NYT article: Princeton professor calls for an end to studying classics because they promote white supremacy. Andrew Sullivan issues a strong critique

February 6, 2021 • 10:30 am

My dislike of the New York Times is growing daily. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me becoming more critical and splenetic—either with age or because of the pandemic—but lately I’m pretty sure it’s because the paper itself is becoming terminally woke, with Critical Theory (mostly Critical Race Theory) seeping into every article, and a growing number of features, like the one below, concentrating on race and oppression. It’s not just the topics covered, either—it’s that the way the topics are presented aligns with ideologically correct views. I could spend a whole day writing four or five posts about the mishigas going on at the Times, but I’ll apportion out my spleen in installments.

For example, the following article is about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a highly regarded Professor of classics at Princeton.  He’s black, was born in the Dominican Republic, and at a young age fell in love with Greek and Roman literature, winding up getting degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford, then returning to Princeton to teach. At some point in this odyssey (which also involved a hard childhood), he decided that the classical literature he loved and taught was actually being used to undergird racism and white supremacy. In fact, he claims that it’s had that effect since the Enlightenment. He’s now thinking about leaving the field, perhaps after he’s contributing to dismantling it.

It’s manifestly clear that the author of the piece, Rachel Poser (an editor at Harper’s) sympathizes with Padilla’s crusade to ditch the Greeks and Romans. Although she presents critics of his view, most notably Mary Beard of Cambridge University, the article is heavily slanted toward the view that yes, classics have been the pillars of racism, slavery, and white supremacy throughout history. Read for yourself.

One way you can get an idea of where the writer’s sympathies lie is how she ends the article. And here’s Poser’s ending:

On Jan. 6, Padilla turned on the television minutes after the windows of the Capitol were broken. In the crowd, he saw a man in a Greek helmet with TRUMP 2020 painted in white. He saw a man in a T-shirt bearing a golden eagle on a fasces — symbols of Roman law and governance — below the logo 6MWE, which stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough,” a reference to the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He saw flags embroidered with the phrase that Leonidas is said to have uttered when the Persian king ordered him to lay down his arms: Molon labe, classical Greek for “Come and take them,” which has become a slogan of American gun rights activists. A week after the riot, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who has liked posts on social media that call for killing Democrats, wore a mask stitched with the phrase when she voted against impeachment on the House floor.

“There is a certain kind of classicist who will look on what transpired and say, ‘Oh, that’s not us,’” Padilla said when we spoke recently. “What is of interest to me is why is it so imperative for classicists of a certain stripe to make this discursive move? ‘This is not us.’ Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself. Can you take stock, can you practice the recognition of the manifold ways in which racism is a part of what you do? What the demands of the current political moment mean?”

Padilla suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics. “I would never have thought the position I hold now to be attainable to me as a kid,” he said. “But the fact that this is a minor miracle does not displace my deep sense that this is temporary too.” His influence on the field may be more permanent than his presence in it. “Dan-el has galvanized a lot of people,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a professor at Denison University, told me. Joel Christensen, the Brandeis professor, now feels that it is his “moral and ethical and intellectual responsibility” to teach classics in a way that exposes its racist history. “Otherwise we’re just participating in propaganda,” he said. Christensen, who is 42, was in graduate school before he had his “crisis of faith,” and he understands the fear that many classicists may experience at being asked to rewrite the narrative of their life’s work. But, he warned, “that future is coming, with or without Dan-el.”

In other words, there’s a straight line from Aristotle to Trump. That is simply nuts. And, in the last sentence above, the “future” means either the end of classics or a revision of how it is taught: presenting it as a highly politicized discipline, taking care at every turn to point out how the ancients promulgated whiteness and bigotry.

Poser’s NYT article presents Padilla’s case in extenso of why the classics are racist, with only a tiny bit of dissent allowed from fellow classicists. In other words, what Poser gives us is not an “objective” piece on the arguments for and against dismantling the teaching of classics, but a lecture by Padilla on why they should be dismantled.  The piece would have been far more interesting had more counterarguments been presented, or had someone made the case for the value of the classics and their misuse to buttress white supremacy.

But that argument fell to Andrew Sullivan in his latest issue of The Weekly Dish. (Click on screenshot below, though it’s a pay site and you can’t read it unless you subscribe. I’d recommend subscribing, as the $50 per year comes out to less than 14 cents per day.)

I thought of going after the article and Padilla’s views myself, but my knowledge of the classics is very scant, and without that one can’t assess his thesis. (I was of course aware that both the ancient Romans and Greeks kept slaves, which I guess are now called “enslaved people,” and that their deep thoughts resulted in part of the freedom they derived from oppressing others. But in those societies slavery was based only minimally on race, and strongly on conquest of foreigners. I have no idea if they even had the concept of “whiteness” as opposed to Athenian or Roman supremacy.) Sullivan, on the other hand, read Latin from when he was a young Catholic lad, and used it to read a ton of classics in the original. He’s also read the translations of Greek classical literature. And, basically, he sees Padilla as full of crap.

If you know classics—and I’m sure many readers here have that knowledge—you should read both pieces and judge for yourself. I won’t repeat all the arguments, but will give just a few quotes from Sullivan about why he sees this NYT article as “deranged” (he’s opposed not only to Padilla’s views, but to the slant of the article). Sullivan’s title, taken from Kundera, is also good:

In fact, I’ll give just one long quote from Sullivan, and hope that you can read the rest:

But I read in the New York Times this week, as one does, that, in fact, I was deluding myself. Rather than being liberated, as I felt I was, I was actually being initiated into “white supremacy”. And there is now a broadening movement in the academy to abolish or dismantle the classics because of their iniquitous “whiteness”.

Racial “whiteness” as a concept would, of course, have been all but meaningless to all the ancient writers I grew to love. It’s beyond even an anachronism. How on earth do you reduce the astonishing variety and depth and breadth of texts from an ancient Mediterranean world to a skin color? How do you read Aristotle and conclude that the most salient quality of his genius was that he was “white”?

You can arrive at this deranged conclusion, it seems, in two contrived ways. One is to view the ancient world as some kind of founding proof of the superiority of the “white race”, whatever that means. Imperialists and fascists have always loved this theme; Mussolini was especially fond of it. The very word “fascism” comes from the Roman “fasces”, a bound bundle of logs that was used to signify the authority of the state. In the same NYT piece, we are reminded that the “marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline ‘Every month is white history month.’”

This dreck is not just bigoted; it’s ahistorical, anachronistic, and reductionist, and it ignores the vast range of classical thought, in which radicals and liberals have found as much intellectual nourishment as conservatives and reactionaries.

The other way to see the classics as a form of “white supremacy” is to embrace critical race theory. Some now argue that the study of ancient Greece and Rome “forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy” that endures to this day. This is because Western democracies can trace many of their formative ideas back to Greece and Rome — and many of these same democracies went on to practice imperialism and even slavery, thousands of years later. Some even justified their brutality with reference to classical texts. This intwining [sic] of the white supremacist assumptions of the Enlightenment with ancient Greece and Rome means the classics are therefore fatally tainted.

I’m sorry, but that’s it? That’s the argument? An entire, diverse, multi-faceted, multicultural civilization that sprawled from Turkey and North Africa to the borders of Scotland — a source of fascination to people of all political persuasions and races over the centuries — cannot be taught because some racists in the past abused its texts? That’s like saying that science should no longer exist because some scientists once practiced eugenics.

In fact, there are those who say that the teaching of evolutionary biology and human genetics should be extensively modified because “some scientists once practiced eugenics”. Although the only kind of “eugenics” promoted in my field these days are suggestions about using CRISPR to snip genetic defects out of human embryos—not an odious idea—some of my colleagues have suggested not only new courses in the history of eugenics (not a bad idea), but also apologies by entire science departments for being tarred with the legacy of eugenics. As Padilla does for classics, they suggest that our field has been used to prop up racism, and is still doing so.  That’s not in fact the case, and as a geneticist I reject the idea that my work is at all besmirched with eugenics and racism because some of my predecessors used genetics to buttress their own racism. And I deny that my area of study, speciation, or the way I analyze my data, have a racist legacy.

But I digress. If you know the classics, at least read Poser’s New York Times article and weigh in below.

Free speech fundamentalism?

