A Small College Is Suffering from Self-inflicted Wounds

Recently, one of my neighbors saw students from Elizabethtown College, where I taught for many years, walking down the street wearing what looked like the puzzle pieces featured as symbols by Autistic Awareness.

When he asked why they were wearing the all-white puzzle pieces, one of the coeds proudly explained that they were dramatizing the outrage of “white privilege.” About 50 students and alums had pledged to wear these puzzle pins for the next month, until everyone became sensitive to how we were oppressing blacks.

A detailed Daily Mail story concerning this campaign against “white privilege” informed readers, “The school’s 203-acre campus is situated in Lancaster County, where according to the latest US Census data from 2015, more than 90 percent of the population is white.” The article also featured a picture of our administrative building, which it noted was packed full of white people. The borough where the president of the College Democrats wants “to get people to talk openly about race and white privilege” is likewise overwhelmingly white.

The student handing out puzzle pins poured her heart out to the local CBS affiliate with these words: “People of color have to wake up everyday and think about race and just about their life. What they have to do to not negatively impact their life. As a white person we don’t usually have to think about that.”

If this young woman is as deeply concerned as she suggests about the presumed suffering of blacks in the U.S., she should go somewhere where she can find some to help. The few blacks who live in Lancaster County don’t need her help and live here precisely because they want to wake up each morning without having to fear the crime that infests our large cities.

One of our close friends in the borough happens to be a black woman, an accountant, who voted for Trump. She scoffs at the idea that the problems of many black Americans are caused by the “privileges” enjoyed by whites.

The British paper correctly underlined the hypocrisy of whites pretending to be advocating for oppressed blacks while choosing to reside in a lily-white environment. This is the dirty little secret at Elizabethtown that I indiscreetly revealed in newspaper articles while I held an endowed chair at the college.

For decades, some of our departments, such as social work, education, and communications, have been full of young radicals who opt for a college that is at a safe distance from the minorities whom they claim to be championing. More than one such student has complained to me: “We don’t recruit enough students from inner cities to give us diversity.” To that I usually responded: “If you want diversity, then why don’t you go to a college in a black neighborhood, say Temple in Philadelphia?” This invariably caused the complainer to walk away.

The adolescents sporting the puzzle pins exemplify the prevailing spirit at the institution, but such grandstanding hasn’t always been the custom at the college. When I arrived there in the 1980s, Elizabethtown College seemed to be on the right path, educationally, fiscally, and in most other ways.

The president who hired me, Gerhard Spiegler, was a German scholar who hoped to make the institution into a first-rate center of learning. Spiegler hoped to elevate academic standards for students and faculty alike, and he practiced Teutonic thrift by keeping the size and salaries of the administration exceedingly low. He was hated by most of the old guard on campus, particularly by the faculty with terminal master’s degrees in education who taught their courses, as he would say, on “automatic pilot.”

Spiegler also hired assistants who were able to increase the school’s meager endowment and to raise funds for new buildings. Among the buildings that he arranged to erect were a state-of-the-art library and an Anabaptist Center, created for the study of the German Pietist sect that had established Elizabethtown College in 1899. He worked energetically to retain the loyalty of traditional Brethren alumni and donors and continued to look upon their coreligionists as a recruiting base.

Unlike much of the faculty, Spiegler leaned politically toward the Right and had no patience for academic agitators, especially for troublemakers who combined radical political views with a lack of professional accomplishments. Unfortunately, the troublemakers outlasted Spiegler, who laid down his duties in 1996.

During the next two administrations, the troublemakers got the “hope of change” they thought they wanted. It came in the form of lavishly salaried administrators (certainly by comparison to those who preceded them), rapidly escalating tuition, and a shifting emphasis at the college from a strict Pietist environment to the PC fad du jour, lately “white privilege.”

I’ve never seen an institution change so fundamentally within just a few years. The changes came on a number of fronts.

The cultural transformation moved from such Anabaptist-sounding activities as peace studies, to diversity deans and diversity studies through consciousness-raising events for blacks, women, and gays, “safe spaces” for LGBT, and special living arrangements for the transgendered. Black History and Women’s Months went on interminably and brought to the college a steady stream of outraged victim speakers.

Such commotions served a practical as well as ideological function. They gave special prominence to non-ideational disciplines (that is, majors that are more open to expressing grievances than teaching written bodies of knowledge), and the social justice exhibitionists are usually drawn from the students and faculty in these areas. Not insignificantly, those departments are now the cash cows at the college: they don’t require much in the way of equipment and have delivered loads of tuition-bearing students.

