A review of Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education,by Bradford Vivian (Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $29.95)

What’s Happening on Campus?

"I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them."
— Pauline Kael

The hapless late Pauline Kael was an American film critic of an earlier generation. Her observation on politics marked her, fairly or otherwise, as an oblivious elitist—this, in spite of the yeoman efforts of apologists to clear her name of what they perceived as an unjust slight.

We all know the oblivious Kaels of the world. Untethered from the concerns of everyday folks, they believe themselves credentialed instead to lecture them. Now we have a new one—Bradford Vivian, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State and author of Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in Higher Education.

Vivian has authored an amazing book that exemplifies the rarefied and virtuous Kael-world of the American college campus, sustained by himself, of course, and select others. This is a world where criticisms of the university are always from scoundrel “outsiders” who distort the paradisiacal environment Vivian imagines he inhabits.

His book takes us on a whirlwind journey to tell us that the popular understanding of what’s happening on college campuses isn’t really what’s happening on college campuses. Vivian postures as an insider, giving us an inside-dopester view of what’s happening on college campuses. But the only thing that we can be really certain of is that 1) Vivian is not an insider, and 2) he knows very little of what is actually occurring on the campuses in the areas of his book’s concern. He speaks with an authority he does not have and with an assurance he has not earned.

He cobbles together a small compendium of alleged examples of misinformation while he completely misses what actually is happening on the campuses. This is the massive informational hole in his book. Is he oblivious? Is he ignorant? Is he complicit? 

I understand the Vivians of the academic world and why they write books such as this one. These are books contrived with a driving premise that is usually identical to the conclusion, which invariably confirms the premise. This argument circularity is the use of confirmation bias as an actual research method. This is, in fact, the method that informs much of the hoodoo that passes for scholarship on campuses today. Little wonder that Vivian employs it in his tome.

Vivian knew what his conclusion would be when he began writing his book, believing as he does the central myth that colleges remain solid bastions of academic freedom, the preserve of knowledge and science, and paragons of diversity. At the same time, he began knowing that the critics of higher education have shaky grounds for their critiques, are driven by “anecdote,” suffused with “pseudoscience,” and prejudiced because they “target” the invariably “marginalized” community.

Here I paraphrase the core driver of Vivian’s book:

Sure, we see many critiques of higher education and some specifics may be true, but these critiques are written by “far-Right” ideologues, and they misrepresent and distort what’s happening on the college campuses. In my role as author, I contend that 1) these critiques, while true, are exaggerated, 2) they are aimed mainly at “marginalized” and “vulnerable” populations, who have good historical reason and justification for their ire, and 3) they don’t represent university life writ large because I can list many academic disciplines and departments outside of those highly publicized by the “far-Right,” that are supposedly not affected by “woke.” In all this, I ignore the powerful bureaucracies of colleges and universities, staffed by education school ideologues who bring higher education administration into doctrinal lockstep, and I want you to ignore them, too.

This is the stylized world of Bradford Vivian, which he takes as the university, and he wants us to believe it, too. It’s the kind of apologia ubiquitous in academic publications, and in certain publications that presume to inform us of the current campus “climate.” See here and here and here, among dozens of others.

So we know what we’ll find here, but let’s explore anyway. Here’s the structure of Campus Misinformation.

Vivian offers us eight short chapters: Diversity and Viewpoints, Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces, Declarations of Emergency, Pseudoscience, Mobs and Shutdowns, First Amendment Hardball, Orthodoxy, and Campus Information. In each chapter, Vivian engages in what he believes to be effective debunking that refutes the “far-Right’s” exaggerated characterization of what’s happening on the campuses.

All the while, Vivian displays ignorance of the centerpiece of what’s happening on the campuses, the linking thread that makes everything else intelligible and explains why reform of the universities is so difficult.

Specifically, Vivian simply ignores the powerful, lockstep bureaucracies that control most campuses nationwide. These bureaucracies are staffed with mediocre but highly ideologically committed personnel trained in America’s education schools and awarded advanced degrees in subjects such as “higher education administration,” “educational leadership,” and “student affairs.” These programs are controlled by two off-campus clubs called the ACPA and the NASPA, which set the standards for these “advanced degree” programs. But there is no mention of any of that in this book.

As the pages ticked by, I anticipated the inevitable acknowledgment of what Vivian doesn’t know. My wait was brief, as his admission came on page 12, an admission that gives the lie to the entire book; here it is:

Indeed, the institutional variety and decentralization among colleges and universities that I have described means that sweeping narratives about free speech emergencies and a dearth of intellectual diversity throughout higher education are substantially false. There is no one system of U.S. higher education per se. That so-called system is, in truth, a decentralized network of several thousand dissimilar and inconsistently affiliated schools. Such features prevent anyone from arguing, in an empirically responsible way, that a restrictive political or intellectual culture has overtaken college campuses writ large.

