The Radicalization of the American Academy
You Can Make Many Bizarre Claims in Academia IF You Frame Them as Advancing Social Justice
I. Brittney Cooper, Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, Rutgers, on The Root:
About 12 minutes in: “White people are committed to being villains in the aggregate.”
About 18 minutes in: “The thing I want to say to you is ‘We gotta take these MF’ers out,’ but we can’t say that. I don’t believe in a project of violence.”
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II. Aruna Khilanani, Psychiatrist, speaking at Yale’s Grand Rounds
“This is the cost of talking to White people at all. The cost of your own life, as they suck you dry. There are no good apples out there.
“I had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way…”
“White people are out of their minds and they have been for a long time.”
Representative reactions by Yale attendees:
“Thank you for shaking [things] up; I feel shaken up in a good way…”
“Thank you for this…it’s the truth…”
“I really appreciate your comments.”
III. Peer Reviewed Publication, Not a Hoax
Nutpicking? Anecdotes? Maybe, but your first reason to doubt that this is nothing but meaningless anecdotes is the universal approval at Yale of Khilalani’s talk by attendees.
Although these particular statements are extreme, even in academia, they are not that unusual. Of course, there was The Grievance Studies Sting, in which respectable and at least one prestigious peer reviewed academic journal published (or were likely on the way to publishing when the Sting was discovered) articles making claims such as: White students should be chained and never allowed to speak; men should (metaphorically of course) be leashed like dogs; and my favorite, Our Struggle is My Struggle (Unser Kampf ist Mein Kampf), which was a rewrite of a section from the original Mein Kampf, with “privilege” replacing “Jews.”
If you really must have peer reviewed scholarship and academic books on pieces of that radicalization, such as abandonment of academic freedom and free speech, go here or here; if you want simple-minded dichotomies, intellectual gaslighting, and kafka-traps, just read How to be an Anti-Racist or White Fragility.
The Flip Side: If You Fail to Conform to Progressive Social Justice Shibboleths in Academia, You Risk Punishment
Here are some personal experiences:
I was mobbed on Twitter, with academics “reporting” me to my deans1 to get me fired because I referred to the phrase “White women white womening” as a racist slur. Indeed, I was wrong, its not really a slur; its more of an epithet.
I was part of a slew of academics denounced for participating in the formally non-partisan but right-leaning National Association of Scholars conference on Fixing Science (the charge: unfounded claims that we were enabling climate science denialism).
I was publicly denounced as a racist on our departmental email listserve as a parting shot by one of the Psych Dept’s recent PhDs as she was out the door, (followed by a mostly-grad student pile-on via email) for sending an insufficiently antiracist statement to my Department after Floyd’s murder. Among my sins was to have referred to the mostly peaceful social justice protestors who rioted, looted, and burnt down a police station, ruined downtown Seattle, set the stage for dozens of murders, and upwards of $2billion in property damage, as “thugs.” This term is well-known to progressive academics to be used only as a racist dogwhistle, as can be readily seen by a quick search of photos of the rioters in Seattle and Portland (two of the Whitest major cities in the country) and by mainstream media headlines such as these:2
I was publicly called a “grotesque Nazi”3 by Rutgers physicists for a slide characterizing the U.S. as having had only one half of a Black President in its entire history (Obama has a White American mother and Kenyan father).
Professor John Thompson of the University of British Columbia was suspended when he stated that, on IQ tests, Asian people score higher than White people, who score higher than Black people. This is a beautiful example, because the facts of these differences are beyond dispute, but if you give them a social justicey tone (say, by referring to “stereotype threat” as explaining those differences), no one will come for your job. The gods help you, though, if you simply present the facts without the social justicey framing.
Professor Stephen Gliske published a theory of gender dysphoria at a peer reviewed journal. It upset activists, who instigated a mobbing and campaign to retract that was successful. Retraction Watch published this scathing review of the incoherence of the retraction justification.
Then there is The Saga of Dorian Abbott
Notes: DEI refers to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” ACTA is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The James Madison Program at Princeton invited Dorian to give his canceled MIT talk there. In a popular rebellion against MIT’s censorious deplatforming decision, thousands of people registered for his talk.
Anecdotes you say? I say “examples.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education keeps this database of “scholars under fire” — threatened with punishment for expressing ideas. That database includes 49 faculty who came under fire from within academia in 2021 alone. Over 80% of the them were for violating left shibboleths.