Needless to say, there’s no way the college could return to its historic Anabaptist roots. When I retired six years ago, less than one percent of the students belonged to one of the German “peace churches” once heavily represented at the college. The largest religious denomination among the student body is now Catholic, and our students, faculty, and administrators all lean strongly toward the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But the increasing emphasis on PC and diversity is bringing declining benefits. The incurious students who praise “hands-on learning” (which typically involves little serious learning) seem less and less likely to choose a middling college with a price tag of $55,000 a year. (Even with the negotiated bargains given to prospective buyers, the average yearly cost is around $30,000.) Students can major in primary education, social work, and communications for considerably less at a state institution, where they can also do their demonstrating.

In a nutshell, the college has become too expensive for what it offers its average student; an erosion of the customer base has started. Since 2009, the student body has declined from 1,866 to 1,707 and the school is encountering increasing difficulty meeting its annual goal of 450 entering freshmen. This year it trimmed $3 million from its budget. Justified fear has set in among the faculty that further savings will be extracted from their salaries and benefits.

It’s hard to imagine why one would go to Elizabethtown to partake of a uniqueness that no longer exists. If someone wants safe spaces for LGBT or intends to march against “white privilege,” why choose an expensive college that’s unknown to people outside our region?

Some things have improved at the college since I began teaching. There are more buildings and faculty, and the faculty is on the whole better credentialed than it was in the 1980s. Our diligent students are more likely to be accepted into the better professional schools and graduate programs than thirty years ago. Elizabethtown College has also in recent years produced Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars, an accomplishment that should give it far better bragging privileges than social justice grandstanding.

The school could have made those improvements without the disastrous decisions. It could have kept costs lower, avoided administrative bloating, been more selective about the students it admitted, and aimed at the academic excellence that always seemed pushed to the back in official statements about the college’s goals.

Administrators and their faculty enablers could have built on their traditional Protestant, regional heritage. Instead, they exchanged that heritage for the chance to become a caricature of Berkeley. The college is now hurting.

  • DrOfnothing

    The author, by his own admission, is closely associated with the early alt-Right movement, and takes credit for creating the term and calling for the creation of the the movement in 2008 (see link below). The origins of the alt-right lie in a collaboration between Gottfried and Richard Spencer to create an alternative to the moderate Conservatism of George W. Bush, whom they thought had betrayed the ideology. About Spencer, he has written: “I know well perhaps the most controversial member of this group, Richard Spencer, and once enjoyed a close personal relation with him. Richard has a charismatic presence, in contrast to the nebbishes for Hillary; and he possesses the self-confidence of a genuine leader.”

    He has identified traditional conservatism as “Paleoconservatism,” is especially scornful of neoconservatives, and has openly expressed his “repugnance for their shallow ideas and grubby personalities.”

    That having been said, he has not supported the overt racism that that characterizes Spencer and the alt-right today. A brief history of the movement, and Gottfried’s early involvement, can be found here:

    My understanding of the JMC was that they were standard-bearers of traditional Conservatism, so to see so extreme a figure given a public platform sans any context for his ideas is alarming, to say the least. Gottfried’s praise for Spencer, a known white-supremacist, despite his statement that he has occasionally been “reckless,” is unconscionable, as is his labelling of those who criticise the alt-right leaader as “black race hustlers.”

    • ShermanLogan

      So I followed your link to the frontpagemag article. It does not say what you say it says.

      He simply does not label “those who criticise the alt-right leader (Spencer) as “black race hustlers.”

      He says, “Admittedly black race hustlers and feminists say far more horrible things than Richard, and they get away with them.”

      This is simply not the same thing as labeling critics of Spencer. The statement itself is also quite indisputably accurate, with the recent tweet by a professor at Drexel U. “All I want for Christmas is white genocide,” as just one of the most recent examples. Imagine the consequences for any professor who tweeted the same words, changing only one.

      But in Ciccariello-Maher’s case, he was not fired or demoted, and there was a public backlash-to-the-backlash defending him.


      • DrOfnothing

        That’s a good point, I’ve edited my original comment from “labelling” to “referring to,” which is more accurate.

        • ShermanLogan

          Thank you for your courteous reply.

    • CommentPurgatory

      You’re such a fibber. You are exactly arguing that JMC should refuse him a platform.

      • DrOfnothing

        Not at all–I value open, honest discussion of these issues. As I say at the end, however, I am curious what this means in terms of JMC’s stance/position on the Conservative spectrum. In another context, one of the two executive officers of the JMC very adamantly rejected the alt-right, but this seems to contradict that assertion. Does the publication of Gottfried’s analysis constitute the JMC’s endorsement of his views on other topics? I don’t think so, even though this is the third of his articles they’ve published. But to someone who respects (albeit in disagreement) traditional Conservative values, against which Gottfried has vehemently arrayed himself, it raises a warning flag.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Thank you for the balancing context — “frontstage” versus “backstage,” to use the terminology of sociologist Erving Goffman.

