Mythbusting academic neutrality

By Justin Henry

Upon entering Ithaca College’s Gannett Center in the spring of 2017, students were met with a glass encasement of communist paraphernalia from around the world. Banners urging workers of the world to overthrow the capitalist system are commonplace for many of today’s college students. However, in the years following World War II, these departments would undergo interrogation about their academic neutrality.

This was when America’s Red Scare was in full swing. The emerging conservative movement was stricken with “McCarthyism”, a reactionary fear of communism scornfully named for Joseph McCarthy who tried to expel any communists among his fellow congressmen.

The Red Scare stretched far beyond government; workers in Hollywood and private colleges were harassed by employers and bureaucrats if they spoke out against the U.S.’s foreign policy of soviet containment. According to a New York Times article, 1,500 professors were registered by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee as “card carrying communists” by 1952.

As a result of partisan rancor on campuses during the Red Scare’s aftermath, political ideology in the university is largely segregated by on department. Classes in sociology and the humanities most frequently incorporate a critical analysis of society, descended from a Marxist class analysis with the intent to reform. The departments of business and law, on the other hand, both reflect foundation institutions of that same society—a competitive market economy and a stable legal structure.

And thus two disparate views of western civilization—and the university itself—are created. On the left hand, capitalism and law maintain it as an oppressive system. On the right hand, these conventions of western civilization have raised living standards above near universal poverty.

Up from McCarthyism

By the end of World War II, reformist academics questioned the neutrality of their institutions. Sociologists from several universities were hired to help the military strategize against communist insurgencies in eastern Europe and Latin America. In fact, the Latin American Studies Association was first established to aid the Cold War effort against communist insurgencies. Not to mention the University of Chicago aided the U.S. government in the creation of two atom bombs. In the nuclear age, not even science was neutral.

Ambitious academics saw new opportunities to fund their work; radical professors saw colleagues complying with a quasi-fascist state. Not only did neutrality during the Cold War seem impossible to them but unethical to attempt. This was when criticism of mainstream American society and the institution itself became integrated in departments of sociology and political theory.

The policies of the New Deal were established as the desired politic of the American professorate since the early 20th century. During the Progressive Era, urban university faculty allied with public housing projects, taking their cue from state-interventionist programs of Germany and the United Kingdom. Since then, the politics which conservatives call “big government” became naturalized in the language of academia.

Faculty from the social sciences to the natural sciences championed communitarian politics as the height of western civilization as well as intrinsic to human nature. Informed by psychoanalytic and Marxist theory, Theodore W. Adorno wrote The Authoritarian Personality in 1950 which described democratic socialist politics as a psychologically healthy response to the inequalities of western bourgeois society. Comparing the Republican party to Nazi Germany for their anti-communist witch hunts and Cold War foreign policy, Adorno described the emerging conservative movement as a kind of pathology, political “phoniness” resulting from a “father-fixation”.

Scholarly journals from the post-World War II era reflected a sense of duty to bestow the values of liberalism and social democracy upon students. Liberalism was more than a partisan ideology; it was a natural and necessary response to the inequalities of industrialized capitalism.

What these three constituents—McCarthyites, social Democrats and radical reformers—shared was the conviction that their cause transcended partisan politics. Just like today’s political actors, each acted with a sense of civic necessity.

The McCarthyites had to stop the insurgency of dangerous biases, although ignorant of their own; social Democrats integrated the language of the modern Democratic platform in their scholarship; and radicals returned students to their parents with radical Marxist critiques of western society in the name of academic freedom.

In order the accommodate a plurality of interests, higher education adopted a new philosophy of neutrality by the end of the civil rights era: since bias of individual faculty members was inevitable, institutions could demonstrate their political neutrality by hiring professors of all political stripes. Isn’t the very standard of objectivity subject to one’s own biases? This is the question Kenneth Kenniston asked in his 1968 essay, “Criticism and Social Change”.

