More histrionic and harmful political statements from university departments

August 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

I recently wrote about an matter involving Anna Krylov, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California (USC).  Fed up with the politicization of science, Krylov published a letter in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, which you can read by clicking the screenshot below.

Krylov’s point was to show the similarity between the scientific censorship and “erasure” in the Soviet Russia of her youth with academic censorship of scientists in the West today. I’ll give one quote from her article showing the kind of “erasure” of scientists that Krylov deplores (I’ve omitted the references save for a self-aggrandizing one):

As an example of political censorship and cancel culture, consider a recent viewpoint discussing the centuries-old tradition of attaching names to scientific concepts and discoveries (Archimede’s [sic] Principle, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Schrödinger equation, Curie Law, etc.). The authors call for vigilance in naming discoveries and assert that “basing the name with inclusive priorities may provide a path to a richer, deeper, and more robust understanding of the science and its advancement.” Really? On what empirical grounds is this based? History teaches us the opposite: the outcomes of the merit-based science of liberal, pluralistic societies are vastly superior to those of the ideologically controlled science of the USSR and other totalitarian regimes. The authors call for removing the names of people who “crossed the line” of moral or ethical standards. Examples include Fritz Haber, Peter Debye, and William Shockley, but the list could have been easily extended to include Stark (defended expulsion of Jews from German institutions), Heisenberg (led Germany’s nuclear weapons program), and Schrödinger (had romantic relationships with under-age girls). Indeed, learned societies are now devoting considerable effort to such renaming campaigns—among the most-recent cancellations is the renaming of the Fisher Prize by the Evolution Society, despite well-argued opposition by 10 past presidents and vice-presidents of the society.(20)

For writing her piece in the journal, Krylov of course received considerable pushback, for there are people whose raison d’être is to sniff out any bad things that famous scientists did, and then use that as an excuse to vilify them and remove any honorifics attached to them. (The shabby treatment of Ronald Fisher by the Society for the Study of Evolution is but one example; another is the impending removal of Thomas Henry Huxley’s name from an Institute at Western Washington University).

A while back, Krylov and a large number of her USC colleagues wrote to the USC administration. concerned about the treatment of USC undergraduate Rose Ritch, forced to resign her position as Vice-President of the USC student government because Ritch, a Jew and Zionist, was subject to unrelenting harassment by student anti-Semites who oppose Zionism. The University President deplored the harassment and promised reform. But, as Krylov and colleagues say in a new letter, it never came:

In the wake of the Rose Ritch affair, we have been promised that a series of activities will be implemented to improve our campus climate. We were hoping to see educational activities that aim to combat zionophobia and antisemitism, as well as other forms of hate and discrimination, to reaffirm our commitment to tolerance and inclusion, and to enable discussion of controversial issues in a respectful environment. We are still waiting for concrete actions from the administration.

Now the attacks on Israel are back again, prompting another letter from Krylov and her colleagues.  This new letter was a reaction to a political letter signed by many university departments, programs, and centers concerned with women’s and gender studies, including the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies of the University of Southern California. Click below to read the latter letter.

The letter above comprises the usual overblown rhetoric and misleading statements about Israel, including the characterization of Israel as an apartheid state, a call for the “right of return” that would destroy Israel, and a call for solidarity of these feminist departments with Palestine, stating that “Palestine is a Feminist Issue.”

Well indeed it is, but not in the way the authors think. The culture of Palestine, unlike that of Israel—except for Orthodox Jews)—is deeply misogynistic, with women oppressed and treated as second-class citizens. It’s ironic, and highlights the blindness of this faction of the Left, that these women believe that supporting Palestine against Israel is a “feminist stand.” How nuts can you get? But so it goes.

Enough palaver; I won’t summarize the letter above because it’s short and you can read it for yourself.

The salient point for Krylov and her colleagues was not that academics were taking a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli stand, which is their right, but that entire academic departments and units were speaking as a whole, presumably on behalf of their members. Yet surely not everyone in these many departments throughout the US share the histrionics about Israel. But, if they dissent, what can they do? Their dissenting views are lumped together with the opposite views of their colleagues.  What this does is chill the speech of the dissenters. What grad student, undergraduate student, or untenured professor in these departments would dare take a stand against their department as a whole?

