Conservative Life in the Liberal Professoriate: A Cautionary Tale
The author wrote a piece for a university publication pointing out the coronavirus came from Wuhan. Then the furies descended.
“American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by a liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other.” -Irving Kristol
For 21 years I have worked at the same institution, Winthrop University. It is a small liberal arts university—about 5,500 students, most from the very red state of South Carolina. And therein lies this conundrum. While most of our students are conservative to moderate, our faculty, like the majority of the professoriate, leans decidedly left.
During the same 21 years, I have written for a professional library publication called Against the Grain, the irony of which will soon be apparent. At the request of the journal 15 years ago, I agreed to write a regular column that I called “Little Red Herrings.”
Most of what I wrote has been of a professional nature: publishing, censorship, and inside baseball library stuff. In other words, columns that even one’s mother or spouse dreaded to read. But occasionally I took on a topic much in the public eye. When the country went into lockdown in February, I felt a column about metadata or reference interviews would be nearly fatuous, so I undertook to write something about the pandemic. “The Wuhan Wilding” seemed to me the right piece. I hoped to follow it up with a column for the following month, “Work in the Wuhan Wilderness.” It was a time of reflection for me since I was then but 45 days from retirement. I wrote “Wilding” and sent it to the editor with whom I have worked for the past five years.
I wanted to make three points. First, I did not want us to lose sight of the origin of the virus. In five years, many might forget where it originated. Subsequent riots in the wake of the heinous murder of George Floyd have proven that history is not a strong point with them, as epigone abolitionists and others in sympathy with their angst have borne the brunt of the rioters’ fury. Only a few weeks prior to my using it, the phrase “Wuhan coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus” had been used by CNN, not exactly a right-of-center media outlet, and also by every other major media outlet in the country.
Second, I wanted to point out that crises bring out the best and worst in people, and I gave examples of both. Little did I known how Cassandra-like I would be vis-à-vis the latter.
Third, I wanted to make the point that perhaps the outcome of this lockdown might make us more aware of what is important in life. Hope springs eternal.
The editors showcased the article with a half dozen others. In other words, at that point, no one at the magazine had seen anything wrong with the piece. Yet once the online version appeared, all hell broke loose.
After 11 vituperative commenters excoriated the piece, the editors not only unilaterally retracted it, but apologized for its appearance. I was informed that the following month’s column would not be printed. Commenters then began working on the Winthrop’s website, making sure both my new provost and our interim president saw their outrage. My provost telephoned me—we were not yet back to work at that point—to tell me my crime was “casual racism.” I replied, peevishly, that the Left had given us casual sex and now we had casual racism. What next? She explained that pointing out that the virus had come from Wuhan and giving examples of cultural differences between Asian and Western values “signaled” my racism. In the spirit of reeducation, she offered to send me a reading list that would better situate me with the university’s bien-pensants.
She further explained that she would have to send an email to all faculty and staff disassociating the university from my article. When I asked why, she explained that during a virtual staff conference, the issue had come up. This struck me as odd because we have professional librarians who do not read Against the Grain regularly. The staff conference also violated Winthrop’s own rules about using names in personnel matters.
In an email to faculty and staff titled, “Comments on our mission, speech rights, and inclusion.” she wrote:
Conflicts on college campuses seem to position these as antithetical to one another. They are not. In navigating this intersection, it is incumbent upon an academic institution to clarify when a member of the community makes statements that do not represent the university, at the same time that we recognize the equal weight of our commitments to academic freedom and inclusive excellence. Recent remarks by a member of our academic community—in a now-deleted online column and on Twitter—included comments that may be viewed as ethnically offensive relating to the COVID-19 virus. These remarks do not reflect the spirit of Winthrop’s mission and do not represent the views of Winthrop University.
While I was not mentioned by name in the email, everyone on campus knew who the culprit was. As Carol Iannone once pointed out, “In the academy, the rule of power and intimidation through group grievance has been substituted for the rule of reason, persuasion, and argument, signaling the virtual end of intellectual life.” The matter did not end there, however.
A few years ago, I brought to Winthrop a digital commons software platform designed as a kind of intellectual footprint for a university. I deposited both articles in that repository. Forty-eight hours later, I learned that both had been censored, an unprecedented move. I received an email from my provost explaining that she had (privately) emailed the library’s digital commons librarian to remove them. I doubt the other 20,000 pages on this platform have been or will ever be vetted for the same nihil obstat. Consequently, I posted my articles on academia.edu. Still, the matter was far from over.
The American Library Association jumped into the fray, condemning me. The Asia/Pacific American Librarians Association and Chinese American Library Association also condemned me and the article. The latter argued:
[T]he article was blatantly racist and xenophobic during a time in our country when discrimination, racism, and hate crimes against Asians and Asian Pacific Americans are on the rise. People of all races and ethnicities–including Asian and Asian Pacific Americans–are dying and to trivialize the disease by calling it by racist names like the “Wuhan virus” and “Kung Flu” is the epitome of ignorance and white supremacy in our profession.
The Kung Flu reference pointed to a comment I made in the article. I hasten to point that the Obama administration used the same “Kung Flu” phrase during a flu outbreak in 2015. (I am certain no one at any of those organizations has complained.) The condemnation went on to argue that my article was “especially dangerous since we do not know what officially started/caused the disease.” Seriously? Apparently only APALA and CALA do not know it began in Wuhan and was covered up by the Chinese government.
Post-George Floyd, the university hosted its first virtual diversity meeting that, inter alia, included a discussion about “intersectionality,” “heteronormativity,” and “cisgender” matters. A reading list has been created on a webpage titled, “Anti-Racist and Social Justice.” More than once the need for “reeducation” came up.
I have also been the faculty advisor to the College Republicans for 15 years. During the last year prior to my retirement, I wrote to eight faculty members whom I knew to be of a conservative bent, asking them to take over for me. All eight turned me down. This is important since no official campus club can exist and apply for funds without a faculty advisor. All eight expressed to me fears about some sort of reprisal, either in tenure, promotion, committee assignments, or all three. Today, I understand better their hesitation.
My story has a happier ending than most. It appeared in a number of news outlets and local media covered it as well. But not until my congressman, Ralph Norman, and my state senator, Wes Climer, came to my defense, did matters begin to turn. Along with several others, we pointed out to the full Board of Trustees that the precipitous actions of the provost flew in the face of First Amendment guarantees. We demanded an apology, written to all faculty and staff, by the provost, which, with some struggle, occurred. Further, we are working with the senior staff to make sure something like this does not happen again.
After opining about the rise of multiculturalism and political correctness, Christopher Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, “How much longer can the spirit of free inquiry and open debate survive under these conditions?”
My guess is that the sands in that hourglass are nearly spent.
Mark Y. Herring is professor and Dean of Library Services emeritus, Winthrop University, where he served the last 21 years of his career before retiring in July of this year. Prior to that he served as dean or director in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Herring has nine books and scores of articles to his credit. He wrote a regular column for Against the Grain for 15 years before the magazine censored him. He also served as the faculty advisor to the College Republicans at Winthrop. Herring lives with his wife, Carol, in Rock Hill, South Carolina.