John McWhorter: a personal take on affirmative action

July 4, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Lately John McWhorter appears to be injecting more personal information about his life into his discourse. On a recent podcast with Glen Loury, McWhorter admitted sadly that because of his heterodox writing and ideas, he’s been more or less ostracized from the community of academic linguists, and will likely not be invited to go to meetings or give talks on his field.  In his column in the NYT today, he recounts how his blackness helped him rise in academia over people with better qualification. In other words, he talks about being a beneficiary of affirmative action.  And at the end he gives his views about the issue. Like me, he appears conflicted.

Click the screenshot below to read or, if you don’t subscribe to the NYT, someone has archived the piece here.

Here are three episodes from McWhorter’s academic career:

I was hired straight out of my doctoral program for a tenure-track job at an Ivy League university in its august linguistics department. It became increasingly clear to me that my skin color was not just one more thing taken into account but the main reason for my hire. It surely didn’t hurt that, owing to the color of my skin, I could apparently be paid with special funds I was told the university had set aside for minority hires. But more to the point, I was vastly less qualified by any standard than the other three people who made it onto the list of finalists. Plus, I was brought on to represent a subfield within linguistics — sociolinguistics — that has never been my actual specialty. My interest then, as now, was in how languages change over time and what happens when they come together. My dissertation had made this quite clear.

This still rankles, and especially did so when he met one of the better-qualified candidates who wasn’t hired.

McWhorter eventually chose as his academic niche the development of creole languages, which served him well. He did get tenure, but again he says that his race helped. Referring at first to his efforts to get up to speed into linguistics beyond than his speciality, he says this:

But it all felt like a self-rescue operation, an effort to turn myself into a good hire after the fact. That backfilling of needed skills is a lot to ask of someone who also needs to do the forward-looking research necessary to get tenure.

Of course, not everyone endeavors this Sisyphean task, and the culture I refer to has a way of ensuring others don’t have to. There is a widespread cultural assumption in academia that Black people are valuable as much, if not more, for our sheer presence as for the rigor of what we actually do. Thus, it is unnecessary to subject us to top-level standards. This leads to things happening too often that are never written as explicit directives but are consonant with the general cultural agenda: people granted tenure with nothing approaching the publishing records of other candidates, or celebrated more for their sociopolitical orientations than for their research.

Above we see him suggesting, as he has before, that it is patronizing to hold black academics to standards lower than you hold white ones. He makes this explicit when he talks about his own experience on admissions committees.

I had uncomfortable experiences on the other side of the process as well. In the 1990s, I was on some graduate admissions committees at the university where I then taught. It was apparent to me that, under the existing cultural directive to, as we have discussed, take race into account, Black and Latino applicants were expected to be much more readily accepted than others.

I recall two Black applicants we admitted who, in retrospect, puzzle me a bit. One had, like me, grown up middle-class rather than disadvantaged in any salient way. The other, also relatively well-off, had grown up in a different country, entirely separate from the Black American experience. Neither of them expressed interest in studying a race-related subject, and neither went on to do so. I had a hard time detecting how either of them would teach a meaningful lesson in diversity to their peers in the graduate program.

Yes, that’s a good question, and one that deserves an answer. As for the last bit, where he sees affirmative action as patronizing and condescending, there are black academics who would disagree with him—not just ones who didn’t need affirmative action to achieve their positions, but also ones who admit they did, but don’t care:

Perhaps all of this can be seen as collateral damage in view of a larger goal of Black people being included, acknowledged, given a chance — in academia and elsewhere. In the grand scheme of things, my feeling uncomfortable on a graduate admissions committee for a few years during the Clinton administration hardly qualifies as a national tragedy. But I will never shake the sentiment I felt on those committees, an unintended byproduct of what we could call academia’s racial preference culture: that it is somehow ungracious to expect as much of Black students — and future teachers — as we do of others.

That kind of assumption has been institutionalized within academic culture for a long time. It is, in my view, improper. It may have been a necessary compromise for a time, but it was never truly proper in terms of justice, stability or general social acceptance. Whatever impact the Supreme Court’s ruling has on college admissions, its effects on the academic culture of racial preference — which by its nature often depends less on formulas involving thousands of applicants than on individual decisions involving dozens — will take place far more slowly.

But the decision to stop taking race into account in admissions, assuming it is accompanied by other efforts to assist the truly disadvantaged, is, I believe, the right one to make.

