UPDATE: Elliott may have been “de-fired”, an addendum to the video says this:
As of yesterday my student ID was listed as invalid. I made this video because my assumption was that they terminated me due to my speaking out. Tonight, my ID was reinstated and I was able to login again. Please see my subsequent video update for details.
I suspect that Antioch had second thoughts about how firing her would look. Regardless, the counselor training degree program should be revamped.
About a week ago I wrote about Leslie Elliiott, a graduate student in mental-health counseling at Antioch University in Seattle—part of the whole Antioch College consortium. Elliott had posted a video on YouTube about how her fellow students were being taught to force their counseling practice into a racial or identitarian mold, no matter what their problems. Her complaints, which you can see at the site linked above, were reasonable ones: she wanted to counsel people based on their needs, not cram a progressive ideology down the throats of vulnerable patients.
Further, Elliott refused to adhere to a pledge included in her course syllabi, a pledge I mentioned earlier:
The pledge, which Elliott says is now included in most syllabuses, reflects the social justice mission of Antioch. It states: “I acknowledge that racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism, nativism, and other forms of interpersonal and institutionalized forms of oppression exist. I will do my best to better understand my own privileged and marginalized identities and the power that these afford me.” Antioch added the statement starting in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.
What Elliott got for her efforts, as I wrote at the time, was not unexpected but still reprehensible. .
. . . a response from Antioch sent to all students in the college—save Elliott (what a rookie move!)—implicitly singling her out for promulgating “white supremacy” and “transphobia”. Here we have the college acting like an online social-justice mob. The author of the college’s email, and presumably at least part of the “Commitment to Social Justice” statement, is Shawn Fitzgerald, CEO of Antioch’s Seattle campus and Dean of the Graduate School of Counseling, Psychology, and Therapy.
Clearly the “one person who posted online” is Eliott, who, according to her own school, stands accused of transphobia, white supremacy, and “harmful ideologies”, as well as “hate speech”. The statement was certainly inspired by Elliott’s video above. Elliott has posted another video detailing what’s below and giving her response.
Finally, Elliott wrote to the administration explicitly saying she would not stop calling out Antioch’s misguided social justice and asking them not to retaliate against her.
But they did. She was just kicked out of Antioch. She made a short YouTube video recounting what happened to her, which you can see below.
I don’t have any reason to doubt what she says, and it’s shameful that Antioch let her go, much less kicking her out without telling her directly. They’re not only quashing her freedom of speech, but promulgating an ideology that could be harmful to the patients of their students. And they’re cowards.
I wonder if she could sue them, but of course, if she returned to the school, that lawsuit would make her life.
The University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMB) already has a Mission and Values statement, but in view of what every other college in America is doing—making their mission statements more about social justice than learning—they’ve proposed a revision that is more explicitly antiracist and ideological. In fact, it prescribes what its members should believe and should do, including holding other members of the community to the statement’s professed values.
It’s the kind of statement that we’d never see at the University of Chicago, for by prescribing and compelling speech (and behavior), is serves to chill the speech of those who dissent. (It’s an explicit violation of our Kalven Report.) And that chilling quashes discussions that are one of the essential missions of the university: through argumentation and conflict, even if it’s uncomfortable, should come truth.
The article below (click on screenshot), an open letter from many academics who dissent from the proposed statements, also includes UMB’s proposed “vision statement” and “mission statement”, which I’ll put here:
Mission statement draft:
As an academic community of global and local citizens, we are committed to becoming an anti-racist and health-promoting institution that honors and uplifts the cultural wealth of our students. We intend to engage reciprocally in equitable practices and partnerships with the communities we serve. We support various and diverse forms of knowledge production that enrich the lives of all communities, especially those historically undervalued and underserved. We are a public urban university dedicated to teaching, learning, and research rooted in equity, environmental sustainability, social and racial justice, innovation, and expansive notions of excellence.
Vision statement draft:
We aspire to become an anti-racist and health-promoting public research institution where:
Diversity, equity, shared governance, and expansive notions of excellence are core institutional values.
Wellness and an ethic of care are embedded throughout our campus culture and all policies and practices.
We invest in a resource-rich learning environment to support the development and success of students of plural identities and from diverse socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
Climate, environmental, and racial justice align with sustainable economic and planning decisions with local and global effects.
Community engaged scholarship, service, and reciprocity are embedded in University practices that promote the economic, social, and cultural well-being of the communities we serve
We hold ourselves and each other accountable to ensure these values drive all decision-making in research, pedagogical innovations, resource allocation, and the development of policies and practices.
Now I agree with much of this, but I don’t that this should be prescribed as a shared set of “values,” much less a set of values that everybody has to hold everyone else to.
The letter is long, and I won’t give it in full, but show a few choice paragraphs. At the end you’re welcome to sign it if you’re an academic—you don’t have to be at UMB. They’re looking largely for STEM people, for the letter notes that there was only one representative from the UMB College of Science and Mathematics on the committee that drafted the Mission and Vision statements. (The College of Science and Mathematics is said to be the “second largest college on campus”). The implication is that had more STEM people been on the committee, it wouldn’t have produced statements like these, though of course STEM faculty are often just as woke and authoritarian as humanities faculty.
Now the mission statement may be well motivated, as many of these are, but its effect is to chill speech, particularly because the vision statement drives effort far away from the search towards truth and towards ideological actions, and because many people may disagree with the call to “hold each other accountable” to put the values (also subject to debate) into practice.
An excerpt (bolding is in the statement):
We believe this document is deeply flawed in content, direction, and representation. Moreover, we believe that the absence of significant changes to this draft would bring serious damage to the College of Science and Mathematics, to the reputation of UMass Boston as a beacon of knowledge and education, and to the demographically and ideologically diverse group of students we serve – particularly those who see education as a means to rise socio-economically.
We believe the Mission and Vision Statements trample on the fundamental role of the university: to facilitate the creation, curation, and dissemination of knowledge. To elaborate, we believe that the main goals of a university are to empower the pursuit of knowledge, to cultivate lifelong learning, to foster the exchange of ideas, to encourage critical thinking, to unequivocally support free inquiry, and to instill respect for a diversity of ideas and viewpoints.
Under no circumstances can political or ideological activism be the primary purpose of a public university. This is not to say students, faculty, and staff cannot be activists. Quite the contrary: individual people are the agents of social change, and as such they should be encouraged to organize and fight for a better society. Moreover, the public university can play an active role in educating students on pressing issues of social injustice as well as effective methods of activism. However, in this regard the role of the university is to empower people to take action themselves – not to coerce students, faculty, or institutional units to do so.
It is important to emphasize that the fundamental role of the public university can neither be political nor ideological activism. In part, this is due to the illegality of compelled speech in public institutions and our legally binding commitment to academic freedom as outlined in the so-called “red book” on academic personnel policy. Additionally, ideological activism cannot be a central goal of the university because at times it will conflict with education and research. The search for truth can never be subjugated to social or ideological beliefs.