It is this chilling of speech—this promulgating of official ideological, political, and moral views by departments of universities, indeed of universities as a whole—which led the University to issue the Kalven Report in 1967 and deem it one of our “Foundational Principles“. The Kalven Report, named after the committee’s chairman, expressly forbids the University from taking any official stands on political and ideological issues, though of course individual faculty are encouraged to do so. (There were also a few exceptions when the University may take a stand on an issue affecting the educational mission of the University itself.) The reason for the Kalven Report: because taking such stands chills the speech of dissenters and quashes free expression. Here’s a paragraph from the Report:

In October of last year, in response to inquiries from several of us, President Robert Zimmer affirmed that the Kalven Report extended to departments and units of the University. While faculty can take stands and sign their names to them, entire departments are forbidden from doing so for the reasons described above.  Despite that, several departments still have such statements on their websites, and they haven’t yet taken them down (nor does the University seem keen to force them to).

So Krylov and her colleagues, in their letter to the USC administration responding to the feminist calls for solidarity with Israel, promote principles identical to those limned by our Kalven Report: units of universities should not engage in wholesale political grandstanding lest it act to repress free speech: the lifeblood of any good university. The letter by Krylov and colleagues can be seen by clicking the screenshot below.

And here’s the crucial statement, which aligns very well with my University’s own stand. Note as well the misguided criticisms of Israel contained in these “official” statements:

We do not know whether such departmental declarations of political support are legal, but they are certainly unethical. They have nothing to do with freedom of speech of individuals; rather, they fall under compelled speech because they appear to speak on behalf of all members of the department (e.g. faculty, staff, and students), many of whom are untenured or supervised by more senior members and thus not in a position to openly disagree. Most concerning, this signing implies endorsement by USC itself. Thus, we call on USC leadership to publicly rebuke the practice of USC departments (or units) making statements for specific political agendas that have nothing to do with the University’s educational and research missions. The Statement above contains extreme, indeed fabricated, claims that criminalize the very creation of the State of Israel and, by implication, indict all its citizens and supporters, including us. Not doing so, would make USC complicit in comments within the Statement that describe the State of Israel as “settler colonialism”, “ethnonationalist violence”, “ongoing ethnic cleansing”, and “apartheid”. If USC’s implicit support stands, many Jewish students and others who believe in Israel’s right to exist will be reluctant to attend our university.

Do you think that USC will rebuke the posting of official departmental statements about issues having nothing to do with the departments’ educational mission? Will they make the departments take the statements down? I wouldn’t count on it. Even the University of Chicago, in response to repeated pleas by people like me, lets departmental political statements stand at the same time arguing that such statements violate university policy. I suppose it’s one thing to declare a policy, but another to tell a department that they’ve violated it and take “restorative” action.

Nevertheless these statements are examples of compelled speech applying to everybody in the units and departments, even if no individual signatures appear.

In these fraught times, such statements, which often seem to be a form of virtue signaling, aren’t uncommon. Here’s one issued not long ago by nine departments and programs (and some individual faculty) at the University of California at Davis. Like the USC statement, it’s a misguided and politically heated heap of denunciation of Israel and valorization of Palestine (click on the screenshot):

The statement was “updated” by adding a disclaimer at the top: “The statements below are part of our educational mission and reflect the views of the faculty in the department and not official University policy.”

But that’s deeply unclear. Why is demonizing Israel and lauding Palestine (the usual accusations against Israel, like “apartheid state” are pervasive) part of UCD’s “educational mission”? There are, of course, many political statements that could have been made: against Iran, China, North Korea, and so on, but the usual suspect is, of course, Israel. Further, the disclaimer says that the statements “reflect the views of the faculty in the department”.  Well, which faculty? ALL the faculty? Or only some? If the latter, then only the faculty who agreed should have signed, not entire departments and programs.

UCD, like USC, is violating its education mission by chilling speech, by allowing official units to take political and ideological stands (a pretty misguided one in this case) that will brook no dissent. No wonder that more than half of college students, at least in a recent survey, said they felt intimidated from speaking:

A majority—53%—also reported that they often “felt intimidated” in sharing their ideas, opinions or beliefs in class because they were different from those of the professors. A slightly larger majority feared expressing themselves because of differences with classmates.

Even accounting for shy people, that figure is way too high.

As for UC Davis, the administration basically took the coward’s way out, pretending that their refusal to prohibit compelled speech was actually a way of ensuring free speech. How’s this for doublespeak?

A spokesperson for the university told J. [the Jewish News of Northern California] in an email Wednesday that Davis “is committed to ensuring that all persons may exercise their constitutionally protected rights of free expression, speech, assembly and worship, even in instances in which the positions expressed may be viewed by some as controversial and unpopular.”