January 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

As many on the Left try to dismantle freedom of speech, urging us to jettison the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment so that we can ban “hate speech,” we’ll increasingly see articles like the one below, which calls those of us who adhere to the First Amendment “free speech fundamentalists.” Using the terms “fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism,” as Judith Shapiro does in this Inside High Ed op-ed, is a way of denigrating those who adhere strictly to the First Amendment. It’s the same tactic that religionists use when using the term “fundamentalist atheists” for those who don’t accept the notion of a god. But “fundamentalism” is just a red herring here. What is Shapiro’s argument against free speech?

She doesn’t have one, except the usual palaver that it can be offensive and dangerous. And again, without examples, that’s not an argument, or not much of one. We’ve always argued about whether “offense” or “harm” are sufficient reasons to exercise censorship, and I think most of us have concluded that they aren’t.  Banning hurt feelings or the dissemination of misinformation cannot possibly outweigh the benefits of free expression, and, at any rate, who would be the one to determine what speech should be banned? That answer is always this: the person calling for the banning—in this case Shapiro.

Shapiro, by the way, was the former President of Barnard College, so she was an academic heavyweight. She now serves on various academic and think-tank boards and committees.

Click the screenshot to read her short article.

There are three big problems with her article—problems endemic to the writings of those who urge caution about free speech. The first is that she gives no concrete examples of speech that she considers unworthy of being said. Not one example! While she does mention that the punishments of faculty for speaking their minds have been sometimes disproportionate, the main thrust of her article is an unspecific discussion of how free speech can conflict with “other values.”

The second problem, connected with the first, is that she doesn’t limn those areas where one needs to be careful when exercising free speech. The implication is that those are areas that could purvey either “fake news” (i.e., lies) or hurt people’s feelings. But her lack of specificity is annoying—and probably deliberate.

Finally, Shapiro doesn’t mention who is the person or group that should be responsible for deciding what speech is acceptable or unacceptable. The whole piece is maddeningly unspecific, and winds up with the reader thinking that “Shapiro doesn’t really like a hard-line adherence to the First Amendment, but I don’t know why.”

A few quotes to demonstrate the vaporous nature of the argument:

As important as freedom of speech may be, the failure to put it in the context of other values leads us to some serious problems for our society and, more specifically, for our educational institutions.

In terms of our national political life, we have seen the consequences of defending freedom of speech while attending insufficiently to other essential matters, notably the difference between truth and lies. We face a difficult task if we are to rise to the occasion of saving our form of government.

Does this mean that free speech cannot include lies? Well, the law already prohibits some lying like “false advertising” or “defamation,” and we free-speech fundamentalists agree with that. Or does she think that the lies are okay but we need to attend to those lies more? If that’s the case, there are plenty of people attending to them—like the entire liberal media. Free speech is free because you can call out other people’s lies. Holocaust denialism is a good example of that. Many people think that, like some European countries, we should ban such speech, but I feel it’s very important not to, for the arguments back and forth acquaint us with what the evidence really was for the Holocaust (and also “out” those bigots who engage in denialism).

But wait! There’s more!  Tell me what she’s talking about here, since she gives no examples:

As important as freedom of speech may be, the failure to put it in the context of other values leads us to some serious problems for our society and, more specifically, for our educational institutions.

In terms of our national political life, we have seen the consequences of defending freedom of speech while attending insufficiently to other essential matters, notably the difference between truth and lies. We face a difficult task if we are to rise to the occasion of saving our form of government.

Ten to one she’s talking about Trump. Why, then, doesn’t she say so?

And this:

In addition to emphasizing the importance of speech supported by facts, sourcing and an interest in truth, faculty members need to teach their students — and themselves — how to engage most effectively with those holding different views. They should help students resist the attractions of indulging in self-righteous disdainful abuse. Trying to find out why a person holds certain beliefs is a necessary ethnographic step in the process of dialogue.

Again, this is pious moralizing. None of us want to be abusive, and, as I’ve said, psychologizing can often be a distraction from valuable arguments. You don’t need to diagnose Trump’s mental problems to counteract his claims about “fake news” and ballot fraud.

Finally, when one reads “arguments” like the ones below, one wonders whether Dr. Shapiro really wants colleges to abandon the First Amendment. Public universities must of course adhere to its stipulations, but private ones, like Barnard, should as well. Is there a good reason for private colleges to move away from the First Amendment?

Our attitudes to free speech are part of a wider, uncritical cultural celebration of “freedom” abroad in our land. And thus we see many of our fellow citizens refusing to wear masks during a dangerous pandemic and some of our legislators insisting on their right to carry firearms when they report for their day jobs.

An unreflective approach to freedom of speech is often paired with promotion of a “marketplace of ideas.” Let us note, however, that a marketplace is where you can sell anything — anything — that someone else is willing to buy. That may be a less than helpful or inspirational way to think about a democracy, or, for that matter, a society more generally.

We have already followed the path from First Amendment/freedom of speech fundamentalism to Citizens United, a major contribution to turning our democracy into an oligarchy. Will we follow it to where it undermines what education itself is supposed to give to us?

Not wearing masks has nothing to do with “free speech”, though both can be the object of libertarian diatribes. But believe me, it’s not adherence to the First Amendment that makes people go without masks. The same people who urge caution about free speech are the same people who call for more wearing of masks! And, at any rate, bringing up masks is irrelevant to the First Amendment: one has to do with public health, the other with public discourse.

At the end, Shapiro implies that First-Amendment “fundamentalism” has led to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—the 2009 case in which the Supreme Court made a bad decision, arguing that the First Amendment allowed corporations and other groups to make unrestricted campaign contributions. In effect, the 5 Justices construed corporations and associations as “individuals”. This is bad law: a 5-4 decision reflecting a conservative Supreme Court. That’s not the fault of the First Amendment, and has nothing to say about the free speech of individuals. Citizens United is not one stop on a discernible pathway to dismantling our democracy, as Shapiro implies. It was a bad one-off decision that isn’t paving the way for the Third Reich. In fact, I’d say that the path to Reichsville leads through arguments for banning speech.

Does the former president of Barnard not know how to write a coherent essay, or did she just take to the pages of Inside Higher Ed to express vague discomfort with the First Amendment, or is Shapiro covertly suggesting that we might censor some forms of speech now considered legal? I’m not willing to take the “necessary ethnographic step” of finding out what she really believes, and why. Expressing herself clearly is her responsibility, and it’s not my job to figure out what the sweating professor is trying to say*.

* See H. L. Mencken’s wonderful review of Thorstein Veblen’s prose.

A groveling apology from a professor who simply called for more college football, which is apparently racist

September 30, 2020 • 10:15 am

What follows is one of the most ridiculous and embarrassing instantiations of wokeness I’ve seen anywhere, much less in colleges.

If you want to see the equivalent of a full, self-abasing confession in the religion of Wokeness, then read the second article below from Inside Higher Ed. When I initially read it, without reading the forerunner article, I thought it was a joke—so over the top and groveling was it.

But it wasn’t at all a joke. It was from a professor who had written a pretty innocuous article (with a grad student co-author) on the education website, an article that simply called for college football to resume (with proper pandemic precautions) as a way of bringing people together. Though I’m not a fan of college football, it didn’t ruffle my feathers a bit, as I know many people—especially Ohio State fans—are rabid addicts to college football.

It turns out, though that the first author, Matthew Mayhew, must have been inundated with emails and social-media posts, as well as a letter to Inside Higher Ed by another professor (below), all claiming that Mayhew’s position was blatantly racist. It was not.

But read the pieces in order, starting with his pro-football editorial (with Musbah Shaneen). Click on the screenshot below. Here’s the description of the authors:

Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Higher Education at Ohio State University. He has published more than 75 peer-reviewed articles in journals and is a co-author of How College Affects Students: Volume 3. Musbah Shaheen is a Ph.D. student in higher education and student affairs at Ohio State and a research assistant in the College Impact Laboratory.

In their article, Mayhew and Shaheen simply argue that football is something that can bring diverse people together in a time of trouble. For example:

Although many concerns remain about the health and safety of players and spectators, we happen to agree: college football may be an essential element of our functioning democracy. Here’s why.

That’s way over the top, for democracy in America would do just fine without football, but Mayhew really means that football narrows the divisions between people:

Essentializing college football might help get us through these uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty. Indeed, college football holds a special bipartisan place in the American heart.

At a time when colleges and universities have been placed under extreme scrutiny, many people are questioning the very value and purpose of higher education. College football reminds many Americans of the community values that underscore higher education and by extension America itself. One Wolverine does not have to know another one by name — but the sight of maize and blue accompanied by “Hail to the Victors” unites anonymities through these shared experiences.

