Guest columnist Alexander Taylor: UMass — Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind

Umass students chant and yell as they leave Mahar Auditorium after a special meeting of the Faculty Senate where Chancellor Javier Reyes and members of his administration made a presentation and answered questions about the campus protest and policing on May 7-8.

Umass students chant and yell as they leave Mahar Auditorium after a special meeting of the Faculty Senate where Chancellor Javier Reyes and members of his administration made a presentation and answered questions about the campus protest and policing on May 7-8. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER TAYLOR

Published: 05-30-2024 5:40 PM

‘If you build it, they will come,” comes the now famous line from the heartwarming baseball movie “Field of Dreams.” UMass Chancellor Javier Reyes is no Kevin Costner, not just because only Kevin Costner can be Kevin Costner, but also because Reyes did not build the “it” of UMass’ current revolutionary atmosphere. But he did inherit it, and decisions will have to be made about what the future of this institution will look like.

In 2019, the university decided to adopt the slogan, “Be Revolutionary” as its motto, slapping those two seemingly innocuous words on all their websites and advertising. The slogan serves as a double entendre, on the one hand harkening back to the revolutionary days of yore when Massachusetts Minutemen kicked off the American war for independence, and on the other hand, marking its commitment to social progressivism and change within modern society. The administration of 2010s, led by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, consciously built and marketed a revolutionary university. The administration built it, and the revolutionaries came.

Of course, there is a small problem about establishing a revolutionary campus in rural western Massachusetts. Who are the revolutionaries supposed to revolt against? It is in the very definition of revolution for their revolutionaries to revolt against an establishment. But UMass is far, far, removed from the halls of power, both at Beacon Hill and the Capitol. So the revolutionaries have turned against the only establishment around: The University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In the wake of the mass arrests on campus earlier this month, many of UMass’ students and faculty have justifiably turned to the administration with shock and disappointment. Were they not sold the opportunity to participate in a revolutionary institution? Were they in fact sold a false bill of goods? The answer to that question now rests in the hands of the current administration.

Universities all across America, especially in elite institutions of higher learning like the Ivy Leagues and MIT, are starting the reap the whirlwind. For the past decade, the cultural zeitgeist at so many institutions has led administrations to shift focus in the humanities from education to activism. To be clear, this piece is not attempting to adjudicate on whether this is a good thing or not. It is trying to point out that it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone that marketing a revolutionary college with a nostalgic eye towards the endless protests of the 60s means having revolutionary students (and faculty) who are endlessly trying to relive the 60s.

On the evening of May 7, when the administration asked the leaders of the revolutionary student groups to vacate their encampments, what did they expect the response to be? It is in the nature of revolutionaries and their revolutions, from 18th-century France to 20th-century Russia, for revolutionary “establishments” to face revolutions of their own. Revolutionaries, by definition, can do no other. The dog will always be chasing the tail, for revolutionaries will always need something to revolt against.

If the UMass administration and its respective departments (particularly the liberal arts programs) insist on cultivating an activist class of students within its body, then it shouldn’t be a surprise when students and faculty do as they were recruited to do; make a beeline for the nearest authority and/or establishment and charge. Students will turn against departments, departments will turn against the administration, and administrators will keep encouraging departments to recruit the source of all their woes in the form of “revolutionary” activist scholars and students.

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And if that’s what the administration and its departments truly want, an activist university that throws its intellectual and cultural heft behind exclusively politically progressive causes, rather than an institution dedicated to free inquiry and to the formation of virtue and intellect … fine. But no one should be surprised when everyone is unhappy with the results; not the students, not the administration.

As Edmund Burke warned soon after the French Revolution began to unfold, “Kings will be tyrants by policy when subjects are rebels from principle.”

Alexander Taylor of Bernardston is a junior at UMass Amherst studying public policy.