Former Williams President Morty Schapiro wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in March on the “The New Face of Campus Unrest.” It is not good. Let’s spend a week dissecting it! Today is Day 1.

In 2001 I co-wrote an op-ed, “When Protests Proceed at Internet Speed,” arguing that the Internet would make it much more difficult to maintain civility on college campuses. Economists have a dismal prediction record, but that one was spot on. Seemingly every day brings a new crisis, a new set of issues that threatens to disrupt the lives of students, professors—and college presidents.

This paragraph illustrates the truth of Mark Taylor’s (in)famous quip about Morty — “Williams needs a wise man, not a wise guy.” Has “civility on college campuses” really decreased over the last few decades? Of course not!

First, consider the public spaces at places like Williams and Northwestern, the dining halls and dorms rooms. Does Morty (or anyone) provide any evidence that these locations are less civil today than they were 25 years ago? No. And that is because they are, if anything, more civil, more polite, more solicitous of the feelings of others, especially less powerful others. You are much less likely to hear casual slurs — e.g., “Don’t be such a fag.” — in public today than you were then. (Of course, the Williams of the 1980s was a very civil place, but Morty’s argument depends on it being more civil today.)

Second, consider the classrooms. Were Williams professors like, say, Robert Waite or Laszlo Versenyi, much more civil than current professors? No. They were certainly different. (Who can imagine a current Williams professor requiring his male students to take off their baseball caps for class, as Waite always did?) But, if anything, they were much more ready to make students uncomfortable in class than any current professor would be. Now, “making students uncomfortable” in class is not the same thing as being “uncivil,” but it is a sign of Morty’s parochialism that his complaints is unmoored from actual lived experience, both outside and inside the classroom.

Third, are students (and others) any more uncivil in their private thoughts and conversations than they were 25 years ago? Again, the answer is No. Students back then had lots of horrible things to say about Williams presidents like Chandler and Oakley, especially about topics like divestment from South Africa or affirmative action.

Given these facts, why would Morty — a smart and keen observer — believe that civility has decreased? Because he and his fellow presidents are no longer the only ones with the megaphone.

The major change between now and then is that, today, students/faculty/staff/alumni with complaints about Williams are better able to make those complaints heard by the broader College community, and the world. Morty’s real complaint is not about a general drop in civility but about the increased power of non-presidents to make their voices heard.

When students in 1985 were agitating for divestment from South Africa, their options were limited. Contact all the alumni? Impossible. Update their supporters who didn’t live in Williamstown? Very difficult.

Students today arguing for divestment from fossil fuel companies have much more power. They can easily reach alumni all over the world. They can coordinate with peers at other schools.

In 1980s, students could make life X difficult for John Chandler. Today, students can make life 10 times X difficult for Morty Schapiro. Students, and others, are not any less civil now than they were then. They are simply more powerful. And Morty doesn’t like it.

Entire op-ed is below the break for those without a WSJ subscription.

In 2001 I co-wrote an op-ed, “When Protests Proceed at Internet Speed,” arguing that the Internet would make it much more difficult to maintain civility on college campuses. Economists have a dismal prediction record, but that one was spot on. Seemingly every day brings a new crisis, a new set of issues that threatens to disrupt the lives of students, professors—and college presidents.

The explosion of social media has taken this disruption to a level unforeseen in the digital dark ages of 14 years ago. Dealing with campus community members on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Vine and Yik Yak has become a high-stakes challenge, and who knows what will emerge next? At issue, as it often is on America’s campuses, is the limit to free expression.

Three professors at Eastern Michigan University were recently attacked during class on Yik Yak, a smartphone app that allows folks within a limited geographical range to share anonymous messages. Upon seeing those comments, which apparently included insults concerning sexuality and appearance, one of the professors threatened to resign. Cyberbullying by students while a teacher is up in front of the class? Not exactly what we had hoped for in using new communication tools to enhance classroom learning.

The other day officials at the University of Rochester demanded that Yik Yak identify the names and email addresses of students who posted racially offensive and threatening comments or advocated burning down part of the campus. And don’t forget the racist YouTube video that went viral, leading to the expulsion of two students at the University of Oklahoma on March 10.

Any attempt to hold people accountable for what they say will rile up the “free speech at any cost” advocates, but any defense of First Amendment rights will lead to campus unrest and hand-wringing. So where to draw that elusive line?

I’m not a lawyer; few university presidents are. But most of us have access to high-powered legal advisers. Sometimes state and federal laws are clear enough to make the decision, but usually they are not. And don’t expect to find agreement among your senior administrators. In a crisis the interests of those in student affairs, public relations, the legal counsel’s office, fundraising and faculty governance seldom align.

What’s a president to do? I have learned over 15 years in this job at two institutions that you better have a compelling reason to punish anyone—student, faculty member, staff member—for expressing his or her views, regardless of how repugnant you might find those views.

Freedom of speech doesn’t amount to much unless it is tested. And if the First Amendment doesn’t matter on college campuses, where self-expression is so deeply valued, why expect it to matter elsewhere?

A decade or so ago, I returned from Shabbat services at my synagogue to learn that a student had hung posters mocking the Holocaust Remembrance Day posters distributed in the dorms. The message had been turned into a celebration of Hitler’s birthday; the picture of concentration camp victims had for some reason been replaced by a marijuana leaf. It is hard to imagine a more disgusting display.

But here is the question we asked: Did the student hang those posters randomly, or instead single out the rooms of members of groups targeted by the Nazis such as Jews, blacks and gays? If it had been the latter, it might have constituted verbal assault. But it was the former, and in our view that was protected free speech. This wasn’t an easy decision, or perhaps the most expedient, but it was the right one.

Northwestern University’s student government recently approved a resolution requesting that the university divest from six companies that “are profiting off the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.” Many alumni found this highly offensive. Meantime, a faculty member wrote a controversial op-ed that questioned new policies on relationships between professors and students.

It might be relevant to remind people that elected student representatives have every right to recommend whatever they want, just as the administration has every right not to abide by what they suggest, and aggrieved students have a process to adjudicate harassment charges against a faculty member. It seems inappropriate to me for a college president to comment on a student vote or faculty op-ed, but I understand why others might disagree.

While I wish there were accepted principles to guide every response, I don’t know of any. Presidents are regularly asked how we would have responded to a particular incident. When we deflect the question, some think we are closing ranks. But I’m often not sure what I would have done.

The context of an incident matters, and it is near impossible for outsiders to glean the facts during the public battles that ensue after a high-profile event. College community members deserve to be in a safe and supportive environment, and it is our job to nurture that environment.

Yet any time your actions supersede a defining national tenet such as free speech, you better be sure you are making the right call. Whatever the decision, critics will come out in force—with social media leading the way and making a trying situation even more challenging.

Mr. Schapiro is president and professor of economics at Northwestern University.

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