Idea #5: The cunning antidote to obnoxious campus speakers


Today’s guest: Erin Dunne, University of Michigan class of 2017 and former staffer at the Michigan Review.

It is back to school season yet again, which means our brief and blessed respite from frenzied stories of controversial speakers at colleges and universities is sure to come to an end very soon.

The drill is quite familiar by now: The speaker is invited, fury is provoked, and the drama is unleashed over multiple breathless news cycles. There’s something for everyone: For the more cerebral types, a red-hot debate on free speech and the role universities play in hosting or encouraging it, plus the always thorny question of when it crosses the line into something so incendiary that it need not be tolerated – or whether that’s even possible. For cable news pundits, there are fresh and ample opportunities to use various terms ending in “phobic” or dismiss objecting students as coddled snowflakes forever ruined by participation trophies after soccer matches when they were seven. There is fretting over security concerns. New headlines when some speakers are uninvited…  then reinvited – all the better to fill more airtime and more column inches.

Then comes the actual day, and all those appealing visuals of protests, walkouts, heckling, booing, and occasionally violence. It all conspires to throw more kindling on a pile that will wait patiently until the next time a flamethrower gets invited to speak.

And at the end of all this, where do we stand? The media pockets the advertising money and moves on. The professional provocateur at the center of the storm stands grateful for all the attention, because without that they and their book deals are nothing.  And back on campus, left and right alike come away with a fresh list of angry grievances to harp on, though they rarely have much to do with public policy, academics, or a small-l liberal dialogue. You know, college stuff.

Can this unhealthy co-dependent relationship of outrage and provocation actually be untangled? One freshly minted alumna of the University of Michigan thinks so. Erin Dunne, class of 2017, says students opposing controversial speakers should be a little more canny and strategic. When confronted with professional attention getters, deny them attention. Failing that, show up and ask reasonable, well-prepared questions. And maybe meet or even join the groups likely to bring in these speakers, the better to nudge them in more reasonable directions.

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