And yet, at the beginning of the piece, he says that by the time of the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard decision, “I’d personally come to believe that preferences focused on socioeconomic factors — wealth, income, even neighborhood — would accomplish more good while requiring less straightforward unfairness.” There’s a good case to be made for that, as it seems fairer, though some readers here think that using socioeconomic standards—giving a leg up to those most disadvantaged, regardless of race—won’t advance diversity at all.  I’m not ready to give up and go by a procedure that completely ignores race, and though we can’t take race into account, we can, perhaps, eliminate the complete erasure of ethnic diversity in elite colleges via using socioeconomic standards.

Another advantage of socioeconomic considerations is that, to me at least, they’d seem to create more intellectual diversity than would simply upping ethnic diversity. For some reason I think that mixing disadvantaged people from all groups (and also taking account of political and ideological diversity during admissions) would generate more useful discussion among students than simply race-based admissions. Those late-night bull sessions were pivotal in my education, and you don’t have them without discussion and disagreement.

Finally, I do agree with McWhorter’s views expressed elsewhere: the time is coming when affirmative action for race has to come to an end, for if it hasn’t done what it was supposed to after sixty years, it’s time to contemplate other methods, methods that involve creating equal opportunity from birth. And I also agree with him that, as far as we possibly can, we should not lower admissions standards for some ethnic groups. As McWhorter notes, “it is somehow ungracious to expect as much of Black students — and future teachers — as we do of others.”

NYT claims that a course on “The Problem of Whiteness” tests the University of Chicago’s commitment to free speech

July 3, 2023 • 12:20 pm

What we have in this NYT story is an outraged conservative being peeved after finding out that there was going to be a University of Chicago anthropology course on “The Problem of Whiteness”. The student put information about the course, including publicly available information on the instructor’s photo and email address, on social media.  It of course went viral among a certain set of The Easily Offended that does not include me.

Naturally, the instructor was harassed big time. She complained to the University about it—twice.  While one dean characterized the social-media onslaught as “cyberbullying,” eventually  the University dismissed the instructor’s complaints. She postponed the course one quarter (she not on tenure-track here, but a teaching instructor and a new Ph.D. looking for a job). Then, with University’s security and support, she taught the course twice.

The student who “doxxed” the instructor was not punished or sanctioned in any way. The University took this affair as a pure matter of freedom of speech, with no First Amendment violations committed by anyone. Of course we’re a private university and don’t have to abide by the First Amendment, but our well known Principles of Freedom of Expression (adopted by about 80 other universities) ensure that we do.

Click below, or find the article archived here.

A few details:

Rebecca Journey, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, thought little of calling her new undergraduate seminar “The Problem of Whiteness.” Though provocatively titled, the anthropology course covered familiar academic territory: how the racial category “white” has changed over time.

She was surprised, then, when her inbox exploded in November with vitriolic messages from dozens of strangers. One wrote that she was “deeply evil.” Another: “Blow your head clean off.”

The instigator was Daniel Schmidt, a sophomore and conservative activist with tens of thousands of social media followers. He tweeted, “Anti-white hatred is now mainstream academic inquiry,” along with the course description and Dr. Journey’s photo and university email address.

Spooked, Dr. Journey, a newly minted Ph.D. preparing to hit the academic job market, postponed her class to the spring. Then she filed complaints with the university, accusing Mr. Schmidt of doxxing and harassing her.

Mr. Schmidt, 19, denied encouraging anyone to harass her. And university officials dismissed her claims. As far as they knew, they said, Mr. Schmidt did not personally send her any abusive emails. And under the university’s longstanding, much-hailed commitment to academic freedom, speech was restricted only when it “constitutes a genuine threat or harassment.”

Schmidt sounds like a bad piece of work, but Journey’s photo and email address are freely available on the Internet, so he didn’t do anything but disseminate publicly available information.  Not that I think the course is great, but if the University approved it, we can’t really beef.  Nor can we say that Schmidt violated our principles of free expression.

Mr. Schmidt has found himself in adversarial roles before.

Over the last year or so, he actively supported Kanye West, the artist now known as Ye, for president — work that he promoted with Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier. Mr. Schmidt declined to comment on his political activism or his dealings with Mr. Fuentes.

In his first year at the university, Mr. Schmidt was fired from The Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, after his editors said that he had repeatedly antagonized another columnist on Instagram, and encouraged others to spam her. Mr. Schmidt said he was simply “calling out a public figure.”

After he was also fired from a conservative campus publication, Mr. Schmidt turned to his own website, College Dissident, which featured articles like “Time to Fight Anti-White Hatred on Campus.”

His activism has helped fuel an industry dedicated to accusing universities of liberal orthodoxy. Websites like Campus Reform and The College Fix have for years trained students to report on campus controversies, hoping that conservative news outlets like Fox News, Breitbart and The Daily Caller will whip out their own stories.

All three publications ended up writing about Dr. Journey’s class.

