Charles Lipson on woke colleges, conformity, and diversity

August 6, 2020 • 11:00 am

One thing that happens when liberals start decrying the excesses and wokeness of the Left is that it groups us with conservatives who decry the same things but for different reasons (some of us, for example, want to create a Left closer to liberal traditions, as well as to maximize our effectiveness in defeating Trump and the Right by calling out our own side’s lunacy). And so I find myself in agreement with the views expressed in the article below by my Chicago colleague Charles Lipson, a well known (and conservative) professor emeritus of Political Science. Further, his piece appears in an organ, “The Bridge,” produced by the Mercatus Center, a free-market-oriented think tank of George Mason University.

The title tells the tale, and it’s true, for it’s not seemly to reject a good analysis simply because it’s made by someone who isn’t on your side of the ideological fence. In his article, Lipson reprises the chilling effect that conformity to (Left-wing) political views is having on college campuses, then limns a form of “diversity” that, he says, creates a real climate for discussion, and, at the end, suggests what students can do to foster such an environment (assuming, of course, that they want one, which they should).

If you don’t think that the campus climate (which of course is on the Left—my side) is having a chilling effect because a lot of Leftism is authoritarian, read this article from the Atlantic on the self-censorship of students (mostly conservative, of course, but many students on the Left are also afraid to voice opinions that aren’t in line with Wokeness). Or have a look at this recent survey from the Heterodox Academy, which found that 55% of college students strongly or somewhat agree that “the climate on [their] campus prevents people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.”  This is indeed a problem—for all those who aren’t woke and are dedicated to an education that involves honing your views by expressing them and arguing with others. And if more than half of college students can’t say what they believe, then, Houston, we have a big problem.

First, Lipson affirms the value of freedom of speech on campus, something that the University of Chicago has long held, through its Kalven Report and Principles of Free Expression, as overarching guidelines that form the very foundation of our University.


Don’t be fooled by universities’ incessant chatter about “diversity.” Most are poster children for ideological conformity and proud of it. The faculty, students, and administrators know it. Indeed, many welcome it since their views are so obviously right and other views so obviously wrong. They believe discordant views are so objectionable that no one should express them publicly.

What views are now considered beyond the pale? They almost always involve ordinary political differences. We are not talking here about direct physical threats. Those are already illegal, and universities rightly deal with them. They don’t have to face neo-Nazi marches. Nor is anyone advocating such noxious ideas as genocide, slavery, or child molestation. Speech about those subjects might be legal, but virtually nobody is making the case for them. That is not what the fight for freedom of speech on campus is about. It is about the freedom to voice—or even hear—unpopular views on topics such as merit-based admissions, affirmative action, transgender competition in women’s sports, abortion, and support for Israel.

These are perfectly legitimate topics, and students ought to be free to hear different ideas about them. They are hotly contested topics in America’s body politic. That’s how democracies work. Not so on college campuses, where the “wrong views” are not just minority opinions. They are verboten, and so are the people who dare express them. Challenging this repressive conformity invites condemnation, severs friendships, and threatens careers. It is hardly surprising that few rise to challenge it.

I can’t find anything to argue with there. Lipson goes on to affirm, as do I and the Kalven Report, that colleges and departments should take no institutional views on moral, ideological, or political questions lest it create that “chilling effect” that promotes conformity and self-silencing:

[University leaders] have a fundamental responsibility to defend open discourse, and they have largely abdicated it. Shame on them. Instead of defending the free expression of unpopular views, they condemn them and flaunt their own virtue. That’s what Princeton’s president Christopher Eisgruber did when he attacked classics professor Joshua Katz, saying Katz had not exercised free speech “responsibly” when he allegedly gave a “false description” of a Black student group. Katz’s own department condemned him, too, though the university finally decided the professor would not be formally punished. They will save the ducking chair for another day.

Eisgruber is hardly alone. University leaders have failed, en masse, to confront the pervasive challenges to free speech on campus. It is their responsibility because enforced ideological conformity is antithetical to universities’ basic mission. It damages teaching, learning, and research. It inflicts that damage even if you and I wholeheartedly agree with the predominant views. Letting them go uncontested invites intellectual flabbiness. Allowing them to be coerced into silence invites mob rule and ideological uniformity in what should be a bastion of open and vigorous debate.