We raise these points about the purpose of the public university because we believe the current drafts of the mission and vision statements radically depart from these fundamental tenets, and instead promote a chilling environment for the pursuit of truth. This is most evident in the Vision Statement which discusses diversity, equity, expansive notions of excellence, wellness, an ethic of care, plural identities, climate justice, environmental justice, and racial justice, and then states that “We hold ourselves and each other accountable to ensure these values drive all decision-making in research, pedagogical innovations, resource allocation, and the development of policies and practices.” That is, these values – which have very distinct ideological interpretations – must drive the direction of every researcher and department on campus, and as a community of scholars we will hold people accountable when their research does not actively promote these values.
If you’re an academic, particularly in STEM, sign if you wish, but do pass the link along to others who may wish to sign. I just appended my name and a comment.
Up until now, all accredited law schools in America required nearly every entering student to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which, according to Wikipedia, “is designed to assess reading comprehension as well as logical and verbal reasoning proficiency.” In some cases, however, a student can take the Graduate Record Examination General Test (GRE), which covers verbal reasoning, quantitative reason, and writing (an essay). A recent Princeton Review site says this:
The current admission standards for ABA-accredited law schools state that no more than 10% of an entering class may be admitted without LSAT scores , and those students must meet specific academic requirements, be undergraduates at same institution as the law school, and/or be pursuing a dual degree in another discipline. Law schools may apply for a variance from these standards by demonstrating that another test (in this case, the GRE) is a valid predictor of law students’ performance at that institution. The ABA, however, is currently considering changes to the LSAT score admission standard.
And yes, the ABA has changed these standards: they’ve eliminatedthem. Click on the screenshot below to read the Reuters article about the deep-sixing of all mandatorytests:
Here’s the whole article, with the motivation bolded by me:
The arm of the American Bar Association that accredits U.S. law schools on Friday voted to eliminate the longstanding requirement that schools use the Law School Admission Test or other standardized test when admitting students.
But under a last-minute revision, the rule change will not go into effect until the fall of 2025—giving law schools time to plan for new ways to admit students.
The ABA’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar overwhelmingly voted to do away with its testing mandate after years of debate and over the objections of nearly 60 law school deans who warned such a move could harm the goal of diversifying the legal profession.
The organizations that design both the LSAT and the GRE also urged the council on Friday not to drop the rule, warning that it could lead to law schools admitting students who are unlikely to succeed despite incurring debt to attend.
Councilmember Daniel Thies noted that no other professional school accreditors require the use of admissions test and that has not led to a “race to the bottom” to bring in unqualified students. Existing limits on student attrition and a requirement that at least 75% of a school’s graduates pass the bar exam offer further guardrails, he said.
“The goal is to open up innovation—finding other ways that might complement the current admissions processes to move us ahead in legal education on diversity and a host of other considerations,” Thies said.
The ABA standards currently require law schools to use a “valid and reliable test” in admissions decisions. For years, the only standardized test that automatically met that criteria was the LSAT, though the ABA in November 2021 added the GRE as an acceptable alternative.
In other words, law schools are going to a mushier “holistic” standard of evaluation in an effort to increase diversity, which apparently was too low when the GRE or LSAT were required. So much for the claim that diversity and merit (at least as judged by exams) are are absolutely compatible. That is a fiction, but an ideologically comforting fiction.
Now it’s possible that law schools may still require either test for admission, but it’s no longer a mandatory requirement for a law school to be accredited.
I wonder what they’ll replace the tests with? Essays? Assessments of “personality”? Is there any downside to using other standards but keeping the standardized tests as well?
All over the country we see the elimination of standardized tests for admission to colleges, graduate schools, or professional schools. Since it’s the one measure on which everybody competes with everybody else on the same set of questions, I don’t think doing away with such metrics is a good things. Next test circling the drain: the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Although Turkey is a member of NATO and is one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East, its government is becoming increasingly conservative and, since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as President in 2014, increasingly Islamicized. By law it’s a secular state, but with 95% of the population Muslim and President Erdoğan seemingly devoted to bringing back religious values, secularism is under siege. One object of religiously-inspired government animus is evolution.
This came clear to me when the late Aykut Kence, perhaps the most famous evolutionist in Turkey, invited me to give a talk at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara on Darwin Day in 2008. Never have I seen a more enthusiastic group of students, professors, and the public (the lecture I gave against creationism had 1200 attendees!). They loved evolution, and one reason is because every student who loved evolution was pretty much drawn to this school, for evolution wasn’t widely taught. METU is also one of the best and most selective schools in Turkey. I was inspired, but little did I know that evolution was soon going to be squeezed by the government.
In an eLife article (click on screenshot below), anthropologist N. Ezgi Altınışık, at Hacettepe University (also a very good university in Ankara) recounts the increasing marginalization of evolution in Turkey.
It began in the Seventies when conservatives in the government tried to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. They lost—for a time. Then, slowly, creationism crept into government and schools.
The infamous Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) published his Atlas of Creation, a series of glossy and expensive-to-produce books that were sent to nearly every biologist in America. Then in 2009, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the government banned an issue of the science magazine Bilim ve Teknik devoted to Darwin:
For me, the breaking point came in 2009. To mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, the science magazine Bilim ve Teknik decided to dedicate its front cover and several articles to the famous naturalist. The government banned the issue: the cover was changed, the articles were removed, and the editor-in-chief (one of Turkey’s leading archaeologists) was fired. I still remember my outrage when I heard the news. Bilim ve Teknik is run by TÜBİTAK, a state agency that grants scientific funding. For a long time, it was the only science magazine widely accessible in Turkey. Many people in my generation, myself included, first encountered science through its pages. Massive demonstrations were held across the country in solidarity with the editor. My friends and I visited every professor in our department, encouraging them to join the protest outside of our university. Thousands of young people eagerly attended events that encouraged the defence of the theory of evolution. It was so exciting to see.
That in turn led to organized “protests,” including translating Berkeley’s “Understanding Evolution” website into Turkish, and a series of conferences named after Aykut Kence, who died in 2014. (Tthey continue, and I’ve been invited to participate.)
There is no doubt why this is happening: it’s part of the increasing Islamicization of Turkey by the theocratic strongman Erdoğan, who is increasingly demolishing the secular government set up by Kemal Atatürk in favor of Muslim habits and strictures. Besides arresting 50,000 perceived opponents, arrogating more power for himself, imposing more restrictions in alcohol, and reintroducing religious (i.e., Islamic) education in schools, Erdoğan’s now attacking science education.
And certainly did We create man from an extract of clay
Then We place him as a sperm-drop in a firm lodging
Then We made the sperm-drop into a clinging clot, and We made the clot into a lump [of flesh], and we made [from] the lump bones, and We covered the bones with flesh; then We developed him into another creation. So blessed is Allah, the best of creators.