And after the course catalog said the class was canceled for the winter, Mr. Schmidt celebrated. “This is a huge victory,” he tweeted.”

What we seem to have is a professional kvetcher who comes down on liberals, but again—he didn’t do anything that violated the law or accepted university principles of free speech.

And here’s the support that Dr. Journey got from the University, which is important, and something that (as Greg notes below) the NYT didn’t make a big deal about. But that is the important part of the story since so many colleges refuse to defend their instructors attacked on social media (remember Hamline University and the Muhammad paintings?):

Administrators had already amped up security. They had moved Dr. Journey’s class to a building that required key-card access and did not publicly list the location. Dr. Journey said the university beefed up security patrols.

Officials also took key steps that supporters of academic freedom say many colleges fail to do: They affirmed Dr. Journey’s right to teach the class and did not distance the institution from her.

I sure as hell wouldn’t do what what Schmidt did, though in the past I have occasionally put up contact information for what I see as egregious circumstances. But a course doesn’t fit that description; it’s a course, and even if it be woke, I can write about it; but it’s rude and bad form to sic a bunch of angry conservatives on a new Ph.D. looking for a job.

I think that Geof Stone of the Law School, one of our big free-speech advocates, has the right take on this situation:

Professor Stone, who wrote the Chicago statement [of Free Expression], agreed that the student’s actions could have a “chilling effect” on speech. But, he asked, who determines the difference between, say, a newspaper reporting on an individual and Mr. Schmidt’s actions? Both can result in hate mail and threats, he said.

The university, as a private institution, could change its policies to say that students, staff and faculty cannot post material that is intended to be intimidating, Professor Stone said.

But such a move — which he does not recommend — would run afoul of the First Amendment if the university were public, and would bring its own complications, he said.

“It’s very hard for either law or institutions to monitor those sorts of things,” he said. “Your administrators may be biased in terms of who they go after, and who they don’t go after.”

And while a strong case could be made that Mr. Schmidt’s intent was to intimidate, Professor Stone said, “Do you really want to get into the business of trying to figure out what the purpose was?”

Finally, here’s Greg Mayer’s take on the whole business, quoted with permission.

Complaining about the class is fine, including identifying the instructor. If Schmidt did tweet out her email address, that’s unkind and uncalled for, and someone should talk to him about etiquette. It would also clearly NOT fall under one of the exceptions to the First Amendment, though: as Jerry noted to me, there was no call for imminent lawless action. Schmidt probably, though, hoped to generate a Twitter mob, which I guess he did.

Political ads that call for people to harass a politician are standard these days. (“Joe Biden wants to take away your Medicare. Call Joe Biden now and tell him to keep the government out of Medicare! Call xxx-xxx-xxxx now!”)

The University could have rules that are more restrictive than the First Amendment. But fashioning them could be difficult– what would cross the University’s (as opposed to the First Amendment’s) line? Name-calling? Incivility? But how to define these?

The U of C did stand by the instructor, which I think is the key here: the institution resisted the Twitter mob. Policing individuals is tough, in part because of the problem of defining where the “line” is; and there are so many individual miscreants one could go after. But having those in charge stand up for the academic freedom of the instructor is a rarity these days, and is the real story, which the Times barely mentions.

The course sounds like a real stinker– an exercise in the cultural typological essentialism which is sort of the guiding principle of neo-racism. But, as Voltaire didn’t say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

JAC: I agree with everything Greg says, except that if someone “talks to Schmidt about etiquette”, it should be one of his friends, not a University official. The University has no business chilling speech through “a talk about etiquette.”

Déjà Vu: S.F. State University investigates professor for showing Muhammad picture in class

April 7, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Both FIRE and The Chronicle of Higher Education report that, mirabile dictu, yet another professor is in trouble for showing a picture of Muhammad—this time at San Francisco State University (SFSU).  He hasn’t been fired, but he’s under investigation.  FIRE is of course campaigning to nip this in the bud, and so they have both a blog post about it as well as a four-page letter they sebnt to SFSU letting them know that they’re violating the professor’s academic freedom and that even investigating him is chilling speech and violates the First Amendment (SFSU is a public school).

Here’s the backstory from the Chronicle (the “Muhammadgate” incident is at the very end, part of a longer article about academic freedom).

Maziar Behrooz, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, does not yet know what a teaching decision he made might cost him.

In the fall of 2022, Behrooz was teaching the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700 and showed a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s taught the course, and the image, for years. One student, a devout Muslim, strongly objected, outside of class. His main point, Behrooz told The Chronicle, was that it’s not permissible for an image of the Prophet Muhammad to be shown in any shape or form.

“This is the first time that this has happened,” Behrooz said. “I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion.”