      Given either narrative, however, having students walking around wearing jig-saw puzzle pieces must look silly or ridiculous. Self-defined by the wearers, it is something akin to a dunce’s cap (racism issue aside).

      But this is no joke for those struggling with poverty and structural racism — United Way of Florida has just updated their ALICE report on those that are “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed”. Ironically, given a worsening economic situation, those puzzle-piece wearers are now more likely to find themselves in the same situation as those whose plight they want to draw attention to. http://www.uwof.org/alice

    • BenjaminL

      How extraordinarily magnanimous that you should deem the JMC can be permitted to allow Professor Gottfried to speak, given that he has not, as yet, become irredeemably, deplorably, “radical,” rather than “mainstream.”

      “I am not, in any way, denying the man the right to speak, or arguing that JMC should refuse him a platform to express his views on education at Elizabethtown College. But one must wonder if the the publication of Gottfried’s polemic indicates that the JMC is veering towards a stance on educational and social issues that is more in tune with the radical elements of contemporary Conservatism (or, to be more blunt, extremist nationalism) rather than with the mainstream.”

    • Publius

      Typical Alinsky smear tactics. Isolate and personalize the target (Gottfried) and cut it off from sympathy. However, you convince no one with a liberal arts education. You crammed Foucault down our throats, so we recognize your smear as an act of aggression spoken from a position of privilege in the academic-industrial complex.

      • DrOfnothing

        I don’t think pointing out the fact that he was, by his own admission, part of the founding of the alt-right and a collaborator of Richard Spencer is a “smear.” It’s simply a statement of fact. And then there’s the factual inaccuracies . . .

        • Publius

          If you are a serious person you should be able to explain how Prof. Gottfried’s friends and political views are in any way relevant to his article or grounds for “concern”. Otherwise a thinking person must conclude you are out to delegitimize prof Gottfied by imparting guilt by association.

      • Jens Thomas Praestgaard

        You attempt to silence Prof. Gottfried’s view by imparting guilt by association under the veneer of “concern” and “context”. Straight out of social justice 101. But to thinking persons all you end up doing is outing yourself and your phobias: “obscure”, “parochial”, snide remarks about “Teuronic”, the occasional French “sans” thrown in for status signaling.

  • bizowner

    I recently saw the story on the news about Elizabethtown college and their “white privilege” expression. While I have no history or understanding of the college’s background, from watching the story and listening to the students, it is fairly obvious that this school (like many others its size) is suffering from the problem of having a price tag that only allows the wealthy to attend. Yes, they are white and, yes, there are privileged but they are not privileged because they are white. They are white because of the location of the school. They are privileged because their parents or families (at some point in the past) worked hard to build enough wealth to be able to afford attendance at a school such as this. These kids grew up in such a bubble that they can’t tell the difference between their own, individual privilege and what their professors and administration tell them is white privilege.
    My kids went to public school and there were minorities and whites in these schools. They all had access to the same teachers, the same programs and the same learning environment. I find the term white privilege to be horribly self indulgent. How dare you assume that something you can’t change and didn’t ask for (being white) is somehow something that you need to be “aware of”? In 2017, there are few, if any, minorities that are afforded less access to the basic fundamentals of education through public schools. If one student partakes of the opportunities and one does not, why is that a racial issue?
    My kids are privileged because I worked hard – much harder than any of the students that are wearing those white puzzle pieces will ever work in their entire lives. Don’t kid yourself America, you aren’t privileged just because you are white and the world isn’t stacked against you just because you are a minority. The world is stacked against you if you aren’t willing to plan and work harder than anyone else you know. It doesn’t matter if you are white or black or brown or yellow if you aren’t willing to take responsibility for your future. Succeeding in this world is so easy in the current time because you don’t even need to be great. All you need to do is “suck less” than your peers and it just isn’t that hard to rise to the top when there’s so many people (whites especially) who are mediocre at best in their abilities.
    Colleges are becoming a commodity and, as such, people will purchase their services based on their perceived and real ROI. Elizabethtown and other small colleges better wake up and realize that college is no longer a place to “sit and think”. A college education is now just a business investment and the ROI on that investment determines its value. Students – stop wasting time on feeling bad about your race and start working on building yourself into a product that someone will want to hire.

  • Paul Gottfried

    I’ve no idea how the fact that I had a part in coining the term “alternative right” disqualifies my critical comments about political correctness on American campuses. I don’t know who my detractor is, but if he bothered to read most of the references to me as “godfather of the altright,” he’d notice that even leftist websites like Slate do not attribute to me the views on race they associate with Richard Spencer. These references call attention to my differences with neoconservatives, but I’m not sure how these differences indicate that my comments on “white privilege” exhibitionists are wrong.