Student radical activity is alive and well at American universities. Of course, it is difficult to be a radical when so many radical ideas of the 60’s and 70’s—including feminism, institutionalized egalitarianism, Marxism, messianic environmentalism, race theories, deconstructionism, Lacanism, and moral relativism—are ensconced in what passes for higher education today. But student radicals will try, pushing the envelope of acceptability to new levels of extremism.

Last Veteran’s Day, for example, a group of about 200 demonstrators, led by out-of-state rabble-rousers, filled the first floor of the administration building at the New York State University campus in Binghamton to express their dissatisfaction with the state university system. Led by Sarah Murphy, who identified herself as a member of the National Women’s Rights Organizing Coalition, these protesters said they wanted “total student control” of curriculum decisions and the hiring and firing of faculty members. They also demanded open admission; free tuition; expansion of studies related to blacks, Latinos, women, homosexuals, and Asians; and the firing of all public safety officers on the 65 state university campuses. As one might guess, university officials did not say “no”; they didn’t have any comment.

This response, or lack thereof, is precisely what ails higher education. There is an unwillingness to call radical proposals absurd. University presidents hope these ideas will go away, dissipate like smoke billowing in the air, but only on rare occasions are these ideas confronted directly and denounced. Radical students want to run university campuses because they want the mantle of authority—the legitimacy university life can confer—without the attendant responsibility. If universities were egalitarianized then grades would be meaningless as would all evaluation. Anyone could teach. And notions of objectivity and even knowledge would be filtered through the screen of radical sentiments.

If faculty members were hired and fired by students, then only those who say what students want to hear would be hired and only those who violate the radical catechism would be fired. Clearly it is political judgment that counts in such a setting, not scholarly judgment. If standards for admission do not prevail, how docs one decide who gains admission? And if standards for graduation do not exist, of what value is a degree? The only valid response to the conditions espoused by the radicals is to give everyone a degree and dispense with the charade of any education. Similarly, if there isn’t any tuition for students attending the state university and the financial burden is dispersed among the state’s taxpayers, then doesn’t it stand to reason that those same taxpayers should have something to say about university requirements, the curriculum, and hiring and firing?

What precisely does it mean to expand the study of blacks. Latinos, women, homosexuals, and Asians? Does it mean that Tom Sowell, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Lao-tzu will be required authors? Or does it mean a radical sensibility, a sense of victimization, will be imposed on those students who are members of designated minority groups?

To fire public safety employees is to suggest that public safety either is unimportant or can be sustained in some other way. The number of criminal incidents on state university campuses forecloses on the former explanation, and an alternative to public safety employees like student employees, i.e., radical student employees, raises the specter of the student Red Guard.

Any of the radical student proposals can easily be exposed as illogical. Yet— and here is the rub—administrators fail to do so. They often hide behind the canard that “all” student proposals should receive an adequate hearing. The consequence of this administrative weakness is that radicals keep pushing their agenda in the hope that yesterday’s extremes will seem like tomorrow’s moderation. The strategy is to raise the ante so that the last hand actually looks reasonable in the context of flowing events. All the initiative in this scenario belongs with the student radicals. The administration either responds to demands, legitimizing them in the process, or says nothing, awakening the obvious suspicion that it is cowardly and unwilling to make waves.

What a college needs is an administration capable of asserting and defending the principles on which the academy rests. Anything less weakens the foundation of a structure already eroded and sets the stage for the thoroughgoing radicalization of higher education.