. . . and because many Muslims believe the Qur’an should be read literally, teaching evolution can be seen as anti-Islam, and few Muslim-majority countries teach it in secondary schools. (I once had a Turkish cab driver lecture to me about evolution and how the Qur’an says that humans were created, though he didn’t know I was an evolutionary biologist.)
And so a Turkish student can go all the way through high school and not learn a word about evolution—the central organizing theory of biological diversity. It is banned, and since the alternative is Islamic creationism, that’s the default option. Fortunately, the ban doesn’t apply to public universities—the Turkish government is smart enough to know how that would look.
Altınışık ends on a note of hope, but the best hope for evolution in Turkey is to get rid of Erdoğan and his government, which isn’t a likely prospect. In the meantime, we in the West will continue to visit and help the local scientists fight the good fight.
As we dream of a better country, we continue to resist. Following meetings at the ministerial level, board members of the Society have managed to get some basic evolutionary concepts reinstated to the curriculum. Volunteers have been organising the Aykut Kence Evolution Conference for over 16 years now, passing it on from one generation of students to the next. It attracts over a thousand attendees every year; when they invited me as speaker, I was amazed by the ambitions of those in attendance. Together with my peers, I still join and organise online and on-site events to promote scientific thinking and enlightenment to students and the public – for example, an online series on human evolution has already received several thousand views and is still getting attention. We also do not limit ourselves to evolutionary biology anymore. As in other parts of the world, anti-vaccine movements rose in Turkey during the pandemic, aided by the recent decline in basic science education. Communicating scientific thinking is more important now than ever.
As a scientist, I believe I have a responsibility towards the people whose taxes funded my education and now fund my research. I am indebted to those who have guided me in the dark as a young student, and to those who cherish the dream of becoming a scientist in Turkey one day. I cannot say that our careers as evolutionary researchers have all been easy, but they may not have been as difficult as one could think. My journey has taught me that when oppressed people stop being alone, they also stop being afraid. To those who need hope and believe in the idea of change, you are not on your own. Our stories will also be your story.
I usually think of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) as a “woke-ish” site, but there’s nothing pro-woke about artist Phoebe Goeckner’s description of how horribly she was treated when teaching “graphic art novels” and alternative comic-book art (e.g., R. Crumb) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Click to read:
There’s nothing, it seems, that you can teach about such “alternative” comics/graphic art that isn’t offensive, particularly when you remember this stuff began in the Sixties as a reaction to anodyne comics. R. Crumb, who, yes, sexualized women and dealt with fraught topics, was nevertheless wildly popular, especially because he was heterodox. And of course his work didn’t result in a whole generation of hippies that hated women.
Nevertheless, Glockener was repeatedly criticized by students, who complained to the administration, and was investigated by two offices involve with diversity and equity. An art exhibit she was invited to give at a local institute was canceled because of this controversy, as was a TEDx talk she was invited to give.
The article is long, and I won’t describe it in detail, but I’ll show a few images that incited student protest and got Glockner in trouble. Her comments are indented:
But in 2020, we were all “sheltering in place” because of the pandemic, and I was teaching on Zoom. The students Googled Robert Crumb before I could say much to contextualize his work. They immediately raised their voices in protest. Quoting from what they read, they insisted that Crumb was a “racist” and a “misogynist.” One student cried out that he had been accused of rape. Several insisted that showing any of his work was “hurtful.” They said I was “harming” the class.
I was taken aback. Comics are fundamentally a provocative medium, and Crumb is a provocative artist, but I didn’t think I had shown an especially offensive image. Crumb and his work have been the target of both high praise and bitter criticism for years, but before that moment, most of the students knew nothing about him — and seemed unwilling to question what they had read about him on the internet. Moreover, Crumb is a central figure in the history of comics. He can’t be written out of the books.
That’s for sure! And if you’ve read Crumb (I have a collection of his comics) or seen the highly acclaimed movie about him and his dysfunctional family (“Crumb“, 1985, described by Gene Siskel as “the best movie of the year”), you’ll know that a lot of Crumb’s art involved working out his own psychological hangups, which happened to be a lot of readers’ psychological hangups, too. But don’t forget his greatest creation, the faux-guru Mr. Natural:
Mr. Natural, clearly a satire on the “enlightenment” that we all were seeking in the Sixties:
Below is another cover that got Glockener in trouble when she showed it:
As I searched for particular comics covers, I forgot that I was sharing my screen. The students watched as multiple images flashed by, images I planned to share later in the semester. One of them was the cover of Young Lust #5 (1977), featuring a Red Guard couple in a suggestive embrace.
The Young Lust series satirized romance comics of the 1940s-60s. This particular cover is a teaser for Jay Kinney’s Red Guard Romance, a love story set in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution. The story, dedicated to Zhou Yang, an early supporter of Mao’s who was later imprisoned, is a humorous critique of the Communist government’s oppressive methods of controlling behavior. Kinney satirizes the representations of cheering Mao supporters omnipresent in Cultural Revolution propaganda.
When the Young Lust cover came into view, one student raised the alarm: “Why are you showing us even more racist images?” The cover, the student said, “sexualized Asian women.”
Yes, if you’re determined to be offended, you can see this satire as racist (after all, there are Chinese people there), and “sexualizing Asian women” (no, it satirized Chinese culture during the Cultural Revolution). But I suspect the students didn’t know abut the Cultural Revolution, much less the red book the woman’s holding.
Gloeckner apologized, and her attempt to make amends by telling the students to watch the movie “Crumb” (95% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes), “failed miserably”. The students formed an “R. Crumb Hate Corner”, which was really a Gloeckner hate corner, and then observed her daily and carefully, looking for further missteps. There were a few—but not serious ones nor ones that stemmed from racism or transphobia. But they were enough to inspire an article in The Michigan Daily demonizing her:
One of these students sent me screenshots from the Hate Corner throughout the semester. It soon became clear that the chat was not about Robert Crumb. It was about me. The “haters” were watching me carefully, waiting for me to slip up so they could add ammo to a document they were preparing, “Complaints Against Phoebe.” One day after class, two of my confidential informants shared their screen over Zoom and scrolled through the document, which described a plan to report me to the art-school administration. There was one statement that stood out to me, which I paraphrase here because I don’t have the document, something along the lines of: Let’s get this one right. We failed with the other professor — let’s do this one by the book. I inferred that they had attempted to bring charges against another teacher, without the desired outcome. Now they would try to get me, and make it stick.
This past May, a year and a half later, I received an email from an investigative reporter for TheMichigan Daily, a student-run paper. She invited me to respond to a list of allegations against me, including: failure to use trigger warnings, exposing students to racist material, misgendering students, and demonstrating that I was a racist by confounding two names. Also included was an inflammatory accusation from someone outside the university who claimed I had kissed them on the forehead and whispered in their ear, “You are a dog.”
Where did such charges come from? Some were rooted in truth, however ungenerously construed. Early in the semester, after showing the Crumb image and before learning everyone’s name, I had apparently mixed up two students with Hispanic surnames. A screenshot from the R. Crumb Hate Corner claimed that this faux pas was inexcusable and proved that I was a racist. I’ve been working on a project in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for 15 years. This allegation was so far from the truth that I could barely make sense of it.
