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Letter From A Campus Revolution

Veteran prof on school's moral hysteria: 'I’ve seen battles come and go, but this moment is different'
Letter From A Campus Revolution

I have already told my children not to consider careers in journalism or academia, because over the course of their lifetimes, they will not be free in either field. It’s this kind of thing that makes me so pessimistic. An academic writes me this morning to say, “I’m telling you, what’s going on on campuses right now is a whole new level of bad, and it’s going to get worse, of that I have no doubt.”

Here is his letter, which I use with his permission. I know his name and his institutional affiliation. Trust me when I say that this is not Oberlin or MacAlester, or some other lefty liberal arts college where you might expect this kind of thing. This is a school that a lot of uninformed people would regard as “safe”:

No one likes it when dire predictions come true. For years the leftists on our campus have operated largely as Fabians: they thought the structure was corrupt, but they figured they could effect the changes from within it. They had many successes, but each success brought with it an appetite for more. They were waiting for the moment when the revolution that had taken place at the level of culture could take place at the level of administrative control. This is their moment. This is when the very nature of the institutions change, not so much in terms of their structures, which they’ll largely maintain, but in terms of their animating principles. For colleges such as mine this means the replacement of Christianity with the religion of anti-racism.

It did not take our president long after the death of George Floyd to issue a statement asseverating definitively that Floyd’s death was “an act of racism,” despite the fact that he couldn’t possibly know if this was true. He also expressed his “deep grief” and how “heart-broken” he was, as if Floyd were his own child. He did this in part because, like any sane person, he was horrified both by Floyd’s death and by the specter of racism, and in part because he was getting enormous pressure (no pun intended) put on him by faculty and alumni.

Since then, even though it’s summer, things have gotten worse. The president has issued more statements expressing his hurt and committing college resources to “combat racism,” even though college campuses are the least racist places in America. We’ve been having townhall meetings where people can tell their stories of oppression, and express their fear about how much danger they’re in because some people won’t bow to their gods. All these townhall meetings include calls to action that become increasingly heavy-handed.

A couple of years ago, under the radar, the administration issued a new policy that anyone involved in a hire had to undergo implicit bias training. When I told my dean that I found the idea of implicit bias training to be faulty at both a philosophical and social science level, and a serious threat to academic freedom and so would not participate, he replied “That’s too bad, because you won’t be participating in any searches, and frankly you make valuable contributions on those.”

These are the constant little deals, compromises, calculations, and prudential decisions you have to make when you don’t worship at the altar of anti-racism. Some of my conservative colleagues and I have for years been calling this “the green grocer effect”: at what point do you take the sign down? The problem is that at no point do you get told you have to put the sign in your window: it’s all incremental. Each little battle requires a weighing of costs and benefits, and at some point the sign is in your window and you realize that you’re the one who put it there. That’s part of what makes this so pernicious, and why a soft totalitarianism may be more difficult to fight than a hard one is.

Anti-racism has become the established religion of the realm. The usual suspects have emerged to the forefront. They’ve organized public displays of piety that, for all their sincerity, are annoyingly theatrical and performative. Now we are being threatened with mandatory consciousness-raising sessions, a massive increase in the scarce institutional resources going to “Equity and Inclusion” offices, where the half-educated exercise their reign of ressentiment, compulsory participation in “book clubs” that deal with race issues (and at which no heterodoxy will be tolerated), and the redoing of teaching evaluation forms that identify racial sensitivity in the classroom as evaluative criteria. Merit increases already are, and increasingly will be, determined by how vigorously one worships, by ones ideological piety. In other words: church attendance and acts of worship are mandatory.

I’ve strongly considered retaining a lawyer to help me figure out what I should and should not do in order to maintain my position in the inevitable wrongful dismissal suit. Sadly, the courts will be the place where much of this is sorted out, for the only thing that can keep these colleges in line is their bottom line. So if they have to pay out for wrongful dismissals, or if donors decide they’ve had enough (a prospect less likely in the age of woke capitalism), the colleges might actually turn the ratchet in the other direction for a change. But I’m not optimistic.

In the meantime, I have younger colleagues who are completely stressed about all this. They rightly suspect they are going to be compelled to do things that violate the tenets of academic and disciplinary freedom, including mandating course readings (which is already taking place in certain quarters), setting aside a percentage of every course to discuss race issues (good luck chemistry profs), and of course all sorts of training sessions. Merit increases, promotion, and tenure already are and will continue to be tied to compliance on these matters (actually, compliance is probably not enough; you need to be enthusiastic about these measures). These younger colleagues are already wondering whether they should get out before they are forced out. Where will they go? I have no idea, for it’s not as if corporations are particularly friendly places. It’s almost as if someone predicted four years ago that there will be no place to hide.

Data indicate that white liberals are well to the left of blacks on race issues, and they are the ones agitating on campus. If the Kavanaugh hearings were the moment when academic culture throughly infiltrated our legal and political systems, the Floyd protests were the moment where it infected the whole culture. You fight injustice with injustice. You fight irrationality with irrationality. You fight bigotry with bigotry. Power is the sole coinage of the realm, but you have to put a moralizing cloak on it. There is no academic leader out there, to my knowledge, who is willing to acknowledge any nuance, complexity, or role for dissent in our fraught moment.

I’ve been in this profession for 30 years, and I’ve seen battles come and go, but this moment is different. It’s perilous in ways I’ve not witnessed. Never before has Solzhenitsyn’s advice to “live not by lies” meant more or carried more severe consequences. In the past I could dismiss threats as temporary aberrations, trendy winds that would blow over leaving the core of the enterprise intact. I no longer believe that. This is not the same. The religious zealots would rather burn the whole thing to the ground then to leave one spot of impurity. But that’s what it really is: it’s all a purification ritual, a cleansing fire and on the other side, salvation. The victims who fuel the fire will be unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

The professor added that this is not only what’s happening at his institution. It’s going on all over.

UPDATE: I was just thinking, when Live Not By Lies comes out in the fall, the natural thing to do would to be to visit campuses. But the kinds of campuses who need to hear the message are the kinds of campuses that would never host me, not with this message. We need to work out some way for me to be hosted by local churches that don’t mind being hated by the woke. E-mail me with ideas.

UPDATE.2: A reader comments:

Rod, I am someone with whom you have spoken who is a professor at a major public university, and I write here under a pseudonym in the spirit of self-protection. The professor in the letter sent to you is right on target. Those of us who are academics live in a supercharged era of mass hysteria and intimidation that is reminiscent of the McCarthy and Red Scare eras. Universities are imposing thought codes on professors and students, and those who do not adhere to the thought codes are subjected to ostracism (at best) and employment sanctions (at worst). The idea that a senior professor who would not accept implicit bias training would be shut out of university search committees is stunning and offensive. At my university I am seeing administrator after administrator make statements that can only be interpreted to mean that the university will be engaging is racial discrimination against disfavored groups. Moreover, university administrators are cowering in fear over the latest demands from black faculty and students, and the result is that universities are making promises that are unreasonable and discriminatory.

The bottom line is that the professor whose letter you quote has a very accurate picture of what is going on in most or all institutions of higher education, and this is having a major detrimental effect on the core missions of colleges and universities around the country.

UPDATE.2: Reader Hewey:

I can say that this reflects what I am seeing in the “evangelical” university where I teach. This one in the upper Midwest. Cutbacks all around layoffs due to Covid, but expansion of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and a whole new host of new training programs being rolled out, including how we white people are shot through with “unconscious racism.” I won’t be here much longer.

I am confident that most Evangelical colleges will go the way of most Catholic colleges, which is to say, fully, or almost-fully, woke.

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