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We have met the enemy, and they is us!
A compelling and provocative essay by Dave Porter, Professor in Exile.
Last year, I posted a guest essay by David Porter, in which he described his dismissal from his tenured position at Berea College for, essentially, encouraging his class to explore important social issues related to the College. Dave has more recently prepared a more comprehensive and highly referenced essay describing his case in the broader context of ‘cancel culture’ and other ills such as ‘safetyism’ that he and others argue are present in academia. I am happy to publish his piece here on Critical Mass—LMK
Lawrence Kraus (2023) provides evidence that the demographic characteristics of higher education faculties are changing: by and large, white males are disappearing. This essay suggests potential causes and consequences of this shift.
An extended version of this essay was submitted to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for inclusion in their Journal of Academic Freedom. It argues the fundamental processes of higher learning and their deployment and the campus communities (including faculty, staff, and students) are in danger. Cancel culture is like a neutron bomb; it destroys communities but leaves physical structures intact. Ecosystems without diversity become hollow shells.
The AAUP boasts “For over a century, (it) defended the profession against attacks on academic freedom despite facing many powerful adversaries… Preserving academic freedom for a free society entails understanding those who would dismantle or undermine it…”
While the AAUP enumerates many “External agendas or powerful interests in conflict with academic standards,”it ignores the ways faculty members, themselves, surrounded by disappointingly sycophantic colleagues and “allies,” contribute to a culture that imperils both the academic freedom and the democratic foundations of higher education.
Walt Kelly used Pogo, a prodigious possum, to satirize the human condition from 1949 till 1975. He mocked McCarthyism, communism, segregation, and the Vietnam War. Pogo’s most famous utterance was his lament about environmental pollution: “We have met the enemy and he is us” (Jarvis, 2003). Higher education has an obligation to not only comfort the afflicted; it must also afflict the comfortable (Shields 2004).
Although the First Amendment includes freedom of speech, this right was not very salient during our nation’s first century. Through the 19th century, schooling beyond the 8th grade was rare; individuals often acquired necessary knowledge and skills through self-study and internships. Higher education responded to churchs’, and later states,’ need for learned people to efficiently administer their emerging bureaucracies.
However, at the beginning of the 20th century, in his “great dissent” to Abrams v. United States (1919), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted that our Constitution assumes that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by a free trade in ideas.” He argued that the nation must be “eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe...” This ushered in a new appreciation of the vital role of free speech in democratic societies.
Academic freedom and freedom of speech are not the same, but they are similar. Mill’s (1859) On Liberty argues we make better decisions when we consider diverse perspectives and free speech facilitates this diversity. Censorship impedes the flow of ideas necessary for effective decisions, learning, and progress.
Nowhere was this truer than in higher education. As the 20th century approached, German universities advanced knowledge by protecting faculty members’ prerogatives to pursue truth. The AAUP was formed to secure the intellectual benefits of academic freedom and tenure (the best way to protect these rights) for American faculty members.
Euban (2004) identifies three sources of legal protection for individuals’ academic freedom: the US Constitution, contract law, and academic custom. She points out, “The federal constitution was designed to regulate the exercise of governmental power only, and therefore, virtually all of the constitutional restrictions pertaining to academic freedom… apply only to public… colleges and universities…” However, private colleges and universities eagerly embraced academic freedom standards to secure their educational benefits and attract top students and faculty. Expressions of these contractual commitments are contained in faculty handbooks and elsewhere. As Euban (2004) suggests, the promises contained in these materials may be held “to be legally binding contracts under state law.”
Courts have consistently supported college administrations when they protect academic freedom (e.g., Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) & Rodrguez v. Maricopa County Community College System (2009)). However, when administrations do not protect due process and academic freedom in favor of political advocacy as in the cases of McAdams v. Marquette (2018), Steele v. Pacific University (2023) and Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College (2022) courts have intervened. The status of the targets in these cases is noteworthy: McAdams was a tenured faculty member; Steele, a doctoral student; and Gibson’s Bakery a local business.
The Industrial/Organizational Course Survey Study
A narrative of my treatment for the crime of asking members of our campus community questions about academic freedom, protection from hostile environments, and due process can be found here: https://lawrencekrauss.substack.com/p/the-sad-case-of-david-porter-and (Porter 2022a). The published research report itself including our full survey is here: https://researchers.one/articles/22.11.00007v1 (Porter 2022b).
The survey included scenarios based on incidents that had occurred at Berea College and elsewhere over the two previous decades. Hostile environment protection (Title VII of the 1964 CRA) and academic freedom were integral to our industrial/organizational psychology course. The final project would have required students to integrate information from a variety of sources and required data collection, analysis, interpretation, and assessment of our College’s policies, programs, and practices.
