A missive from the desk of Blocked and Reported Chief of Staff TracingWoodgrains, in which I disagree with Blocked and Reported
Good essay. As an academic who might be labeled heterodox–I do not think I could be easily categorized as Right or Left–and who is deeply dissatisfied with the trends in academia for at least the past decade, let me offer additional commentary.
I am in a Department of Psychology, and since I was hired in 1989, there has definitely been a preponderance of faculty members on the Left. I struggle to think of anyone who likely voted Republican in any national election. But for the first 20+ years of my professorship, I could disagree/argue openly with faculty and students about contentious issues, including race, gender, sexuality–the kinds of issues that one can easily get one cancelled now. I have tenure, but I worry more than I used to about losing my job. But more plausibly, there are lots of ways university administrators, faculty, and students can make one's life miserable these days that simply didn't happen until fairly recently.
I am less certain that we need conservative faculty–although sure, I'd be fine with that–than that we need openness to controversial ideas. These would include, for example (among many controversial ideas that might be true): for race, considering causes of racial disparities other than discrimination; for gender, the possibility of innate differences that affect life goals; for sexuality, the possibility that child-adult sexual interaction isn't always a "destroyer of souls." It is discussion of these uncomfortable ideas that we need, not necessarily more Republicans. (Though, again, I'd be happy to have. them.)
Academia is in deep trouble now, as it slides toward an intellectual abyss of intellectual bias leading to the embrace of false and stupid ideas. If the Rufo initiative can help change this, then I'm for it. But my goal is open and honest inquiry of important and controversial topics, without concern that one will be hounded or fired from one's job. It is progressives who have made these concerns realistic, so perhaps Rufo's pushback will help. It would be good, however, if they would keep in mind the real problem.
This is a great response to Jesse and Katie's critique. However, I think that Jesse and Katie didn't offer the best argument against Rufo's appointment and what looks to be DeSantis's strategy. At the risk of some level of arrogance, I'm going to try that here.
The fundamental problem with these appointments is that they are "solutions" that don't address the root cause of the issue. Jesse was patently incorrect about the prevalence of "wokeness" at public universities. There's a strong argument that second and third tier publics are actually the bedrock of the "wokeness" trend in academia with the ethos moving up the chain rather than down. Boards, on the other hand, are absolutely not the "woke" heart of a university and are usually the most conservative body within the university's structure. Much like the wider trend of the spread of "wokeness" from lower tier institutions upwards, the trends within institutions tend to move upwards from faculty, staff, and students who demand certain policies, positions, and offices and are acquiesced to.
As you point out, Boards are mostly charged with fundraising and promotion of the institution. But, that is because of the tradition of shared governance. Boards have the power to take a much more active role in both the larger governance and the daily operations of the institution. It is traditional that boards leave the academic administration to the academics, for example, with the Provost as the highest ranking academic officer and then the deans, department chairs, and faculty below them. This is both as part of the ethic that the academic staff of an institution are expert in their field and best qualified to shape things like curricular questions and because faculty are generally reluctant to join an institution that does not allow them that level of autonomy. However, if a Board (or Board member) doesn't believe in faculty expertise or care about faculty retention, there is very little to stop them from tossing that tradition aside (there will be lawsuits of course, but I think this hypothetical -- or maybe not so hypothetical -- board would mostly prevail).
This idea of shared governance is an important bedrock of how American higher education is organized. It's one of the main ways in which academic freedom is protected. And, if you care about more ideological and intellectual diversity within the academy, I would argue that academic freedom is the most important ideal that needs to be protected. Diversity of thought isn't going to come from the top down, it's going to come from faculty who recognize the importance of it and are willing to bring people into the fold who can be protected by the principles of academic freedom.
I think the George Mason example is actually a great example of why faculty led diversification is so effective and preferable to Board intervention. The faculty in the economics department made a conscious decision to recruit and create a deliberately oriented space to allow for conservative scholarship to grow and thrive. This isn't uncommon for departments outside of the top, top tier. Specializing in a specific sub-field of scholarship is a way to recruit and retain faculty who might otherwise look to more prestigious programs where they might be less welcome or find less of a collaborative community.
On the other hand, the Nikole Hannah/Hannah Nikole-Jones debacle at UNC is a prime example of how Board overreach can really backfire. I agreed with the Board member(s) that NHHNJ was a bad and somewhat cynical choice for a tenured Knight chair, but when the faculty make their recommendation to the provost to hire with tenure, and the provost approves and submits it to the board, the ramifications of the Board pushing back are far more disruptive than they are productive. UNC lost a ton of credibility with both its current faculty and faculty they might want to recruit because it indicated that the board might be meddling in operations beyond what is generally considered appropriate. Not only that, the reaction was so strong and negative they had to embarrassingly offer her tenure anyway and even more embarrassingly be rejected by her in the end.
