Salvo 03.07.2023 10 minutes

The Real Defenders of Academic Freedom


Denunciations of New College’s alleged politicization ring hollow.

A few weeks ago I received an “Advocacy Alert” email from the Modern Language Association (MLA) that mentioned the “appalling takeover of the New College of Florida,” calling it a “grievous threat to academic freedom and shared governance.” This was just before the trustees at New College of Florida, including me, voted on February 28 to close the DEI office on campus, cancel diversity statements in faculty hiring, eliminate mandatory diversity training for staff, and review all other diversity activities on campus.

The MLA wasn’t the only appalled scholarly group. A quick web search turned up more indignation from the authorities. The American Anthropological Association drafted a letter dated January 23 that stated, “These new trustees are ideologically motivated and their only apparent interest in the institution is political.” The whole thing “appears to be nothing more than an orchestrated attack on academic integrity.” Five other groups signed the letter, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Political Science Association. 

Still others added to the outcry. The American Council of Learned Societies cast the conservative trustees as “would-be indoctrinators of views that undermine the purpose of higher education in a democracy” and declared such “intimidation and censorship” must be stopped. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a historic pillar of academic freedom, set the appointment of conservative trustees within “an apparent pattern of politically and racially motivated attacks on higher education in the state.” It proceeded to decry “political restrictions on teaching and scholarship,” and it promised that a thorough report on Florida “intrusions” is in the works.

Now, if you laughed at these sober complaints, if the phrases “political restrictions on teaching and scholarship” and “attack on academic integrity” made you blurt, “Yeah, r-i-i-i-ght,” you’ve probably spent a good part of your adult life in academia, where for decades you’ve watched scholarly norms fall to political correctness and restrictions on allowable discussion increase every year. The ACLS worries about “intimidation,” but you’ve witnessed so many scenes of intimidation behind closed doors and on the quad that you’ve come to accept it as a standard feature of academic life.

The AHA signed the letter defending academic integrity, but look at what happened to its president when he objected to the ahistorical application of contemporary morals and mores to long past people and situations. The academic mob formed, and the miscreant fell to his knees and wept. The AAUP fears that we shall “purg[e] the college of ‘left-wing radicals,’” but I don’t know of any protest the AAUP has issued against the disappearance of conservatives nationally from the faculty ranks. One study found that the ratio of liberal to conservative professors has increased 350 percent since 1984, but none of these guardians of diversity seem to mind. The other day a journalist asked me what I thought of statements made by other trustees against biased leftist professors, and I replied that I have heard so many outbursts over the years made by campus leftists against conservatives and Republicans that I can’t really work up much dismay over the rare rejoinder in like mode.

The AAUP is a special matter because of its noble history of defending academic freedom. That isn’t the case anymore, not consistently, at least. One of the common infringements at the present time is the so-called “diversity statement” that schools request as part of a faculty job application. Usually, the file includes a resumé, letters of recommendation, a sample of research, perhaps a statement of teaching philosophy, and this new ingredient, an answer to the question of how the applicant will advance local diversity and inclusion through teaching, research, and service should the candidate be hired. 

It’s a curious demand, a commitment beyond what the applicant studied and mastered in a doctoral program. Everyone except the most naïve true believers recognizes the statement for what it is, a loyalty oath, a pledge, a profession of ideological faith, coercive and irritating.  Answer it wrongly and you can forget the job. When people defend DEI as simply a pose of generosity, open-mindedness, and sensitivity, they’re being disingenuous. These are loaded terms. They go well beyond the command not to discriminate. We know what “inclusive” really means: pro-same-sex marriage, pro-affirmative action, trans rights, and immigration, plus an eagerness to scorn patriarchy and patriotism, heteronormativity, and white privilege. Whole areas of study fall under suspicion. If you specialize in Renaissance English literature, which is almost all white male, you better bring race and sex themes into your approach. Ezra Pound and D. W. Griffith may have been artistic geniuses, but they were politically compromised, so stay away from them. If academic achievement is your specialty, you better attribute the racial gap to the right causes no matter what the evidence shows.

