Peter Boghossian hangs it up at Portland State

September 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’m having a new operating system installed on my computer today, so posting will be light (these things take time!).

But I just got this news from reader Larry, and then from a half dozen others, and thought I’d pass it on. I’ve known Peter Boghossian for some years, and I’ve found him a smart, friendly, and decent guy as well as a great person to discuss philosophy with. But he’s also a big critic of wokeness (in the pejorative sense), and was one of the three perpetrators of the “grievance studies affair” in 2017 and 2018 that exposed the intellectual vacuity of some humanities journals (which, by extension, says something about the intellectual rigor of the fields those journal draw from).  And since he was untenured at Portland State University, with Portland, Oregon being the Mecca of Wokeness, he always told me that he was sure he’d be fired some day, or at least never get tenure. (He’s an untenured assistant professor of philosophy.) He’s also been disciplined by PSU (see below) for a ridiculous reason.

And by all accounts he’s a terrific teacher. He gets a 4.7 out of 5 rating at Rate My Professors, with 95% of applicants saying that’s take a course from him again.  I can believe it: he’s even-tempered, kind, and uses the Socratic method when teaching, his goal always being to get students to think rather than agree with a preordained conclusion. And that’s what having a conversation with him is like, too. When I visited PSU to give a talk to his class, we had a lot of discussion on the side, and he was always challenging my views in a Socratic way. I could barely get him to tell me what he thought!

Well, PSU didn’t fire him. He decided to quit.

You can read about it by clicking on the screenshot below, which takes you to a letter of resignation Peter sent to his provost this morning. It’s published on Bari Weiss’s Substack site:

Here are just a few quotes from the eloquent but sad letter. He begins by describing all the diverse speakers he invited to his classes: flat-earthers, creationists, climate-change skeptics, and of course me (I talked about the incompatibility of science and religion). In every case he was trying to challenge the “conventional” ideas his students had absorbed before college.  And so he describes why he can no longer fulfill his mission as a philosophy teacher.

I never once believed —  nor do I now —  that the purpose of instruction was to lead my students to a particular conclusion. Rather, I sought to create the conditions for rigorous thought; to help them gain the tools to hunt and furrow for their own conclusions. This is why I became a teacher and why I love teaching.

But brick by brick, the university has made this kind of intellectual exploration impossible. It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.

Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues. Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.

And, over the ten years he was there, he discovered that PSU was uber-Woke and had no patience for a Socratic-style teacher who questioned not only ideas in general, but the University’s own dictates in particular. One might call it Structural Intolerance:

. . .I began networking with student groups who had similar concerns and brought in speakers to explore these subjects from a critical perspective. And it became increasingly clear to me that the incidents of illiberalism I had witnessed over the years were not just isolated events, but part of an institution-wide problem.

The more I spoke out about these issues, the more retaliation I faced.

He describes some of the retaliation he experiences, which continued right up to the present, but he doesn’t want to dwell on it because, after all, victimization is not his thing.. The Grievance Studies affair was the beginning of the end:

I continued to believe, perhaps naively, that if I exposed the flawed thinking on which Portland State’s new values were based, I could shake the university from its madness. In 2018 I co-published a series of absurd or morally repugnant peer-reviewed articles in journals that focused on issues of race and gender. In one of them we argued that there was an epidemic of dog rape at dog parks and proposed that we leash men the way we leash dogs. Our purpose was to show that certain kinds of “scholarship” are based not on finding truth but on advancing social grievances. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous.

Administrators and faculty were so angered by the papers that they published an anonymous piece in the student paper and Portland State filed formal charges against me. Their accusation? “Research misconduct” based on the absurd premise that the journal editors who accepted our intentionally deranged articles were “human subjects.” I was found guilty of not receiving approval to experiment on human subjects.

Meanwhile, ideological intolerance continued to grow at Portland State. . . .

You can read about the harassment, which included graffiti and disruptions of his classes and panels, none of which was ever investigated nor were any students disciplined. Finally, he had enough, and resigned out of frustration due to the inability to maintain his own principles (he’d been silenced to some extent):

This isn’t about me. This is about the kind of institutions we want and the values we choose. Every idea that has advanced human freedom has always, and without fail, been initially condemned. As individuals, we often seem incapable of remembering this lesson, but that is exactly what our institutions are for: to remind us that the freedom to question is our fundamental right. Educational institutions should remind us that that right is also our duty.

Portland State University has failed in fulfilling this duty. In doing so it has failed not only its students but the public that supports it. While I am grateful for the opportunity to have taught at Portland State for over a decade, it has become clear to me that this institution is no place for people who intend to think freely and explore ideas.

