Is Northwestern’s President, Morton Schapiro, A Moron?

Many, myself included, wonder whether the required skillset of a university dean is the ability to rationalize the most ridiculous things with a straight face. Or is Northwestern University’s president, Morton Schapiro, a moron? Exhibit A, Schapiro’s attempt to rationalize “safe spaces.”

Some writers ask why our campus is so focused on how “black lives matter.” Others express a mixture of curiosity and rage about microaggressions and trigger warnings. And finally, what about those oft-criticized “safe spaces”? On this last topic, here are two stories. The first was told to me privately by another institution’s president, and the second takes place at my institution, Northwestern University.

Oh good, a feelzsplainer. Trigger warning: this essay would muster a pity C at best from a college sophomore, and will kill brain cells. Proceed with caution.

A group of black students were having lunch together in a campus dining hall. There were a couple of empty seats, and two white students asked if they could join them. One of the black students asked why, in light of empty tables nearby. The reply was that these students wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages. The black students politely said no. Is this really so scandalous?

Seriously? Students talk like this, saying they want to “stretch themselves”? And you let them into your university? But being a charitable sort of fellow, I won’t let the absence of any attempt to show the veracity of this ridiculous story stand in the way of accepting, arguendo, that it happened. You’re welcome, President Schapiro.

First, the familiar question is “Why do the black students eat together in the cafeteria?” I think I have some insight on this based on 16 years of living on or near a college campus: Many groups eat together in the cafeteria, but people seem to notice only when the students are black. Athletes often eat with athletes; fraternity and sorority members with their Greek brothers and sisters; a cappella group members with fellow singers; actors with actors; marching band members with marching band members; and so on.

Friends hang with friends. It’s not a hard concept to grasp. And if a bunch of black kids want to hang together, so what? Well, one could challenge the conflation of fraternity brothers, a voluntary association based on friendship, with skin color, but let’s assume that the shared experience of being black is a good reason to hang together. Big deal.

And that brings me to the second aspect: We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.

Deserve? Because . . . why? That doesn’t mean they can’t want safe spaces, but entitlement doesn’t arise from the ether. Did you really think you would slip that past everything?

But the white students didn’t “unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.” They asked. They didn’t put guns to anyone’s head and tell them, “let us sit or die.” And they were turned away. Problem solved. On what planet does asking morph into a unilateral decision? And the black kids went on to enjoy their lunch in peace. Is this really the sort of story that University presidents tell each other?

But more importantly, Schapiro was writing to persuade, to explain, so that he had the ability to cherry-pick the best possible anecdote to make his case. And this was what he came up with? Not that anecdotes prove anything, ever, but even so, knowing that the shameless use of anecdotes works wonder with the shallow, Schapiro couldn’t find a better tale of woe to promote the safe space cause? That’s pathetic.

Yet, Schapiro wasn’t done, as he had a second story to tell.

Now for the story from Northwestern. For more than four decades, we have had a building on campus called the Black House, a space specifically meant to be a center for black student life. This summer some well-intentioned staff members suggested that we place one of our multicultural offices there. The pushback from students, and especially alumni, was immediate and powerful. 

Powerful? Did you miss that day in frosh writing where they taught, “show, not tell”?

It wasn’t until I attended a listening session that I fully understood why. One black alumna from the 1980s said that she and her peers had fought to keep a house of their own on campus. While the black community should always have an important voice in multicultural activities on campus, she said, we should put that office elsewhere, leaving a small house with a proud history as a safe space exclusively for blacks.

Putting aside the fact that “one black alumna” is now the measure of powerful (because it’s not like he couldn’t get Google to find out why Black House was created), what part of this provides a rational justification for “safe spaces”?

A recent white graduate agreed. She argued that everyone needed a safe space and that for her, as a Jew, it had been the Hillel house. She knew that when she was there, she could relax and not worry about being interrogated by non-Jews about Israeli politics or other concerns.

Well, a Jew. That nails it, even though we’re back to one person’s anecdote as an inductive explanation. Schapiro really has to expand beyond anecdotes and try his hand at actual reasoning.