The spokesperson, Melissa Lutz Blouin, wrote that UC Davis had “consulted with University lawyers and learned that, provided that these statements do not engage in electioneering, including advocating for or against political candidates or ballot measures, these statements do not violate the law.” [JAC: they may not violate the law, but they still act to impede freedom of speech.]

She added that campus leadership is “consulting with campus stakeholders about whether there needs to be more regulation” in the area of “who may speak for a department” and “what may be posted on academic websites.”

The answer, UCD, is YES, there needs to be less promulgation of compelled speech.

I wonder if this politicization of universities is only a temporary phenomenon, and will one day be looked at as a sad overreaction to the George Floyd Era. Or is it here to stay?  Because if it’s here to stay, you can kiss academic freedom of speech—and academic freedom itself—goodbye.

And THAT is harm, however you define it.

12 thoughts on “More histrionic and harmful political statements from university departments

  1. Fisher has been similarly poorly treated by the Royal Statistical Society.

    Who were the people without sin who cast the first stone?

    I’ve never met anyone without sin and I’d really like to, so I really should get round to asking, but I’ve not had much contact with the society over the last couple of years since stepping down from one of the sections.

  2. I noticed yesterday in the WP, an opinion article concerning Rashida Tlaib and her bigotry and antisemitic conspiracy rubbish similar to what is going on at the school. It is good that someone is calling her out for using the Trump play book.

  3. Jerry, thanks for keeping this ball in the air. Words are cheap and relied upon by administrators to have things both ways. I am deeply disappointed that the Chicago website violations have been left to stand with no enforcement of policy. Without enforcement, it is a desire rather than policy. Without a focused effort at a higher level than you, FIRE, ACLU, i am afraid that administrators will just weather vane with the loudest, organized groups. What is really needed is a member of the board of visitors/regents/governors with the standing and backbone to raise these issues in the room where decision are made, putting together a significant coalition of some more timid visitors, and let the president see what is expected. These boards do do performance evaluations of the university president in many if not most cases.

  4. Those people who are so keen to demonize historical figures might well have to do the same with their own family names (it would be only logical) as I’m sure that it would be very easy to find similar reprehensible behaviours engaged in by their forebears a few generations ago… How could they justify their continued use of names so potentially tainted? 😉

  5. “I wonder if this politicization of universities is only a temporary phenomenon, and will one day be looked at as a sad overreaction to the George Floyd Era. Or is it here to stay?”

    There is a ton of data showing that this phenomena started far before George Floyd. It is unlikely to end anytime soon.

  6. I was intrigued to learn that departments of Gender Studies have taken on the mission of judging the legitimacy of existing states. Given these departmental findings against settler colonial states, we eagerly await their next official statements, which will surely demand the abolition of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA, and, in fact, every state in the American continent.

    I was also interested to learn that the University of Chicago’s Music Department had proclaimed, as part of its educational mission, the imperative need to defund the police. I look forward to the U. Chicago Police Department issuing its own directive on the injustice and oppressive nature of the major/minor key system in music, the use of the G clef, and the existence of clarinets.

  7. Schrödinger’s affairs with ‘underage girls’ consisted in one affair with a girl (Ithy Junger) he had known since age 14, but the love affair was only ‘consummated’ when she was 17. Even in the US that is not underage in several states -as it is not in may civilized countries-, all his other affairs (yes, he was a womaniser) were with ‘overage’ women. He is reputed to have been very much more into romance than into sex.

    Let us say: ‘Erwin Schrödinger, the man who loved pussies , but at the same time did not’. 🙂

    1. “(yes, he was a womaniser)”

      I wonder what the name is of the female equivalent. Unless, of course, no woman ever acts this way. I’m thinking of the college hook-up culture. (Unless that somehow doesn’t count.)

      1. I can think of several names that are the female equivalent of “womaniser”: slut, slag, slapper, floozy, tart, also colloquial names for prostitutes are often used in this way e.g. whore, harlot. Note how they are all pejorative. A man who has many female sexual partners is labelled a womaniser but a woman who has many male sexual partners is labelled with something insulting. Given the sexist history of our society, I am not surprised.

  8. Any org in the west with “…..for Palestine” in their title UNIFORMLY evince a deep ignorance of the “style” and circumstances of Palestinian society in the Middle East and they prove their ignorance every time they open their mouths. “Campus Jews for Palestine” is my favorite one. 🙂 They’re high level bonkers.

    Generally, members of these groups (LGBT for Pal. etc).. they’re a mixture of kids and aged, hairy loons. BUT….I never know whether an organization being filled with young people is a portend of the future, or just idiot children getting their ignorant years out of their system.

    B.A. (Middle East politics/psych.), J.D.

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