Glenn Loury calls out his university for an official letter on racism that, he says traffics in “sophomoric nostrums.”

June 7, 2020 • 9:00 am

Glenn Loury is a well-known American author and economist, and you might have seen his hard-hitting “The Glenn Show” on  Loury was the first tenured black professor of economics at Harvard, but left for Brown University—where he’s now the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics—because he said his appointment at Harvard was a “mistake” (he didn’t feel sufficiently established as scholar).

On June 1, the administration of his school published a “Letter from Brown’s senior leaders“, which not only decried the police killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, but also made sweeping statements about structural racism, the lack of progress in securing civil rights (“we have been here before, and in fact have never left), and, in the end, makes promises about reform:

In the weeks and months to come, we will leverage the expertise of our faculty, staff and students to develop programming, courses and research opportunities designed to advance knowledge and promote essential change in policy and practice in the name of equity and justice.

According to Loury, the letter was sent to “thousands of students, staff, and faculty”.

The letter is signed by every bigwig in the Brown administration, from the President on down through Vice Presidents, deans, executive officers and financial offers. What struck me was that although it was well intentioned, it was an ideological statement by the University itself, which would not be allowed by the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report (1967), which affirms political neutrality of a University, rejecting the idea that a University can hold a position to which all members ascribe, and leaving it up to individuals to make their own personal statements. My own view is that the University should not be issuing statements like this, soothing and empathic, but rather leave these these statements up to faculty who, after all, may dissent from a University position. If Universities start issuing statement on the issues of the day, there will be no end to it (I recommend reading the Kalven report). That, of course, doesn’t mean that the University shouldn’t emphasize its resources for those affected, as our own University’s statement did (see below).

Glenn Loury, however, has no truck with his university’s letter, and has written a scathing response in City Journal, which you can see by clicking on screenshot below:

What struck me on a first reading was how poorly written the Brown letter was, a fact that didn’t escape Loury, who said it “was obviously the product of a committee.” Loury wrote a response (it’s not clear to whom), but shared it with the City Journal website. Here are a few of his pungent remarks about the content of the Brown letter:

I wondered why such a proclamation was necessary. Either it affirmed platitudes to which we can all subscribe, or, more menacingly, it asserted controversial and arguable positions as though they were axiomatic certainties. It trafficked in the social-justice warriors’ pedantic language and sophomoric nostrums. It invoked “race” gratuitously and unreflectively at every turn. It often presumed what remains to be established. It often elided pertinent differences between the many instances cited. It read in part like a loyalty oath. It declares in every paragraph: “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident.”

And just what truths are these? The main one: that racial domination and “white supremacy” define our national existence even now, a century and a half after the end of slavery.

I deeply resented the letter. First of all, what makes an administrator (even a highly paid one, with an exalted title) a “leader” of this university? We, the faculty, are the only “leaders” worthy of mention when it comes to the realm of ideas. Who cares what some paper-pushing apparatchik thinks? It’s all a bit creepy and unsettling. Why must this university’s senior administration declare, on behalf of the institution as a whole and with one voice, that they unanimously—without any subtle differences of emphasis or nuance—interpret contentious current events through a single lens?

And that’s why the University shouldn’t speak with one voice, for there may be faculty who dissent from that voice.

You have to admire Loury’s moxie; after all, he’s calling out his own bosses, though of course he’s tenured and can’t be fired. He goes on (the bolding is mine):

They write sentences such as this: “We have been here before, and in fact have never left.” Really? This is nothing but propaganda. Is it supposed to be self-evident that every death of an “unarmed black man” at the hands of a white person tells the same story? They speak of “deep-rooted systems of oppression; legacies of hate.” No elaboration required here? No specification of where Brown might stand within such a system? No nuance or complexity? Is it obvious that “hate”—as opposed to incompetence, or fear, or cruelty, or poor training, or lack of accountability, or a brutal police culture, or panic, or malfeasance—is what we observed in Minneapolis? We are called upon to “effect change.” Change from what to what, exactly? Evidently, we’re now all charged to promote the policy agenda of the “progressive” wing of American politics. Is this what a university is supposed to be doing?

I must object. This is no reasoned ethical reflection. Rather, it is indoctrination, virtue-signaling, and the transparent currying of favor with our charges. The roster of Brown’s “leaders” who signed this manifesto in lockstep remind me of a Soviet Politburo making some party-line declaration. I can only assume that the point here is to forestall any student protests by declaring the university to be on the Right Side of History.

