Melinda Henneberger

Missouri lawmakers blast UMKC chancellor over protest, but what did he do wrong?

Protester arrested during speaker’s anti-transgender talk at UMKC

Conservative commentator Michael Knowles inflamed students when he spoke at University of Missouri-Kansas City on April 11, 2019.
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Conservative commentator Michael Knowles inflamed students when he spoke at University of Missouri-Kansas City on April 11, 2019.

UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal groveled to the best of his ability at a Missouri House hearing on his supposedly “shameful” underreaction after a campus protester squirted a conservative speaker with lavender oil last week.

The speaker himself, Michael Knowles, whose talk denied the existence of transgender identity, laughed throughout the disruption and gave every indication that he was having a blast mixing it up with hecklers. “How am I ever going to get the glitter paint out of my clothing?” he joked after being squirted. “Maybe it looks good.”

In front of the House panel, Agrawal gravely apologized for not apologizing sooner and more abjectly, and swore to do a better job of protecting both speech and students, though just how he might do that isn’t clear.

At first, the chancellor testified that the protester might or might not be expelled, pending the results of an investigation. But after Republican Rep. Nick Schroer asked if “there’s a chance of him coming back” to school, Agrawal chucked due process and ran for daylight. This was “such a grievous criminal act,’’ he said, “I highly doubt” it.

None of this mollified Republicans on the committee. They still questioned whether Agrawal should keep his job and lamented that the school’s entire budget could not be cut to zero as a conversation starter. Schroer asked if liberal professors were inciting an “uprising” of violent attacks on campus conservatives. And the committee chairman, Robert Ross, accused Agrawal of downplaying criminal behavior because he personally disagreed with Knowles, “in effect, stifling speech through fear of an attack.”

Ross kept saying how frustrated his constituents are “when they hear a state-funded institution is not properly protecting free speech.” On Wednesday, they heard that again, this time from lawmakers who insisted on portraying even a well-handled incident like this one as a major threat to free speech and part of a wave of violence against conservatives.

But exactly what more should have been done? The protester was tackled, tased, arrested and immediately suspended, as should have been the case. Before the event, Agrawal stood up to pressure to disinvite Knowles, a conservative writer and Stella Adler-trained actor. Again, exactly as he should have done. The chancellor heavily promoted a panel discussion on civil dialogue and listening, held three weeks before Knowles’ appearance. He counseled students upset by the invitation not to protest but to instead attend an alternative “ice cream social” event celebrating diversity. Since protest, too, is free speech, what did he do that was so terrible?

In an initial statement, he called Knowles “a speaker whose professed opinions do not align with our commitment to diversity and inclusion and our goal of providing a welcoming environment to all people, particularly to our LGBT community.” He also said the protest had unacceptably “crossed a line,” and reiterated that “UMKC must maintain a safe environment in which all points of view, even extreme ones, are allowed to be heard.” Which part of that is not true?

In a second, far more contrite statement, Agrawal tried again: “It is not the university’s role to take sides, but to rise to the higher principle of promoting a respectful exchange of ideas for our students to form their own views and engage in critical thinking.”

It really is important that minority views be heard; that’s one of the main roles of the university, even if not all ideas are either morally or logically equal. If we don’t know why those with whom we disagree hold the positions they do, that’s not just a problem but an unsolvable one. And if you don’t think I know what it’s like to be penalized for holding an unpopular view, remind me to tell you about how well my skeptical view of abortion at any time for any reason is tolerated.

But conservatives’ view of themselves as under physical attack is inflated beyond recognition. And that narrative ignores the fact that the entire point of many conservative campus events is to “trigger the libs” and then rush to claim the mantle of the very same victimhood they see their adversaries calling dibs on.

It’s true that universities need more conservative voices, and that real tolerance is having some empathy for those with whom you disagree. But the point of many conservative campus events is not to evangelize but to provoke. Such events not only don’t invite dialogue but are an obstacle to it.

On his Twitter bio, what Knowles says about himself is that Vanity Fair once called him “a dapper, lib-triggering troll.” Is he mentioning that because it was inaccurate or hurt his feelings, or because it’s a point of pride?

There is a whole online industry devoted to teaching young conservatives how to have impact by attracting opposition, filming it, making that video go viral and then bemoaning how they were treated in it.

Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, which runs such seminars for young conservatives, says outright that the point is not to convince those in the room, but to play to the online crowd. “This is combat, guys. This is street combat about how to make their ideas look horrible. ... This is the modern form of political dueling.”

Like this, for example: After what he soon was calling a violent attack, Knowles called for Agrawal’s firing on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. Carlson not only wanted to shut down “the moron who runs that school,” but the school itself.

“We should shut it down immediately,” he said. Does either side really believe in free speech, no matter how uncomfortable, or only in their own speech, no matter how offensive?

They’ve certainly learned all of the wrong things from one another, with conservatives co-opting Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and progressives swiping and building on what was initially the conservative tactic of disinviting campus speakers.

Just as young progressives needn’t rise to the bait of every provocation, young conservatives needn’t line up to drink from the same punchbowl of aggrievement that they mock others for circling.

On they go, though, meeting there often, yet never speaking to one another without an iPhone in hand. If mild Dr. Agrawal could somehow fix that, he’d deserve a lot more than the honor of keeping his extremely difficult job.

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