FAULKNER, KEYS And VATZ: Identity Universities And The End Of Academic Freedom

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Public colleges and universities across the United States are pushing for “equity, inclusion and diversity,” including major program directives to be followed by faculty, students and administration.

These are not mere talking points or mission statements, but concrete policies: academic jobs require diversity statements, faculty risk their jobs without compliance and students are encouraged to concentrate their power, all under the banner of identity. Academic accomplishment and meritocratic measures are never more than an afterthought, if that, in new strategic plans.

The charge into this social engineering includes all of the worst impulses of progressivism run amok and the instincts of cancel culture, termed by liberal Alan Dershowitz “the new McCarthyism of the woke generation” which eviscerates “freedom of speech and due process.”

This is not a new phenomenon, but identity’s power is increasing. The vast majority of academic job postings now require a “Diversity Statement” in which one must “prove” their commitment to specific types of equity, inclusion and diversityCongress itself noticed the fallout of such policies already underway and brought many academics and professionals to testify in 2018. Among them was Brett Weinstein, former professor at Evergreen State College, who objected to his college’s new equity and inclusion plan because it required all new professorial hires to have an “equity justification/explanation.” Weinstein’s public objections ultimately resulted in students occupying his classroom and shouting him down. Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, resigned mid-semester because of the danger.

Excited by the success of its concocted charge, public higher education ignores the precepts of The American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP, the preeminent membership association for faculty members and other academic professionals in the United States, proudly proclaims in its statement of “Protecting Academic Freedom” that “Academic freedom is the indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education.” Nowhere is the identity of its student body presented as a determinative component of its teaching and matriculative practices.

This does not mean that racist practices are to be exalted or tolerated, as such unfair academic policies and behaviors militate against the academic freedom of the academy, freedom of speech and the yielding of competent ideas through dialectical process. But when freedom of speech is shortcutted by universities to reward or punish specific groups, academia abjures the clash of ideas in favor of a mold into which professors and others in higher education must fit.

Much of the current policy initiatives throughout academia focus entirely on matters extraneous to academic freedom, and in fact the abrogation of academic freedom and lack of concern for competent ideas manifested by hiring, promotion and tenure, publishing and award discrimination dwarf identity unfairness on public college campuses. But even to mention the tension between competence or merit and demands for diversity and inclusion gets one branded a “racist” and ousted from their position or, minimally, stigmatized in the academy. That is exactly what happened to the late Dr. Martin Medhurst, Professor of Rhetoric and Political Science at Baylor University and editor and founder of a prominent journal in communication studies, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, in 2019.

After daring to share his view in the journal that merit should be prioritized over ideology, he was pressured on all sides to resign from his position, and he did so. Just this past year, virtually every full-time academic job posting in the field of communication required a Diversity Statement just in order to submit the application. A common example at the University of Utah requires a resume, cover letter and other standard documents having to do with merit, and then also a Diversity Statement with the bland but all too transparent lines of special pleading prefacing such a request: “The Department is committed to removing barriers that have been traditionally encountered by individuals from underrepresented groups; strives to recruit faculty who will further enhance our diversity; and makes every attempt to support their academic, professional, and personal success while they are here.” This is exactly what one should say when the inquisition comes knocking.

Looking at Towson University’s 43-page plan, replete with general identity directives, absent any indication of evidence of the problems it is purportedly solving, it then informs and requires its individual colleges to be consistent with the university policy. The new policy makes Towson a diversity institution within a university rather than a university with diversity concerns.

Nowhere is it indicated what specific groups require compensatory action to ensure that they achieve “equity,” nor is evidence provided to validly prove that there are such groups. In Towson’s plan, the university concedes: “Unlike many institutions across the country, TU does not have a demonstrative racial achievement or learning gap even in the face of the increasing enrollment of racial minorities. Of particular note: while the national six-year graduation rate is 43%, it is 73% for all TU students and for African American TU students, it is 77%.”

How could serious academics and administrators put the cart before the horse like this? Identities are listed, but no mention is made of the discrimination against conservative ideas rampant throughout Towson.

Moreover, this plan will likely prove to be an anti-Caucasian plan, similar to the most radical of such plans now cropping up throughout the country.

No university can devote itself to identity teaching and remain a serious university, dedicated to facilitating competent, balanced and insightful ideas. Identity is about certainty. Competent ideas are about asking the right questions. Diversity is about conformity. Insight is produced by the free unintimidated clash of ideas, rarer and rarer at public colleges and universities.

If there is one area that requires rectifying, it is the prevailing bias against conservatives and conservative thought, evident in classroom teaching, hiring, tenure-awarding, stipends, etc. But even in that case, it would not be a workable idea to have written stipulations, such as “Freedom Statements” required for any applicant to demonstrate their commitment to enhancing freedom of speech. That obvious irony seems to escape current universities, probably because they often do not aim to be universities at all in the traditional sense, but rather identity boot camps.

Blake Faulkner is a Doctoral Candidate at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a scholar of diversity 

Tyrone Keys is president and co-founder of The Keys Organization, which operates in the real estate and financial services. He has been featured on various outlets including NPR and ABC discussing matters of politics, policy and economics 

Richard E. Vatz is professor of political communication at Towson University wherein he served on the university’s Academic Senate for over 40 years.  He has written extensively on matters of higher education and conservatism