Two readings from last week, in the self-destruction of American academia and other institutions.
The Nature of the Beast
Bari Weiss writes another powerful essay, from a talk given at the new University of Austin. Really, you should read the whole thing, but here is one particularly delicious excerpt:
The ideology that is trying to unseat liberalism in America begins by stipulating that the forces of justice and progress are in a war against backwardness and tyranny. And in a war, the normal rules of the game must be suspended. Indeed, this ideology would argue that those rules are not just obstacles to justice, but tools of oppression. They are the master’s tools. And the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.
So the tools themselves are not just replaced but repudiated.
By “liberalism” Bari means the philosophy of freedom, spanning classical liberalism to the traditional American left. She does not say, but could go on, that this is a fundamentally anti-democratic authoritarian movement. When you are in the right, and the opposition is wrong, evil, racist, and so forth, and the world faces crisis after imagined crisis, we have no time for dissenting views and procedural niceties.
Persuasion—the purpose of argument—is replaced with public shaming. Moral complexity is replaced with moral certainty. Facts are replaced with feelings. The rule of law is replaced with mob rule.
Ideas are replaced with identity. Forgiveness is replaced with punishment. Debate is replaced with disinvitation and de-platforming. Diversity is replaced with homogeneity of thought. Inclusion with exclusion. Excellence with equity.
In this ideology, disagreement is recast as trauma. So speech is violence. But violence, when carried out by the right people in pursuit of a just cause, is not violence at all—but in fact justice.
(Savor a bit Bari’s delicious writing. Night is day, truth is falsehood, good is evil — sonorous repetition is a great tool.)
In this ideology, bullying is wrong, unless you are bullying the right people, in which case it’s very, very good. In this ideology, information that does comport with The Narrative is recast as disinformation, its proponents as conspiracy theorists. In this ideology, education is not about teaching people how to think, it’s about re-educating them in what to think. In this ideology the need to feel safe trumps the need to speak truthfully.
In this ideology, if you do not tweet the right tweet or share the right slogan, your whole life can be ruined. Just ask Tiffany Riley, a Vermont school principal who was fired—fired—because she said she supports black lives but not the organization Black Lives Matter.
In this ideology, the past cannot be understood on its own terms, but must be judged through the morals and mores of the present. It is why statues of Grant, Lincoln and Washington were torn down. It is why William Peris, a UCLA lecturer and an Air Force veteran, was investigated because he read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” out loud in class.
In this ideology, intentions don’t matter. That is why Emmanuel Cafferty, a Hispanic utility worker at San Diego Gas and Electric, was fired for making what someone said they thought was a white-supremacist hand gesture. In fact, he was fidgeting with his fingers out of his car window.
In this ideology, you are guilty for the sins of your fathers. In other words: you are not you. You are only a mere avatar of your race or your religion or your class. That is why third graders in Cupertino, California, were asked to rate themselves in terms of their power and privilege. It is why an elementary school in Washington, D.C. gave kindergarteners a “fistbook” asking them to identify racist family members.
In this system, we are all placed neatly on a spectrum of “privileged” to “oppressed.” We are ranked somewhere on this spectrum in different categories: race, gender, sexual orientation and class. Then we are given an overall score, based on the sum of these rankings. Having privilege means that your character and your ideas are tainted. This is why, one high schooler in New York tells me, students in his school are told “if you are white and male, you are second in line to speak.” This is considered a normal and necessary redistribution of power.
Victimhood, in this ideology, confers morality. “I think therefore I am” is replaced with: “I am therefore I know.” Or: “I know therefore I am right.”
This ideology says there is no such thing as neutrality, not even in the law, which is why the very notion of colorblindness—the Kingian dream of judging people not based on the color of their skin but by the content of their character—must itself be deemed racist.
In this ideology, the equality of opportunity is replaced with equality of outcome as a measure of fairness. Racism is no longer about individual discrimination. It is about systems that allow for disparate outcomes among racial groups. If everyone doesn’t finish the race at the same time, then the course must have been flawed and should be dismantled.
(Savor that sequence of topic sentences.)
Thus the efforts to do away with the SAT, or the admissions test for elite public schools like Stuyvesant and Lowell—for decades, the engines of opportunity that allowed children of poor and working-class families to advance on their merit, regardless of race. Or the argument made by The New York Times’ classical music critic to do away with blind auditions for orchestras.
(Blind auditions were put in place as an effort to remove prejudice in favor of white male performers. They have not produced the desired demographic effect.)
In fact, any feature of human existence that creates disparity of outcomes must be eradicated: The nuclear family, politeness, even rationality itself can be defined as inherently racist or evidence of white supremacy. The KIPP charter schools recently eliminated the phrase “work hard” from its famous motto “Work Hard. Be Nice.” Why? Because the idea of working hard “supports the illusion of meritocracy.”
In this revolution, skeptics are recast as heretics. Those who do not abide by every single aspect of its creed are tarnished as bigots, subjected to boycotts and their work to political litmus tests. The enlightenment, as the critic Edward Rothstein has put it, has been replaced by the exorcism.
What we call “cancel culture” is really the justice system of this revolution. And the goal of the cancellations is not merely to punish the person being canceled. The goal is to send a message to everyone else: Step out of line and you are next.
It has worked.
A recent CATO study found that 62 percent of Americans are afraid to voice their true views. Nearly a quarter of American academics endorse ousting a colleague for having a wrong opinion about hot-button issues such as immigration. And nearly 70 percent of students favor reporting professors if the professor says something that students find offensive, according to a Challey Institute for Global Innovation survey. Think about that. A majority of students in America think it is a virtue to inform on their wrong-thinking professors.
Bari goes on to tell her young audience, take your country back, found institutions again.
DEI at UC
I saw this week an article on how the University of California’s DEI bureaucracy is destroying the institution, by Steven Brint and Komi T. German, professors at UC. (I hate to use the Orwellian term DEI — it is really Conformity, Preference and Exclusion. But we’ll suffer through.) It’s a year old, but still vibrant.
The use of mandatory DEI statements as initial screening mechanisms in faculty hiring is the most dramatic of the new administrative policies…
…By 2019, eight of the ten UC campuses mandated that ladder rank faculty recruitments require candidates to submit diversity statements. These statements ask candidates to discuss what they have contributed to the University’s goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The rubric used by the UCs to evaluate diversity statements…delineates criteria for scores ranging from 1 (“poor”) to 5 (“excellent”). An applicant who “doesn’t discuss gender or race/ethnicity” should receive a “poor” score, as should an applicant who sees DEI as “antithetical to academic freedom or the university’s research mission.” By contrast, an applicant who discusses DEI as “core values that every faculty member should actively contribute to advancing” should receive an “excellent” score.
It is the naïve candidate who simply discusses his or her efforts to encourage and recruit students or faculty members of color. These efforts are considered minimal. As UC Merced sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza counseled applicants in the pages of Inside Higher Ed, do not worry about coming across as “too political,” because such fears might lead them to write a “blasé statement.” Instead, she recommends that they demonstrate their “awareness of how systemic inequalities affect students’ ability to excel” and their commitment to “activism.” She encourages applicants to “tell your story”—that is, to point out the obstacles they have faced, or, alternatively, to “acknowledge your privilege.” She also recommends that applicants focus on “racial oppression, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or some other commonly recognized form of oppression.” When it comes to teaching, she encourages applicants to express their commitment to “antiracist pedagogy” (Golash-Boza 2016).
My emphasis. I’m all for a diverse faculty and student body, on dimensions including but also beyond skin color and sexual identity and preferences. But the point here is forced political speech and activity, most of all to supporting the DEI office!
But here comes the good part:
In 2018, the University began to experiment with the use of diversity statements as the initial screening device in faculty searches, …. In a presentation prepared by the UC Davis vice provost for academic affairs search committee members were instructed to review a candidate’s “Contributions to Diversity” statement before any other part of an application, and that candidates who do not “look outstanding with regard to their contributions to diversity” would not advance for further consideration in the hiring process. Reiterating this message, the vice chancellor explained at a conference that “in these searches, it is the candidate’s diversity statement that is considered first; only those who submit persuasive and inspiring statements can advance for complete consideration.” …(Ortner, 2020).
UC Berkeley has published information about the effects of the policy mandating the use of diversity statements as an initial screening device. In one faculty search, less than one quarter of otherwise qualified candidates had submitted diversity statements that were sufficient for advancement to the next hiring stage.
The constraint binds. This is not a form to fill out with boilerplate.
The files for these 214 candidates were then sent to the appropriate departmental search committees to create a short list for interviews (these are typically 3-6 candidates per job).
Note here it is clear — the departmental search committee does not even get to see the file until the DEI bureaucracy blesses it!
During their job talks and interviews, candidates were asked to explain their ideas about diversity, and their responses determined whether they were eligible to be hired in this late stage. Thus, at every stage of the hiring process, candidates were eliminated because they were perceived as being insufficiently committed to DEI, regardless of their academic qualifications
During their job talks. Enough about dark matter in the early universe, now, we really want to know how many protests you’ve been to in the last two years…
To my mind the screening for active political participation is the most galling. It is, of course, a way to avoid federal and state anti-discrimination laws:
The race and gender characteristics of the applicant pool in the UC Berkeley search changed substantially after candidates were evaluated on the basis of their diversity statements. The representation of women increased from 42 percent of applicants to 64 percent of the finalists, whereas the representation of men decreased from 57 percent of applicants to 36 percent of the finalists. The representation of African Americans increased from 3 percent of applicants to 9 percent of the finalists; and the representation of Hispanics increased from 13 percent of applicants to 59 percent of the finalists. By contrast, the representation of Asian Americans dropped from 26 percent of applicants to 18 percent of the finalists, and the representation of whites decreased from 54 percent of applicants to 14 percent of the finalists.
After the Supreme Court tosses out Harvard’s anti-asian admissions policies, it will be how interesting to see what happens here. But, back to the point, political conformity is the most important message. (I’d be interested to see how many Black conservatives survived the process!)
The policy of winnowing applicant pools based on diversity statements poses an obvious threat to the climate for academic freedom because of the implicit and explicit expectation that faculty must express a specific view regarding DEI. It is highly plausible that candidates will be (and arguably already have been) discriminated against not only because they do not subscribe to a particular set of political beliefs (as indicated by the UC scoring rubric criteria for “excellent” versus “poor” scores)…
The piece goes on to describe the history of this process, mainly from a desire to increase the number of women and minorities in the faculty.
Most relevant to academic freedom, the essay goes on to describe the thought police: A secretive bureaucracy that processes all complaints of “behavior that is inconsistent with our Principles of Community.” Secretive, because “The number and disposition of incidents filed based on the reports is unknown because UC has failed to disclose incidents or how they have been handled.” Then “mandatory training and the appointment of a vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion with a budget of $3 million. UC DEI initiatives accelerated following these events.”
In the summer of 2019, the University added equity advisors to every program on eight of its campuses. The equity advisor is “a senior ladder faculty member who participates in the faculty recruitment process by raising awareness of best practices…. Their role is to help advance diversity and to ensure that a climate of inclusion and equity is maintained throughout the search process” (UCOP 2019). Some Equity Advisor programs have expanded their purview to include other areas, such as faculty advancement and retention, salary equity decisions, formal and informal mentoring of faculty, advancing diversity in graduate admissions, and department climate. They “organize faculty development programs, address individual issues raised by women and underrepresented minority faculty, … equity advisors are empowered to mediate…People can report, among other things, “expressions of bias,” “hate speech,” “bias incidents,” and a “hostile climate.”
Noting the conflict between free speech and such efforts, the authors note wryly
it is perhaps indicative of the University’s stance that no academic freedom advisors are on the payroll.
The essay echoes familiar (to us) stories,
Academic freedom was sacrificed for the representational mission when an accounting professor at UCLA was placed on academic leave for denying students’ demands for a “no-harm” final exam following the death of George Floyd (Flaherty, 2020). It was violated when a political science professor at UCLA was subjected to a review by the University’s Discrimination Prevention Office for presenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and clips from a documentary on racism, both of which included the “N-word” (Korn, 2020). It was compromised when UC Berkeley faculty and students were advised not to use the phrase “America is a melting pot” or a “land of opportunity” (Volokh 2015). And the climate for academic freedom became chillier when a professor of history at Berkeley wrote an open letter to colleagues expressing concern about the “racial injustice” and “institutional racism” narratives of the anti-racism movement and the Berkeley’s history department responded by issuing a statement that it “condemn[s] this letter: it goes against our values as a department and our commitment to equity and inclusion” (Grimes, 2020).
Yet the main rot is silent:
Unlike these examples, most of the changes in the day-to-day affairs of the University have not reached the media; they have been incremental, including administrative appointments vetted for adherence to the University’s DEI values; the labeling of DEI statements in department meetings as “helpful” and academic freedom statements as “defensive”; and the institution of “voluntary” listening and diversity training sessions in which the loyalty of those absent becomes questionable in the eyes of attendees. These incremental changes eventually lead to qualitative shifts.
The essay goes on to discuss Critical Theory vs. rationalism, and useful thoughts on why things have headed this way, along with what seems to be a long “we really aren’t racists apoloigia.” Worth a read.
You’re probably tired, as am I, but next read Joseph Manson’s Why I’m Leaving the University, on just how UCLA is falling to pieces.