The last events held on campus before virtual learning: Heather Mac Donald speech

The Generals Redoubt funded the controversial speaker’s visit to campus

Kristen Xu

Conservative author Heather Mac Donald told a crowd of mostly local residents and alumni in Lee Chapel that any college student who sees themselves as oppressed is gripped by delusion.

“Despite unfettered access to intellectual riches, students across the country are being taught to think of themselves as victims and seek bigotry where none exists,” Mac Donald said on Thursday, March 12.

About 350 people attended Mac Donald’s speech on her newest book, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.

Mac Donald accused colleges of a hyperfocus on identity. She criticized freshman orientation programs for “regularly includ[ing] sessions on white privilege,” where she said students are “taught their place” as either a member of the “highly sought after oppressed class” or the “oppressor class.”

“The reality is this: there has never been an environment more tolerant towards history’s traditionally marginalized groups than an American campus,” Mac Donald said. “Yet rather than remind students of these truths, administrators and many professors will encourage students to see everything through a lense of oppression and identity.”

Mac Donald said she believes that this “pervasive ideology” leads students to be narcissistic and results in an “educational dead end.”

“I think the point [of college] is to teach you what to think,” Mac Donald said. “Learning how to think and how to debate is simply irrelevant… there is a whole field of knowledge that is simply absorbed by hard work and studying… you’ve got to get the facts down.”

Mac Donald graduated from Yale University and is a senior member of the Manhattan Institute and contributing member of the City Journal. She lectures on controversial topics such as campus rape and diversity, and she has written several book, including the New York Times bestseller, The War on Cops.

Mac Donald’s final point was that campus identity politics have led to the STEM fields being pressured to diversify in gender and race. She said this results in “the most qualified candidates… being sidelined in favor of so-called ‘diverse applicants,’ regardless of those applicants’ research records” in “hiring searches across the country.”

“Being a female is not an accomplishment,” Mac Donald said. “It’s not even particularly interesting. And it’s certainly not something that is relevant to scientific achievement. Yet females in the sciences are being preferred over their male colleagues [and] hired earlier in their careers. We are putting our scientific edge at risk by privileging sex over merit.”

According to a 2015 article by the Washington Post about a study published by the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, women are about twice as likely to be hired in STEM fields, when measured against equally qualified men. The article quotes experts stating that the results of the study may have been flawed, since the fake female applicants used in Cornell’s study were “exceptionally well-qualified.”

Mac Donald read several quotes from “historically oppressed” groups, mocking their claims of inability to focus on their studies because they felt “at risk of their lives” on their campus. These quotes were met with laughter from the audience, and when she criticized the “holistic” approach of college admissions, she was met with applause.

Mac Donald was brought to campus to provoke “thoughtful and constructive conversations,” said Will Tanner, ‘21, editor-in-chief of the Spectator. He introduced her and her past accomplishments, and said he looked forward to seeing a “battle of ideas” during the question and answer session following her lecture.

Max Gebauer, ‘22, asked Mac Donald about the teaching of “the established canon of the Western tradition in certain academic disciplines.” He said he was unsatisfied with her response.

“[Mac Donald] just completely takes out even a possibility that a work by a woman or a person of color, or any marginalized group could have academic merit,” Gebauer said. “She’s saying a work has merit if it’s been responded to and plays a large role in the past Western canon. And so, of course, a work would gain notoriety in the past if it was done by a white male from a well-known institution, which causes a response from other white males from other well-known institutions.”

He added that Mac Donald said she does not consider classes centering race and gender to be appropriate education because those fields overlap with “victim studies” and “see themselves as a political project.”

Gebauer also pointed out the demographics of the audience.

“The clear majority of people that went there to see Heather Mac Donald speak were older, primarily male,” Gebauer said. “If I had to guess, it was probably somewhere around 95 percent white… also leaning heavily male, and the average age must have been over 50. [There was] at absolute most 30 [Washington and Lee] students.”

Executive Committee President Will Bolton, ‘20, was one of the few students in attendance. He said he was “shockingly unimpressed” by Mac Donald’s “cherry picking” of information given during the event.

Bolton said he questioned Mac Donald on the contradictory nature of her arguments, but said “she blew off the question and then continued to sort of pontificate, but without references to actual works or quotes or a body material.”

“Heather Mac Donald struck me as a provocateur and someone that was really beneath the intellectual level that I think our campus engages in,” Bolton said. “If you’re quoting W. E. B. Du Bois but not realizing that much of his work is making exactly the opposite point that you are… it just shows either bad faith argument… or a failure to actually engage with the topic in a way that would make you credible.”

Though the event was sponsored by the College Republicans, Mac Donald was originally proposed as a speaker by the Generals Redoubt, an alumni group dedicated to the “preservation of the history, tradition and values of Washington and Lee.” The Redoubt also provided financial support for her presentation. Both the Redoubt and the Spectator supported and were involved with planning of the event.

“We feel that her presentation will provide another point of view on the issue of diversity so prevalent in higher education and in the general culture today,” said Neely Young, ‘66, the vice president of Generals Redoubt, in an email before Mac Donald’s speech.

Due to the controversial nature of Mac Donald’s work, some students planned activities to promote campus diversity at the same time of the talk in order to “respond and fight against everything [Mac Donald is] saying,” said Katana Evans, ‘22.

Leeann Passaro, ‘20, created a petition on behalf of Diverge, a magazine that seeks to “amplify intersectional perspectives on Washington and Lee’s campus.” The petition’s purpose was to “affirm [Washington and Lee’s] values as a community and say that this is not something we stand for.” The petition garnered over 400 signatures, Passaro said in March.

Although Passaro stands against Mac Donald, she said her intention was not to stop her from coming to campus.

“I strongly believe in freedom of speech and hearing diverse perspectives,” Passaro said. “[The petition was meant to be] a physical representation [of support]. If you’re hurt or offended or scared that W&L isn’t a place for you —seeing that 400 people are standing by you and on your side [is] a huge indicator of what this community actually stands for.”

Despite Passaro’s disapproval of Mac Donald, she still thinks “it’s absolutely worth reading into her stuff… to educate yourself before you make an opinion.”

Tanner encourages the same, telling those opposed to her ideas to “get past the title and make yourself click on the article, and then you read what she has to say…it’s a lot more reasonable than you might initially expect.”