Another day, I inadvertently misgendered a trans student, whom I had known the previous semester when they used a different pronoun. I immediately apologized. Screenshots followed.
I felt under siege.
The usual administrative investigation followed, involving both the Office of Institutional Equity and The Office of Diversity Equality and Inclusion (why are these separate offices?). Fortunately, these investigations were eventually dropped. But the damage was done. All the complaints were added to her personnel file, her teaching had been permanently affected, and some opportunities were canceled. These included an invitation to give a TEDxUofM talk that was later withdrawn.
Gloeckner’s latest work was a series of miniatures based on her years of work in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with photos like these:
The illustrated novel I’m working on now can’t be described as traditional “comics.” Based upon fact, experience, and research, it is about several families and a neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez, directly across the U.S. border.
I’ve drawn the images in my previous books with pen and ink. For my current project, I constructed miniature scenes and photographed them. Frustrated by my physical distance from the place and the people I’m writing about, I began building parts of Ciudad Juárez in my studio. I built replicas of houses I had visited, trying faithfully to reproduce interior and exterior details. The floor of my studio was covered in sand. I constructed dolls to populate the streets and buildings. The process of making all these things made me feel closer to the story. It was something of a spiritual ritual; I was recreating a particular place as it appeared at a particular time, and I no longer felt so distant. I could walk the streets of Anapra day or night, because they lived with me.
And for that she got this:
In 2018, the University of Michigan International Institute had invited me to exhibit a work in progress in its gallery. Several weeks before the exhibit was to open, I received an email from the International Institute describing some “strong concerns” about my project expressed by a group of professors in the Latina/o-studies program, who wished to remain anonymous to me. The program had been asked to co-sponsor the exhibit, a request which it declined.
The professors had been sent a brief description of the work along with two or three images. Based on this material, they voiced concern that “the miniaturization or infantilization of the Mexican body through the use of dolls could be trivializing and upsetting to some people”; they “worry that the scenes depicted might reinscribe negative racial stereotypes.”
Other remarks in the letter focused on the “demonization of Mexicans in national rhetoric” and the potential for “retraumatization” that the work, about a violent era in Juárez, might present. These concerns led this group of anonymous faculty members to conclude that the work should not be exhibited.
Although the identity of the writers was concealed from me, I responded to the director of the Latina/o-studies program, extending an invitation to those interested to visit my studio for a discussion of the project. I never got a response.
Miniaturization or infantilization of the Mexican body my tuchas! Did they want full-sized sculptures?
Demonization of graphic novels isn’t limited to the Left, either:
Meanwhile, off campus, right-wingers are trying to get books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Jerry Craft’s New Kid removed from school libraries. Although I wouldn’t say that I have faced a concerted effort to curtail free speech, I have heard one message unambiguously: Education is a safer occupation for those willing to limit their speech by excluding certain material. That would make it impossible to teach the history of comics.
Again, I’m surprised that a long plaint like this was published in the CHE, but it’s good that they did. Not that this will stop the Pecksniffs, but one lesson we learned, as we learned from the cancellation of Carole Hooven at Harvard, is that this stuff could be stopped in its tracks if college administrations had any spine, standing up for academic freedom. There is simply nothing wrong in what Gloeckner taught; the problem was the generation of fragile and easily offended students who cannot deal with anything challenging, and with the invertebrate administrators who feel they have to cater to the students because, after all, education is now a form of consumerism. Here’s Gloeckner’s ending:
I was hired because of the creative work I’ve done, and there was a time when I was happy to share my work and the work of artists I admire with my students. The art that interests me, as well as my own art, is messy. As in life, ugliness and beauty coexist. Some might feel the need for a trigger warning on nearly every page.
I now avoid talking about my work unless students ask me about it. I’m not proud of this.
In the last several decades, the “white coat ceremony” has become a tradition at medical schools, with the entering students receiving their doctor’s coats and then reciting the Hippocratic Oath. There are many variants of this ancient oath, and often students write their own version to supplement the traditional one. As you can imagine, some of these go beyond the doctor’s pledge, adding pledges of social justice, ideological belief, and so on. I’ve seen several versions of these white coat oaths; the FIRE article below mentions them at Harvard, Columbia, WashU, Pitt Med, and the Icahn School of Medicine. But perhaps the one most distressing to scientists and advocates of science-based medicine is this one, recited at the University of Minnesota’s white coat ceremony on August 19.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the speaker is Robert Englander, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education for the Medical School, who leads the students in what is both a pledge and a prayer. (Curiously, Englander’s university bio has disappeared from its website.)
Now this oath wasn’t written by the administration itself, but, according to FIRE and the agenda of the ceremony, by a committee of fifteen incoming medical students on the “Oath Writing Committee.” These students may, of course, not represent the beliefs of their class as a whole; in fact, it’s likely that, as usual, it’s the activists who seek the loudest megaphone. Click on screenshot below to see the article, and I’ve put the video of the recitation below that.
Here’s the two-minute video of the oath:
Here’s the oath’s text reproduced from FIRE’s letter sent yesterday to the medical school deam (I’ve bolded the sentence that bothers me the most.)
With gratitude, we, the students of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Medical School Class of 2026, stand here today among our friends, families, peer, mentors, and communities who have supported us in reaching this milestone. Our institution is located on Dakota land. Today, many Indigenous people from throughout the state, including Dakota and Ojibwe (ooj-jib-way), call the Twin Cities home; we also recognize this acknowledgment is not enough.
We commit to uprooting the legacy and perpetuation of structural violence deeply embedded within the healthcare system. We recognize inequities built by past and present traumas rooted in white supremacy, colonialism, the gender binary, ableism, and all forms of oppression. As we enter this profession with opportunity for growth, we commit to promoting a culture of anti-racism, listening, and amplifying voices for positive change. We pledge to honor all Indigenous ways of healing that have been historically marginalized by Western medicine. Knowing that health is intimately connected to our environment, we commit to healing our planet and communities.
We vow to embrace our role as community members and strive to embody cultural humility. We promise to continue restoring trust in the medical system and fulfilling our responsibilities as educators and advocates. We commit to collaborating with social, political, and additional systems to advance health equity. We will learn from the scientific innovations made before us and pledge to advance and share this knowledge with peers and neighbors. We recognize the importance of being in community with and advocating for those we serve.
There are the usual arguable claims, which should not be professed or vowed by the students or foisted on them by the dean and fifteen vocal students. The claims include these:
The implication that the original owners of the school’s land was the Dakota people. (Note that the oath says that acknowledgement is “not enough,” but what else will they do for the Dakota people? Will they give the land back, or compensate the original owners? There is no vow to do either.)
Inequities in medicine are not just rooted in past forms of oppression, but are ongoing, and reflect white supremacy as well as other forms of bigotry.