But then, even the anecdote fails. Hillel House doesn’t have a foreskin detector at the front door. Non-Jews aren’t barred from entering. They don’t come in for the same reason that non-religious Jews stay away. They don’t want to. It’s a place dedicated to “inspiring every Jewish student to make a meaningful and enduring commitment to Jewish life.” Oh, sounds like a thrill a minute. But there’s no sign that says goyim will be shot on sight.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, President Schapiro, but if these are the very best stories you have to support your thesis, then you’ve got nothing. But then, let’s be honest. You pulled your core contention, that “everyone deserves a safe space,” out of your ass. Good things do not always come from Uranus.

So we’re left with the initial question. Were you forced to publish this lame effort to rationalize the demand of the snowflakes for safe spaces, or is this really what the President of Northwestern University feels, and the best logic he can offer?  If the latter, can you at least tell me where to send my application for president, because I wouldn’t be nearly as pathetic in selling my intellectual cred for your salary, and I could whip out a far better, albeit totally bullshit, philippic in no time.

18 thoughts on “Is Northwestern’s President, Morton Schapiro, A Moron?

  1. Hal

    There’s an uncomfortable parallel here w/ those who wanted “safe spaces” in the antebellum south and insisted on “whites only” bathrooms. Some found this objectionable. Irony abounds.

    1. SHG Post author

      The comparison is somewhat problematic. Minorities need protection from the tyranny, or the prejudice, of the majority. But safe spaces isn’t a race issue, as “everyone is entitled” as Shapiro contends. To use race as a justification starts the discussion with a red herring. And to riposte with the alternative racial point only validates the red herring. It’s not about race.

      1. Jay

        Safe spaces is not purely about race, sure. It’s about young people not willing to be made feel uncomfortable in the slightest. But that umbrella issue easily holds racism within it. If we assume the first example here was about white students trying to get to know black students in order to push their own boundaries, it’s not clear to me why you respond that this is offensive- except of course that “minorities need protection from the tyranny, or prejudice, of the majority” which is basically a claim that while the majority should respect minorities it needs to give them space. Granted, that’s how our society has functioned for a long time, but it’s that kind of simplistic racism that reinforces the more negative aspects- the white kids grow up to have managerial positions and do not hire black students because hey, “let’s assume being [white] is a good reason to hang together.”
        I agree with Hal’s point. The “safe space” idea, as with the rest of these concepts, may have started out with pure intentions, but put into practice, they’re quickly being used to reinforce the same old stereotypes that liberals claim to be against. Racism is hardly a “red herring” here.

        1. SHG Post author

          First, I didn’t “respond that this is offensive,” and so your reliance on your own mistake to reach your conclusion fails basic logic. But that said, you conflate race (which you then double down by making it into racial prejudice as if any recognition of race is itself demonstrable proof of prejudice) with safe spaces, the same red herring that Hal bought into.

          Be careful about reinterpreting my words into yours. It doesn’t work that way.

          …except of course that “minorities need protection from the tyranny, or prejudice, of the majority” which is basically a claim that while the majority should respect minorities it needs to give them space.

          No, my words aren’t “basically a claim” for anything. That may be how your mind filters it, but you don’t get to reinvent my words. You are, most assuredly, not qualified to be my sign language interpreter.

          You’re allowed to be just as wrong as Hal is, but that doesn’t make your rationale any more logical. Race may fall within the safe space ambit, but safe space is not about race, and to use race as the basis for condemning or applauding safe space is unavailing. If anything, you’ve fallen into the trap of arguing a race issue (which is how Shapiro is trying to spin this for the ignorant) rather than the safe space issue. Looks like Shapiro snared a live one.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    At least we don’t have to worry about them trying to extend the “safe space” argument to cover those who are uncomfortable with sharing locker rooms with the differently-anatomied.

  3. Vincent Messina

    Some dude named Morton Shapiro, who didn’t get the new job he was after as a result of a Google Search, is thinking, “wait, Im not the president of any university. why is this dude calling me moron?”

    Because the dude who is the president is Morton Schapiro.

    1. David M.

      And I would’ve gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you meddling marketers…

      Sorry about that. Nice catch, Vin.

      1. Vincent Messina

        David M, didn’t mean to cause you grief. It was a back handed compliment to the dude who writes articles about people only to find them on page one of every search imaginable about that person.

        I just grow tired of the direct approach to adoration and actually, I don’t like him that much anymore.

        AND…Morton Shapiro deserves better. 😉

        1. SHG Post author

          Your compulsive need to inform me that I don’t rub your tummy as much as you want has grown well past tedious. I’m sorry for your self-esteem issues, but seek validation elsewhere.

