Leadership & Governance

An Internet Troll Is Invited to Speak: What’s a College President to Do?

February 10, 2017

Ted S. Warren, AP Images
Ana Mari Cauce, president of the U. of Washington, resisted the pleas of students who wanted her to block a conservative provocateur from speaking on the campus last month.
The emotional wounds on college campuses have been raw since November. Campuses tend to lean liberal, and the election of Donald J. Trump as president has been seen as a rebuke to the values of higher education.

Into those wounds, the right-wing provocateur and internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos has arrived like a bottle of salt. The Breitbart editor has appeared on many campuses over the past two years to perform one-liners and political commentaries designed to offend the sensibilities of liberals who have embraced a vocabulary of inclusivity and political correctness.

College leaders have faced pressure to bar Mr. Yiannopoulos and other speakers, such as the white supremacist Richard Spencer, from speaking on their campuses. Administrators have been forced to weigh the value of promoting free speech against the desire not to become a staging ground for ideas they find detestable.

Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, did not intervene last month to block Mr. Yiannopoulos, who had been invited to the campus by a student Republican club, despite the pleas of other students who worried that his message fundamentally promoted hatred and harassment of women, gay people, people from racial and ethnic minority groups, and other vulnerable groups.

The situation put Ms. Cauce in a difficult position, not least because of her own background as a gay immigrant whose brother was murdered by white supremacists, and whose own academic career in psychology left her with a deep understanding of the emotional plight of people who have seen their rights curtailed throughout history.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Q. The events surrounding Mr. Yiannopoulos’s visit to your campus started a debate there about striking a balance between preserving free-speech rights and preserving students’ reasonable sense of safety on campus, both physically and emotionally. How do you try to strike that balance?

A. I think it’s important to put in perspective that the Yiannopoulos visit brought things to a boiling point. These issues had been there. One of the things that I think is so wonderful about a university is that, in so many ways, it’s the commons. It’s really important to preserve that commons. One thing I think it’s really important that we not do is to have our campuses become gated communities in order to try to maintain safety.

We have a pamphlet that we’re developing for students called "Building Community in Challenging Times." Obviously, we’re looking at structural issues. I just sent a letter to all members of our community that had a box in it with all the various resources available — for faculty, on having difficult conversations in the classroom, to where international students could get information, to our "safe campus" numbers.

But I think the most important thing that we need to do is to double down on our mission and provide students with the strong analytic tools they need to be able to do critical analysis. How do we model for our students how to have discourse that sheds light, not heat?

Q. One of the things that makes the university’s job so difficult is that the language of coming together, being rational, developing critical-thinking skills, and being careful and empathetic in debate are not as exciting as the language Mr. Yiannopoulos uses. Blunt expressions of political allegiance will always be more exciting than a university pamphlet. How do you try to make up the gap?

A. I’m going to take a little bit of issue with you. One of the emails that I got after the Yiannopoulos incident was from an ex-president of the student government who had been here in the ’70s. She had been the first female president since World War II. [Student leaders then] wanted to inform students more about contraception, STDs, all of those issues. They put together a pamphlet called "How to Have Intercourse Without Getting Screwed." Which was a relatively dry pamphlet, but they were able to really do a grabber.

She wrote me to say there had been a lot of pressure on the university to censor it because it was "pornographic," that it led to immoral and unhealthy lifestyles. That’s the other side of why we need to be careful about free speech.

Q. Colleges can do fun headlines, too.

A. Yeah. You can see I don’t do it well, because I’m used to talking in paragraphs, not short sentences, but we do need to find ways to make this more compelling.

“One of the reasons why we let Yiannopoulos go on is that how can you shut him down and not shut down a Black Lives Matter protest?”
But I want to be clear that there is space for protest, as well as space for having more measured dialogues in the classroom. And one of the reasons why we let Yiannopoulos go on is that how can you shut him down and not shut down a Black Lives Matter protest?

It’s not a question of shutting down those places that are more emotional. I’m a clinical psychologist, and sometimes what you need is to be with community and feel empowered. And walking around campus and having students join you and having catchy signs — I mean, look at the women’s march, it’s a perfect example. But it can’t displace the hard, cold, analytic work that we need to do. That, if nothing else, will point us to where we need to march.

Q. You recommended before Mr. Yiannopoulos came to campus that people who are disgusted by his tactics simply ignore him, since he clearly thrives on the attention of his haters. At the same time, as you said, we’ve seen a lot of people taking to the streets and chanting because they think this political moment calls for a strong display more than a quiet decision not to engage. Do you think that ignoring someone like Mr. Yiannopoulos is a reasonable thing to expect of college students who feel they are under attack?

A. I never said "ignore," I said "stay away." There’s a difference. Look, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Folks need to think about how to use their energy and how to be strategic. What strategy do you want to use in what situation? The reason why I believed that he was not the most strategic thing to protest is that that’s what he feeds off, that’s what he makes money off.

