Are universities racist? Randall Kennedy’s take

A defense of universities against charges of “systemic racism” is not that unusual these days, but what is unusual is that this one, highly critical of such charges against Princeton university, comes from Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy. Kennedy is black and profoundly anti-racist, having written extensively on segregation and oppression of African-Americans. He also attended Princeton (and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar).

The main purpose of his longish article at The Chronicle of Higher Education (click on screenshot below) is to give Kennedy’s view of accusations of racism leveled at American universities, discuss the pusillanimous ways many administrators respond, and, most important, to criticize a “faculty letter”, including a set of demands, sent to his alma mater Princeton, accusing the university of racism and demanding change. That letter was signed, says Kennedy, “by about 350 professors, lecturers, and graduate students (on a campus with a faculty numbering around 1,280).”

You really should read the whole article, and pass it on to those who are either accusers or those accused of systemic racism on campus. It’s evenhanded but not afraid to call out error and unwarranted extremism in the letter’s demands.

Kennedy begins by offering a bouquet to the antiracists, saying that it’s time for people to redress the evils of racism, some of which have historically manifested themselves on campus, including naming of buildings, the use of race to exclude students, and having police forces that have been implicated in racist acts. But in the bouquet—to quote Thomas Wolfe—there’s a brickbat, for Kennedy sees that much of the outrage about campus “systemic racism” as misplaced:

But being on the side of anti-racism is no inoculation against error. An allegation of systemic racism leveled against a university is a serious charge. If the allegation is substantiated, it ought to occasion protest and rectification commensurate with the wrong. If an allegation is flimsy or baseless, however, it ought to be recognized as such. Engaging in the urgent work of anti-racist activism should entail avoidance of mistaken charges that cause wrongful injury, exacerbate confusion, and sow distrust that ultimately weakens the struggle.

One might wonder about the need to voice such an obvious observation. The fact is that this moment of laudable protest has been shadowed by a rise in complacency and opportunism. Some charges of racism are simply untenable. Some complainants are careless about fact-finding and analysis. And some propose coercive policies that would disastrously inhibit academic freedom.

Kennedy enumerates some of the “faculty letter’s demands”, several of which are either illegal or violate academic freedom (see below). He then describes something that’s often forgotten in these accusations: universities that formerly did have “structurally racist” policies have been trying like gangbusters to increase diversity, on the administrative level (including hiring many diversity administrators), on the professorial level, and on the student level. He notes tremendous progress at Princeton in hiring department and unit heads who are African-American, making, as he says, the claim of racial exclusion “implausible.” He also says that although accusations of systemic racism are coming thick and fast in many schools (including mine), there’s often a disturbing paucity of examples.

One lone example given in the Princeton letter is the low percentage of faculty of color at the school: out of 814 faculty there are 30 blacks, 31 Latinos, and zero indigenous people. But, argues Kennedy, this is because the proportion of Ph.D.s in most fields is low: only 7% for blacks in recent years, and of course faculty hirings come after Ph.D.s and postdocs.  The reasons for this, as we’ve discussed often here, are not racism in hiring or even in accepting Ph.D.s, but because of inequities at lower levels that narrow the pipeline:

The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking. They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.

Even so, Princeton is trying to redress these disparities in the hiring process. It’s just not kosher to say that low proportions of professors of color reflect racism given the narrow pipeline and the vigorous efforts of nearly every university to hire such professors. This is part of a trend in which inequalities of representation everywhere is taken as prima facie evidence of racism:

The racial demographics of its faculty does not reflect a situation in which the university is putting a thumb on the scale against racial-minority candidates. To the contrary, the university is rightly putting a thumb on the scale in favor of racial-minority candidates. That the numbers remain small reflects the terrible social problems that hinder so many racial minorities before they even have a fighting chance to enter into the elite competitions from which Princeton selects its instructors. The ultimatum denies or minimizes this pipeline problem.

And Kennedy takes to task the trend to demonize those who point out the obvious:

What I am saying is widely known within the university but largely unspoken, because it has become bad manners for a person of progressive inclination to point out obvious fallacies of the sort that damage the credibility of the Princeton ultimatum and similar protests. As everyone knows, some signers of group letters join out of feelings of general solidarity, rather than specific agreement. And peer pressure accounts for the apparent approval of some who actually disagree but want to protect their reputations.

