Until 2015, I believed that the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter, which called for universities to significantly broaden their interpretation of Title IX protections, was merely a way to address the so-called “rape crisis” on American campuses.
I doubted the narrative that colleges had rates of sexual assaults that were comparable with warzones, but this didn’t seem to have any impact on my teaching and research as an English professor. Because of the biased media coverage of Title IX, most Americans still believe that its expansion is about protecting women and minorities.
But very few citizens understand that Title IX, in its new interpretation, is also about policing and disciplining speech on campus—especially speech that deviates from the orthodoxy of progressive politics. In 2015, I learned about the punitive dimensions of Title IX when I had a complaint filed against me.
One night, I was teaching my graduate seminar. On this particular evening, we were reading an essay about expanding protections for LGBT people in the workplace. The paper insisted that being LGBT is a detriment in every field and every corner of the working world. As we discussed the merits of the argument, I posited that there are, in fact, positions and places where being LGBT might be an advantage. There was a brief exchange about whether that is accurate. Then, class went on, and I thought nothing of it.
I am an “out” conservative at my university. That is to say that on campus, I am a minority of a minority. Not only am I a conservative, I don’t hide it (as many do). In English departments like mine, some estimates suggest liberals outnumber conservatives by as much as 48 to 1. Despite higher education’s enduring commitment to diversity by race, gender, religion, class, and sexual orientation, it has less interest in political diversity.
At my school, my colleagues are generally courteous and I like them. In faculty meetings the occasional political barb will come my way, but I can tolerate that. I know that some of the other professors are scandalized by my young son’s Weekly Reader from inauguration week that is tacked to my office bulletin board which reads “The President is Our Leader” with an accompanying photo of Trump. It explains at a 5-year-old level what the president’s duties are, which I humorously thought might be of use in helping some of my co-workers come to grips with reality in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The bumper sticker over my desk, which reads “Republican is the New Punk,” also raises some eyebrows. In short, though there are political tensions in my department, in the day-to-day, we are friendly with one another.
A few weeks after the fall semester’s end in 2015, I was informed that one of my students was appealing the grades he received in two of the courses he had taken. In my graduate class, he had earned an 88.7 (a B+), but insisted he deserved an A. His grade was above the class average in my course. Both grade appeals were rejected by the dean. And then things got interesting.
In short order, I was informed by the Office of Equal Opportunity Services that someone had filed a Title IX complaint against me. At that time, I thought Title IX was only used to arbitrate situations involving sexual misconduct. In the early stages of my case, the university would not disclose the substance of the complaint.
The Kafkaesque nature of this process had me worried. My anxiety was amplified by the weeks I spent wracking my brain for any kind of interaction I had that might be construed as sexual harassment or misconduct. I kept coming up empty. The “investigation” would drag on for the better part of a year.
As information about my Title IX case began to emerge in the months after the complaint was filed, I learned the aggrieved party was indeed the same student who had appealed the grades in both of his courses. Interestingly, during the earlier grade appeal phase, this student was requesting an adjustment to his score on the portfolio assignment (which would change his overall grade in the course). But in the Title IX complaint, the student requested adjustment to a different assignment. This suggested to me the arbitrary nature of the complaint.
When I received a copy of the complaint, I learned that the student’s charge was that I graded him down because I don’t like gay people. His evidence? Only that the “professor knows [his] sexual orientation,” explaining that “it doesn’t take a genius to figure out [he (the student) is] not heterosexual.” He asserts that I must have known from his “mannerisms” that he is “openly gay.” And while it is true that I supposed this student probably was gay, I didn’t know: he and I never had any conversation—verbal or written—about these matters, and he never brought it up in class. His complaint claimed that I “validate [a] heterosexual lifestyle in class.”
That charge was supported by two pieces of evidence: First, that I frequently talked about my wife and children in class. Not exactly a forceful imposition of heteronormativity. Second, the student complained that “[he] never heard [me] once say anything positive about other lifestyles.” Finally, the complaint noted that I said nothing positive “especially when one of the essays [we had to grade] was specifically about ‘Discrimination of Homosexuals.’” He didn’t provide any further detail, but at that point I had a fair idea of the origins of the complaint: My suggestion in class that LGBT workers don’t face anti-gay bias in every area of the work world.It shows that I wasn’t really in trouble for anything I had done. I was in trouble for something I hadn’t done. I was in trouble for my silence.
A few things about this complaint require some commentary. First, note that the student is complaining that I consciously discriminate against LGBT students. How can this be proven? One can’t consciously discriminate against someone of a protected class unless he is aware of that status. And in these circumstances, that would be impossible to prove. Further, the complaint requires evidence that my alleged anti-LGBT bias was the actual reason for the grade.
Again, that strikes me as unprovable—how can one conclusively determine what I was thinking at a particular moment in the past? Most problematic was the odd claim that I never “say anything positive about other lifestyles.” I don’t know if that’s true. I certainly never said anything negative. But even if it is true that I never said anything positive, do professors now have this obligation? Must I go out of my way to explicitly and verbally celebrate “other lifestyles,” as the student put it?
If so, that is positively Orwellian.
It shows that I wasn’t really in trouble for anything I had done. I was in trouble for something I hadn’t done. I was in trouble for my silence.
It slowly dawned on me that the expanded purview of Title IX was much, much broader than sexual misconduct. It actually works to police speech. And in this case, even silence was inadequate. Not only must I speak, I must speak the liberal academic catechisms.
After many months, I was invited to offer a written response. I wrote a lengthy one, but weeks passed with no response. One day, I received a phone call from a senior professor at the university. In confidence, she gave me two shocking revelations.
First, she said that the student in question, frustrated with the delayed finding of discrimination, had gone to the office of the then-president—uninvited and demanding satisfaction. As a result, I was told, the president had asked a particular faculty member to pursue an independent investigation of the accusations. I was positively stupefied that the president would move this matter beyond the procedural boundaries prescribed by the Department of Education, thus pitting faculty members against one another.
But the bombshell was yet to come: My in-the-know friend told me that the written complaint I had been furnished wasn’t the original complaint. My university is part of a system of schools, which all operate in a state on the gulf coast. The disgruntled student had originally submitted a written complaint at the proper office of my home university. When the original complaint was found to lack any actionable information, university representatives told him what an actionable complaint might look like. After that, the student filed the revised complaint at another university in our system, which (of course) was deemed an actionable complaint. I was not notified of the original complaint, nor of the university’s initial rejection of it.
In effect, a public college’s administrators coached a disgruntled student on how to make a bogus Title IX claim and how to make it look legitimate.
After digesting this information for a few days, I went to the office investigating my case and demanded a copy of the original complaint. It is important to note that my tenure protections were what emboldened me to do this: A junior faculty member would be completely at the mercy of the institution. I often hear conservatives complain that we must end tenure to break up the left’s ideological stranglehold on higher education, but I remain convinced that ending tenure would be the very best way to rid the universities of every last conservative. That process is already well-underway.
Within a day, I had obtained the original complaint. There, the student claimed that I “graded [him] unfairly based on protected Title IX rights.” His evidence? That I had changed the due date for an assignment despite his protest. After dismissing the complaint and clarifying what sort of information defined an actionable complaint, the student promptly submitted a complaint that advanced a radically revised set of assertions.
With these bureaucratic abuses exposed, I was not surprised a few days later when I was notified by the Office of Equal Opportunity Services that there was no finding of discrimination in my case. The ordeal was over.
Since then, I have remained silent about this experience because I didn’t want to smear my university—I have not used their name here for that reason. I want to stress that I don’t think my university bears any unique culpability here—this incident could have unfolded in similar ways at any public college in the United States. My accuser certainly bears some culpability for these abuses, but it is really the government and university administrators across the country that brought about this hostile climate on campuses. Students will push as far as the university administration will allow.
When an angry, unscheduled visit to the president is routinely met with a series of concessions and accommodations rather than a “Get the Hell out of my office!” is it any wonder that students across the country are emboldened in these matters?
The Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter exploded upon impact into a thousand Offices of Diversity and Inclusion, a new wing of the universities’ already-sprawling bureaucracy. This is a system designed to take the greatest frivolities with the greatest concern. If Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump think this cottage industry will be busted by issuing new Title IX guidelines, they had better think again.In effect, a public college’s administrators coached a disgruntled student on how to make a bogus Title IX claim and how to make it look legitimate.
The universities are committed to these offices because it is American college administrators and faculty—not students—who are most motivated to impose the draconian, leftist model of interaction on campus. American university staff and administration welcome an ever-increasing complexity in the structure of the institution: The more internal bureaucratic oversight there is, the less liability there is, and the more jobs are created. This ensures that public universities reflect the “growth” necessary to maintain the support of their paymasters in the state legislatures.
Sadly, this is not the only time I have encountered institutional resistance to free speech in classroom settings. These experiences are common for conservative intellectuals. Stories like the one I describe above are occurring on campuses all over the nation.
Last year, during an open interview of a candidate for a job in the Title IX office, I asked “Suppose that a complaint is filed against a person who had received previous complaints in which no finding of wrongdoing was found. What role would those earlier complaints play in the investigation of the new complaint?” I was politely told that the earlier complaints lend credibility to the new complaint—even though the earlier complaints were found to be groundless.
Months later, the university mandated that all faculty attend an information session on Title IX. When I refused on the basis that first-hand experience had made me very well-informed regarding Title IX, I was told that my merit pay may be jeopardized. I still refused.
For those who didn’t already know, Title IX in its expanded articulation is nothing less than an attempt to advance the ideological objectives of the left on campus. It has been weaponized to silence dissenting speech and chill open debate of leftist ideology on campus. If the university is to remain a place for open inquiry and the production of new knowledge, dissenting voices (often conservative ones) need more than due process in the procedure of investigating complaints against them.
The advancement of knowledge depends on diverse perspectives and a rich atmosphere of agonistic debate. We need more people like Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, who made it clear that his school will resist the attack on free speech in academia.
Losing the rich tradition of academic inquiry in the west would be a great tragedy. The universities have always prided themselves on providing students with an intellectual skepticism, a critical mindset that resists indoctrination. Indeed, American schools still pretend to do this work. But in fact, their central objective today can only be called indoctrination—they have become a corporatized Ministry of Love, working tirelessly to produce acquiescent consumers whose entire morality revolves around the values of diversity, tolerance, and inclusivity.
Unfortunately, that tolerance and appreciation of diversity often seems to evaporate the moment it encounters different ideas—ideas that don’t conform to the mandates of institutional progressivism. The university is at a dire moment. Young intellectuals—particularly conservative ones—must decide what we want the university to be. And we should be ready to fight for it.
Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor who studies rhetoric, writing, and politics. He is a member of Heterodox Academy, an organization that works to increase viewpoint diversity in American universities. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.