Kenniston and his fellow academics in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) believed a free market of ideas would allow universities to maintain a healthy dose of public scrutiny. But such a free market had to be fought for in the late 1960’s by an alliance between students, professors and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a socialist revolutionary group. Modern campus communities owe many of the institutional norms, like ethnic studies programs and an integrated student body, to the outcomes of many of these protests.

Protests also cemented college campuses as a political battlefield where the students had leverage. Administrators, rather than being solely beholden to government interests, now had to answer to the tuition dollars of a progressing society.

The academy’s “New Left”

With universities now welcoming radicals and reformers as tokens of intellectual diversity, the identity politics of the “New Left”, a coalition of second wave feminists, anti-racists and LGBT activists, converged with scholarly work to create leftist criticism of traditional society. Critical theory and critical pedagogy gained significant traction among professors disillusioned with the lack of progress since the “rights revolution” of the 1960’s.

Informed by psychoanalytic and Marxist theories of European postmodernists, critical theory is an umbrella term that encompasses many cultural and social criticisms. The methodology of critical theory asks how various aspects of western capitalist societies maintained an oppressive society.

Descendants of critical theory—like feminist theory, queer theory and critical race theory—adopted Marxist ideas of a class struggle between oppressor and oppressed but applied to various identity politics of the “New Left” coalition. Gender, sexual identity and race were now understood to be socially constructed fictions, rather than natural facts of the human life which actively maintain an oppressive society.

Harvard University legal scholar Derrick Bell, commonly referenced as the founder of critical race theory, argued racism was fundamentally ingrained in American society and therefore the politics of race must be at the center of analysis. In his field of legal studies, race was the focal point of legal proceedings. Strict textualist interpretation of law could allow for racist execution and preserved the racism of the time in which it was written.

Since then, critical theory has been integrated into curriculum of the humanities and social sciences of reform-minded professors, the very same ones who conservatives say make everything about race or gender. This is because their scholarly work looks for the recreation institutional oppression within seemingly apolitical subjects.

Among critical race theory’s foundational ideas, the 2015 edition of “Critical Race Theory in Higher Education” lists racism is permanent and ubiquitous in American society and that whiteness is cultural capital.

The book responds to the proposition of a post-racial society after the election of the country’s first black president. It points to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and other young African American men and disproportionate incarceration of people of color as recreations of an oppressive system and a race neutral rebranding of Jim Crow era laws.

The emergence of critical theory in the post-civil rights era marked a paradigm shift in left-wing political thought: radicals and reformers rejected mainstream, color blind liberalism and meritocracy as race-neutral facades that turned a blind eye toward institutional oppression.

The most significant contribution to the contemporary academic lexicon is the distinction of institutional, rather than incidental, oppression. Racism, sexism and other forms of oppression were understood to be inextricably ingrained the fabric of American society. Francis Lee Ansley wrote in the Cornell Law Review that white supremacy didn’t solely refer to self-conscious racists but to a broader system.

“I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings,” Ansley wrote.

And as a result, racism itself discriminated based on race. Only white people could be racist in a white supremacist society. People of color could only be prejudice.

By the 1980’s, when to be “color blind” was the mode in American culture, theories critical of race-neutral liberalism had gained significance among academics. In 1985, Cornell psychologist Stephen J. Ceci conducted a study to assess the implicit beliefs of the social sciences. He sent out two groups of academic papers to 150 review boards. One paper hypothesized that racism against minorities was at play and the other suggested “reverse racism” against white males was at play, which was more often rejected.

Conservative critics like Pat Buchanan and Jordan Peterson describe critical theory as a rebranding of Marxism, which had become unpopular due to the devastation in eastern Europe and China, used to indoctrinate students into communism and anti-American sentiments.

Proponents of critical theory view it as liberation from European hegemony ingrained in academic theory as well as the scholarship necessary to inspire social justice activism. For example, protests for affirmative action policies came in response to a cultural critique of meritocracy.