. . .This election season has demonstrated how stifled, polarized and dangerous our political differences have become, and college football can remind us of respect — even in the wake of deep disagreement. We can root for different teams, scream at the players, argue with the refs and question the coaches, but win or lose, at the end of the day, we leave the stadium, watch party or tailgate with a sense of respect for the game and the athletes that train so hard, leaving it all out on the field every time. Indeed, if a player is injured, the entire stadium usually applauds, not just fans from one team.

Deep difference doesn’t have to lead to disrespect.

The authors add that athletes shouldn’t risk their lives to entertain fans, and that strict enforcement of pandemic guidelines are needed.

And that’s pretty much it. Nothing is said about black people or race save for this statement that isn’t racist at all:

In addition, football players become beloved community figures beyond the boundaries of the stadium or campus. Football gives players a platform to make statements about issues they care about. We have seen student athletes taking part in protests and making demands for racial equity. We have seen student athletes kneel to protest police brutality. Colleges and universities should take many more steps to empower athletes to engage with the community. Depriving them the opportunity to play doesn’t accomplish that goal.

In other words, canceling football deprives players of the chance to make statements against police brutality and for racial equity. In what sense is that racist?

Yes, the original article is a bit silly, and pretty anodyne, and should have passed in silence. But something happened, and Mayhew immediately tendered a long and groveling apology on the site, castigating himself repeatedly as a racist. Read his ludicrous, back-whipping apology and see if you can figure out how the first article got him canceled:

Some of the apology (it embarrasses me to even reproduce Mayhew’s statements, but this is only a small bit of his groveling:

I recently led a piece in Inside Higher Ed titled “Why America Needs College Football.” I am sorry for the hurt, sadness, frustration, fatigue, exhaustion and pain this article has caused anyone, but specifically Black students in the higher education community and beyond.

I am struggling to find the words to communicate the deep ache for the damage I have done. I don’t want to write anything that further deepens the pain experienced by my ignorance related to Black male athletes and the Black community at any time, but especially in light of the national racial unrest. I also don’t want to write anything that suggests that antiracist learning is quick or easy. This is the beginning of a very long process, one that started with learning about the empirical work related to Black college football athletes.

Rather than make excuses, I should talk about which facets of the article that I have recently learned are harmful — through my students, wider social media community and distinguished academics like Donna FordJoy Gaston Gayles and Gilman Whiting.

I learned that I could have titled the piece “Why America Needs Black Athletes.” I learned that Black men putting their bodies on the line for my enjoyment is inspired and maintained by my uninformed and disconnected whiteness and, as written in my previous article, positions student athletes as white property. I have learned that I placed the onus of responsibility for democratic healing on Black communities whose very lives are in danger every single day and that this notion of “democratic healing” is especially problematic since the Black community can’t benefit from ideals they can’t access. I have learned that words like “distraction” and “cheer” erase the present painful moments within the nation and especially the Black community.

Then the self-castigation begins, and oy, is it embarrassing!

Upon such beginnings of reflection, I have also learned that my love for Black athletes on the field doesn’t translate into love within the larger community — that I have been dismissive of Black lives in moments not athletically celebrated. I have learned that I have taken pleasure in events that ask Black athletes to put their bodies on the line and take physical risks. I have been entertained by Black men who often are conditioned by society and structural racism in ways that lure them into athletics where the odds of making it are slim to none.

I am just beginning to understand how I have harmed communities of color with my words. I am learning that my words — my uninformed, careless words — often express an ideology wrought in whiteness and privilege. I am learning that my commitment to diversity has been performative, ignoring the pain the Black community and other communities of color have endured in this country. I am learning that I am not as knowledgeable as I thought I was, not as antiracist as I thought I was, not as careful as I thought I was. For all of these, I sincerely apologize.

I know it’s not anyone’s job to forgive me, but I ask for it — another burden of a white person haunted by his ignorance. To consider the possible hurt I have played a role in, the scores of others whose pain I didn’t fully see, aches inside me — a feeling different and deeper than the tears and emotions I’ve experienced being caught in an ignorant racist moment.

It goes on way beyond this, with thanks to those who helped professor Mayhew understand his racism, and his “plan for antiracist change”. My response: nobody was harmed by your fricking words. If they said they were harmed, they were either lying or need help. 

Reading the original letter again, I still couldn’t understand this wailing, weeping apology, but then I found that Andrew McGregor, a Professor of History at Dallas College, had written a letter to Inside Higher Ed called “Mythic, misguided view of college football.” McGregor happens to be white, but that’s no bar to virtue-signaling, which McGregor does big time in his letter. Sure, Mayhew was over the top in claiming that college football is an essential part of American democracy, but McGregor whips him over and over again by asserting, falsely, that college football is instead “a symptom of the deep-seeded issues that have contributed to political polarization, racial unrest, the devaluation of education, and prolonged devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.” (By the way, the term is “deep-seated,” not “deep-seeded”.)

But how did college football become so nefarious?  McGregor argues that the lucrative nature of football has debased the intellectual mission of colleges, and that some college coaches, like Dabo Swinney, make unfounded statements about science and history. Well, I won’t wade into that morass, and can’t be arsed to look it up anyway, because that argument is irrelevant and can’t explain Mayhew’s fulsome apology.

No, McGregor argues that football by its very nature is racist because it demands that black athletes put their lives on the line to entertain white folk:

Amateurism and the very structure of college athletics is caught up in the United States’ system of racial capitalism. The problems of COVID-19, police brutality, and the policies currently being enacted by our political leaders all have a disproportionally larger impact on racialized folks. So too does college football. As the recent decision by a grand jury in Louisville reminds us, the status quo does not value Black Lives above apartment walls. For the Power Five, and apparently the authors, Black Lives Matter insofar as they are on the field playing an inherently risky game. In this regard, they are right: resuming college football is in line with America’s “democratic” tradition.

. . . Black athletes are embraced on the gridiron and in the community as a way to assuage white guilt.

WTF? Assuage white guilt?

And that’s about it.  No matter that both blacks and whites play together on college teams, that a football scholarship is a way for disenfranchised minorities to get an education, and that it’s also one of the only routes to becoming a player in the National Football League: a way to get success and big money in sports. Sure, most college players don’t get that call from the NFL, and we can argue about whether college players should get paid for their efforts and how much “education” football players really get. But none of that is relevant to McGregor’s accusations of racism against Mayhew. McGregor is just spouting off to show that he’s a deacon in the Woke Religion.

Here’s a photo I got when I Googled “Ohio State football team 2019). The team won against the Washington Huskies in that year. The team looks pretty integrated to me, though clearly black players are represented in a proportion higher than among the general population (and surely than among students).

It’s not clear how much pushback Mayhew got from other people, but I’m sure he was inundated with emails and social-media criticism. McGregor’s letter alone doesn’t seem sufficient to elicit such a bout of groveling and tooth-gnashing.

Had I been Mayhew, I wouldn’t have responded to McGregor at all, as no response was needed. Instead, Mayhew has crumpled, spouting mea culpas as he goes down. Like so many, he was so stricken when called a racist that he immediately confessed to Father Kendi.

The rest of us should pity Mayhew. The whole affair is laughable, save that Mayhew has been devastated and, indeed, may have had his career derailed. We shall see. But so long as people like Mayhew grovel, truckle, and beg for forgiveness for an innocuous statement, then so long will the Woke continue their tactics of demonization. As John McWhorter said, it’s time to either ignore or mock these jokers (I’m referring to McGregor, not Mayhew).

Matthew Mayhew, now toast

h/t: Eli

 

An open letter to the University of Chicago’s English Department

September 21, 2020 • 9:00 am

There’s been considerable negative publicity about the University of Chicago English Department’s “woke” statement adhering to Critical Race Theory, and their concomitant decision to admit graduate students next year in only one area: Black Studies. In response, the English Department has engaged in somewhat mendacious behavior. Yesterday I found that once again they’d altered their Faculty Statement of July 2020—the second change—without indicating that they’d done so. Rather than just put up a conventional post, I decided to write an open letter to the Department. I won’t send it to them, as they’d pay no attention, but I’m sure they’ll find out about it. Here goes:

Dear University of Chicago Department of English,

In the past several weeks you’ve taken it upon yourselves to make a department-wide political statement committing the English Department to a specific form of anti-racist belief and action, as well as asserting that not just your faculty, but the entire University of Chicago faculty (and perhaps that of other schools) must undertake the same actions pledged by your group. As your Faculty Statement of July 2020 asserts:

In light of this historical reality, we believe that undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere.

