President Veitch discusses the erasure of boundaries between the ivory tower and the real world

The phrase “ivory tower” is an Old Testament term, but its first use in the modern sense—a happy state of privileged seclusion from the real world—was little more than a century ago. It is most commonly used as a pejorative to describe the esoteric pursuits of higher education. But to college presidents, the idea of a campus secluded from the real world seems as distant as the Old Testament prophets.

This spring alone, Occidental wrestled with issues including gentrification, adjunct faculty unionization, and divestment from companies doing business with Israel. While the intensity of these concerns may be greater today, the College has never lacked for controversy. In 1912, when trustees announced their decision to convert Oxy into an all-men’s school, it was a protest organized by outraged students and alumni that persuaded the administration to reverse itself. In spring 1940, students held a weeklong series of protests and events as part of a national mobilization to resist America’s entry into World War II. “There is still time to avert war,” The Occidental editorialized.

As the foregoing suggests, colleges are completely immersed in the real world, often defining major issues for the culture at large and setting the agenda for broader societal debates. Think of the way that the anti-war movement in the 1960s led to a reexamination of U.S. foreign policy, or more recently how controversies over sexual assault on college campuses helped set the stage for the #MeToo movement.

I often tell alumni who express concern about some incendiary incident on our campus that colleges and universities manufacture controversy the way Ford manufactures cars. The reason why is not hard to appreciate. Undergraduate education focuses on the transition from late adolescence to adulthood, when young people are coming to terms for the first time with a wider world filled with injustices of all kinds. They bring with them a heightened moral sensibility that hasn’t yet been leavened by experience. So it is not surprising that they want to change the world, and they want to change it now.

The erasure of boundaries between the ivory tower and the real world can be both a blessing and a curse. While that erasure ensures that the problems of the world are treated with the seriousness they deserve, those problems can also overwhelm the educational mission of the institution and the particular habits of mind it seeks to inculcate in its students. F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Try telling that to the activist on the barricades.

Too often our campus controversies have produced more heat than light. Most controversies do. Clark Kerr—the president of the UC system during the turbulent 1960s—once observed that most people mistakenly think that if we could all sit down and discuss our disagreements, we would eventually find common ground. What well-intentioned citizens don’t understand is that radicals want the “theater of confrontation.” Speaking truth to power is the typical model for student-driven change. One can argue that historically it has been effective, and there is an emotional resonance to the theatricality that has contributed to meaningful social change.

But that approach has its limitations. That is because the most impassioned and committed members of our community sometimes valorize moral certainty over moral complexity and the theater of confrontation over thoughtful exchange. As a result, minority views are drowned out by the orthodoxies of the loudest. I’m convinced that substantive conversations are taking place between people who disagree—most likely, late at night among friends in the dormitory. And I know they take place in our classrooms—though perhaps not as often as they should. But they rarely take place in the public sphere where they are most needed.

We tout the importance of critical thinking, but I’m not sure we know what that means. Many seem to define it as a blanket distrust of authority. One of our most urgent problems is that there is such a deep and corrosive suspicion of authority that we have lost all faith in our institutions—whether churches, government, or higher education. It seems to me that institution building requires more than skepticism of authority; it takes an entirely different set of muscles to build an institution into something that has value and is sustainable.

This spring we had a series of discussions between student activists and senior administration, as well as between students and the Board of Trustees. That is an important first step toward thoughtful exchange. But the issues of gentrification, adjunct faculty unionization, and divestment remain. If these issues were easy, we would have solved them by now. They are not easy. There are a multitude of factors involved that make them infernally complex. We owe it to ourselves as a community to foster an environment where we can talk to each other about those complexities with candor and responsiveness.

Jonathan Veitch