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What the Devil won't tell you

A note to UA's new president: In my day, we didn't have 'safe places'

Presumptive university chief missed chance to smack down over-sensitivity

The University of Arizona's presumptive next president expertly fielded questions Wednesday from students, faculty and staff and it was like an improv act.

The key to good improv is similar to the key to taking over a bureaucracy. The trick is to “say yes” to whatever the questioner had in mind — Dr. Robert Clayton Robbins obliged ahead of his pending appointment by the Arizona Board of Regents next week.

Defend research dollars? Yes. He'll do that.

Encourage the humanities? Yes. He'll encourage the humanities.

Get to know students? You bet he'll get to know students. He's already been chatting up the student body under the guise of a parent considering sending his kid to the UA.

Robbins, the president and CEO of Texas Medical Center, is smart enough to know when you are taking over a large institution it's best to act like the soon-to-be step dad getting to know the kids. “No, I'm not going to completely disrupt your lives … at first.” He delivered a fine performance and did what he had to do but ...

I do however kinda-sorta wish that he had the huevos to say “no” to some of the questions — because they had an all-too-familiar self-righteous bossiness to them.

The students who asked questions of him weren't there to discuss tuition, equal emphasis on undergraduate teaching and graduate research or how he would deal with inevitable budget cuts. They wanted to know would he make marginalized communities feel safe. UA Students for Sustainability asked — nee demanded — he reduce the school's climate footprint. And a trendy-looking student in a Coca-Colonionalism T-shirt tried to lay down the law on the "Dreamers" (kids brought to this country illegally whom the Board of Regents allow to go to pay in-state tuition).

In a vacuum and tone aside, these questions were laudable. However they're not in a vacuum. The Dyson is busted a week after zero-sum liberal students at Connecticut's Middlebury College turned Charles Murray into a free-speech martyr. The treatment of Milo Yiannopoulos — a useless d-bag if there ever was one — turned into Donald Trump's first re-election ad in the time it took to start one fire.

Elements of the Millennial Left have gone full Falwell, radically expanding "cultural appropriation" into a war on Westerners doing yoga, dissing the Vagina Monologues and conjuring the term "micro-aggression." The world must be wiped clean of all that might offend them.

In this vein, Wilbur the Wildcat and A Mountain are ticking time bombs.

So my spine seizes up when I hear the would-be president of my alma mater say things like: “All the students should know we feel empathy for their situation. We'll provide them a safe space here on campus at all times.”

To be clear, Robbins made that statement while answering a question about Dreamers who may face deportation under President Trump.

The inquisitive students were nibbling around the edges of liberal orthodoxy just enough to warrant a much broader answer: "I will tend to your physical safety but I will make you as intellectually unsafe as humanly possible."

On this, I know what of what I speak so allow me to channel my inner Grandpa Simpson because my college days were spent entirely behind enemy lines.

Old-school stranger danger

We now flash back to the Age of Reagan. I can tell you exactly when Reaganism hit its height. It was the two weeks between Jan. 11 and Jan. 25, 1987. My Beloved Denver BroncosTM had just earned a trip to the Super Bowl against the in-every-way superior New York Giants.

The Big Blue Wrecking Crew was established as two-touchdown favorites. So a Bronco victory would be a Cinderella story. The UA campus was so freaking conservative at that time that I only found support for the Giants. My friends, classmates and fellow dorm dwellers provided the same answer: Underdog, schmunderdog. The weak must be destroyed (and they were).

On campus during the 1980s, students studying the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire pulled for the fire.

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When Gov. Evan Mecham killed MLK Day in 1987, students didn't protest. They seemed to fall in line, arguing that civil rights may deserve a holiday but that socialist my uncles bitched about did not.

At parties or in bars, when I would meet people they would ask my major. “Journalism and Political Science,” I would answer. As often as not, some white guy with a crewcut would take a sip off his beer, ponder my answer and take a step back. “Oh. So you are a liberal.” Soon enough it was me against eight guys named Matt going round and round about supply-side economics until the second wave of nine guys named Sean jumped in defending apartheid in South Africa. There went my Saturday night.

You know what? It was glorious.

Even better were the Poli Sci courses I took from conservatives like Donald Hall, Kenneth Godwin, in which I was a hand-raiser (go figure). At no point did big minds like Clifford Lytle say to the 20-year-old me “take your leftist claptrap out the door.” They encouraged the engagement.

My intellectual chops are debatable. I was called a “tard” just recently on Facebook. But I am undeniably less of a “tard” for having had to be taken out of my comfort zone repeatedly during my college years. Surrounded and outnumbered by right-wingers during the days of kegs and textbooks made me smarter.

And if me using the word “tard” offends you or you think I should have written t---, then you aren't vain. This column is about you.