The bullying isn’t covert, it’s not subtle. It goes on out in the open, as a matter of course. On the web, you can find advice on how to compose a pleasing diversity statement, with examples.  Harvard even offers a consultation service. It is embarrassing, in fact, to observe the entire academic establishment go along with this tight script.

That includes the AAUP. In May 2022, the organization published the results of a survey focused on tenure practices at colleges and universities across the country. One section of the report covered “Tenure Practices Related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” Nothing in it raised the slightest whisper about whether such criteria are appropriate to the evaluation of professors up for promotion. Instead, the authors aligned DEI affirmatively with one thing: the underrepresentation of non-white males among tenured faculty. “Certainly,” it said,

it is reasonable to consider, for instance, whether the underrepresentation of women faculty or faculty of color among tenured faculty at an institution may be due to tenure practices, or whether an institution’s stated mission to advance DEI should be reflected in standards for promotion and tenure.

Underrepresentation may be due to “implicit bias,” the authors assert, which DEI review properly extinguishes. Anti-bias training, examination of teaching evaluations by students to check for sexism among those kids, easing the disproportionate burden faculty of color often suffer when it comes to “mentorship and service obligations”—such correctives are well undertaken by DEI programs. It’s all positive, all fair, no doubts, no questions. 

But, of course, if an associate professor were asked to undergo implicit bias training and he responded, “No, I don’t like people digging into my psyche like that—I don’t like divvying people up by identity labels—this is anti-academic and anti-intellectual,” his collegial reputation would sink. No discussion would follow, no debate, no one would defend him. When notable classicist Joshua Katz denounced a Princeton declaration signed by hundreds of profs and students that inserted malicious identity politics into campus life and peer review, a vendetta followed, and he lost his post. At Academe, a publication of the AAUP, a commenter offered a half-hearted defense of Katz, but ended with this remarkable utterance: “There is no evidence that Princeton is persecuting Katz for his political views.” In truth, Katz’s opposition to identity politics was precisely the reason for the attack.

The AAUP and the other academic organizations act as if DEI is but another academic ideal like the scientific method. The organizations have managed to accept a frankly overt political agenda as proper academic practice, betraying the very mission they pledge to safeguard. Instead of issuing denunciations of what we trustees aim to do at New College, they could have sent a warning stating that while they recognize the power of trustees to reform an institution, they caution us to respect faculty prerogatives and academic freedom. But they didn’t. DEI is now in their bones.

The response of the MLA and other scholarly guilds to the trustees appointed by Governor DeSantis shows how far this ideological litmus test has been normalized. Our professorate has lost all credibility on these matters. When reporters have asked me whether I agree with this “politicization” of higher education in Florida, I laugh and tell them that if they’re worried about politics corrupting academia, they’re about 50 years late in posing the question. When they ask if it’s right for conservative politics to be imposed on the campus from the outside, I ask them if it was right for identity politics to have been imposed from the inside by a group of leftist bullies who cowed the liberal majority into submission.

If the experts and highly-accredited ones won’t uphold academic ideals, an outside body will have to do it for them. Having worked with DeSantis’s education team on the state’s new English Language Arts standards, I know the governor’s preference is an education that conservatives and liberals not too long ago admired equally and unambiguously. In the humanities, it means immersion in great books, great ideas, and great events in the Western tradition, the heritage that has given us the U.S. Constitution, Beethoven’s Fifth, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Galileo’s experiments, Mendel’s genetics, and Hamlet. That tradition thrives in an open classroom that allows for dissent and argument, wit and irony, high standards and academic freedom, not surveillance and joylessness of woke censors. 

If the classroom is to become once more a rousing arena of learning, a vibrant marketplace of ideas, an immersion in the masterpieces and epochal moments of the West, other governors must follow suit. The eradication of DEI should not be a DeSantis brand. It should be a national conservative project and a plank in the Republican Party’s 2024 platform.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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