Of course there are probably over a million faculty of various types, so the number seems infinitesimal. Until you remember that that number is for 2021 alone, the same report includes hundreds of cases of faculty threatened with sanctions (or successfully sanctioned) and, most important, for every person threatened with punishment for wrongspeech, 10,000 learn to keep their mouths shut. Ok, I made up that 10,000 figure, but it is a reasonable first guesstimate given what is known about self-censorship (for national data, go here; for recent peer reviewed review go here; see this review of how a handful of firings during the McCarthy era chilled academic speech).
SHOW ME THE DATA
How far left is academia? Let’s turn this into two related questions. 1. How extreme is the left:right skew? 2. Are they really extremists?
How Extreme is the Left:Right Skew?
What is the actual distribution of Democrats to Republicans nationwide? Well there are different ways to measure this, but it is about evenly split no matter how the split is done (Gallup, Pew). So ~1:1 nationwide. How does this compare to academia?
The Left:Right Skew in Academia
You have no idea. Well, maybe you do, but most don’t. In One Nation, Two Realities, Marietta & Barker (2019) report the results of a survey of 1000 Americans showing they dramatically underestimate the left:right skew of academia. On average, Democrats believed the skew to be 1.4:1; Republicans 3.3:1. So, if you are a Democrat, you probably think those wild “alternative facts” Republicans are dizzy with delusions of radicals taking over campus. If you are a a Republican, you are now convinced of just how clueless and out of touch Democrats in elite coastal cities actually are.
What about academia? Sometimes, the truth is in between partisan perceptions. Not here. Even Republicans underestimate the skew. Democrats outnumber Republicans at universities on the order of 5 or 6:1 (as reported here and here). However, there are also ~20%(+/-) who consider themselves moderates or independents, so, while faculty Democrats still constitute a majority, there is a substantial minority who do not identify as on the left.
This is fine as far as it goes, but “How left is academia?” is the wrong question because, really, how often do departments of Physics or Astronomy or Math address political or politicized topics? If one is seriously interested in understanding where and when radicalization is most likely to be taking place, one needs to look not at the fields that clearly deal with objective facts or pure abstractions, but fields that deal with … political topics. And those are the social sciences and humanities.
Go Left Young Social Scientist!
Here the data are so extreme, they seem like delusions of rightwing conspiracies. Langbert (2018) data, presented as the Dem:Repub registration ratio at 51 elite liberal arts colleges:
At departments outside natural science, the ratio ranges from a low of 8:1 to infinity (no Republicans). What’s great about these data is that they are behavioral, party registration, not self-reports. So in departments and fields like philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, there are, for most practical purposes, no Republicans. Even in political science, a ratio of 8:1 means Republicans can plausibly be described as “tokens.” Or leftovers from an era when academia was not so politically toxic.
But party registration does not fully capture the extremity of the skew. Another behavioral measure is political party donations. Langbert & Stevens (2021) found this striking pattern:
Why is this striking? Academics who are registered Republicans give 4.6x as much money to Democratic Party candidates as to Republican Party candidates. This means that party registration rolls severely understate the left skew of academia.
Social psychology is an interesting case showing a similar phenomenon. Inbar & Lammers (2012) asked social psychologists to self-describe as conservative, moderate, or liberal on foreign policy, economic, and social issues. There were strong liberal majorities for all three, but substantial minorities of self-described moderates and conservatives on foreign policy and economic issues. But for social issues — which are the type of issues most relevant in social psychology, over 90% were liberals and moderates and conservatives were both crammed into that remaining 10%. However, even 90% may be an underestimate. When Buss & von Hippel (2018) surveyed social psychologists on who they voted for in the 2012 Presidential election, 301 stated voting for Obama, and 4, that’s right, count’em, 4, said they voted for Romney. That’s 75:1 or 98.7% left. Essentially similar results using similar methods have been found in papers on professors in the California, UK and the EU (see here, here, here, or here).
But are They Really Radicals?
American and European faculty, especially in the fields that mostly deal with political/politicized issues, are massively skewed to the left compared to the population of the U.S. (I’d guess to the UK and EU as well but doing a deep dive into European political distributions is beyond the scope of this essay).
But are they really radicals and extremists? Maybe, in the U.S., anthropologists are 95% Democrats, but they are all Obama/Biden-type lefties. No radicals needed.
Yes, Virginia, they are actually extremists. Not all, or most are extremists, but there are way more than in the general U.S. population.
