By Dr. Brian Anse Patrick, Professor of Communication, University of Toledo
The recent Susan Douglas controversy at the University of Michigan has captured considerable attention from various publics. Professor Douglas, chair of the Department of Communication Studies, published what many (something like 4,000 online commentators) have interpreted as a hateful invective against Republicans and political conservatives.
Douglas was apparently unnerved by the volume and intensity of the digital outcry after she referred to millions of citizens, many of whom are UM donors and alums (and taxpayers), as hateful dogmatists and intolerant supporters of authoritarianism, so much so that she has allegedly requested police protection. The professor has perhaps spent too much time in unbalanced power relationships with students who must either put up or suffer the consequences of independent thought. A bigger problem here, obvious to just about everyone but many professors, is that professorial displeasure may be earned for ideological reasons entirely unrelated to academic standards.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that in some academic departments, especially in social sciences and the humanities, rigorous academic standards have transmuted over time into ideological sniff tests—is candidate X the right kind of person with the proper set of Left-leaning beliefs? Through processes involving group norms, incentives, rewards, hiring and cronyism, departments select for true believers. Especially at the graduate level where future professors are trained, conformity is in great demand. Orthodoxy becomes de facto a systemic result rather than the enabling of creative, self-directed individuals. All this not only carries over into the undergraduate classroom, but also taints the production of research and publications. Terms like “critical thinking” so often come to mean in practice ‘Think as I do.”
I know reasonably well whereof I speak, for I hold a Ph.D. in Communication Research from the University of Michigan, from the same Department that Professor Douglas chairs. Our times there overlapped although, as a professor she occupied a far more elevated position. I began as a graduate student and graduate student instructor (aka, teaching assistant) then, in time, became a Ph.D. candidate, emerging as newly minted Ph.D. in 1999. Obtaining a tenure track position at the University of Toledo, I have since risen through the academic ranks, achieving tenure in 2007 and finally becoming a full professor in 2012, by dint of much hard work. I have written five books to date.
My general observation based on these experiences is that modern state universities function to an unhealthy degree as ideological warrens of the politically Left. Make that the politically far Left. For those few who do not align, the atmosphere can be so oppressive as to constitute what harassment litigators have labeled a “hostile climate.” And so often the non-aligner has been me. It’s curious that many of those who would disparage conservatives and Republicans as intolerant, dogmatic, hateful authoritarians tend to display exactly these very same attributes towards those whom they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as conservative.
My purpose here of course is not to criticize Professor Douglas, whom I met in passing several times, and who seemed a pleasant and inoffensive person (offline, at least!) and who certainly never did me any harm. I refer instead to what is virtually a closed system of recruitment, hiring, graduate training, scholarship and thought that forms an intellectual establishment at many universities.
If all this were taking place in explicitly sectarian colleges, it would be fine. Most Americans are big people and understand that values and beliefs vary. This native pluralism accounts for the relative healthiness of a pragmatic American social system that creates itself as it goes along. People have a right to assemble any kind of private college they want, even, believe it or not, chiropractors. So if you really wish, go right ahead and open up a private college of highly derivative Marxist studies. But when such a belief system becomes official or quasi-official—functioning as an establishment for the propagation of a uniform set of beliefs under the American public educational system—there is a problem. In the old Soviet Union, for an example of an establishment political dogma in action, in addition to endless graduate level elaborations on the “science” of Marxism, the universities taught a ridiculous version of evolutionary-heredity theory (Lysenkoism) that conformed to Marxist ideology. There, science served ideology by mandate of the collectivist state, the menu being thought control via higher education. In a free system, however, we would expect heterogeneous professors to have heterogeneous ideas and to profess accordingly, which is exactly what we don’t have in so many American public universities these days. Public universities should not seek ideological unity through mass consciousness-raising programs. Such educational/attitudinal goals suspiciously resemble practices that used to be called agitation propaganda, although extreme leftists call it praxis. Public education should be plural, as America is a big place, and should also be free from the domination of what George Orwell, that advocate of clear language and thought, labeled “smelly little orthodoxies,” although on the way to a broad education one should expect an occasional whiff of orthodoxy.
Concerning the hostile academic climate alleged above, I will relate just a few incidents of many. Perhaps I was and remain naïve in expecting free and respectful discourse, but one of my chief intellectual interests is the informational sociology of what I have described elsewhere as the new American Gun Culture. It soon became apparent this was a forbidden topic. For my dissertation work I examined the role of negative media coverage in mobilizing NRA membership, discovering that the more negative coverage NRA received over a ten-year period, the more its membership increased. My dissertation findings became my first book. But in graduate seminars at UM a senior professor would make curdled milk expressions when my research topic came up. He would say things like, “I don’t let my children even play with toy guns,” obviously disgusted, as if this absolutely refuted the findings. When I was nearing the end, at the dissertation writing stage, Professor Curdled Milk attempted to divert away from me a crucial dissertation writing fellowship that had so far gone to all other members of my graduate program to help them finish in a timely fashion. I called him on this and got the fellowship, but he never looked at or talked to me again.
