True Threats to the Telos of the University
True Threats to the Telos of the University

There are three previous drafts of this post that I am choosing not to share because they are too angry. I can tell myself that the anger is justified, and releasing one of those angry versions would possibly draw those people who already agree with me closer, but those drafts, if published, would do nothing to achieve anything other than making more people angry.

I’m going to try again.

It’s still a little angry.

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I believe faculty who have labored in private colleges and universities do not appreciate how difficult it is for those who work in public institutions in states where those institutions are convenient punching bags for politicians looking for political gain. For a big picture example from the past, I suggest turning one’s eyes to Wisconsin, where Scott Walker did great damage to a great university system in a relatively short amount of time.

For a more recent big picture example, I suggest looking at what’s been happening at the University of North Carolina.

I have written about some of the incidents that have struck close to home for me over the years, including one that seems relatively harmless, but which I’ll use to illustrate some specifics about the dangerous forces at work.

Back in the 2013-2014 academic year, College of Charleston (where I was employed at the time) chose Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home, as their campus read. Some of the more conservative members of the state legislature objected that the college would assign a book by a lesbian woman who is open about her own life experience.

A legislator named Gary Smith told the Associated Press, “I understand diversity and academic freedom. This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate."

The language should be familiar to those following current debates over anti-racist teaching, where the mere assigning of, for example, a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay can result in sanction and job loss as happened in a Tennessee high school.

In Smith’s mind, the mere existence of a book by a gay woman somehow required an alternative perspective. What, specifically, he had in mind, I cannot say, but I can guess, and it isn’t great. 

The conservative legislators proposed stripping College of Charleston of the funds earmarked for the common read program, somewhere around $52,000.

This particular incident ultimately fizzled, as there was a sufficient number of Republicans who saw the whole thing as silly and performative. Another Republican legislator, Jim Merrill, remarked of the attempt at reducing the funds, “This might make us feel better, but it's kind of stupid."

This was years ago, in 2014, over a part of the culture war that at least some conservatives had managed to move on from, making the objecting legislators mostly look foolish.

We should be clear, however, that there are sizable factions within states like mine (South Carolina), or in North Carolina,[1] where institutions are essentially at the mercy of partisan legislatures and governing boards. These boards and legislatures see the state higher ed institutions as liberal enclaves that need to be brought to heel.

Take, for example, the attempts in Virginia to sanction Larry Sabato, a high profile professor of political science at UVA, for anti-Trump public speech. Sabato acknowledges that as a tenured, full professor of significant prominence, he is well-protected, but that these actions are clearly meant to intimidate others who are not as fortified.

We in the public institutions are incredibly vulnerable, and will have little choice but to knuckle under or face unknown punishment from partisan legislatures and boards that hold governing power over the state’s institutions and employees. 

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I’ve been wondering about how, in the span of a year, students at elite universities went from being “excellent sheep” to “coddled” mini-tyrants who were a threat to the very purpose of their institutions. 

In Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, published in 2014, William Deresiewicz lamented the timidity of elite college students in their unthinking embrace of meritocratic striving and unwillingness to question authority, particularly the authority that governed elite colleges and universities they attended, even when it resulted in the students’ own immiseration, often manifested as anxiety and depression. 

By 2015, students at elite institutions apparently stopped being so sheep-like and started protesting. Yale Halloween, Murray at Middlebury, Oberlin Banh Mi, safe spaces at Brown, you know the hits. When it gets right down to it, there weren’t all that many of them, but you hear the same story enough times, you being to wonder if there’s something to it. 

Like when I was young and there was a story about one kid who died from drinking Pepsi and eating Pop Rocks. One kid, one kid only, and yet you didn’t catch me mixing my soda and my exploding candy.[2]

Whatever the volume or severity of these incidents, we were instructed that we should be deeply concerned about this sudden rise of “illiberalism” among students.

Those formerly excellent sheep were not sheep at all, but were instead the result of being coddled to the point that apparently could not handle dissenting opinions or potentially upsetting content. The feature story in The Atlantic that would go on to form the basis of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book The Coddling of the American Mind appeared almost a year to the day after the publication of Deresiewcz’s book. 

In the article, there is no mention of the Yale Halloween costume incident or the Murray at Middlebury contretemps because neither of those things had happened yet, though the Brown safe spaces episode had played out earlier in 2015. It’s curious how a serious issue had arisen before the chief examples that would prove the seriousness of that issue even occurred, but I digress.

While there is a disconnect between students as sheep and students as the coddled, the common thread between Deresiewecz’s book and Haidt and Lukianoff’s article is a concern over student anxiety and depression. While Deresiewicz advocates that students opt out of the meritocratic rat race and march to the beat of their own drum, Haidt and Lukianoff argue for something close to the opposite, that students lean-in to the existing culture. Rather than challenging the status quo, they should learn to negotiate microaggressions and conflict through an embrace of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of self-talk that is designed to change a negative individual mindset into a more positive orientation.

