In “Williamsburg’s Village Idiot,” posted on New Year’s Eve eve, I discussed the sophomoric, over-the-top response of Timothy Sullivan, the president of William & Mary,” to an affirmative action bake sale on campus sponsored by student critics of racial preferences. (He responded, unoriginally, to a Charlottesville minister who criticized his action by replying that “[s]ome fool has sent me an email and signed your name to it.”)
Those sales, as everyone must know by now, have been held on a large number of campuses across the nation; by selling cookies for different prices based on the race or ethnicity of the purchaser, they are a pointed way of pointing out what many of us regard as the fundamental unfairness or preferences based on race.
When the student sponsors were attacked, the William & Mary administration did the predictable thing: it closed it down, and threatened the victims with disciplinary action. A strong letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education seems to worked, however. So far as I know the bake salers were not in fact punished, and now, out of the strong commitment of President Sullivan to the principles of free speech at Jefferson’s alma mater, the bake salers have even been given a permit to hold another sale.
But not without further word from President Sullivan, who issued a press release elaborating his views on the matter. They are not pretty. After acknowledging, in what struck me as a belligerent tone, that “the right to freedom of expression belongs to every member of this community,” Sullivan went on to say:
What I find personally offensive is the manner in which they have chosen to express their views. The “bake sale” with racially differentiated prices that they hold today is inexcusably hurtful to members of this community whose presence here is welcome and critically important to the quality of our life together. Those who have chosen this abusive method of self-expression will have not a few occasions in later life to look back with regret on what they have done.
I believe Sullivan’s agitation shows how effective these bake sales are in forcing people to think about the wisdom of treating people differently because of their race. Not that Sullivan himself seems to have thought much about it; if he had, he might explained why it is “inexcusably hurtful” to sell cookies for different prices to buyers of different races but it is perfectly fine but to judge applicants to William & Mary by different standards based on their race. I suspect most readers of his statement will wonder about that as well.
That’s not all Sullivan said, or didn’t say. I found his next sentence also disappointingly revealing:
The wealth of skills, talents, backgrounds, races and interests our students bring to campus is itself an important element in our learning environment.
It is of course true that students bring their race to school with them along with other skills and talents. But to imply that race is merely one among many skills, talents, and interests is to say that it’s nothing special, that there is no reason to wall it off from discriminatory treatment. In other words, it is to commit the IUNS (Invidious Ubiquitous Non-Sequitur) fallacy so often discussed here of assuming that if discrimination on any basis is acceptable, then discrimination on every other basis must be equally acceptable.
It is equally true, as I’ve also argued here many times, that students bring their religion with them as well. If it is legitimate to engineer an appealing racial mix, why not do the same with religion? Famous alum, and later President, Jefferson might not get himself worked up over President Sullivan’s lack of respect for the principle of racial non-discrimination, but I suspect he would posthumously burn his William & Mary diploma if his college treated religion according to the same principle (or lack of it) underlying its treatment of race.