Another person in the program, who has since moved on to a professorship at a Midwestern university, made it clear to me that he was my moral superior because I had participated in competitive shooting events. He couldn’t, when invited, fire a handgun recreationally at a target, because of what he described as “moral reasons.” By this line of rationalization, he was apparently informing me that I was a spiritual bankrupt of some sort.
I was often called a “you people.” A particularly imbecilic leftist thought that because I apparently approved of NRA, I also approved of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. Quoting Taylor Swift as an authority (does this make me a conservative?), I had to “Shake it Off,” in order to do my work.
Next page please…
Later, when going up for promotion for full professor, at that time with three books to my credit, journal articles, book reviews, excellent teaching evaluations, and substantial university and community service, a dean wrote an eleven-page letter denouncing just about everything I had done since conception. It was an ugly letter. Some used the word “malice” to describe it. She feared I might be an “advocate” for gun culture. This from a dean associated with the Women and Gender Studies department, perhaps the most strident leftist advocacy group on any campus. She also tried to discount literally hundreds of positive student teaching evaluations, saying it was impossible to interpret the meaning of the word “yes” on the students’ responses to closed ended questions concerning my attributes in the classroom. This same dean, however, had written short glowing letters for professors who had published relatively little, with no books, but who had apparently not aroused her ideological ire. The professors on the university academic affairs committee subsequently voted unanimously 8/0 for my promotion, demonstrating that just because one is more or less a leftist professor doesn’t necessarily mean that one is blind, but also that fair and reasonable people exist on both sides of the ideological divide.
I’m sure, though, had I written on safe, approved topics, like “NRA and the White Male Identity,” I would have received rewards and accolades. (Something like this was recently published and I was cited or perhaps mis-cited, I cannot say which because I haven’t yet read the article),
Professor Douglas cites recent survey research from the field of political communication to buttress and objectify her assessment of Republicans and conservatives as overflowing with hate, intolerance and authoritarian leanings. We need to look further back in the leftist canons of thought for the origins of this conceit.
Theodor Adorno is a saint of critical studies, a kind of reverse Horatio Alger, who complained of how difficult it was for himself, a child of wealth, to function as a good Marxist. A relic of our dear St. Adorno is the “F Scale”—F for Fascist—a psychological survey instrument purported to measure fascist tendencies. Leftists back in that WWII era generically referred to Nazis as Fascists. Adorno attributed much the same characteristics to the Fascists that Douglas attributes to Republicans and Conservatives. Scoring high on the F Scale reduced one from personhood to an objectified pathological cluster of unpleasant symptoms.
Adorno, however, appears to have had no sense of the mass horrors perpetrated during the 20th Century by the Left in the name of collective justice, or even any sense that the Left could sin at all. He was a well off aesthete whose main talent seemed to be fooling himself and others into believing that he was a revolutionary. Countering the one-sided F Scale were Hannah Arendt’s incisive writings on totalitarianism, which made her no friends among the Left because she demonstrated there was little or no difference in the inner workings of the fascists and their communist enemies—they were all well equipped to become totalitarian monsters and were equally proficient in this regard.
Professor Douglas’s diatribe against the enemies of the Left seems like more of the same old same old that derivative Marxists have been churning out for generations. As an ethical pretense it may be harmless enough, but as an establishment belief system in a public university, one should wonder.
I learned much at the University of Michigan for which I am duly grateful. There was a great deal of talent from which to learn. I left with a Ph.D., but had the strong impression that there were those who would rather that I left without and then disappear into silence. I did not cooperate. Progressives use terms like “marginalized,” but I felt as if I had been inaccurately stereotyped. I didn’t fit in their neat little box and still don’t. They seemed afraid to venture outside.
Dr. Brian Anse Patrick is a professor of communication at the University of Toledo. He joined the Department in 2000 and holds a Ph.D. in Communication Research from The University of Michigan. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in research methods, group communication, propaganda and persuasion. His honors seminars on “Propaganda and Social Science” and “American Gun Policy” have ranked as the most popular courses in the University’s Honors Program. He is a nationally recognized expert on American Gun Culture, frequently speaking at events and symposia. He believes in respectfully engaging students. He says, “My educational model is the conversation—let’s talk.” His publications include five books and a number of scholarly articles.