Texas Lt. Governor proposes abolishing tenure in his state’s universities, as well as banning teaching CRT

February 22, 2022 • 1:00 pm

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has issued a statement describing his plans for the next session of his state legislature. Click on the screenshot to enlarge what’s written below. You will immediately realize that he is a Republican. (He’s been Lieutenant Gov. since 2014, and was re-elected in 2018).

As you see, he’s calling for the elimination of tenure, a mainstay of academic freedom. What about already-tenured professors? He says that they’ll be reviewed annually instead of every six years. Regular reviews for professors with tenure, or at least full professors, aren’t that common. After some years as a tenured associate professor, you’re evaluated for promotion to full professor, but once you make that, you’re at the top, and there’s no reason to “review” you except for your department to let you know how they think you’re doing or if you’ve committed some grievous offense or been grossly incompetent. Firing a tenured professor is very difficult.

So what Patrick is proposing here is to tell all new hires that they have is no employment security, and you’d better be careful what you say. You can be let go for reasons not specified in the above.

Finally, Patrick is “outraged” by a vote of the Austin campus’s faculty “in support of teaching critical race theory”. That, and his note that the UT system is being taken over by “tenured, leftist professors” shows you that he’s concerned more with ideology than with politics.

But his statement above is grossly distorted.

Re the CRT resolution, the Austin American-Statesman actually reported this on February 15:

The Faculty Council at the University of Texas approved a nonbinding resolution Monday defending the academic freedom of faculty members to teach about race, gender justice and critical race theory.

The resolution, approved 41-5 with three members abstaining, states that educators, not politicians, should make decisions about what to teach, and it supports the right of faculty members to design courses and curriculum and to conduct scholarly research in their fields. The UT Faculty Council is an organization that represents the faculty members at the university.

Faculty members approved the resolution partly in response to legislation around the country seeking to limit discussions involving race in schools, colleges and universities. The resolution expresses solidarity with K-12 teachers in Texas who are seeking to “teach the truth in U.S. history and civics education.”

Patrick has clearly misrepresented the resolution, which was not only nonbinding, but was also not at all “in support of critical race theory.” What it supported was the right of faculty to teach that (or about race or gender justice); it did not give support to specifically teaching CRT! In other words, Patrick lied.

The UT Austin resolution was itself a response to the Republican-controlled state legislature—you know, the one that passed the unconstitutional “fetal heartbeat” antiabortion law—trying to prevent topics from being taught in secondary school:

The Legislature last year enacted restrictions on teaching certain topics in K-12 public schools, in an effort to target critical race theory — largely taught in colleges and universities — a Republican catch-all for what some see as divisive efforts to address racism and inequity in schools.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3979, which limits how teachers can discuss race and current events in social studies courses, and then expanded the restrictions to any subject in grades K-12, including ethnic studies courses, with the passage of Senate Bill 3 during a special session. Other states, such as Iowa, have prohibited the teaching of critical race theory and “divisive concepts” in higher education as well as K-12 education.

The Texas laws don’t mention critical race theory directly, but they forbid schools from requiring in courses concepts such as that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and an understanding of the 1619 Project, a New York Times series examining the role and legacy of slavery in the founding of the U.S.

There was no ban on teaching anything in higher education, i.e. in colleges. So Patrick’s call for teaching CRT to be cause for eliminating tenure in colleges is not only fatuous, but punishes something that’s already legal to do. And, as we know, “CRT” really is a slippery concept: it runs through teaching honest history about oppression in America to the full-blown Kendi-an version that calls for Constitutional Amendments to monitor racism everywhere.

That’s one reason why I oppose any of these anti-CRT bills. The the other is that you have to be very careful about telling people what’s legal and illegal to teach. It’s a violation of the First Amendment to teach creationism in science classes, and I wouldn’t favor teaching Holocaust denial in history classes, but that matter can be dealt with by universities themselves, not by the legislature, which is a blunt instrument.

Finally, the Academic Freedom Institute wrote an excellent response to this Teas proposal explaining why tenure is important and why banning teaching some subjects in college is a bad thing to do. Click on the screenshot to read their statement:

In case you’re not in academics and have forgotten or don’t realize why we have tenure (most jobs don’t), it’s because it’s a way to preserve academic freedom. To quote the AFA document (I’ve put the crucial part in bold):

Tenure protections for university faculty were adopted throughout American higher education in the twentieth century precisely in order to protect faculty from the efforts of politicians, donors, university administrators, and other faculty to suppress ideas that they do not like. The lieutenant governor’s proposals strike at the very heart of the academic enterprise by prohibiting the teaching of certain ideas, thus immunizing contrary ideas from intellectual challenge. This, in effect, establishes campus orthodoxies and forbids the expression of dissent. Few things are more toxic to intellectual life.

To fulfill their missions, universities must be places where controversial ideas can be freely debated and where ideas are tested and supported through the consideration of evidence, argument, and analysis and not by subjecting them to popularity contests at the polls, in legislatures, or anywhere else. A free society does not empower politicians—or anyone—to censor ideas they do not like and silence scholars of whom they disapprove.

. . . Tenure provides valuable practical protection for that freedom of critical inquiry. Principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are empty platitudes if they cannot be effectively secured. If professors can be fired for teaching ideas of which the legislature disapproves, then state universities will cease to be engines of intellectual discovery and progress. If professors can be dismissed for teaching ideas that a majority of the Texas legislature dislikes today, then they can likewise be dismissed for teaching a completely different set of ideas that a different legislative majority in the future or in a state with a different political or ideological coloration finds objectionable. True intellectual diversity requires the freedom to think, teach and write without the threat of political reprisals against those who voice dissenting opinions. Academic excellence is impossible where politicians, administrators, other faculty, or anyone else place limits on what ideas can be discussed in a college classroom.

It’s manifestly clear that Lt. Governor Patrick is trying to get professors fired for teaching “liberal ideas”.  But what it shows as well is that assaults on freedom of speech, as well as on academic freedom, come from both ends of the political spectrum. Here’s a Right-winger trying to restrict speech, and the Left often tries as well (see here and previous 19 pages).  There is no ideological monopoly on authoritarianism.

Guest Post: “Aftermath of the Prof. Jason Kilborn Controversy at UIC.”

December 18, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Yesterday I got an email from a student recounting an incident I’ve described before: the attacks on University of Illinois at Chicago Law Professor Jason Kilborn. Kilborn was demonized and punished for putting the redacted words “b—-” and “n—–” on an exam in describing a hypothetical case where these words were relevant. In contrast, at the University of Chicago, Law Professor Geoff Stone used the “n-word” in class yearly in his Free Speech course as a demonstration, and was never disciplined or warned by the administration. (Geoff did stop this practice after he met with some black law students.)  But UIC isn’t that keen on free speech or academic freedom.

You can read more about Kilborn and the execrable behavior of his university at these two FIRE posts: #1 and #2.