You also pledged to accept graduate students for the next year only in one area—Black Studies. Until two days ago, the July 2020 statement said this:

Note: For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies. We understand Black Studies to be a capacious intellectual project that spans a variety of methodological approaches, fields, geographical areas, languages, and time periods.

This differs from the initial version of your statement (same date), which said this: “As part of our commitment to funding and fostering scholarship in Black studies, in the coming academic year (2020-2021) we are prioritizing consideration of applicants who work in and with Black studies for admission to our PhD program.”

What was once a priority has now become a requirement.  I have no beef with your decision to funnel all students into one area of study, for this is a curricular decision that is the purview of all departments. However, as Benjamin Schwarz pointed out in Spiked, your decision about graduate study smacks of prioritizing your curriculum based on your ideological views. This is not the way a curriculum should be designed.

More important, as both Schwarz and Alan Dershowitz noted (the latter in Newsweek), your department’s statement violates our University’s Kalven Report (one of our Foundational Principles), which mandates that the University must make no official political, ideological, or moral statements—the one exception being about issues that bear directly on the mission of the University to foster free and untrammeled speech and to operate smoothly.

Those principles make clear that the appropriate unit of opinion and dissent is the individual student or faculty member—not departments, schools, or administrators acting in their official capacity. As our former Provost and Law School Dean Geoff Stone explained during the controversy about investing in Darfur, even the Law School should not make political statements, for the law school, like the English Department, is an official moiety of the University where speech can be chilled by official statements. And the University has made no such statements—not during calls to defend accused Communists in the McCarthy era, not during demands to decry the Vietnam War, and, tellingly, not during the Civil Rights crisis of the 1960s. Individuals, of course, made statements, but the the University remained silent. Why, then, do you think the present situation is different—different enough for you to violate the Foundational Principles of our University?

I happen to agree that there is persistent racism in America that needs to be eliminated, and that people should work towards equality and equity for all. But that is my personal opinion as a faculty member, and I would never dream of asking my department to post an unsigned statement of solidarity to that effect. Such statements, like yours, impose an ideological uniformity upon a department that stifles dissent and discussion—the very result that the Kalven Report was designed to prevent.

While it’s a judgment call, I won’t criticize your department’s decision to restructure the curriculum so that all incoming graduate students can work in only one area. Others disagree and see this as a curricular decision growing out of a departmental ideology. It is still curious, though, that your statement about the new graduate policy was just moved to a separate page, presumably to make it look like your July 2020 statement of solidarity had no connection with the curricular decision. This is the second change you’ve made in that statement. But this one hardly fools anyone familiar with the history of your statement. In fact, that statement has now been changed twice since the original formulation, yet still bears the same title and date. I’m surprised that, of all departments, the English Department makes post facto emendations of official statements without noting that it’s done so. I thought that writers were supposed to note when statements had been changed, especially when the statement’s date remains unchanged.

But what I do criticize is your use of the English Department’s webpage to blatantly violate the Kalven Principles, ascribing collective responsibility to your department and to the entire University, and calling for collective action. This is an official statement, and will serve to quash any speech that dissents from your message.

I respectfully request that you either remove that statement from your webpage or append a list of signatories, making it clear that this represents the personal sentiments of a group of named people. If some people refused to adhere to that statement, that should also be noted.

Cordially,
Jerry Coyne

 

Two distinguished law profs: the U.S. should adopt the Chinese model of speech restriction

May 1, 2020 • 10:00 am

Reader BJ not only sent The Atlantic article below, but also archived it (here), for he thought that, given the articles’ message, the authors might change or even retract it. Apparently that hasn’t happened, though I haven’t compared the archived version with the latest published version (click on screenshot below to see that one).

Why did he think that? Because the tenor of the article, unless both BJ and I misunderstood it, is that not only has censorship increased on the Internet to prevent dissemination of medical misinformation, and not only have companies like Facebook and Twitter (with government approval) begun monitoring our interests and web activities, but also that Chinese-style monitoring and censorship is a good thing, and that it’s also good to censor “harmful speech” to allow a smoothly functioning America.

The authors, as it notes above, are two law professors, Goldsmith at Harvard (expertise: “terrorism, national security, international law, conflicts of law, and internet law”) and Woods at the University of Arizona (expertise: “cybersecurity, the regulation of technology, and international law, both public and private”). These are no slouches, and in fact I’m surprised that they seem to approve of increased censorship in the U.S.

Now there’s no doubt that the monitoring of Americans by both the government and private companies has increased. Goldsmith and Woods’s article give the gory details, which I won’t repeat. If you use Facebook, for instance, you’ll already know. More and more security cameras are being put up by state and local governments, and, combined with facial-identification software, they’ll soon be able to be monitored citizens as the Chinese do, though I doubt the government will give us a “social credit” score. The sweating professors ascribe the beginning of the call for censorship to Edward Snowden’s ferreting out of the U.S. government’s monitoring of the Internet, and to Russia’s interference in the last Presidential election through fake social-media accounts.

Further, companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube already exercise censorship, getting rid of tweets, posts, and videos that they don’t like, or that are deemed to violate “community standards”. (My own tweets are often hidden on Twitter, even when the content is completely innocuous.) But what the law professors don’t seem to realize, or at least don’t mention, is that we still adhere to First Amendment principles where they’re supposed to apply: in public speech—not on the sites of private companies like Facebook.

Although Facebook has the right to eliminate content with bad advice about coronavirus, for example, it can’t eliminate bad medical advice on other sites (Goop comes to mind), nor can it prevent people from touting quack science in public so long as they don’t market products with false claims (“false advertising” of products is not protected by the First Amendment). And so we have Alex Jones, Dr. Oz, and Deepakity Chopra flogging bogus products, while even the President of the United States can go on national television and suggest that people might fight coronavirus by inserting lights into their nether parts. And I can still stand on the street corner and rail against the government without fear.  Further, unlike China (see the subheading above), American newspapers can and do publish regular criticisms of the government. Goldsmith and Woods, in their approbation of increasing censorship, don’t tell us whether they want more government censorship of the news media.

Not only do the authors see an inexorable increase in censorship, but they seem to think that’s good.  But here, read for yourself (my emphasis):

As surprising as it may sound, digital surveillance and speech control in the United States already show many similarities to what one finds in authoritarian states such as China. Constitutional and cultural differences mean that the private sector, rather than the federal and state governments, currently takes the lead in these practices, which further values and address threats different from those in China. But the trend toward greater surveillance and speech control here, and toward the growing involvement of government, is undeniable and likely inexorable.

In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong. Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.

American courts have already worked out what speech in the public sphere is “compatible with a society’s norms and values”, so what are the authors talking about? Of course private companies like Facebook can control their content, but what content can the government censor on my own website? Only the content that’s already prohibited: slander and libel, child pornography, posts that call for and are liable to produce immediate violence, and so on. Beyond that, I can say what I like. So what, exactly, are Goldsmith and Woods calling for to preserve society’s “norms and values”? (That excuse, of course, is the usual reason given for banning speech, ranging from the blasphemy laws of many countries, through criminalizing Holocaust denialism, to calls for banning “hate speech”—a slippery term if ever there was one.

One more quote:

What is different about speech regulation related to COVID-19 is the context: The problem is huge and the stakes are very high. But when the crisis is gone, there is no unregulated “normal” to return to. We live—and for several years, we have been living—in a world of serious and growing harms resulting from digital speech. Governments will not stop worrying about these harms. And private platforms will continue to expand their definition of offensive content, and will use algorithms to regulate it ever more closely. The general trend toward more speech control will not abate.

The article, I note, is surprisingly poorly written for an Atlantic piece with two fancy professors as authors, and it’s not easy to ferret out its point.  But given its subtitle, and (if you think the authors didn’t write it) the affirmation of its subtitle in the first quote above, as well as the repeated emphasis on “harmful speech”, I suspect the authors are in favor of weakening the First Amendment.  Of course private companies are free to do what they want, but to suggest that the government itself start clamping down on “harmful speech” (apparently defined by the authors) is completely misguided. False advertising of products is already prohibited, as are actions like harassment in the workplace. Beyond that—beyond the courts’ largely settled construal of the First Amendment—we should not go.