Several sources of evidence converge on this conclusion. Extremists and activists often place political goals above minor things like scientific truth and due process, which helps explain results like these:
Keep in mind that, because one negative review is often enough to torpedo a paper’s acceptance at a journal and that faculty hiring is generally by consensus (meaning that one or two naysayers are often enough to block a hire), a large minority of far left activists will usually be enough to harm the career not just of academics on the right, but of any academic, regardless of how well-entrenched they are personally on the left, if they ever follow data that leads them to conclusions that challenge ideas and values held sacred by activists.
Similarly, almost four times as many faculty in the US report having been threatened with disciplinary action for political speech on the right as on the left. This number is actually far more staggering than it seems, given that there are at least five times more faculty on the left than on the right. This means that faculty making statements from the right are something like 20x more likely to be threatened with sanctions.
Indeed, a recent survey found that a substantial minority of professors and nearly half of all graduate students endorse purging academia of professors who hold one or more conservative beliefs:
Data from Kaufmann (2021) SSH refers to “social sciences and humanities.” “Staff” refers to professors. “PhDs” refers to graduate students. Remember this: Today’s graduate students are tomorrow’s professors.
These types of processes have led us to develop the Activist to Academia to Activism Pipeline:
The Pipeline Model suggests the existence of distributed coordination (not in a mustachio-twirling villains spinning conspiracies in dark basements sort of way, but in a “we all happily live in the same bubble” sort of way) between the political far left, academia, and mass media. Left media can refer to “scholarship” that reflects the ax-grinding ideologies of those who produce it far more than it reflects anything that is actually true, thereby creating the impression that left-affirming claims have more credibility than they deserve (go here, here, or here for examples, though there are many more).
But leaving that aside for now, the main point here is self-selection: Once academia’s well-deserved reputation as a club for lefties that creates a hostile environment for righties gets around, it would be likely that selection into academia of far left radicals would exceed their representation in the general population. Which it does (far left is about 8-15% in national samples, such as here and here).
Academia may not (yet) be overrun by far left activists, but it is a magnet for them, it is purging political opponents, and the far left is strongly over-represented.
Administrators are Even More Extreme
Administrators (deans, provosts, etc.) are far more left than the already left faculty, closer to the left:right discrepancies in the social sciences and humanities than in other fields. This is important because “faculty governance,” which was a serious thing for most of the second half of the 20th century, is about as important as the Roman Senate under the emperors (that is to say, hardly at all except as status and show). Administrators set the policies that infuse every aspect of the university. However, given the overwhelming majorities of left faculty and large minorities of far left faculty, far left administrators will often find A LOT of support among faculty.
If you can ignore all this nonsense and get on with your life, yes, do so. I “live” in academia, and can’t. Also, this essay is already too long, and the answers would probably each warrant their own stand-alone essays. So here are my very short versions why this might be worth caring about whether or not you live in academia:
Contra some earlier work, there is now evidence that not only does college indoctrinate students, it turns them into the type of morally self-righteous sweethearts near and dear to the heart of everyone claiming that “there is no such thing” as cancel culture so they can keep on publicly shaming and getting people fired for real or imagined dubious, minor and nonexistent moral trespasses.
The social sciences and humanities embrace the veneer of “peer review” in order to provide a cloak of scientific credibility for increasingly ideological and empirically weakly vetted or unjustified claims and policy recommendations.
That cloak is then used to “justify” policies at colleges that entrench far left and progressive worldviews and to purge dissenters thereby compounding all the issues described in this essay. Worse, it is now being used to justify indoctrination of K-12 students. Most people hate these policies. One indicator of how far left academia is of even the mainstream American left is that people in some of the most liberal places in the country reject at the polls (if given the chance, which is rare) policies that are widely espoused within academia, including affirmative action, critical race theory-infused K-12 curricula, and defunding police.
I have sane deans and this went nowhere.
A year later I found out that this denunciation was itself a severe violation of Rutgers’ policy on professional ethics, which states: “The University’s communications systems may not be used to harass, intimidate, threaten or insult others.” I wish I had know this at the time.
In fairness, it was one faculty flinging the “grotesque” charge and another, the Dept Chair, flinging the “Nazi” charge in an email. The “Nazi”-flinging Chair later apologized to me privately, thereby getting the best of both worlds: the private apology made him seem oh-so-reasonable but he also got to moral grandstand among his faculty. I am Jewish. I suppose I should be offended because comparing that slide to an ideology that produced industrial-scale genocide is not only bizarre, but, by trivializing the actual Holocaust, is antisemitic (point stands even if the “Nazi”-flinging Chair is Jewish; dogma & intolerance rots the brain). But its so bizarre I have to admit I find it more amusing than offensive.