There is “structural violence deeply embedded in the healthcare system”. What, exactly, do they mean by “structural violence”?
There is a “gender binary” that causes further traumas. I think they’re referring to the “sex binary”, which is real. Few people assert that there is a “gender” binary when “gender” is construed as a person’s sociosexual role.
The students will “honor all Indigenous ways of healing that have been historically marginalized by Western medicine.” ALL OF THEM? There are a million of them if you count all forms of indigenous healing overtaken by Western medicine. Yes, a few of these treatments may be efficacious, but almost none have been subject to scientific testing using the gold standard of double-blind treatment. “Honoring” a form of pre-scientific healing simply because it’s was practiced by indigenous people is ludicrous. Certainly you shouldn’t disparage the people themselves who use such healing, as the treatments were developed outside of science, but you shouldn’t honor all the ways of healing themselves. Most of them don’t accomplish anything; what kind of “honor” does that deserve?
The rest of the oath is boilerplate social-justice jargon, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is an ideological/political pledge, not a medical-school pledge. As FIRE notes in its article, this is a form of compelled speech that many of the students might not agree with, but are nevertheless force to give fealty to.
Now many of you can say—and this is likely true—that the social-justice aspects of this pledge are meaningless, and the students don’t have to live up to them. Nor do the students have to consider shamanism, chanting, herbs, and so on as worthy of “honor.” (These, by the way, were not historically “marginalized” by Western medicine, but were replaced by scientifically-based treatments because those treatmentswork.)
If, as the students also pledged, they will “restore trust in the medical system,” they can begin by refusing to honor traditional treatments that don’t work. It is no dishonor to indigenous people to reject methods they developed in the absence of science. I suspect it is the “progressiveness” of this oath that has led to widespread ridicule against it and perhaps to the disappearance of Robert Englander’s bio.
Now on to FIRE, which has legal objections to this oath. Their main objection is that this is not only compelled speech—making students swear to something that they disagree with and is not a requirement of the profession—but also that, in the future, students could be punished for failing to adhere to what they’ve sworn. This is not a fanciful scenario:
From the FIRE article:
FIRE respects students’ rights to express their views. But because only a small committee of all new students penned the statement, some of the other several-hundred students may have been compelled to express that handful of classmates’ opinions as their own. (It’s unclear whether any students dissented and, if so, whether they could opt out.)
We’re also concerned that these subjectively squishy commitments could become de facto professionalism requirements, and that students could be punished for failing to uphold them. For example, what must a medical student do to adequately practice “anti-racism”? And whatever that may be, if she does not (as UMMS understands that term), could she be dismissed for violating her oath? What if she refuses to take the oath in the first place?
FIRE has certainly seen administrators of professional programs in medicine, dentistry, law — even mortuary science — who deployed ambiguous “professionalism” standards to punish students for otherwise protected speech.
. . .More than 10% of the campus-related cases in which FIRE intervenes now concern requirements that students and faculty demonstrate their DEI commitments or contributions, or personally make land acknowledgements.
Again, while universities, students, and faculty are free to encourage or promote DEI-type values, forcing others to say they believe in these concepts is not only contrary to many universities’ legal obligations — but violates their moral obligations, too.
Consider: Even students or faculty who broadly agree with a university’s stance on DEI may believe, for example, that land acknowledgements are merely performative. Or a faculty member who studies race and gender may have highly nuanced views on DEI not reflected by the university’s stance. Students, likewise, may disagree with other aspects of a given DEI pledge.
Medical students possibly being made to read verbatim from ideological pledges if they wish to become physicians would be a new low.
I’d add that surely a lot of the students forced to say that they’ll honor all indigenous methods of healing “historically marginalized by Western medicine” certainly don’t believe that, but are nevertheless forces to vow it. How many of those reciting students accept the curative powers of, say, shamanic rituals?
Here is the summary of the objections in the letter written by Zachary Greenberg, FIRE’s Senior Program Officer for Campus Rights Advocacy, went to Jakub Tolar, the Dean of the Medical School, as well as to the school’s President and General Counsel:
While UMMS may encourage students to adopt these views, the First Amendment bars the university from requiring them to do so. The First Amendment protects not only the right to speak, but the right to refrain from speaking. Requiring new students to “vow” or “commit” to contested political viewpoints violates students’ clear expressive rights, is inconsistent with the role of the university as a bastion of free inquiry, and cannot be enforced at a public institution.
UMMS can require students to adhere to established medical standards, but this authority cannot be abused to demand allegiance to prescribed ideological views—even ones that some students do indeed hold. Specifically, UMMS may not compel students to recite a land acknowledgment, commit to “uprooting the legacy and perpetuation of structural violence deeply embedded within the healthcare system,” or “promote[e] a culture of anti-racism.” Nor may it force students to express a commitment to “embody cultural humility,” or “advance health equity.” Even if written by a group of students, UMMS may not subsequently require all students adhere to these views.
Because students may reasonably perceive recitation of this oath as mandatory, FIRE calls on UMMS to make clear that students may refuse to say it without penalty, and that students will not have to affirm any political viewpoints as a condition of their continued education at the school.
We request receipt of a response to this letter no later than the close of business on October 20, 2022.
My prediction? UMMS will not reply. Will there then be a lawsuit? I don’t think so—unless they find medical students injured by professing what they don’t believe, and what medical student would be plaintiff to such a suit? But I do think that in future years the school will refrain from such over-the-top vows.
The other day I recounted the story of Christy Hammer, a professor of education at the University of Southern Maine, whose students walked out when Hammer accurately said that humans had two biological sexes. And I quoted from the Bangor Daily News:
Nearly two dozen graduate students at the University of Southern Maine are demanding their education professor be replaced after the professor allegedly said only two biological sexes exist.
The students said professor Christy Hammer’s remarks were inaccurate and transphobic.
After all but one student walked out of Hammer’s class on Sept. 14 in protest, they demanded a facilitated restorative justice meeting between the 22 students and their professor.
They got it, but, according to students, Hammer maintained her position saying non-binary biological sex designations are merely variations on male and female. Now they want Hammer gone.
That last sentence is totally inaccurate, of course, though there’s a spectrum of “genders”—chosen sex roles. But in humans roughly 99.98 people conform to the male/female biological sex dichotomy, which makes it as close to a binary as you can come. It also made Hammer a transphobe, according to her students.
But one student, Jennifer Gingrich, supported Hammer and started a petition supporting her. Jennifer tendered the remarks below as a comment on the earlier post, but I offer it as a followup to this ludicrous kerfuffle to allow you to sign the petition, if you wish, but mostly to show that the University did indeed punish Hammer for her “transphobia,” though they didn’t fire her.
Here’s Jennifer’s comment:
Thank you for addressing this, Dr. Coyne. I live in Portland, Maine, where the professor is under attack by her students and I have a petition asking the university to support her. I hope you don’t mind, but the petition quotes you (I put it up before you wrote this piece, so it quotes something you wrote a while back).