But a lack of candor is not limited to some of the dissidents. The evasiveness, if not mendacity, of administrators is a large part of the problem. They often pander to protestors, issuing faux mea culpas that any but the most gullible observers recognize as mere public relations ruses aimed at pacification. In July, for example, in the course of saluting Black Lives Matter, the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth stated: “We know there are no easy solutions to eradicate the oppression and racism Black and other students, faculty, and staff of color experience on our campus.” The Board then proceeded to list several remedial initiatives it was authorizing, none of which, singly or collectively, came close to addressing “the oppression and racism” that it appeared to concede as a major feature of life at Dartmouth.

After a while, Kennedy arrives at the letter’s demand that has been the most criticized: the “racism police committee” (my emphasis):

Several of the Princeton ultimatum’s long, odd list of demands are flagrantly problematic. When the authors say that the university should “[c]onsider giving faculty of color a full year of course relief to run [faculty-hiring searches],” they are urging something that is both unwise and illegal. The most egregious demand, however, is for a faculty committee to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” If adopted, this proposal would throw a pall over intellectual life at the university. An investigatory and disciplinary apparatus for a vice as vague and contested as “racist behaviors” would quickly lead to a level of fear and resentment, inhibition and threat that would poison the community to an extent that is difficult to exaggerate.

When apprised of this provision, some signatories hoped that it would silently be abandoned. But not all. Andrew Cole, a professor of English, for instance, explicitly defended it: “In a country so embarrassingly incapable of acknowledging its history of racism and anti-Black terrorism,” he wrote, “it strikes many of us as a curious indirection to talk about academic freedom when we speak of anti-racism.” Starting with the proposition that “racism” is unethical, and that the university prohibits unethical research, Cole concludes that the university has an obligation to root out racist research, racist publication, and racist teaching.

Kennedy then reiterates what the University of Chicago has enshrined in one of its fundamental principles, the Kalven Report of 1967, which says that our university should take no official position on politics, morality, or ideology except for those issues that directly affect the university’s ability to operate (e.g., suggestions that freedom of speech be abrogated). The demanded racism committee is exactly such an abrogation—of academic freedom. Kennedy lists the things that might be prosecuted by the committee but should be permitted by the University (and would be by my own). I’ve put the parallel to my own school’s Kalven Principles in bold:

[English professor Andrew] Cole concludes that the university has an obligation to root out racist research, racist publication, and racist teaching.

Cole’s argument is specious. The university’s prohibition on “unethical” research applies to research based on fraudulence — for example, a researcher claiming to have tested 10 animals when she only tested five — or to violations of protocols guiding research on humans. Determining whether research is “racist,” by contrast, takes one into a realm of ideological contestation in which, at a secular, modern research university, there should be no imposition of orthodoxy of the sort that the ultimatum threatens.

Yes, Princeton University does officially endorse certain tenets. It endorses democracy, freedom, the value of truth seeking, and policies that expressly welcome the education of students regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or place of birth. So the university does adopt certain political positions. But it does so sparingly, diffidently, in a minimalist spirit that enables it to host a broad range of scholarly and artistic constituencies, methodologies, commitments, and styles limited only by guild-based conceptions of competency.

A professor at Princeton University need not worry about being investigated or disciplined for writing a book propounding the idea that the world would have been better off had England squashed the American uprising in 1776, or that it is preferable to say that “women” get pregnant as opposed to saying that “people” get pregnant, or that abortion is a moral abomination, or that restricting abortion rights is a moral abomination, or that racial affirmative action has been a failure, or that racial affirmative action has been a success, or that it is perfectly appropriate to enunciate the word “nigger” in full for pedagogical purposes, or that the N-word should never be voiced under any circumstances. The existing horizon of intellectual freedom at the university is gloriously wide open — as it should be.

How would the anti-racism committee demanded by the letter decide whether to investigate a complaint? Having investigated and found an infraction, what kind of discipline would it levy? Would a professor be engaging in censurable “racist” conduct if she argued on behalf of broad rights to abortion? Some claim that such a position is “anti-Black.” What about a professor arguing in favor of decreasing the size of police forces? Some argue that that position is “anti-Black,” too, since it could lead to greater vulnerability of Black people to violent criminality.

And there we have the heart of the Kalven report, and why it exists: to permit faculty and students to research and discuss ideas, even if some find them abhorrent. To prohibit, say, the discussion of affirmative action because that discussion is “racist” is to gut the body of academic freedom.

