Education, Free Speech, Recommended

I’ve Been Fired. If You Value Academic Freedom, That Should Worry You

Orthodoxy whether of the right or of the left is the graveyard of creativity.
~Chinua Achebe

Until a week ago, I was a tenure-track assistant professor at a small college. Then I was fired. And although I am but one professor at one small college in one small town, I want to persuade you that, if you care about free speech and free inquiry in academia, you should be alarmed by my termination. My troubles began in October 2019 when I was invited to address an evolutionary group at the University of Alabama. I had decided that I would discuss human population variation, the hypothesis that human biological differences are at least partially produced by different environments selecting for different physical and psychological traits in their populations over time. I planned to defend this view as most consistent with a Darwinian understanding of the world.

My first day in Tuscaloosa was uneventful. On the second day, I visited a class and had an enjoyable discussion with students about various topics, including human evolution and social signaling. I was then supposed to meet professors and students for lunch, but instead my guide delivered me to an empty room where I received a number of texts from my host: The professors had found my RationalWiki entry, which accuses me—inter alia—of writing “racist bullshit for the right-wing online magazine Quillette.”

Notwithstanding its name, which indicates a commitment to thought and reason, RationalWiki is a highly partisan and tendentious site which its authors use to mock and defame their political opponents. (They have also refused to update misinformation about my work and views even after I have written corrections.) Which is to say that it is not a reliable source of information about anything, still less a sound basis upon which to judge a person’s character. Professors routinely warn their students not to cite Wikipedia, but the lies and misrepresentations on my RationalWiki page were thought to be so unanswerable that the faculty who read them refused to meet with me so I could speak in my own defense. (A handful of other curious professors did extend me the courtesy of a meeting, and we enjoyed a perfectly civil chat.)

I assumed that my scheduled talk would be cancelled, but it was not. I thought the room would be empty, but it was not. Word had evidently spread and a number of angry students were in attendance. The atmosphere was hostile, and the audience was eager to challenge me, but I was able to deliver my talk as planned. The Q and A that followed was quite rowdy, however—one of the students yelled that I was a racist and someone else accused me of promoting the long-discredited pseudoscience of phrenology. And so on. It was not an especially cordial or constructive exchange of ideas.

Shortly after my talk, the student newspaper published a clearly slanted article about the event that casually quoted anonymous criticism that my work “resembles the pseudoscience employed by eugenicists.” This criticism was completely irrelevant to my talk, in which I never discussed anything resembling “eugenics,” and was likely included to poison the study of human biological variation by associating it with other unsavory intellectual traditions. The group that invited me to speak also issued an unconditional apology to attendees of my talk and vowed to do better. My lecture, they explained, was “non-scientific” (it formed the basis for an article that passed three reviewers at a professional psychology journal) and they had been unaware of what I planned to say (I had provided them with an outline of my talk at least two months in advance, which they had approved). And as soon as controversy arose, they denounced me and my expressed views (most of which are undisputed in the relevant literature), and explained that the invitation they had extended had been a mistake.

When the newspaper article was emailed by persons unknown to my university’s provost and president, I was called for a meeting. They were not terribly pleased, but the meeting was uneventful and I was told to be more strategic in my navigation of such a sensitive topic. I agreed that I would try. A few months later, however, someone using a pseudonym began emailing my provost, my president, and my entire department (but not me) links to my articles (including those written for this outlet) and screenshots of “offensive” tweets. My anonymous accuser held me to be guilty of all kinds of treachery and threatened to inform the board of trustees of my sins.

One of these tweets was only up for an hour before I deleted it and posted another clarifying my meaning. It had read: “The greatest challenge to affluent societies is dealing openly, honestly, and humanely with biological (genetic) inequality. If we don’t meet this challenge, I suspect our countries will be torn apart from the inside like a tree destroyed by parasites.” My tweet was not about groups, but rather about individual genetic differences, and the need to create a humane society for everyone, not just for the cognitive elite and hyper-educated (a theme I discuss often). The simile about parasites was a reference to political conflict and not a reference to some group of humans or another. (A fair-minded examination of my Twitter history, which comprises more than 30,000 tweets, will reveal that I have never said anything divisive about human groups. And I have always argued that people should be treated as individuals not as representatives of a demographic.)