It is also wrong for official units of the university, like Princeton’s classics department, to express their institutional views on political issues. Although faculty and staff members are welcome to express their own views individually, taking an institutional position inevitably chills the speech of any faculty or students who might disagree. Top officials at the university should be even more scrupulous. Again, the goal is to encourage open discourse on campus, not chill or suppress it.

Indeed, the University unit and department are the locus of “chilling”, for if there are official department statements on politics and ideology, like these two from the University of Chicago, then who dares contradict them, particularly students or untenured professors? In contrast, an assistant professor has less to fear for contravening something that the Provost or President says, as they can’t seriously damage a career.  As the Kalven Report makes clear:

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…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.

To promote that freedom of inquiry, a diverse student body is essential. As Lipson makes clear, that includes not just diversity of ethnic background (“race”) but of many other characteristics:

Universities, K–12 education, and now news organizations, social media platforms, large corporations, and sports leagues have not only propagated this stultifying ideological conformity, but they have provided its specific content. It is cloaked in benign but misleading terms such as “social justice” and “diversity.” The “justice” of it all is debatable, and it is the very opposite of “diverse.”

“Diversity” as Political Code

On campus and off, “diversity” has become an Orwellian code word for the racial color-coding of students and faculty. To see that clearly, ask yourself how Harvard, Duke, or Stanford would describe three newly admitted students, one White, one Black, one Hispanic, all of them raised in the same wealthy suburb, all children of prominent attorneys, all wearing buttons saying “I Support Single-Payer Healthcare.” The answer is easy: each university would congratulate itself for recruiting such a diverse class. The New York Times and Washington Post would praise the universities and hope that these students would later contribute to their newsrooms’ diversity. This univocal elite would trumpet its own moral superiority while flagellating our country’s past. They march, arm-in-arm, from Scarsdale to Cambridge to Brooklyn Heights.

This self-congratulation corrupts both language and thinking. If diversity means anything, it must cover more than one dimension. It must mean different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, academic interests, viewpoints, and so on. Racial difference is part of it—a particularly important part, given America’s history—but still only part. It is also diverse to include some well-qualified students who come from Appalachia, some whose parents work at Walmart, and some who won the blue ribbon for best pig at the Iowa State Fair.

So, what is to be done? Obviously, a search for a multifaceted form of diversity in the student body. To be sure, I think Chicago does try to do this to some extent, particularly in trying to garner low-income students, for surely “class” is a very important aspect of diversity. But Lipson suggests four other tactics:

  1. Listen to alternative views and criticism of ideas you currently hold. That does not necessarily mean changing your views. It means testing and reevaluating them.
  2. Try not to be swept away by peer pressure. One way to minimize it is to widen your social circle.
  3. Learn to make coherent arguments. Name-calling is not an argument, damn it.
  4. Report teachers or other authority figures who demand ideological conformity to get a good grade or promotion. Your academic adviser or human resources department can tell you confidentially how to lodge a complaint and what evidence you need to support it.

I’m not so keen on the last one, as “demanding ideological conformity” can be a slippery thing to discern. Further, I’m not keen on reporting people, be they students or professors, without having discussed your issues with them directly. But yes, professors shouldn’t be propagandizing students in the class, though it’s done all the time. My own view would be to avoid those classes known to do this, for I’m not sure how effective reporting would actually be in classes involving, say, gender studies or critical race theory.

30 thoughts on “Charles Lipson on woke colleges, conformity, and diversity

  1. If a student confronts an instructor or professor that demands ideological conformity to get a good grade, they are risking that grade. After all, the Woke are well known for not wanting to have a discussion. Once the student has shown a willingness to disagree, they are permanently considered part of the opposition. Furthermore, reporting them is playing by their rules, tarring them with their own brush. Perhaps unfair in a larger view but they refuse to consider the larger view.

  2. Some good commentary there. Unfortunately, I think what we’re seeing is bottom-up pressure rather than top-down, which makes it much harder to fix. I.e. if it was just a department head or campus President that wanted to create departmental political statements, that would be relatively easy to fix – the professors could just go into the classrooms and encourage free speech and debate regardless. When it’s the vast majority of professors who demand the department make a statement, that’s much harder to fix. This is more like a democracy choosing to make a very bad choice; you can encourage those involved to think about the long-term consequences, you can educate them, try and make them see empathy for the people they may be hurting, but ultimately, if or when those don’t work, you’re going to have to either accept the bad decision or attempt to coerce them into a better one.

