“Students don’t live in dormitories and the university exerts no control over a student’s private life.”
Hermann Weyl (German mathematician and philosopher, 1885-1955)
Hermann Weyl left Germany in 1933 to join his friend and colleague Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. During his time at Princeton he not only taught theoretical physics; he also lectured on European history and civilization. Here is what else he had to say about student life in Germany before the Nazis took over:
Once matriculated in the university, students choose their own teachers as well as the lectures, exercises, and seminars which they want to attend. If they don’t feel disposed to attend on a particular day they can stay away, nobody bothers. They may take advice from their professors or neglect it at their own peril.
This used to be the Continental European approach to higher education and, despite many reforms, its basic tenets are still alive. Students are viewed as (more or less) autonomous adults and universities focus on research and teaching. Life outside the classroom is not in some vice provost’s portfolio or regulated by preachy codes of conduct telling you to lead a good life and report anyone who doesn’t. Bias response teams that monitor “offensive and discomforting language” on American campuses, often based on anonymous alerts, would ring all sorts of alarm bells in Germany and bring back dark memories of privacy wrecking regimes, both fascist and communist. In 1949 the framers of West Germany’s Basic Law, many of them exiled or imprisoned under the Nazis, had fresh memories of Gestapo officers knocking at their doors after being tipped off by some evil-minded neighbor or party loyalist. In the Stalinist German Democratic Republic, the Staatssicherheit or Stasi (which, oddly, translates into homeland security) took over from the Gestapo after WWII and recruited half of East Germany’s population to spy on the other half. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that after two golden ages for snitchers, protection of privacy — not freedom of religion or the right to bear arms — ranks at the top of Germany’s Bill of Rights.
That’s why I am often baffled at how deep American universities dive into students’ private lives. It’s not just the bias response teams, it’s also the group exercises developed and overseen by college administrators. Take, for example, the so-called privilege walk, often facilitated by a well-meaning facilitator from the diversity office. It physically separates a room full of students, usually at the beginning of their program, into haves and have-nots by asking them questions about their upbringing and socioeconomic background and making them step forward or backward depending on whether their answer labels them as privileged or marginalized. “Powerful” experience? Yes, and divisive too. You would think that at a research university, students can grasp the effect of money and family background on people’s lives through analysis and abstract thinking. Do they, in order to get it, really need to see their fellow students being moved across the room like chess pieces disclosing highly personal information? Good thing you can’t do the privilege walk on Zoom — if we are lucky COVID-19 will put a lasting end to this nonsense.
Recently, I received an email from the university administration proudly informing me about the new “affinity groups” that they had created for students, staff and faculty. Affinity groups? Why did the university feel compelled to organize my private time? Had we changed from college to “Kollektiv”? Before the Berlin Wall came down, East Germans were organized in “Kollektivs”— groups of people at the same workplace who after work had to attend cultural events together and then submit enthusiastic reports about their growing socialist comradery to the local “Parteisekretär” (party secretary). My first tenured appointment in the ’90s was at the University of Halle-Wittenberg in freshly re-unified (East) Germany and people were still reeling from the totalitarian harmony that the communist government had imposed on them.
The affinity groups, however, that our administration (and, as a quick Google search revealed, many other universities in the US) had come up with had nothing to do with theater visits or book clubs, not even Marxist-Leninist discussion groups. They were strictly based on, and segregated by, skin color, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status. Never mind that this siloed approach to diversity and inclusion has long been tried, found to not work and abandoned by corporate organizations. What troubles me more is that it undermines the concept of the university as a classless community of discoverers where ideas count and not who you are or think you are. Knowledge is universal and doesn’t care about the skin color, genetic makeup or identity of the person who generated it. Germans back in the day thought it did and ended up distinguishing between Aryan and Jewish science. For the record, I find nothing wrong with groups of people wanting to hang out among themselves. But it is my firm belief that if university leaders feel the urge to meddle with academics’ private lives, the only affinity group they should openly and actively push for is the one for homo sapiens. And they should make clear that Neanderthals and all other hominids are welcome too!