be canned, the university will stop selling Paglia's books on campus and permanently disallow her from speaking on campus outside of her own classes. Although it's mostly non-faculty speakers who get deplatformed, Paglia is merely the latest target being attacked by students from her own institution. Students at Sarah Lawrence, for instance, are calling for political scientist Samuel Abrams to be fired for writing an op-ed in The New York Times calling for ideological diversity among administrators.

Paglia's critics claim that, despite her own alternative sexual identity, she is so hostile and bigoted towards trans people that her mere presence on campus constitutes an insult or threat. There's no question that she has been dismissive of some claims made by trans people and, even more so, dismissive of students who claim that being subjected to speech with which they disagree is a form of trauma. But Paglia has been teaching at UArts for over 30 years, so what caused this particular outrage? As The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf summarizes:

This month's protests began when it was announced that Paglia would give a lecture titled "Ambiguous Images:  Sexual Duality and Sexual Multiplicity in Western Art."… Two student activists…brought this lecture to the student body's attention through social media and raised their concerns to Title IX and other University administration about the school giving Camille a platform. This led to the University reaching out to ​Deja Lynn Alvarez, a local transgender activist, to facilitate a talk-back after Camille's lecture. Students were informed the day before the lecture that Camille had no plans to stay for the talk-back.

One of the people behind the anti-Paglia protest is Joseph McAndrews, a self-described "trans-masculine, non-binary Writing for Film and Television junior at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia." Writing at Queerty, McAndrews says they asked administrators, including the UArts' president, that "the event be moved off campus where it would not feel unsafe for LGBTQ students." After getting no response, McAndrews organized a sit-in during the lecture, which was disrupted by a fire alarm (they say "the alarm was never part of our plan, and no one knows who did it").

The day after the lecture (and protest, which included a "talk-back" session in which students vented their concerns to five faculty, none of whom was Paglia), University of the Arts President David Yager sent out an email that supported free speech and academic freedom. It reads in part:

I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence….

I believe this resolve holds even greater importance at an art school. Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts.

The University of the Arts is committed to the exercise of free speech and academic freedom, to addressing difficult or controversial issues and ideas through civil discussion, with respect for those who hold opinions different from our own.

"Students around the country are being called fascist simply because they have to fight to be heard," McAndrews laments while also putting forth what might be called a "consumer's rights" argument regarding their complaint:

I pay way too much tuition (around $34k after aid and that's not including room and board) to attend this university to just sit idly by and allow injustices such as this go unnoticed.

That's an interesting twist to an otherwise standard-issue story of enraged students making extreme demands on a university (fire this professor! eliminate inauthentic ethnic food from the cafeteria! censor this movie!). College, after all, is in a very basic sense, an economic exchange between students and institutions. In other parts of our lives, we negotiate the buyer-seller exchange all the time by complaining when we're unhappy, learning to live with goods or services with which we're dissatisfied, or choosing to take our business elsewhere (this is somewhat akin to the ideas of voice, loyalty, and exit as articulated by Albert O. Hirschman). Aren't students simply exercising their "voice" by demanding change?

Not when it comes to faculty and academic requirements, says Tom Nichols, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College and is the author of The Death of Expertise. Such demands from students are "inimical to the entire premise of tenure and academic freedom," he writes in The Atlantic. "This is the kind of demand that sounds like it could have come out of China during the Cultural Revolution—if Maoists had been as obsessed with race and sexuality as they were with class." There is, he continues, something fundamentally wrong with

…students demanding a say in the hiring and firing of faculty whose views they merely happen not to like. This is a dangerous development—a triple threat to free speech, to the education of future citizens, and to the value of a college education.

Nichols argues—persuasively, to my mind—that the economic exchange between students and the college they attend is a particular sort of bargain. He notes that students really have little or no expertise in any of the subjects in which they're being instructed and hence are in a particularly bad position from which to evaluate which faculty should be promoted or fired. He runs through examples of students lobbying for less work (this happened recently at Brown, where students "demanded less schoolwork so that they could devote more effort to their 'social-justice responsibilities'"). "To some extent," writes Nichols, "unbridled and performative student activism is a disease of affluence," since students who are working or pulling long hours to complete coursework have less time for extracurricular activities of all sorts. He also argues:

Students must be reminded that they petitioned the institution for entry, and not the other way around; they asked the university to allow them to enter into a contract in which the professors are obligated to educate them and they are obligated to fulfill the requirements that will allow those professors to recommend them to the university for graduation.

This doesn't mean that students can't voice dissatisfaction with any aspect of the school they attend or that they are restricted either to exercising exit (transfer elsewhere) or loyalty (shut up already). But Nichols is surely right that giving control over faculty hiring and firing decisions would yield a university that is not only profoundly dumber than it is now but also less intellectually adventurous and free. It's not hard to see that institutions that did give students broad powers to dictate faculty would see their reputations diminished, which in turn would mean fewer students applying for admission in the first place.

If there is going to be pushback against the type of demand University of the Arts students are making, faculty really need to step up. Nichols mentions in passing that this trend toward student power started in the late 1960s and that "some of the grievances of campus protesters—from racism and sexism to the possibility of being sent to die in Southeast Asia—made sense." Since then, faculty have mostly abdicated their role in actually governing the university, happy to outsource that task to a proliferating number of administrators and student-life professionals so they can get on with research and teaching. In this, he sounds more than a little like Camille Paglia, who zeroed in on this same issue in a 2016 interview with Reason, saying, "It's a nightmare, an outrage, and none of the faculty have fought back [against student-directed political correctness on campus]….They pretend to be leftists, they're pygmys; they are passive worms, not to fight back against the bureaucrats."

That's the sort of attitude, of course, that keeps getting Paglia in trouble. And one of the reasons why she has been such an influential public intellectual for decades.

Watch that 2016 interview now:

I also interviewed Paglia in 2015. Read and watch that here.

Virginia Postrel interviewed Paglia back in 1995. Read it here.