Behrooz said he told the student that, as the professor, he is the one who decides what’s shown in class. The student then complained to Behrooz’s department chair, who broached the issue with the professor, according to Behrooz. He said he explained to his chair that the student’s view is not uniform among all Muslims. The type of drawing he shows in class can be bought at markets in Tehran near holy shrines. Many Shiite Muslims have such drawings on walls in their homes, said Behrooz, who was born in Tehran and has written books on Iran’s political history.

The student also apparently complained to “authorities higher up” at the university, according to Behrooz. The professor said the institution’s office of Equity Programs & Compliance informed him in March that it would investigate the incident and asked him to attend a Zoom meeting.

A staff member in the vice president’s office at San Francisco State told The Chronicle in an email that she could not comment on specific reports or investigations. She instead described the process for assessing reports of potential misconduct. An investigator meets with the complainant to gather information and discuss options, she said. If it’s decided the conduct could violate the California State University nondiscrimination policy, an investigation begins, and both parties are notified.

The Zoom meeting is slated for early April. Behrooz said he’s not overly worried, though he thinks an investigation by this office — which fields reports of harassment and discrimination — is unnecessary. He’s not sure what the inquiry portends. “How it goes from here is anybody’s guess,” he said.

FIRE’s letter is very good, with all the legal citations and bells and whistles, implying that the investigation should end tout suite and requesting that SFSU should respond by April 13.  I sense a lawsuit in the offing, and if SFSU doesn’t stop this investigation, they’ll be in a Hamline-University-like situation where they’ll get negative national publicity and a fat lawsuit filed against them by Dr. Behrooz.  Remember, even an investigation for charges that don’t carry weight, as these don’t, serves to chill speech and is a form of punishment.

It looks like Behrooz is going to at least accede to giving trigger warnings, but he doesn’t seem sufficiently angry! From the Chronicle:

In the meantime, Behrooz is thinking through what, if anything, he should change about his teaching. As a principle, he said he doesn’t think religious groups, or students, should decide how an instructor teaches a course at a secular institution. “But one has to also take into consideration, I think, the sensitivities of some religious people, be it Muslim or otherwise.”

Should he talk about the drawing without showing it? Should he still show it, as he’s done for years? Or, should he offer a compromise — warn students that the image is offensive to some and perhaps allow them to leave the class and come back?

He hasn’t decided, but he’s considering the compromise.

Finally, if you want to send either a boilerplate message to SFSU objecting to this stuff, or confect your own letter (I did the latter), just go to this site (bottom of page) and fill in the form. I wrote my own short letter, which follows. Feel free to appropriate from it if you wish.

Subject: End Investigation into History Professor ImmediatelyDear President Lynn Mahoney (show details) 

I understand that your university is investigating Professor Maziar Behrooz for showing a picture of Muhammad in a class about Muslim history. One student objected because some sects of Muslims consider this forbidden, and now SF State is investigating Behrooz.

I taught on the faculty of the University of Chicago for 36 years, and, unlike you, this university understands the meaning of the First Amendment and of academic freedom. Even investigating this didactic and proper use of the picture is itself a violation of the First Amendment, for it acts to chill speech.
I urge you to not go the way of Hamline University and try to punish this professor, for you will end up like they did: a national laughingstock and an academic embarrassment. Please stop this baseless investigation now.
Jerry Coyne

Is academia really disintegrating?

February 10, 2023 • 11:15 am

This article, from Quillette, caught my attention because of the title. Is academia really disintegrating? It’s one thing to say it’s being infested by Critical Theory, or infused with postmodernism, but what is the “disintegration”? It turns out that author Mark Goldblatt really does think that academia, which to him means higher education, is going to fall apart—to experience a schism that will make much of it worthless. Goldblatt’s background, as limned in the article is this:

Mark Goldblatt teaches at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology. His latest book is I Feel, Therefore I Am: The Triumph of Woke Subjectivism.

But I think his overall thesis is wrong. He maintains that much of academia, infested with postmodern ideas, holds there is no such thing as objective truth. This view is said to be pervasive in the humanities and social sciences which will, eventually, “cease to be higher education in the Enlightenment sense”. And there he may well be right. But he sees STEM fields as holding fast to the ideas that there is objective truth, and that will preserve them and their value in education—and cause a fatal schism in academia. It’s this last bit I disagree with.

Goldblatt is right that most science is still predicated on the idea of there being an objective reality that we can approach through our endeavors. But what he gets wrong is the idea that science is immune to attack because its endeavors are nearly free from ideological taint.  There’s no way, he implies, that it could become postmodernist, or shirk its mission to find objective truth. .