The results were not intended to generalize nor was any individually identifiable information collected. Thus, this study was not human subjects research requiring Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Despite his concerns, the IRB Chair reviewed the survey and personally converted it into the required Qualtrics format before it was posted.
The 120 survey respondents approximated the demographic characteristics of the student body with respect to gender, race, and sexual orientation. The results showed a liberal bias but also suggested the majority (70%) of the campus community identified as “moderates” with only 27% identifying as Very Liberal (p. 16). Heterosexual males expressed less extreme political views than other groups.
Respondents who identified as Very Liberal also endorsed the belief that it was appropriate to shout down those whose speech they deemed potentially hurtful. Although 27% of the respondents agreed that shouting down controversial speakers was acceptable, only 3% endorsed violent responses.
Survey respondents explicitly supported Title IX protection from hostile environments, freedom of speech, and academic freedom. Explicit support for Freedom of Speech was actually greater than support expressed for protection from hostile environments (Porter 2022 b). However, just the opposite relationship was found when examining respondents’ perceptions of hostile environments and their judgments concerning academic freedom.
By and large, the survey revealed that there was little understanding or agreement about hostile environments or academic freedom. Across the 120 respondents, the correlation between identification of scenarios as being hostile and judgments favoring academic freedom protection was a negative .61. In fact, the relationship between hostile environments perception and acknowledgement of academic freedom protection measured across the 20 scenarios was even more strongly negative (r = -.873).
This result is important. Contrary to some students’ belief, our Constitution’s First Amendment does not contain a hate speech exception. As George Orwell observed, speech that offends no one, requires no protection.
The report’s path analysis of predictive relations among identity, beliefs, perceptions, and judgments revealed differences in perceptions and judgments. The path analytic approach and multiple regressions used in these analyses provided students an introduction to General Linear Modeling prevalent in graduate studies in many social sciences.
Survey items #56 & #57 asked respondents whether the survey itself created a hostile environment and if it should be protected by academic freedom. A majority of respondents did not believe the survey created a hostile environment, and a larger majority (nearly 80%) opined that it should be protected by academic freedom.
Survey Item #61 asks about self-censorship. Villasenor’s 2017 survey found that 50% of college students admitted avoiding expressing opinions that might be controversial. Sadly, 80% of BC respondents reported such self-censorship.
Presentations of this survey study have received positive reviews at several professional conferences. Four students submitted a poster to the virtual Mid America Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference in 2020 and received a dozen “thumbs-ups.” Two separate presentations at Kentucky Academy of Science Annual Conferences earned accolades from graduate students and social science faculty. A 2-hour invited presentation by the author and three former students to the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship garnered many compliments from the 50 society members who attended via Zoom in 2021.
This all begs the question posed in an essay published by the Martin Center, “Why Did a Progressive Christian College Fire a Competent Tenured Professor?” (Porter 2021). Those interested, can find this account on line. As described in this essay, the deviations my treatment from AAUP Guidelines apparently was of little concern to the AAUP.
In contrast to the lack of AAUP interest, The National Association of Scholars was very interested; they initiated an independent investigation. After interviewing many individuals and reviewing documents posted on my website, they contacted the college president privately. Receiving no response, Peter Wood, National Association of Scholars President, expressed his concerns in a public letter to the Berea College President:
“Moreover, the… evidence strongly suggests… Dr. Porter was harassed rather than harassing, and… the claims that he was the perpetrator are badly supported. Porter’s own website provides a far more accurate account of the events… Then too, Berea seems to have violated its contractual guarantees of administrative due process in the proceedings by which it fired Dr. Porter and deemed him incompetent… Berea acted unjustly.”
My case was moved from state to federal court and an initial trial date was set for
October 2022. However, shortly before the trial was to begin, the judge ruled in favor of the College’s request for summary judgment. My lawyers immediately filed an internal appeal (i.e., Federal Rule 59 (e)) identifying errors in fact and law in the judge’s published opinion. The judge considered our arguments and evidence for 9 months before reasserting her decision and approving an additional charge $11k to reimburse the College for copying charges. An appeal to the 6th District Circuit is likely.
It is now 6 years since the survey was posted. Even with two excellent lawyers taking my case on contingency, my personal legal fees have exceeded $75,000. I was deposed for nearly 30 hours across 6 days by the college lawyer. Eight other material witnesses have also been deposed and both sides have submitted expert witness opinions. The case has included hundreds of pages of filings and thousands of references to testimony and prior cases. This has not been easy. Is resistance futile? Should my struggle continue? If so, why?