    Personally, I’m hoping this burns itself out in a few years. Barring that, I’ll hopefully be able to help my kid understand the value of including unpopular speech in discussion.

    Academically, it seems to me we’re in for another round of the humanities taking a big hit, as the more level-headed students say ‘screw this noise’ and shift into majors where the professors act more professionally and less tribally. Which may be a self-inflicted wound, but still, it’s something I really hate to see. I’d much rather a robust (illustrative example) Classics department that entices even non-majors to take classes there, than a far-left one most students take pains to avoid.

    1. What is needed is a class-action suit by students that they are being deprived of a good education by the suppression of discussion and the diversity of ideas. That’s probably not going to happen. Perhaps parents could get involved, though. I suspect that many remember their college years fondly, hate to see what’s happening now on campus, and don’t want to see their investment in their child’s education squandered. Unfortunately, they are probably ignorant of the situation.

      1. Yes, #4 is far too slippery, particularly in any humanities-oriented field. I had a Russian lit course by a professor who particularly liked to conduct literary analysis from a historicist perspective: it was obvious that if you invoked historicism in your essay, talking about how the text was situated in its historical context, she would view your essay more favorably. If you completely ignored that, maybe doing a Freudian reading, or a Marxist reading, or some other kind of reading, she’d say your essay was lacking a historical viewpoint, and be marked down. I don’t think it’s unfair for a professor to have a preferred mode of analysis in literature, psychology, history, sociology, and so on.

        1. Even if it wasn’t a reply to my comment, I agree. I would like to see it reported but it would be very difficult for the student to come out on top for a number of reasons. Mainly, it is very unlikely for the professor to make a statement so clearly wrong. The student’s complaint is undoubtedly going to sound like whining: “The teacher gave me a bad grade because she didn’t like me.”

          1. Theoretically, this is why those end-of-semester evaluations exist: you can say “This professor is open and engaging, she really helped me to develop my approach to different ideas” or “I didn’t learn anything except to repeat as gospel everything the professor said, waste of my time and tuition money”. But how would students know unless they can see the past evaluations? And if a professor is tenured, what can you do to punish them if students are consistently saying her class is worthless and she isn’t open to debate or discussion?

  3. I saw a university news feed recently promote the following book, the title of which I found irksome. Of course I bet the introduction tries to explain it :

    “What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?”: Engaging Privileged White Students with Social Justice
    Book by David Nurenberg

    N.B. I’m not judging this book – I’m judging the title. It suggests that one must evaluate a student’s skin color before “engaging” them. I’d say that promoting it is consistent with Lipson’s idea – that one ideology is favored. Of course now I probably have to look at this book.

      1. Thank you

        He has admirable intentions and is articulate and thoughtful of course, and has a compelling biography.

        The other parts – too much for one comment.

  4. As I have reported before, the climate of intimidation and enforced conformism on American campuses is much more severe today than it was in the mid-1950s, the fabled period of “McCarthyism”, when I was an undergrad. One reason for this may have been the fact that Senator Joe McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954. The censure measure was introduced by a Republican (Flanders of Vermont) and received the votes of fully half of the 44 Senate Republicans. Nobody expects today’s conventional liberal Left, the Democratic Party, or the academic establishment, to make similar assertions about the most egregious excesses of today’s regressive woke Left.

    In the old days, the GOP of Ralph Flanders, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, and later on Chafee of Rhode Island and Hatfield of Oregon possessed a characteristic that has vanished in the GOP and elsewhere: actual diversity. In today’s world, the word refers instead to the perfectly uniform “Diversity Statement”, a counterpart of the Apostle’s Creed that universities are beginning to enforce on faculty hiring, reenacting the 1940s fashion of Loyalty Oaths.

    As to what is to be done: I can only suggest that those of us who are safe make fun of contemporary academic conformism, as often as possible. This will, of course, open us to the dread charge of “microaggression”, a charge which has driven at least one friend of my generation out of Academia altogether.