Haidt and Lukianoff believe that the meritocratic framework is essentially sound, and those students who are troubled by it are in the grips of a pathology that in the book is called “safetyism.” The implication is that student protests cannot be legitimate or legitimized if they are fueled by this essential fragility that Haidt and Lukianoff believe they have detected, and which arrived out of blue somewhere between 2014 and 2015.

Judging from the response to the book, many others were concerned as well. It is interesting to read the review extracts at the book’s Amazon page and see the worry pile up, blurb after blurb.

They include this wisdom from Steven Pinker, “No one is omniscient or infallible, so a willingness to evaluate new ideas is vital to understanding our world. Yet universities, which ought to be forums for open debate, are developing a reputation for dogmatism and intolerance. Haidt and Lukianoff, distinguished advocates of freedom of expression, offer a deep analysis of what’s going wrong on campus, and how we can hold universities to their highest ideals.” 

I find this call for open debate in the context of a book which clearly implies that the voices and opinions of young people cannot be trusted deeply ironic. According to the book, if students deign to argue against their wise elders, they’re probably in the grips of a psychological disorder. If they are silent and striving, they are sheep. 

I think there is a certain satirical war novel that describes this kind of bind.

The conclusion we’re meant to draw is that listening to students who object to what’s happening on their campuses is a threat to those campuses.

For sure, we want to help students, but helping does not necessarily entail, you know, listening to their concerns.

Whatever is going on these campuses with these riotous students, clearly someone needs to step in, right?

A narrative is building that restricting the speech and academic freedom of liberals – provided they are students or those who validate the concerns of students about social justice issues - is in fact an effort to rebalance a system that has gone out of whack.

Where does this narrative come from? 

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Here’s what I think. I think all of this was supposed to be an intramural battle, primarily fought amongst factions at elite universities. 

On the one side were those who felt institutions have been slow to move on issues of social justice. On the other, is the people who were happy with the status quo. I think there are well-founded concerns about the rise of the administrative university that concerned faculty who wanted to maintain their autonomy and were broadly satisfied with the status quo. I also think they were simply irritated by colleagues who wanted to push their institutions in a direction the status quo supporters were not comfortable with politically or philosophically. 

Enter the seeds of what would become Heterodox Academy and its concerns about “viewpoint diversity” on campuses, a way to marshal a coalition of centrist and center right faculty against their liberal colleagues. In order to prosecute this battle, there must be a front on which to skirmish.

Trigger warnings, safe spaces, microaggressions. Yes, we can have substantive debates about these things, but also, we can go to our corners and struggle for power. The “Coddling” article signaled a move toward the latter and acted as a pre-emptive strike against what they perceived as a potential strike from colleagues to their left, bolstered by an Obama Administration with expansive thoughts about the protections of Title IX. 

Haidt and Lukianoff wrote, “The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

Haidt and Lukianoff managed to flank those who either advocated (or didn’t object to) the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces, by painting themselves as also concerned about student well-being. 

Haidt further staked out the turf by declaring that the telos of the university is the pursuit of “truth,” and sometimes that means getting messy, but as long as we have our eyes on the prize, we’ll all benefit. Who could possibly object to a telos of truth?

Not me.

In this case, students needed to become more resilient to the slings and arrows that intellectual rough and tumble work of hashing out the old higher education telos inevitably leads to.

It’s not clear to me and was never clear to me how marginalizing student voices and creating a pathology that rationalizes away student concerns was going to lead to improving their sense of agency and resiliency, but my theory of the case found much less favor than Coddling the American Mind.

Thankfully, I know that I was not entirely off track with this belief at the time because I was not alone. Aaron Hanlon, writing at the New Republic in 2015 puts it plainly, saying that Haidt and Lukianoff’s belief that some “new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically,” is “just an academic way of saying that politically correct students are driving themselves crazy.”

Hanlon asked, “How have trigger warnings, of all things, been elevated to explanatory value akin to academic and professional pressures, increased accessibility to college, familial and broader economic pressures, reduced sleep, sexual assault epidemics, social media image policing, and any number of other factors that experts have identified as serious contributors to mental health problems on college campuses?”

Put this way, the blaming of student mental health on being “coddled” doesn’t hold up as a broad explainer of what was happening on college campuses writ large. The concerns Haidt and Lukianoff offered over “paranoid parenting,” which they claim gives rise to a culture of safetyism are the exclusive province of privileged households. This does nothing to explain that the problem of anxiety and depression among traditional college-age students cuts across income groups, and is in fact more pronounced among lower income and minority students.

In reality, safetyism was never a real phenomenon, or if it is, it is indistinguishable from the longstanding concern about so-called helicopter parenting and is largely confined to a relatively small cohort of students, an overlapping circle with those excellent sheep. It is certainly not at work in the non-elite public institutions that educate the vast majority of Americans. The problems are structural, rooted in economic precarity, and the steadily narrowing path to middle class prosperity. That anxiety and depression is a sadly rational response to a world that seems stacked against your success, no matter how diligently you work. 