Kennedy’s article is must reading for everyone at a university, especially those who seem to think that conforming to a preferred ideology takes precedence over the search for truth. He ends his piece this way:

Non-governmental cultural institutions — newspapers, journals, museums, and so on — are essential, vulnerable, and under attack. This is particularly true of the selective, cosmopolitan research colleges and universities, which many on the political right especially loathe. The aspiration of those institutions is to search for truth, cultivate knowledge, and nourish and satisfy curiosities about virtually everything. They fall short, of course, as do all institutions. But nowhere in American society is more of a concerted and intelligent effort being made to exemplify respect and collaboration. The Princeton ultimatum engages in unwarranted vilification, which is wrong. For progressives, such vilification is also profoundly self-defeating.


h/t: Jody

11 thoughts on “Are universities racist? Randall Kennedy’s take

  1. Randall Kennedy has long been a font of keen insight, commonsense, and equanimity. It’s good to see him maintaining that noble legacy with this piece.

  2. Kennedy makes some excellent points and writes very clearly. His paragraph beginning, “One might wonder about the need to voice such an obvious observation” is an important one.

  3. Charges of racism are not the only grounds for woke witch-hunts. At the University of Washington, a well-regarded professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Cliff Mass, has had the temerity to depart from current sacred doctrines on two other matters. Although properly concerned about climate change, he often points out that there is no scientific basis for ascribing every single rainstorm or sunny day to the evils of Exxon Mobil, as climate activists are prone to do. And recently, in a personal blog, he went so far as to point out that the destruction of shops while police stood by in Seattle resembled that same behavior in the Kristalnacht rampage in Nazi Germany in 1938. This observation, while factually correct, departs from the now conventional sanctification of any activity at all if it is done alongside Black Lives Matter placards.

    After the latter observation, a woke mob with pitchforks and torches assembled to demand that the UW fire him. Their complaint here is not systemic racism, but rather the system’s toleration of heterodox (and to my mind wholly rational) assertions that they would prohibit as heresy.

    The signatories of the petition to fire Professor Mass are mostly (but not entirely) graduate students, and most of them, to my dismay, are not in the usual Grievance Studies departments but in real STEM areas. This partly reflects the anger of climate activists at any suggestion that they sometimes overstate their case. More generally, it chillingly confirms what Haidt and Lukianoff predicted for campus life in “The Coddling of the American Mind”, written three years ago.

    1. My dad, in his late 70s, still talks about when he got in a big argument with student activists at a grocery store about nuclear energy. He pointed out that coal is a terrible energy source that kills many people annually.

  4. Yes, amen indeed from this seventy something graduate of a liberal arts college. And to tie in with jerry’s query on the types of articles i find important, this is certainly one. Weit keeps readers up to date on today’s serious issues at our universities…information jerry has a good feel for both from his vast network of professors and researchers throughout the u.s. and the world, and his continued grounding in the u chicago environment on a day to day basis.
    In the u.s. we have seen a vanillafication of the idea of a university with some post secondary institutions moving from the valid calling of technical schools to now being “universities” (consider ecpi university, with an excellent set of technology training courses but advertising “zero to bachelors in 2.5 years” because it meets a minimal list of general course offerings or, ceiling cat forbid, the now defrocked tr*mp university and its ilk). I think it is excellent that many more high school graduates are continuing their education, including at totally online universities, but as these degrees become ubiquitous, they become more like a minimal general credential for a job than evidence of several years spent in challenging discussions of classical and contemporary issues with well read professors and student peers. Certainly universities have evolved over the past 600 years and i am sure that the move from church centric to secular, and later from liberal arts to state universities with engineering, mining, and agricultural emphasis were of concern to many. But one might ask how many current university presidents and members of boards of visitors/regents are familiar with issues raised in the chicago Kalven report or chicagos clear statement on freedom of speech? Perhaps these are the larger issues that may allow us to back down the ladder of inference to discuss the princeton letter and others like it that we have seen over the past several years.

  5. The “pipeline” issue has me wondering, since I’ve been slowly reading McWhorter’s book “Losing the Race”, exactly what percentage of kids (by race and overall) attend “failing” schools? McWhorter was very direct in his disgust with the notion that black = poor = failing. It’s an old book, I’d like some hard stats to see if his disgust is well-founded, but I did compare the amount of per-pupil spending from a “rich” suburban school, my rural/exurban school, and a “failing” urban school. What I found was that the it was exactly opposite of my expectations, the urban school spent the most (by almost $2,000) per pupil, mine was in the middle, and the suburban school the least. I don’t know what to think of that. Unless my calculations were wrong or something, but it fit McWhorter’s claim and undermined my long-held assumption. Very confusing,

  6. The left over the past decade piss me off sOOOO much. And I AM a leftist! I worked for Hillary gosh darn it! I write for lefty publications including left-of-Khmer-Rouge- translated from the North Korean!

    The only thing that peeves me more is the derangement of the right wing!

    Where’s that IDW – sign me up please!

    Clowns to the left, jokers to the right…

Comments are closed.