During the Fall 2006 semester, the Ithaca College Center for Faculty Excellence hosted scholars of critical race theory from across the country for a lecture series. The goal of the event, according to the program anthology, was to “explore pedagogical resources” and support “interdisciplinary research scholarship and activism”. One article by Kevin R. Johnson entitled “Law and the Borders: Open Borders” made a case against monitoring the border between U.S. and Mexico.

Critical theory and critical pedagogy contribute to the worldview of students and professors, particularly in the departments of social sciences, politics and humanities. Derek Adams, assistant professor in the department of English, said critical analysis played a role in the conversations by student and faculty protesters during the Fall 2015 semester. For example, activists contemplated whether or not white people could genuinely be an ally in the fight against oppression against people of color in a society which favors whites. Russell Rickford, Cornell University professor in the department of History, resolved this conflict of interest by saying white people could not be allies but they could be “comrades”, Adams said.

During the Spring 2015 semester, following former President Tom Rochon’s announcement that he would retire, POC @ IC, the student-faculty alliance against the former president, featured “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, by Brazilian Marxist Paolo Freire, in a list of recommended texts to “continue conversations started and yet to be had.”

Today’s college administrators struggle to integrate classes in business and finance with classes in the humanities and social sciences. But how could they when students learn in one class that their other classes support the oppressive capitalist system?

The Ithaca College Journal of Race, Culture and Ethnicity”, a review of student essays, demonstrates how critical theory has become more than a theory but an operating methodology for students to understand society and themselves. Throughout the Spring 2015 volume, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed appears in 22 footnotes.

The journal is published by the Center for Race Culture and Ethnicity, founded by Dr. Asma Barlas, professor in the department of politics, in 1991. Barlas includes “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in her “Race and Colonialism” class. In the journal’s essay “A Letter to my peers”, Sierra Council reflected on the insights gained in Barlas’ class.

“This class has been a reflection of the greater systemic forces that influence our lives— patriarchy, capitalism, hetero-normative, and racism,” Council wrote. “It has plagued our conversations and forced some students to withdraw, including myself at times.”

Conservative backlash

Colleges and universities are no strangers to conservative critics like Jordan Peterson and Pat Buchanan who say radical professors indoctrinate the nation’s youth into communist, anti-western philosophies. What critics call the Marxist takeover of the academy reformers call tearing down systems of oppression and equalizing the playing field for groups that have been historically marginalized.

Left-wing dominance at private colleges resists criticism against it as a McCarthyist renewal. When Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist aimed to alert students of any discriminatory professors, it struck the American Association of University Professors as another attack on free expression in the classroom from the demagogic right-wing.

Economist James Miller was eager to achieve tenure in the late 1990’s which would guarantee him the highest level of job security. In addition to teaching several courses, Miller published a book, academic papers and even an op-ed in National Review, the country’s leading conservative journal.

In “Campus Colors”, Miller described the modern academy as a predatory power structure, xenophobic toward anyone who disturbs the leftist echo chamber.

“Practically the only way for a women’s-studies professor to get a lifetime college appointment is for her to contribute to the literature on why America is racist, sexist, and homophobic,” he wrote.

The Smith College newspaper, The Sophian, reported two of the memos against Miller’s application for tenure refer to this article.

“I would also refer the committee to… ‘Campus Colors,’ in which Jim says, among other things, that ‘professors are mostly left wing,’ that ‘the large number of non-U.S. citizens in American colleges necessarily makes these schools less patriotic,’” the letter said. “I find it extremely disturbingly [sic] that this could be Jim’s image of academia.”

Miller told the campus newspaper that this was a violation of his academic freedom.

“The person wasn’t disturbed that it was poorly written or illogically argued, but rather she was disturbed by the conservative political views expressed in the article,” Miller is quoted as saying in The Sophian. “This article is criticizing colleges for being politically correct. … This was used as a reason to fire me. I consider that an absolute violation of my academic freedom.”

Descendants of feminist cultural criticism cover a wide net of social theory—feminist, queer and postcolonial theories are all based in a common view of one group dominating another group.

