As cancel culture sweeps across college campuses, faculty members in otherwise good standing are finding themselves as sudden outcasts, wrecked by long-established teaching practices or for having used a “foul” word in good faith.
“I can’t say whether this is the most chilling environment we’ve ever seen as I’ve only been in the higher ed space for 10 years or so, but I can say that our case submission numbers are through the roof in the last year,” said Daniel Burnett of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit that advocates for free speech on college campuses.
While Mr. Burnett said FIRE can’t pinpoint a single cause for the jump, it began in May 2020, the same month George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody and ignited waves of protest.
“Our caseload jumped significantly since last summer, from 60 cases in May 2020 to 282 to the following month,” he said. “Since then, every month except one has had caseloads in the triple digits — something that happened only nine times since 2007. In 2021, a third of our case submissions have been from faculty.”
Jay Bergman is a tenured history professor at Central Connecticut State University who found The New York Times’ “1619 Project” lacking in historical accuracy. He was not alone: The project’s chief essay won a Pulitzer Prize but drew criticism from historians for multiple errors in its attempt to make slavery the centerpiece of American history.
But Mr. Bergman went a step further and wrote privately in January to superintendents of education around Connecticut, urging them to not make the “1619 Project” part of the K-12 curriculum because of its inaccuracies with regard to the causes of the American Revolution and other events.
In his letter, Mr. Bergman urged the educators not to take his word for it, given his expertise is in Russian history. Instead, he quoted the rebuttals to the project by Ivy League professors such as Gordon Wood and James McPherson, themselves Pulitzer Prize winners, and quoted “1619 Project” founder Nikole Hannah-Jones.
He called the Times’ work “false, mostly false, or misleading,” and labeled Ms. Hannah-Jones, who just received a tenured faculty post at the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, “an anti-white bigot.”
“The matter I am raising here is of critical importance,” Mr. Bergman wrote. “That American students today are taught about the virtues and the triumphs and the achievements of our country, as well as its failings and inadequacies, is essential in the creation of future generations of citizens capable of making informed and reasonable judgments about their political leaders and the policies they pursue.”
Perhaps predictably, Mr. Bergman’s letter was made public by one of its recipients, and the blowback against him has been immense.
“I think the bridges are burned with my colleagues,” he told The Washington Times. “I’ve been called a racist to my face at a department meeting. But in all the criticism that’s been leveled against me, there’s never a single piece of empirical evidence that undercuts my argument, not a shred of anything that could debunk or even call into question the points I made.”
Thus far, the administration at Central Connecticut State has rebuffed faculty demands that Mr. Bergman be fired or censured, and they have defended his intellectual freedom while saying they “strongly disagree” with his view.
That response has been courageous and deserves praise, according to Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars (NAS). Mr. Bergman is a director of the association, which also has come under attack from Central Connecticut State faculty as a right-wing extremist group.
Mr. Bergman’s odyssey has come in an intellectual atmosphere he and Mr. Wood compared to totalitarian regimes in which intellectuals are forced to conform to a party line rather than their scholarly opinions.
“It’s like the USSR under Bolshevism,” Mr. Bergman said. “The emphasis is on imposing a political orthodoxy.”
Mr. Wood echoed that view.
“Faculty members have to walk on eggshells with their students who are not only primed to take offense but who have the power to destroy careers with frivolous complaints that no one dares to call frivolous.” Mr. Wood told The Times.
Josh Peterson, a corporate executive who has taught for decades at Stanford Business School, has echoed those complaints and that description of the atmosphere.
Mr. Peterson ran afoul of what he labeled “social justice warriors” for advocating a color-blind approach to hiring and admitting he stands for the American flag, among other missteps, he wrote last week in Deseret News.
“In response to my determination to be on the lookout for leaders without regard to identity, an offended gender-studies major wrote that she’d not known ‘whether to scream or throw up,’” Mr. Peterson wrote.
Thinking the charges against him spurious and his long track record of success in the classroom and marketplace solid insurance, Mr. Peterson said he “misjudged his peril.”
“In this woke new world, my professional experience was no longer relevant because of the race and gender I’d been assigned at birth,” he wrote. “Despite having created tens of thousands of jobs, promoted women and minorities, and coached scores of entrepreneurs, I was deemed an ‘oppressor’ in the catechism of ‘wokeism.’”
‘Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies’
While Mr. Bergman is a survivor and Mr. Peterson a victim of what they describe as rampant intellectual intolerance, Mr. Burnett and Mr. Wood said neither is an isolated incident.
The ferocity of attacks is also amplified by social media and the connections made possible through technology, Mr. Wood said.
“It is the triviality of the alleged offenses; the efforts to search out things people said 10, 20, or 30 years ago; the rapid deployment of social media to overwhelm the target; the astonishing unwillingness of administrators to insist on due process for the accused; the complete heedlessness about evidence; the moral panic that accelerates the accusations; and the paralysis of bystanders who realize that to defend the accused is to risk being next,” he said.
“All these factors together make this a new situation, and it is a situation with fire effects on teaching.”
And in some cases universities are trying to make the classroom an even less open space for divergent opinions, according to a report FIRE released last week on the University of Oklahoma.
There, in an “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” workshop for graduate students and fledgling faculty members, instructors expressly forbade discussion from certain viewpoints, according to video and recordings of the workshop FIRE made public.
“The workshop in question trains instructors on how to eliminate disfavored but constitutionally protected expression from the classroom and guide assignments and discussion into preferred areas — all for unambiguously ideological and viewpoint-based reasons,” FIRE said.
Mr. Burnett characterized the University of Oklahoma as “a bad actor” in terms of protecting free speech on campus, pointing to another mandatory diversity workshop last year that FIRE criticized.
In the workshop, one of the presenters, Kelli Pyron Alvarez, tells possibly skeptical potential faculty to not be afraid of censorship.
“One of the fears is that we’re going to get in trouble for this, right?” she tells attendees. “Like we can’t tell students that they can’t say something in class. But we can. And let me tell you how.”
University administrators disputed that attendance at the workshop was mandatory, saying it was one of several offered by the English department and no positions are discouraged.
“The University of Oklahoma unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints,” said Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion and the university’s chief diversity officer.
“In no way does OU endorse or condone censorship of its students,” Ms. Hyppolite said. “The workshop topics were selected in response to aspects of teaching that are challenging. The curriculum of the workshop is designed to address how instructors respond to and handle racist comments within the classroom environment.”
But the university is soft-pedaling what smacked of indoctrination, according to some Oklahoma lawmakers who saw the FIRE report and watched the video.
“There’s a forced element, there’s a compulsion to embrace an ideological belief that should never enter into these discussions,” said Republican state Sen. Rob Standridge, a university alum. “What the heck are we in the business of higher education for if the message is ‘you will believe the way I want or get the hell out of my school?’”
“It’s different now,” Mr. Bertman said of the atmosphere at Central Connecticut State and other campuses with which he is familiar. “They want true believers now. They want true believers who will act on their convictions now.”