In any case, this episode earned me another meeting with my bosses. I am not able to divulge all the details of what followed, but this meeting was rather less congenial than the last. They expressed disappointment in me and particular dismay about the tweet I had deleted, which they said evoked anti-black and antisemitic tropes. I repeatedly agreed that it had been carelessly worded and did not convey what I meant. I pointed out that I had deleted it shortly after posting it and issued a clarification. I also explained that I value free speech and free inquiry and that I would continue to pursue potentially controversial topics. Finally, I warned them that an article I had co-authored on human variation would soon appear in a respected peer-reviewed journal.

As fraught as that meeting was, the possibility of my termination never came up. Again, they beseeched me to be more strategic. Again, I agreed. By the time the meeting was over, I had managed to convince myself that everything had been straightened out and that I had come to an understanding with my superiors. I concerned myself with fretting about how my new paper about human variation would be received when it was finally published online. As it turned out, the article provoked a minor fuss on Twitter, but nothing that caused any noticeable concern at work. I was enormously relieved. My colleagues and I had managed to write about human population variation and the world hadn’t come to an end.

A few days later, however, my boss informed me, without any warning, that the college was not renewing my contract—in other words, they were firing me. I don’t know if my paper was the proximate cause of my firing, but in the light of the foregoing weeks’ tumult, it was plausibly the last straw. Nevertheless, I was nonplussed. Fired? I had worried vaguely about such an eventuality, but didn’t really think it would happen. I naively assumed that the norms of academic freedom would prevail. They did not.

My situation might strike you as trivial and insignificant. And, indeed, I am insignificant. But my firing is not. I did not enjoy the protection of tenure (I was, however, tenure-track), but we should not rely upon tenure to uphold free inquiry. Academic health is not served by a message that tenure can only be secured by those prepared to embrace political orthodoxies. After all, if tenure is intended to protect people who challenge dogmas and orthodoxies, why would we support a system that punishes non-conformists and that sieves them out before they are capable of safely challenging prevailing views?

Many people disagree with my views about human population variation, about conservativism, about immigration, about economics, indeed about almost everything. That is just part of living in a liberal democracy. Disagreement is what powers intellectual progress, and without it neither the political process nor the scientific method can function. But unless we can agree on the foundational value of academic freedom, all scholars will become vulnerable to ideologically motivated punishment. Science, the great intellectual achievement of civilization, will become the servant of politics.

I followed all of the protocols of academia. I published articles in peer-reviewed journals. I shared my ideas, always politely, on Twitter, and I encouraged people to debate me and to criticize my ideas. And I was fired. If it can happen to me, then it can happen to any academic who challenges the prevailing views of their discipline. You may disagree with everything I believe, say, and write, but it is in everyone’s interests that you support my freedom to believe, say, and write it.

 

Bo Winegard is an essayist and former assistant professor at Marietta College. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187

Comments

  1. So sorry to see that Mr. Winegard. As someone currently facing the same fate in my job, I have great sympathy for you and know that it is a very tough time, even if you do have truth on your side.

  2. Looks like Charles Murray tweeted on exactly this problem over a month ago, i.e. well before it happened to Bo Winegard:

  3. Because it was what he was researching and he didn’t think it was that controversial?

    Understand please that, as a biologist, most topics that fall under evolution are pretty standard, non-controversial fare. However, what we often fail to recognize is that the woke are Skinnerian, and may in some cases even be Lamarckian. Darwin sets up inequality of outcome, while the previous two set up the possibility of equity. Thus, from an ideological point of view, they must be correct and Darwin false.

    This is the same sort of thing as Lysenkoism in the USSR was, and that sent many capable geneticists to the gulag.

  4. The most remarkable aspect of this story is now so commonplace is goes unremarked upon. Winegard states what he believes publicly. He is against racism and antisemitism. The activists have to claim that he secretly believes something else.

    Where did this idea of secret beliefs come from? Where do they get the idea that people systematically misrepresent their beliefs?

    The historical antecedents lie with searches for witches and communists.

  5. The lengths they will go is incredible. I know a white woman on another board who has been told by the enlightened that the only reason she married a black man (and had 5 kids with him) is to hide her own racism.

  6. What a nightmarish experience. I’m so sorry this happened to you.
    There are several critical factors here that are allowing this Maoist purging to happen, and I’ll try to parse them in no particular order.

    1. As Hamlet said, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space…” Academia has become more & more bound in its own nutshell as people are self-selecting joining. When I was contemplating academia in the 1980s, I was fortunate to see the writing on the walls already. I’d planned on getting my PhD in English, but when researching for my Honors Undergrad thesis, I kept reading article after article of petty, small-minded back-stabbing hyper-focused gobbledygook. I already knew how bitter & mean some academics could be. I left. And that was in the 1980s. I can only imagine how it is now. Only a certain type of person will accept this nutshell. Someone of limited intelligence–smart, but not nearly as smart as they believe. Given to cruelty & petty bureaucratic meanness. In short, party apparatchiks.

    The hard sciences thought they were immune and were not too long ago. Alas, they too have been swept up as the nutshell encases them.

    1. Administrator bloat. Administrators have an entirely different function from academics. Their function is as a giant HR/PR machine for the organization and to enrich their own jobs. IN the age of social media, it is a no brainer that they’d toss out a professor if their company’s image and/or their own jobs are at stake. Negative publicity, even minor, terrifies them. They want to operate in the shadows; the last thing they need is a spotlight, any spotlight.

    2. Student as consumer, university as service. The vision is not to educate students, but to please them, and, as one Yale student put it, roughly, “to give them a safe home.” This is now being interpreted as a sort of nursery where scary images are in abeyance.

    3. The relatively low pay & non-glory of professors - who have given of themselves 4 years of college, 6 years of grad schools, several years of post-doc in some fields, very crappy $10/hour type jobs in adjunct positions for most, 7 years toward tenured professorship if they’re lucky, then finally, at least, Tenured Professor for $70K or less - leads to a person who is a) heavily invested in the system in a sunk-cost way and b) very bitter and insecure at being invisible (many papers are never read, their ‘enlightened’ brilliant thoughts are read nowhere), & paid less than their plumber and electrician. They therefore tell themselves they are Brilliant & Important, far more wise than mere plumbers or doctors, the true Philosopher Kings. They teach students as a king teaches its subjects. It feels good.

    4. The seduction of Soviet thinking for these weak and bitter minds. Lust for power for people who thought they’d be far more powerful than it turns out they are.

    5. Fear and cowardice and each thinking, “If I lie low, at least i can research my dream topic I’ve given my whole life for.” This is for the non embittered, modest intellectual, the ‘bystanders.’

    I could go on but I have to take my dog to the vet… But it’s terrible. I don’t think the system will withstand this. Something new will have to come from the ashes. I think it will.

  7. Many universities have become glorified nursery schools, where the administration is more concerned with protecting the delicate sensibilities of its charges than pursuing rigorous academic study. Shielding students from difficult questions or topics only fosters ignorance.

    Perhaps nontenured professors should consider unionizing? It would be interesting to see the ivory towered woke response to that development.

  8. Yes, being on Twitter at all is unwise for any non tenured or perhaps even tenured academic in this environment. Unless a) you post memes of adorable dogs or walks in the woods or b) unless you join in as a party apparatchik and dutifully post what the party deems is acceptable. And yes, getting good student reviews (in a small college) is critical.

    That said, you miss the overall forest. Probably you were focusing on the trees for now, so I’m just adding to your thoughts. Yes, one needs to make zero enemies. This has always been the case. The problem is in academia, you can easily gain enemies simply because you are better than someone higher up than you. The very fact that this professor had published many well received articles is exactly why he may have gained enemies.

    Social media is a terrific tool for jealous colleagues to use to attack a colleague that threatens to surpass them. There has always been backstabbing in academia (it’s the most regressive institution I’ve been in, and I’ve worked in corporate America). But now, the woke culture combined with social media allows backstabbing to be extremely easy. Note the accusations were anonymous. That is, there is now zero risk in making an accusation, & a great deal to gain.

    Getting consistently good student reviews means you have to inflate grades. Students with A’s generally won’t complain. But this is hardly a protection. My daughter was in a top liberal arts college when they fired a very popular tenure track professor for wrong think. The students protested as the professor was well liked, rigorous, and caring. University didn’t care. Bad student grades are simply a tool admin can use to attack you, but they are not the root cause in general.

    All this said, take a step back: “If you do x and y and z and q and oh, an ever widening list of randomly verboten things, then you can keep your crappy paying job that is no longer respectable or admired in the larger community.” It’s nightmarish. Only a certain type of person would accept this, either a) the ideologue who loves backstabbing & power grabs b) the weak minded who genuinely buys into the Maoism/wokespeak c) the true intellectual who lacks the social intelligence to see what academia is: it’s not about being a good researcher and getting papers published; it’s about whether you fit into the club and will advance the organization. Indeed, mediocre minds are best for this.

    The true intellectual, someone who is genuinely curious and thinks outside the box and who will purse the truth, is very very dangerous to these people. There is never a good time for him/her. So the answer is not to do x, y, z, q etc in order to keep your repulsive job. The answer is to pursue something different or in a different organizational structure.

  9. It is – everybody should be outspoken and fearless truth tellers.

  10. Many of the most high-tension articles on Quillette (firings, witch-burnings, etc) are almost invariably related to life in the Academy, particularly life in the social sciences. The comments on this one have done a good job of enumerating the problems and potential solutions to these seemingly common grievance articles.

    I would like to pose a question, and I respectfully ask for considered answers, as I do not mean to be “cute” in any way. The question concerns the use of Twitter. Most of these stories involve problems arising from Twitter use (and social media more generally). I would really like to know why it is so important for the people involved in these embroilments to use these technologies, particularly given the rather dire downsides.

    Why is it seen as so important to air one’s thoughts on Twitter? Again, I ask this respectfully and seriously. What exactly is the upside?

  11. You can stop this sentence at “unwise”; the rest is superfluous.

  12. YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have announced they are going to merge into one service: YouTwitFace.

  13. In nearly all universities, there are two parallel universes. One is populated by sociologists, psychologists, grievance studies professors and much of the university administration. The other is populated by neuroscientists and molecular geneticists. For a long time, they peacefully co-existed. But large-scale genomic analysis (See the GWAS Catalog) and advances in neuroscience have changed all of that. Those universes are now colliding. Bo Winegard is but one casualty in what will be a long bloody war.

    It was easy to cast Herrnstein and Murray as racist because at the time The Bell Curve was published (1994), many believed that little evolutionary change had occurred in the human population since the migration of early man out of Africa. This included Jay Gould. It was easy to claim that: “Race is a cultural construct” and that there are no substantial differences in intelligence between humans, only differences in color and socio-economic status.

    Genomic analysis of large populations has changed all of that. It is impossible to overstate the impact of genotyping of large population groups worldwide. It clearly demonstrates that there is no such thing as a blank slate!!! We can prove on a statistical basis that sub-Saharan Africans, Asians and Caucasians have very different genetic makeups. Some of these different traits are non-controversial. For example, Africans, including African Americans are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer as Caucasians. We can document this not only by statistics but also by differences in their genetic make-up. Alleles cannot be affected by SES (socio-economic status, class or access to good health-care. Africans have a greater propensity to develop sickle cell anemia and in turn have a greater resistance to malaria. As an Ashkenazi Jew I belong to a population group that has a greater chance of getting Tay-Sachs disease than the general population. There are other non-controversial heritable traits. Analysis of alleles in tall people and their offspring show that both have alleles which indicate a greater chance of being tall. There is no gay gene” but there are sets of alleles that suggest that some have a greater chance of becoming gay than others. Same with the propensity to gain weight. Now to be clear, you can have sets of alleles (polygenetic score) that suggest that you have a greater propensity to gain weight and still be skinny. It simply means that, when looking at a large population, more of those who are overweight have that specific set of alleles than those who are not.

    Now let’s take a good hard look at some of the controversial ones.

    • Parental upbringing (shared experience) has a relatively minor impact on life outcomes. The greatest shared experience impact is in early childhood and it decreases substantially in adolescence and adulthood. Genetics and non-shared experience have a much greater impact.
    • Men and women are equally intelligent, but the types of intelligence differ. Men are better at visual-spatial imaging and women are better at memory of details. So when a man or woman drives to a specific location, they may be navigating using different principles. The man will have a general idea that the left turn is coming up. The women will remember to “turn left at the Dennys restaurant. Men are more interested in things and women are more interested in people. This does not mean that there are not great women engineers (I work with one) or great male nurses. These concepts are only valid when looking at large populations.
    • When you control for IQ, income and educational differences between African American and Caucasians largely disappear.
    • And now for the “big kahuna”! Continental population differences (ex. Africans vs Asians in alleles (polygenic scores) exist and they appear to have an effect on variations associated with personality, abilities and social behavior. These may include, but are not limited to cognitive abilities and educational attainment.

    We have only been able to conduct low cost genomic analysis on large amounts of humans for very short time. Neuroscience is entering new frontiers. We have a lot more to learn. But what is new in the nature vs. nurture battle is that can isolate and map the “nature effect” even as it regards some aspects of behavior, and we know that is highly significant.

    I am in the oil and gas business. I have watched too many of my very bright colleagues refuse to believe in anthropogenic global warming, despite the overwhelming evidence. Genomic sequencing and neuroscience are the AGW of the world of the humanities, and they are the new deniers. Right now, the blank slate group holds the high ground and they will try to hold it at all costs. Bo was not the first casualty and he won’t be the last.

  14. The is an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that intelligence is in large part heritable. We can map the alleles that control for educational attainment. There is also some evidence that there is polygenic influence on behavior patterns, some of which may lead to crime, That does not mean that anyone whose has those specific alleles is a criminal. There is no crime gene!!! It only means that they may have a greater possibility to have specific behavioral traits that when studied in large populations are found more often in criminals that in then in population at large

    That is not eugenics. Eugenics is defined as the study of how to arrange human reproduction for desirable human traits. Actually the people who are doing that are likely the ones that likely agree with you.Those who are cognitively elite marry people that are cognitively elite and therefore are more likely to have smart children. This is eugenics on a voluntary basis

    Is it your contention that research in the relationship between genomic make-up and intelligence and behavior patterns should not be done and that people who do that research should be censured? Are you one of the “deniers” that I discuss on my earlier post. It is a free country and you are free to advocate people who do this type of research should be fired.

    But it is only racist because you say it is racist. As we have moved from a industrial power to an information technology power, members of the cognitive elite have flourished. Those who are not cognitively elite have seen their neighborhoods and towns hollowed out and their jobs destroyed. When the factory moves to China everyone loses their jobs, regardless of race creed or color. But those of us in the cognitive elite see our portfolios grow in value as the company reduces labor costs. When we as a society engage in labor arbitrage, by allowing illegal immigration of thousands of low skills laborers, those of us in the cognitive elite get our lawns mowed and our offices cleaned at a cheaper rate. But the cognitively disadvantaged who used to hold those jobs get screwed.

    What Winegard is arguing for, and I agee, is an increased role in our society for those who are not cognitively elite. It is not enough to simply to write them a welfare check As Arnade points out it’s not about money, it is about dignity. Usually that means a good job. Roosevelt did this years ago with the CCC. Not everyone can or should go to college. We as a society need to have a role for those who do not. But that means acknowledging the clear and obvious fact that we really are not all created equal.

    Whether you like it or not, the genomic genie is out of the bottle.Scientific endeavors cannot stopped in their tracks in a free society and the benefits of genotyping (ex. genetic medicine) far outweigh the societal risks. Some men are seven feet tall and have a great jump shot. Others are short and can’t jump. Some are great singers and some are not Some are bright and some are not. Each of those characteristics are due in a substantial part due to genetics.

    Facts don’t care about your political beliefs.

  15. As a metaphor for gut reaction versus informed decisions, I created a first day of class exercise that would evolve i to a deeper probe. I showed the class a Waterhouse painting of Hylas and the Nymphs and asked what story the painting seems to be telling. Most of the students are Chinese, some indoctrinated in American schools. Only one student already knew the story. Anyway, after collecting impressions I asked if the painting should have been banned. Many believed so. One student sat back glowering. “This is a stupid free speech exercise,” she said. Regardless the debate was spirited and interesting, rife with plenty of ridiculous arguments for banning, one reason being that “it’s too heterosexual.” Ironically about a fourth of the students dropped despite this being the liveliest first day I’ve seen in a long time.

    My point is that this growing aversion to discussion is somehow a moral one. I don’t know what they expect because these same students complain that they have to repeat what they are told to say, while simultaneously avoiding opportunities to express themselves. Meanwhile I am actually wondering whether I shouldn’t have provided an assignment that questions the so-called wisdom of banning art through the so called male gaze.

    Even pluckier, when students brought in an interpretation of Daphne and Apollo a story of sexual harassment, and I asked the students to explain it, one of them answered that it’s anything that makes her uncomfortable. I pressed her to further define that against the notion that I am supposed to tell her she’s right. Anything that makes you uncomfortable is cause for alarm.

    If I’ve said it once here, I’ll say it again: Welcome to the matriarchy. In my own experience, trying to parse ideas with women (I am one!) is a minefield. Hence the destruction of academic freedom, academia in general. It’s run by the clique of mean girls who’ll stalk you with taunts until you cave.

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