Think about it for a second. If there had been no protest, what you’d see is a line of mostly white men, who might be described by some as "macho," standing in line for hours to see a gay man in a boa in essence perform camp.

Q. Milo Yiannopoulos is not the only outsider who’s interested in turning a public college campus into a staging ground for free speech. There are also his opponents, especially the anti-fascist and anarchist protesters who follow him around. How do you try to manage the risk they pose to students and campus property while also respecting their free-speech rights? I imagine a crowd of people, who may be capable of violence or destruction, is a lot harder to manage than a traveling speaker and his entourage.

A. Look, I don’t want to take anything away from the fact that someone was shot. That was horrendously awful. But we had over 200 police officers there, most of them from the Seattle Police Department, who have had a lot experience dealing with protests. Over all, it was contained. Not that many yards away there were people skateboarding. Any student could get from one place to another and avoid it. I think we were prepared for it, and people did the very best job that they could.

I think it’s important to step back. We have something like 50,000 students on our campus, and I don’t know how many employees. We’re a small city. And if you look at us as a small city, this is an incredibly safe place.

Q. There’s a lot of anger on college campuses right now, especially since November. As a college president, and also as a human being, how have you dealt with the fact that a lot of that anger has been redirected at you and at decisions that students have held you responsible for regarding Mr. Yiannopoulos?

A. I do some of the things I suggest students do. I’ve taught a course on stress and coping, and one of the things we often do when we’re under stress is we forget to do the positive parts of our lives. For me it’s going to the gym, it’s making sure that I find time to engage in life-affirming events. We have a top-rated women’s basketball team, and it was just fabulous to be out there watching the players. You do have to do the positive things that feed you.

I’ve joked before that when I write my memoir it’s going to be called "Confessions of an Administrator, or How I Became a Straight White Man." Because I am "the man," and I know that. There’s me as a person, and me as the president. Sometimes those overlap, and occasionally they’re not the same. I won’t say I don’t feel these things deeply. I do. But a lot of them just aren’t personal. They’re about what students want me to do. Perhaps rightly so, they attribute and awful lot of power to this position and to this university.

There are bad things out there in the world, and right now they’re heightened. I think people would love to have someone if not get rid of those things then at least protect them. I get that, and I would love with all my heart and soul to be able to do that. I can’t.

Q. I want to ask about online harassment and "doxxing." Current technology creates an environment of fear for professors and students — especially undocumented students, for example — who may be looking over their shoulders wondering if somebody on campus might be trying to film them with the intent of distributing their personal information to a bunch of strangers on the internet who want to attack them. What power does the university have to reduce that fear?

A. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to see the very same students who less than year ago were marching with a banner that said "undocumented and unafraid" — and really feeling that way, faces exposed — now wearing bandanas over their faces when they feel someone might be filming them. It has a chilling effect on our students and on our campus.

We do have some resources here to help students do things like scrub their webpages, get stuff off of Facebook. But I have to say that with this level of cybercrime we’re in uncharted territory.

“There are people who really want me to promise that I can keep them safe. I can't make that promise.”
When I was a practicing clinical psychologist I can remember a few of my child clients who, when their parents couldn’t bring them in, I wanted to pick them up at home and practically adopt them. And one of my supervisors said, "Don’t promise more than you can deliver." I think there are people who really want me to promise that I can keep them safe. I can’t make that promise.

I would also point out what we would lose in trying to keep that promise. Do we want a gated university? What would we be losing? I think if we get to that point where we tell students, Don’t go on social media, don’t put your picture on the university website, it seems like whoever "they" are, they’ve already won.

Q. One of the reasons why I bring this up is because a graduate student and an instructor has argued that by inviting Mr. Yiannopoulos to campus, it brought other elements to the campus, and to the campus area, that resulted in him becoming the subject of abuse and harassment online, and that the university is responsible for that.

A. Well, let me be very clear: I did not invite Mr. Yiannopoulos to speak on campus. A registered student group did that.

Q. I guess I meant "allowing."

A. I just want to be very clear about that, because that’s an important distinction that is getting lost in all this. Just yesterday in Inside Higher Ed there were reports of increased incidences of neo-Nazi posters and fliers on campuses that never had him as a speaker. I mean, clearly this brought things to a head, but I do not think that if we hadn’t had him on campus then we would be free of the same kinds of situations that other campuses are dealing with all over the country.

These groups have been emboldened. I’ve taught a class on stereotypes and prejudice, and those things can be activated without a whole lot of effort. I can send you some studies. What we have is a situation in which election rhetoric ran very high, immigrants were talked about as potential rapists. All those kinds of things have activated a lot of our worst impulses. And we’re going to have to struggle with how to get those back in the box.

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.