Glenn Loury is a well-known American author and economist, and you might have seen his hard-hitting “The Glenn Show” on Bloggingheads.tv. 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.