That view is exaggerated. As amply documented, even on this site, many aspects of science (especially in biology) are being attacked because they contradict what people want to believe based on their adherence to a tribal ieology.  Science is getting very woke very fast, and that, combined with the denigration of merit and elevation of identity and identity politics, and the scrutiny of all projects to see if they can cause “harm” or even violence, is curbing academic freedom in science, just as it is in non-science fields. Increasingly, grants are given for ideological reasons rather than scientific merit, and scientists can be fired, canceled, or denigrated for seeking truth.  So I see academia as a whole eroding in quality and purpose—a trend that I fervently hope will reverse itself—but I don’t see it disintegrating through a schism of humanities and social sciences vs. the natural sciences, all involved in their willingness to embrace.

Click on the screenshot to read

I guess this idea started when Goldblatt, while approving a SUNY course on sociology from an LGBT perspective, nevertheless objected to the idea that students were expected in the course to develop a “greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ perspectives and rights.”  He’s sympathetic to those perspectives and rights, but said that a course should not have the aim of ideologically indoctrinating its students. If they change their minds by learning the material, that’s fine, but accepting a certain perspective should not be required. This led to a fracas in a faculty meeting:

After expressing my general admiration for the course, I raised my misgiving in the following way (and this is nearly an exact quote): “We need to keep in mind that we’re a state university. Our mission is to pursue, ascertain, and disseminate objective truth, and to equip our students to do the same. Given that mission, I don’t think we can list a learning outcome that requires students’ assent on a matter of personal morality. The other learning outcomes are fine. You don’t need that one, so I’d just cut it.” My colleague was fresh out of graduate school and not yet tenured, which (theoretically) put her in a vulnerable position. Nevertheless, she became apoplectic; so angry, in fact, that she had difficulty getting out her first sentence. “I can’t believe people still think that way!” she spluttered. “Queer Theory has deconstructed objectivity!”

And that got Goldblatt thinking about how the jettisoning of “objectivity” is permeating all of humanities and social sciences, thanks largely to postmodernist philosophers like Jacques Derrida (shown above). He also sees the rejection of objectivity as self-nullifying, for saying that “there is no such thing as objective truth” is itself an objective statement about the impossibility of objectivity.

But Goldblatt was heartened by seeing that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) retains its belief in objective truth and reject postmodern views:

My sense, based on hundreds of informal conversations I’ve had with STEM faculty, is that people working in the hard sciences tend to roll their eyes at the alleged insights of postmodernism. They inhabit a world in which truth is still gauged by correspondence between belief and reality, and in which reality exists independently of our beliefs about it. Generally speaking, they don’t give a rat’s ass about discourse communities and meta-narratives. They want to know if the equations balance, if the instruments work, and if their hypotheses match empirical outcomes. In other words, they are interested in discovering if what they believe to be true is objectively true. They are certainly not interested in the ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity of the people making truth claims.

Ergo the schism:

Put all of that together, and you’ve got the makings of a schism. The humanities and social sciences are undergoing a mission reversion—they’re returning to a pre-Enlightenment view of the purpose of higher education. Prior to the Enlightenment, universities were sites of religious instruction that trained clergy. Harvard was founded in 1636, a mere six years after the settlement of Massachusetts Bay, to ensure that future generations of New England Puritans would be served by learned ministers. That goal is found among Harvard’s original “Rules and Precepts”:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome [i.e., at the base of the boat, to keep it steady in the water], as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.

That’s a version of what we’re seeing with the rise of the subjectivist movement in the humanities and social sciences. It is a new secular faith, a version of The Way. Instruction in radical progressive curricula is baptism by accreditation. It’s witness and testing. You gather for three hours a week to dwell in the spirit, commit yourself to individual rituals and collective causes, despair the fallen state of humanity, call out and cast out demons, immerse yourself in sacred texts and memorize venerable chants, then venture forth to spread the gospel. The end is performative, sacramental. Let me tell you the many ways you’re oppressed so that you may be a river to the masses.

Increasingly, that is the state of the humanities and social sciences at public universities in the US. Whatever you think of that development, it signals an existential crisis for higher education because instruction in the STEM fields at American universities remains traditional, objectively focused, and globally competitive. The reversion of the humanities and social sciences to religious preparation cannot coexist indefinitely with the Enlightenment mission of STEM instruction. Something has to give.

And so, as science clings to objectivity while other departments happily deny it, the university will fracture (I’m not sure what form this fracture is supposed to take). And no, nothing has to give, for science itself is eroding away—granted, not as fast as are the humanities.  As I said, scientific merit is rather quickly being placed below below ideology and identitarian politics, so that the quality of research and researchers now often rests largely on political criteria (yes, deriving from postmodernism) rather than scientific merit. Because the whole of scientific progress depends on valuing science by its importance and innovative quality, and valuing researchers by how well they can do science, this will erode the field.