The dominating group maintain power through “cultural hegemony”, a theory developed by Italian Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci. George Erhardt, political scientist at Appalachian State University used this term ironically to describe how the power structures have reversed in the U.S. The government has become the dominant class and left-wing professors have become the cultural hegemony justifying it.

“Progressives now control cultural discourse,” Erhardt wrote in “Academics and the Reproduction of Cultural Hegemony”. “No matter how much academics cling to their fantasy that they are ‘speaking truth to power,’ the counter-culture isn’t ‘counter’ anymore—it’s the status quo.”

Erhardt points to the nomination of Betsy DeVos, whose nomination to the role of Secretary of Education is a right-wing response to the shortcomings of public education. Instead of confronting DeVos’s agenda with an honest sense of debate, Erhardt wrote, the political left stigmatized anyone who challenged the dominance of the Department of Education.

Derek Adams, professor in the Ithaca College department of english, admitted that the supremacy of left-wing views in a class can alienate conservative students even though he subscribes to a more radical educational philosophy. In fact, Adams said alienating conservative students goes against the original intentions of Marxist critical analysis to intellectual liberate students.

“A ‘good liberal’ would not be alienating and marginalizing people while they are crying out against marginality and alienation,” Adams said. “That happens on the part of professors when they’re teaching classes and they don’t make room for any other kind of thought.”

The university continues to reinforce the oppressive norms of society said Russell Rickford, a historian at Cornell University specializing in black radical tradition. Rickford said there remains a small minority of truly radical professors in universities. Conservatives can rest assure, Rickford said, that there is no shortage of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in the academy.

Conservatives like to portray the academy as a bastion of left-wing thought,” Rickford said in an email. “Colleges and universities mostly reinforce the status quo in our society. They replicate the existing class structure and they generally reinforce existing institutions and power relations. They overwhelmingly function as partners of—not threats to—global capitalism, the Washington establishment, the military industrial complex… especially in the age of the corporate university.”

Adams expanded on the lack of genuine reform in the academy by pointing to the unequal financial support between Ithaca College’s business school and the humanities and sciences.

“If we just think about it in basic capitalist terms, compensation for the kinds of things that are taught in business are unequal to the kind of compensation for the professors in the humanities for the things that they teach,” Adams said. “You’re just privileging one school of thought over another.”

The commodification of a degree is deeply resented by professors of the social sciences and humanities who reject the neoliberal mentality of students as customers at a corporate university. It is criticized as a neo-liberal assault on the university by a labor force in the humanities and social sciences whose classes offer value which cannot be quantified in capitalist terms.

The Slow Professor, which arms professors with a manifesto to resist the corporatization of their place of work, was passed around a reading circle by Wade Pickren, director of the Center for Faculty Excellence, according to Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement.

For the center’s blog, Pickren wrote “Faculty Resilience in a Neoliberal Age” which describes the human and cultural sacrifices of the capitalist ethos of adapting to market forces.

“Academic life in this neoliberal era is re-framed to suit a corporate, market-driven ethos that devalues human connectivity,” Pickren wrote.

The corporatization of higher education is more fitting in the business school since their programs yield jobs more instantaneously and build robust networks of donating alumni.

The diversity question

The segregation of ideology based on department is exacerbated by self-selecting hiring practices in graduate school admissions according to a study by sociologists Ethan Fosse, Jeremy Freese and Neil Gross. Not to mention the hostility conservatives report if they are admitted in a graduate program.

Jonathan Haidt, professor at the New York University School of Law, and other colleagues in fields of sociology and psychology founded Heterodox Academy, an online consortium of academics to promote freedom of thought and political diversity in university faculties. Their founding paper “Political diversity will improve social and psychological science” includes the excerpt from an email a student sent him after seeing his lecture on political divides in higher education.