The authors:

Jack Goldsmith (source)

 

Andrew Keane Woods (source)

Charles Murray returns to Middlebury College

March 11, 2020 • 1:50 pm

A bad reason to invite Charles Murray to Middlebury College is to incite violence, which is what happened when he was last invited three years ago (see several of my reports here). Although Murray wasn’t going to talk about race or intelligence then, that didn’t matter: he’s been forever deemed a racist for co-authoring The Bell Curve. (I strongly doubt that more than 1% of the protestors had ever read that book [I haven’t]; they were going on social-media outrage). During Murray’s last visit, his talk was interrupted (eventually it was livestreamed from an empty hall) and both he and his host were attacked, with the host, Allison Stanger, sustaining a neck injury and, as I recall, a concussion.  Along with other “cancel culture” incidents at Middlebury in the past few years, this has given the college somewhat of a bad reputation. It was becoming The Evergreen State College of the East.

A good reason for inviting Charles Murray is twofold: so the students can hear what he has to say, and so they can be tested to see if they’ve grown up. If the latter is the case, Middlebury’s reputation will be somewhat restored, and the students will have learned the art of peaceful protest. Or (my recommendation), they shouldn’t protest if they don’t know anything about Murray’s work, but simply ignore his talk, though that’s not so great, either. Actually, they should go to his talk and ask questions.

At any rate, Murray has been re-invited, though the College is now closed because of coronavirus. And the students and faculty are beginning to ramp up their protests, at least according to this letter to the editor (sent to the Middlebury President and her Senior Leadership Group) in the Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper. The letter is written by two named faculty as well as a lot of faculty too scared to divulge their identities (see below). Click on the screenshot to read about the protest.

The authors are a sociology professor and a film and media culture professor (humanities profs, of course: scientists don’t do this stuff). The rest of the signatories are part of the “Middlebury Faculty for an Inclusive Community” (MFIC), whose website says this:

Rather than generating a list of signatories, we offer some specific contacts for different areas of our work and representatives on relevant committees. Not all of members of our group want to identify themselves publicly, but here are many who feel comfortable doing so.

What a bunch of cowards—and they are professors! At any rate, the letter gives four reasons why Murray should not have been invited. Only one is partly valid, and another is weakly valid. The rest is bunk.

The first reason is the usual—Murray’s presence will “endanger members of our community”, “cause significant psychological stress”, and other ridiculous claims:

We believe that over the past three years, our campus has grown significantly in becoming a more inclusive, self-aware and responsive institution, that is open to frank conversations about racial and other inequities that structure our community and broader world. A lecture by an ultimately insignificant, debunked pseudo-scholar, arguing that race, class, and gender inequalities are a product of genetics rather than social systems and practices, would typically be a laughable and easy-to-ignore event. However, the presence of this particular insignificant, debunked pseudo-scholar reopens many wounds that we have worked hard to heal over the past three years.

We write to our administrative colleagues in Old Chapel seeking answers that we hope to receive in a public forum. The largest question that dogs us is, “How did you allow this to happen?” As stewards of Middlebury’s institutional culture, mission and reputation, you certainly recognize the many ways that this is a bad idea — no matter how events might play out on March 31, the event will cause many of us significant psychological distress, provoke in-fighting, generate bad publicity, potentially endanger members of our community, waste hours of time planning and stressing, and ultimately yield nothing beyond rekindled hostility. We believe you could — and should — have taken steps to stop this event from happening on the grounds that it was not in the best interest of the institution and goes directly against our core values of integrity, inclusivity and intellectual honesty. Murray’s talk seems predicated on the “pillar” of academic freedom, but also contradicts our other two pillars of integrity and respect.

I am so tired of rebutting this malarkey. First, Murray wasn’t (and probably isn’t) going to talk about the genetics of IQ and race. Ergo, you can’t censor him based on a 26-year-old book about those topics that you haven’t even read. Second, there’s the implicit and shabby claims that free speech is great BUT in this case Murray isn’t a valid scholar and is also purveying hate speech.

As for the psychological damage and stress, my advice to the students is this: DO NOT GO TO THE TALK! Is that so hard? Why torture yourself?

A more valid complaint by the writers is that only three people invited Murray to speak, and even the College Republicans, whom they represent, didn’t get a say. If that’s the case, the procedure for inviting speakers has been violated. Whether that should mandate cancellation is above my pay grade.

The third reason is that the College Handbook says that a full-time faculty or staff member must be the advisor of the inviting group. However, the advisor of the College Republicans is an “Executive in Residence,” one James Douglas—one of the inviters.. However, Douglas happens to be the former (Republican) governor of Vermont, the state where the College resides.  According to the MFIC’s letter, such a man can’t possibly have an understanding of the impact of the decision. That’s dubious, but if the College wanted to censor a speaker based on a technicality, they have this and the reason above to lean on. But those seem like lame excuses for censorship.

Finally, the letter says that Murray’s talk would require significant “security and facilities staffing”. Sadly, the College requires student organizations to “bear full responsibility for arranging and financing any Department of Public Safety Services that may be necessary in connection with controversial speakers.” That should not be the case, for it prevents groups from inviting the very speakers the students need to hear: controversial ones. Middlebury needs to ditch that rule immediately. And besides, if the College Republicans can fund security, why should the MFICers beef?

However, WHY would they need significant security? It’s because the protestors could wreak havoc and possibly attack the speaker and his supporters. This would not be an issue if the protestors were peaceful, or simply had a counter-event or didn’t go to the talk. A group should never be afraid to invite a controversial speaker because the protestors might be violent. If they are, they should be arrested or suspended. (As I recall, some of the protestors of Murray’s last talk were sanctioned by the College, but their punishment was never revealed.) And no group should be the costs of inviting a speaker, or at least the costs should be equalized among student groups.

In the end, because I don’t know Murray’s work or the topic of his prospective talk, I can’t judge the wisdom of inviting him. But it least it will be a test of whether Middlebury truly tolerates free speech, and whether the students and faculty have grown up. Judging by the letter above, they have a ways to go.

I’ll end with a comment made on the article by one writer:

 

Writer excoriates the University of Chicago English Department for its opposition to free speech

March 6, 2020 • 12:30 pm

 Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.

Hannah Holborn Gray, former president, The University of Chicago

 

Ben Schwarz is a well known editor and writer who was national editor of The Atlantic for 13 years after 2000, and won plaudits for his work, described in this bit from Wikipedia:

Schwarz was the literary and the national editor of The Atlantic from 2000 to 2013. In addition to writing, assigning, and editing prominent feature articles for the magazine, Schwarz ran, and wrote a regular column for, the Atlantic’s cultural and literary department, which under his editorship expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Schwarz had “reshaped the venerable magazine’s book section into the shrewdest, best-written and most surprising cultural report currently on offer between slick covers.” The writers he recruited to the Books section included Perry Anderson, Caitlin Flanagan, Sandra Tsing Loh, Christopher Hitchens, Cristina Nehring, Joseph O’Neill, Terry Castle, Clive James, and B. R. Myers.

Schwarz describes himself as politically heterodox, and is currently working on a biography of Winston Churchill.  I became acquainted with him when he wrote me with concerns about his son, who’s due to attend the University of Chicago this fall, and was planning on majoring in English. (His son describes himself as being on the political Left.) That is, until Schwarz fils saw the statement below on the U of C’s Department of English Language and Literature website (henceforth the “English Department”).

Click to access the site:

Now this is an “open letter” giving the opinion of 40 members of the department (a big majority of the faculty of 61), but, emblazoned on the departmental website, it has the cachet of being a kind of official statement. And it’s an opinion directly at odds with the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, which allow no exceptions to free speech except for the normal legal ones as well as speech that may disrupt the workings of the university:

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

There is no—repeat, no—exception for the so-called “hate speech” here, or for speech that involves bullying, racially charged attacks, nor for speech that “demeans, intimidates, or harms others.” We’ve discussed this many times, and I’ve given lots of examples (as does Schwarz in the article below) of how speech that articulates useful and discussable ideas can at the same time be claimed to “harm, demean, or intimidate others.”

Ben wrote me about his concerns. I read the statement and agreed with him that the English Department statement is directly at odds with the University’s own position.  While one could say that the English Department statement is just an expression of personal opinion and not official policy—which is true—it should not be a permanent fixture on a department website, because it’s intimidating and gives the impression that the English Department has values inimical to those of the University as a whole. In fact, when Ben’s son read that statement, he decided that while he’ll still come here next fall, he’s not going to major in English Language and Literature. So they’ve lost a student. The 40 woke professors should have just written a letter to the  student newspaper rather than having their views given permanence on their departmental website.

