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Stuck in the Middle (of Academia)

Academia is a mess, but there is still hope.

· 11 min read
Stuck in the Middle (of Academia)
Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

I’ve been teaching college for 25 years. I love my job, and I’ll probably die doing it. But the challenges I’ve seen for academia in the last few years are the worst I can remember. From the Right, politicians are attempting to diminish academic freedom, suppress speech, and weaken tenure. From the Left, implausible theories are enforced like sacred dogma by zealous activists, feckless administrators, and online mobs, creating a different, but equally dangerous attack on academic freedom. Public confidence in universities is dropping, as are enrollments. How bad is it for us professors, working in academia?

As with many issues: It’s complicated. Academia is neither the quasi-communist boot camp of indoctrination feared by some on the right nor the bold, unbiased, and thus unfairly maligned institution some defenders on the left claim. To be blunt: There is voluminous nonsense on college campuses. I experience it first-hand as I often have to disabuse students of nonsense they’ve picked up somewhere else in the university.

To be fair, students should be exposed to nonsense from time to time because students should hear a wide variety of opinions on almost any subject. Professors should give students a toolkit of critical thinking skills, not a litany of facts or dogmas. Therefore, when students encounter nonsense, whether in the New York Times or in the sociology department or on Fox News, they can inspect, criticize, and reject it. But more and more, professors are skipping the toolkit and directly feeding nonsense to students. In fact, many are training them to substitute thoughtful criticism with moral accusations and outrage.

This has been most obvious in the years since Trump’s election in 2016, though I think it goes back at least to the “Great Awokening” around 2014. No fan of Trump myself, I was nonetheless surprised in 2016 by the level of outrage and hostility among some students and by the quasi-therapeutic “safety” culture exhibited by many universities. The year 2016 was thus my introduction to the new culture…that the loudest, the most upset, the most “traumatized” person would prevail, regardless of the quality of data and argument. 

Various popular (but empirically dubious) theories in the humanities and social sciences set the stage for this. Most prominent among such theories were Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the new postmodern gender ideologies, but other widely practiced “post” theories, such as “post-colonialism,” were crucial as well. “Lived experience” was often promoted over reason and data, and jargon such as “privilege” and “Latinx” and “patriarchy” and “intersectionality” and “colonialism,” achieved a kind of quasi-religious status that brooked little criticism. Students and faculty alike became frightened to challenge these ideas from the left.

Faculty who ignored these sacred values, who criticized and challenged the rapidly spreading postmodern equalitarianism of activists, were subjected to mobs on Twitter and sometimes even fired. Furthermore, an undeniable hostility to the West and to the United States more specifically has become common in some disciplines, from the social sciences to history and the humanities, bemusing older, revered scholars such as Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and Akhil Amar. Among many, the old ideal of dispassionate and unbiased scholarship is seen as archaic and hypocritical.

That the above is demonstrably true and has been lamented by many professors, many of whom are left of center, makes the claims by many liberals that criticism of academia is merely a demagogic obsession of the populist Right feel dishonest. However, as much as this may sound like a dysfunctional, totalitarian world, hostile to free speech, free inquiry, and riddled with progressive biases, it’s important not to exaggerate. Some faculty are activists, and they can be extremely influential in the public because of the dynamics of minority rule—a loud, unthinking protestor will unfortunately muffle the reasonable conversation of hundreds of people.

But most professors, even those who lean left, are just trying to teach psychology, chemistry, or engineering. We are not proselytizing; and we don’t care if our students vote for Biden, Trump, or a bowl of goldfish (in my darker moments, I think the third option might be the best). Furthermore, most students I’ve taught have been open to controversial discussions and to information that challenges their priors. And despite often challenging left-leaning shibboleths, I’ve never (yet!) had a student or students try to ruin my career. I am a bit more nervous than I was 20 years ago; and I spend more time undoing politically correct nonsense; but like most professors, I am still trying to do the same job that made American universities the pride of the nation a generation ago.

Although the Right has been better than the Left at identifying the problems besetting the modern university, many of their proposed solutions have been awful. Defunding education, for example, makes as much sense as defunding the police, which is to say, none. Furthermore, the Right’s new embrace of wielding government power to combat the Left is misguided and disconcerting. Some Republican lawmakers, influenced by this change in philosophy, have turned to outright censorship of controversial ideas. I have no sympathy for CRT. But it needs to be debated openly by courageous scholars, not eradicated by government decree.

Many on the Right have attacked the tenure of professors at public universities. I understand that the idea of life-long employment no matter how indolent or obnoxious one becomes is perplexing to lay people. But tenure, at its best, protects professors who are willing to endure social and professional criticism to speak the unpleasant, undesired, and unflattering truth. The problem with these attacks and legislative efforts, aside from obvious First Amendment issues, is that by depriving faculty of academic freedom and weakening tenure, things will become even more difficult for those of us who challenge radical progressive dogmas.

The new censoriousness of the Right is perhaps best exemplified in my home state of Florida. Governor DeSantis has become popular by stridently attacking wokeness (“Florida is where wokeness dies!”), and, as a parent, I sympathize. Having one’s kid’s head filled with nonsensical revisionist history and anti-scientific bunkum in K12 is bad enough, but paying tens of thousands of dollars for it is an outrage. Still, though DeSantis has identified a legitimate problem, his solution is like severing a limb because it is besmirched by a wart. In November 2022, a judge paused portions of Florida’s cringe-worthy named Stop WOKE Act that placed several restrictions on how university professors could teach race. This should be applauded. Too many professors are irresponsible and ideological when teaching race, of course, but government censorship is not the answer.

Last year the University of Florida prevented three of its professors from testifying against the State of Florida in a voting rights case. I know nothing about voting law and perhaps the three professors are dead wrong. But it doesn’t matter. They should be shown to be wrong in an open forum, not silenced beforehand. Our job as professors is to debate openly, and this includes vigorous criticism of the government, of other scholars, and even of our own universities. Removing this freedom makes us little more than paid lackeys of the state.

I have been targeted by right-wing censorship myself. Once after having written an article for CNN on gun control, I received an ethics complaint from a former alum of my university who didn’t like my opinion. Fortunately, because it was preposterous, the complaint was ineffectual; but I do not need to be convinced that there is a censorious urge on the Right.

Although the complaints from the Right against academia are hyperbolic, academics need to acknowledge that they are making it easy for them and losing the public relations war. Repeatedly on college campuses, students and faculty shut down unpopular speakers with hysterics, and universities themselves censor people like Dorian Abbot (disinvited from speaking at MIT for daring to criticize the received wisdom of DEI). Hundreds of professors have been investigated, censured, or fired for speaking openly on controversial topics. This became personal for me when my dissertation chair, Charles Negy, was fired from University of Central Florida for criticizing the Black Lives Matter narrative. Whether one agrees with his comments is irrelevant; this was a gross violation of due process and academic freedom. Events like this are doing real damage to our academic culture and public reputation.

Academics have also behaved hypocritically. During the early stages of the COVID pandemic, public health officials were adamant that public gatherings like protests were bad … until they were suddenly good so long as they were for progressive causes. At the time Dr. Negy was coming under fire for being off-message, a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor tweeted instructions for how to pull down a Confederate obelisk using just a few dozen people and some rope. The unwisdom of encouraging activists online to pull down structures using rope and maybe a pickup truck should be obvious, but as far as I know, the professor in this case received no censure. (The tweet remains up.) To be clear, I am not advocating for anyone to be censured or fired. But the constant progressive hypocrisy is damaging for academia and gives ammunition to right-wing critics.

So, the typical modern university is struggling and is losing its grip on its once laudable mission of educating and challenging. A form of sanctimonious and tribal activism is pervasive, and even those professors who disagree with it often remain silent. At the same time, many of the proposals from the Right are making things worse, not better. So what are we to do?

Universities should commit to academic freedom: Many university administrators and policy makers have turned away from academic freedom, encouraging censorship of unpopular ideas (for one side or another). University administrators need to grow a spine and adamantly refuse to cede ground on free speech issues. All universities should adopt the University of Chicago style public commitment to free speech. Or even better, the Chicago Trifecta: free speech, institutional neutrality, and merit-only hiring/promotion. 

They should stop paying attention to social media outrages or loud but minority groups of activist students on campus. These do not represent the views of the median student. They should stop circumventing free speech norms by launching investigations of professors and students who say unpopular things. They should stop saying “We believe in free speech, but…” And they should stop treating students like they are made of spun glass. Furthermore, universities should not take public stances on controversial issues (e.g., Black Lives Matter, COVID, elections, etc.) aside from those directly affecting the university (which could include internal COVID policies, critiques of laws restricting academic speech or tenure, etc.).

Universities need to stop being progressive institutions; instead, they should be neutral institutions. They should have plans for managing controversial speakers and student protests. And they should have a ready, generic statement whenever a professor says or writes something controversial: “We support free speech and open inquiry by our faculty and students, even should their free speech prove upsetting to others.” Similarly, universities should have a ready, generic statement whenever they have polarizing speakers: “We believe it is important for students to be exposed to a range of ideas, even those which might be deeply upsetting. We do not invite only those speakers whose views are consistent with our own university’s values.”

Conservatives need to get involved but constructively: I have conservative students in my classes. They tell me they are often afraid to speak openly, particularly when challenging progressive world views. That is not acceptable. They should feel free to express their views and to challenge the views of centrists, liberals, and progressives. The Right is correct to lament this self-censorship. But too often, conservatives, though correct in their diagnosis, have offered unpalatable or even counterproductive solutions, ranging from discouraging attendance at universities to defunding them altogether.

Conservatives need to stop with the censorship. Universities can only thrive with a free exchange of ideas, including those which are offensive to most people. It’s bad, of course, when progressives try to restrict speech, but it’s equally bad when conservatives do it. Instead, conservatives need to invest more in academia. Wealthy conservatives could fund specifically conservative interests, including funding endowed chairs in conservative thought or funding think-tanks at universities. Even simply donating money can grant significant influence.

This influence should not be used to limit progressive ideas, but rather to promote more conservative ideas and professors and speakers. The silent power of money is often greater than the screams of the loudest protestor. Money is influence, which is why getting involved in campuses is much more productive than efforts to defund them. Furthermore, the more conservative students who receive degrees, the more conservative professors will teach students in the next generation.

Universities need fewer administrators: Part of the problem at universities is that there is far too much bureaucratic bloat. It’s no secret that university tuition has soared the last few decades. A good chunk of that is going to an ever-expanding pool of Vice Provost in Charge of the President’s Livery or Associate Dean of Toiletries. Many of these positions do little to advance knowledge, but rather often create bundles of red tape and fruitless initiatives that make busywork for everyone. And often these are the people who are promoting the progressive flapdoodle that I later must inform my students is false. A hiring freeze on these positions would be salutary. Let many retire without filling their position. This will reduce costs without firing anybody; and it will also partially dissipate the cloud of nonsense that hangs over the university and that makes our jobs as professors more difficult than they already are.

This also includes the recent and lamentable surge in DEI administrators and consultants. There’s little evidence these accomplish anything for minority students, and this failure is ironically often used as an argument to invest more, creating an escalating cycle of wasteful spending. That makes DEI too often a scam. The main outcomes have been to chill speech, prioritize certain demographics, and create a snitch culture of fear, while undermining the resiliency we should be fostering in all students. Diversity is worthwhile, but it’s time to admit most DEI programs are an expensive failure. 

We need to build resilience: The best thing we can do for our students is to encourage them to remain strong in the face of adversity and unpleasantness. Certainly, issues such as crime, stalking, sexual harassment, etc., require intervention, as do students in immediate mental health crisis. But we should stop with the trigger warnings for most classes. They don’t work and may make things worse, not better. If a student is “traumatized” by reading the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, or hearing that a conservative is going to be talking on campus, or listening to a pro-choice or pro-life speaker, or that white people in the US historically acted brutally toward other groups, or that Native Americans themselves engaged in slavery, genocide, and brutal treatment of women before Europeans ever arrived, or that Africans kept slaves and enslaved millions of non-black people including Europeans, etc. … it may be time to suggest that said student seek therapy to work on their own issues. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. We can and should be sympathetic to students who struggle with challenges to their sacred values and beliefs. But we can do so while not pretending or promoting the idea that ideas are “traumatizing.” We need resilience not censorship regimes.

Similarly, we need to stop treating histrionic outbursts and public rage or tears as unique evidence of sagacity. Often, rage is a symptom of fragility and error, not wisdom. Sympathy does not require unlimited deference to emotion. And pain, trauma, or lived experience do not trump data in a debate. We should be respectful of all people, allowing them to live how they wish, but should stop rewarding standpoint epistemology or encouraging contests of victimhood. We should ignore outbursts on Twitter or Instagram. Social media does not generally produce reliable information.

Things are bad in academia. Universities may be at a nadir. But all is not lost. And we should not accept uncritically the Right’s depiction of academia as a censorious horror show of progressive activism. I have the good fortune, for example, to work at a university with a clear Chicago-style free speech commitment in a department where we all get along, and nobody wants to destroy anyone’s career, even if we disagree. I’ve been very fortunate to find employment I love at a university that has, thus far at least, navigated the culture war shoals reasonably well. Not every faculty or student is so lucky, of course.

Still, there are many things good about academia. The opportunity to teach the best evidence to students is unrivaled; and it is important to emphasize that most students want this, not leftist indoctrination. The challenges to the university are real and myriad. But if we keep this in mind and refuse to cave to a loud, zealous minority, academia will remain a vibrant and important institution that defends free speech and inquiry while promoting the best that the West has to offer. We are in crisis, yes—a kind of winter of the soul of the academy. But we are not dead on the vine. And it’s not difficult to see a path to the summer so long as we avoid unnecessary despair and hyperbole while attending to very real problems and complaints.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to a professor from the University of Alabama instead of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Apologies for the error.

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