  5. Although the university experience is valuable for students to learn from professors educated in particular subject matters, it also is equally valuable for students to engage in discussion with fellow students. There should be few or no topics that can’t be discussed on the subject matter of a professor in class, and other subjects outside of class when not associated with curriculum. Students should be able to talk together about anything they wish and agree to discuss.

  6. We must stop looking at our fellow citizens as being on our side of the political fence or the other. Practical political opinions do not fall neatly into conservative or liberal schemas. It is possible to have an honest disagreement about, say, abortion, and still find common ground on other things. A democracy requires the acceptance of the existence diverse opinions, and self-government (or perhaps mutual government) requires cooperation, not stone-walling.

  7. I don’t know anything about Lipson or his conservative views, but what he says here seems accurate and sensible. And if I had not read at the beginning of Jerry’s article that Lipson was a well known conservative I never would have guessed it from reading what he wrote here.

  8. Ohhh…I feel uncomfortable these days. “Unsafe”…etc. (Why should the Wokies be the only ones who can feel “unsafe”?

    I do not know much about the Russian Revolution, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, etc. I get the impression that they were using Marx and Marxist ideology for supposedly noble and beneficial reasons and ended up creating a horrible tyranny.

    What is happening here and now? Once again people are latching on to an ideology and using it to dominate and control. Are we in danger of ending up like communist Russia? Is history repeating itself here?

    Can someone here who is properly knowledgeable and has studied Russia say something about all this?

    1. Most of the Woke Left, seems to me, are promoting a new form of Marxism.

      Basically, they are expecting equal outcomes for all (Well, at least for “people of color”; if the evil whites sink, that’s OK.) Which can only be even attempted by authoritarian means.

      Basically, they want to take from the successful and give to the unsuccessful. Some of this I am OK with (CHIP, Section 8 housing support, “food stamps”, etc.).

      But I constantly hear (NPR, I’m looking at you) about how “housing is unequal”. Well, no sh!t Sherlock. I am not going to work hard and pay for some else’s house that is as nice as mine, sorry, doesn’t work that way. And you can’t (now anyway) make me live in a neighborhood I don’t like. (I couldn’t give a damn about someone’s ethnic background. All I care about is their behavior, which is driven by beliefs and culture.)

    2. We are not in danger of ending up like Communist Russia, but the atmosphere in most academic institutions is already, as an earlier poster pointed out, somewhat like that of Communist East Germany. However, today’s stifling conformism is only partly imposed from above (by administrators), being largely generated by a general mob hysteria.

      In that respect, the great awokening’s proper antecedent may be the Great Awakening of the 18th century, a wave of protestant evangelical fervor. Like the current version, it had certain connections with liberal goals, such as popular democracy, but was typified by intolerance and hellfire-and-damnation preaching.

      Earlier cases might be waves of crusading fervor that swept Western Europe at the end of the 11th century and again in the early 1200s. The first such wave led to the Peoples’ Crusade, which heroically massacred many peaceful Jews along the Rhine, then pillaged Orthodox Christian Zemun and Belgrade until they were routed by Serb troops at Nis; they finally entered Turkish territory to pillage a few villages before being destroyed by a Seljuk army at the battle of Civetot. The Children’s Crusade of 1212 had a similarly instructive outcome.

      Both the waves of crusading fervor in the Middle Ages, and the later Great Awakenings, are thought to result from the brilliant work of popular preachers—characters like Peter the Hermit in the first case, or Jonathan Edwards in the second. I suppose characters like Robin DiAngelo are analagous today, but there is a difference. Ms. DiAngelo and her predecessor Judith H. Katz have done very well with anti-Racism preaching as a business model, and they created the new profession of Diversity Consultant. It is not recorded that Peter the Hermit achieved a similar success in business.

  9. Trump could usefully apply a couple of the tactics suggested, especially #3: “Learn to make coherent arguments. Name-calling is not an argument, damn it.”