Diversifying thought within the academy is very important. But, where I think both the hosts and Trace miss the mark is that it cannot come at the expense of the ingrained protections those new, diverse thinkers will need to thrive. Rufo's appointment is a direct affront to those protections. As Katie rightly said, he is an ideologue and makes no secret of it. While one man on the board cannot make decisions unilaterally, the model should be troubling to anyone who actually cares about this issue. Putting ideologues on the boards of public institutions won't so much achieve intellectual diversity as it will drive talent of all ideological stripes towards private institutions that will have every motivation to double down on being the foil to the mess on the other side of the dividing line. Public universities are a vital resource and are so, so important. Even with rising tuition costs, so many provide a world class education for a fraction of the cost of their private competitors and it is because they can recruit talented faculty. That can, and very well may, fall apart quickly if people like Rufo start taking charge and remaking public institutions around the country.
I appreciate the viewpoint of Woodgrains, but I find the Haidt, Chait, etc. arguments more compelling. I don’t think DeSantis nor Rufo care much about academic freedom. I think the criticism that they just want to impose their own stringent ideology is true.
But actually I don’t think that this is even their main goal. I think they just like fighting the culture wars, mostly because it makes them rich, powerful, and famous.
I don’t think much is going to come, even inadvertently, from people whose objective is just to endlessly own liberals and never really solve anything.
The way Rufo and the other new trustee handled the town hall, and particularly the provost's attempt to shut it down gives me some optimism. I don't think there's anything wrong with trustees explicitly devoted to classical liberalism. There is a legitimate role in public higher education for transmitting cultural values, broadly defined. One of those is open inquiry and free exchange of ideas. I trust Rufo et al to oversee that than I do the people they're replacing.
Well put Mr, Ms, Mx Woodgrains! I agree with almost all of your points and thanks to Jesse and Katie for allowing you to post this.
You need an adversary to keep you honest, someone out there who will pounce on your bullshit. Like Trace I doubt even doing something like this can completely overhaul the school which is what I think everyone fears, but it could probably make a professor think twice before they step over a ledge on absolutely nothing, without even the fear of gravity, sustained only by the knowledge no one will hold them accountable for absolute horseshit.
I’d like to be able to read research papers and actually believe them to be plausible without having to do a whole bunch of research myself. I want that fight to happen way before it gets to me.
The main problem is Rufo himself. He has already proven to care more about ideology than the truth by conflating critical race theory with other independent arguments. He’s lied about diversity training curricula and promotes the idea that LGBT discussion in school is child grooming. All of this shows a very distinct lack of restraint or intellectual honesty. His lies about how powerful the New College council is should be disqualifying alone. The problem has been people like him of all political stripes gaining power, and it’s weird seeing people here willing to give Rufo a shot despite his track record.
I will say that I’m glad to have read this article. I agreed with a lot of your broad takes, but still believe that not addressing the zealotry and honesty issues will only lead to more of the current problem.
Thanks for this piece. What I have noticed in academia is that the shortage of right wingers on the faculty is not seen as something to be redressed, but a source of smug satisfaction. I've been told, with a straight face, that there are no conservatives because "they're too interested in making money [to pursue academic careers]" and even "conservatives are too stupid to do a PhD". The lack of curiosity, as there would be about any other underrepresented group, is truly staggering.
More insidiously when I've pushed the issue, some responded that making an effort to hire right wingers would lower standards (!!). (This argument from the same people who would be outraged if you made this criticism of affirmative action....)
It continues to shock me how widely it is assumed that conservatives can't do intellectually rigorous research, but it's there in academia.
You see it when one of the rare right wingers in the humanities is cited, they'll be referred to as "conservative historian professor Jones...", a qualification that left-liberal scholars don't get, because theirs is the presumed neutral position. You have to be an actual communist to get that kind of label if you're on the left. But even a moderate con is always described as a "right winger". (I've often wondered if I'll get this hedging qualification attached to my work too.)
This is the insidiousness, that Heterodox Academy and others are fighting, but it's an uphill battle.
I would also query your claim that libertarians are well represented: perhaps among economists or in business schools, but not in the humanities.
Nice job Trace! I felt the same when listening to Jesse and Katie. The stats around liberal dominance in these schools is remarkable. The one that really jumps out is 40% of administrators say they are far left, not just left, but far left. I think it’s safe to say those folks are woke.
This. Was. Fantastic.
I'm sorry, but this is terrible analysis that completely misses the point. To spend so much of the evidence portion of the article showing percentages of political feeling makes me think that you believe the problem with wokeness is a lack of diversity of political opinion. Wokeness is not a problem of percentages of people who say they are liberal or conservative. You could have a 100% liberal or conservative institution without the problems of wokeness. The problems of wokeness are not unique to wokeness and they are trying to silence your opponents and painting them with labels that signal you don't have to listen or grapple with them, that they are fascist or racist or transphobic (or woke or communist or an sjw, etc).
The contention you are arguing might well be true. Florida universities might well be overrun by wokeness. It wouldn't shock me that New College of Florida has been. You didn't make that argument either. Instead you supply one person who went to the college 20 years ago and is now concerned that the college has taken a turn and are pretending that isn't the biggest cliche in the world, that it's even evidence.
