It’s Not About Yik Yak

The app enables bullying and hate speech on campus. But the bigger problem is college students who don’t want to be in college.

The solution to the upward creep of abhorrent, immature behavior isn’t to ban some app.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Thinkstock.

Last week, a group of more than 70 women’s and civil rights groups sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education expressing “grave concern” about the recent proliferation of online harassment, bullying, and hate speech on college campuses nationwide, thanks in part to a 2-year-old app called Yik Yak. The “discriminatory behavior” the letter details includes “incidents at the University of Mary Washington, where female students were threatened with rape, murder and other abuse,” and at Clemson University, where racist yaks appeared after a student protest of Darren Wilson’s nonindictment. Groups signing the letter included the National Organization for Women, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the National Black Justice Coalition.

The organizations write that there is an “urgent need” for the department’s Office for Civil Rights “to remind schools of their obligation to address all forms of sex- and race-based harassment, including cyber threats and harassment, which violate federal civil rights laws.” These laws include Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination (such as sexual harassment), and Title VI, which prohibits discrimination “on the basis of race, color, or national origin.” The letter excoriates the American university system for “not adequately respond[ing]” to abusive yaks, which “essentially allow students to engage in sex- and race-based harassment that would otherwise be prohibited.” Steps the OCR should take, the letter says, include investigating all claims of harassment (even anonymous ones), geofencing, and monitoring students’ social media use.

The ire is understandable, and the letter is forceful—but they may be yakking up the wrong tree. The problem isn’t Yik Yak. The problem is that too many students are treating college like high school.

Yik Yak has garnered the most attention in the current controversy because it’s an anonymous social media platform that allows anyone within a 10-mile radius to post and read about anything and everything. It is especially popular among college students, and its content generally ranges from which dorm is the horniest (the answer, by the way, is always Main Dorm) to which professors are probably the horniest.

I’m 39 years old, so I have no business being anywhere near Yik Yak. The only reason someone as decrepit as myself has even heard of it is because of all the negative attention the app has received in the past year, from the racist and misogynistic screeds to a mass gang-up on three professors at Eastern Michigan University—one that took place for the duration of an entire, unfortunately scheduled Friday-morning lecture. (There, by the way, is the transcendent power of lecture for you.)

Students usually behave as if their yaks will remain within their peer circle (where they can still do plenty of harm), but it turns out that their professors are sometimes lurking on the yak like playground creepers—or, worse (better?), showing up to hang out, like a stepdad trying to be cool. Still other times, unflattering yaks are brought to a prof’s attention. This was the case in the high-profile kerfuffle in Michigan, when a group of students in a 9 a.m. Friday honors lecture spent the hour spewing lewd, derogatory abuse at their professors, including repeated uses of the word bitch.

“I have been defamed, my reputation besmirched,” wrote one of those instructors, philosophy professor Margaret Crouch, to her union rep. “I have been sexually harassed and verbally abused. I am about ready to hire a lawyer.” To do what? Identify the students? Punish … someone? The makers of the app have said they will work with law enforcement but prefer to let users “self-police.” (I’m sure Monsieur Foucault is very proud.)

Crouch wrote to administrators that she would “quit before [she] put up with this again.” She didn’t quit, as it turns out, although her very interesting-sounding team-taught interdisciplinary studies course seems to be on hiatus—much to the delight, by the way, of the caring nurturers at the College Fix, who have thus endorsed calling one’s professor “a vulgar term for the female anatomy” as an excellent method of curriculum design.

I certainly agree that the yaks in question—and whatever else students are doing to terrorize their professors and each other—are repugnant. But I’m skeptical of the call for institutional regulation. From the faculty standpoint, the only real short-term solution is to incorporate more detailed behavioral policies into already-overlong syllabi. Building responses to cyberabuse into course design is becoming an abject necessity, and it’s profoundly depressing. Having to plan one’s classes around potential disciplinary issues presupposes an adversarial relationship between instructor and student that is not supposed to exist in college, where students presumably want to be there. And that’s just the thing: In today’s extortionately priced, increasingly vocational university, we find thousands of students who view its courses as purely transactional. They don’t, in fact, want to be there.

Our young people are bombarded with rhetoric that insists that everyone needs (at least) a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, the only courses of study currently acceptable to the parents and armchair pundits of America seem to be engineering, engineering, and engineering (and perhaps pre-med). Yes, those majors sometimes result in lucrative careers—but they are among the most difficult and should be comprised solely of students who want it. (I shudder to think of driving across a bridge in 20 years, given that it will probably have been designed by some immature jerk who rolled his eyes and trashed-talked his professor on some nightmare app of the future instead of paying attention.)

Here’s a hypothesis: College is stressing students out so much they blow off steam by acting like monsters, or—more likely—a large number of students have no business being in college at all.

Yes, everyone, even students who do not want to be in college, now must go to college (in something practical, not something useless!). Combine that with students who are understandably averse to formal schooling after 12 years of incessant rote test preparation, and you get classrooms full of recalcitrant, confrontational college freshmen who are overtaxed, underinspired, lacking in some basic life and social skills, and prone to acting out. Yik Yak is distasteful, yes—but it’s not the problem here. Only the enabler.

The solution to the upward creep of abhorrent, immature behavior into college isn’t to ban some stupid app. Nor is the solution to hire thousands more student-services administrators to act as de facto vice principals, or to demean further the status and purpose of higher education with curriculum design that might even encourage misbehavior by planting the idea in the students’ heads in the first place. No, the solution is to stop requiring a bachelor’s degree to be an office assistant, or a paralegal, or any number of professions that up until recently could be staffed—successfully—by the holder of an associate’s degree or high-school diploma.

This isn’t about college being a privilege and not a right, or some such elitist claptrap. The university classroom benefits from a diversity of backgrounds, including first-generation students who absolutely should get any support they need with college readiness. Every American who wants to attend college should be able to (and for a lot less money than they’re currently laying out). But those who don’t want to shouldn’t feel like they have to—and they shouldn’t have to ruin some poor professor’s life on Yik Yak before we start paying attention to them.