The Woke Profession of Faith at American Universities
Applying for academic jobs is, as any graduate student will tell you, very nearly a job itself. When I was on the market in 2013, compiling, submitting, and tracking applications consumed my time, even though most of my countless applications were all variations on the same theme. But one application package was different: In addition to the standard cover letter, CV, and writing sample, Christendom College required a separate statement in support of the college’s Catholic mission and identity.
This request, though unusual, made sense. Christendom is a fiercely independent confessional college and a bastion of conservative Catholicism. It refuses all federal funding in pursuit of its educational apostolate, and its faculty make a yearly profession of faith and oath of fidelity. Thus the orthodoxy of the faculty is central to the mission of the college; its students, alumni, and donors expect nothing less. As a practicing Catholic, I was happy to write the statement and overjoyed to accept the job.
Less than a decade has passed since I was on the job market, but the world has changed dramatically. What was peculiar to Christendom in 2013 has become common practice in 2021. It is now difficult to find a job posting in the humanities that does not require some sort of profession of faith—albeit in a radically different creed.
Consider this recent job posting from my alma mater:
Purdue University’s Department of History is committed to advancing diversity in all areas of faculty effort including discovery, instruction, and engagement. Candidates should address at least one of these areas in a separate diversity and inclusion statement, indicating their past experiences, current interests or activities and / or future goals to promote a climate that values diversity and inclusion.
This is, all things considered, a relatively benign example of the genre, a fact perhaps attributable to Purdue’s identity as an agriculture and engineering school, its location in conservative Indiana, and its current leadership (Mitch Daniels, the school’s president, is a former GOP governor and dark horse presidential candidate). But despite all this, Purdue’s history department believes that a commitment to diversity and inclusion is necessary for a candidate who hopes to teach the history of medieval science.
Just across the Ohio border, however, things are worse. The University of Cincinnati’s English department proclaims its dedication “to the advancement of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.” It demands that applicants for its Shakespeare position “demonstrate in their Diversity & Inclusion Statement strong evidence of a commitment to advancing these central values” and “outline their commitment to teaching and mentoring students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities, first generation college students, and students from diverse backgrounds.”
Requiring statements such as these is little short of imposing a religious test for public employment, designed to identify and disqualify heretics (that is, those who dissent from the reigning woke ideology) from academic careers. Successful applicants are expected not only to profess the new religion but to demonstrate their history of spreading it; the schools seek proven missionaries, not mere nominal believers. It goes without saying that Christians who hold to biblical teaching on sexual morality, intellectuals suspicious of critical race theory, and Trump voters of all descriptions need not apply (they would, we must assume, threaten belonging); any mention of religious, political, or intellectual diversity is conspicuously absent from the advertisements.
On the one hand, none of this is surprising. Readers are certainly aware that the American academy has long been marching steadily to the left—and that, in the last decade, the march has become a headlong sprint. The required profession of wokeness is of a piece with the proliferation of identity-politics studies (queer, gender, Latinx), the blacklisting of scientists for political heterodoxy, the de-platforming of conservative think tanks, and the rest. But what is unsurprising is still disturbing.
Under the old dispensation, it was just possible for a rogue conservative to survive graduate school, slip past a hiring committee, and secure tenure in the mainstream academy. Now, the required statements make that all but impossible. Until recently, a conservative student could reasonably hope to find a sympathetic professor at a state school; unless something changes, that too will soon be a thing of the past. Humanities departments will soon be comprised entirely by the old radicals who imposed the ideological tests, and the yet-more-radical new professors who passed them.
What can be done? Old expedients certainly retain their value. Conservatives can choose to send their children to countercultural college–or to no college at all. Recent calls to establish new conservative colleges, and, crucially, conservative universities, sound a welcome note. But even if conservatives succeed in establishing “an ivory tower of our own,” I cannot help but question the prudence of abandoning the public universities, and the billions of taxpayer dollars poured into them, to the hands of the enemy. State legislatures, after all, ultimately control the purse strings of public universities. They have had some success in combatting the spread of critical race theory in the classroom: Why not challenge the progressive dominance of the hiring process as well?
The fight will no doubt be difficult. The institutional prestige of universities makes them a challenging target, and exaggerated ideas of viewpoint neutrality and academic freedom die hard. But it is a fight worth having. Patrick Deneen has compared liberalism to brood parasites like the cuckoo and brown-headed cowbird—birds that reproduce themselves by laying their eggs in other species’ nests, co-opting the other birds’ nurturing instincts at the expense of their natural offspring. And so it is. Perhaps nowhere is this parasitical liberalism more obvious than in the field of higher education, in which conservative legislatures and parents commit dollars by the billion and students by the million to the care of a barren credentialed class that openly despises them and their values, only to see the money wasted and the students warped.
The simmering tension between public colleges and the communities they claim to serve has, of course, existed for decades. But with the newly required professions of faith, tension boils over into open aggression. If conservatives continue to stuff the grotesquely bloated thing that has usurped their nest, they have only themselves to blame.
Ben Reinhard is an associate professor of English and academic dean at Christendom College, where he teaches courses in Old and Middle English literature. His writings have appeared in the Imaginative Conservative, Catholic World Report, and the University Bookman. His new translation of Beowulf is forthcoming with Cluny Press.