Increasingly, we see scientific journals like Nature and Science, as well as popular science journalism (Scientific American comes to mind) devoting their pages to “Social Justice” (capitalized à la Pluckrose and Lindsay to mean the authoritarian rather than the liberal and empathic brand), to word policing, and to promoting “progressive” ideology.  Scientific ideas themselves are being attacked on ideological grounds. We’ve pretty much squelched the creationists and antivaxers, but even scientists themselves are making ideological arguments about there being more than two sexes in humans, about men and women being biologically identical in behavior and preference, that evolutionary psychology is bunk, that there are no genetic differences between human populations, that it’s unacceptable to dig up human remains because they belong to whatever indigenous people inhabit the land now, and so on. The NIH withholds data on ethnic groups from researchers because its use could cause harm. All of this, by chilling scientific practice, impedes science itself as well as the public’s knowledge about it.

I could go on and on about how science has been and is being held back by ideology, but I’ve just helped write two huge papers on that and can’t say more. Suffice it to say that science and the social sciences/humanities are not diverging, but converging, though science will never be as intellectually depauperate as aspects of those other fields known as “Studies”.

So although Goldblatt has a point about the decline of academia caused by infiltration of ideology, I don’t see the schism he foresees:

The disintegration of academia is coming. Whichever side precipitates the break, it will be a necessary development. Higher education is a serious intellectual endeavor, and nothing is less intellectually serious in contemporary academia than the suggestion that the pursuit of objectivity has been discredited. Empirical observation, mathematical inquiry, inductive and deductive reasoning, and falsifiability are the sine qua nons of higher education. As courses of study in the humanities and social sciences depart from such things, they cease to be higher education in the Enlightenment sense.

There will be a decline, but there will be no break, for ideology is pushing STEM closer to Studies.  As I said, I hope that this tilting ship will eventually right itself, and if you’re an optimist you can find reasons to hope that it will.

But I tend to take the position of the Jewish optimist in the following classic definitions:

Jewish pessimist: “Things can’t get any worse.”

Jewish optimist: “Sure they can!!”

DEI statements for hiring: can they be made legal?

May 30, 2022 • 1:30 pm

As you know, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) statements are increasingly required by colleges and universities for both hiring and promotion of faculty. And for a long time my law-school colleague Brian Leiter has argued that they should not be used, as hiring or promotion based on them constitutes illegal “viewpoint discrimination” by deep-sixing candidates that don’t have the “right ideological views.”

Leiter’s most prominent argument against the use of these statements, and one that is cited often, is his piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) two years ago, “The Legal Problem with Diversity Statements.” His objection is this:

. . . some universities and departments are using scores on the diversity statement to make the first cuts in faculty searches. That would not be objectionable if it were only a device for weeding out candidates unwilling to work with a diverse student body: The ability to do so obviously goes to the core of a faculty member’s professional duties. The problem is that the new diversity statements go well beyond that, requiring candidates to profess allegiance to a controversial set of moral and political views that have little or no relationship to a faculty member’s pedagogical and scholarly duties.

I agree with him; it’s a form of sneaking ideology into the hiring and promotion process. To succeed we all know what we have to say, and it certainly isn’t “I have and will treat all undergraduates equally, regardless of who they are.” Nevertheless, the requirements for these statements are not only proliferating, but the weeding-out process, used most prominently by the University of California, is being used to cull those who don’t agree with the progressive view of DEI. Even here I’ve heard dark rumors that such statements are being used to cull those with unacceptable ideological views, but I don’t know for sure.

At any rate, there’s a new article in the CHE by Brian Soucek, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, that argues the feasibility of using DEI statements legally. (By so arguing this he admits that there are legal problems with these statements from the get-go, problems like those raised by Leiter.) The problem is that by rendering the statements legal, Soucek also removes the rationale for why many academics really want them: to assure that faculty conform to “a controversial set of moral and political views.”

Click to read:

You can see how the DEI statements must, according to Soucek, be “made legal”: by showing that they don’t violate academic freedom or constitute compelled speech because they do indeed require criteria necessary for a specific academic job. Further requirements for “legalization” mean ensuring that those judgments be made by the relevant scholars, not by administrators or diversity experts. Soucek:

Critics need to do more than point out that faculty are potentially getting judged on their viewpoints. What matters constitutionally is whether the views being judged are relevant to the position in question. One consequence: Prompts and rubrics that look for the same kinds of contributions to diversity no matter the job or discipline are less likely to be constitutional than those better tailored to the position at issue.

