College students attending universities with restrictive speech codes are used to walking on eggshells and keeping their heads down on campus out of fear of committing social suicide or experiencing violence. In the disordered world of contemporary higher education, Jewish students receive limited, if any, support from school administrators amid explicit calls for violence against them, while other students face punishment for banal infractions like rolling a “free speech ball” around campus.
But if you are shocked at how students are subject to hypocritical double standards and draconian speech codes, what goes on behind the closed doors of faculty lounges and administrative offices will surely horrify you. Militant students can restrict the speech of other students, but often, faculty find themselves subjected to even stricter rules that embolden this militancy in the first place.
This has proven true at Bates College, my alma mater, ranked 213 out of 250 schools nationwide for free speech. Emails obtained from several former Bates College professors show just how limited faculty freedoms are. In the past, faculty were reported to the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) for questioning students’ assertions in class or asking students to think more critically. The environment created by this policy has left some professors fearful that a student will use a simple classroom lecture or assignment to terminate their jobs.
In the wake of Bates’ latest round of antisemitic controversy — where a swastika was drawn in a dormitory bathroom amid a bevy of pro-Hamas activity at Bates — I reached out to several former and current professors at Bates to see if this DEI reporting system was still in place. After communicating with members of Bates faculty, staff, and former students, it’s clear that not only is the DEI reporting system still in operation, but it has been used to intimidate faculty into maintaining leftist orthodoxy in their classrooms.
This policy bared its teeth in the firing of Keith Taylor, a lecturer in Bates’ geology department. Taylor was fired earlier this year for asking a student to provide examples defending their assertion that Bates College was a bastion of white supremacy. Taylor was browbeaten by Dean of Faculty Malcolm Hill and ordered to apologize to his class for his supposed racial insensitivity, but instead, he denounced the school. One student recorded the exchange and shared it with me at the time.
Taylor provided several emails from a fellow professor, Loring Danforth, who feared for his termination. Danforth expressed fear at Taylor’s firing, saying he felt “trapped in an alternate reality” due to his fear of being targeted by students for speaking on race, a topic he studied, wrote, and lectured on for several decades at Bates and other institutions.
This nightmarish “alternate reality” soon became real for Danforth. A classroom discussion quickly became a struggle session after a student asserted Bates College was on stolen Penobscot land. Danforth, being a seasoned teacher, asked the student to explain what she meant. “Do you mean legally? Technically? Morally? Historically? Traditionally?” Danforth asked. In an attempt to further discussion, he followed up with the question: “Do Native Americans own the land your parents’ house in Connecticut is on, or do your parents own it?”
But instead of engaging in the discussion or thinking critically about her assertion, the student reported Danforth to the DEI office for opposing Native American land claims. That led to another reprimand by the DEI office and the dean of faculty. Ironically, Danforth is a proud supporter of Native Americans, as was shown in his email with Keith Taylor; “I’d argue it’s my right to oppose them [Native American land claims]. But in fact I support them.” Professor Danforth refused to provide comment.
That same email between Taylor and Danforth described an incident over text where Dean of Faculty Malcolm Hill reprimanded Danforth for supposedly perpetuating racism on campus. That was after Danforth was again reported to the DEI office for stating that “race was a social construction” to the offense of a black staff member. As a result, Danforth, who correctly pointed out that the social construction of race is “a fundamental concept and expression” in anthropology, was again reprimanded by Hill. Only after Bates President Clayton Spencer stepped in did Hill back down and apologize to Danforth.
Over a series of emails and text messages, several professors discussed potential punishments for DEI infractions, including being forced to “absorb literature about racism” or even be subjected to mandatory sensitivity training, which, if refused, could lead to further punishment.
Bates’s DEI reporting system has significantly cowed professors in the liberal arts. Several students I interviewed believe free speech at Bates was already nonexistent but think professors are largely responsible for allowing this toxic culture to take its current form.
One such student, a 2018 Bates graduate, James Erwin, recalled portions of emails that appeared scripted when professors corresponded with students about “sensitive” topics. “After Trump was elected in 2016, there were demonstrations around campus,” Erwin explained. “All the faculty emails for my classes and campus resources contained the same ‘I understand and support you,’ directed towards students who wanted to skip class to protest the election.”
Erwin also suggested professors had only themselves to blame for the campus climate, saying, “Many Bates professors can’t speak up because this is the bed they made … they teach this performative emotional fragility in class, so, of course, they can’t object to it now that the outrage is directed at them.”
An email I have had since my own time at Bates proves James correct. One economics professor expressed doubts that teachers at Bates could adequately instruct students, only to refuse to elaborate on his comments. Economics professor Paul Shea said, “Things like this make me fear for the future of Bates. More and more departments seem comfortable infusing their curricula with specific forms of activism and ideology and those that do not are met with hostility or, in some cases, a loss of resources. It is hard for me to see how this fits with the mission of the college.”
Shea refused to comment when asked to elaborate on the “hostility” or “loss of resources” and departures from the economics department.
Taylor’s emails and the various professors with whom I spoke expressed the same feeling: Bates no longer resembles an academic institution committed to free speech. T. Glen Lawson, who taught in the Bates Chemistry Department for over 30 years and is now retired, said, “It is true that the [Bates] environment is toxic and freedom of expression and academic freedom have both been suppressed in the past few years, so I was happy to leave. I don’t really care about what goes on there now.” Jenna Berens, a 2023 graduate of Bates, agreed. “The culture is definitely toxic in the context of the classroom. I can imagine that culture extends to the faculty, too.”
Bates’s DEI system has successfully made almost every professor at the college terrified of his or her own students. With fees to attend Bates set at over $81,000 for the 2023-2024 academic year, parents and students are footing the bill for DEI enforcers alongside the collaborating programs within the college that act as speech police and reporting systems.
It is obvious that antisemitic students control Harvard University’s campus, and they have the freedom to spew their poison with no accountability from the administration. It took a congressional hearing, alums withdrawing millions of dollars, and leading companies pledging not to hire Harvard graduates for the school even to notice its antisemitism problem. Legacy institutions with larger budgets often overshadow Bates. However, the toxic, illiberal behavior that has consumed Bates is a glimpse of higher education’s future. Across the country, there are thousands of smaller colleges like Bates, where free speech has been destroyed and its defenders driven underground.
Bates and its faculty preach the college’s commitment to academic excellence, egalitarianism, and freedom. Those words ring hollow when the academics tasked with passing those values on cannot defend them.