But then Schwarz père decided he’d confect a critical analysis of the statement above, taking it apart and showing how it contradicts the principles of our University. And so he wrote the article below in Spiked, which I recommend you read in its entirety. It’s not pleasant for me to see the University of Chicago, of which I’m proud, criticized in this way, but I have to say that it’s necessary. As our school becomes more woke, it’s essential that U of Cers like me stand up for the Chicago Principles to keep other departments from loosening the reins on free speech. (The administration still stands by the principles, thank Ceiling Cat.)

I’ll give a few quotes from Schwarz, but the four-page article (as I printed it out in 9-point type) needs a full reading. As one would expect from Schwarz, it’s hard-hitting and very well written. Some excerpts (indented):

Although the US News and World Report rankings (America’s most famous academic league table) place the University of Chicago’s English department as the best in the US, the department’s arguments and assertions evince sloppy writing and thinking. Who is to decide what constitutes ‘bullying’ or ‘racially charged attacks’? Who determines if and how speech ‘demeans, intimidates, or harms others’? Who deems what speech ‘has no place in academic life’? Would any individual who feels demeaned or harmed by speech have the power to exclude that speech from ‘academic life’? Is the English department proposing itself as the star chamber? The open letter states that ‘bullying’ and ‘racially charged attacks’ are just some of the ‘forms’ of ‘disagreement’ that are illegitimate and therefore deserving of expulsion from the academy (‘when disagreement takes such forms as…’, emphasis added). Who will decide what other ‘forms’ of ‘disagreement’ are considered worthy of banishment from campus? The department states that ‘the invocation of the right of free speech’ is illegitimate when ‘speech is no longer primarily a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions’ and that only speech that ‘makes claims and articulates ideas’ is legitimate. Who is to determine what speech pursues these aims and falls under these categories? If the open letter’s signatories ‘condemn’ and ‘repudiate’ certain on-campus expression or activities, what form will that condemnation and repudiation take? The Chicago Principles ‘guarantee all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude’ of expression, but the English department seeks the opposite goal – not free speech, but licensed speech.

Moreover, the position articulated in the department’s proclamation is contradictory and therefore ambiguous. Speech that any person or group might construe, or misconstrue, as ‘bullying’, ‘racially charged’, ‘glorif[ying] violence’, ‘demean[ing]’, or ‘harm[ful]’ – forms of expression that the English department states should be expunged from campus – could simultaneously be ‘a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions’ and constitute ‘speech that makes claims and articulates ideas’ — that is, forms of speech that the department deems permissible. Thus the position advocated in the proclamation, and any policies that might derive from that position, are irredeemably flawed. Furthermore, if the proclamation’s precepts are followed, any persons who feel that they have been ‘harm[ed]’ or ‘demeane[d]’ or that the content or manner of debate is ‘bullying’, ‘racially charged’, or ‘glori[fies]…violence’ can, in fact, ought to, shut down the offending debate or discussion. The department’s position would thus squelch free inquiry and potentially require any member of the university to be ‘condemn[ed]’ and ‘repudiate[d]’ (by the English department?) for articulating an argument because some unspecified party judges that argument to be offensive.

And the critical clash between the Chicago Principles and the English Department’s virtue-flaunting:

The English department asserts that ‘there is a crucial difference between speech that makes claims and articulates ideas, and speech that demeans, intimidates, or harms others’. But inevitably and unavoidably, expression ‘that makes claims and articulates ideas’ will be found by some – and in quite a few cases by nearly everyone – to be demeaning, hurtful and even intimidating. The Chicago Principles emphatically recognise this very point: ‘It is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive… [C]oncerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.’ The Chicago Principles go on to declare unambiguously that ‘debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed’. In this way, too, the department holds a position incompatible with the principles of the university that houses and governs it.

. . . The English department affirms that all speech that can be interpreted as the ‘glorification of violence against those with whom one differs’, or as ‘hatred expressed in speech’, should be condemned and excluded from academic life. This blanket condemnation and exclusion would necessarily embrace within its ambit many important political statements and arguments. Will those who would approvingly cite the dictum ‘from the river to the sea Palestine will be free’ (a statement many believe advocates a genocidal programme against Israel’s Jews) be expelled from academic life? What about those who express Mao’s idea that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’? And what about those who invoke Thomas Jefferson’s idea that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed… with the blood of patriots and tyrants’?

Schwarz provides several other famous quotes that presumably would be criticized or deemed “hate speech” by the English Department, and he also discusses whether it’s exculpatory to have a simple “opinion” affixed to the website of the English Department (he and I say “NO!”). He also discusses the petition of many faculty and students calling to have Steve Bannon, invited to speak here in the fall of 2018, disinvited. (I wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune defending Bannon’s right to speak.)

Yes, the administration is still holding the line on free speech here, and for that I’m grateful. But many of the Woke are edging their toes closer to that line, and there are palpable signs that my University is weakening on its free-speech commitment in several areas. (I think we, of all Universities, need to educate incoming students about free speech.) I’ve already called the English Department statement to the University administration’s attention (as has Schwarz), yet it remains on the website. So I say to the English Department, its faculty, and all its students, “English Department: Tear down that statement!”  If you must, send it to the Chicago Maroon, but don’t leave it as a permanent part of the Department website. It creates a chilling climate for students (in English, of all places!), and has already frozen out Ben’s son from that department.

And it’s directly at odds with Hannah Gray’s statement at the top of this post.

 

More on authoritarian diversity statements at the University of California

December 30, 2019 • 11:00 am

Last month I reported on a controversial essay written by Abigail Thompson, chair of mathematics at the University of California at Davis. In that essay, posted in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (NAMS), Thompson, while favoring initiatives to increase diversity in her field, decried the mandatory “diversity statements” that the University of California now requires of all scholars applying for jobs. These were, she said, almost like the old loyalty oaths that the U of C used to require, as unless you adhered to a rubric provided by the University, you had no chance of getting a job. In these statements, you have to show tangible commitment to diversity, a track record of increasing diversity, and a plan for promoting diversity at the UC campus where you’re hired. As Thompson wrote:

Nearly all University of California campuses require that job applicants submit a “contributions to diversity” statement as a part of their application. The campuses evaluate such statements using rubrics, a detailed scoring system. Several UC programs have used these diversity statements to screen out candidates early in the search process.

A typical rubric from UC Berkeley specifies that a statement that “describes only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc)” (italics mine) merits a score of 1–2 out of a possible 5 (1 worst and 5 best) in the second section of the rubric, the “track record for advancing diversity” category.

The diversity “score” is becoming central in the hiring process. Hiring committees are being urged to start the review process by using officially provided rubrics to score the required diversity statements and to eliminate applicants who don’t achieve a scoring cut-off.

She decried this practice as a test of one’s political views:

Why is it a political test? Politics are a reflection of how you believe society should be organized. Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group. The sample rubric dictates that in order to get a high diversity score, a candidate must have actively engaged in promoting different identity groups as part of their professional life. The candidate should demonstrate “clear knowledge of, experience with, and interest in dimensions of diversity that result from different identities” and describe “multiple activities in depth.” Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test.

The idea of using a political test as a screen for job applicants should send a shiver down our collective spine. Whatever our views on communism, most of us today are in agreement that the UC loyalty oaths of the 1950s were wrong. Whatever our views on diversity and how it can be achieved, mandatory diversity statements are equally misguided. Mathematics is not immune from political pressures on campus. In addition to David Saxon, who eventually became the president of the University of California, three mathematicians were fired for refusing to sign the loyalty oath in 1950. Mathematics must be open and welcoming to everyone, to those who have traditionally been excluded, and to those holding unpopular viewpoints. Imposing a political litmus test is not the way to achieve excellence in mathematics or in the university. Not in 1950, and not today.

This of course caused a big kerfuffle, with mathematicians and academics furiously gathering signatures on petitions and writing letters to the NAMS. You can see all of them by clicking on the screenshot below. These occupy 21 pages, most of the space taken by signatures on the two big petitions: one supporting Thompson’s stand and the other criticizing it and favoring diversity statements. There are also individual letters, most of them supporting Thompson. I won’t summarize these as you can read them for yourself. 