In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker (2018) argues that reason, science, and humanism have resulted in extraordinary progress in improving the human condition. Across the world, life spans have nearly doubled while infant mortality, murders, starvation and death from natural disasters have plummeted. Slavery, accepted as “natural” for tens of thousands of years, has been outlawed and nearly disappeared. Humankind has not yet created ubiquitous utopias, however, our collective progress is undeniable. In ecological terms, the last several centuries have been an era of “upgrade.” Rather than rejecting science as a “tool of the oppressors,” might we look to it as a source of insight in regarding our current challenges?
Sean Carrol’s (2016) Serengeti Rules; the quest to discover how life works and why it matters turned ecological science upside down. Biologists had assumed plants and the herbivores that consumed were both necessary and sufficient to create and sustain and vital ecosystems. Predators were viewed as privileged interlopers and ecological afterthoughts that were there to show off and unnecessarily terrorize those below them in the food chain. Scientific theories, unlike religious beliefs, political agendas, DEI, or CRT, must be subjected to observation and testing.
Carrol (2016) describes several studies by field ecologists with results contrary to previous assumptions. Ecosystems containing only herbivores and their favorite salads often spiral downward in both diversity and sustainability. Diminished diversity and species degradation are more likely when Bambi, Thumper, and Flower dominate an ecosystem bereft of predators.
Certain species in any ecosystem can be identified as “keystones.” Their removal brings about collapse. Robert Paine removed starfish from tide pools in the Pacific Northwest and observed decline; subsequently, James Estes observed the same degradation in the kelp forests of the Aleutian Islands that lacked sea otters. Mary Power’s experiments involving the elimination of bass from pools confirmed this phenomenon as did Tony Sinclair’s careful studies on the Serengeti Plain.
Apex predators may not be nice; they are the villains of feature length cartoons and our worst nightmares. However, they may be necessary to sustain the vitality of their respective ecosystems. So, who are the apex predators in systems of higher learning? The behaviors of the professors (viz., Bonnell, Kehowski, and McAdams) in recent cases related to academic freedom in higher education could be seen to be academic predation or bullying. Embracing the actions that precipitated the administrative actions and subsequent legal suits is uncomfortable. The gratuitous use of profanity and lewd speech, racist rants, and public ridicule of teaching assistants are odious. However, the need for academic freedom protection does not depend on the value or virtue of the words being protected but their authors’ plausible claims that their actions were efforts aligned with what they believed to be true and relevant to the subjects they were teaching. Such claims warrant academic freedom protection.
However, in two of these cases, not only was academic freedom protection withheld, the administration joined the offended few and took precipitous administrative action against the alleged bullies. There was a time when such actions would have been resisted by faculty members who venerated classic liberal values of tolerance and freedom of inquiry. Times have changed. Charges of toxic masculinity and the wholesale rejection of cis-normative, patriarchal administrative hierarchies of many 20th century institutions have led to the abandonment of classic liberal values such as academic freedom and due process. Those who assume masculinity itself is toxic, advocate new organizational structures and curtailing due process considerations. As Voltaire put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can also make you commit atrocities…”
The inherently ambiguous, Longhouse (Lom3z 2023) provides an alternative organizational structure. “Longhouse” has become a metonym for the “progressive,” “woke,” and “activist” disorienting structures afflicting many higher education administrations. An ancient form of communal living, longhouses provided collective security in exchange for the autonomy and independence characteristic of other primitive social structures. In longhouses, feelings were of as much concern as physical safety. In the longhouse, masculinity’s direct competition and conflict were replaced by “softer” forms of control: “speech norms are enforced through punitive measures typical of female-dominated groups––social isolation, reputational harm, and indirect and hidden force. To be “canceled” is to feel the whip of the Longhouse masters” (Lom3z 2023).
Longhouse-like cultures have appeared across higher education. Lukianoff and Haidt’s (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind; How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure lists three fundamental falsehoods buttressing these socio-political- cultural collapses: The Untruth of Fragility; the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning, and The Untruth of Us Versus Them. Each of these untruths is associated with longhouse cultures, but the first is perhaps the most pernicious. The notion that human beings are fragile and that challenges inevitably weaken them creates an obsession with protection against emotional challenges and potential offenses. However, over a century of behavioral science research suggests why this is problematic: humans are largely “anti-fragile”; we thrive in environments that provide challenges and require learning and adaptation.
Lukianoff and Haidt (2018) define Safetyism as “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people are unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.” Van Jones’ matriculation exhortation illustrates Safetyism’s incompatibility with higher learning:
I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.
MacDonald (2023) suggests these problems are gender based: “Female students and administrators often exist in a co-dependent relationship, united by the concepts of victim identity and of trauma,” she writes. Haidt’s (2023) recent research provides evidence that “liberal girls” sank first and fastest beneath the current tsunami of adolescent anxiety and depression. He argues that college administrations have become unwitting accomplices:
…most of the programs put in place after the campus protests of 2015 are based on… the three Great Untruths…. From mandatory diversity training to bias response teams and trigger warnings, there is little evidence that these programs do what they say they do, and there are some findings that they backfire… there are reasons… to worry that they teach… adolescents to embrace harmful, depressogenic cognitive distortions.
In The Feminization of the American University, Rufo (2023) distinguishes two gender-based organizational types. He suggests that the stereotypic male trait of systemization, representing rationalism and order, is in tension with the feminine trait of empathization representing compassion and empathy. Recognizing that neither trait is inherently better, he suggests that these traits must be balanced and integrated to create adaptive and effective organizational systems. If either trait prevails and the other declines or disappears altogether, organizations collapse.
Thus, we have met the enemy and there is reason to believe they is us. We are members of campus communities and many of these communities are in decline. The engagement of students, the quality of their learning, and the efficacy of our administrative organizations all seem to be teetering. The problems are complex and, to some extent, unique to each institution. Asking good questions and carefully listening to the diversity of perspectives and opinions may be a good place to better understand and begin to resolve the challenges we face.
American Association of University Professors. 2018. John McAdams v. Marquette University, 383 Wisc. 2d 358, 914 N.W.2d 708. Academic Freedom and Employee Speech | AAUP
Berea College, 2017. Berea College Faculty Manual August 2017. http://catalog.berea.edu/current/Faculty-Manual
Carrol, Sean B. 2016. Serengeti Rules; the quest to discover how life works and why it matters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Davis, Mellie. 2020. “Trend Lines: The Importance of Pronouns in Lower School.” National Association of Independent Schools. (Summer). NAIS - Trend Lines: The Importance of Pronouns in Lower School
Euban, Donna R. 2004. “Academic Freedom and Professorial Speech.” Presentation to 25th Annual Conference on Law & Higher Education, Stetson University College of Law. Academic Freedom and Professorial Speech | AAUP
Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College. (2022). Gibson's Bakery v. Oberlin College - Wikipedia
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Jarvis, Eric. 2003. “Censorship on the Comics Page: Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” and American Political Culture in the Cold War Era.” JSTOR Daily, Studies in Popular Culture, Vol 26, No.1 (October) pp. 1-13. The Most Controversial Comic Strip - JSTOR Daily
Krauss, Lawrence, 2023, “Academia’s Missing Men” (Sept 11) Academia’s Missing Men.
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MacDonald, Heather 2023. Eye on the news: In Loco Masculi, The feminization of the American university is all but complete. The City Journal (March 5). The Great Feminization of the American University | City Journal (city-journal.org)
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Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. New York: Penguin Books.
Porter, David B. 2021. “Why did a Christian College fire a tenured professor? The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (Jul 09). Why Did a Christian College Fire a Tenured Professor? — The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (jamesgmartin.center)
Porter, David B. 2022 a. “Case Summary (Porter vs Sergent & Berea College).” In Krauss, L. M., The sad case of David Porter and his fight for academic freedom: Guest Post. Critical Mass, Nov 3. https://lawrencekrauss.substack.com/p/the-sad-case-of-david-porter-and
Porter, David B. 2022 b. How Hostile Environment Perceptions Imperil Academic Freedom: The Effects of Identity & Beliefs on Perceptions & Judgments. Researchers.One, Peerless Review, https://researchers.one/articles/22.11.00007v1
Powell, Meerah 2023. Pacific University faces nearly $4 million payment following lawsuit. Oregon Public Broadcast. (Sep 6).
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Schow, Ashe. 2023. The nightmare story behind that $4 million judgment in Title IX lawsuit. Hot Air (Aug 29) The nightmare story behind that $4 million judgment in Title IX lawsuit – HotAir
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Steele v. Pacific University (2023). Expelled grad student wins $3.95 million verdict against Pacific University | The College Fix
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Villasenor, John. 2017. Views among college students regarding the First Amendment: Results from a new survey. Brookings Blog. (Sep 18). Views among college students regarding the First Amendment: Results from a new survey (brookings.edu)