A version of this article first appeared at The American Conservative.

Yokel Wokeism

On April 8, a Hillsdale College professor named David Azerrad gave a spirited lecture at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, advancing arguments conservatives have heard many times before. In his talk, Azerrad attacked practices such as affirmative action, disparate-impact law, and other privileges that have been accorded to non-white Americans as supposed recompense for past racist injustices.

Azerrad used some provocative rhetoric, including the phrase “black privilege” (a play on the ubiquitous “white privilege”), a reference to America’s “semi-official racial hierarchy,” and observed that Vice President Kamala Harris’ skin color was one reason she was chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate. He ended with an exhortation that no American should find controversial: “We either develop the stomach for color-blindness, treating everybody equally under the law, not discriminating . . . or we decide to tear down our civilization in this mad quest to achieve equal racial outcomes.”

The talk was part of a conference at St. Vincent’s Center for Political and Economic Thought, a conservative institute for research and education that has hosted many contentious speakers and debates in decades past. It was slotted as the 2022 installment of CPET’s Culture and Policy series, titled “Politics, Policy, and Panic: Governing in Times of Crisis.” The conference featured a number of high-profile speakers, including health-policy expert Scott Atlas and Brownstone Institute founder Jeffrey Tucker, who attacked politicians’ use of the COVID-19 pandemic to unjustly seize and centralize power. As a Latrobe resident and adjunct professor at St. Vincent, I attended the conference and had lunch with Azerrad just before he spoke.

The aftermath of the talk was far more momentous than the talk itself, which generated a heated question-and-answer session but not the usual chants, disruptive behavior, or physical violence that are now commonplace on American campuses. Graduating senior Joseph LaForest informed me, “Many more St. Vincent students supported Dr. Azerrad’s talk than the media has reported. Groupthink is not something that characterizes me or my peers.” Azerrad confirmed this as well: he stayed at St. Vincent for a couple days after his talk and numerous students and faculty came up to greet and thank him.

The university administration, on the other hand, lost its mind.

Immediately following the April 8 lecture, Dean Gary Quinlivan released a statement that accused Azerrad of “invidious discrimination,” “degrading the sanctity of human life,” “demeaning” and “deprecating” black people, and “bigotry.” The college president, Paul Taylor, who is a Benedictine priest and Ed.D., scooped up Dr. Quinlivan’s denunciation on April 19, affirming it and announcing structural changes to CPET that would place it directly under the control of his personal cabinet, specifically his executive vice president Jeff Mallory. Mallory is a former St. Vincent basketball player who most recently served in the Diversity, Inclusion, and Student Advancement Department at Duquesne University. A faculty member I spoke to said that Mallory, at Taylor’s direction, drafted the letter on behalf of Quinlivan, with the assistance of St. Vincent’s general counsel, another cabinet member named Bruce Antkowiak.

Pyrrhic Victory

The unspoken target of these administrators’ scheme was Dr. Brad Watson, the co-director of CPET who invited Azerrad to speak. Watson, a respected scholar of political science whose Intercollegiate Studies Institute seminars I attended as a graduate student, has long been the most nationally prominent and outspoken professor on campus. His clashes with the current St. Vincent administration over free speech and other issues date from before the CPET event, he informed me—a subject which I will cover in more detail below. The administration’s victory over Watson is undoubtedly pyrrhic. Watson has now resigned entirely as a St. Vincent professor in protest of “an administration that does not understand academic freedom, or intellectual freedom more broadly, and has no interest in learning.”

The administration did not limit its attacks to one professor. Taylor lashed out against many who disagreed with his decision, even off campus. Local Catholic school teacher James Kuniega, a St. Vincent alumnus (2016), attended the CPET event and was perturbed by the administration’s curtailment of free speech in response. Kuniega wrote an email to Taylor and Mallory describing his experience at the event and politely expressing his disapproval at how the situation was handled. He was surprised to receive an email from his superintendent the next day summoning him to a disciplinary meeting. 

As it turned out, Taylor’s response to Kuniega’s disagreement was a phone call to his boss—at an unaffiliated institution, no less—raising threatening implications about his employment status. Kuniega commented: “I expressed my dissent respectfully and how did they respond? They went after my livelihood; a job teaching subjects that I love with amazing students and colleagues. That’s not right.”

Taylor then instituted a campus speaker policy that stirred up more controversy than the original CPET event itself. Henceforth, Taylor announced, any speaker invited to St. Vincent must have their speech approved by the president before arriving. Reporting on this requirement, over a dozen media outlets across the ideological spectrum from City Journal to The Chronicle of Higher Education have published news and opinion pieces highlighting how extreme this new policy is, compared to even the most left-wing colleges. While a few progressive outlets cheered the cancellations of Azerrad and Watson, and local left-wing activists even led a “call President Taylor” campaign to provoke him to censorship, the mainstream reaction to the administration’s decision has been surprise and disappointment. 

Already, major center-right donors have reportedly suspended their philanthropic support of the college. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said that the policy “could be the most extreme example of guest speaker censorship that FIRE has seen in its more-than-20-year history.” St. Vincent’s accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, sent Taylor a formal request to explain his decision, which appears to constitute a violation of the commission’s formal accreditation standards.

This negative attention is an unmitigated disgrace for St. Vincent College, which has long stood as a home for open discourse, liberal studies, and small-town Catholic community and values. The Benedictine Order founded the Archabbey and College in Latrobe in 1846, and it stands today as the largest Benedictine monastery in the Western Hemisphere. The vast majority of St. Vincent students are from Westmoreland County or its seven surrounding counties, a conservative rural part of Pennsylvania replete with patriotic holiday parades, intact families, and high levels of volunteering and civic participation. My own teaching experiences in the philosophy department have been nothing but positive, with what felt like a disproportionate number of exceptional students who shared my passion for ideas. I felt privileged to teach blended philosophy courses to both abbey seminarians and brilliant academic-scholarship recipients, who diligently parsed complex thinkers like Kant and Hobbes and drew out their own ideas and applications.

College-affiliated programs like CPET and the Benedictine Leadership Studies program have molded hundreds of young minds, forging a reputation for preserving the Catholic liberal-arts tradition and study of Western Civilization over decades of sacrificial leadership. To many, it now appears that one haphazard, flailing overreaction by the administration turned St. Vincent from a hidden gem of Western Pennsylvania to, in the wording of The Federalist, a “hysterical” Catholic college that maligned a Jewish guest speaker.

The crisis at St. Vincent goes much deeper than it appears on the surface of the recent media flurry—and those I spoke to among the faculty, staff, and board of directors described an ideological undercurrent within the administration that has held back the college’s success for years. St. Vincent’s idyllic rural setting and monastic trappings have not protected it from the scourge of wokeism. Rather, the college has long suffered from a more insidious phenomenon that I like to call “yokel wokeism”: the pained embarrassment of liberals who feel ashamed of being associated with their conservative rural neighbors, colleagues, and students. The woke yokel will go to any length to prove his or her liberal bona fides to the cosmopolitan mainstream.

I have written about the woke yokel, a.k.a. “hicklib,” phenomenon in my previous reporting on Southwestern Pennsylvania politics. Progressive groups like the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition and Voice of Westmoreland, the local activists who initiated the call-in campaign to Taylor, have set themselves the Sisyphean task of making Latrobe into another Berkeley—and they almost exclusively rely on outside funding from George Soros and Democrat-linked super PACs to do so. To give you an impression of this entourage, imagine a group of embittered white women, most retirees but a few community-college students, hoisting lonely “I’m With Her” banners on neighborhood streets awash with Trump signs and “Come and Take Them” bumper stickers. These are the woke yokels—informed strictly by MSNBC and its social-media ecosystem, livid over inequalities and slights they have never experienced or even witnessed in their well-functioning communities, and ashamed to look like and live among their perceived culture-war enemies. Instead of learning to co-exist—or, heaven forbid, befriend—their unwoke neighbors, these progressives routinely call in fire support from the corporate Left to use against the deplorables next door.

This phenomenon is highly relevant to exposing the activists who have seized control of the St. Vincent administration. When most conservatives heard about the death of free speech at CPET, they assumed it was the result of interference or intimidation by powerful outsiders riding in to dispense social justice at the request of left-wing students. This is something conservatives have become accustomed to. But when I spoke with David Azerrad about how St. Vincent responded to the controversy, he said he was primarily impressed at the maturity of our students, who behaved well, asked some smart questions, and even burst into spontaneous applause during his lecture. The administration, on the other hand, “caved more quickly to wokeism than any administration I’ve ever seen.” Plus, he added, there was no discernible pressure on them to do so.

Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The School’s Wokest Yokels

Peter Wood, the esteemed president of the National Association of Scholars, also pondered this enigma in an article for American Greatness. Through conversations he had on his recent visit to Latrobe, Wood concluded that Taylor was wary of St. Vincent losing support from high-profile backers, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose yearly training camp on the college’s field has put Latrobe and St. Vincent on the map for over 50 years. Art Rooney II, the Steelers’ president and a partner at the Pittsburgh law and lobbying firm Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, is also the chairman of St. Vincent’s board of directors. Wood speculated that Rooney had pressured the administration by threatening to move the Steelers training camp elsewhere—a ploy that would have been unprecedented, given the implications of an NFL team goading a private college to censor free speech.

In a sense, Rooney’s position on the board does implicitly pressure St. Vincent to present a palatable public image to the Steelers and their fans. Indeed, Quinlivan, who authored the original statement attacking Azerrad, confided in a faculty member I spoke to that he was “extremely worried” that bad press from the CPET event would drive away the Steelers. However, Pittsburgh reporter Jonathan Barnes and I both directly asked Rooney if he had made any threats about moving the training camp on account of Azerrad’s alleged “racism.” Though he avoided answering any other questions, Steelers director of communications Burt Lauten flatly denied that Rooney had made any such threats, and other St. Vincent board members with knowledge of the board’s discussions later confirmed this. They also confirmed that the board conducted at least one heated, hour-long argument about the CPET incident, although Taylor and his cabinet made their final decision without an official vote from the board.

Though Wood and I share a contempt for the St. Vincent administration writ large, I believe that his outside perspective has led him to attribute too much agency to Art Rooney and the Steelers. St. Vincent is not run by hapless, apolitical Benedictine monks who were pressured by powers-that-be from Pittsburgh into enacting Maoism on campus. In fact, the opposite is true. Taylor and his closest advisors, including general counsel Bruce Antkowiak, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Mallory, and former vice president of academic affairs John Smetanka—the school’s wokest yokels—purposely invited outside financial pressure to effect a fundamental transformation of the school’s academic practices and character. Their transformation agenda has been under way for years. Father Paul Taylor began this mission before he became president, starting with the student recruitment and fundraising campaigns that he led while rising through the administrative ranks, first in the office of Residence Life, then in Institutional Advancement, and culminating in his personnel choices as president.

I first encountered Fr. Paul at an orientation for new professors in 2019, when he spoke to faculty about his vision as St. Vincent’s new president. Because he is an ordained priest, I was somewhat surprised and put off by his presentation, which focused mainly on finances and education buzzwords like you might hear at any of the Ivy Leagues or Seven Sisters. I asked him directly after his presentation how he would maintain the college’s Catholic identity. “The Benedictine motto is prayer and work,” he responded. “The monks at the Archabbey pray, and the students on campus work.” In other words, the academic side of St. Vincent would foster its Catholic distinctives by doing exactly what every other college does.

This is not to cast aspersions on Taylor’s religious sincerity, but he clearly holds a secularized understanding of Catholic education that helps explain his recent actions. It explains why he penned a public statement declaring Azerrad’s lecture an affront to Catholicism, while not condemning, for example, St. Vincent faculty who have published articles promoting LGBT ideology in the student paper. It was not Art Rooney who pressured him and the other administrators to engage in censorship—in fact, it was Taylor, volunteer chaplain for the Steelers for nearly 18 years, who helped install Rooney in his position as board chair. This despite knowing that Rooney was already infamous for woke corporate activism like his “Rooney Rule,” an affirmative-action policy that encourages NFL teams to select a minority candidate when hiring top coaching positions, or his law and lobbying firm’s pro bono work on behalf of LGBT organizations. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2017, Rooney backed an effort to bring his Rooney Rule to law firms across the country, injecting a sweeping affirmative-action movement into the halls of power. In other words, Taylor purposefully let the fox into the hen house. It’s no surprise that Azerrad’s lecture, which specifically attacked affirmative-action programs like these, drew his ire.

Taylor has been singled out for pushing a hardline progressive agenda in years past. While he was a student-life administrator, then-board chairman J. Christopher Donahue said that he had been “single-handedly responsible” for instituting a race-conscious admissions process that increased the rural college’s African-American enrollment tenfold in just a few years. “Very soon, students of color will be in the majority in the United States,” Taylor said in an interview with the St. Vincent student paper, casually celebrating demographic replacement, and concluding simply: “So, for us to continue to be welcoming to all students is important.”

He also led a $100 million fundraising initiative in 2017 that marketed St. Vincent to a certain kind of donor: mailers that were sent to alumni, high net worth individuals, and corporate philanthropy decisionmakers included full-page spreads that featured World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, anti-religion activist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and LGBT sex scandal-embroiled Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The campaign was not targeted toward the typical St. Vincent alumni family. It was an attempt to build funding relationships with a new audience and to lock in financial incentives that would drive the school’s agenda in a progressive direction.

Getty Images

Call the Bigotry Hotline

Taylor’s staunch wokeism paid off. In 2019, he eventually gained enough bureaucratic clout as an administrator to be selected as the college’s president. He accumulated power for himself and his allies immediately, to avoid letting the ultimate crisis go to waste. When the pandemic, race riots, and election chaos of 2020 rocked the nation, Taylor ripped off the mask that was covering his yokel wokeism and began to act much like the politicians that CPET’s “Governing in Times of Crisis” conference criticized.

He and his cabinet proxies used their administrative bully pulpit to bloviate about social distancing, George Floyd, vaccines, January 6, Ukraine, and every other performative, flash-in-the-pan cause du jour. He quarantined and re-quarantined students in their dorm rooms, long after the initial wave of the pandemic, prioritizing performative public-health measures like “campus case counts” and masked photoshoots over students’ learning and mental health. Masking was only finally made optional on campus in March of this year, keeping up the façade of masks’ effectiveness even longer than Joe Biden’s White House. Taylor also took the pandemic as an opportunity to empower his cabinet members, and even appoint new ones, with significantly greater authority over St. Vincent’s operations. He handed the reins of most of St. Vincent’s new health restrictions to general counsel Bruce Antkowiak, tasked Dean of Academics John Smetanka with enforcing them, and hired Jeff Mallory, the Duquesne administrator, as new COO in a summer 2020 overture to diversity, equity, and inclusion activists.

In the wake of that summer’s riots, Taylor also announced a controversial new “bigotry hotline” that morphed into a “COVID-rules-violation hotline” in the fall. Now students, faculty, and staff could easily and anonymously report on their fellow Bearcats for engaging in a virus-spreading handshake or making a politically incorrect comment. The editor-in-chief of the student paper, Jonathan Meilander, criticized the hotline, pointing to the crude totalitarianism of a system that would automatically initiate a disciplinary process based on an anonymous accusation. Taylor dispatched Smetanka to defend the anti-bigotry hotline in a counter op-ed in the student paper. His piece would have been comical,had Smetanka not held such immense power to enforce his opinions on campus. Smetanka argued that even the reading of classic literature like Mark Twain could cause “harm” to minority students, and supported tearing down statues that the woke Left considered offensive.

Incidentally, St. Vincent boasts a magnificent 20-foot bronze statue of its Benedictine founder, Fr. Boniface Wimmer, which may be under threat.

When it came to health restrictions, Smetanka approached his role even more neurotically than Taylor. Smetanka is the archetypal woke yokel: a diehard “Star Wars” aficionado and self-professed “nerd” of the Reddit variety, Smetanka’s cringeworthy love of mass-market science fiction apparently informs his grasp of health and disease. He became a loud proponent of “slowing the spread” during the pandemic, but, like many hectoring public-health authorities, he seemed far less concerned about his own carefree behavior or personal health choices. Smetanka would stalk the halls and lean in closely toward the faces of colleagues, removing his mask to berate them for failing to socially distance. This year, he took the ultimate woke yokel escape route, leveraging his “success” as St. Vincent’s leftist advance-guard to finally escape rustic Latrobe. He is now beginning in another administrative role at Notre Dame College of Ohio in Cleveland.

As a newly hired professor, my first awakening to the ruthlessness of the Taylor regime came during an encounter with Smetanka in the fall of 2020, when I was teaching a philosophy course and reluctantly complying with the classroom restrictions that had been imposed: universal masking, required “remote learning” (unexcused absence) for any student who wanted it, cameras recording every class session, and other rules and regulations. For the most part, Latrobe shops and businesses did not even require masks, let alone institute elevator-capacity restrictions and the like, so many faculty shared a general assumption that when the fall semester began, campus restrictions would not be rigorously enforced. But thanks to general counsel Antkowiak’s dire warnings of possible student litigation that never materialized, Smetanka’s hall monitoring, and Taylor’s new hotline, professors began accidentally running afoul of the administration one by one.

When my turn came, Smetanka decided to make an example out of this adjunct. During class one morning, a disgruntled student apparently submitted a hotline accusation that I had moved some desks to better facilitate a socially distanced philosophy discussion. Within minutes, Smetanka burst in the door of my classroom, interrupting my lecture to vent angrily in my face, even flipping up his protective visor to do so. Flecks of spittle flew from his mouth as he summarily suspended me from teaching—in front of my students—on the grounds that by moving the desks, I was “spreading a killer virus.”

The so-called “Campus Safety Reporting Form” is still in use and publicly available, even to non-students, on St. Vincent’s website. 

Not Normal or Acceptable

The extreme behavior of Smetanka and the rest of Taylor’s cabal is part and parcel with what it means to be a woke yokel. It is motivated by the same anxiety that drives them to make statements and enact censorship policies going far beyond even the progressive mainstream. In part, Taylor and his ilk are simply not sophisticated enough to be subtle. But they are also frantic to prove themselves to the big-city professional class they admire. Because without their corporate buzzwords and education degrees, they are mortified to stare in the mirror and realize that they look and behave just like their neighbors—whom they perceive as peasantry.

For this reason, St. Vincent has contracted the potentially fatal disease of wokeness in leadership that will ruin the student experience for any locals who attend and ultimately negate the school’s own value proposition, rendering it a slightly more backwater version of any bland, nominally Catholic liberal arts college. The CPET crackdown on free speech was not some one-off blunder by an innocent St. Vincent administration, nor was it the sole result of outside corporate pressure. It came as a surprise and a disappointment to the various alumni in Latrobe I have spoken to, but the truth is the woke yokels have been lying in wait for a pretext to enact their vision for some time. In 2021, Watson confronted Smetanka publicly over his support for the snitch hotline and his insistence on erasing “racially insensitive” Western classics from St. Vincent classrooms. According to students and faculty that I spoke to, this led to Watson being targeted for suppression by the administration. His removal from leadership would surely have happened at some point regardless of Azerrad or CPET. The very existence of an unbowed conservative with tenure is an affront to Taylor’s progressive agenda.

To prove this point, one need look no further than the way St. Vincent’s other conservatives reacted to these developments. Kiron Skinner, a member of the college’s board of directors who was a Trump Administration appointee, reportedly opposed the administration’s CPET decision, but chose to avoid comment in any of the ensuing media spectacle. On the phone, she told me that she was not involved with the board’s discussion at all, but when I informed her that other board members and faculty had confirmed she in fact was, she clarified that she meant she was “not involved in the decision-making” (which, technically, none of the board members were). Pressed further, she noted that she was “moving to Southern California” and declined to comment on the situation in any way. Skinner has long served as a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, whose mission includes “upholding a system of natural liberty” (presumably including free speech and academic freedom). On May 26, she tweeted a general comment in support of “free speech in academia—particularly for faith-based liberal arts institutions.” But when given an opportunity to speak out in support of this cause, she chose not to.

Gary Quinlivan, St. Vincent’s fourth-highest paid professor according to the college’s IRS reporting, is an ostensible conservative who published several books about liberty and free speech before taking a leftward turn in his April 9 letter. It seems that Quinlivan’s $147,000 salary—lavish pay for Latrobe’s relatively low cost of living—is compensation not for speaking courageous truths as an educator but for enforcing Taylor’s autocracy. With friends like these, CPET hardly needs enemies.

Readers may also note that while a couple of students and alumni were willing to go on record for this article, members of the board and faculty would only speak on background. Most at St. Vincent have been conspicuously silent about this situation. To be fair, the administration’s attack on adjunct professors and local high-school teachers would be enough to make any full-time faculty member nervous about speaking up. Losing a tenured professorship as a sole provider in this economy is a frightening prospect. Not every academic can “follow the logos wherever it leads” after Socrates’s martyric example of intellectual and moral courage, but this is unquestionably what undergraduates need most in 2022—to know that woke totalitarianism is not normal or acceptable.

Besides, to paraphrase the Martin Niemöller confession, “First they came for Brad Watson.” Until St. Vincent’s conservatives—the board, the faculty, the alumni, even the students—learn to fight back, Taylor will continue to rule by fear.

Stan Badz via Getty Images.

Personnel Is Policy

What lessons can extramural onlookers take away from the St. Vincent affair? For one, universities of a Catholic or conservative mold must beware of new initiatives and fundraising programs that can lock in corporate dollars and sway the university’s mission for decades. Personnel is policy, especially at the university level, so stakeholders of an institution must learn to recognize the warning signs of wokeness among even low-level functionaries and fundraisers who may rise to positions of power. Often, as in St. Vincent’s case, the disease can be read in the eyes and the behavior—in how a person speaks and treats others. Ignore the red flags at your peril.

For another, conservatives in old-fashioned rural America must not underestimate the woke yokels in their midst. Even more than the out-of-touch coastal elite or the aggressive BIPOC activist, the woke yokel is driven to unmatched rage and antagonism by the pained embarrassment of being middle-American. Though Latrobe and other hinterland communities may feel like Tolkien’s Shire, conservatives must beware lest they find it scoured by whichever progressive outsiders the woke yokels invite in. Whether it be political activists, corporate media, government agencies, or even an NFL team, conservatives cannot allow the bullying and coercion to begin. Because as Azerrad and Watson and many others at St. Vincent can attest, it will not end until we work together to end it.

The editors extend many thanks to The American Conservative for permission to republish this article.

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About Andrew Cuff

Andrew Cuff is communications director of Knight Takes Rook, a political agency to disrupt the status quo. He lives in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewJCuff.

Photo: Hunter Martin/Getty Images