And of course, I am trying to reconcile the description of a generation which is so fragile they cannot bear a challenging thought with one that took to the streets to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others while facing pepper spray, tear gas, beatings, and rubber bullets.

I’m confident that Haidt, Lukianoff, and others who identify as being concerned about viewpoint diversity in higher education have no affinity for the right wing ideologues who threaten the freedoms of faculty who are subject to their power. I’m certain they reject these attacks, and in fact, Lukianoff’s organization has spoken out against proposed and enacted laws which aim to chill faculty speech, and I’m grateful for that.

While it’s good that those folks have no truck with the right wing ideologues, I wish I could say the same about those right wing ideologues in reverse.

In Idaho, conservative legislators have been actively assaulting anything coming out of state institutions that is even vaguely involved with issues of race and inequality. Boise State University suspended a course on diversity because of a report of an incident in which a white student supposedly was forced to apologize for being white.  

That incident never happened.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank. decided to protest an added graduation event at Boise State, open to all, but specifically aiming to celebrate Black Students. This offended their sensibilities. Fundraising against this event the Idaho Freedom Foundation promised to send everyone a book for each $50 donation.

The book was Coddling the American Mind.

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So what should we who share the values of the telos of the university as truth do about this mess?

I have been thinking about this question in the context of the split 9-4 vote on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones as a Knight Chair in journalism at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

It is simply irrefutable as a matter of credentials, accomplishments, and precedent that Nikole Hannah-Jones deserved to be appointed with tenure. Every previous faculty member in the same position had entered with tenure. The list of Hannah-Jones’ accomplishments includes a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her journalism. An additional credential, which is mentioned somewhat less often, is that she is also co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which is formally housed at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

There is of course room for disagreement over the arguments that Nikole Hannah-Jones has put into the world via the 1619 Project, or her views of the role of journalism and journalists[3], this is the stuff of the pursuit of the telos of truth! But there is no doubt she is qualified for the position she was offered, and deserved all the rights and privileges that have come with that position in the past.

Despite these obvious qualifications, despite having completed every departmental and college requirement, despite the tangible harm to the community of the initial refusal to grant Hannah-Jones an up-or-down vote on tenure, despite the damage to the university that refusing tenure for an obviously qualified journalist and Black woman would do, four members of the UNC Board of Trustees voted against tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones.[4]

I submit that people who could vote against tenure for Hannah-Jones and those who agree with them do not share the values of free inquiry, debate, and intellectual diversity at work in the service of pursing Haidt’s telos of the university.

There are others who are not acting in good faith, and who I would argue are not people of good will. For example, anyone on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents who votes for their (rather bizarre)resolution opposing Critical Race Theory that champions the virtues of free speech just before saying that CRT must be banned from the curriculum is not acting in good will and does not value Haidt’s telos of the university. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis does not value Haidt’s telos. The legislatures passing so-called “divisive concepts” laws that are meant to chill speech at both K-12 and post-secondary institutions do not value Haidt’s telos of the university. 

Tom Cotton, who is introducing legislation banning critical race theory as a subject of discussion in the federal government, and who wants to deny federal funds to public schools and universities that teach CRT does not value Haidt’s telos of the university.

Campus Reform, College Fix, and Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA are not people of good will interested in the telos of truth. Chris Rufo, a political operative and self-admitted propagandist, does not have the best interests of higher education institutions in mind as he stokes a moral panic over anti-racist teachings. Rufo could not be less interested in the telos of truth.

Anyone who uses the nonsense term “neo-racism” to refer to people who self-identify as “anti-racist” is not a person of good will. 

I believe all people of good will, those that support the telos of truth, must recognize the threat of hostile politicians, activist legislatures, ideologically stacked governing boards (like in North Carolina), and astroturfed outrage campaigns like Chris Rufo’s initiative have to the operations and even existence of public post-secondary institutions and the people who work within them.

I think this means refusing to legitimize and platform obvious propagandists like Rufo as part of the debate. This does not mean advocating for a silencing of Rufo, but it does mean publicly acknowledging that he is exactly what he professes to be, a political operative and propagandist, rather than a person of good will pursuing the telos of the university.

I think this means refraining from publishing essays that launder the coordinated harassment of predominantly Black and minority faculty by College Fix and Campus Reform under the theory that maybe they have a point. 

I think it means figuring out how to not both sides the fact that conservatives are a minority on college campuses with direct assaults on institutional freedom and faculty autonomy from hostile state legislatures, as Jonathan Zimmerman managed in a recent piece.

I believe this is a moment where people of good will must band against those who act out of ill will towards the telos of the university. We can fight about that other stuff once this serious threat has passed.

I hope we can all come together on this common cause.

 

 

[1] And Idaho, Tennessee, Iowa, Nebraska, and so on, and so on…

[2] Turns out no one died from drinking Pepsi and eating Pop Rocks, go figure.

[3] Full disclosure, I agree with Hannah-Jones on these issues.

[4] Two of those members who voted against tenure for Hannah-Jones have since ascended to chair and vice-chair of the board.



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