The University as a Total Institution

The University as a Total Institution

John Paul Wright
John Paul Wright
14 min read

Concentrated Power is Not Rendered Harmless by the Good Intentions of Those Who Create It
— Milton Friedman

Administrators and staff at Edgewood College were recently called together to discuss a troubling note placed on the door to the diversity office after the election of Donald Trump. The note, which included a smiley face, stated “Suck it up, pussies.” In the hours after the note was found, the diversity office had coordinated with the Title IX office, human resources, the office of student conduct, and the Vice President for Student Development to determine an appropriate course of action. In their joint email to the Edgewood campus, the ad hoc committee said that the note “was hateful and harmful,” and that “it violated every value that this institution considers to be at its core.” If such a condemnation wasn’t enough, they added that “Covert micro-aggressions and overt macro-aggressions appear to have taken on a new fervor” since the election.

They promptly determined that the note constituted a hate crime and called the Madison, Wisconsin Police Department.

A post-it note message stating “Suck it up, pussies” was deemed a hate crime by intelligent, articulate, and highly credentialed campus officials. Let that sink in. To those outside the closed world of academia, Edgewood’s clarion call to arms represented another hyper-sensitive reaction to a banal offense. There are, after all, no shortage of examples of universities acting stupidly. If anything, universities seem to be in a race to the bottom in that regard.

That said, it is a mistake to view the glaring infringements on free speech, the banning of speakers who challenge campus dogma, and the rise and spread of secretive Bias Response Teams as disconnected illustrations of campus lunacy. Underlying this lunacy is an ideology — an ideology that corrupts the core principles of a university, that divides more than it unifies, and that demands strict adherence through the omnipotent threat of sanction. This is the ideology of diversity and it is responsible for transforming the university into a total institution.

I. The University as a Total Institution

There can be no doubt that many universities have tasted the intoxicating power that comes from controlling others. Billion dollar institutions now police students’ Halloween costumes, their private text messages, their social media posts, and even their external voluntary associations. Faculty and staff, too, are finding their words — written, spoken, and even sung — subject to formal, and more often secret, investigation. Almost every aspect of life on many campuses is now subject to unprecedented surveillance and potential sanction.

Coined by the famed sociologist Erving Goffman, total institutions are those that seek to control every aspect of life within the organization. Goffman highlighted prisons as an example of a total institution. In a prison, life is regimented, orderly, and compliance with even the most insignificant directive is required. Prisons control what inmates watch on television, what is available to read, what and when an inmate eats, and even what passes through the mail or the phone.

Goffman’s typologies of total institutions also included institutions for people thought to need aid and direction, such as the poor, and for those incapable of looking after themselves, such as orphans and the mentally ill.

Goffman also argued that total institutions are often involved in a process of “resocialization.” For Goffman, resocialization coupled the total control of the individual to a broader, functional aim: to change the individual’s identity and behavior. Elimination of a prior identity and the individual’s sense of autonomy and independence, Goffman argued, paves the way for the second resocialization effort — the building of a new, more socially acceptable identity.

Many universities have embraced both the rhetoric of the total institution in their justifications for suppressing ideas, speech, and behavior, and they have embraced the re-educative motive to eliminate certain identities while sponsoring others. In this vein, universities often control speech and ideas because they conflict with the dogma of diversity. Similarly, compelled diversity courses, classes in “whiteness studies,” and the wholly sexist efforts to eliminate “toxic masculinity” that occur on many campuses are designed to abolish specific identities, namely that of white males, from campus.

Total institutions function effectively in part because they have an internal apparatus capable of exerting power and in part because many of their charges willingly embrace the values and directives of the institution. Framed this way, the frenetic screeches of student protesters demonstrating against free speech, capitalism, or the latest incantation of white supremacy, and the zealotry of English majors and Women’s Studies students becomes more understandable. These are not merely valid political actions, as advocates would argue, but are instead a calculated response by actors to the perceived incentives of complying with the demands made by a total institution.

Are we to believe, after all, that students emerge from high school already radicalized, armed with the language of victimstance, and dedicated to the principles of Foucaultian post-modernism or Judith Bulter’s radical feminism? Of course not. Students are indoctrinated into the ideological gestalt of the Total University the moment they arrive on campus. This is why their protests appear to be more performance art than substance, more rhetorical than conscientious, and ever more clichéd. Their protests are not acts of defiance, as they maintain,
but acts of compliance.