  10. Unfortunately, it can be harder to draw the line between “ideology” and “diversity of opinion” in an academic environment than we sometimes think. I realize this isn’t necessarily the safest place to admit to being a seminarian, but that experience provides the best example I know. The seminary was “liberal,” so the few “conservative” students would often express the opinion that they felt silenced by professors and had to “toe the ideological line” in papers, etc. However … that “ideological line” was the current scholarly consensus on things like the documentary hypothesis in Biblical studies. The professors would have been guilty of academic malpractice if they’d accepted papers asserting Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the inerrancy of verbal inspiration, etc. But this was precisely the problem for some of the students who felt silenced: those were their ideas. They hadn’t accepted the relevant scholarship, and saw the matter as a conflict of opinion, rather than a conflict of evidence and argument. It’s hard for me to imagine that this same situation doesn’t arise in the social sciences, education, and elsewhere – perhaps even the natural sciences. Students who think they will be out-argued in a classroom by another student or a professor will be reluctant to express themselves, and may well chalk their reluctance up to their sense that “it will offend people,” when the root difficulty is that they do not feel able to defend their position. This doesn’t explain all the instances of the “chilling effect,” I realize, but I think it is operating in some of them, especially when students tell us they feel they “can’t say what they really think.”

    1. I think the key is if the professor reacts to the student’s having a different opinion by discussing why they don’t agree and, more generally, turning it into a learning experience. If not, then they are not doing their job.

  11. If students learn that the personal cost of speaking up, even to ask questions, is too high, they will go into professions and keep quiet there too. I’ve seen what this does. You can’t make outstanding products without the disrupters and the questioners. You’ll get mediocrity because the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) will simply be the only opinion.

    1. Yes, isn’t this what social psychology tells us about groupthink? The paradigmatic example of groupthink is the Kennedy/Johnson administration’s approach to Cuba and then the war in Vietnam; these were “the best and the brightest” that sent us into an unwinnable war. Yet still, to this day, many academics take consensus among themselves as proof of their own correctness, and we are supposed to believe that this time, it’s different.

    2. In my experience, it’s not the highest-paid person, it’s the loudest person. Sometimes these coincide; but not always by any means.

      I work in engineering, which is full of introverts. An extrovert can exercise out-sized power in such an environment.

      (We recently did a personality typing exercise at work. 90+% introverts in my work group. Only two people (out of about 25) tested out as extroverts.)

  12. Not sure about this one:

    “Search (on Google) and ye shall not find, not if the search engine wants to hide results from sites it doesn’t like”

    I think that is unfair and a mischaracterisation. It is actually called quality control. Google has been dragged kicking and screaming to moderate commentary on its site, which often includes misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies. This has been a big deal during this pandemic.

    Quality control is not censorship. This blog also exerts quality control. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, but it should be a required feature of any social media platform.

    1. Quality control *is* censorship, it’s just censorship we tend to approve of rhetorically. Moreover, Google isn’t a social media platform, it’s a search index, not something we usually think of as requiring or even capable of quality control the way an editorial department is: my local library has books and magazines that have false or misleading information in them, but the library doesn’t pull the books on the claim that it is exercising quality control over its indexing system.

      1. Whether Google’s search is biased has long been an issue for discussion. I suspect Google would work really hard to avoid any kind of unfair “quality control”. After all, their search is still their cash cow. AFAIK, their other efforts don’t make anywhere near as much money for the company as their search advertising.

        1. Count me among the group that doesn’t particularly care if Google’s search engine is biased. Of course it is, because it’s an inevitability. It’s going to be biased one way or the other depending on the algorithm, as the old system 10+ years ago, based apparently on the number of hits a given website was getting, led to some strange sites showing up as the first result, and various websites (often with malware, pornography, or both) were able to figure out how to game that without much difficulty. Google is obviously free to decide how they want their search to work, which would unfortunately include deranking or delisting websites that are critical of Google.

          The issue I have is if competitors to Google’s search engine, using different algorithms with different biases, are shut out of the marketplace, especially if it is done with the collusion of third parties (advertising industry, telecommunications, providers, large tech corporations, lending institutions, DNS registrars, and the like). The effect would be like if a TV station with a monopoly ruthlessly investigated any potential competing stations and said negative things about them on air, then worked connections and used threats of bad coverage at companies that would provide services (creditors, regulatory consulting, legal, I’m sure there are others) so that such potential competing stations could not be capable of even the minimum things necessary to do business.

  13. There are are unasked questions begging for an answer here. Why this woke phenomenon didn’t appear 30 years ago?
    What made it possible now?
    Is it the conjunction of (Marxist) disenchanted social studies teachers with new cohorts of feather-bedded students lacking any proper critical thinking training?

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