It would help clarify this mess if one could actually see the rubrics that the University of California uses to judge candidates. Fortunately, the one used by UC Berkeley is online, and lists the way they “grade” three aspects of a candidate’s diversity statement: their “knowledge about diversity, equity, and inclusion”; their “track record in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion”; and their “plans for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.” You can get from 1-5 points in each of the three areas, with a minimum score of 3 and a maximum of 15. Apparently the university uses cutoffs, so that if a candidate’s diversity score falls below a threshold, they would be removed from consideration without looking at their c.v.s or other information. (I am not 100% sure about this, but Thompson implies that this is the case.)

If you want to see how these things are scored, click on the screenshot below (there are two pages in the document; don’t try to read the tiny print!):

After looking over this draconian document, I find that I agree even more with Thompson. To get passable scores, you simply cannot just have been in favor of increasing diversity, or have done only activities “that are already the expectation of faculty as evidence of commitment and involvement” (i.e., welcoming students to a lab regardless of background, or mentoring women students without having an outreach program to bring them in). That is, if you are gender- and color-blind, and treat everyone equally, or even mentor minorities or women without outreach, you’re not going to make the cut.

To get scores of 4 or 5, you must have a pretty deep knowledge of diversity and intersectionality (along with data about them), a long track record of promoting diversity in multiple ways, and specific ideas of how you would advance equity and inclusion at Berkeley. You must also agree “to be a strong advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion within the department/school/college and also their field.” That specifically means that you have to swear fealty to an ideology, and act on that fealty. I invite you to read these two brief pages to see the kind of nonacademic and ideological requirements for getting an academic job in the UC system.

I hasten to add that I am in favor of diversity in academia as both an innate good and as a way of compensating groups who have been held back by oppression, racism, or sexism. I favor a limited form of affirmative action in hiring, which means, to put it plainly, that there are occasions when academic quality must bow before other needs. But I do not favor the UC’s brand of ideological purity test, in which candidates must not only swear their commitment to diversity, but have a long track record of promoting it.

Track records will of course differ depending on many things, including a candidate’s involvement in academic matters or in useful activities that don’t directly increase diversity (popular writing, lectures in high schools, and so on). And I favor initiatives on the part of departments and colleges to increase diversity. But let us not have these purity tests, loyalty oaths, and cutoffs if your record of social justice activity isn’t up to snuff. That is a recipe for authoritarianism, for stifling needed discussions and free speech, and, not least of all, it’s an invitation to lie and distort. I still can’t accept that the purpose of universities should be to engineer society in specific ways beyond teaching the current knowledge in all fields and helping students learn how to think clearly.

One of the signatories of the anti-Thompson letter is Chad Topaz, a professor at Williams College whom we met before. He actually runs an organization that, in return for your donations, will help one or two people you designate write a diversity statement*. How honest can a statement be if you write it with the “help” of an organization that specializes in crafting diversity statements in return for money?

*Note: this link is likely to disappear, as Topaz, a real piece of work, redirects links from people he considers “white supremacists” (i.e., me) away from his site and to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But try copying this link into your browser (it won’t connect directly because Topaz is an ass): https://qsideinstitute.org/2019/11/20/if-you-donate-we-will-give-pro-bono-support-to-job-candidates-regarding-writing-diversity-statements/

UPDATE: In response to a reader question, Topaz does seem to think I’m a white supremacist. Here’s a screenshot from his Facebook page that appears on someone’s website:

h/t: BJ

UC Davis math professor demonized for criticizing required “diversity” statements for academic jobs

November 24, 2019 • 11:00 am

Abigail Thompson is a well known professor (and department Chair) of mathematics at the University of California at Davis, specializing in topology. Six years ago she became an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), and now she’s a vice president.

But in the December issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, she set herself up for public pillorying by publishing an essay criticizing the mandatory diversity statements that must accompany applications for academic jobs at some colleges and universities, including hers. You can read her short essay by clicking on the screenshot below:

Dr. Thompson is certainly not against increased diversity in math departments or colleges in general, nor against efforts to increase diversity. She just doesn’t think that “diversity statements” are the way to do it:
Mathematics has made progress over the past decades towards becoming a more welcoming, inclusive discipline. We should continue to do all we can to reduce barriers to participation in this most beautiful of fields. I am encouraged by the many mathematicians who are working to achieve this laudable aim. There are reasonable means to further this goal: encouraging students from all backgrounds to enter the mathematics pipeline, trying to ensure that talented mathematicians don’t leave the profession, creating family-friendly policies, and supporting junior faculty at the beginning of their careers, for example. There are also mistakes to avoid. Mandating diversity statements for job candidates is one such mistake, reminiscent of events of seventy years ago.

What are these statements? I came of age in academia without the existence of such things, but they are required essays or statements that accompany professorial job applications, outlining your history of diversity-promoting efforts and proposing how you’ll increase diversity if you’re hired. And, as Thompson reports, they’re actually scored at the University of California using a point system. If you don’t say the right stuff, or come off as sufficiently enthusiastic about promoting diversity, you’re not going to get the job.

Thompson:

Nearly all University of California campuses require that job applicants submit a “contributions to diversity” statement as a part of their application. The campuses evaluate such statements using rubrics, a detailed scoring system. Several UC programs have used these diversity statements to screen out candidates early in the search process. A typical rubric from UC Berkeley specifies that a statement that “describes only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc)” (italics mine) merits a score of 1–2 out of a possible 5 (1 worst and 5 best) in the second section of the rubric, the “track record for advancing diversity” category. [JAC: note that “treating everyone the same” doesn’t get you much credit.]

The diversity “score” is becoming central in the hiring process. Hiring committees are being urged to start the review process by using officially provided rubrics to score the required diversity statements and to eliminate applicants who don’t achieve a scoring cut-off.

Now clearly “diversity” here means “ethnic diversity”, but I don’t think they say that explicitly. But those applicants who propose to increase political viewpoint diversity by, say, trying to promote conservative values and accept more conservative students, are simply not going to be hired!

If, like me, you find it worthwhile to promote equality of opportunity—and, to some extent, in outcome—in academics in general, and in STEM and math in particular, why object to diversity statements? Thompson argues, and I agree, that they are ideological statements, weeding out candidates according to whether they align with certain non-academic goals. She compares them to the “I am not a communist and will not overthrow the US government” statements once required as a condition for taking a job at University of California campuses. (I had to sign one when I became a postdoc at UC Davis in 1979.) Thompson explains:

Why is it a political test? Politics are a reflection of how you believe society should be organized. Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group. The sample rubric dictates that in order to get a high diversity score, a candidate must have actively engaged in promoting different identity groups as part of their professional life. The candidate should demonstrate “clear knowledge of, experience with, and interest in dimensions of diversity that result from different identities” and describe “multiple activities in depth.” Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test. The idea of using a political test as a screen for job applicants should send a shiver down our collective spine.

. . . ‘Mathematics must be open and welcoming to everyone, to those who have traditionally been excluded, and to those holding unpopular viewpoints. Imposing a political litmus test is not the way to achieve excellence in mathematics or in the university.

I have to agree with Thompson here. I am a believer in at least some affirmative action in university hiring, for I see diversity of all sorts as a net good. (I haven’t yet decided how one should balance diversity versus academic quality when they conflict.) But I believe even more strongly in “affirmative action in opportunity“: that is, making sure everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, politics, or background, gets an equal opportunity from the beginning of their lives to follow their interests and to study and achieve without discrimination. We are a very long way away from that.

But I don’t believe those goals should be achieved by these coercive “diversity statements”, which are indeed chilling. You can imagine how candidates struggle to write a successful statement, and surely there exaggeration pervades many of them. Most academics who aren’t bigots simply haven’t done that much in their pre-job lives to promote diversity. And Thompson’s right: these statements are political, aimed at turning a university’s mission toward social engineering and away from teaching students how to think and how to absorb and assess the knowledge is in their chosen field.

But you’re taking your career and your reputation in danger if, like Dr. Thompson, you dare question diversity statements—even if you’re in favor of increasing diversity. This article in Inside Higher Ed (click on screenshot), describes the reactions of academics, pro and con, of requiring such statements.

The statements have sometimes been characterized by a kind of academic doublespeak, as described in that article:

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for instance, mentions connectedness, inclusion and diversity throughout its mission and vision statements. It also requires faculty applicants to submit diversity statements. But Autumn Reed, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs, said, “My stance is that I don’t even like to call them diversity statements. The language we use is statements on commitment to inclusive excellence in higher education.” Such wording moves the discussion away from embodied characteristics of diversity to issues of pedagogical diversity and even diversity of perspective and thought, she added.