This is largely the problem of thinking the answer to wokeness is heterodox thinking. But many of the stars of heterodox thinking are victims of the same unreasoned audience capture of Michael Hobbes, etc. All one has to do is see how many star heterodox thinkers became vaccine skeptics and ivermectin pushers to see how bankrupt this answer is. The answer is not to have heterodox thinking or to have one of each type of ideology. Its have people who honestly grapple with and understand their opponents and treat them with good faith. The question is do you think thats Chris Rufo?
Honestly you are critiquing DEI in the same article you are calling for even percentages of professors to be of all the political bents
Thanks for that interesting take! Well argued. One problem I have with it, though, is that I don't trust Rufo or DeSantis on matters of higher education. They specialize in political stunts. They have no business reforming any college, in my view. Here's one reason: They say they want to "[h]ire new faculty with expertise in constitutionalism, free enterprise, civic virtue, family life, religious freedom, and American principles." To my ear, this sounds like indoctrination, not education. Although many of the terms are unobjectionable in the abstract, we know what they mean in context: a right-wing agenda -- socially conservative, economically libertarian, jingoistic. It reminds me of the 1776 Project, an asinine, half-baked purported antidote to the 1619 Project. These are not serious people.
Compare that hackneyed statement with some lines from Notre Dame's mission statement: "The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity." See the difference? If you're not committed to doing something like the second, no matter your inclinations or institutional commitments, you're not an actual school.
One of the insidious aspects of DEI training -- one that immediately turns off and disgusts thinking people who went to real school -- is that it pretends to be about "conversation" when in fact it defines any viewpoint not in line with its controversial agenda as off-limits. It's what gives such sessions their infuriating Orwellian character. A pressing danger we face today, I think, is impatience with "free inquiry and open discussion" in "pursuit ... of truth for its own sake." I don't see Rufo or DeSantis remedying that problem. They're proposing the college equivalent of Fox News because they're sick of the New York Times.
I think back to my higher education some 20-25 years ago, and the genuine problem comes increasingly into focus. I majored in history at Northwestern, where the faculty ranged from conservative (a few) to liberal (most) to Marxist (a good number). It definitely leaned left, as did the student body (which is the nature of students, or, at least, was then and there). At the same time, with all its superficial left-wing bias, it was normie town, and it's where I first learned to take conservative arguments, indeed any challenging arguments, seriously. This is a potential problem with your stats-based evidence. The problem isn't the number of faculty who identify as this or that. The problem is one of ethos, of spirit. *That's* what needs fixing, and the solution is not an inter-school balance of bullshit.
For law school, I went to the University of Chicago. I'm not sure why that school doesn't come up more often in these discussions. As in, why do we need a University of Austin when we already have a University of Chicago? The Law School, as it calls itself, was known -- and still is, I think -- as a place where conservatives and libertarians and originalists and so-on would feel comfortable, just as Catholic intellectuals feel comfortable at Notre Dame. So I took classes from Richard Epstein, Richard Posner, and Frank Easterbrook. At the same time, I took classes from Cass Sunstein, Barack Obama, and Catharine MacKinnon. How many of those six names would fit Rufo's hiring criteria? Probably two.
I was an FDR liberal back then. I still am. Nothing thrills me like the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I'm not sure I was ever in the majority really at either school, but there were certainly more like-minded people at Northwestern. The point is, that didn't matter, because both places had a commitment to rigorous inquiry. You could expect, say, Obama to vigorously defend a Clarence Thomas opinion, at least for the sake of argument. I was challenged at both places. I became smarter because of both places. I learned that Learned Hand was right: "the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." I fear that Rufo and company, just like their lefty enemies, want to hurry up and get to their right answers. If so, that's anti-intellectual, anti-education, and fundamentally opposed to the liberal tradition they claim to vindicate.
This was interesting, and I definitely want to think about it more. However as a person who has interacted with way more Nobel Prize winning economists then any sanish person should have — and with no insult meant to George Mason — we should not be using them as any sort of benchmark or proof of rational or reasoned thought. A good idea in economics is often based more on its modeling than relationship with actual reality (and I say this as person who works with and actually respects economists).
On a more practical level, I’m also not sure where New College will pick up these new conservative staff. It would be hard to convince many people with tenure to switch to what is, as Trace points out, a failing college in an ecosystem where colleges are failing all the time unless you could convince people that there’s any stability in the new venture. There are certainly plenty of un- or under-employed new PHDs, but given the current politics, anyone who got through a decent program recently is almost always going to be “woke” to some level (or possibly foreign). Having a ton of new faculty and being some sort of political football is also unlikely to inspire a lot of more practical but higher achieving students to apply even if they’re fond of the politics of the project.
Good stuff, Trace! I love the fact that I can hear a diversity of opinions here. Good on you, Jesse, and Katie for being intellectually curious and humble.
I still share the worries of the BARpod bosses, but I appreciate the views of the Chief of Staff.
While previously on the Haidt/Pinker/Singal side of this, I'm... reluctantly convinced. I still don't trust Rufo and DeSantis in the long term, but I think maybe Trace is right that, in this particular case, it might be for the best.
I admit, Rufo's handling of the threats may have helped push me over the edge. No whining, just a firm calling of a bluff. We'll inevitably be enemies, our ideologies are too different and the man's a cold-blooded political operative at heart, but that's not mutually exclusive with a dash of respect.