Not talking all students

I don't like the term PC and we're not talking about "kids today." Political Correctness is a neat way to belittle a century of social progress and justify white identity politics. Millions of college kids go to school and don't demand therapy at the first reference to Sean Hannity.

In the middle of last decade, I was an adjunct instructor of journalism at the UA. I was warned ahead of time that the students were different than the students in my day. So I girded up for war only to find out fast that the only difference between students circa 2005 and 1988 were that the new ones were slaves to their cell phones like we wore Walkmans. Aside from that, they were almost exactly like we were in all manners save politics. Campuses had shifted to the left.

I didn't run into that problem and I imagine today most students are pretty remain committed in varying degrees to academics, drinking and hooking up.

One thing I was warned about that sorta proved true was that students felt like customers and customers like being right. Sorta throws a cold water on grading. Robbins, right up front, defined students this way early in his talk.

If they are customers, they are paying for the right to be afflicted.

I don't know how you teach kids how to approach blood-and-guts journalism without taking students out of their comfort zone. Journalists must live in the middle of an argument without joining in it. You go far if you don't just tolerate different opinions but figure out how to respect them. So I damned sure don't know how you teach political science where the argument is half the fun.

All students? Most students? Doesn't matter. All it takes is one or two of them to take a class right off the rails.

And if students wake up one day to decide A Mountain is just a manifestation of white supremacy, their president telling them to cool their jets will be a white guy from Mississippi via Texas. Oh, they'll love that.

The former operative in me wonders why in the name of Saul Alinsky are these students giving the likes of Murray and Yiannopoulous so much free publicity. Murray's own libertarian orthodoxy lead him to conclude welfare will fail because the poor are genetically lazy. We stopped caring about him years ago. Super troll Milo directed his legions to slime Ghostbuster's actress Leslie Jones on her Twitter feed with photos of gorillas. Classy.

Trying to run them out of Dodge won't eliminate their audience. Let them preach to the choir and get on a plane. Or hey, maybe go, listen and practice some espionage on what they are saying to better convince people these guys are full it of once the speakers leave. Hashtag: #Insurgency.

I may be making a lot out of a little, but with his his first opportunity Robbins made a safe space for safe spaces by offering to engage rather than confront prior to getting his contract.

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That's not an unreasonable move.

But Robbins might have done better to remind students, from the outset, that for centuries the most dangerous thing you can provide someone is an education. That's why authoritarians frown on it.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 7 »

Mar 16, 2017, 9:52 am
-1 +0

Alright, I think I’m seeing where our miscommunication is.

You seem to be making the same mistake that the author is making in assuming that anyone who advocates for safe spaces and against micro-aggressions is trying to silence speech. I have been trying to be clear that I see this dichotomy as false. I don’t know how I can be clearer.

There is a false equivalency in the article (and, frankly, in your responses) between “not being offended” and “not being attacked.” You say you’re glad that college wasn’t a “safe place” for you.

Were you raped? Were you beaten? Were you called racial slurs? Did you have to hide your sexuality? Did you have to subscribe to gender roles that you feel don’t reflect who you are?

If so, I deeply regret that you had to go through all that. If what you mean, instead, is that you talked to people who had opposing viewpoints (like we’re doing right now) then your safety was never actually in question. Your complacency was.

Do you see the difference?

Mar 16, 2017, 9:45 am
-0 +1

The author references the concepts of “safe spaces” and “micro-aggressions” and a recent incident at Middlebury College in which a person scheduled to speak there was forced off the campus by a fascistic mob.  Professor Allison Stanger was assaulted in the incident (ref., e.g., “Another temper tantrum on a college campus”, BernardGoldberg.com).  The author appears to be stating that he hopes the new UA president doesn’t subscribe to the idea that students need to be protected from different points of view.  He also seems to suggest that students are best served by exposure to a range of viewpoints, as that gives them the opportunity to learn how to respond in rational and civil ways.  If college had been a “safe place” for me, it would have been a waste of my time and money.  I’m grateful it wasn’t.

Mar 16, 2017, 8:16 am
-1 +0

Can you please point me to what I said in my comment that promoted assault? Or where I degrade people’s right to free speech? The article makes a total of one mention of free speech that I can find, and it doesn’t go into any detail.

I think that you’re entirely missing my point, and I suspect you’re doing so deliberately. Which is pretty intellectually dishonest. I never said people shouldn’t have to deal with people whose opinions they disagree with. I said that people should be provided some spaces where they aren’t constantly harassed. If someone’s freedom of speech involves murdering transgender women of color, that’s passed the point of speech into a crime.

I’m all for people expressing their opinions. You can have a world where people can express their opinions where people also have the ability to feel they’re not constantly under direct attack. You can have classroom discussion and not have students hurling racial slurs at each other.

Actually, I’m curious as to whether you even read my comment, since nothing you’ve said in yours seems to relate to anything I said in mine.

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