And indeed, for most academic jobs, specific commitments to forms of diversity are not relevant. Anything in science, and in most humanities jobs, are off the table; no specific views on diversity are crucial for performing those jobs well.

So who makes the requirements? Soucek:

. . . .So when critics call mandated diversity statements “an affront to academic freedom,” their accusations hit their target if and only if someone other than disciplinary experts are setting the terms by which faculty members are judged. For example, if the rubrics used to evaluate diversity statements are imposed by administrators top-down and university-wide, academic-freedom worries are going to compound the potential viewpoint discrimination concerns that arise when evaluative criteria aren’t tailored to the job at hand.

But of course nearly all such requirements come from the University, and must adhere to University standards and wording, futher rendering the statements irrelevant.

Soucek adds that there’s nothing wrong with compelled speech, and supports that by giving some ludicrous examples that are irrelevant to Leiter’s Constitutional concerns. Soucek:

Critics often say that public universities, bound as they are by the First Amendment, can’t discriminate against students and employees based on their viewpoints. This just isn’t true. Like most professors, I engaged in rampant viewpoint discrimination when I graded my student’s exams this month. (For example, if a First Amendment student expressed the view that viewpoint discrimination is always unconstitutional at public universities, I would lower their grade.) Hiring and tenure review both require judgments by applicants’ disciplinary peers about the quality of the conclusions reached in their scholarly work. And surely when a university hires someone to run an asylum clinic, or to direct its program on entrepreneurship, it can reject an immigration restrictionist for the former search, but not the latter, and favor someone who is pro-capitalism for the latter search, though not the former.

Soucek is a law professor, for crying out loud, and should know the difference between judging someone based on whether they’ve met the criteria for the job (or gotten decent grades) or whether extraneous political views are being tacked on for ideological reasons.

Leiter takes apart Soucek’s article in a short post on his philosophy website Leiter Reports. An excerpt from Leiter’s rebuttal:

Soucek  complains that critics “assum[e] rather than argu[e] that DEI contributions are not part of the job description for most academics,” quoting my observation that diversity has “little or no relationship to a faculty member’s pedagogical and scholarly duties.”  Soucek omits, however, that I was explicitly criticizing Berkeley’s diversity requirement, according to which a job applicant’s diversity statement would get a low score if s/he “describes only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc.).” In other words, Berkeley’s diversity requirement explicitly distinguished a commitment to the diversity ideology from a faculty member’s other pedagogical duties.

Soucek suggests Berkeley and other UC campuses can avoid legal problems as long as diversity requirements represent “criteria experts within the discipline conscientiously judge to be relevant to the job.”  That point would rule out most university requirements of diversity statements, which are administratively imposed.  If different departments can genuinely decide on their own if actions in support of “diversity” (as distinct from the usual pedagogical duties of faculty, such as “treating all students the same regardless of background” as Berkeley put it) are relevant to the job, and if their disciplinary peers at other universities concur, then Soucek may be right that academic freedom protects such a decision.

Suppose, however, members of the economics discipline decided that actions in support of “capitalism” were “relevant to the job.”   Does that mean economics departments at public universities could exclude candidates who do not demonstrate in practice their commitment to capitalism?  One hopes that the courts would see through this pretextual form of viewpoint discrimination.

If you’re in academia, and able to see how these statements are being used, it’s clear that they are aimed at weeding out candidates who don’t conform to progressive Leftist ideology on race or gender (adherence to “structural racism/sexism” and so on).  Needless to say, I agree with Leiter: it only weakens academics when departments in which adherence to a specific DEI requirements are irrelevant are still forced to adhere to those requirements. I’m surprised that the University of California has gotten away with these shenanigans, and I smell a lawsuit approaching from the wings.

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.

Jordan Peterson hangs it up as a professor

January 20, 2022 • 9:30 am

Reader Duff called my attention to a piece by Jordan Peterson in—where else—Canada’s National Post, announcing that he’s quitting as a professor at the University of Toronto.  You can read the piece by clicking on the screenshot below:

As I’ve said before, I know virtually nothing about Jordan Peterson, though of course you can’t be living in this bubble without occasionally hearing of his doings. Jordan Peterson refuses to agree to mandatory pronoun use. Jordan Peterson near death’s door from disease and depression in Russia. Jordan Peterson clashes with British t.v. host, trounces her. Jordan Peterson writes bestselling book on how to live. And so on and so on.  When I’ve heard bits of his videos, I tend to agree with sp,e of what he says, but I claim no knowledge of his general views nor about his writings. (I tried to read his big academic book, and failed.) But I admire his honesty and his eloquence, though sometimes exercised in the service of causes I don’t support.

