As academia becomes ever-more entrenched in groupthink, it can be intimidating to be a lone voice that refuses to toe the ideological line. And for good reason: failure to at least appear to agree with the ideological consensus on campus can result in a number of professional—and personal—consequences.
But those potential consequences haven’t deterred one professor, Adam Ellwanger, from penning an open letter that pushes back on academia’s censorious tendencies. Authored a few months ago, the letter decries the dangers of groupthink in academia and outlines specific positions and resolutions. Since then, the letter has been widely circulating and has gained the signatures of over 170 academics worldwide.
Ellwanger is a professor of English and director of the graduate program in rhetoric and composition at the University of Houston-Downtown. In October, the Martin Center interviewed Ellwanger to learn more about his letter’s inspiration and purpose. The transcription has been edited for clarity and length.
What motivated you to write the letter? Give us a brief background story.
It began a few years ago when I was the subject of a Title IX complaint at my university. If your viewers are curious, they can read about that at the Martin Center. In the wake of that, I joined organizations like Heterodox Academy and some other entities that I thought were doing work toward improving the situation.
But I was kind of dissatisfied with what I would call the “gospel of viewpoint diversity.” I think that there’s a lot of people who think, “well, if we could only convince people in the university that it’s good to have differences of opinion, well then they would agree with us and these things that we’re seeing happening on campus would change.”
I think that’s great, but the problem with it is: I think most academics already know that viewpoint diversity is desirable and good when we’re seeking truth.
If we’re trying to find out what’s true, then it’s great to have different perspectives so we can have a dialogue and bring ourselves closer to the truth. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening on campus anymore. I don’t think as many people are interested in seeking truth as much as they are in imparting doctrine. And when it comes to imparting doctrine, viewpoints are a hindrance, it makes it harder to indoctrinate—for lack of a better term.
And then this summer, in the wake of the events of May and June with the killing of George Floyd and some other events, I was observing discourse at my university and other universities. I was surprised at the degree to which there was an explicit, enthusiastic endorsement of views that I would only call for lack of a better term Marxist, postmodern, and anti-foundational ideas about truth.
At that point, it became clear to me that this was getting worse and not getting better. And I decided I needed to write out for myself what I am and what I’m not willing to do when it comes to the expectations my university has of me. The purpose of that was so that when I am presented with a new situation, I can do a gut check on myself and say, “look, I wrote down back in May that this was a bridge too far for me.” My hope was that that would help me in that moment to say “no” to the things that I felt like I couldn’t do.
I would point to Rod Dreher, who is a blogger at The American Conservative; I responded by email to one of his stories this summer and sent this letter to him, and he encouraged me to send it to other people. Initially, it was just for me, but then I got the idea: “Maybe I could get some other people to sign onto this.” Once it started to circulate, it really started to gain traction. I would also credit Geoffrey Miller at the University of New Mexico for being instrumental in some of those early stages. I think it’s about 175 signatories now, and we’re still accepting more.
You’re specifically looking for signatures from academics?
Yes. And I would go on to say that I received an enormous response from people who are living or working in university contexts, but who are graduate students or lecturers or adjunct faculty or tenure-track faculty who wanted to express solidarity and support for this, but said that they felt that their livelihood was too much at risk without the protection of tenure. And of course, I think they’re very well justified in those concerns. The people who actually put their name to the letter are really only a fraction of the people that we heard from and who said, “Yes, I’m happy this is happening. I wish I could put my name to it.”
Many agree that higher ed leans heavily left in terms of curriculum, governance, and campus culture. However, you state that although a balance of political affiliations among faculty is desirable, it is not in itself absolutely necessary. Could you explain why that’s the case and what is necessary for a healthy academic culture?
If we break it down into left and right perspectives, I don’t think that we need a university that has 50 percent “right perspectives” and 50 percent “left perspectives” because it’s just not true that the people who are qualified to work in universities will break down along those lines of fifty/fifty. We shouldn’t expect that there would be perfect parity between those two sides.If we’re trying to find out what’s true, then it’s great to have different perspectives so we can have a dialogue and bring ourselves closer to the truth.
Instead, what we need is: Universities that are the great advocates of diversity, of minority opinions and minority perspectives. And yet, when it comes to this one orientation, when it comes to the political realm, or perhaps the moral realm, all of a sudden that love and reverence for diversity and minority perspectives goes out the window. All of a sudden, we get to where we are now, where there’s certain viewpoints that are unspeakable. And if views are unspeakable, then we can’t seek truth anymore because we need a dialogue in order to have it.
As long as the people who occupy the majority of the university are committed to a dialogue and committed to protecting the expression of heterodox viewpoints, then the university can still do its work. We can still discover knowledge, we can still press on the soft spots of each other’s ideas and push each other toward discovery and innovation.
But when we get into a context of groupthink, where people are risking their very careers or professional lives in order to speak uncomfortable truths or heretical perspectives, then it becomes a real problem for the production of knowledge. And the university just can’t do what it’s meant to do anymore in terms of its service to our culture, our society, and our nation.
