Colleges have to foot the bill for student intolerance—and it’s not cheap

Someone always has to do the cleaning-up.

When fiery riots interrupted alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned appearance at the University of California-Berkeley last month, student volunteers spent the entire morning afterward sweeping up trash and broken glass from the school’s main plaza. Berkeley officials estimated the violent protest—which may not have even been started by Berkeley students—cost the college $100,000 in damages.

Yet property damages almost pale in comparison to the broader clean-up costs of campus intolerance, both physical and not. Schools are relatively new to this, too. Only in these past months have US college campuses witnessed an unprecedented rash of escalating protests over conservative or controversial speakers, with the most noticeable and recent incident being the physical assault of conservative sociologist Charles Murray at Middlebury College.

The speaker—whose 1994 book The Bell Curve argues that America’s black underclass results from the group’s racial inferiority—saw his speech cut short (“Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away,” yelled the hundreds-strong crowd) as violence broke out amongst students and spectators. Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, who was interviewing Murray, got caught up in the fray and sustained a serious neck injury.

“I feared for my life,” Stanger wrote in the New York Times the week after, adding that she “spent a week in a dark room to recover from a concussion caused by the whiplash.”

Weeks later, the small Vermont liberal arts school is finding itself still squinting against a harsh, unwanted spotlight, condemned both for students’ actions and the administration’s lack of preparation. It’s likely for that reason that several other universities have now made plans explicitly preparing for provocative speakers’ appearances to turn sour. Those include, per the Times (paywall):

  • Raising fees for security, to increase safety
  • Ramping up communication with students
  • Creating teams to establish and review campus policies
  • Reaching out and reassuring alumni

That last measure, communicating with graduates, will be the one most crucial to universities’ bottom line in the long term. While hiring extra security staff at speaker events may be expensive, offending or confusing alumni—particularly wealthy older alums, whose contributions often fuel new expansions, research ventures, and capital projects—can literally cost a school millions.

Alumni donations to elite colleges are already hitting record lows as debt-ridden graduates feel disillusioned with the return on their educational investments and older graduates find themselves unable to relate to today’s college students and their seemingly bizarre concerns.

Take Yale as an example of that older-generation dissociation. The university isn’t among the schools currently dealing with a speaker controversy, but its alums recently found themselves split over whether to scrub a prominent 19th-century slave-owner’s name from a building. After a spurt of campus protests from current students, Yale decided this month that it will take the name off—and then promptly launched what can only be seen as an emergency, damage-control alumni fundraising campaign.

Schools smaller than Yale can much less afford the loss.

Read this next: “The snowflakes need to be shaken up a bit”: America’s colleges brace for the age of Trump

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