Monday, October 12, 2020

Open letter on campus culture

Adam Ellwanger, Professor of English at the University of Houston, has organized an important open letter on campus culture. It has hundreds of signatories. You can sign too if you wish.  

Campuses have been drifting left for a long time. But, as the letter notes, there is a new qualitative difference, that the bureaucratic machinery now compounds what was just social and to some extent professional (don't hire conservatives) pressure among the faculty. 

... campus groupthink ...  is enshrined and encoded in the protocols and procedures of university governance. ... administrative structures now investigate and prosecute deviations from orthodoxy through formal and informal exercises of institutional power.

...requiring candidates for academic positions to submit “diversity statements” with their application packets is a new way that many universities filter out potential professors whose views might not wholly conform to the progressive pieties of the academy. 

...various bodies within our schools (faculty senates, student unions, university presidents and provosts, centers for critical race and gender studies, and other ideologically motivated departments and concentrations) have asserted a unilateral right to dictate the objectives, aims, and practices of our institutions. These assertions came in the form of formal resolutions and “antiracism” statements that often disregard key facts about race-related violence in law enforcement and society at large. They came in the form of workshops and sessions on “social justice,” some of which were informal, some mandatory. They came in the form of “training” on topics such as Title IX, privilege, antiracism, and “sensitivity.” All of these interactions are framed as opportunities for the sharing of diverse views, but in fact, they are explicitly and implicitly intolerant of dissenting ideas, which are routinely silenced, mocked, shouted down, or otherwise punished. 

These claims to a universal right to arbitrate the dialogue on campus, coupled with the implementation of formal penalties by university administration for deviations from political orthodoxy, have silenced many faculty members who harbor strong reservations and misgivings about these aggressive demonstrations of illiberal sentiment.

The outcome is bad for social justice, for our society, and 

Further, the rising tide of academic intolerance is a disservice to our students, many of whom are no longer taught the habits of mind that are essential for the function of democratic life in a pluralist society.

The letter is noteworthy as it comes from people with very little academic power

Many of the faculty members who signed this letter are not household names—most of us are not “public intellectuals” of the sort that signed the recent letter in Harper’s magazine ...

It is relatively easy for big shots to brave the twitter mob and the ire of deans. (Relatively. Stephen Pinker and Charles Murray don't have totally easy lives.) These signatories really are risking careers. I learned of it from a very courageous graduate student, who by putting his name to this letter will never get a job at a university that requires diversity statements (presuming the bureaucrats who run such things know how to use google.) 

The letter is not perfect. It needed editing to be shorter (a fault I know something about). A few points stand out as strange -- the nondischargeability of student debt in bankruptcy has nothing to do with the woke wars.* (I encouraged Adam to drop this, but it was too late to make changes.) And some of the "resolutions" are a bit strained. If forced to take mandatory "training," many of us do not have the option to say no. And maybe saying yes, documenting what goes on, is better anyway. Still, the letter offers two important caveats

the undersigned have some minor points of disagreement about the specific positions and resolutions listed below,


in as far as they are in keeping with the conscience of each individual signer.

You don't have to swallow it all to sign. 

The letter has a second important disclaimer, which applies to this blog but I reiterate especially in this case. 

The undersigned speak for themselves—not their institutions

After the Atlas Imbroglio, Stanfords' administrators cautioned us to be very clear that in any political statement we should be very clear we speak for ourselves, not our institution, especially when writing outside our professional expertise. So, you too my sign with your institutional affiliation, but not run afoul of this sensible ethical restriction. 


* Not allowing debt to be dischargeable in bankruptcy can make some sense. All other debt is collateralized, fail to pay and you lose the house/car. We don't allow forced labor (also for good reasons) so getting people to repay student debt is harder. Limiting its dischargeability can create a market where there is lending in the first place -- or in which the taxpayer provides a loan not a gift. Taxes are also not dischargeable in bankruptcy, nor in many cases is child support. 

If you want to get mad about federally subsidized student debt, two other problems seem much worse. First, it applies without regard to major, i.e. to whether the proposed plan of study will lead to employment at higher wages. Here there is a complaint to campus leftism: Student debt subsidizes professors who teach classes in left-wing politics that prepare you to be an antifa protester, but not a taxpaying worker. Also student debt is currently partially forgiven if you work in a non-profit or government, precisely the opposite of a good incentive.

But this is all completely beside the point, which is why it's off in a footnote.   


  1. How is it good policy for students to assume all of the risk when borrowing money to pay tuition to schools - that recruit the students with slick marketing and a promise of future success - while the schools assume no risk at all?

    Would it not be better policy to allow a student in bankruptcy to discharge at least some of the tuition debt onto a school that failed to deliver?

    1. Slick marketing? Have you seen the recruitment efforts of most schools? Nothing slick about it. And I am not familiar with any schools that promise future 'success' however that is defined for students who major is XXX Studies. And how can you prove a school failed to deliver? Just because one student didn't succeed? Nothing guarantees success. Don't go to school and see how much success most attain.

  2. John,

    "* Not allowing debt to be dischargeable in bankruptcy can make some sense. All other debt is collateralized, fail to pay and you lose the house/car."

    I can speak with some experience on this. My student loans were cosigned by my parents while I was going to college. Is that no longer the case with loans for higher education?

    Your thoughts on this?

  3. The nondischargeability of student loans needs a fuller treatment. Campuses rapidly changed between when I was working to join them in highschool and when I walked away from them in gradschool. If forces of campus democracy decide after admitting you that your points of view disqualify you from reaching the higher reaches of campus life and academia then that is a breach of a contract. Albeit it is a social and oftentimes implicit one. But the burden and danger of the special class of student loans puts too much of the burden on the student. Sure the lender is protected, but it’s the university that is getting the upper hand. If students were able to walk away because of persecution at campus, and universities had to eat the cost, some mechanism would be at work where the markets are a check on the power of universities. This then complements the argument of the letter where unqualified students are selected to bolster the democratic majority within universities

  4. Similar concerns about the closed mentality of some institutions to open discussion have been raised before. As a UC-Berkeley student, the most notable example I can think of was this letter from a history professor at UC-Berkeley ( That being said, I have found that institutions are often posturing to please the loud few calling for change and pushing the ideas that one either agrees with them or is racist. Both right-wing and left-wing mentalities seem to be increasingly loud and divergent from each other and critical thinking about issues. I find a stark difference between discussing the issues using data, life experience, and historical evidence to inform opinions and basing views on the echochamber you occupy(which exists both ways). The lack of critical thinking and extreme opinions amplified by social media is one of the most concerning trends in society today.

  5. Austan Goolsbee tweeted yesterday that it was too bad the Nobel committee didn't give the award to a black person. He deleted the tweet but his sentiment is there. That is the majority of American faculty today

  6. "Stanfords' administrators cautioned us to be very clear that in any political statement we should be very clear we speak for ourselves, not our institution, especially when writing outside our professional expertise." Really? Not only do these campus culture despots speak for themselves, they control what you say with the open threat of dismissal or tenure killing censure. In a manner of speaking, no pun intended, they also speak for you with these moronic forays into anti-intellectualism.

  7. Once the students are ensconced in the "diverse" campus culture they self-segregate into gay dorms, Black dorms, Jewish dorms, Muslim dorms, etc. Today's institutions of higher learning have fulfilled George Wallace's wet dreams, blessed by the federal government no less.

    Maybe there's statistical diversity in the allocation of minority admissions but you can't force people to associate by the numbers.

    In terms of real dialog I suggest you watch reruns of All in the Family and ask yourself if that show could ever run today. Heaven forefend if he had a picture of Robert E. Lee on the wall.

    I experienced diversity dissonance a few years ago in a restaurant that listed a sandwich called "BLTG". My first thought was that we had entered an era of sexually oriented food. If I ordered this sandwich would I be inadvertently signaling my sexual orientation incorrectly? Would I show up on someone's Gaydar? My lunch partner was a trans man (Charlie Comero, of the Charlotte, NC bathroom law fame) so I already had one strike. Charlie explained it was a BLT with *G*uacamole, not an LGBT.


  8. I think your excuses for the non-dischargeability of "student debt" lack substance, and ignore the cruelty of the current system.

    Yes it is true that the med student who completes his residency can afford to repay his student debts -- sometimes. Unless she does something stupid like becoming a pediatrician in an inner city neighborhood.

    But, I have read cases where elderly poor people who made the mistake of co-signing the student loans of a feckless grandchild see their minimal social security payments garnished to pay that "student debt".

    There is the case of a student who majored in cello. He was a success and found a full time position with a metropolitan symphony orchestra. But, he was not making enough money to pay his "student debt." His commitment to his job involved performance, rehearsal, and practice was more than 40 hours a week. The court denied him a discharge and suggested that he take a second job to pay the exaction.

    Much student debt is not payable because the children pushed by school systems and and parents start college, last a couple of years and discover what should have been obvious all along, they had neither the ability nor the aptitude to graduate. they then have a non-dischargable obligation to pay a debt that they will never earn enough money to cover.

    Another problem is that courts have lumbered the debtors not only with the original principal and with interest (usually at high rates) thereon, but with fees, collection charges, interest on interest, late payment penalties, and other fees, penalties, and forms of usury, that ensure the debt will never be paid off.

    The current bankruptcy system for student debt is inhumane, badly broken, and should be fixed. And no the colleges are not innocent. And the taxpayers will not be out another cent, because the money was spent long ago.

    1. A large chunk of that has to be because of the ridiculous cost of college no? How much waste goes into college these days?


    2. "Julia McLean took decades of music lessons, spent thousands of hours practicing and coped with constant grueling competition, and in January it all paid off. She became a full-time viola player for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

      "She wasn’t yet out of grad school, but “suddenly I was on the roster, playing with this wonderful orchestra that gets amazing conductors—good pay, beautiful hall and a beautiful following,” she recalls. “It felt like this is it. I did it.”

      "In March, “Poof,” she says. “I achieved all of my career goals and then lost my entire career in five weeks.”

      "She played just two of the orchestra’s major concerts before the pandemic forced Indianapolis and other orchestras around the world to close their doors for what would become the rest of that season and the next. “No one expects an entire field to disappear,” says the 24-year-old graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. “It wasn’t just my job or my orchestra. It was everything.”

      "For some, classical music is not a choice but a calling. A science major at Tufts University, Ms. McLean had planned a more practical path, but became hooked one night playing in Boston Symphony Hall with her youth orchestra. “The rest of college was me doubling down on music,” she says, fueled by the new conviction that “I love playing in an orchestra. I want to do it all the time, and I will do whatever it takes to do this as my job.”

      The article does not say if Ms. McLean borrowed money to go to Julliard. I hope she didn't, but if she did, she is in a whole world of hurting right now. If she had borrowed money to open a restaurant and had to close it shortly after opening because of the pandemic, she could file bankruptcy and have the debt wiped out. And there would be no controversy or back chat over her right to do it. Ms. McLean is in the smae position and should have the same right.

  9. Discharge student debt for two years in armed services or civilian equivalent.

    Given rather complete VA benefits taxpayers may actually come out ahead....


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