As Ben Shapiro recounts for The Weekly Standard, Yenor was denounced by Boise State’s director of student diversity and inclusion, who penned an article on the school’s website declaring, “Not every person who agrees with Yenor’s piece is likely to become an espoused Neo-Nazi, but likely every Neo-Nazi would agree with the substance of Yenor’s piece.” Yenor was decried by the faculty senate, with one member writing, “A large majority of the senators feel that the piece espouses deeply homophobic, trans-phobic, and misogynistic ideas.” Shapiro reports, “[Yenor’s] fellow professors cast him out like a leper. In Yenor’s words, his colleagues engaged in ‘ritual condemnation and ostracization.'”
This ritual of intimidation and social banishment for wrongthink is seen by many in the academy not as Orwellian, but as a routine reflection of the values of the contemporary campus. In truth, it represents a remarkable state of affairs. Last month, a controversial essay suggesting there were some beneficial legacies of colonialism was withdrawn from a scholarly journal after “serious and credible threats of personal violence” were leveled against the journal’s editor. At Columbia University, students invaded and briefly shut-down a sexuality and gender law class to protest its instructor, an administrator of the college. In May, Laura Kipnis, a film-studies professor at Northwestern University, was subject to a Title IX investigation after her new book recounted her inquisitorial experiences during two previous Title IX investigations. That same month, the associate editorial board of Hypatia, a peer-reviewed feminist-philosophy journal, disavowed a paper it had published on transracial and transgender identities after facing public backlash, including an open letter signed by more than 400 academics calling for the article’s retraction.
These are just a handful of instances that have made the news of late—there are myriad others we could cite. Moreover, we don’t have an idea how much of this type of pressure goes unreported, though surveys on self-censorship and scholarly accounts suggest it’s fairly pervasive.
These developments raise important questions about the nature of the modern academy. After all, in each instance, those shamed, censured, or silenced were not agitators or polarizing alt-right figures, but professors, challenging regnant academic conceptions in scholarly venues or otherwise engaged in the everyday tasks of their field. Nor were attacks confined to members of a single party or ideological bent, but targeted faculty with views ranging from the conservative right to the self-described feminist left. This virulent and growing strain of outrage-fueled censorship imperils core functions of the university, yet university leaders seem hesitant to confront the threat. Indeed, too often, university leaders seem to excuse, enable, or even abet would-be censors.
The civil, unhindered search for truth is the essential mission of the university, sustained through the lifeblood of academic freedom. Without it, the entire enterprise is compromised. Far from a novel idea, this has long been understood by those both inside and outside academia. In their famed 1915 “General Declaration of Principles,” the American Association of University Professors enunciated the first widely-accepted modern definition of academic freedom, asserting, “It is clear, then, that the university cannot perform its [primary function] without accepting and enforcing to the fullest extent the principle of academic freedom. The responsibility of the university as a whole is to the community at large, and any restriction upon [academic] freedom…is bound to react injuriously upon the efficiency and the morale of the institution, and therefore ultimately upon the interests of the community.”
Decades later, President Truman reaffirmed these verities in his 1948 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the speech credited with giving rise to the National Science Foundation. “Scientists do not want to work in ivory towers,” Truman declared, “but they do want to work in an atmosphere free from suspicion, personal insult, or politically motivated attacks. It is highly unfortunate that we have not been able to maintain the proper conditions for the best scientific work.” He went on to articulate just how detrimental fear of reprisal is to the academic enterprise, warning, “This indispensable work may be made impossible by the creation of an atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of unfounded rumors, gossip, and vilification. Such an atmosphere is un-American. It is the climate of a totalitarian country in which scientists are expected to change their theories to match changes in the police state’s propaganda line.”
Substitute “the police state” for “prevailing orthodoxy” and Truman’s words ring as true today as they did at the dawn of the Cold War. Universities, rightly, occupy a special place in American life, receiving large public subsidies, vast sums of philanthropy, and a privileged platform because they are regarded as the fountainhead of intellectual exploration, free inquiry, and reasoned debate. Today, however, it is increasingly unclear that many in the academy are wholly committed to this mission or willing to safeguard it.
When students and scholars are more concerned with virtue-signaling and thought-policing than ensuring that scholarly argument may be robustly and respectfully pursued, they have departed from the university’s historic mission. And if universities are going to accept this shift, it might just be time for taxpayers and policymakers to reevaluate the terms of the social contract governing their relationship with higher education.