This is not the outcome I wanted. But I feel morally obligated to make this choice. For ten years, I have taught my students the importance of living by your principles. One of mine is to defend our system of liberal education from those who seek to destroy it. Who would I be if I didn’t?

So he’s voluntarily given up his job and his income. I hope some other school snaps him up, but things being what they are, he’s surely been tainted by opposing the Woke. And the Woke run nearly all the universities.

I doubt PSU realizes what a great professor it’s losing. I’m sure they’re relieved that they’re free of an anti-Woke faculty member who challenged their ideas and was subject to complaints.  Well, it’s their loss. PSU is going the way of Evergreen State, purging “dissident” professors and enforcing intellectual conformity. I know there are some parents and prospective college students who still want a challenging education—who want to learn to think and analyze rather than absorb and parrot whatever dogma their professors feed them.  Those people should avoid PSU like the plague.

Peter Boghassian

22 thoughts on “Peter Boghossian hangs it up at Portland State

  1. When people come up with theories explaining why certain classes of people have suffered from oppression and put explicit or implicit remedies within that explanation, disagreement with the theory can look like defending oppression. A liberal education and approach is supposed to train and encourage us to look below the surface, and focus on the issue and not the desired result.

    If someone argues that a particular priest accused of child molestation is probably innocent because all of the testimony involves Recovered Memory Therapy, this isn’t a defense of child molestation or the Catholic Church, and it’s not an attack on abuse victims. It needs to be addressed on its own merits, not dismissed because “that’s just what An Oppressor would say.” Do not forget that the other side’s argument can’t really be reduced to “hurt the weak.”

    I recollect hearing Boghossian speak at a convention once, and was impressed. This is a shame, because flies in the ointment keep things honest.

    1. Too many people are outraged by the mere suggestion that opinions they hold might be wrong. They don’t want honesty; they want validation.

    1. I was just now wondering the same thing. As an academic, it’s hard for me to think of any track outside of academia. But there is a whole wide world out there.
      Still, there is nothing like teaching. Preaching to the choir is one thing, but there is nothing like surprising young people into having new thoughts and experiences.

  2. In Germany, too, there are certain developments towards wokeness at some universities, although not to the extent and with the unpleasant consequences as in the USA. Maybe Peter Boghossian should move to Europe and teach at a local university to fight wokeness while it is still possible and while there are still real chances to make a difference. He would definitely be an asset.

  3. I look at Boghossian’s twitter regularly. I enjoyed when last year he ran as a write-in candidate for mayor in Portland. It’s a shame when people like him leave academia. This issue isn’t whether there is an over-proportion of liberals vs. conservatives, but whether there is free discussion at all.

  4. Dr. Boghossian was very gracious and welcoming when I attended a couple of his talks here. I mourn his departure from PSU and the continuing silencing of free speech in Portland. I wish him well and hope he continues the fight for academic freedom.

  5. When Portland State sanctioned Peter Boghossian for not treating grievance study journals as if they were human subjects in an NIH medical experiment, it demonstrated the preposterous lengths of spite and intellectual dishonesty that wokies are capable of. This travesty by the Portland State administration should have elicited strong protest by the national AAUP, and by members of the academic world generally—just as instances of political persecution were widely protested in the 1950s. But there was no such cause celebre over Portland State’s hounding of Prof. Boghossian.

    This contrast supports the following propositions. (1) The campus atmosphere of intimidation is a lot more severe today than it was in the supposedly terrifying 1950s (a point I have made before). (2) The professoriate is a lot easier to intimidate today than it was in the 1950s, despite the contemporary Left’s pretentious pose of struggling against concocted “systems of oppression”. Needless to say, both propositions could be, and probably are, correct.

  6. A familiar pattern is unfolding. The far left and far right, though a distinct minority of the population, crushes the much more numerous moderates in the middle. Why? Because moderates are just that – moderate. They have neither the ideological zeal or drive to activism that characterizes the extremes. While the extremes are willing to resort to distortions, lies, and intimidation (sometimes physical), the moderates remain passive. For those left-leaning moderates the worst that they could be called is racist, even though there is not a scintilla of evidence for the charge. This fear even applies to business. It is not a coincidence that MSNBC has rarely, if ever, covered stories such as the one discussed in this post. So, the current polarization of American society is but one example from history where minority extremists are able to topple governments. Ultimately, the left or the right will prevail (more likely that it will be the right) and the country we thought we knew will not longer exist.

    Tom Edsall at the NYT has a column addressing the polarization. As usual, he has solicited the views of many academics. He concludes: “It’s not too much to say that the social and cultural changes of the past four decades have been cataclysmic. The signs of it are everywhere. Donald Trump rode the coattails of these issues into office. Could he — or someone else who has been watching closely — do it again?” I infer from the article that the far left is doing what it does best: opening the door for the emergence of true fascist mass movements.