The 2015-2016 University of Missouri protests

All total institutions require an apparatus that can simultaneously exert control and that can define the values, priorities, and processes of the institution. This is perhaps the most frightening and under-appreciated aspect of the modern university: the apparatus to control faculty and students is now in place on most college campuses and it has been put in place without hesitation or protest. Indeed, the apparatus to convert our universities to total institutions has been widely celebrated and lauded as not only a necessary social good but as a
principled response to broader social inequities.

II. Diversity as the Ideological Backbone to the Total University

No other institution has so quickly embraced the diversity agenda as have universities. Virtually every university now has a chief diversity officer who is often imbued with rank and pay that sometimes exceeds all others on campus except the athletic director. The University of Michigan, for example, pays their Chief Diversity Officer almost $400,000 per year — a sum that exceeds the median salary for surgeons in the United States.

But that’s not all. Diversity offices are armed with like-minded staff, furnished with immaculate offices, and often enjoy budgets that surpass medium to large size academic departments.

With academic rank comes access to the highest reaches of the university, and with their budget comes the ability to reward and to punish, to incentivize and to marginalize. And incentivize and marginalize they do, often with vigor. As a growing number of critics point out, diversity on college campuses has reached the status of divinity. Diversity is good, always, and to question diversity dogma or to call attention to the negative consequences of diversity efforts is apostasy. Diversity is the one true faith, the gospel, the questioning of which is sacrilege.

This is not hyperbole.

Edgewood College’s reaction illustrates how the new diversity apparatus operates. Depending on the university, many diversity offices are loosely coupled to other administrative offices and academic departments. During times of perceived crisis, such as when an off-color note is affixed to a door, these offices become closely coupled and operate in concert with each other. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion instantly becomes indistinguishable from the Title IX office, the Office of Student Life, Women’s Studies, and sundry other offices that become part of the collective. What emerges is a cabal of radicalized interests capable of exerting power and control over the institution. When these offices are closely coupled they can wrest control of the university away from Provosts and Presidents.

Because their power base is often composed of campus political activists, diversity offices have seized extraordinary power. Under the banner of diversity, they have changed the names of traditional American holidays, have formally recognized various gender identities that have no basis in science, and they are now well on the way to mandating use of vacuous pronouns. They make declarative statements about the nature and extent of racism, sexism, and discrimination, and define, often situationally, what does and what does not constitute racism, sexism, and discrimination. Even matters under current scientific investigation and debate, such as the alleged pay gap or the under-representation of women in STEM fields, are declared settled science.

Diversity offices were created from whole cloth so when administrators looked for people to staff them they turned to those most interested in the diversity agenda. No specialized knowledge or training was, or still is, required. Consequently, those who staff campus diversity offices, Title IX offices, and the assortment of student offices now come from the most radicalized academic departments. It is from here, in the Women’s Studies programs, the various ethnic-studies programs, education departments, and sociology programs, that diversity offices find their source of intellectual and moral support. Not coincidentally, it is from these programs where most of the truly ludicrous campus exploits occur. This is not by chance but reflects the extent to which these programs breed discord through their political activism.

Faculty member arguing with student journalist at The University of Missouri protests 2015-2016

In return for their support, these faculty are often protected by diversity offices. Their flagrant manipulation of students for their own political ends escapes criticism and is instead trumpeted by diversity officers as evidence of creating social consciousness.

Women’s Studies departments deserve special attention because they are a source of much current university madness. Women’s Studies departments were founded on left-wing political activism and because of this, they are today the least intellectually diverse departments on a campus. While individual exceptions exist, most Women’s Studies faculty are first and foremost servants to the political left and like all politicians, what they seek is power and influence. Indeed, the chaos we see on many campuses is what a university looks like when managed by the radicals in Women’s Studies departments.

Diversity offices thus often act as conduits for a minority of hyper-political faculty to see their political views translated into de facto university policy. The privileging of their views is obvious: Male students, faculty, or even entire sports teams can be targeted and held to account for the slightest perceived transgression — often being railroaded by Title IX tribunals staffed by Women’s Studies partisans.