So I don’t have a strong reaction to the news above, nor endorse all that he says—except about the fulminating wokeness of academia, which is apparently what impelled him to resign. (I don’t think it hurt that he probably has about a gazillion dollars from his books and lecture fees!). I think he goes too far in indicting virtually the entire West for wokeness, though some of what he says rings true. Here’s one quote that I like.

We are now at the point where race, ethnicity, “gender,” or sexual preference is first, accepted as the fundamental characteristic defining each person (just as the radical leftists were hoping) and second, is now treated as the most important qualification for study, research and employment.

Need I point out that this is insane ? Even the benighted New York Times has its doubts. A headline from August 11, 2021: Are Workplace Diversity Programs Doing More Harm than Good? In a word, yes. How can accusing your employees of racism etc. sufficient to require re-training (particularly in relationship to those who are working in good faith to overcome whatever bias they might still, in these modern, liberal times, manifest) be anything other than insulting, annoying, invasive, high-handed, moralizing, inappropriate, ill-considered, counterproductive, and otherwise unjustifiable?

And this is credible; one of the reasons he resigned:

Second reason: This is one of many issues of appalling ideology currently demolishing the universities and, downstream, the general culture. Not least because there simply is not enough qualified BIPOC people in the pipeline to meet diversity targets quickly enough (BIPOC: black, indigenous and people of colour, for those of you not in the knowing woke). This has been common knowledge among any remotely truthful academic who has served on a hiring committee for the last three decades. This means we’re out to produce a generation of researchers utterly unqualified for the job. And we’ve seen what that means already in the horrible grievance studies “disciplines.” That, combined with the death of objective testing, has compromised the universities so badly that it can hardly be overstated. And what happens in the universities eventually colours everything. As we have discovered.

All my craven colleagues must craft DIE statements to obtain a research grant. They all lie (excepting the minority of true believers) and they teach their students to do the same. And they do it constantly, with various rationalizations and justifications, further corrupting what is already a stunningly corrupt enterprise. Some of my colleagues even allow themselves to undergo so-called anti-bias training, conducted by supremely unqualified Human Resources personnel, lecturing inanely and blithely and in an accusatory manner about theoretically all-pervasive racist/sexist/heterosexist attitudes. Such training is now often a precondition to occupy a faculty position on a hiring committee.

This is what I object to most about current academic culture: it forces people to either lie about their feelings or to shut up.

But, as critical as I am about DEI statements (he calls them “DIE statements,” which doesn’t help his cause), I still believe in affirmative action in some spheres, including academia. Since he’s uniformly opposed to it it any way, I can’t sign on to his views in toto.  I can’t claim, for instance, that current efforts to diversify universities will “compromise them so terribly that it means the death of higher education.” Nor do I think that DEI initiatives will produce a generation of researchers “utterly unqualified for the job.”

I do, however, hate to see institutions dedicated to pursuing truth nevertheless lie and dissimulate about their motivations, and chill the speech of who would disagree with “conventional” (in academia, that’s “progressive liberal”) views.

I suspect many readers know a lot more about Peterson than I, so do weigh in below. One thing you have to hand the man: he says what he thinks, even if others disagree strongly with him. That’s opposed to the many academics who say (or are forced to say) what they don’t think, or keep their mouths shut rather than buck the latest ideology.

“The Chair”: A miniseries about academia

September 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

Matthew was recently watching the new Netflix series “The Chair“, whose first season comprises six 30-minute episodes.  It’s basically “ER” set in a college—the fictional Pembroke University in New England.

Sandra Oh—the one character who’s very well acted plays Ji-Yoon Kim, the new chair of Pembroke’s English department, and has to face the usual travails of a chair: how to choose a distinguished speaker, dealing with faculty who don’t teach well, schmoozing the dean, listening to a colleague kvetch about poor office space, and so on. The plot is complicated by the fact that her ex-husband (Bill Dobson, played by Jay Duplass) is a professor in her department, is acting erratically since his second wife died, and he wants to reunite with Kim.

They’ve inserted some woke stuff to create drama, the main trope being Dobson’s quick Hitler salute when he mentions Hitler in a class. That, of course sets off a huge fracas.

I’ve watched the first three episodes (I guess there will be a second season), and I’ve pretty much had it. While Oh’s acting is good, much of the other actors overdo it, and the drama—sustaining a Hitler salute over the entire series (don’t read the Wikipedia summary if you want to watch it), is boring. I’m giving up. Matthew thought it was okay, but he’s recommended that I watch “The Wire” instead, and that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a much bigger investment—60 one-hour episodes—but it’s received universal critical acclaim.

In the meantime, you can see the official trailer for the “The Chair” below: