Want to Shut Up Leftist Professors? First Ignore Them

These days the California State University Fresno isn’t getting attention for its world-class agricultural college or for its top-rated nursing program. Instead, it’s getting noticed for its hard-left professors tweeting outrageous insults about President Trump, or violating students’ free-speech rights. First was the adjunct history professor who last year tweeted “Trump must hang.” A month later a public-health professor got into an argument with pro-life students, then started defacing their approved chalk messages with his foot because they weren’t in a “free speech” area—an idea patently unconstitutional.

This week, an English professor tweeted that ex-First Lady Barbara Bush, who died on April 17, was a “racist” who raised a “war criminal,” and that she “was happy the witch was dead.” The predictable conservative media storm of dudgeon followed, turning an obscure academic mediocrity into a left-wing heroine and free-speech martyr.

Way to go, guys. Next time try ignoring whatever juvenile tweet-tantrum comes from someone desperate for attention and spurious “Resistance” credibility. Professors saying stupid things is a dog-bites-man story.

Nor will all the coverage accomplish anything. Forget demanding that she be fired. As she bragged in a follow-up tweet, “sweetie i work as a tenured professor. I make 100K a year doing that. i will never be fired” [sic throughout]. Apart from exaggerating her salary, she is right. Professors in the Cal State system are not just protected by tenure, but by a powerful union that the system usually doesn’t think is worth the time and money challenging. I know our provost here at Fresno State implied otherwise, claiming a tenured professor can be fired. But that’s a sophistic sop to media critics and disgruntled donors. The tweet was issued on the professor’s own twitter account, and the message is political speech of a sort long protected by the First Amendment and by the idea of academic freedom, which in the politicized university is very elastic. The only way for a tenured professor to get fired is to be convicted of a felony or to find her job eliminated by budget cuts. And firing a “woman of color” like a self-proclaimed “Palestinian” Arab is an even longer shot.

Hope in Checking Union Power
Another solution, reducing the power of the union, seems more viable. The U.S. Supreme Court will rule this year on Janus v. AFSCME, a case, that could strike down “agency fees” forced from non-union employees. If the ruling goes against the unions, a substantial reduction in their revenue will follow, lessening their clout with the politicians. This, in turn, could make reforms easier.

But even then, the hallowed place of tenure in universities, the tradition of academic freedom, and the political preferences of blue-state legislators would still make it difficult to put in place reforms to punish or fire outrageous and politicized faculty. Defanging the union may help with reining in budgets and salaries, but it won’t stop activist professors.

And before we start demanding that tenure be eliminated and academic freedom defined more narrowly, don’t forget that the first casualties will be the handful of right-leaning professors that still teach in universities. Given the overwhelming dominance of progressives and leftists among not just the faculty, but administrators, too, the evaluators and enforcers of any code of professional conduct that determines who gets promoted and retained will still reflect a leftist ideology.

So, too, with academic freedom. We’ve already seen what Orwellian hijinks left-wing academic apparatchiks are capable of in the numerous “hate-speech” codes that exist despite their patent violations of the First Amendment. Things don’t improve for the chickens when the weasel is put in charge of the henhouse.

The Advance of Political “Studies”
But the real issue is how politicized professors came to dominate the university in the first place.

That horse had already left the barn two decades before Allan Bloom publicized it in his surprising 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. Apart from the success of the cultural Communist Frankfurt School’s “long march through the institutions,” especially in higher education, a key development was the creation of various identity-politics “studies” departments. The point of the new programs was not, as was advertised, to recover the lost history of the oppression and the achievements of blacks, women, homosexuals, or other designated victims of cis-white-male tyrannical privilege. If that had been the purpose, then efforts would have been directed at producing and hiring more professors of history or English or psychology who had been trained in the content and professional methodologies of those disciplines.

But once Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Ethnic Studies, Asian Studies, Native American Studies, Gay Studies, and other programs of grievance politics were created as distinct, self-governing departments, they had to be political. What else other than politics could provide the content of these disciplines that didn’t already exist in traditional departments? They were born political, not later politicized as history and English were.

The next step was to integrate them into general education distribution requirements, since there is no market for degrees in these majors. But all students have to take general ed, so these courses are guaranteed enrollment. If universities eliminated general education, most of these departments would disappear for lack of students.

Divisive Diversity
The next development that ensured these activist departments not only would exist but would metastasize into the traditional disciplines already sympathetic to their politics, was the demand for “diversity.” This empty concept was invented by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in the 1978 University of California v. Bakke decision as a way to protect affirmative action “set-asides” for minorities and women without falling afoul of the law’s prohibition against quotas. Given that only a “compelling state interest” could justify exceptions to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s proscription of discrimination by race, “diversity,” along with all its alleged social and educational benefits, was by judicial fiat deemed a “state interest.” In 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger, and again in the two Fisher v. University of Texas cases (2013 and 2016), the Supreme Court confirmed Powell’s legal patch in order “to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” as Republican-appointed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in Grutter.

“Diversity,” then, is a political concept created to promote political ends. Forty years later, no one can define diversity precisely enough to measure its progress and there is no empirical evidence to document its power to improve educational outcomes or create “educational benefits.” If there were such pedagogical benefits from diversity, we long ago would have dismantled the 107 historically black colleges and universities that still function in America.

On the contrary, there is much evidence that mismatching applicants to universities in order to achieve this mythic diversity damages minority students and segregates campuses into identity-politics enclaves. Diversity, then, is about superficial differences hiding a left-wing political unity.

Diversity requirements, moreover, have led to the expansion of politicized identity-politics programs, departments, courses in majors, general education courses, and the requisite student-support administrative offices and services. As a result, the cultural Marxism ideology that created identity politics in the first place now permeates the university far beyond the classroom. Soon affirmative action programs, which were turbo-powered by the phlogiston of “diversity,” were weaponized by sexual harassment and Title IX legislation, which further empowered the women and minorities who disproportionately staffed politicized departments.

Deprive the Diversity Lobby of Clout
As a result, given the vague and subjective language employed by these laws, now any behavior politically objectionable to the Left can become an actionable sexist or racist offense. Once the term harassment encompasses and policies proscribe actions or words that create an “intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment,” then the standards of definition will be set by the hypersensitive, the neurotic, or the Alinskyite opportunist. So, too, with Title IX, which says no woman will “be subjected to discrimination” on the basis of sex. But who will define what constitutes “discrimination”? In the end, it will be in the politicized eye of the beholder.

Finally, don’t forget that these laws are backed by the coercive power of the federal government, and the leverage that federal funds, from research grants to taxpayer-subsidized student loans, have given over university administrators.

There has been some hope for change from the Trump Administration, whose Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has sent out a “dear colleague” letter suggesting that universities stop violating the Bill of Rights with their star-chambers adjudicating sexual assault claims, and the “hate speech” codes that compromise the First Amendment. The “or else” would be a reduction or outright termination of the federal funding—the very funding to which all but a handful of U.S. universities have become so addicted. We can also hope the U.S. Supreme Court revisits blatantly unconstitutional race-based programs and strikes them down. That would deprive the left-wing diversity lobby of a lot of institutional clout.

But those are long-term reforms dependent on which party is in power. Yet focusing our attention on changing federal law and its application, whether through the courts or the executive branch, is still a more productive use of time than railing against a two-bit novelist and her childish attempts to get attention.

If you want to punish her and her ilk, ignore them. Taking away her 15 minutes of fame will wound her more than having “fascists” bad-mouth her.

Photo credit: iStock/Getty Images

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About Bruce S. Thornton

Bruce S. Thornton is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His books include "Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization" and "Democracy's Dangers & Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama."

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