Diversity offices gain immense power by engaging in enforcement activities. Just the mention that faculty can be investigated for uttering a joke or making an off-hand comment is enough for many faculty to change their classroom and interpersonal behavior. Indeed, enforcement of draconian speech codes, highly restrictive codes of conduct, and the ability to investigate just about anything in concert with anonymous reporting schemes only works to the benefit of diversity offices. The more cases of bias they find, real or fabricated, the greater the need for their policing efforts. The more cases of sexism they find, the more they are justified in clamping down on men. If minority groups feel increasingly aggrieved, diversity offices are increasingly needed to spread peace and understanding.

IV. Defining Diversity Up and Down

For diversity offices, everything is a win-win. They achieve this perpetual state of purpose by being able to define and label specific words, deeds, and beliefs as deviant and they get to label certain groups as privileged and others as marginalized. Consider the formal definition of racism proffered at the University of Cincinnati, where I work. Racism, they say, is “grounded in the presumed superiority of the white race” in order to “benefit the dominate group, whites.”

Notice that the definition conveniently absolves all other racial groups of the sin of racism and that it singles out a group of victimizers (whites) and their victims (everyone else). The definition of racism was not arrived at by democratic means, nor was it produced through rigorous, logical evaluation. It was, instead, selected by fiat and for reasons that remain purely political.

To be labeled deviant is not inconsequential, especially in a closed university setting where reputation matters. Unfortunately, diversity advocates often abuse this power for their own benefit. There are two ways they do this: First, by defining diversity down. Borrowing from the late sociologist and Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who coined the term “defining deviance down,” we see a very similar process at play with diversity efforts.

For example, when I started work as an academic, affirmative action policies required that all jobs be advertised widely, that all candidates be examined fairly and impartially, and that if a minority was a “close call,” they would at least be interviewed. Defining diversity down, however, has changed the rules of the game. Contemporary efforts vacate prior affirmative action requirements. In place are “targeted searches,” which is a euphemism for finding and hiring any African-American candidate. No need to advertise. No need to bring in others to interview. No need to follow the rules. The process is entirely racially inequitable but because diversity trumps precedent and hiring laws, diversity ideology easily justifies discrimination — even illegal discrimination.

In a similar way, diversity has been used to justify the creation of black-only student housing — in effect, justifying racial segregation. And diversity has become the disparate judge of group behavior. White students who chanted a racially tinged song on a bus at the University of Oklahoma were summarily dismissed from the university — their due process rights were simply ignored. Conversely, Black Lives Matters protesters who threatened white students at Dartmouth or the University of Missouri seemed to get a pass for their intimidating behavior.

Defining diversity down removes any requirement for equal treatment because consistency in the application of standards is not prioritized. Unchecked power cares little for equal treatment.

2016 UC-Berkeley students advocating for “spaces for color”

The second way diversity offices use labels to their own benefit is by defining diversity up. This happens when diversity offices seek to ascribe bias and insult to even the most mundane of events. Normal greetings, such as “hello sir,” become symbolic statements of patriarchal oppression, as does holding a door open for a woman. Not calling on a student in class, or calling on them too often, becomes evidence of bias against their ascribed group. Social media posts critical of protected groups, such as BLM, become hate speech. Even saying “Merry Christmas” during, well, Christmas, becomes evidence of intolerance.

Microaggressions are the penultimate illustration of defining diversity upwards. Virtually any human effort at communication, verbal, written, and even non-verbal, can now be evidence of implicit animus. And intention? Intention is not relevant. Quoting Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, (the university he founded no less) is now a micro-aggression. And according to documents published by the University of Minnesota, denying that you are a racist is itself a microaggression, as are offering complements to others, making basic social requests, and the horrid utterance “you people.”

V. Recognizing the Harm Done and Changing Course

For whatever good the diversity agenda has created, and there has been some good, it is well past time we take note of the harm done under the diversity banner. First, a wealth of data show that since 1975 the relative number of full time professors has remained relatively flat. The number of administrators, however, has exploded. The University of California system, for example, contains 10 universities. Since 2000, the number of administrators, which topped 10,539 in 2015, has increased over 60 percent and now exceeds the number of full time faculty (8,899 in 2015). Nor is the California example unique. On many other campuses, the number of administrators approach or exceed the number of faculty.

