How to Make Universities Mediocre

Examining an intolerant and illiberal culture on some American campuses

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There has been much talk about illiberalism and “woke intolerance” in institutions, with the focus here on universities. There is no question that censorship, illiberalism and intolerance have long existed within the political far right. However, such qualities are now also associated with social justice and identity politics areas within the far left. New York University social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt said, “Most people are horrified at what’s going on at universities.” (MTC 2016)

The following are several of the more egregious recent examples of illiberalism on campuses:

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Skidmore College student activists called for the firing of and boycotting the classes of art professor David Peterson because he observed a Pro Police rally. They also called for the firing of his wife even though she was not employed by the university.  Peterson said he and his wife didn’t go to support the rally but to watch out of curiosity. (Churchill 2020) (Soave 2020)

Local newspaper reporter Chris Churchill wrote: “A supposedly damning photo of the Petersons circulated by students shows them standing at the rally, which was advertised as a ’positive, all-inclusive event’ designed to humanize and support officers. The Petersons weren’t wearing pro-police T-shirts. They weren’t carrying a banner, holding a sign or waving a black-and-blue flag. They appear to just be listening. But merely listening to an opinion that some Skidmore students find objectionable is apparently enough to get a professor in hot water.”  (Churchill 2020)

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UCLA accounting professor Gordon Klein was suspended and publicly called out by the Business School Dean because he told a student that he would not grade black students differently nor delay their tests following the George Floyd riots in Minneapolis. The university’s Faculty Code of Conduct prohibits the failure to hold exams as scheduled and to evaluate students other than their course performance and engaging in race-based discrimination. The California Constitution also forbids race-based discrimination in education. Klein, who also is a lawyer, said, “I was following university policy meticulously in refusing to discriminate.” (Morey 2020) (Klein 2020) (UCLA 2019)

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St. Olaf College philosophy professor Edmund Santurri was the Director of the school’s Institute for Freedom and Community. With a slogan of “Dialogue that opens minds,” the institute’s mission is to bring in prominent speakers to expose students to heterodox ideas. Anderson was removed as director after a group of students protested that they didn’t like some of the views of speaker Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethics professor and one of the world’s preeminent moral philosophers. (Morey 2022)

A headline was, “St. Olaf ousts faculty director of institute dedicated to bringing controversial speakers to campus — because speakers caused controversy.”

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University of Chicago climate scientist Dorian Abbot co-wrote with Stanford professor Ivan Marinovic an Op-Ed piece arguing for meritocracy in student admissions, faculty hiring and the bestowing of awards. This is a position held by the majority of Americans. Student activists petitioned for Abbot to be removed from a position, and under pressure from a Twitter campaign, MIT canceled a prestigious annual public science lecture he was scheduled to give. (Abbot 2021) (Small 2021) (Abbot & Marinovic)

Scholar Robert P. George wrote that the decision to cancel Abbot’s lecture was “chilling to academic freedom and free speech.” (Sobey 2021)

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University of Southern California business school foreign languages professor Greg Patton was publically called out by the Dean and removed from teaching for using in lecture the Mandarin word for “that” (  那个, pronounced nà ge or neìge) that sounds similar to an English-language racial epithet. He had taught the class dozens of times over ten years with no complaint. (McGahan 2020) (Agrawal 2020) (Nakagome 2020) 

The irony was that, as USC has a large ethnic Chinese population, there was a backlash against the university’s actions. Ethnic Chinese on campus and beyond decried it as anti-Asian bigotry with the professor being punished for speaking Chinese. It made newspaper headlines in China, and Chinese graduates of the business school signed a letter likening the university’s actions to Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (Volokh 2020) (Stevens 2020)

Further, a survey showed how outraged and scared were many of Patton’s fellow professors  Quotes from the survey included:  

“There was no judge, jury, or anything, only cancellation. If faculty with long records of good performance can lose reputation in a flash or parts of their job for this kind of 5-second mix up, which can happen to anybody by accident given how much material we have to cover, it means we will become a society where people always talk slow, prescreen every word, and take the safest possible route on everything they say. By nature, that will make us irrelevant.”

“It makes me frightened to teach students who can have a faculty member removed for giving an innocuous example in another language. It makes me feel like the dean’s office is willing to throw faculty under the bus in order [to] preserve the appearance of diversity and inclusion instead of opening up dialogues on both sides.“

“I will never teach about anything having to do with diversity, or touching on anything having to do with diversity, if I can at all help it. It will clearly get me fired, regardless of how well I do it.”