What I found most alarming, though, is that no voice was given to what one might have thought would be a university’s principal intellectual contribution to the national debate at this critical moment: namely, to affirm the primacy of reason over violence in calibrating our reactions to the supposed “oppression.” Equally troubling were our president’s promises to focus the university’s instructional and research resources on “fighting for social justice” around the world, without any mention of the problematic and ambiguous character of those movements which, over the past two centuries or more, have self-consciously defined themselves in just such terms—from the French and Russian Revolutions through the upheavals of the 1960s.

My bottom line: I’m offended by the letter. It frightens, saddens, and angers me.

Brown’s letter is in fact a social-justice screed, not affirming the values of the University to teach or foster critical discussion, but rather presuming unanimous adherence to an approved ideology. Granted, I happen to agree with most of that ideology—but not completely, for, as Loury implies, the Brown letter echoes the Critical-Racism-Theory tone of the New York Times’s 1619 Project. As the Kalven report said half a century ago, a university “is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

Brown, of course, has long been a woke university, so its response is not surprising. What did surprise me is that The University of Chicago also issued a letter from our provost—one similar to Brown’s. It’s not nearly as social-justicey, though it does mention “the intractable scourge of racism” (I prefer to think that racism isn’t intractable), and calls attention to various university resources that might be useful to students in these troubled times.  And of course I agree with nearly all of it. My point is that it pretends that we have a collective position when we don’t, just as Loury dissents from his own University’s “official” letter. I remind you again of what the Kalven report says, and I’ve emphasized the last paragraph:

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

“Endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness” means converging on a single acceptable political opinion from which dissent is unacceptable. By all means anybody, from the President to the Provost to the faculty, can expound their own personal opinions. But they should not issue them under the imprimatur of the University, which promulgates the incorrect view that all of us agree with everything in the letter.

h/t: cesar


28 thoughts on “Glenn Loury calls out his university for an official letter on racism that, he says traffics in “sophomoric nostrums.”

    1. Yes. I’m afraid that Biden might feel the need to accommodate the woke too much. I hope he realizes, before it’s too late, that wokeness is a large part of why we got Trump.

      1. I am hoping with you, Paul, but remain doubtful. I’m afraid the fear of the scarlet letter (“R”) runs too deep among liberals for them to buck this trend of wokeness (or the trend to abolish the police, etc.). I hope that you are right about Biden’s realization, or I hope that Trump is so damaged that it won’t matter, but the liberal instinct for self-sabotage is great and the pitfalls on the road to November many.

  1. I am almost completely on Loury’s side here but I must point out how much his response to the Brown letter sounds like he mostly feels left out. This seems a bit over the top:

    “First of all, what makes an administrator (even a highly paid one, with an exalted title) a “leader” of this university? We, the faculty, are the only “leaders” worthy of mention when it comes to the realm of ideas. Who cares what some paper-pushing apparatchik thinks?”

    He’s right, of course, but I suspect that these “leaders” hold the reins of power at the university, right? These aren’t words likely to get them to change their opinion.

    1. If the apparatchiks don’t like it, tant pis. The ability to speak a dissenting view to the academy’s powers-that-be is the whole point of tenure, isn’t it? (It mirrors why the framers of the US constitution saw fit to grant federal judges lifetime appointments.)

      1. Sure, he is correct and has the right to say it. Still, it shouldn’t so much be a matter of who’s in charge but what’s the best education policy. If he wants to change who’s in charge, that’s a conversation he should have with other than those in charge. Brown is private but presumably they accept outside money. The feds? Donors?

  2. There are people not usually referenced from this site that argue that much of the current social unrest isn’t really about Police brutality, or racism (even though they might be true in themselves) – they are pretexts for insurrection against a centre that has given up all pretense of holding.

    The Democrats and Republicans represented different flavours of the same elite/deep state but are now mired in internal dispute with each other and suffer a lack of courage to govern fairly and justly.

    It will take a long time to sort out and this will be delayed by every poorly thought through ‘appeasement’ or ‘accommodation’.

  3. Refreshing, clear. Like shining a full spectrum flashlight into the dark, when before that you were using all one wavelength.

  4. He is correct. The institution (school) has stepped beyond its reach and is speaking for others and registering an opinion it does not have. The school has piled upon itself a task it was not designed to make or had the authority to do. It is not so different from the problem with our police force. We have wrongly assigned them to perform a job they are poorly trained to accomplish. First we must decide what we want our police to do and then train them for that business.

  5. As opposed to faculty members that have the option of living in ivory towers, universities are, among other things, business entities that by necessity must interact with the outside world. They solicit donations from alumni and others, invest in public corporations, permit faculty members to accept financial aid from private businesses and government to facilitate research, and, if public institutions, beseech governmental entities for financial aid. None of these actions is socially neutral. Implicitly or explicitly, universities are making statements as to what they stand for. For example, universities that invest in private business could say that their only motivation is to reap the greatest return. But, this in itself is a social statement, namely, it doesn’t care about the nature of the corporation, only that it provides a nice return of capital. Presumably, conservatives such as Lowry would have no objection to this. Presumably, also, Lowry thinks it was fine during the antebellum period for universities such as Georgetown to engage in the perfectly legal business of buying and selling slaves. Clearly, if Georgetown thought that being intimately involved with slavery was in the university’s best interests, who could possibly object?

    It is one thing to object to specific proclamations issued by universities, such as the one by Brown, or investment decisions. But, it is simply a denial of reality to state that universities could even in theory be socially neutral to foster free discussion on campus. As business entities, social statements issued by universities (even if not readily apparent) are inevitable.

    1. I can imagine the discussion at a Brown University paper-pushing apparatchik meeting; “We need to go full Woke. Just think of the marketing opportunities”

    2. … conservatives such as Lowry [sic] …

      Loury isn’t a doctrinaire conservative (even by the standards of old-school, knocking-on-death’s-door conservatism); he’s more of a mixed bag. I disagree with his positions on a wide range of issues, but respect his independence of mind.

  6. I think he makes some good points. Maybe it’s because I’m stuck at home due to quarantine and have more time to hand-wring now, but I have been feeling pretty unsettled about current trends in the country. What stands out the most is the poll showing that nearly 60% of voters support military intervention to quell riots in the US, while the public messages are in such stark contrast to this that what you see more regularly there is talk of defunding or abolishing the police. This does lend credence, to my mind, to the theory of the “silent majority” that people will reference occasionally. Something about this dynamic seems ominous to me (although again, perhaps because I just have more time to dwell on it.) Is there truly a ‘silent majority’, and if so, why are they silent, what are they actually thinking (in addition to supporting military intervention), and what will they do about it at the polls and in other places?

    I also worry that the all-or-nothing; all-good-all-bad way of thinking about issues like how (or recently, “if”, in some corners) we want policing to happen are counterproductive to making changes that are actually effective, although that is not specific to this problem, I think that is an issue that one sees in many aspects of life – problem solving by pendulum swing, rather than analyzing causes of problems and efficacy of solutions.

    1. I believe part of the problem here is maybe relying too much on a survey. On some issues a survey just does not get it. If in fact the majority of people think it is a good idea to use the military in America to deal with riots it is those people who may need some education. The military is specifically not used against the people or community because it has been forbidden since we first started this country. Additionally the military is not trained for such duty. Would you want your military given a mission for which they are not trained to do? In the early days of this country the citizens were in such fear of even having a standing army they did not have one. That in fact, was what the second amendment was about but this fact has been run over today.

      1. I think ABC just did a survey with fairly similar results. Perhaps I am reading too much into it. But the (apparent) disconnect between public narrative and private opinion bothers me. When public discourse is no longer a place for hashing out opinions and viewpoints are forced underground, I think little good comes of it.

  7. What struck me on a first reading was how poorly written the Brown letter was, a fact that didn’t escape Loury, who said it “was obviously the produce [sic] of a committee.”

    As the Hitch observed, one of the few instances of crystalline prose ever produced by a committee was that done by the one King James commissioned to translate the Vulgate bible (and even there, I’d add, they weren’t able to do much about the text’s abundant, boring longeuers).

  8. The Brown letter is almost indistinguishable from the emails I am getting these days from banks, professional organizaations, and public companies, all hastening to assure me that they are on the right side of history and are not racists even though by implication all the rest of us must be. It is hard to resist the thought that the people writing these things are running for cover rather than stating deeply held beliefs – beliefs they only appear to have discovered a week or so ago. Bad prose, as Orwell told us, is usually the tip-off to muddled and evasive thinking. No one could accuse Loury of this. He may not have heard of the Kalven principles, but he is stating them with passion and eloquence.

  9. Well stated, Commenter #12. Tom Wolfe would have understood the current flood of Emails, declarations, and proclamations: the flak-catchers, hard at work anticipating flak ahead of time. The result will be the extension of muddled and evasive rhetoric to muddled policies, especially, I would guess, in academia. Look for more “Diversity Statement” loyalty oaths, some dilution of academic standards, and administrative difficulties for the campus police, whose diabolical offense is sharing their title with those fiends in Minneapolis.

  10. It’s nice to hear a voice of reason chime in during the clamor. His letter could probably be reproduced and reused against a lot of absurdity, academic and otherwise. Yes, send a copy to Joe Biden before he writes his next speech.

  11. “Who cares what some paper-pushing apparatchik thinks?”
    A healthy attitude towards most university administrators, but one that seems to be losing effectiveness.

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