Virtually everything in the book that follows this statement—all of the anecdotes, all of the convoluted arguments, all of the curated historical examples, all of the apologetics for campus misbehavior, all of the scolding of critics—is meaningless without recognizing the power and role of these bureaucracies. And he seems unaware that they exist.

This is not esoteric stuff. In fact, it’s right out in the open. If he were serious about discussing what’s happening on the campuses, he would have explored this bureaucratic structure with its mediocre ideologues, most of them trained in education schools in “advanced degree” programs “aligned” with the hooligan groups ACPA and NASPA, and who run “co-curricular” programs, seminars, workshops, caucuses, and “courageous conversations.” The bureaucracy is replicated on campuses nationwide—ideology, programs, and training of personnel.

Moreover, Vivian doesn’t even believe his own twaddle that the country’s 5,000 colleges are a “decentralized network” of endless variety. He certainly seems incurious about the presence of hundreds of “antiracist task forces” that appeared magically in the summer of 2020 on campuses across America. Nor does he comment on the nearly ubiquitous garment-rending confessions of so-called “systemic” and “institutional” racism with their eerily similar “responses” to a near-nonexistent university problem.

Vivian displays a fabulous ignorance of how bureaucracies work, who staffs them, how they sustain and protect themselves. But bureaucratic behavior is not hard to figure out, and when all colleges and university bureaucracies (save a relative handful of exceptions) are staffed with these persons, then a programmatic sameness infests the academy nationwide. You can test this yourself. Pick three universities, go to the “student affairs” section of their websites, and examine the credentials of the bureaucrats you find—these are not faculty, and they’re surely not academics. They are ideologues trained in the least academically demanding programs in higher education.

One of the main issues that nettles Vivian is the comparisons that critics make of American higher education with how authoritarians have dealt with intellectuals in the past. Vivian doesn’t like this and quotes a young Chinese scholar writing in the far-Left magazine, The Atlantic, to dismiss it. He writes:

Assertions that equivalent regimes of intolerance and persecution are transpiring in hundreds, if not thousands, of universities are false on their face. Yet viewpoint diversity polemics commonly include unironic comparisons between the culture of those universities and the atrocities of the Chinese Cultural Revolution—a murderous sociopolitical movement that lasted for a decade. ‘The use of the Cultural Revolution to characterize the state of free speech on American campuses,’ according to Yangyang Cheng, a research scholar at Yale Law School, ‘reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese history and American society.’

Thanks, but I understand Chinese history just fine, especially that of the Maoist period. I prefer to take my lessons on Mao’s Cultural Revolution from people who lived it, as in here, here, and here, and from people who have studied it, not from Yangyang Cheng, who was born in 1989 and whose credentials on the topic are quite thin, to be generous.

In point of fact, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and today’s American bureaucrats were/are inspired by the same ideological tenets. Today’s American college bureaucrats, trained in education schools and clutching their master’s degrees in “educational leadership,” pay fealty to Paulo Freire, an unoriginal crypto-Maoist thinker from Brazil whose magnum opus Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the closest thing to holy writ one finds in education schools; it continues as inspiration for education school graduates enamored of exotic Third-World closet totalitarians. 

Freire embraced Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and here’s his money quote from page 28 of his 1974 article in CrossCurrents:

That was the problem that baffled Lenin after the Soviet Revolution: Stalin wrestled with it—and solved it finally by shooting down the peasants. It is the dilemma facing Fidel Castro today with his peasants, though it is not so crucial for him. It is also the problem that Mao Tse-tung had and has, but he came up with the most genial solution of the century: China’s cultural revolution.

So yes, the resemblance of events on today’s American college campuses with the events on campuses during China’s Cultural Revolution is a wholly expected result, given the Maoist influence—via Freire—that has infested U.S. schools of education, which pipe mediocre staffers into bureaucratic positions created for them.

It manifests in the ubiquitous fraud of “antiracist task forces” that never identify any racism on campuses, but do purport to justify the creation of commissariat bureaucracies to control faculty, research, courses, and syllabi in the form of “academic freedom committees.”

These “task forces” are celebrated in a recent tome called It’s Not Free Speech, and they are characterized as the key to force faculty to adhere to certain practices in hiring, teaching, syllabi, curricula, and service—and to do so with the input of DEI cadre. Who are these DEI cadres and from where do they come? They are all trained in the same wretched places, according to the same tired crypto-Maoist ideology, which is generated off-campus and reflexively imposed in the form of ACPA and NASPA “standards” in “student affairs” programs in education schools.

The “antiracism task force” is the ad hoc construct designed to provide cover for the imposition of a raft of bureaucratic measures to “transform” the university, including “academic freedom committees” to impose control over the faculty. The motto of one of their dullard ideological off-campus clubs is, in fact, “boldly transforming higher education.”

But you’ll find none of this in Vivian’s book.

Rather, his novel method is to trivialize the various “anecdotal” instances (always wringing hands a bit over these campus excesses to maintain his half-hearted objective front). He doesn’t outright challenge the facts, mind you. He tells us that these actual incidents are not typical of the college campus. To demonstrate this, Vivian points to speakers not being shouted down or disinvited, to professors not indoctrinating students, and to courses that are usually not politicized—he urges us to turn our attention elsewhere to focus on what’s not happening on the campuses.

This is, indeed, an unusual approach.

Vivian’s puffery is similar to a guilty defendant claiming that he could produce 100 witnesses who didn’t see him commit the crime. It’s not hard to picture Vivian with a microphone in front of flaming family businesses, intoning about “mostly peaceful protests,” adding that “these buildings engulfed in flames behind me are only anecdotal.” Vivian: “Murders and armed robberies may be up in the city, but let’s look at all of the people not victimized by crime.” Vivian as doctor: “You have lung cancer, but we’ll ignore that while we celebrate your strong heart, sturdy bones, good digestion, and great skin and hair.”

Vivian: “Sure, speakers are shouted down or disinvited on some campuses, but these are folks who deserve to be shouted down given, you know, history. Besides, look at all the places where speakers are not shouted down. Look at all of these uncontroversial courses being taught. Look at all the students dining peacefully in cafeterias, look at them walking to classes, look at them living lives of satisfaction in dormitories. Have I told an historical anecdote from 60 years ago?” 

This upbeat “glass half-full” rhetoric appears throughout the book.

His go-to flex is to curate a compendium of “facts” to generate a reflexive justification for virtually anything occurring on a campus today anyone is timorous enough to criticize. Vivian spackles the holes in his narrative with always-handy historical references—Jim Crow and such. I say “handy,” because carefully curated historical references are always in the stable ready to be flogged around the track for one more go. They need have no clear links to events in the present; they just need to exude pathos. Poor James Meredith, of University of Mississippi integrationist fame, is a Vivian prop. Meredith’s usefulness extends only to Vivian’s stylized history of 1962 and not into the later Meredith’s Republican Party activism and work for Senator Jesse Helms.

For Vivian, history becomes a modular plug-in to fill gaps in the book when there is no good reason. He does this time and again to justify gross behavior in the present by comparing it with events decades before any of today’s students (and often, their parents) were born. The problem with this stretch is that it’s used endlessly in every situation to justify all new and exotic forms of grotesque behavior. Flogging a dead horse is too kind of a characterization.

Possibly the chief argument against Vivian’s make-believe story of what’s happening on the college campuses is what it does not say. We know he ignores the actual ideological conformity that increasingly asphyxiates American higher education. But he also ignores major events at the same school where he explodes minor issues. The author offers Oberlin College as an example of a school supposedly targeted by critics because of its “trigger warning” policy. Vivian dwells at length on this. But he does not provide the example of Oberlin’s grotesque six-year persecution of a small family-owned bakery in the town with the full involvement of the college’s administration. He ignores the school’s all-out war on a 5th-generation family business, an aggression that lasted for more than half a decade—intentional, imperious, and unapologetic—and resulted in the guilty college paying $36 million to the aggrieved bakery. This is bizarre.

Here is Vivian’s only mention of it on page 58: “. . . a court filed a multimillion-dollar ruling against Oberlin College because of student protests that targeted a local business . . . .”  

Why is Vivian pearl-clutching over “trigger warnings” at Oberlin, while the entire college marshaled its resources and supported students and faculty in a prolonged vendetta grounded in fraudulent claims that cost the college $36 million? The incident happened in 2016 and the case began in 2017, so Vivian had plenty of time to collect material and to explore the roots of the Oberlin crusade, the same roots found on almost every campus in America. Why the omission? Vivian wants us to know what’s happening on the college campuses, right?

Maybe he does, but he seems strangely incurious about anything that would give him the answer. Given all of this, are we surprised, then, that Vivian offers us nothing new, fresh, or different in Campus Misinformation?

We shouldn’t be surprised, because this book is exactly what Vivian set out to write from the beginning. The kind of book that film critic Pauline Kael might have written about Nixon’s election with faux perplexity. It joins that long march of pedestrian narratives about the college campus that misrepresent and lie through omission and urge us “move along quickly, folks, nothing to see here.”

Oh, but there’s much to see, as you already know.

You just won’t see it here.

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