You can also click here to go to the petition; it’s near the 1,500-signature mark. If you agree with it, you might consider signing it (I have):
Jennifer added this:
Unfortunately, USM announced today that although they are not firing [Hammer[, they have created an identical class with a different instructor that students can attend instead, effectively leaving Dr. Hammer in an empty classroom (the one student who didn’t initially walk out has been pressured into apologizing for it).
The Bangor Daily News verifies Jennifer’s report: Hammer’s punishment is to teach a class which will surely have no students, while all the others flock to the identical class, apparently taught by someone who thinks that biological sex is a spectrum. If you go to Hammer’s class you’ll be seen as transphobic.
University of Southern Maine officials announced Monday that they would not replace a professor who allegedly told her class there were only two biological sexes.
The alleged incident upset much of professor Christy Hammer’s graduate-level education class, instigating a mass walk out and triggering a facilitated restorative justice meeting last month where many students demanded Hammer be replaced.
Instead, USM will make an alternative, identical class available.
“We have developed an alternative plan for this class and will be opening a new section of this course for those students who would like to move,” university spokesperson Gina Marie Guadagnino said. “The original section taught by professor Hammer will continue for any student who wishes to remain in that class.”
University officials didn’t specify how many students will be moving to the new section, nor did they comment on Hammer’s alleged statements. Hammer did not respond to phone and email messages.
Check out the link about what “biologists believe.” It is, of course, a screed in Scientific American, which regularly bends scientific truth to fit their faux-progressive ideology.
The article continues:
Student Elizabeth Leibiger, who instigated the walkout, is planning to take the alternative class.
“I think that the next step USM needs to take is being clear what accountability will look like for Christy Hammer,” Leibiger said.
. . .During the session at Bailey Hall on the Gorham campus, a free-for-all discussion erupted over both social gender and biological sex identifications, with one student and Hammer saying they believed only male and female biological sexes exist.
The rest of the class maintained both biological sexes and social genders are on a spectrum.
The heated discussion spilled over into the next scheduled class on Sept. 14.
A majority of the class then drafted a letter to the Department of Education and Human Development asking for a restorative justice meeting with Hammer.
The meeting took place Wednesday, and the sole student who had disagreed reportedly apologized to classmates. But Hammer maintained her position on the binary nature of sex.
Leibiger hopes the incident will be instructive for the class of future teachers.
“It’s our job as educators to grow and change, address our biases, and above all else, protect every one of our students,” Leibiger said.
Restorative justice my tuchas! What is to be restored—the bogus notion that biological sex in humans is a spectrum, a purely ideological position that is ludicrously wrong?
Well, at least they didn’t fire Hammer. But even doing this to her—leaving her with a student-less class—is punitive and humiliating. That’s why I signed the petition, though of course Change.org petitions usually accomplish little.
But if even 15% of our subscribers signed it, that would put the number near 10,000, and that is surely newsworthy.
The University of Southern Maine is hopeless, and someone needs to tell them that they shouldn’t punish teachers for simply uttering an undeniable truth about nature.
A gazillion readers sent me a link to this NYT article, which I found horrifying. Others may not, and may characterize me as a grumpy old ex-professor who can’t change with the times. So be it; as Hitchens said, “I don’t need a second; my own opinion is enough for me.” But I think there will be plenty of seconds.
The article shown below recounts how New York University fired Maitland Jones Jr. , who was teaching organic chemistry as an adjunct professor after a tenured career at Princeton. Here’s a bit from his Wikipedia bio:
Jones’ field of expertise is reactive intermediates, with particular emphasis on carbenes. He has published extensively in the field of quantum organic chemistry, particularly focusing on the mechanism of quantum molecular reactions. His interest areas include carbenes, carboranes, and heterocycles. Over the course of almost forty years, he and his research group have published 225 papers, averaging some five papers per year or one paper per active group member per year. Jones is also the author of Organic Chemistry texts. He is credited with the naming of bullvalene, which is named after William “Bull” Doering, whom Jones was studying under during his time as a graduate student at Yale University.
After retiring from Princeton in 2007, Jones taught organic chemistry at New York University until spring 2022.
At Princeton he worked his way up to full Professor, holding that position at the school from 1973 until 2007, and then apparently retiring to teach at a variety of schools (not just NYU) throughout the world (see the Wikipedia bio).
Why was he fired? Apparently because he graded too hard and was not as “available” to students as they wanted. The students circulated a petition, and NYU canned Jones. (He’ll be okay, as he presumably has a pension from Princeton and was teaching at age 85 because he liked teaching.) His widely used book was Organic Chemistry by Jones and Fleming, now in its fifth edition.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Here are the details from the NYT. Note the article notes that Jones had considerable support from the chemistry faculty and some students students, and that even the students who petitioned against his teaching neither asked for nor expected his firing.
In the field of organic chemistry, Maitland Jones Jr. has a storied reputation. He taught the subject for decades, first at Princeton and then at New York University, and wrote an influential textbook. He received awards for his teaching, as well as recognition as one of N.Y.U.’s coolest professors.
But last spring, as the campus emerged from pandemic restrictions, 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him.
Students said the high-stakes course — notorious for ending many a dream of medical school — was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores.
The professor defended his standards. But just before the start of the fall semester, university deans terminated Dr. Jones’s contract.
The officials also had tried to placate the students by offering to review their grades and allowing them to withdraw from the class retroactively. The chemistry department’s chairman, Mark E. Tuckerman, said the unusual offer to withdraw was a “one-time exception granted to students by the dean of the college.”
Marc A. Walters, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, summed up the situation in an email to Dr. Jones, before his firing.
He said the plan would “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills,” an apparent reference to parents.
Firm hand extended to the students? It sounds like a warm handshake to me! And, of course, the handshake also went to “those who pay the tuition bills”—the parents. What the school is doing here is to further a decadeslong movement to regard students not as humans to be exposed to one’s specialized knowledge, as well as taught critical thinking and a respect and thirst for knowledge, but as consumers. With tuitions going stratospheric, students and their parents have come to expect a number of amenities beyond teaching and learning, foremost among them a certificate that enables one to get a job after college. And to get that certificate, you need good grades.
This accounts for grade inflation, something that’s hit nearly every American university I know of, including mine. Here’s a bar graph from a site about the issue (see also here and here). “2” corresponds to “C”, which used to represent the “average grade, “3” corresponds to a “B”, and 4 to the highest grade, an “A.” As you can see, in just the last three decades the average grade has risen from a C+ to nearly a B+. This, of course, reduces the variation in grades that used to reflect achievement, and a way to determine who was doing better than others. As the variance decreases, the ability to ascertain merit—at least as reflected in grades—decreases as well.
Like the NYU students, everybody not only wants high grades now, but expects them. In one liberal-arts class I know of (not here), the professor, being woke, allows the students to grade themselves. What you think happened? The expected: of 60 students, 59 awarded themselves “A”s, and one more humble student gave him/herself a B+.