Unfortunately, the hiring of administrators has continued unabated so maybe it should not be surprising that the New York Times found that in the last 18 months 90 universities hired chief diversity officers — often with accompanying staff. As David Frum in The Atlantic pointed out, “As diversity officers proliferate, entire learned specialties plunge into hiring depressions.” So, while diversity offices continue to expand in size and prevalence, we have relatively fewer historians, philosophers, and chemists teaching history, philosophy, and chemistry. In return we get more people teaching about microaggressions, social justice, and discrimination.

The point is, diversity offices are not inexpensive to create or to operate. Their existence is paid for by taxpayers, by student tuition and fees, and through the indirect costs tacked on to grants obtained by faculty. Their addition hikes the costs of education for students and reduces resources for instruction and research.

Second, empirical studies tell us that diversity efforts that sharpen group identities and that reinforce victimstance narratives cause harm. Students report more anger overall and more anger directed at their perceived victimizer. Students also spend less time around others not like themselves, in effect creating the very social bubble diversity efforts were designed to reduce. Moreover, compelled diversity efforts generate suspicion of others and are often viewed by students as ideologically motivated. And there can be little doubt that the winner take all approach of many diversity requirements, where minority groups are privileged at the expense of all other groups, creates the stage for backlash born from distrust. No psychological theory of mental health would encourage these outcomes and no responsible psychologist would enliven such resentments.

It is time to understand that the experiment with coerced campus diversity has failed and that its failure has given us a Total University. Yet it is not too late to roll back the harms done and to reset the course of our institutions. As Jonathan Haidt points out, university faculty and administrators can make a choice to revitalize and reprioritize the pursuit of truth over the pursuit of social justice. Indeed, there remains room on many campuses for a revaluing of classical principles of free speech, free thought, free association, due process, and for the return of the institution as an impartial seeker of truth. Having experienced the human toll caused by diversity warriors, many administrators may actually desire a change.

Students carrying a Free Speech sign at UC Berkeley in 1964

The Total University is not an inevitability, nor is it outside of our control to change. The question becomes: Can we retain the stated values of diversity, such as tolerance and inclusion, at the same time we eject the more harmful elements of the diversity agenda? My answer is, “of course.”

Universities existed for centuries without diversity offices and they can, again, exist without them. Their creation reflected an administrative response to internal and external political demands of minorities and partisan faculty. In a way, however, they were a solution to a problem that was over-hyped and ill defined. Are we to believe that universities were hotbeds of racism, sexism, and homophobia before the advent of diversity offices? Data, observation, and experience do not bear this out.

Efforts to diversify students and faculty can easily be handled by pre-existing campus units. Human resource departments can monitor universities for compliance with current state and federal hiring laws, and diversity in student admissions can be prioritized (or not) by admissions committees. Colleges would still be free to sponsor conferences and seminars on diversity and inclusion, while individual programs and instructors would remain free to address diversity in their teaching and research.

There is no need for diversity offices, or at least no need that is not already met. Some, but not all, of those who fear deinstitutionalizing diversity likely fear losing their influence and the privileging of their values. But that is exactly what is necessary to return fairness, equity, and justice to our universities.

Divesting universities of their diversity offices may not be politically viable on many campuses. The reasons are not difficult to understand. That said, the continued slide towards the Total University can be stopped by parties outside the university. Boards of Regents could force change and if Boards of Regents are reluctant, state legislative bodies certainly can. The State of Tennessee recently took aim at the University of Tennessee’s diversity office after years of hijinks. While their intervention was focused and limited, the precedent has been set and with the rise of Republican legislatures across the United States, the time may be drawing near.

Weaponized diversity is a product of the Total University. Last year, during mandated diversity training, we were told to anonymously report our colleagues for utterances that could be interpreted as offensive. Whatever differences I may have with my colleagues, none of them are deserving of an inquisition. Yet an inquisition is exactly what they would face. To all who value academic freedom, tolerance, and human dignity, weaponized diversity should be as abhorrent as the Total University it supports. Why should these efforts be tolerated much less institutionalized? Let me suggest they shouldn’t and that the best way to eliminate them is to disassemble the diversity infrastructure.


John Paul Wright

John Paul Wright is a Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati.