On May 21, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus closed its tents for the final time. Actually, it hasn’t performed in tents for quite a while. As the circus ended its 146-year run, more than an era of popular American entertainment came to end. An institution that has fired the imagination of generations of children and astonished people of all ages went dark.
That’s something to consider as we contemplate a different circus. Higher education is not about to send its clowns to the unemployment lines or retire its lions to wildlife sanctuaries, but it is showing some fragility. Here are five cases from the past school year that epitomize the current life and times of American higher education.
5. Marquette University
Judge David Hansher ruled in favor of Marquette University on May 4 in the case of professor John McAdams. Marquette President Michael Lovell indefinitely suspended the tenured professor last year for refusing to apologize for a blog post he had written on November 9, 2014.
I am no stranger to this case, having first written about it January 2015, and having served as an expert witness on behalf of McAdams. Hansher’s summary judgment on behalf of Marquette is deeply unfortunate. I won’t attempt legal analysis here, but I’ll observe that the judge’s decision is one in a very long line of instances in which courts, apparently having only a superficial understanding of higher education, reflexively side with university administrations. Lovell played his hand well by appointing a reliable group of faculty members to a committee that offered him the advice he was looking for.
Academic freedom took it on the chin in this case. McAdams got in trouble because, in his blog, he named a faculty member who had egregiously abused her classroom authority. The faculty member was also a graduate student, and Marquette pulled out of thin air the “principle” that a faculty member can never publicly criticize a graduate student by name. Hansher fell for it. This is an instance of what the Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm called “the invention of tradition.”
McAdams attorneys will appeal, but that will take years. In the meantime, what might be called the Hansher Hurrah will echo through higher education. It just got a whole lot easier for colleges and universities to fire tenured professors who are annoying, raise awkward questions, or throw sand in the gears of political correctness.
4. Gettysburg College
Hats half-off to Janet Morgan Riggs, president of Gettysburg College, who explained in a letter to her college community that she was standing by the Student Senate’s decision to fund a lecture by Robert Spencer (not to be confused with alt-right leader Richard B. Spencer) on May 3. Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and is known for his books on Islamic terrorism.
Riggs was plainly torn between her commitment to “the free and open exchange of ideas” and her “commitment to a diverse and inclusive learning environment.” The latter is code for suppressing ideas that irritate ardent supporters of identity-based campus grievance groups. Riggs hit on the expediency of pairing Spencer’s lecture with another by Todd Green, “a nationally recognized expert on Islamophobia.”
Spencer gave his May 3 talk without incident, which is better than what followed when he spoke the next week in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he was poisoned by someone who slipped a combination of Ritalin and Ecstasy into his drink.
Balancing a conservative speaker with a progressive one is far better than disinviting the conservative speaker—or poisoning him. But the balancing principle seems to go only one way. We might wonder whether Gettysburg College or any other college has ever considered balancing a decidedly liberal speaker by inviting a conservative speaker on the same topic. Offhand, I can’t think of any instances. But the principle is sound.
A still better principle might be simply letting each speaker speak, without trying to engineer a counterbalance. But I want to give Riggs her due. Faced with the temptation to cancel Spencer’s talk, she chose the marginally better course of poisoning the atmosphere rather than the speaker.
3. Duke University
The attacks on Duke University professor Paul Griffiths by the dean of his college and, separately, by one of his faculty colleagues, came to light rather suddenly. Griffiths sent an email on April 6 to about 50 faculty colleagues. It circulated privately for a few weeks but on May 5 jumped into mass circulation, and has since occasioned an article by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative, along with numerous other comments, such as Steven Hayward’s “The Disgrace at Duke,” and Peter Berkowitz’s “A Heretic at Duke Divinity School.”
Here are the basics. On February 6, Duke Divinity School faculty member Anathea Portier-Young sent an email on behalf of the Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee urging all Divinity School faculty members to attend a two-day Racial Equity Institute training session aimed at making the school more “equitable and anti-racist.”
The same day, Griffiths responded reply-all to Portier-Young’s email, saying, “I exhort you not to attend this training.” He predicted the training would be “intellectually flaccid” and characterized it as part of “a long and ignoble history” of bureaucratic interventions at odds with the mission of the college.
Still the same day, the dean of Duke’s Divinity School, Elaine Heath, responded to Griffiths’ email by urging faculty members to attend the training and chastising as “inappropriate and unprofessional” the sending of “mass emails to make disparaging statements […] in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree.” Heath did not mention Griffiths by name, but at that point no one else had responded to Portier-Young’s email.
An exchange involving other faculty members ensued. So did an exchange between Heath and Griffiths, culminating in a letter from the dean to the professor on March 10, barring Griffiths from faculty and committee meetings. From the documents so far made public, a picture emerges of the usual entanglements and complications. Heath asserts that Griffiths violated some procedural rules; Portier-Young asserts that Griffiths engaged in behavior she considers to be harassment.
The simple version of this is that Griffiths’ objections to Portier-Young’s training session are being treated by the Duke administration as harassment. Or they were being treated that way: Griffiths has now resigned, effective the end of the next academic year, rather than deal with the accusations through procedures that he understandably believes are stacked against him.
2. Springfield College
Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, gets a lot less attention than many colleges and universities in New England, but I’ve been doing my part for the last year to raise its profile. The occasion has been the college’s unrelenting campaign to quash the career of a member of its English Department, Dennis Gouws. The nub of the story is that Gouws had been assigned to teach a course titled Men in Literature, and committed the folly of taking the title seriously. This ran afoul of the feminist principles of some of his departmental colleagues and Springfield administrators. The latter have subjected him to several years of petty torment, including the cancellation of his well-subscribed Men in Literature course.
A few months ago, Gouws’ dean, Anne F. Herzog, placed him on “official warning status” for various trivialities. Gouws has achieved some celebrity as a consequence of his ordeal, and such public notice may have played a role in Herzog’s decision of April 24, officially to end the “official warning status.” She did so by means of a crusty letter that might be loosely paraphrased, “You are a bug and I can squash you whenever I feel like it, but today I am showing my magnanimity by allowing you to crawl away unsquashed.”
Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. Gouws continues to face a hail of rhetorical bricks from his department chairman, Alice Knox Eaton. I’ve been chronicling Gouws’ journey through the badlands of femi-justice for the last year, not because his situation is all that exceptional, but because it is all too ordinary—and because keeping careful track of a few such cases is the best way I know of documenting the ongoing collapse of moral and intellectual seriousness in American higher education.
1. Middlebury College
The story of Middlebury College’s March 2 riot against Charles Murray for attempting to speak on campus has been told often enough to have become the stuff of ballads.
Come listen to a story about a man named Chuck,
Who wrote him some books and was always getting stuck.
The SJWs said get away from here,
But they blocked the exits and tried to take him prisoneer…
In the Green Mountains. Mud season. Middlebury.
In the aftermath of the riot that left an esteemed professor of political science hospitalized with a neck injury, some of Middlebury’s faculty—114 out of a total of 303—signed a statement, “Free Inquiry on Campus: A Statement of Principles.” Laurie Patton, the president of the college, also issued a public assurance on March 6 that the college had “initiated an independent investigation” and would take action in due time. The “process” would be “fair and just.”
On March 23, Patton told alumni the “student conduct process” was “underway.” She also said “the process and individual outcomes remain confidential,” and “our commitment to this process is absolute.” On April 7, another administrator spoke at a faculty meeting explaining that an unnamed number of unidentified students were being reviewed for “conduct violations” in connection with the riot.
This eventuated in a report in the student newspaper, on April 17, that the college had examined 70 cases and imposed “disciplinary sanctions” on more than 30 students. The actual number, announced a month later, was 41. The college aimed to complete its investigation by mid-May. As of May 15, the college announced unidentified sanctions against 19 more unnamed students.
Although the sanctions weren’t officially divulged, some of the students themselves came forward to explain how they were being punished. Most were put on a form of probation that consisted of a temporary letter placed in the students’ files that would be expunged at the end of the semester. Eighteen received a “permanent mark on their records.” None were suspended or expelled.
Connecting the Pieces
Keeping up with the follies in American higher education is a task far too large for mortal man and perhaps not all that interesting. Here and there an incident reveals an as-yet unexplored frontier of silliness. A mathematics professor at the University of Hawaii demanded in a blogpost that “white cis men” resign from professorial positions to open the way for “women of color and trans people.”
An assistant professor of philosophy, Rebecca Tuvel, at Rhodes College published a peer-reviewed article in the feminist journal Hypatia, in which she argued that “transracialism” is as valid as “transgenderism.” Outrage ensued; one of the journal’s associate editors apologized for publishing the article; the editor-in-chief stood behind the article.
A different mathematician and different philosopher teamed up to write and publish an article in an academic journal in which they hoaxed both radical feminists and global warming true-believers. Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, using pseudonyms and bogus references, published in the journal Cogent Social Sciences their article, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” in which they blamed the “conceptual penis” for causing “climate change and raping empty spaces through ‘manspreading.’” The hoax occasioned outrage from many who thought it an unfair attack on the field of gender studies.
Many of these stories don’t deserve more than a nod. They are familiar in outline as we have grown accustomed to academics who make outrageous declarations and seem to welcome the returning tide of outrageous recriminations. That’s much of the dynamic in higher education today. To defend our civilization from its progressive descent into the cultural equivalent of the La Brea Tar Pits, it is best to look for the stories that bring forward some of the deeper patterns.
What the Marquette, Gettysburg, Duke, Springfield, and Middlebury stories have in common is that these are private institutions that have wide latitude in establishing their own rules of conduct, belief systems, and sanctions against non-conformists. Marquette could, if it chose, adopt a code rejecting extramural academic freedom in totality and requiring all blogposts be submitted to a university board of censors in advance and subsequently published only with that board’s imprimatur.
Gettysburg could adopt a rule that all criticism of Islam is prohibited on campus. Duke could establish a plain-spoken rule that criticism of diversity and inclusion programs is grounds for termination. Springfield could make perfectly clear that male professors are permitted to hold faculty positions on the sufferance of Herzog, who holds the right to summary dismissal in cases where a professor has violated the ever-changing dictates of radical feminism.
Middlebury, of course, could elucidate that while it does not welcome actions by students and faculty aimed at silencing visiting speakers, and that it deplores violence against such speakers, violations of these principles will be met with the mildest expressions of disapproval consistent with the college’s need to maintain the appearance of public order.
None of these institutions, of course, would consider doing anything of the kind. Despite what they do, they still care to be known as colleges and universities that uphold academic and intellectual freedom. Actually upholding those freedoms in an age when significant numbers of students, faculty members, and administrators no longer believe in them as fundamental values—or believe in them only half-heartedly—is proving difficult.
Thus we live in an age in which higher education is sinking into the tar pit of institutional hypocrisy. It continues to insist on the importance of freedom, while at the same time destroying actual freedoms, bit by McAdams-Spencer-Griffiths-Gouws-Murray bit.