In what ways would you say universities are stifling free inquiry or fostering groupthink? And has it gotten worse in recent years?
It’s definitely gotten worse in recent years. I came to a college campus when I was 18 years old in 1996 and I’ve lived and worked on a college campus ever since that time. I’ve never worked or lived outside of the university context. And while there was sort of a favoring of left perspectives in the university in the late 90s, in the early 2000s, I think I saw the tide start to turn around the invasion of Iraq.
And then I think these trends especially accelerated after Barack Obama’s Dear Colleague Letter that expanded the interpretation of Title IX. Title IX has been used to silence dissenting speech on campus and it has stripped many students of their due process rights. So Title IX is one place where this is occurring.
But one trend that’s even more disturbing to me lately is diversity statements, which our letter discusses. Diversity statements are a part of an application package for a university teacher or professor where he or she is expected to submit a document that expresses his or her dedication to diversity and inclusion. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with diversity or inclusion. But as you might expect, these are very dogmatic notions of diversity and inclusion, that neatly align with leftist social justice activism.
We’ve gotten to a point where candidates to even get into the professoriate are going to have to express their alignment with this ideological orientation. People might think: “Well, then just say it, right? Just write your diversity statement, and then you’re in and just concede.”
But the thing is: that diversity statement will then be weaponized. At the first moment that you evidence wrong-thinking, they will pull your diversity statement back out and say: “Why are you acting this way? In your diversity statement, you said X, Y, and Z. That seems to be at odds with what you’re doing now.” And the statement can become a factor in annual evaluations, which in turn are a factor in promotion and tenure. So diversity statements are one more way that the left-academy has managed to screen dissenting opinions or dissident thinkers so that they can keep them out of the university and keep a homogenous ideological atmosphere.
And the sad thing is: Academic job searches, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are already heavily skewed toward candidates who embrace left-leaning perspectives. For example, in the writing of job descriptions, a job description can name-check various areas of sub-expertise that for the most part are aligned with an ideologically left way of thinking. And so just from the drop job description alone, you’ve already ensured that people from certain intellectual orientations will not be a good fit for the job to begin with. If they manage to slip through those screens, then the diversity statement provides an additional screen that can ferret out people who don’t conform to the new norms.
And then beyond that, there are other hurdles. And all of these things are from a faculty perspective or institutional perspective, they don’t touch on the ways that students are also expected to toe certain lines.
And what are some examples of that?
I think it happens in very subtle ways. In terms of course performance and grades, I do think that, sadly, there are a number of professors where a student’s success in various writing assignments will be determined in a large way on the degree to which they agree with the professor’s representation of certain realities. I do think that certain students are discouraged from pursuing research topics that might upset the pieties of the academic left.
And other ways [students are forced to toe the line] are [by the use of] “free speech zones” on campus: The idea that the campus is not a place for free speech, that a space needs to be set aside where certain ideas can be spoken more or less in a corner so that people can be insulated from the potential violence of this speech. This idea of speech as violence is an idea that is drawn from left-perspectives and cultural theory, particularly the work of Judith Butler who was also instrumental in bringing about a change of opinion on topics like transgenderism or the nature of sex differences.
And so these ascendant ideas—speech as violence or microaggressions—these sorts of things are things that students have to live with too. And many students, especially young ones, don’t understand that these are rather new innovations in university life. And they don’t yet have the knowledge base to understand the intellectual traditions that these ideas are coming out of. And so, like good students, they ascertain what the expectations of the university are and they do their best to align their behavior and actions with that. Sadly, what that does is push them into a position of acquiescence and passive acceptance of ideas that really should be open for debate and discussion.
Toward the end of the letter, there are two bullet-pointed sections. One section states the signatories’ positions or beliefs and the other section outlines action steps the signatories are willing to undertake to the best of their ability. Could you tell us about some of those positions and resolutions?
Yes, and I should preface this by saying that the letter stipulates that not everybody who signed the letter agrees with every bullet—in part because we do have a diversity of perspectives among the signatories. But what we do all agree on is the general trend of the intellectual climate in higher education in the United States and, to some extent, abroad. We do have a lot of international signers.
The resolutions are the things we resolve to do when it aligns with our individual conscience and our disciplinary expertise. Some of those things are, for example, not following mandatory reporting guidelines for Title IX violations. My university says that if I witness an event that may perhaps be actionable under Title IX, I am obligated to report that event to the university.
It doesn’t say you must report something that is actionable; It says I must report anything that might be actionable. And we’ve moved the bar so low in terms of what could constitute a Title IX threat. For example, I was the subject of a Title IX case because I said in class one night that members of the LGBT community don’t face discrimination in every corner of the work world. And that was enough to trigger a nine-month investigation.
My point is: if I overhear some 19-year-old kid make a dirty joke in a hallway to somebody else who doesn’t seem to think that’s funny, I’m just not going to report that student to the university authorities. I don’t know how that joke was received by other people. Certainly, we should be polite to one another, but I don’t see how we can restrict people from making such jokes in a public space. And, frankly, given the draconian and authoritarian nature of a Title IX investigation, I’m not willing to subject a 19-year-old kid to nine months of bureaucratic misery because he made a bad joke. And so that’s one resolution: We are not going to abide by mandatory reporting guidelines for Title IX.
Another example would be safe spaces. We’ve said we’re not willing to recognize that there is any specific space that should be cordoned off. And so every inch of the campus is a “free speech space” and that the signers will inhabit it as such.
We have also said that we will not, when we are on hiring committees, consider diversity statements as part of an application package. Now I have to say, I’m not exactly sure what this would mean in practice because I haven’t yet been on a search committee for a new professor that makes use of diversity statements. But in the event that I was, I would simply say, “I refuse to score this component of the application.”
I’m not sure what the consequences of that would be. But I think that this is one of the reasons why the people who have signed the letter are fairly courageous: The resolutions are forms of non-compliance. The people who’ve signed this letter are willing to say, “I am not going to do what you’re asking me to do.”
I’ve been doing this for a few years at my university. And I have to tell you, I had a colleague call me earlier this week and say, “After the release of this letter, Adam, I just want to check in because you must feel really isolated at the university.” And I said, “No! I feel less isolated than I felt in years because, for the first time, I recognize that there’s hundreds of other people who are engaging with similar ethical quandaries at every university across the nation.”
I think for many people it can feel very isolating to try to do what you can to resist these trends. That, in part, is one of the motivations I had in inviting other signatories. The [purpose of the] letter in some ways is [to serve as a reminder] that people who are resisting these trends are not doing it alone, even though it might feel like they’re doing it alone.This is a movement into a new phase in saying, “Look, we tried to address these problems through dialogue, through policymaking, and other avenues, and we were largely unsuccessful.”
Another reason that I sought signatories was because, honestly, many people have said, “This was so great for you to write this letter.” But it wasn’t an act of bravery; it was actually an act of fear, an act of uncertainty about whether or not I can do what I want to do and say “no” to these things. As soon as I clicked “send,” sending that letter out to, at first, 20 academics, asking them to circulate it, I knew that if people were willing to put their name to it, then I would have to commit myself to doing these things—I wouldn’t have an excuse anymore for backing down out of fear, even though that’s often what I would like to do.
To use a term from the left’s cultural parlance, I hope that it’s empowering for signatories. And I hope it’s empowering for graduate students and untenured faculty, and even undergraduates who feel oftentimes like they are, for lack of a better term, marginalized in certain discussions and components of daily life and in higher education.
The letter acknowledges that acting on the outlined resolutions—and even just having signed the letter itself—could come with professional consequences. Have you or any of the other signatories experienced pushback or criticism since the letter’s publication?
The answer to your question is “yes.” But I feel like I’m not prepared to talk about those specifics of those instances just yet because I want to see how they shake out and I don’t want to intensify the situation anymore by talking about those things.
For me, I had to decide, “Am I willing to face real consequences for this?” In some ways, it was my kids who made me think “Yes, I’m willing to face consequences for this.” And part of where that comes from is: I was the first person in my family to go to college and my parents were great encouragers of my curiosity and my love of learning when I was a kid.
When I got to university, I found this place that you could really explore, and the boundary seemed to be limitless for thought. There were people willing to help you develop as a thinker, wherever that path took you. And I felt like many of my teachers weren’t aiming to make me into them; they were aiming to make me into the best thinker that I could be.
When I managed to secure a position in the university, I was so grateful for having a space and a place in society where I could spend my life doing something that I really love doing: thinking, reading, teaching, and writing. And the thought that my kids in 15 years might not have a university to inherit, that can provide the same thing for them as it did for me, was enough to make me think.
[The letter] isn’t “big;” one thing that everybody should understand is we’re not going to break the machine here. This is 170 people. When higher ed wants to swipe me off of their arm, that’s what will happen. It won’t be hard to do. But I can’t say, when that happens, that it was for lack of trying.
And I think that’s the point that we’re at; I think people who are dissident thinkers spent a few years saying to our colleagues, “Look, this is really dangerous.” I think now we’re past that point.
I think that many of us have the feeling that our attempts to appeal to our colleagues to mobilize against these trends have failed. And so in the absence of mobilization among faculty at a larger level, then all that’s left to resist these things is to say, “Well, I’m not going to do that.” And so this is a movement into a new phase, at least for me and I think for some of the other signers, in saying, “Look, we tried to address these problems through dialogue, through policymaking, and other avenues, and we were largely unsuccessful.”
I’m not willing to watch the university as we know it slip away without attempting something. And so, at least there was an attempt to preserve what we had even if, ultimately, we are not yet even at the endpoint of the reinvention of the university.
Shannon Watkins is senior writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.