“I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was for me in graduate school because I am not a liberal Democrat. As one example, following Bush’s defeat of Kerry, one of my professors would email me every time a soldier’s death in Iraq made the headlines; he would call me out, publicly blaming me for not supporting Kerry in the election,” the email reads. “Instead of seeking the professorship that I once worked toward, I am now leaving academia for a job in industry.”

Social and psychological sciences have been the battleground for the left-right war of ideas throughout the 20th century, resulting from an uneasy relationship with theories from the late 19th century’s “Progressive Era”. For example, T. H. Huxley infamously applied Charles Darwin’s theory of evolutionary determinism to justify the second-class citizenship of African Americans. In fact, much of the critical theory which has since been naturalized in classes were originally intended to dismantle these unquestioned assumptions

Efforts to expunge this shameful history included witch-hunts against professor’s whose ideas smack of racial or gender determinism. In 1975, Edward O. Wilson, entomologist at Harvard University, became a pariah in the academy after publishing “Sociobiology: a new synthesis”. Fifteen fellow academics, mostly sociologists and psychologists, accused him of promoting Nazi and Social Darwinist views through his study of biological determinism in a letter to the New York Review of Books.

“The reason for the survival of these recurrent deterministic theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex,” the letter read. “Historically, powerful countries or ruling groups within them have drawn support for the maintenance or extension of their power from these products of the scientific community.”

Protesters from the International Committee Against Racism, a reformed version of Students for a Democratic Society, the revolutionary activist group responsible for civil rights protests, crashed Wilson’s lecture at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. Just before Wilson was about to speak, reports describe protesters dumping ice water on his head and chanting “Racist Wilson you can’t hide! We charge you with genocide!”

Wilson wrote in his autobiography “Naturalist” that he proceeded to deliver his lecture, soaking wet, which was met with a prolonged standing ovation.

“It’s a bit of history to reflect on later,” Wilson said in an interview reflecting on the incident. “I believe I’m going to be able to claim that I was the only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea.”

This kind of hysteria has destructive implications for psychologists and natural scientists, argues Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist who has recently become a champion the free speech movement. Scholars like him who conduct research and teach with the understanding of biological conditions of gender surely wouldn’t last in a society that considers his work prejudiced stereotypes and hate speech.

Haidt and his colleagues wrote echoes Erhardt’s theory that progressive academics have become a dominant cultural hegemony by detailing how psychological studies throughout the 20th century and today stigmatize conservatives. Since the McCarthy era, psychologists have linked conservatism to low intelligence, unethical behavior and pathological bigotry.

Haidt’s and his colleague’s paper suggest these findings resulted from biased sampling, that the survey questions only concerned left-wing targets like communists and racial minorities.

“Thus, simply having an ideology does not inevitably lead to biased research, even on politicized topics,” the paper reads. “Nonetheless, as we show later in this article, having a greater number of non-liberal scientists would likely reduce the time it takes for social psychology to correct long-standing errors on politicized topics.”

Their suggestions mirror the efforts made by civil rights activists reacting to racial bigotry—integrate their institutions, execute an anti-discrimination policy, use climate studies to evaluate inclusiveness. They even use the term “coming out of the closet” to refer to conservative students and faculty publicly admitting their stigmatized views.

“In this way, certain assumptions, theories, and findings can become the entrenched wisdom in a field, not because they are correct but because they have consistently undergone less critical scrutiny,” they wrote. “When most people in a field share the same confirmation bias, that field is at a higher risk of reaching unjustified conclusions.”

Universal among activists of all political stripes is the plea for greater diversity. Progressive activists continue the efforts to reverse campus cultures oppressive to marginalized groups thereby offering a new standard of student and faculty integration through race conscious admission. For conservative students, activism is a plea for diversity of thought and free speech.

Both groups, the conservatives and the reformers, believe the uniformity of campus culture is a marginalizing force. However, they contend with very different forms of marginalization. Right-wingers challenge leftist orthodoxy in the humanities and social sciences that rally against conservative guest speakers. Left-wingers work to create an egalitarian society for marginalized groups which often requires discourage hate speech.

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