At any rate, the student, Joseph Shen, deliberately chose to use his name in this post, and what you see below is what he wants to tell us. The title is his as well. His piece is between the sets of asterisks:

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Aftermath of the Prof. Jason Kilborn Controversy at UIC.

Greetings WEIT readers, my name is Joseph Shen, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Recently, my university released its final word on an event relevant to the issue of progressive politics clashing with academic freedom of expression, and I’d like to share with you some details that would otherwise be unavailable outside UIC. The event in question is the controversy surrounding Jason Kilborn, a professor at the UIC School of Law (formerly the John Marshall Law School, whose renaming is another topic discussed here before), and his use of censored but recognizable slurs on an exam question. Our host has previously mentioned this issue in several previous posts.

First, some background on UIC. If you search for UIC on the FIRE website, you’ll find that my university is sadly given a red-light rating for having a policy that “substantially restricts freedom of speech.” As a public University in an overwhelmingly politically liberal state and city, it’s not surprising that the administration has steadily made changes that push progressive politics even at the cost of academic freedom. Curiously, UIC’s Policy on Open Expression is given a green-light rating despite the university’s overall red-light rating, which means the university is being hypocritical when it acts the way it did in controversies such as this one.

On Nov. 30, the university sent an email to the UIC Listserv summarizing its findings of and corrective actions to the events that happened around Dec. 2020 – Jan. 2021. The full redacted investigational report is linked in the email but only available to people with UIC long-in credentials. After reading the email and full report, there are some key points from the email that I want to mention and comment on.

First, the Chancellor gives a statement containing the following claim (indented, bolding is mine):

UIC remains unequivocally committed to fostering an environment conducive to learning and free of any form of harassment or discrimination. UIC also strongly supports and defends faculty rights of academic freedom, a critical component to preserving the intellectual integrity of our University. These are not antithetical principles, nor can they be. Our faculty prove daily that both principles can be honored. The key is not what ideas are presented or tested; it’s simply great consideration for how it’s done in a respectful manner for all involved. The use of words that disparage individuals based on identity or background is not necessary for academic freedom to flourish and is inconsistent with our commitment to create an inclusive and conducive learning environment. These actions are not acceptable in our educational settings from any member of the campus community.

This is a form of the ‘Free speech, but…’ claim that Prof. Coyne has talked about many times. I fully agree, and I believe you would too, that of course people in academia should be considerate of what others think and should in general adjust their actions and words to maintain respect towards each individual. The problem is when the recipient of your actions and words is extremely sensitive and becomes offended when you don’t follow the strictest guidelines. Anyone is capable of setting their tolerance so low that the most innocuous words and phrases become offensive.

The chancellor’s claim is palpably wrong because if one’s expression of academic opinion greatly offends another, then you can’t have both freedom of academic expression and freedom from (verbal) harassment. The solution is to not let individuals be the ones to set the bar and instead have generally accepted guidelines that can be agreed upon by most people of any background. Rather than judging Prof. Kilborn’s actions according to only the tolerance level of the particular students who were offended, judge them according to best practices of general guidelines for professional conduct. What did he intend with the question, what are the justifications for the question, do others people in the same demographic as the offended students think the same? These are all things to consider in best practices that are not considered when you only listen to the particular people offended. Extreme progressives don’t want to consider these points or just dismiss them, and the university has sided with this type of progressive.

Second, in addition to the use of the censored slurs (which was one of four racial harassment allegations), Prof. Kilborn was also charged with racial discrimination on two accounts:

(1) Dropping and refusing to re-add a student to a course based on race; and (2) Imposing an in-person participation grade bump policy that precluded Black students who could not attend in-person classes from receiving extra points due to COVID restrictions and precautions.

After reading the full report, it’s clear (to me at least) that the particular student who made those charges is the one responsible. Prof. Kilborn responded appropriately by dropping the student for not attending class (in person or remotely), not responding to emails, and submitting “woefully deficient” work as make-up. He also ultimately gave extra points to all students, which would have included the complainant. Neither of these responses by Prof. Kilborn was racially motivated nor directed only towards minority students. I suspect that the particular student adheres to the narrative of prevalent systemic racism and believed Prof. Kilborn acted out of racism because that would have matched the narrative. Ostensibly, the student didn’t seek information that would have given the whole picture and stuck to their initial assumption of racism. I fully admit that we have no knowledge of the student’s personal circumstances and that they may have perfectly valid reasons for missing class. That, however, does not entitle them to the level of special treatment they were asking for and a passing grade in a class they didn’t attend. Fortunately, the report found Prof. Kilborn to be not guilty of these charges. But the fact that a student was so quick to accuse him of racial discrimination without first investigating and introspecting is symptomatic of how wedded many modern university students are to progressive ideas. It has indeed become a social religion for them.

Lastly, Prof. Kilborn was found guilty of four racial harassment allegations, including the censored slurs. This was due to 5 actions in his history:

[Prof. Kilborn] Did violate the harassment aspect of the same Policy. This conclusion was not based on a single incident, but on his conduct considered in cumulative fashion and in context. The conduct included: (1) Using the word “cockroaches,” which was not directed to Black students, but in context, could have been perceived as directed towards racial minority plaintiffs; (2) Using the term “lynching,” although apologizing immediately for it; (3) Using African American Vernacular English [AVE] when referring to lyrics of an African American rapper; (4) Using racially charged language (the redacted terms “‘n____’ and ‘b____’…”) in an exam question;*** and (5) Responding to concerns about the exam with insensitive, chastising, and arguably threatening comments in January 2021, including using the term “homicidal” during a four-hour Zoom meeting with a student.

I argue that none of this should be considered harassment by a critically-thinking person. Regarding the above five points: 1) Words can and should have different meanings in different contexts. We should be cognizant of how others think about a word, but that action should be reciprocated. 2) The fact that Prof. Kilborn immediately apologized is a sign that he has some consideration and isn’t an inherent racist. Why is it that the offended never give people second chances, only all or nothing? What’s the point of sensitivity training if people can’t be forgiven for transgressions? 3) If the lyrics are indeed in AVE and he was quoting them, then what was he to do, convert them to the standard English equivalent or forbid himself from saying them? Gatekeeping language does not help build appreciation for one’s linguistic quirks. 4) I have nothing to add that Prof. Coyne and people like John Mcwhorter haven’t already said perfectly. 5) This may be the most valid criticism of Prof. Kilborn’s behavior, but we don’t have the specifics to judge for ourselves. I personally would not have used language like Prof. Kilborn, but that should not infringe upon his right to speak freely so long as his intention and the main effect of his speech are not verbal harassment or anything else not protected by free speech laws.

The end result is that Prof. Kilborn must go through “intercultural competency individual training and coaching sessions” and will have his courses monitored for four semesters. The training will likely be a waste of time and effort because of the dubious efficacy of DEI training. The monitoring reeks of Big Brother-like surveillance. I feel such disappointment at my university for their behavior in this debacle. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to improve in the future.