    1. It’s almost like a chemical reaction. Members of society become ionized either to the Left or the Right, and repel each other, migrating to opposite sides of the big petrie dish we all inhabit, causing the culture to fail. That seems to be the fate of all human cultures.

  7. I retired from what had once been a state teachers’ college and although it is now offering programs with doctorates it still seems to retain, as it did during my 35 years there, some remnants of the state teachers’ college culture (I was/am an anthropologist/archaeologist of Malthusian orientation). In prewoken days it nevertheless evolved, as it attempted to be current, a “Woman’s Studies” which was for several years closed to male students, and an “Ethnic Studies” which absolutely minimized any ethnicity other than what is called “Black Studies. Ultimately they hired a Vietnamese woman whose husband was a sociologist. Finally they ventured into “Indian Studies” hiring a series of well qualified individuals, none of whom lasted very long. One young man I had known told me one day that he was leaving because he was tired of being a “Professional Indian.” He left to become a lawyer. Now I realize I was seeing what was to become “wokenes” and that people within the administration were (and probably still are) what I call “woke-supremacists.” Our dean, at one of those infernal meetings at which certain individuals jockied to sit closest to the dean, someone asked him about the “over funding” of Women’s Studies at the expense of other departments. Apparently without thinking he said,”It’s all political.” That much we had long figured out, but for him to admit it was totally unlike him. So woke-supremacism has been around for years, but had not yet become viral. Although named “Teacher of the Year” my position was stranded for years while the wokesupremacists in my own department ran the show, and divided the budget to suit themselves. I left early. Returning for a meeting a few years ago I found the college turned university had annointed nursing and dental hygiene as sciences and built a large new building to house them. The science building leaks on, The plaster crumbles, and artifacts I had accumulated over the years have disappeared. Woke wins. Science loses.

  8. No surprise that anti-liberal regressives like ETVPod and racists like Dan “The Zionists” Arel are happy that he’s gone.

    Not checked on the cesspit that is P*aryngula yet…

  9. Professor Scullin’s experience (#12) will be familiar to academics who experienced—or to the children of such academics who heard about it—Biology, and to some extent other subjects, in the late-lamented USSR.
    The use of ideology as a vehicle for career advancement in campus politics is not a novelty. What seems novel to us is the ubiquity of this behavior without direction from state authority, which Stalin and the Party supplied in the case of the USSR. Yet we get a tsunami of it in this century’s academe, without any state direction from above.

    That is why John McWhorter’s analysis of wokeliness as a religion is illuminating. The present condition of the groves of academe probably resembles not so much Soviet universities in 1950 as medieval universities in 1500—when Doctrine was everything, and adherence to the latest interpretations of Doctrine was the smartest of career moves.

  10. I had the very satisfying experience four years ago of spending two weeks in the home of an emeritus professor of philosopher of science, reading papers and discussing ideas that, frankly, made my brain hurt. *That* was a real education, if only for a short time. When I hear of outcasts like Boghossian, I wish another model of higher education would emerge: Where one could spend an hour or two each week discussing with, arguing with and taking assignments from such a professor, regardless of their University affiliations. Over a few years that sort of education could really elevate a young mind.

    One of the best things I ever did in my own education was to, on several occasions, rope professors into helping me do independent research for credit. I became so breathlessly engaged in one project that I quit my day job and set aside everything else to work on that one project alone for a full year (I was not married, obviously). That one project played a major role in turning me into a “lifelong learner”. I continue to follow that original line of research now as I approach 70- and I still feel all tingly sometimes as I do so, just as I did then.

    All this makes me sad, and angry, for the students who will never know anything beyond pseudo-scientific, indeed anti-scientific (in that they end up suppressing and supplanting real science) ideologies.

    It brings to mind the words in the King James bible: “Woe to you (so-called educators), because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

    Also the words of Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World.

    “I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

    The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

  11. Have always been a big fan of his and have both of his books on my Kindle. The real loss is all of the students who will no longer have their epistemology influenced by him. He taught his pupils how to think. And as we are well aware, that is something that is not a common practice these days. He will do well regardless.

  12. Unfortunately the academia (PSU in particular) is not the only place that has gone super woke in the recent years. Much to my dismay, organized atheism is another.
    There was a time FFRF’s Freethought Radio interviewed Boghossian (same Boghossian). Would they do today? Absolutely no way.

  13. I hope some sane university snaps up Boghossian immediately. He certainly accomplishes more of intellectual and cultural significance than most philosophers.

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