The internet is moribund on the ship today (It happens), so instead of writing a longer post, I’ll simply call your attention to two pieces worth reading. Both are criticisms of academic culture; one comes from the Left and the other from the Right.
Laura Kipnis is a liberal and a professor of Media Studies at Northwestern University, and she’s has been subject to more Title IX investigations than any academic I know. This is because she treads dangerous ground: her speciality is writing about relationships on campus and the tortuous nature of sexual harassment policies that monitor them. Because she’s a critic, even though she harasses nobody she gets in repeated trouble simply for writing about what happens to other people. But she’s never been found guilty of anything.
Kipnis’s distinguishing trait (beyond her superb writing skills and dry humor) is that she won’t shut up about these investigations, but turns them her own books and articles. And when she does that, she gets even more Title IX violations for writing about them. In 2017 the New Yorker had an article about Kipnis called “Laura Kipnis’s Endless Trial by Title IX,” but she’s still clashing with campus authorities, this time for creating an online Google survey about love during the pandemic. For that she got entangled with the campus’s Human Subject Research Board, which ultimately exculpated her. (I wonder if I could get into trouble with my online political-opinion “surveys”?)
Kipnis’s latest piece is in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot below:
Here’s the introduction, which is a good example of how to draw a reader into an essay. It also shows one of Kipnis’s appealing traits: weaving her own persona into her pieces, even if they’re about more general topics—like the prevalence of snitching in college.
When I read about the downfall of the University of Michigan’s president, Mark Schlissel, fired after an anonymous complaint about his consensual though “inappropriate” relationship with a subordinate, my first thought was “What kind of idiot uses his work email for an affair?” Then I recalled that I myself am the kind of idiot who persists in using my university email account for everything, despite pledging at least once a year to tear myself away from this self-destructive habit. Schlissel, c’est moi. The next time I get in trouble, will my employer emulate the classy behavior of the Michigan Board of Regents and release troves of my own embarrassing emails for my enemies to savor and mock?
My next thought: Who was the snitch? I knew none of the players, but my inner Hercule Poirot went right to work, assembling likely suspects in the drawing room of my imagination (betrayed spouse, disappointed paramour, assorted foes and rivals, maligned underlings), cleverly disarming them with my continental charm until the culprit was exposed — most likely by the irrepressible look of creepy satisfaction playing across his or her face. To bring down an apparently much loathed and vastly overpaid university president, even for the stupidest of reasons: what ecstasy!
Among the questions prompted by Schlissel’s termination is whether higher education has, on the whole, become a hotbed of craven snitches. From everything I’ve heard and experienced, the answer is yes.
Her question then is why, when the Left used to be dead set against “snitches” (remember the Army/McCarthy trials and Hollywood blacklisting, both vigorously protested by liberals?), now seems to glory in it, creating what Kipnis calls a “carceral campus”? To wit:
. . .First let us pause to consider our terms: Was Schlissel’s narc a “snitch” or a “whistle-blower”? Whistle-blowers are generally attempting to topple or thwart the powerful, and Schlissel was certainly powerful. But the reported offense was, in the words of a lawyer I spoke with, “a nothingburger.” Let us provisionally define snitching as turning someone in anonymously, for either minor or nonexistent offenses, or pretextually. Also: using institutional mechanisms to kneecap rivals, harass enemies, settle scores and grudges, or advantage oneself. Not to mention squealing on someone for social-media posts and joining online mobs to protest exercises of academic and intellectual freedom.
This last is a variant of the “social-justice snitch,” a burgeoning category composed of those who want to defund the police and reform the criminal-justice system but are nevertheless happy to feed the maws of a frequently unprocedural and (many say) racist campus-justice system. There are, to be sure, right-wing students and organizations dedicated to harassing professors whose politics they object to, but that’s to be expected. What’s not is the so-called campus left failing to notice the degree to which the “carceral turn” in American higher ed — the prosecutorial ethos, the resources reallocated to regulation and punishment — shares a certain cultural logic with the rise of mass incarceration and over-policing in off-campus America. Or that the zeal for policing intellectual borders has certain resonances with the signature tactics of Trumpian America, for which unpoliced borders are equally intolerable. But what care social-justice types about fostering the carceral university if those with suspect politics can be flattened, even — fingers crossed! — expelled, or left unemployed and penurious?