Well, let’s see if UMBC favors hiring professors who work to promote the hiring of more conservatives, libertarians, or Ayn Randians! I’m for all sorts of diversity, but in practice, as I said, the word tends to mean ethnic diversity.

Yet if you think diversity is a net good, as I do (and as the Supreme Court decided in its Bakke ruling), then you want good people from all sorts of backgrounds. To suppose that ethnicity is a marker of viewpoints, and thus diversity of ethnicity is a good surrogate for diversity of views, is patronizing, for it assumes that members of certain ethnic groups are relatively ideologically homogeneous as well as ideologically different in a predictable way from members of other groups. In other words, to use statistical theory, this view presumes that most of the variation (diversity) in thought among Americans will be explained by variation in their ethnicity.

But never mind. As you can predict, Thompson’s non-inflammatory criticism of diversity statements angered some of the woke. There have been petitions criticizing Thompson’s equation of diversity statements with McCarthy-esque “I’m not a Commie” statements, as well as statements calling for letters to her department and demands that she step down as chair of mathematics at Davis.

A particularly nasty and vitriolic example of the latter came from Chad Topaz, a professor of mathematics at (you guessed it) Williams College. On his public Facebook page, Topaz posted the following call for public censure of Thompson:

Nothing like “good ‘ol public shame”, eh? (The apostrophe goes after the “l”, by the way.) What a nasty piece of work this Topaz fellow must be!

Topaz also wrote the article shown below on his own diversity organization’s website, QSIDE. But there appears to be a conflict of interest here. Topaz funds that organization in part by giving donors the gift of “diversity statement help” from his organization [UPDATE: link removed– see here for reason why]. To wit:

Donate any amount. For every $100 raised, we will provide one hour of consulting to a graduate student or postdoc who is on the job market for tenure track jobs right now, or who will be next year. Specifically, we will give feedback on any existing diversity statement the candidate has written, and/or we will help develop an equity/diversity/inclusion plan in concert with the candidate.

For any individual who donates $500 or more, the benefactor can, if they wish, designate two people who should receive one hour of consulting services.

. . . The use of the pro bono services will be completely confidential, meaning that we will never share any information about who we help (other than the total number of individuals).

Thus, by promoting requirements for diversity statements, Topaz is also plumping for donations to his own organization. Further, the undisclosed use of outside help in writing your diversity statement seems to me more than a bit sleazy, like relying on those organizations that charge for helping college students write admissions essays. It may not be illegal, but it doesn’t seem right, since your statements are supposed to be your own, not the thoughts of others.

At any rate, here’s Topaz’s new statement on his QSIDE website [UPDATE: Link removed– see here for reason why]:

The article lists several courses of action that Topaz recommends vis-à-vis Thompson’s statement, following those given on his Facebook post. They include 1) advising your math students not to go to UC Davis; 2) emailing the AMS criticizing its publication of Thompson’s piece (he has a boilerplate letter of complaint, including the statement “I believe you have made a grave and very damaging mistake by publishing Thompson’s essay.“); 3) punishing the AMS journal by not writing or “doing favors” for it; 4) “spreading the word about this debacle on social media and in your workplaces” (the call for social-media crucifixion); 5) contacting the UC Davis math department demanding that they dump Thompson as chair; and, most self-aggrandizingly, 6) donating to Topaz’s own organization (my emphasis).

And of course Topaz tweeted, because all manner of social media must be used when shaming the Ideologically Impure:

But Topaz was hoist with his own petard. In a heartening display, people called him out for being authoritarian and McCarthy-esque himself (you can see the thread here). This was the result:

Further, there’s a new essay in Psychology Today by a social psychologist (!) and Chair of Psychology at Rutgers that gives more examples of those enraged by Thompson’s essay while at the same time defending her criticism of mandatory diversity statements (click on screenshot):

Jussim’s ending is a model for the way that we, as liberals, should deal with diversity on one hand and mandatory diversity statements on the other:

I have a sincere Diversity Statement that I chose to put online at Rutgers, which you can find here. I am pretty sure I was the first Rutgers Psych Professor to have such a statement. This was by my choice; no one urged or pressured me to do it. Rutgers has a very demographically diverse student body, and it is genuinely important to me that students know that, regardless of their racial, ethnic, political, religious, or other identity backgrounds, they are welcome here and in my lab.

However, I also respect faculty who would rather not provide a diversity statement. People who strive for excellence in their field of expertise, say, teaching and research for many academics, should not be excluded from positions because they are not sufficiently fluent in the lingo of social justice.

I also have one here, in which I point out the politicized nature of such required statements. Here are some excerpts:

I am not afraid of social justice.

I am afraid of those who will punish others for not subscribing to a toxic and oppressive view of social justice. I am afraid, not of actual social justice, but of what some people are willing to do, and are in fact now doing, in the name of social justice.

This reads almost like a prediction for what is happening to Thompson.

Amen, comrades! The second link, here, goes to another piece by Jussim, published in Quillette, that underscores the maladaptive effects of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” statements. It’s worth a read.

Georgetown University protestors shut down talk by head of Homeland Security

October 9, 2019 • 1:15 pm

Here’s another instance of deplatforming by the Left, which should be embarrassed since, in the last few years, far more speakers have been disinvited or deplatformed by the Left (traditionally the party of free speech) than by the Right (go back five years in FIRE’s disinvitation database, where the ratio for just this year is about 2:1).

Click on the screenshot to read the New York Times piece:

From the article above:

Kevin K. McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, was forced offstage at Georgetown University’s law school by demonstrators who shut down his planned keynote address as they protested the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Almost immediately after Mr. McAleenan was introduced to give a speech hosted by the Migration Policy Institute, nearly a dozen advocates and law students in the crowd stood up holding signs saying, “Stand with immigrants” and “Hate is not normal.” Standing at the lectern in front of the packed auditorium, Mr. McAleenan tried to start speaking but was drowned out by chants of: “When immigrants are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”

The protesters also read the names of the migrants who have died after being detained at the border.

. . . On Monday, Doris Meissner, the director of United States immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, pleaded with protesters to allow Mr. McAleenan to speak. She told them they were “robbing” other members of the audience who came to hear him. The demonstrators said that people at the border were being robbed of their lives.

Mr. McAleenan waited for the chants to quiet down and tried to speak at least three times. Visibly frustrated, he thanked Ms. Meissner before walking off the stage. Some people in the audience also expressed disappointment with the protesters. Mr. McAleenan was scheduled to take questions from attendees after his remarks.

“There are some very serious issues that we can talk about in candor in a real dialogue, or we can continue to shout,” Mr. McAleenan said. “I’d like to take our dialogue today above the politics and the daily news cycle and talk about the challenges and efforts that we’ve faced over the past year.”

Here’s a C-Span video of the deplatforming. Clearly, Georgetown needed to call security to clear out the disruptors, who look like petulant children.

Clearly, talk about immigration is considered “hate speech”, or at least speech that shouldn’t be heard. This is an embarrassment to Georgetown, which apparently had no security in place to quiet the protestors and prevent the de-platforming.  Whatever you think about Trump’s immigration policy (and of course I think that much of it is reprehensible), McAleenan should have the chance to make his case.  What kind of University is Georgetown? Clearly not The University of Chicago! Where were the administrators and security personnel?

Even more embarrassing is that students and faculty demanded McAleenan’s removal, and, when they didn’t get it, decided on mob action (my emphasis):

“It’s our belief that no institution should be elevating, normalizing or legitimizing any of the Trump immigration officials who are quite honestly carrying out policies that are rooted in the white nationalism that Donald Trump and Stephen Miller are so blatantly trying to institutionalize,” said Nicole Regalado, the campaign director at Credo Action, an advocacy organization, which helped organize the protest.

She said more than a dozen organizations sent the organizers of the event a letter requesting that Mr. McAleenan’s invitation be rescinded. About 350 Georgetown law students, faculty members and alumni also signed a separate petition asking for his removal.

Why on earth would a Trump official speaking about immigration policy “normalize” that policy? It expresses the administration’s policy, but to say that it has “normalized” those views implies that the audience is brainless, can’t think for itself, and will be swayed toward Trumpism if they simply hear an administration official speaking. This is patronizing: the deplatformers claim the right to determine what everyone should be allowed to hear. (And, of course, it’s only their views.) Have they not heard of free speech and then counterspeech? Do they not think that counterspeech is effective, so that they must quash free speech? The answer is, of course, “yes.”

“Normalizing”, like “nuance,” is a word you should be very wary of in discussions of free speech.