I hope you all find this helpful and informative. I’m sorry for this long, boring, and depressing post, but I’ll add two things I hope you find enjoyable. Below is a picture of my beloved cat Scooter. Rest assured that he’s kept fat, sleek, and thoroughly spoiled by his staff.

I know our host often shares his love of good music. Here is one of my favorite songs from the 90s, sung by Lesley Lee, about not wanting to wake up and lose sight of your love in your dreams.

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JAC: Here’s a YouTube video, produced by FIRE, of Kilborn describing his “transgression”.  And thanks for Joseph for sending along information bout Kilborngate!

Richard Dawkins writes to New Zealand’s “friends of science and reason”

December 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

As I’ve written a couple of times, New Zealand is undergoing a dilution of its science education since the increasingly woke government and university administrators have decided that indigenous ways of knowing, called “mātauranga Māori”, should be taught as coequal with science in both high school and university science classes. But the Māori “ways of knowing” are a mixed bag. There’s some “practical” science there, like how to determine which areas are likely to flood, and how to catch eels, but there’s also a whole bunch of mythology and superstition that are simply refuted by modern science. These include a creationist view of existing plants and animals. Teaching both in a Kiwi science class is like teaching evolutionary biology alongside creationism in an American evolution class: it’s a recipe for confusion and divisiveness—and an impediment for those Māori who want to become scientists.

Of course “mātauranga Māori” should be taught in some academic venue, as Māori culture is pervasive and influential in New Zealand.. But the venue should involve anthropology or sociology, not science.

A short while ago, seven professors from Auckland University wrote a letter objecting to the proposed coequal teaching of science and mātauranga Māori. Called “In Defense of Science,” it was published in a weekly magazine called “The Listener”, and you can see it here. In response, the Royal Society of New Zealand is considering punishing or expelling the two signers who are members of the Royal Society of New Zealand. And many NZ academics signed a petition objecting to the letter (do read it; it’s inoffensive to anybody who’s sapient). Dawn Freshwater, the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University, calling attention to the letter and its signers, declared this:

A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether Mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni.

While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.

As I’ve said, it’s not clear whether the Vice-Chancellor has any authority to declare what the “views of the University of Auckland” are, nor whether there are any official views. It’s clear she is demonizing the professors at the same time she says well, they have the right of free speech—but note that the University can officially criticize them and the Royal Society can punish them! As for the Vice-Chancellor emphasizing the “considerable hurt and dismay” at the University, I consider that a ludicrous form appeal to emotion rather than reason. Are you, as a Kiwi, hurt or dismayed by that letter? Too bad. If you have counterarguments, express them, not your emotions.

In response to the threat of punishment of the letter signers by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which has made that society into a joke, Richard Dawkins wrote a letter to the then chief executive of the Society (you can see his letter here), and also issued a tweet:

Now, in response to a request from some of the letter’s signers, Richard has tweaked his letter and aimed it at the people of New Zealand, not at the Royal Society of New Zealand. It has just appeared in the online version The Listener (bad screenshot below), and will be in the paper edition this weekend. I have permission to publish it, and so have put it below. The original title that Richard gave it was, “Dear New Zealand friends of science and reason,” which the editors changed in the published version below. (They also eliminated a reference to “bollocks”.) I like the original title better.

SCIENCE IS SCIENCE

Since the subject of mātauranga Māori was raised through Letters in July, a global response has been building against the ludicrous move to incorporate Māori “ways of knowing” into New Zealand’s science curricula, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what the society exists to do.

The Royal Society of New Zealand, like the Royal Society of which I have the honour to be a Fellow, is supposed to stand for science. Not “Western” science, not “European” science, not “White” science, not “Colonialist” science. Just science. Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence­based, not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to sup­plement and validate fallible senses, etc.

If a “different” way of knowing worked, if it satisfied the above tests of being evidence-based, it wouldn’t be different, it would be science. Science works. It lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, dates the origin of the universe, and reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed moa.

If New Zealand’s Royal Society won’t stand up for true science in your country, who will? What else is the society for? What else is the rationale for its existence? I hope you won’t think me presumptuous as an outsider (who actually rather wishes he was a New Zealander) if I encourage you to stand up against this nonsense and encourage others to do so.

Richard Dawkins, DSc, FRS
Emeritus Professor of the Public Under­standing of Science, University of Oxford

I especially love the one sentence, “If a ‘different’ way of knowing worked, if it satisfied the above tests of being evidence-based, it wouldn’t be different, it would be science.” That’s classic Dawkins.

Screenshot of above in online version:

If you are a Kiwi scientist who has the bollocks (or ovaries) to stand up to the government’s, universities’, and Royal Society’s nonsense, and to stand up for reason and the value of science in the only institutionalized “way of knowing”, I ask you to join Richard and the “Satanic Seven.” Yes, I know there are real threats of reprisal should you defend evidence and reason. And you remain silent out of fear, I won’t criticize you. But I suggest that you consider joining Dawkins and the Satanic Seven, lest New Zealand science go down the loo.

MIT faculty worried about chilling of speech

November 8, 2021 • 11:00 am

I wrote yesterday about the Academic Freedom Alliance’s concern with colleges making official statements about ideology, politics or morality. The reason they shouldn’t do this is that such declarations impede free discourse by discouraging those who disagree with the statements from speaking up.  If your department has an official statement about the college or the country being “structurally racist”, for instance, what student or untenured professor would disagree publicly? Why risk your degree or your tenure by going up against an official statement? There are the brave ones, but they’re scarce as hen’s teeth.

This is why the University of Chicago bans such statements, though lately they’ve been going up on departmental websites under the radar of the administration.

The same kind of chilling of speech has apparently been at work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), probably exacerbated by the MIT’s disinviting Dorian Abbot, one of my own University’s geophysical scientists, from giving a prestigious lecture after people discovered that he was questioning the wisdom of many diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives of American colleges. (Abbot’s proposed lecture, by the way, had nothing to do with DEI; they were simply punishing him for his extracurricular and “non-woke” views.)

The MIT Free Speech Alliance now has an entire page about the Abbot affair, which also includes a link to all the press that MIT got for its suppression of speech.  Most of it, I was glad to see, was bad press, which shows that Americans sensed a fundamental unfairness about what happened to Abbot.

And somebody took a survey:

MIT, like many universities, has recently turned hostile to free speech, free expression, open scientific inquiry, and viewpoint diversity.  For example, in October 2021, MIT canceled the speaking invitation of leading geophysicist Dorian Abbot for expressing the view, regarded as simple common sense by most Americans, that personal identity should not supersede merit. The barrage of negative press and public outrage resulting from MIT cancelling Dr. Abbot led MIT faculty chair Lily Tsai in November 2021 to poll the faculty on two questions:

  •  60% responded “Yes” to “Do you feel on an everyday basis that your voice, or the voices of your colleagues are constrained at MIT?”

  •  83% responded “Yes” to “Are you worried given the current atmosphere in society that your voice or your colleagues’ voices are increasingly in jeopardy?”

That a large majority of MIT faculty feels that their voices are constrained at MIT reveals a crisis demanding decisive action. The MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA), a chapter of the national Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA), was formed to call for such action, beginning by investigating the current climate on campus, and recommending how MIT can restore free speech, open scientific inquiry, and a tolerance for viewpoint diversity.

I don’t know what “Chair of the Faculty” is or does, but it seems prestigious and part of MIT’s administration, so this is no left-wing initiative to make the University look bad.  And the figures do look bad for MIT. When 60% of the faculty think they can’t speak freely, and 83% are worried about that pressure increasing, something should be done. (Note that no sample size is given for the faculty response.)

One thing the MIT Free Speech Alliance urges you to do is this:

 Sign our Change.org petition that enumerates first steps needed to restore the values that made MIT a world-class science and engineering research university.

Here’s what they’re calling for:

If we are to believe that freedom of expression is a “fundamental value” at MIT, MIT needs to:

  1. Clearly and publicly state, without qualification, that cancelling Professor Abbot’s Carlson Lecture was counter to MIT’s values of free speech and expression.
  2. Re-schedule Professor Abbot’s Carlson Lecture for the general public as soon as possible.
  3. Formally adopt the University of Chicago of Principles, as have 87 other colleges and universities, to affirm MIT’s commitment to free speech and expression.
  4. Annually re-affirm in writing to faculty, administrators, staff, and students MIT’s commitment to freedom of speech and expression and open inquiry, its importance for any educational and research enterprise, and especially MIT, which aspires to the highest standards of academic excellence.

That seems reasonable to me, although annual affirmation may be asking a bit too much. We don’t do that at Chicago, as we have a permanent page that affirms our “Foundational Principles,” all connected with free speech and academic freedom.

Now I don’t have a lot of faith in Change.org petitions to effect change, but I signed it anyway, and if you agree with it, I urge you to sign, too. There are only 100 signatures over there with a target of 200, and that is WAY too few.  So go here and sign on if you agree.

Academic Freedom Alliance criticizes mandatory statements of University “values”

November 7, 2021 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: I learned that Dorian Abbot of my university (the scientist whose talk was canceled at MIT) and two colleagues have written about this very issue in a new-oped in Newsweek. It mentions our university’s Kalven Report.

_______________________________

The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) is a new but powerful organization which characterizes itself this way:

. . . a non-profit organization whose members are dedicated to protecting the rights of faculty members at colleges and universities to speak, instruct, and publish without fear of sanction or punishment. We uphold the principles that are required if scholars are to fulfill their vocation as truth-seekers and colleges and universities are to be faithful to their mission as truth-seeking institutions.

You can see the leadership here, the members (a good cross-section of academics) are here, and, what gives this organization teeth is their stable of lawyers and legal experts at the disposal of anyone whose freedom of speech and academic freedoms are abridged (the list is here; scroll down).

They’ve just issued a statement in response to the proliferation of university and college affirmations, testaments, and “what-we-believe” statements on university websites. As I’ve written before, my own university is almost unique in prohibiting these statements unless the values affirmed are those that directly promote education and discourse—like affirming free speech. Our Kalven Report, one of our “foundational principles,” forbids the issuing of departmental or official university statements that promote an ideology, morality, or political view, no matter what it is. We do not officially denounce people, no matter how odious they are, and no speaker is ban-able, not even Steve Bannon.

The purpose of this is to avoid “chilling” speech: if a department or university issues an official statement on political or ideological issues that doesn’t affect our academic mission, it will inhibit those who disagree with such statements: graduate students, undergraduates, and untenured professors. Indeed, almost anyone! As we know, many college students are reluctant to voice their opinions. A 2020 survey by the Heterodox Academy showed that more than 60% of college students were reluctant to discuss at least one of the five “hot potato” topics: politics, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Why? Because they’re afraid the’ll be ostracized or demonized if they don’t express the “right” opinion. Thus the self-censorship that obviously was part of the Republican’s victory in Virginia last week.

The AFA statement reprises the Kalven principles, which I believe should be followed by all universities that claim to support free speech. Click on the screenshot to see a pdf of the whole statement, and go here to see the AFA’s blurb on it.

I’ll give just a few excerpts and then show some violations by my own university.

Excerpts:

Many universities have drafted statements emphasizing the value of diversity, inclusion and equity or a commitment to anti-racism or other politically contested sets of values. Such statements are frequently offered to faculty for possible inclusion in their individual course syllabi. Faculty are perfectly free to incorporate such statements, to the extent that they are relevant to the conduct of a class, into their course materials, whether or not such language is recommended by campus officials. x

But it is a serious intrusion on the freedom of speech of the faculty to mandate or otherwise direct that such statements must be included in individual course syllabi or otherwise adopted or embraced by individual professors. The inclusion of anti-racism statements in course syllabi must be voluntary and left to the conscience of individual professors. Mandatory anti-racism statements currently being developed are in principle indistinguishable from myriad other statements of belief that university officials have sometimes attempted to force members of the faculty to endorse in the past. No matter how widely shared or normatively desirable any particular statement of values might be, individual professors should not be directed or coerced to endorse or accept such statements. For public universities, mandating that professors embrace such statements is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For private universities that have chosen to accept as their own comparable standards of individual conscience, such mandates violate those commitments. For private universities that have adopted broad principles of academic freedom, such mandates are at odds with those principles.

Mandatory anti-racism statements currently being developed are in principle indistinguishable from myriad other statements of belief that university officials have sometimes attempted to force members of the faculty to endorse in the past. No matter how widely shared or normatively desirable any particular statement of values might be, individual professors should not be directed or coerced to endorse or accept such statements.

For public universities, mandating that professors embrace such statements is a clear violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. For private universities that have chosen to accept as their own comparable standards of individual conscience, such mandates violate those commitments. For private universities that have adopted broad principles of academic freedom, such mandates are at odds with those principles.

What I believe they mean here is that anti-racism statements can be acceptable if they foster the University’s aim of teaching and discussing, so statements like “the University of X does not countenance discrimination against any group” are fine. It’s when you get into things like Black Lives Matter, the “duty” of white people to oppose racism, the prevalence of “structural racism” in a university, and so on, that things get sticky. Since there are views on both sides of issues like these, it’s best to avoid official positions.

Two more statements from the AFA:

For universities to require faculty to communicate and affirm contestable statements of political and social value falls outside the scope of what universities can appropriately require in the name of the effective functioning of an institution of higher education. Even values that are fundamental to many modern American universities, such as the commitment to the ideals of inclusion, free speech, democracy, sustainability, human improvement, and economic growth, can be questioned, challenged, and criticized by members of the faculty, and a university that values freedom of thought will not mandate what thoughts faculty members are obliged to have or profess.

Many private universities have voluntarily bound themselves to the same principles of free speech and individual conscience that are found in the First Amendment. As a consequence, for many private universities their own preexisting understanding of academic freedom on their campuses is incompatible with mandatory statements of belief. Moreover, broad principles of academic freedom that are generally recognized by American universities are inconsistent with requirements that faculty affirm contestable statements that impinge on either their personal beliefs or their scholarly judgements.

Statement by departments or universities imply that everybody in the organization is on board with the statement, and that chills speech. Some examples are at the bottom.

Finally, on the sticky issue of diversity (the reference at the beginning is to the courts’ rejection of loyalty oaths to the government that were once common for university faculty):

If professors have a constitutional right to express views advocating the violent overthrow of the American government in their classrooms, then they certainly have the constitutional right to express other controversial views with which students, university administrators, and government officials might disagree. If university officials can mandate that professors affirm statements regarding the value of diversity or the reality of systemic racism, then they can equally mandate that professors affirm statements on a wide variety of other contested political and social issues. They could mandate that faculty specifically deny the existence of systemic racism or endorse the view that all lives matter or profess belief in color-blind neutrality. Such loyalty oaths are inconsistent with the fundamental values and purposes of a modern university. Universities should be places where professors can freely disagree about and debate over precisely such questions. Universities that accept the First Amendment and broad principles of academic freedom should not be places that mandate orthodoxies or require faculty to express their agreement with ideas that they do not believe or dictate that faculty record their allegiance to a roster of propositions.

Beyond the assertion that all people should be considered morally and politically equal, and treated with fairness, everything else about groups, races, and “tribes” is debatable, which is why statements about “systemic racism”, “white guilt,” and the things mentioned above should not be part of University mandates.  For we want these things debated!

You can find University of Chicago statements that violate the Kalven Principles and the AFA guidelines here, here, here, here, and here. (There are others.)  None of these “official” statements should have been posted, and all are chillers of speech.

A victory (?) for academic freedom

November 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

Remember Bright Sheng, a distinguished professor and composer at the University of Michigan? I reported on him earlier, also linking to the takes of John McWhorter and Cathy Young about the incident Sheng was involved in. At that time, Sheng was in the process of being demonized at Michigan (he probably still is). Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago, quoting the student newspaper:

A blackface incident has occurred at the University of Michigan, involving, Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition and a well known composer and pianist. But he happened to show the wrong film. As the student paper, the Michigan Daily, reports:

On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.

“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”

The predictable outcry occurred, with claims that the film made the students feel unsafe. This resulted in Sheng’s removal as a teacher of undergraduates. He apologized to the faculty and students, but his apology was considered insufficient. Sheng says that he didn’t realize the cultural offense conveyed by blackface.  As the Dean of Sheng’s division revealed in an email, “the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.”  Sheng will be lucky if he’s not fired for showing that movie.

As McWhorter points out, the best explication and analysis of this incident is by Cathy Young at Arc Digital, who concludes that Sheng’s screening of the movie induced “moral panic” and a “witchhunt,” with Sheng being the witch.

Well, the good news is that the University of Michigan is not going to punish him further, though he was removed from teaching that class and the school had begun an investigation (believe me, that itself is punishment!). The not-so-good news is that the University’s statement on Sheng, below, supposedly an affirmation of the school’s support for free speech, is a Weasel Manifesto, trying to satisfy everyone at the same time, both the Offender and the Offendees, as well as us free-speech diehards. Click on the screenshot to read:

The University first affirms that Sheng is in the clear, and that Michigan is in favor of free speech, though adding that “the depiction of a white actor in blackface is deeply offensive” without being presented “in proper context. . . and with care and sensivitity.”  Of course, there’s no way Shen could have presented it at all without getting in trouble, but let’s give Sheng a break. Here’s his exculpation:

The University of Michigan strongly supports free speech and academic freedom. We also work hard to establish an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students.

Bright Sheng, the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, is a highly valued member of the faculty of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the university community.  He continues to teach composition lessons this semester in SMTD and is scheduled to teach a regular course load during the upcoming winter term.  No sanctions have been imposed on him.

Then it turns weaselly.  First of all, they call for ENGAGEMENT and conversations:

SMTD will host a series of facilitated conversations to help community members better understand the different perspectives involved in this particular instance and Professor Sheng has said he would welcome an opportunity to meet with students in the seminar.

“I appreciate the engagement of Dean Gier and Professor Sheng in this difficult issue and also our students and faculty who have expressed their views to us. The dean and faculty of SMTD are intently focused on ensuring that their courses actively engage students with discussions of race and racism.  We can all learn as we work together to be a more inclusive community,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Susan M. Collins.

Does anyone doubt that these conversations will have only one approved viewpoint—that they won’t be free exchanges of views but propaganda with a preordained “consensus”? This will not be an exercise in free speech, and the dog whistle (sorry, GOP) is “we work together to be a more inclusive community.” For what Michigan hasn’t realized is this: Inclusivity and freedom of speech are not always compatible. 

For example, if you question affirmative action, or “affinity housing,” you will offend minorities while exercising freedom of speech on genuinely debatable issues.

Still Michigan keeps up the pretense:

Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Robert M. Sellers noted that “being a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community is not anathema to academic freedom.”

“It does mean that we must intentionally work together as a community to understand what academic freedom looks like when we include voices that have traditionally not been at the table. It will not be easy work, but it is essential work. Who better than the University of Michigan to lead this conversation?” said Sellers, the Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology.

Well, how about any of the several free-speech organizations like FIRE, or someone like ex-ACLU president Nadine Strossen? Yes, diversity and inclusivity are not inevitably anathema to academic freedom, but they often are. You can discern that from all the imbroglios on college campuses in the last few years. Case in point: Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying getting piled on by Evergreen State students (and their own faculty) because they refused to leave campus on the “day of absence”. Both of those professors are antiracists, but are also committed to free speech. The result: they exercised their free speech, which brought them both physical and verbal threats. Both eventually left the college.

It’s time for people to stop insisting that you can have your inclusivity and your free speech too. The First Amendment is there for reasons, one being that very little political speech is completely inoffensive. Divergent viewpoints are prima facie examples of “non-inclusivity”.

And look who’s going to be in charge of the “conversation” at Michigan that will supposedly reconcile DEI and free speech:

In further support of the need for continued discourse, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and our National Center for Institutional Diversity will work with other university partners to convene a broader universitywide discussion around the challenges and opportunities associated with adhering to principles such as academic freedom while becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community. The issues raised are not exclusive to higher education; they are fundamental to American democracy.

This is like putting a fox in charge of a conversation between chickens. There is only one possible outcome.

h/t: Larry

U Chicago law professor: Universities need dedicated units and officers to protect academic freedom and free speech

June 17, 2021 • 9:15 am

We all know that both the Left and the Right impinge on free speech and academic freedom in American colleges and universities. Though the Left does it more often, at least judging by the number of speaker deplatformings and disinvitations, the Right is no stranger to censorship. The latest incident from the Right occurred recently when Nikole Hannah-Jones, known for her founding of the NYT’s 1619 Project, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, was refused tenure by the Board of Trustees for a position in the journalism school at the University of North Carolina. Her position had already been approved by the journalism school itself, and by the UNC administration, but the Board of Trustees, which has ultimate power, put the kibosh on it. Though I’m no fan of Hannah Jones or the 1619 Project, I think the trustees should have rubber-stamped the decision of the school itself and hired Hannah-Jones. It’s pretty clear they didn’t do so because Hannah-Jones is a controversial figure beloved by the progressive Left.

Incidents on the Left are more numerous, and I often describe them here. Some are summarized by my colleague Tom Ginsburg, a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, in a new article at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The UNC debacle was not an isolated incident, nor is the threat limited to the political right. Consider other recent examples: the University of Oklahoma demanded agreement from faculty and staff members with certain diversity-related statements as a condition of employment; Chapman University faculty members called for the firing of a professor who appeared at the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that took place hours before the Capitol insurrection; and Central Michigan University ended the contract of a journalism professor who invited members of the Westboro Baptist Church to class. A recent survey by the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology found widespread self-censorship among U.S. academics.

What to do about this? Ginsburg’s article proposes a solution that seems excellent. Read on by clicking on the screenshot.

The issue is a disparity involving colleges having ample resources and programs for promoting DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), often with policies that can impinge on freedom of speech and/or academic freedom, but lacking programs and resources to ensure those freedoms themselves. Ginsburg describes this disparity:

In recent years, colleges have devoted significant resources to institutionalizing diversity, inclusion, and equity. These efforts accelerated after the murder of George Floyd, and many colleges are now creating vice president- or vice provost-level positions, leading entire bureaucracies devoted to this effort. As a requirement of federal law, colleges have also developed Title IX bureaucracies, which help to ensure that institutions receiving federal money deal with sexual harassment. Whatever one thinks of the implementation (and the implementation of Title IX in particular has been controversial), it is clear that colleges are serious about these important goals.

In contrast, in most institutions of higher learning, issues of academic freedom or free speech have no designated campus officer. There is no emerging profession devoted to it, no mandatory training programs, no resources for faculty members and students who want to understand what it means. There are no job ads posted for vice presidents for academic freedom. Instead, academic-freedom controversies tend to be left to faculty committees, whose membership turns over regularly, or to ad hoc decisions by provosts and presidents. Among students, questions of freedom of expression are left to deans of students or in some cases to the diversity bureaucracy. Without an institutional base to protect free inquiry, standards are applied in an uneven way. The risk is that administrators will simply give in to the loudest voice in the room, which will, by definition, never be someone whose full-time job is to speak up for academic freedom.

Perhaps Ginsburg was inspired by discussions that many of us have had about the Kalven Report, one of the U of C’s foundational principles. I’ve discussed it here many times; the report is meant to ensure that, with a very few exceptions, neither the University, its administrators, nor its departmental units are permitted to take ideological political, moral, or ideological positions.  (Professors and students themselves, of course, are welcome and encouraged to do so.) The purpose of this policy is to avoid chilling speech and intimidating dissenters that could occur when those who disagree with “official” political or ideological stands become fearful of their standing or treatment by the University.

The Kalven principles were affirmed last fall by our President, Bob Zimmer. Despite that, administrators and departments have been posting many “official” political statements on University websites, most of which clearly violate the University’s own Kalven policy. But it’s hard to get departments to remove them (I think all of those at the previous link are still up), and there is no official mechanism for doing so—and no official ombudsperson, group, or unit devoted to protecting our own principles of free speech. This is important, for it is those principles that the school uses to attract students, and advertises them heavily as an inducement to come here. Without enforcement, though, our famous principles, which include “the Chicago Principles” of free speech (copied by over 55 other schools) are in danger of disappearing.

One solution mentioned by Ginsburg is to give incoming students a unit on freedom of speech and academic freedom, comparable to their units on DEI. But the other is the creation of a formal academic system to ensure freedom of thought. To my knowledge, no university in America has such a system, though nonpartisan organizations like the American Association for University Professors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Academic Freedom Alliance will go to bat for faculty and students if their freedom of expression is violated.

As Ginsburg notes, however, such external bodies “are too removed from the front lines to touch the culture of students and faculty members”. So Ginsburg proposes a way to create or strengthen a freedom-of-expression culture in universities and colleges (remember, public ones must adhere to the First Amendment):

Institutionalization of academic freedom could look something like diversity initiatives, and would have the same goal: to advance core values in the culture of colleges. Staff members would serve as a resource for the faculty, develop basic explanations of core concepts for students, collect data, and advise leaders behind the scenes on how to handle controversies when they arise. While the last thing faculty members need is another online training program, there should at least be materials introducing new faculty members and students to the importance of academic freedom. One might imagine orientation programs where participants wrestle with the idea, perhaps role-playing through tough cases; books on free speech could be considered for pre-freshman summer reading; and students should be invited to ruminate on the fate of academics in places like Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary, where attacks on colleges were a harbinger of broader assaults on democracy.

Indeed, when the controversy about the Kalven Principles arose in the past year, many faculty members were completely unaware of this policy, even though it’s a critical part of our Foundational Principles. But even when departments are informed that they’re putting up statements that violate these Principles, they ignore the critics and leave them up. This has already caused some chilling of speech on campus.

I would go even further than Ginsburg, though. The “institutionalizaton” of freedom of expression and academic freedom should encompass a formal and permanent unit that will adjudicate reported violations by the University itself or by its departments. The decisions should not be left to the University administration, for, as in our case, they’ve let stand several arrant violations of our own principles—for reasons I can guess but don’t know for sure.

If we can have permanent units to deal with and promote DEI, we can surely have permanent units to promote and enforce academic freedom. After all, our principles are already written down; all we need is a way to ensure that they’re followed. This need not involve Pecksniffian “bias reporting,” but certainly can involve dealing with issues like deplatforming, disruption or abrogation of free speech, and, for the faculty, violations of academic freedom.

Today in collegiate dystopia: the triumph of Goodhart’s Law

June 11, 2021 • 9:15 am

by Greg Mayer

In a wide-ranging speech at a conference on academic freedom, Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, has diagnosed the ills of the university in the western democracies. Unlike Bill Maher, who correctly senses that something is rotten in the state of higher education, but, as Jerry noted, has been unable to come up with a coherent critique, President Higgins hits the nail on the head. He decries the neoliberal consensus on higher education, the “market forces and the inexorable drive towards a utilitarian reductionism that is now so pervasive.”

A prime symptom of what Higgins describes as “the increasingly market orientation of the modern university” is that “student success” has become a term of art among college administrators, a metric to be increased, but which is not closely related to the acquisition of knowledge or skills. Higgins gets this precisely right (emphasis added):

Academic courses are now viewed as economic units whose success is too often judged in terms of arbitrary quantitative outputs of graduates, as opposed to the quality of the courses and the standards of academic excellence achieved by those participating in them.

This is a textbook example of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” or the closely related Campbell’s Law: “[O]nce a metric has been identified as a primary indicator for success, its ability to accurately measure success tends to be compromised.” Since “student success” is defined as “output of graduates”, anything that slows down graduation (such as academic requirements or low grades) is a barrier to success, which must be eliminated. Higgins nails this, too:

The quality of university degrees, too, continues to be a source of great concern, with evidence of grade inflation that, alas, does not reflect improved standards of scholarship, but rather an ongoing slip in examination standards, emanating from pressure, sourced internally and external to the university, to report the achievement of continually higher ‘outputs’.

In a delightfully allusive comment, Higgins suggests that students need to be taught what universities are for:

May I conclude with a very modest proposal that could be easily implemented: teach a module on the nature and role of the university, including the cornerstone of academic freedom, to every incoming university student, raising awareness of the importance of such freedom and the critical, now precarious, position of the university in contemporary society

I commend his proposal, and would add that university leaders should be required to undergo similar training; they, too, seem no longer to know what they are for. As Higgins puts it

[U]niversity provosts, presidents and rectors now often describe and introduce themselves as CEOs of multi-million euro enterprises rather than as academics first and foremost whose main responsibility might be to defend and cultivate the intellectual life of their academic institutions, facilitating an enriching learning environment for staff and students alike.

I don’t know much about Higgins. His office is largely ceremonial, like the Queen’s. He’s had a long career in politics, but he seems to have picked up some academic chops along the way. As I mentioned, the talk is wide-ranging, and I’ve only highlighted a couple of worthy points here; there are many others. The full text of his talk is available here.

h/t Brian Leiter

University College London handles political controversy the right way

May 25, 2021 • 9:45 am

I’ve written in detail about one of the Foundational Principles of Free Expression of the University of Chicago, the one embodied in what we call the “Kalven Report“.

The principle of this report, as summarized yesterday by my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter, is that our University should take no official position on any ideological, moral, or political issue except for those issues that directly impinge on our academic mission. The principle grew out of calls from faculty and students for the University to take positions against Communism, against the Vietnam war, and other issues du jour. The principle is there to guarantee that nobody is cowed from speaking their minds by “official” university statements that might chill one’s speech.

In response to several of us seeking clarification, President Bob Zimmer clarified last October that the prohibition against taking such positions applies not just to the University administration, but to its units: departments, schools, and so on. Nevertheless, many departments and statements from administrators continue to blatantly violent this prohibition (see a list of violations here). For reasons beyond my ken, the administration has yet taken no action to remove these statements. That means that the Kalven Principles are unenforced, are eroding, and may disappear. And if they go, so goes academic freedom at our school. What a pity that would be, since freedom of speech and academic freedom are points the University makes to sell our school to prospective students. It would be a shame if students came here under false pretenses.

Brian’s nice post quotes the Kalven report, and I think all universities should adhere to these words. I’ve put the crucial bit in bold:

A university has a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society. The role is defined by the distinctive mission of the university and defined too by the distinctive characteristics of the university as a  community. It is a role for the long term.

The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.

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. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. 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. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Since the university is a community only for these limited and distinctive purposes, it is a community which cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness. There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives. It cannot insist that all of its members favor a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.

One school that has just adhered to this principle is University College London, which of course probably isn’t even aware of Chicago’s avowed policy. During the recent fights between Israel and Palestine, UCL’s Provost has rightly decried bigotry of students against each other, but refuses to take a stand on the matter of the war. Click on the screenshot to read Provost Michael Spence’s take:

What he should have said and did say:

The first question concerns why my message of earlier this week called out antisemitic activity when issues of prejudice remain a problem for so many in our community, not least our Palestinian students. The answer to that question is that we had had several incidents involving direct threats of serious physical violence against Jewish students. That was a situation to which the University needed urgently to respond, and for which there was no immediate parallel.

However, it goes without saying that the University takes every form of discrimination with the utmost seriousness. In the last few days, I have been made aware of reports of Islamophobia, of prejudice against Palestinian students, and of some feeling unsafe. I want to be clear again that we unreservedly condemn abuse, harassment or bullying directed at any member of our community. There can never be a justification for this behaviour, and we will take action where necessary.

That’s very good: internecine bigotry of one group of students against another affects the University’s mission and can be properly criticized.

But what makes Spence’s position almost unique is what he says about any University position about the war itself:

The second question that has been raised with me is whether the University should adopt an institutional stance in relation to the current situation. Given that so many of our staff and students feel deeply about the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and some have personal experience of its effects, I understand the desire that we should. But it is my strong conviction that to do so would be incompatible with the purpose of a university in a liberal democracy.

. . .It follows from this conception of the university, which I share, that it is not a participant in public debate, but a forum in which that debate takes place. While our staff and students should loudly argue for their conceptions of truth and value, the university, as an institution, should refrain from doing so lest it chill the exercise of the ethical individualism of its staff and students. This does not mean that we have no strongly held normative positions about our own collective life; we must, and we should, do so. But it does mean that the University, as an institution, ought not to become an advocate in public debate. I believe this to be the case even, perhaps especially, where a majority of UCL staff and students are of one mind on a given issue.

For this reason, I do not think it would be appropriate for UCL to comment on the rights and wrongs of the current conflict in Israel/Palestine. That is a task for our staff and students. It is the University’s role to ensure that we remain a community of respectful debate in which it is possible for them to do so. And on that front, I remain deeply committed.

This is pretty much UCL’s version of the Kalven Principles, and I believe wholeheartedly that Spence is right. I’d recommend reading the rest of Leiter’s take on how the University of Chicago has dealt with the Kalven Principles lately; it’s a short read and you can find it here. I am not aware of any school other than ours that has an official policy of not taking institutional positions on ideological, political or moral issues that don’t affect the mission of the University: to teach, to learn, and to learn to think. If you know of such schools, do let me know.

h/t: Coel

Is social-media criticism by professors bullying and a violation of academic freedom?

March 28, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here we have a back-and-forth in The Chronicle of Higher Education between two professors at Portland State University (“PSU”; a public college). The first piece is by Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies, and the second by Peter Boghossian, a philosopher, anti-woke writer, atheist, and one of the three people involved in the “Grievance Studies Affair“.  Ruth complains that critics of Critical Theory have been bullies by engaging in social-media pile-one (does she know how the Woke do that much more often?), and refers specifically to Boghossian and another professor, Bruce Gilley, who has argued that colonialism is good for the colonized, which of course caused a huge fracas.

As far as I can determine, what happened here is that a student (none of the principals already named) took pictures of some slides in a teacher education course which “offended” him/her because they were of the “Math is Racist” genre, and put the slides on Twitter. Boghossian and Gilley retweeted the slides. Apparently, though, some of the first names of students were on the slides, and so the dean asked Gilley and Boghossian to take down the tweets. They did so immediately. But apparently others joined in on the discussion, and that was considered bullying by Dr. Ruth.

Click on the screenshots to read.

Why was this considered “bullying”? According to Ruth:

[The professor who showed the slides] is shocked, then, to find her name and picture tied to the phrase “math is racist” — shorn of any context or any reference to the CNN article — and posted on Twitter by two of her male colleagues. It is picked up by the anti-woke warrior Chris Rufo, who tags the professional provocateur Joe Rogan and Fox’s voluble and influential Tucker Carlson. She has now become the latest exhibit in a national right-wing campaign to frame university professors as the new apparatchiks of a racially motivated totalitarianism. She shares an article with her students, and she is cast as one of Stalin’s henchmen. She is one of the “new racists.”

Anyone who has lived through one of the right-wing rage-gasms of the past decade — and they are disproportionately women and faculty of color — knows how terrifying they can be. All you have to do is say, “It’s true that the Greeks painted their statues,” or, “Hmm, it seems that the far right is appropriating a lot of medieval imagery,” and you can find yourself in the cross hairs, subject to doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats.

Note that neither Gilley nor Boghossian engaged in this pile-on and did not encourage it; others took up the issue and (I didn’t follow this) there was a social media pile-on—one of the kind with which we’re familiar but apparently coming from the anti-woke. Nevertheless, Gilley and Boghossian suffer the consequences and take the blame for the mob. Peter, by the way, is a classical liberal, not “right-wing”.

Ruth continues:

The two men who circulated the “math is racist” meme were outsourcing the harassment of a colleague to the legions of trolls flying from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss to rapping librarians to the next faux-outrage fury-fest. Every time this happens, the targets of right-wing rage can only hope that a shiny new object will come along to distract their tormentors. But there is always the possibility — given the apocalyptic rhetoric that higher education’s attempts to reckon with systemic racism constitute a Maoist Cultural Revolution — that one of these stunts will get someone hurt.

The above scenario is not a hypothetical. It happened at my university, Portland State, and was instigated by our very own anti-woke warriors, Bruce Gilley and Peter Boghossian. Gilley and Boghossian have been working this beat for years now, on Twitter and on blogs. And they claim to be doing so in the name of academic freedom.

No, Boghossian and Gilley—and no, I don’t agree with Gilley’s thesis, but he has the right to his opinion—did not outsource harassment or encourage it. They were simply exercising the right to criticize ideas like “math is racist.” That is both free speech (PSU must adhere to the First Amendment and academic freedom). And the “math is racist” meme certainly does deserve examination, criticism, and, to my mind, a fair amount of ridicule.

As for the worry that “one of these stunts will get someone hurt”, it’s ironic that Ruth is part of the group who is always claiming that speech itself is considered harm. She’s already been hurt!

The details of this kerfuffle are described in a document by the Oregon Association of Scholars. which links to the following resolution of the PSU Faculty Senate which was the result of the two retweets (click on screenshot):

Part of the resolution:

While we all have the right to express our opinions in accordance with The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, there are limitations to free speech when it violates our laws and when it results in a true threat for an individual or a group of individuals or incites actions that will harm others. It is crucial to ensure that the members of our academic community can learn and work in an environment that is free of hate and hostility.

Whereas When faculty become active in, or even endorse or tacitly support, public campaigns calling for the intimidation of individual colleagues they disagree with, or with an entire faculty they disagree with, they are undermining academic freedom. Intimidation and explicit or implied threats to physical integrity are not accepted as academic methods.

. . . . BE IT RESOLVED

As Faculty, we must be thoughtful in our exercise of academic freedom and guard against its cynical abuse that can take the form of bullying and intimidation. This kind of abuse of academic freedom destroys academic freedom by eroding the trust that makes possible open dialogue, which is a central tenet in university intellectual life as well as in the practice of participatory democracy more broadly.

Again, this meeting was occasioned solely by the two taken-down retweets by Gilley and Boghossian who, needless to say, are not greatly beloved at PSU. And the resolution accuses them, though it doesn’t mention them by name, of intimidation, making threats, and academic bullying.

None of that was true; remember that this comes from just two social media posts taken down at the behest of the Dean. This is, pure and simple, chilling of free speech and academic freedom (which, though Ruth claims are not the same thing, are so closely related—identical in this case—that one must be careful about distinguishing them).

At any rate, Peter (full disclosure: he’s a friend of mine) wrote a response to Ruth’s piece in the Chronicle, and it’s quite good. The take-home lesson is in the title, and we should all make this a mantra:

I’ll give two quotes. Given that two retweets brought down official opprobrium of PSU on Boghossian and Gilley, Peter is quite measured in his response (the bolding is mine):

By claiming that criticism of published ideas and pedagogical models is harassment, and by creating institutional mechanisms that erect barriers to wholly appropriate critique, entire lines of scholarship become exempt from scrutiny. The academic process depends on having the freedom not only to state ideas but also to criticize other ideas. Limiting criticism in academia is tantamount to telling potters they can make all the clay pots they want so long as they never use clay. This is particularly disturbing because the claims in question — almost always about race, gender, and sexual orientation — are presented as knowledge and then used to influence public policy.

It is worth noting that criticism is framed as harassment only by academicians working in certain domains of thought that are in Critical Theory’s orbit. Civil engineers are not claiming that criticism of truss bridge design is harassment. Physicists are not claiming they’re being persecuted when their contributions to quantum theory are criticized. Philosophers are not claiming victimization when their arguments about free will are scrutinized. Claiming criticism is harassment occurs when a discipline’s North Star is not Truth, but ideology.

The internal rationale for calling criticism “harassment” is as simple as it is absurd: because these Critical Theories are believed to proceed from one’s “social position” as an occupant of some “identity category,” the person and her ideas are treated as though they overlap. They do not. Thinking they do is a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, not least institutions that are nominally devoted to Truth. The backbone of rational thought is separating people from ideas to protect the dignity of the former while being free to criticize the latter.

Boghossian defends the use of Twitter as a way of alerting people to what’s going on inside the academy, and also as a way of making arguments—not the best venue for extended discourse, though! However, scholarly journals aren’t accessible to the public. Boghossian ends like this:

There’s a dual irony in Ruth’s accusations. First, if there’s an institutionalized rule that criticism of academic work is harassment, how would Critical Theory, which is entirely predicated on criticizing existing systems, have emerged? It would not have. The ability to criticize has enabled the existence of disciplines in which my colleagues work, and from which they have framed criticism as harassment. Second, Ruth is doing to Gilley and me exactly what she claims we are doing to our colleagues — criticizing us. The only difference is, she takes aim at us, while we take aim at ideas.