More from the NYT piece:
The university’s handling of the petition provoked equal and opposite reactions from both the chemistry faculty, who protested the decisions, and pro-Jones students, who sent glowing letters of endorsement.
“The deans are obviously going for some bottom line, and they want happy students who are saying great things about the university so more people apply and the U.S. News rankings keep going higher,” said Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who has worked closely with Dr. Jones.
There you go. Although Jones did grade hard (the average on one test was 30%), and you might attribute the low grades to the pandemic, which has been used as a partial excuse for nonperformance (and, to be sure, it is harder to learn via Zoom lectures), Jones says the “loss of focus” started well before that:
Dr. Jones, 84, is known for changing the way the subject is taught. In addition to writing the 1,300-page textbook “Organic Chemistry,” now in its fifth edition, he pioneered a new method of instruction that relied less on rote memorization and more on problem solving.
After retiring from Princeton in 2007, he taught organic chemistry at N.Y.U. on a series of yearly contracts. About a decade ago, he said in an interview, he noticed a loss of focus among the students, even as more of them enrolled in his class, hoping to pursue medical careers.
And Jones did try to make adjustments for remote learning:
After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said.
That was not enough. In 2020, some 30 students out of 475 filed a petition asking for more help, said Dr. Arora, who taught that class with Dr. Jones. “They were really struggling,” he explained. “They didn’t have good internet coverage at home. All sorts of things.”
The professors assuaged the students in an online town-hall meeting, Dr. Arora said.
Many students were having other problems. Kent Kirshenbaum, another chemistry professor at N.Y.U., said he discovered cheating during online tests.
When he pushed students’ grades down, noting the egregious misconduct, he said they protested that “they were not grades that would allow them to get into medical school.”
There’s the rub. The students feel that they are entitled to grades that get them into medical school and a lucrative career. Tell me, do you want doctors to be brought up in a system like this? Do you want doctors who aren’t chosen for their performance either before or in medical school. Or would you be happy with a random sample of applicants?
Even after Covid restrictions eased, Jones’s students seem to have lost interest, something that other faculty I know have noticed.
By spring 2022, the university was returning with fewer Covid restrictions, but the anxiety continued and students seemed disengaged.
“They weren’t coming to class, that’s for sure, because I can count the house,” Dr. Jones said in an interview. “They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.”
Students could choose between two sections, one focused on problem solving, the other on traditional lectures. Students in both sections shared problems on a GroupMe chat and began venting about the class. Those texts kick-started the petition, submitted in May.
“We are very concerned about our scores, and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” the petition said.
Now the students did complain about other aspects of Jones’s teaching, like reducing the numbers of exams and failing to offer extra credit (I never did that), but Jones has what seem to be reasonable explanations for these accusations. Read the article.
The article also reports, inadvertently, something that I see as disastrous. I’ve put it in bold below:
The entire controversy seems to illustrate a sea change in teaching, from an era when professors set the bar and expected the class to meet it, to the current more supportive, student-centered approach.
Dr. Jones “learned to teach during a time when the goal was to teach at a very high and rigorous level,” Dr. Arora said. “We hope that students will see that putting them through that rigor is doing them good.”
James W. Canary, chairman of the department until about a year ago, said he admired Dr. Jones’s course content and pedagogy, but felt that his communication with students was skeletal and sometimes perceived as harsh.
“He hasn’t changed his style or methods in a good many years,” Dr. Canary said. “The students have changed, though, and they were asking for and expecting more support from the faculty when they’re struggling.”
Well, you should listen to what students say, but just because they demand something doesn’t mean professors have to relinquish it. After all, who has more experience in pedagogy? But I’m not saying that faculty are always right. But I don’t see that, in this situation, Jones did anything wrong.
Other beefs: the article mentions “that Dr. Jones had been the target of multiple student complaints about his “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading.”
But are course evaluations, which are heavily conditioned by the grades students get, a good way to evaluate teaching? We used to have a booklet with ratings available to all students, but that has been abandoned because of the overt hostility. When I was a young faculty member at the University of Chicago, full of desire for reform, I set up a system in which faculty in biology would randomly visit the classrooms of other faculty, in their departments, observe their teaching, and evaluate them. That fell apart because of the logistics and because faculty didn’t really want to be observed in the classroom by their colleagues. But really, when teaching is evaluated for promotion or tenure, who better to do it than other faculty, who also evaluate research performance and service?
Here John Beckman, a spokeperson for NYU, addresses “stumble courses” that have a higher percentage of lower grades.
. . . “Organic chemistry has historically been one of those courses,” Mr. Beckman said. “Do these courses really need to be punitive in order to be rigorous?”
What he’s really saying here is that rating students by grades, is a “punitive” practice. I could counterargue that “it’s also rewarding to the students who do better,” but the fact is that grad schools need objective ways to evaluate students, and although grade-point averages aren’t perfect, they’re better than letters of recommendations (almost 100% positive), though perhaps not as good as Graduate Record Examinations (GREs).
According to the paper, Jones was fired in a note from the dean of science that said that Jones’s performance “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty.”
I’ll let one reader, who read the article, give the response that I would:
Thanks for the article! It was chilling. Absolutely chilling. These are tomorrow’s doctors, the people who will treat my kids when they’re older adults, and who will treat grandchildren if I have them. Organic Chemistry is a weed-out course–OF COURSE. As it SHOULD BE. Guess what? Not everybody who wants to be a doctor is capable of being a doctor. But now giving accurate grade is “punitive.”
Sometimes it’s a good thing for a student to not get into medical school, for the correlation between performance in grad school and med school with being a good doctor is surely positive. That’s why medical schools—well, at least until recently—had high standards for who was admitted, and weeded out students based on pre-med-school performance. After all, it’s patients’ lives at stake, and in such a field merit must surely be given the highest consideration.
This is why we shouldn’t adhere to the Dodo’s Dictum from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Although merit is being widely debased as useless or even racist, I think that rational people realize that abjuring merit can only lead to disaster.
In the case of Jones, letting the students run the show will also drive teaching faculty out of colleges as well as deterring professors from teaching “rigorously:
Nathaniel J. Traaseth, one of about 20 chemistry professors, mostly tenured, who signed the letter, said the university’s actions may deter rigorous instruction, especially given the growing tendency of students to file petitions.
“Now the faculty who are not tenured are looking at this case and thinking, ‘Wow, what if this happens to me and they don’t renew my contract?’” he said.
Dr. Jones agrees.
“I don’t want my job back,” he said, adding that he had planned to retire soon anyway. “I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Idaho is one of those states that enacted draconian abortion bans after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Here’s how the law in that state is described by the Center for Reproductive Rights:
On August 25, Idaho began enforcing its trigger ban, which prohibits abortion at all stages of pregnancy, with exceptions for the life of the pregnant person and for survivors of rape and incest who have reported the incident to law enforcement. following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. However, the state is prohibited from criminalizing medical providers who provide abortion care to pregnant people in emergency situations pending the outcome of the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Idaho on the theory that the trigger ban violates the requirement of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). EMTALA requires hospitals that receive Medicare funds to provide stabilizing treatment to patients regardless of their ability to pay.