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The question is if these and other instances of overreaction and sometimes ridiculousness are aberrations or are they representative of a general trend. 

Veronique de Rugy and Tevi Troy of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and Samuel Abrams of Sarah Lawrence University see a widespread increase in campus intolerance. However, Columbia University political science professor Jeffrey Adams Sachs does not. Haidt sees a rise in illiberalism but sees it primarily in East Coast elite schools, including Ivy League schools, and in areas of the West Coast. Haidt also wrote, “The academic world in the social sciences is a monoculture – except in economics, which is the only social science that has some real diversity. Anthropology and sociology are the worst — those fields seem to be really hostile and rejecting toward people who aren’t devoted to social justice.” (Troy 2021) (Morey 2020) (Sachs 2019) (MTG 2016)

Polls have shown that professors are increasingly politically left. However, professors’ political persuasions are not an inherent problem when the professors and schools allow a diversity of views and debate. I studied at a famously progressive private university and in a humanities department with a clear political and ideological slant. The professors and classes not only allowed but encouraged debate and the expression of a diversity of ideas. Well argued dissent and outside-the-box thinking were rewarded. (PRI 2019) 

Polls show that “intolerance is on the rise” among university students. Incoming freshmen are more willing to shut down speech they find offensive and more willing to ban extreme speakers. In turn, a survey showed that 80 percent of students self-censor out of fear of being criticized or called out. A liberal arts college professor wrote that “not a week goes by that I don’t hear from frustrated students who feel they cannot speak freely.” (HERI 2019) (Rampell 2016) (Harden 2021) (Abrams 2021)

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Such illiberalism, censorship and intolerance are bad for students, education and research

Liberalism, freedom of speech and the exchange of a diversity of ideas are essential for a university and education. They are necessary for creativity and learning. Students must learn to listen to and consider different opinions and views. This is how they expand their minds, how they become prepared for the multicultural world. Studies have shown that students who have friends with different views become more tolerant and open-minded. (Higher Ed 2020)

Such freedom of thought and inquiry is necessary for academic research and science. Social psychologist and research fellow Sean Stevens writes about the new illiberalism: “Research and scholarship will suffer . . . Why place one’s job, or even one’s career, at risk by investigating a politically controversial topic or worse, publishing a finding that reaches a conclusion that is politically unpalatable to most of your colleagues?” (Stevens 2021)

Haidt says that, whether political parties or areas of study or non-profits organizations, groupthink that stifles dissent and heterodoxy are “structurally stupid” and will inevitably come to wrong conclusions and make foolish decisions. “Whatever they are doing, it’s probably wrong.” (Loury and Haidt 2022)

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What are the Causes Beyond the New Illiberalism and Intolerance?

Psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and philosophers have identified the following intertwined influences behind the new “woke” intolerance and illiberalism on some campuses.

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The Infantilization of Students

Everyone should be aware of racism and other bigotry including in the dominant culture and language. We all have much to learn, we must listen and be sensitive to others’ perspectives and experiences.  However, sensitivity can move to the extremes of fanaticism.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that safe spaces, excessive focus on microaggressions and the idea of being emotionally “harmed” by words and ideas are not only bad for campuses and education but students’ health. He said campuses that are illiberal and intolerant are emotionally and educationally stunting young people. Haidt and education lawyer Greg Lukinoff have written extensively about this in the book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. (Haidt 2018) 

This is all done in the name of emotional well-being. Students are being raised and taught to be emotionally fragile and immature and that they must be protected from the normal tribulations of everyday life.   

Haidt says that students and young people have been taught that their subjective emotional reasoning or feelings are truth and that it is wrong and harmful for these feelings to be countered.  Minorities’ subjective opinions are treated as indisputable “truth-telling,” and activists say it causes “harm” to even question their truths or ask for evidence. This leads to a stifling of debate and inquiry, and a lack of due process in disputes. In the earlier examples, the professors were often punished without hearing or being able to tell their side of the story. For the administrators, subjective claims of “harm” from a small group of students were all that was needed.

Not only is the climate bad for learning, but it is for the students mental health. Young people must be exposed to a diversity of ideas, views and challenges to grow into emotionally healthy and resilient people. Teaching young people that their subjective feelings are unquestionable truths is not only clearly false but is child abuse, leaving them unable to function and cope in the real world where not everyone will agree with or defer to them and where they will not always be correct. It contributes to mental health problems including anxiety, depression and cognitive distortion. (Haidt 2018) (Haidt 2019)

Psychologist and child behavior researcher Valerie Tarico writes, “Given these dynamics, it shouldn’t be surprising that some activists develop habits that can be hard on psychological and relationship health.” (Tarico 2021) 

If an adult insists on being treated like a child and that all people be Yes men to whatever they say or ask for, that’s their deficiency and childlike immaturity. Enabling them is not helping or “being an ally” to them.

It becomes so extreme that a population of students demand trigger warnings to prevent them from encountering words and ideas they don’t like.  

Harvard law students asked professors not to teach rape law and not even use the word violation, as in “a violation of the law”, because it might cause distress. Law students called for the firing of University of Illinois Chicago professor Jason Kilborne because he used witness court testimony on a test that included a redacted racial epithet and redacted word ‘bitch.’ He used the type of testimony lawyers would regularly encounter in court. (Gerson 2014) (Jacobson 2021)

Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson compared this all to trying to teach “a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood.” ( Gerson 2014) 

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A Culture of Victimhood

Sociology Professors Bradley Campbell, of Californian State University Los Angeles, and Jason Manning, of the University of West Virginia, have researched and written extensively how there is a new victimhood culture on campuses and elsewhere. (Campbell and Manning 2018)

They have written how social justice activists have created a new caste system, where those who deem themselves most “marginalized” are morally and socially superior to others. Haidt identifies the groups that are currently treated as sacred: racial minorities, LGBTs, Latinos, Native Americans, people with disabilities, and Muslims. White, heterosexual males are at the bottom. An individual’s place in the caste system and the value of one’s opinions are not based on personal character or merit, but such things as the color of one’s skin, ethnicity or gender. (Friedersdorf 2020) (Campbell & Manning 2018)

Hallmarks of victimhood culture are taking offense and expressing outrage at perceived microaggressions, censorship of opposing views and trying to prevent heterodox speakers, demanding safe spaces, politically correct language, publicly calling out and shaming perceived heretics and characterizing people with different views as immoral. (Friedersdorf 2020) (Campbell & Manning 2018)

Campbell and Manning wrote: “The combination of high sensitivity with dependence on others encourages people to emphasize or exaggerate the severity of offenses. There’s a corresponding tendency to emphasize one’s degree of victimization, one’s vulnerability to harm, and one’s need for assistance and protection. People who air grievances are likely to appeal to such concepts as disadvantage, marginality, or trauma, while casting the conflict as a matter of oppression . . . The result is that this culture also emphasizes a particular source of moral worth: victimhood. Victim identities are deserving of special care and deference. Contrariwise, the privileged are morally suspect if not deserving of outright contempt. Privilege is to victimhood as cowardice is to honor.” (Lehman 2018)

Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz writes that, unlike Vietnam War protests in the 1960s, the campus social justice crusaders are not protesting against institutional authority but appealing to it. This relates to the childlike fragility described by Haidt. Haidt writes that in normal interpersonal conflicts such appealing to authority “makes sense in situations when you’re talking about children; when reaching adulthood, however, students and potential employees should be able to navigate social interactions (even unpleasant but not harassing ones) themselves.” (Deresiewicz 2015) (Haidt and Lukianoff 2021)

Professors and social critics John McWhorter, of Columbia University, and Glenn Loury, of Brown University, say that, unlike previous civil rights movements and social justice movements outside the United States, these students peculiarly portray themselves as weak, not strong and resilient. The professors say the claims of harm and the need for emotional protection and safe places often are transparent performances to gain power and social status. Virtue signaling is defined as a hollow public display to raise one’s social and perceived moral status over others. (Loury & McWhorter 2022)

Education scholar George Leef writes, “Once students figured out that declaring themselves to be victims of an evil society gave them a great deal of power, a culture of victimhood rapidly spread across our college campuses.” (Leef 2021)

Viewing one’s identity primarily and inescapably as a victim is mentally unhealthy and dysfunctional, contributing to depression, anxiety and other disorders. Teaching children a victim mentality and to view the world and people through a binary “victim versus oppressor” lens is a form of child abuse setting them up for a lifetime of failure, unhappiness and unhealthy relationships. (WebMD 2022)

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Social Justice Ideologies That Are Illiberal and Dogmatic

Extreme social justice activists not only use the victimhood caste system but present their ideologies as dogma. Critical race theory argues that logic, reason, the scientific method and traditional Western Enlightenment methods of debate and inquiry are methods historically used by the dominant culture to maintain power, and thus should be rejected. Dogmatic scholar-activists such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo present their views as unquestionable truths, with Kendi saying it is “racist” to disagree and DiAngelo saying it is ‘fragility’ to question her theories.

As critical race theory believes dominant voices should be “decentered” and “de-platformed,” many critical race theorists argue for the suppression of freedom of speech and expression. Professor Chris Damaske writes in the First Amendment Encyclopedia, “In general, (CRT) scholars argue that there is no societal value in protecting speech that targets already oppressed groups. They also question the logic of using the First Amendment to protect speech that not only has no social value but also is socially and psychologically damaging to minority groups.” (Demaske 2020) 

Dogmatic and zealous adoption of these ideologies, such as has happened on some university campuses, clamp down on standard educational methods of debate, free inquiry and exchange of ideas.

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Hyperpartinship

Compounding all this, things have become “us versus them” hyperpartisan in much of American society, with some students believing that people with dissenting views are not just wrong but bad and immoral. It is easier to silence and punish people and views deemed immoral.

A 2020 Scientific American report noted that many Americans have “ a basic abhorrence for their opponents—an ‘othering’ in which a group conceives of its rivals as wholly alien in every way. This toxic form of polarization has fundamentally altered political discourse, public civility and even the way politicians govern.” In her New York Times column America Has a Scorn Problem, Anglican Priest Trish Warren Harrison wrote, “We find one another repugnant — not just wrong but bad. Our rhetoric casts the arguments of others as profound moral failings.” (Aschwanden 2020) (Pew 2019) (Harrison 2021)

There are important and insightful thinkers all along the political spectrum. Even though you aren’t going to agree with everything they say, it is an intellectual loss to not listen to and learn from the sharp minds on the other side of the aisle.

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The power of Twitter and other social media platforms

All of the incidents described at the beginning involved Twitter campaigns to call out, shame and try to punish the professors, and campus administrators who reacted out of fear of the Twitter campaigns. 

These social media campaigns come from a small minority of students and activists. The Pew Research Center reported that 10 percent of Twitter users make 80 percent of the tweets. Of that ten percent, users are more likely to be younger, Democrats, politically active, more highly educated and women. Studies have shown how Twitter movements can be controlled by a small but vocal minority unrepresentative of the larger population and how manipulative and corrosive this is to society and discourse. (Pew 2019) (Schlosser 2015) (Haidt 2019) (Zimmerman 2021) (O’Sullivan 2021) (Friedman 2018)

Writes McWhorter: “I think the spark for the current situation is perhaps more mundane than we’d like to think. I don’t think that for some reason everybody went crazy. I don’t think it’s because of the president we happen to have in office. I think it’s social media. Social media, especially when you have it in your pocket in the form of the iPhone, allows bubbles of consensus to come together such that you can whip people up in a way that was not possible a generation before, or even ten years before.” (Friederdorf 2020)

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University Administrators as Enablers

A key problem isn’t the students, but that they are enabled by administrators. Undergrads are young. The school presidents, deans and other administrators are supposed to be the adults in the room. However, administrators fear bad publicity and see students as paying customers to be catered to. (Handa 2021)

Samuel Abrams, a political science professor and advisory council member of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), additionally argues that many administrators belong to an ideological monoculture, with over half having education degrees where they were schooled in the same pedagogical theories. (Abrams 2021) (Morey 2020)

Responding to MIT’s cancellation of Dorian Abbot’s lecture, MIT chemical engineering professor Bernhardt Trout wrote that “upper administration would clearly have just wanted to cancel Professor Abbot and be done with it and only spoke in defense of speech because of pushback from the community.” (Sorey 2021)

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This New Culture Is Bad for Communities

Communities where people and their social and moral worth are seen by the color of their skin, gender or nationality, and not by their personal character and merit, are what societies should be moving beyond. Caste systems should be relics of the past.

Communities that do not allow the expression of a diversity of thought, communities where people are intimidated into silence and unable to express their personal truths, are unhealthy and dysfunctional. It is oppressive of minorities themselves, suppressing the diversity of voices, experiences and views within each racial, ethnic, gender and other demographic.

Suppressing the diversity of ideas, debate and the consideration of different ideas is bad in a myriad of ways. Forced conformity through shaming, punishment and censorship should not be tolerated anywhere, but especially in places of learning and education.

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