On Witch Hunts and Intellectual Diversity

Over the past few decades, it has grown apparent that political conflict is a feature, not a bug, of the modern college campus. Since the student movements of the 1960s, college campuses have increasingly become a hub for activism and dissent. This is, in many respects, unsurprising – young people have always been agents of change, and radical political thought is almost always the product of a new generation.

But it is only recently that this has come to threaten the academic integrity of the university system. The old stereotype of the liberal professor is increasingly being supplemented by the canard of the secret racist, the imperialist, the abettor of hate speech.

Nowhere has this been clearer than on the usually quiet campus of The Evergreen State College, in Olympia Washington. The school, a small public liberal arts college, is itself a product of the idea that radical student activism and academic excellence can work together; while boasting impressive alumni from the creator of the Simpsons to a current congressman, it invited convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal to remotely deliver the 1999 commencement address.

Every year, the college administration endorses a ‘day of absence’ – which usually involves students of color leaving campus for a day to bring awareness to their importance on campus and to issues surrounding race. But this year was different. For the first time, the administration-sanctioned group organizing the day announced that they would ask white students to leave campus for the day of absence. White students, the announcement implied, would not be welcome on campus during the day’s events.

This did not sit well with Bret Weinstein, a Professor of Biology at the College. In response to the announcement, he sent a thoughtful, but forceful, email to the rest of the faculty and staff. In it, he raised salient concerns about the discriminatory act of telling white students to leave – and the threats to freedom of speech that would be entailed by a public institution telling some voices that they are not wanted.

This set off a firebomb. After the email, a mob of angry students disrupted Professor Weinstein’s class and surrounded him. They demanded his resignation. When he refused, they expanded the protest. Speaking to Tucker Carlson on Fox News, Professor Weinstein revealed that the protesters had blocked campus security from getting into the building to protect his safety. The protestors have now sent a list of demands to the President of the College, who has ordered the campus security forces to stand down. Weinstein has been forced to leave campus after being told by the police that it was unsafe for him to remain.

There is no clearer instance than this one of the left eating its own. As Professor Weinstein makes clear in his letter, and in his subsequent statements, he is deeply progressive – and committed to the antiracist mission of the college. But this is not enough in today’s political climate. Emails are violence, disagreement is violence, speech is violence, thought is violence. And those who perpetrate such violence must be punished. Tenure is no protection against this thinking if students can make administrators submit to their demands and force professors to flee out of fear of retaliation.

But why should we care? This professor was speaking as a private citizen, and was censured as such – does this pose any sort of threat to academic freedom? Yes, I think it does. In their studies, academics constantly deal with hot-button political issues from race to gender to sexuality. And these academics must be free to come to the conclusions they think are true, not just those that are palatable. We cannot, moreover, expect professors not to speak out about issues they care about – they are people, after all, and if we become accustomed to attacking professors for their personal beliefs then we will discourage the best and the brightest from teaching here. If American academia no longer values the independence of their faculty, then European academia will simply absorb those smart enough to stay away, and we will be all the worse for it.

This incident is astonishing in its magnitude – it lays bare the problems inherent in organized social censure of academics. For this censure is not value-neutral – it hurts people in real ways – financially, professionally, and emotionally.

Professor N. Bruce Duthu (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Professor N. Bruce Duthu (Photograph courtesy of Dartmouth College)

I would like to say that the Dartmouth community in general, and this paper in particular, have steered clear of this tactic, rejecting the view of academia as radically political – and of academic administration as an object upon which to exercise political influence. But this is not the case. Over the past few weeks, I could not help but feel deeply saddened at the organized action against Associate Dean N. Bruce Duthu. An organized campaign of opposition to his appointment resulted in the withdrawal of Duthu as a candidate for Dean of the Faculty. What happened here does not come close to reaching the level of the events at Evergreen State, but it is the first time in my memory that the right on this campus has adopted the very tactics we decry on the left, and I am obligated to raise my voice in protest.

There were a number of arguments offered by this paper and other groups against Duthu’s appointment, but only one seemed to play a role in his withdrawal. The least impactful argument was, ironically, the one that would seem to be most powerful prima facie – this paper contended that Duthu was underqualified. I do not want to dispute this here – whether he is unqualified is irrelevant to the question of whether the terms on which he was ousted are legitimate. The controversy which ended in his withdrawal from consideration centered around his past support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement – which advocates, among other things, a boycott of the state of Israel and organizations associated with it in order, apparently, to end Palestinian oppression. I think that this is justified by false beliefs – and it is a pernicious policy if implemented.

Students and alumni against Duthu made two related arguments. They said both that Duthu’s support for BDS made him incapable of being an impartial and effective Dean of the Faculty and that support for BDS is inherently anti-Semitic.

The first contention, I think, is manifestly false. If it is the case that his support for BDS means that he would have sidestepped college policy and unilaterally implemented such a regime, then we should expect to see him doing so in his current role as Associate Dean. But this is just not the case. Susannah Heschel, the chair of Dartmouth’s Jewish Studies program, told The Algemeiner, among other things, that Duthu is set to speak at Hebrew University, that he has helped to bring Israeli academics to Dartmouth, and that he acted in support of an Israeli student exchange program at The College. Given this account, I do not think we can claim that Duthu would take it upon himself to bypass the administration and suddenly implement BDS policies as Dean – actions speak much louder than words, and if he has not done so yet, then it is illegitimate to expect that he will.

So we are left with the argument that Duthu is an anti-Semite, or that his beliefs display latent anti-Semitism. I cannot help but be reminded of leftist arguments here. Welfare reform, an argument goes, disproportionately harms minorities. And so anyone who supports welfare reform is a racist. Needless to say, this argument is deeply flawed. Someone holding racist beliefs is more likely to support welfare reform, yes. But people support this policy for a whole host of reasons – from principled fiscal conservatism to a belief in federalism. And so too might someone support BDS for a whole host of reasons – from antisemitism to a legitimate (if misplaced) concern for human rights. Thus, I do not think we can say that support for BDS is anti-Semitic in and of itself, without any overt manifestation of anti-Semitic beliefs.

But, one might argue, support for BDS is itself deplorable. Shouldn’t Duthu be disqualified because of this support regardless of whether he is an anti-Semite?

But this stoops to the level of the left. If we defend ourselves from persecution by referring to the values of an open society, then why did we attack Associate Dean Duthu on the basis of thoughtcrime? Is support for BDS any more controversial than opposition to gay marriage? But this view, we want to say, should be protected – no academic should lose their job over it. And so we have applied a dangerous double standard – a double standard which has and will continue to harm our own efforts to promote intellectual diversity in academia. I do not say that Associate Dean Duthu should have been appointed – I am agnostic on this – but that the way in which he was attacked by this paper and other groups on campus was deeply damaging to our integrity and the legitimacy of our voice on issues of academic freedom and free speech on campus.

The right holds a precarious position on this campus. We have little representation in the faculty, no representation in the administration, and our voice often cries out in the wilderness against an overwhelming culture of leftist opposition. So it is hard for me to see the events of the past few weeks as anything but deeply damaging to our cause. If we help make it acceptable to attack professors and administrators on the basis of their beliefs, then we will be the ones to feel the real harms of this practice. Even if this were not the case, the practice inherently harms academic liberty and freedom of expression.

And so I have no choice but to voice my discontent with the actions of this paper and all those who organized against Associate Dean Duthu on the basis of his beliefs. There are not many who continue to stand for academic liberty; if we stop doing so, then I fear that we will only hasten its destruction.