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Smith College activists cry wolf over bigotry, to the school’s disadvantage

The Smith College campus.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Not every dispute warrants a social-justice crusade, not even on higher-ed campuses. At Smith College in Northampton, there are honest differences of opinion about how to run an academic program, but campus social-justice activists are treating them as intolerable deviations from a rigid orthodoxy. Every organization involving human beings has its share of internal backbiting, but disputes rooted in workplace politics look, to student protesters, like evidence of colonialism and racial oppression.

In recent weeks, two letters from faculty members to administrators revealed a measure of discontent over the direction of the School of Social Work and its handling of student protesters. The school’s dean, Marianne Yoshioka, is relatively new, and at least some faculty members disagree with her management and policy approaches.

One letter, sent by social work professor and department chairman Dennis Miehls, frets that the school isn’t adequately training students to serve future clients’ needs, is accepting applicants who aren’t likely to succeed in the program, and isn’t sticking up for good employees whom students accuse of being “blatantly racist and antagonistic towards students of color.” A second letter, attributed only to “concerned adjuncts,” makes similar points — adding that at-will instructors with no job security are afraid of expressing their opinions publicly.


All these arguments deserve to be discussed openly. But in a touchy climate, it’s no surprise that faculty members would try to express their views privately to administrators. Someone leaked the letters to students. A cover note, Inside Higher Ed reported, asserted that the letters exemplify “how individuals in positions of power are both participatory and complicit in white supremacist systems at the school.” Last week, there was a rally, a sit-in, a march, and a graduation day protest. Activists condemned the letters as “violent, racist rhetoric directed toward students of color.”

At campuses across the country, student protesters have brought up genuine injustices — such as discrimination in the Greek system and the exploitation of minority athletes — that many college presidents would just as soon ignore. In some instances, though, students caught up in the fervor of campus activism are reading oppression into innocuous situations, such as a Yale residential administrator’s suggestion that students not take boorish Halloween costumes too seriously.


The letters at Smith raise the latter possibility. “The narratives that the students are creating (and that no one seems to be challenging),” Miehls wrote diplomatically, “are in many instances not reflective of actual events.” The overwrought protests that followed the leak proved him right — and offer a cautionary tale for other campuses.

When every disagreement turns ideological, and when people with even slightly dissenting opinions are wary of speaking up, universities don’t just suffer intellectually. They also stop functioning as institutions, because disagreements and problems can only get worse when people don’t talk about them.