  4. babs

    This whole safe space thing is so alien to me that you might as well be beaming it in from Mars. My husband and I went to a very large university in the SW US from 1980-84′ There were no “safe spaces’ and there also were no sushi bars in the cafeteria or rock climbing walls in the athletic complex. There were no “black houses” or “Jewish centers.” Your religious identity, gender identification or race association was something you needed to pursue in off campus organizations if you chose to do so. And there were plenty of those but the university was not mandated to supply these or, to make apologies for their lack there of.
    The student body was racially mixed with whites, latinos, native americans and blacks. To my knowledge, none of this acrimony went on. We were classmates and helped each other and socialized with each other. Most students could get a job in the summer and work part time during the school year to pay for their education. That’s what we did. Or, they took a semester or year off to accumulate money for the next year. I guess now that there is a literal army of administrators of every conceivable stripe it is no longer possible to pay your way through college. Those administrators need an above average wage for the days they put in as well as health insurance and a pension. Someone has to pay for it!
    The whole idea of “cultural appropriation” in the food service at Oberlin college, recently in the news, just blows me away. If I were in charge I would close down the kitchens, fire 4/5 of the food staff and offer TV dinners with an 80% cost cut in the food plan to students.
    You want an authentic Vietnamese sandwich that uses baguette instead of ciabatta (BTW, a shout out to when Vietnam was a colony of France) go take your food plan savings and find it off campus! You don’t like the way the sushi rice is being prepared? We won’t ever make sushi or sticky rice again; find it off campus… I am sure that plenty of businesses would be more than happy to cater to those that find their heritage so maligned. Meanwhile, have a cheeseburger or some spaghetti or, STFU!
    What has happened? It all seems so insane to me. My husband and I took a PB&J with an apple to school every day and bought a drink and chips. That is what we ate every day. I remember coming home for Christmas and my mother asking me what I wanted to eat. I told her we would eat anything as long as it wasn’t PB&J or meatloaf.
    When did universities take on the task of upper income retreats, whether you could afford it or not? We were poor when we went to school and we knew it as did everyone else we knew. We were college students… Not upper middle class professionals that needed their every whim catered to or their every ginned up offense litigated. We also weren’t racists or bigots, dividing ourselves along tribal lines.
    The anger I see today and the unreasonable demands has come from somewhere rather recently because it wasn’t there when I went to college.

    1. SHG Post author

      So, you show up for the first time, feel that need for a catharsis, and let loose on my soapbox? Yes, we know about the Oberlin food fight. But here, comments stick to the subject of the post. If you wanted to discuss Oberlin, the post about Oberlin would have been a good place. Here, not so much.

      This is a law blog, where most readers are lawyers and judges. Aside from staying on topic, not telling your war stories, not gushing your feelz, not using my soapbox to tell all about babs (who the fuck is babs? Who knows? Who cares? Does she have anything to say that would be illuminating to lawyers?). N00b commenters often make these mistakes. But only once, because they’ve been told that it’s not appreciated here.

  5. Victor Medina

    For the record, I was unable to finish reading your post because of the fit of laughter induced by “foreskin detector”. I feel oppressed as one who “gets” comedy, and I demand that you immediately create a safe space where I can read a post without laughing.

  6. Dragoness Eclectic

    I fail to get the point of Morton’s article–what is he trying to accomplish with it?

    I have always encountered “Safe space” as a private property policy–on the Internet, it’s a form of shorthand for “my blog, my rules, and my rules are you don’t get to post stuff in my blog that upsets me or my friends.” On real property, it is or should be, shorthand for “my house, my rules, you don’t get to barge in and be a jerk to me or my friends”. This seems non-controversial to me–but by my understanding of it, public spaces cannot be “safe spaces”.

  7. Johan Amadeus Metesky

    At best, I’d give Schapiro a C, particularly because his analogy between the university sponsored and funded Black House, and the Hillel House, which is sponsored and funded by the B’nai Brith Hillel Foundation, isn’t very apt. There are plenty of colleges that provide space to organizations like Hillel or the corresponding Newman institutions for Catholic students, but the funding for those religious campus groups come from their own faith communities. The funding for things like Northwestern’s Black House come directly from the universities. The same thing is true for feminist projects on campus – they get official funding while groups like Hillel and Newman at most get office space.

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