The major answer—this is a spoiler alert, but Kipnis also gives so many bizarre episodes of snitching that the article will make your jaw drop—is this: social media, and the responsiveness of universities to social-media complaints or mobbing (even when the accused have done nothing wrong) gives people a way to get back at those they don’t like or who stand for someting they don’t like. This form of revenge is promoted by the swollen bureaucracy that colleges have created to deal with complaints of harassment and bigotry, bureaucracies that often lack work to do and so leap upon specious complaints.
Has anyone stopped to ask whether this is actually what we want the world to look like? Take, for instance, the complaints about gendered-speech missteps that are lately swelling the allegation coffers and occupying the swarms of bureaucrats and deanlets on call to aid every manner of snitch. Title IX offices have become the go-to for reporting pronoun errors or faculty members who accidentally misgender students (even when it involves reading a name off a roster, in one case I know of). Or for using a trans author’s pre-transition name on a syllabus, even when the book in question was published under that name: An older queer art-history professor at Pennsylvania State was turned in by younger queer students for doing just that a few years ago. The phrase “It’s generational” is often heard about this surge of accusation, a cliché meant to reconcile the apparent contradiction of gender-nonconforming progressives deploying the campus carceral apparatus to enforce their ideas of progressivism and queerness.
The lawyer Samantha Harris, who often defends speech-infraction cases, told me that N-word violations are also now a snitch’s paradise on earth. There are still, it seems, occasional old-school types (often leftists) who persist in thinking that there’s a distinction between quoting James Baldwin or Martin Luther King Jr. in full and hurling an epithet. The college-admissions consultant Hanna Stotland, who specializes in “crisis management,” told me that the snitching impulse is taking hold among younger and younger students. She used to have two such cases a year; she’s had 20 in the last two years. N-word offenses are a cottage industry here too. High schoolers squirrel away incriminating texts, or videos of friends at age 15 singing along with rap lyrics, then forward them to admissions committees when the friend (or frenemy, rather) gets an athletic scholarship or is admitted to an Ivy. Colleges are so quick to act on the intel, says Stotland, that they’ll sometimes retract an offer without even giving the accused student a chance to respond.
Of course to want to snitch on somebody like Don McNeil (the NYT writer fired for using the n-word didactically), you also have to claim that what’s been said offends you, causes you palpable “harm.”. But these often faux claims of “harm” are themselves promoted by colleges and by the media willing to take action against the accused. If you can get back at someone whose views you dislike by saying you’re “offended,” even if you really aren’t, well, as Church Lady said, “Isn’t that convenient?”
You can see why, although Kipnis leans Left, she repeatedly gets into trouble. It’s because she Speaks the Truth and also has moxie. She concludes this way:
These are a mere smattering of the hundreds of stories I’ve heard. There are obviously thousands more that people are too ashamed or cowed to disclose. I’m no psychic, but I can predict what will happen when this essay is published. My inbox will be flooded with cases of specious and horrific overblown accusations, sent by people who’ve been warned that if they talk about what they’ve been through, even when accused of verifiably false stuff, they’ll be punished — charged with “retaliation,” then face expulsion or job loss. These effective gag orders mean that administrators will get to keep operating with no public scrutiny, turning ostensibly liberal institutions into cell blocks.
My plan is to feature this new crop of stories in a regular column, or maybe a website, dedicated to the Academic Snitch of the Week. Hey, I know — if we run low on cases, we’ll solicit anonymous reports. Warning: We will be naming names. Of the snitches.
A reader called my attention to the story below, reported mainly on right-wing sites that often indict colleges for the same stupidity that Kipnis describes. To find out about this stuff, you more or less have to visit these sites once in a while, for “mainstream media” simply doesn’t care much about injustice done by social-media snitches.
Here’s what the reader wrote me with the links:
I thought you may find this interesting (in a sad way) as it concerns a scientist having what sounds like serious negative professional repercussions for a party costume.
I can’t find any mainstream media addressing this event. Like most people, I am familiar with the racist history of blackface and believe white folks ought to err on the side of caution. However, in addition to the event being 13 years ago, she was dressed in a costume because (I assume) she was honoring the celebrity [JAC: Michael Jackson], not because she was engaging in racist demeaning mockery. Considering the nature of her life’s work, it sounds sadly ironic that she is being publicly criticized by her employer . She sure sounds like exactly the kind of scientist any research university and university hospital would want on their staff. It appears she has a history of mentoring African scientists. She has so far declined to make a long groveling apology.
There are lots of these stories, but this one is particularly striking because the punishment is way out of line with the offense. The offense, as my correspondent wrote and the articles below report, consisted of wearing a Michael Jackson Halloween costume (including darkening her skin) 13 years ago. Yes, a bad decision, even back then (but much more so now). But worth getting raked over the coals about, and forced to undergo “reflection and reeducation”? No way.
There are two similar pieces about it, one in The College Fix and the other in The Daily Wire. You can ignore them because they’re from the Right, but the story they tell is true. It’s also summarized in Wikipedia. Click on the screenshots to read the tale:
From The College Fix:
and from The Daily Wire:
The scientist at issue is Julie Overbaugh, and she is indeed a top female scientist, a decorated researcher at “The Hutch” and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Her Wikipedia biography, which details her accomplishments and awards, has a section called “Advocacy for diversity in science” immediately followed by a newer section called “Resignation”. This will be a blot on her career forever.
Overbaugh’s is guilty of a single unwise by not “violent’ decision 13 years ago to dress as Michael Jackson in one of her lab’s annual “themed Halloween parties. The theme was the best-selling 1982 album “Thriller”, so it would not have been a stretch for Overbaugh to dress as Jackson. The mistake was the darkening of her skin, not donning a hat and a silver glove. I’ll let Wikipedia give the details:
In early 2022, Overbaugh was placed on administrative leave from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. A photo of a Cancer Research Center Halloween Party from 2009 was anonymously distributed that allegedly showed her wearing blackface while dressed as Michael Jackson as part of a group “Thriller” costume. While determined to be an isolated incident, and although an interview of her peers and coworkers failed to reveal any pattern of inappropriate behavior “of any kind in the past or at any time while employed at Fred Hutch”, Overbaugh ultimately agreed to step down from her role as a Senior Vice President at the Center. She was also removed from all leadership duties in order to engage “in an education and reflection process” after publicly apologizing for her past action in a town hall meeting. As described by the President of the Hutch in the town hall: “Julie has offered to step down from her role and Senior Vice President of Education and Training and I have accepted her resignation”. “She will continue to be a prominent investigator at the Fred Hutch in the Human Biology Division working on viruses that affect so many people around the world”.
And the reaction by her bosses, taken from The Daily Wire:
As The Federalist noted, the incident didn’t occur at UW Medicine, yet its CEO Dr. Paul Ramsey and Equity Officer Paula Houston sent an email to staff announcing Overbaugh’s punishment for the “racist, dehumanizing, and abhorrent act” of “blackface.”
“Ramsey and Houston claim that the UW Medicine community was ‘harmed’ by the 13-year-old photo that most staff didn’t know existed until reading about it in the Feb. 25 email. ‘We acknowledge that our community has been harmed by this incident and the fact that 13 years elapsed before action was taken,’ they wrote. ‘We are convening a series of affinity group meetings in the next few weeks to provide spaces for mutual support, reflection, and response,’” the Federalist reported. “Neither Ramsey nor Houston explained how the photo ‘harmed’ anyone. Indeed, beyond one confirmed complaint, it’s unclear if anyone even cared about the old photo.”
Forced into re-education because she “harmed” the community! Apparently the community, and Overbaugh’s bosses, have no capacity for even a bit of forgiveness after 13 years. The words and punishment are harsh, way beyond what was deserved.
The statement issued by the Hutch is here, talking about her required “education and reflection process” after having being removed from her administrative posts. (Thank Ceiling Cat she can still do research!)
So, as journalist Jesse Singal noted in a series of seven tweets, her blackface was “not a good idea” (I suspect we all agree about that given the history of blackface), but the punishment was seriously disproportionate to the offense. You can read Singal’s tweets by clicking on any one of them below:
2/Just to situate everyone, the event in question happened several years before the most recent instance of 30 Rock airing blackface-oriented comedy to tens of millions of people. What she did was a bad idea but at the time was obviously not seen as too risque even for network TV pic.twitter.com/cxIv9NAtVi
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) February 25, 2022
It’s this kind of stuff that makes me think the American academic world has gone off the rails.