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The Campus Purges are Only Going to Get a Lot Worse


Universities can’t withstand mobs, as countless assaults have proven.  I’ve lived through two: at Washington University in St. Louis, in 1968, and then about a decade later at the University of Rome.  In the summer of ’68 I saw a good deal of the French “Revolution,” which took over most of Paris for a week or so.  Its headquarters were at the Sorbonne.

It’s in the nature of campus revolts that the leaders aren’t going to be satisfied with limited reforms to the school;  they are inspired by inflated rhetoric, and they see themselves at the center of a great moment in world history.  They have, after all, been told that they are the Next Big Thing, the new elite, those destined to govern.  Or rule, as the case may be.  So they must constantly demonstrate their power versus the hated “Establishment.”  That the Establishment gave them these misguided notions is beside the point, it’s part and parcel of the phenomenon, as several professors are being reminded.

So the purge is on, and my guess is that it will get a lot worse before the inevitable reaction sets in.  When I was at Rome U, it was routine for “fascist” professors to be beaten, or locked in elevators, or worse.  One morning a law professor who sat on Italy’s Supreme Court was gunned down in the middle of the campus.  Thereafter, on exam days, the sidewalks were lined with armed police, and rightly so:  some of the student “activists” were real terrorists, they were in the Red Brigades or Potere Operaio or some such.

Unlike today’s American protestors, the Italian students had real grievances.  The University of Rome, where I taught, had been built for 20,000 students, but by the mid-seventies there were more than a hundred thousand.  There was rarely any real interaction with the faculty.  At the beginning of the semester we would announce the books on which the students would be tested (all exams were oral, so it was a long process).  There were lectures, but they were optional.  The entire grade was based on the exam.

My radical students saw it all as a trick.  A university degree didn’t guarantee a decent job, and students from the south had an especially tough time.  There was no way that someone with a Neapolitan or Sicilian accent was going to become CEO of Fiat or Olivetti, and there were millions of overeducated unemployed.  I thought they had good reasons to be angry.