. . .Idaho retains targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws related to facilities, which was held to be unconstitutional, and reporting. Idaho law continues to restrict the provision of abortion care to licensed physicians and still restricts the use of telemedicine for medication abortion. Providers who violate Idaho’s abortion restrictions may face civil and criminal penalties.
The criminalization of abortion in this way has caused a chilling of speech about abortion. A report from the Academic Freedom Alliance (click screenshot below), notes that the University of Idaho’s legal department tried to regulate faculty speech on the topic:
The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) today sent a letter to the University of Idaho responding to a guidance memo from the university’s general counsel regarding faculty compliance with the state’s new abortion laws, particularly the memo’s guidance that faculty should “remain neutral on the topic” of abortion during classroom discussions. The general counsel’s memo warns that, due to new state laws against abortion, those found to be “promoting” abortion could face penalties including mandatory loss of state employment, bars on future state employment, prison time, and fines.
The University of Idaho is a state University, and thus academic speech falls under the aegis of the First Amendment. Promoting choice (i.e., advocating breaking state law) is not a violation of the First Amendment, and, if there is a discussion of this in the classroom, there can be no Constitutional way to prevent a professor from expressing his or her opinion one way or the other.
The AFA’s letter to the University, from Keith Whittington, chair of the academic committee, lays out the reasons why this chilling of speech is unconstitutional:
It is well established that public universities like the University of Idaho are constrained by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The federal courts have specifically recognized that classroom speech by professors is constitutionally protected. Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967); Demers v. Austin, 746 F.3d 402 (9th Cir. 2014). The Demers court specifically held that “teaching and academic writing that are performed ‘pursuant to the official duties’ of a teacher and professor” at the university level is protected under the First Amendment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit just months ago emphatically reaffirmed that the First Amendment does not tolerate state actions “that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom” or that “stifle[s] a professor’s viewpoint on a matter of public import.” Quite simply, “the First Amendment protects the free-speech rights of professors when they are teaching.” Meriwether v. Hartop, 992 F.3d 492, 505 (6th Cir. 2021).
As for the law’s prohibition of the use of public funds (i.e., professorial salaries) to “promote abortion,”) that too is unconstitutional.
It is true that the Idaho Code § 18-8705 prohibits the use of public funds to “promote abortion,” but construing that statutory language to require state university professors to “remain neutral on the topic” is a vast overreach and inconsistent with the requirements of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized that a law is constitutionally invalid “if it prohibits a substantial amount of protected speech.” United States v. Williams, 553 U.S.
. . . When Congress criminalized not only conduct involving criminal facilitation or solicitation but also pure speech involving abstract advocacy, the courts have concluded that the First Amendment requires that those statutes be applied narrowly so as to exclude pure speech such as the kind of promotion of abortion that might occur in a classroom discussion. “The statute’s plain language is ‘susceptible of regular application to protected expression,’ reaching vast amounts of protected speech uttered daily.” United States v. Hernandez-Calvillo, 39 F.4th 1297, 1313 (10th Cir. 2022). In such circumstances, the restriction of classroom teaching on topics relating to abortion through the criminal law is impermissible under the First Amendment.
Ergo, if a professor says, “I favor unlimited abortion,” she is not violating the law. You might think it would be different if the professor tells students that if they are pregnant they should get abortions, but I suspect that, too, is legal speech, for the prof is merely expressing an opinion and not facilitating or soliciting abortion.
In the end, the AFA says it takes no position on the legal regulation of abortion, but asks that the University of Idaho rescind its “required neutrality” regulation in favor of telling faculty that they have the right of free expression, including with respect to this law. The AFA also “calls on state official to swiftly clarify that the state criminal law should not be interpreted to apply to classroom discussions that do not involve the facilitation or solicitation of unlawful acts”:
The general counsel’s guidance sends a chilling message to every member of the faculty who must discuss difficult and controversial material relating to abortion as part of their teaching duties. The statute itself might not recognize “academic freedom [as] a defense to violation of law,” but the First Amendment is an overriding limitation on the power of the state legislature to impose such a restriction on classroom teaching in state university classrooms.
Yesterday someone called this quote to my attention; it seems to have been made in 1961 [1935; see comment #12 below] by Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977), who became President of the University of Chicago at only 30 and served for 16 years, adding an additional six years as Chancellor. Here’s the Quote of the Week, though I’m not going to make this a regular feature. This statement, however, resonated with me:
“A university is a community of scholars. It is not a kindergarten; it is not a club; it is not a reform school; it is not a political party; it is not an agency of propaganda. A university is a community of scholars.”
Hutchins was a remarkable force who helped shape the University and its Foundational Principles of free expression. He started the Great Books Program (with Mortimer Adler), got rid of varsity football (seeing an emphasis on big-time sports as inimical to our academic mission), and constantly emphasized academic freedom and free speech. The University page on Hutchins (now archived) says this:
Hutchins was a strong advocate of academic freedom, and as always refused to compromise his principles. Faced with charges in 1935 by drugstore magnate Charles Walgreen that his niece had been indoctrinated with communist ideas at the University, Hutchins stood behind his faculty and their right to teach and believe as they wished, insisting that communism could not withstand the scrutiny of public analysis and debate. He later became friends with Walgreen and convinced him to fund a series of lectures on democracy. When the University faced charges of aiding and abetting communism again in 1949, Hutchins steadfastly refused to capitulate to red-baiters who attacked faculty members.
When I read the quote in bold above, it reminded me of our own Kalven Report, which, aiming to avoid chilling or quashing the speech of university members, established the principle that, with rare exceptions, The University of Chicago and its units were forbidden from making political, ideological, or moral statements. This policy has sometimes put it at odds with activists. (There was, for example, pressure for the University to denounce the war in Vietnam and to disinvest in corporations that did business in Darfur. It remained silent on both issues.) Kalven emphasizes that political statements and their like are the purview of individuals, not the university. As First Amendment scholar, law professor, and former Provost Geof Stone said (see previous link): “It is for the students, faculty, trustees, alumni, staff, and friends of the University to take their own positions. It is not for the University to do so for them.”
At any rate, the quote at the top jogged my memory. I reread the Kalven report, written in 1967, and in it found the statement below, surely written with Hutchins’s words in mind.
“A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”
How many universities see themselves as lobbies, political parties, reform schools, and agencies of propaganda? I’d say a large fraction, for political statements and social-justice manifestos proliferate on college websites. And of course you know how universities behave as kindergartens: just look at the recent follies of The Evergreen State University, Yale University, or Oberlin College. Will we even recognize the university as a community of scholars in fifty years, or will it abjure its academic mission in favor of an ideological one?
Here’s a photo of the remarkably young Hutchins in 1929, just after he picked up the reins as President. It accompanies his first Convocation Address, which is worth reading.