Why I’ll Never Be Allowed to Teach at USC Again

A leading American institution can no longer tolerate dissent.

After 36 years as a full-time faculty member, I retired as a tenured professor from the University of Southern California on May 15, 2022. Retiring faculty members typically retain as an honorary title their last academic rank, for example “professor emeritus.” The designation is not automatic but pro forma in most circumstances. I watched as the members of my retirement cohort announced their new emeritus or emerita status to the rest of us in turn.

At USC, the emeritus designation “indicates honorable retirement from assigned duties, recognizes faithful service worthy of high commendation, and expresses an anticipation of continued membership in the academic community.” My faculty colleagues recommended me for emeritus designation, but the central administration delayed action in my case.

When I announced my retirement, I agreed to the institution’s request to teach a graduate class at the USC Price School of Public Policy the following fall. I declined an opportunity to teach at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Who would want to deliver a full-time teaching load in retirement? Then, on June 20, the dean of the Price School emailed me to withdraw the request that I teach. He offered no substantive explanation, and I realized there likely was a connection between this unusual reversal and the delay in receiving notice of my emeritus designation.

My emeritus designation had been the topic of a meeting involving at least two deans, the president, the provost, and the general counsel.I investigated. I had spent decades treating staff members respectfully, and they gave me straight answers to my questions as I left. A high-level, trustworthy source informed me that my emeritus designation was the topic of a meeting involving at least my two deans (engineering and public policy), the USC president, the USC provost, and the USC general counsel.

Faculty members are typically tenured once during an academic career unless they change universities. I had changed, but I had left Northwestern too early in my faculty career to be considered for tenure there. I joined the University of Southern California and was tenured sequentially in three different USC departments. I founded and directed the transportation engineering program, an interdisciplinary enterprise spanning my three departments. External sources consistently funded my research. I spent 25 years living in USC residence halls as a senior tutor supporting undergraduates. I served as department chair, vice dean, and president of the engineering faculty for several terms. I served as national president of the lead professional society in one of my disciplines. Still, the top university leadership wanted to avoid offering me an emeritus rank.

My retirement had been abrupt. I had decided to leave because I am a libertarian who rejects the illiberal, uneconomic thinking inherent in the progressive political agenda that now saturates universities, USC included. Professionally, I was a marked man. I had been fired or blocked from all substantive administrative roles. Despite my research and teaching record, USC would be the source of no further academic recognition or internal distinctions. Tenure would allow me to exist at USC indefinitely, but only at the margins of the place. If I stayed, my only role would be as a gadfly.

I had been a source of controversy in recent years. There would be more if I stayed. I had become attuned to Title IX and the Department of Education’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter as a vice dean at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Frantic parents had inundated me seeking transfer opportunities for their sons and a few daughters who had been unexpectedly (and, in these parents’ minds, unfairly) expelled from other institutions following casual allegations of sexual misconduct.

In the fall of 2018, a USC student group sent a broadcast email to the USC School of Public Policy faculty and students announcing a presentation by “Know Your IX,” a nonprofit organization that explains students’ Title IX rights under federal law. This announcement referred in passing to the then-ongoing confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate on the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. It included a call to “believe survivors.”

I had been a source of controversy in recent years. There would be more if I stayed.I replied-to-all, “If the day comes you are accused of some crime or tort of which you are not guilty, and you find your peers automatically believing your accuser, I expect you will find yourselves stronger proponents of due process protections than you are now. Accusers sometimes lie.” The former dean of the school publicly condemned my response, in an email to the faculty and students, as “both insensitive and incendiary,” as lacking “sensitivity to the current climate,” as making “dialogue more difficult,” and as appearing not “to be consistent with the Price School’s Values Statement.” This characterization was nonsense, but the students agreed with the dean and organized a protest of my employment at USC on October 1, 2018.

In the spring of 2020, the same former dean decamped to New York University. He had been the junior and presumably unwitting partner in a quid pro quo exercise that led to the conviction of former USC Dean Marilyn Flynn and former Los Angeles City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas on federal bribery charges.

I live in downtown Los Angeles, which experienced riots following the murder of George Floyd. Many protesters were nonviolent, but vandalism and criminality were rampant. Public authorities often did not adequately protect property rights in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Without property rights, there can be no voluntary exchange, no markets, and no gains from trade for anyone. Property rights are the foundation of any market economy. Protecting property rights is the fundamental role of government in a free society.

USC’s many institutional responses to the 2020 riots and their causes did not acknowledge this governmental failure or its ramifications and instead seemed to equate law-enforcement with the practice of systemic racism. No-knock warrants, the doctrine of qualified immunity, civil asset forfeiture, and the outsized influence of police unions on public policy are all long overdue for reform. Still, law enforcement is not an intrinsically racist enterprise. Rather, tolerating crime is arguably racist because the victims of crime are disproportionately Black. The Black community benefits from police services more than any other.

Given USC’s 2020 tuition of almost $2,000 per unit, the university’s students and their parents deserve more than the simplistic, analysis-free assertions of ubiquitous racism that university leaders continue to present as a rationale for every social challenge or racially disparate outcome. I offered students a viewpoint that was deliberately different from, and better informed than, the progressive ideas broadcast in all directions by USC’s leaders and most faculty members.

I offered students a viewpoint that was deliberately different from the progressive ideas broadcast by most faculty.In August of 2021, I hung a (red, white, and) blue-lives-matter flag on the front of my office door. There was some media attention, but the students’ responses were what mattered. There were many, and these were approximately a 30/70 split between mostly anonymous vitriol and confidential, often face-to-face “thank-yous.”

USC Human Resources directed the USC Viterbi School of Engineering vice dean for faculty affairs to ask me to remove the flag. I explained the importance of academic freedom at a university and declined. USC took no formal action against me, but it was clear to all parties that the leadership and I no longer had a shared mission. I chose to retire, but USC’s senior leadership could not bear to have me teach part-time in retirement.

I presume USC’s leaders wanted to avoid appearing to endorse or even acknowledge a point of view that differs dramatically from the laser focus they place on social justice and systemic racism, but it could have been something more. Retiring from a faculty without an emeritus or emerita designation implies urgency in the departure and some likely deficiency in the individual’s performance. In my case, withholding emeritus status would be one way to discredit a critic.

I had been critical of USC leadership’s decision to suspend 401(a) employer non-elective contributions to faculty and staff retirement accounts during the 2021 calendar year. This step was in response to the pressures the Covid pandemic placed on USC’s finances, particularly interruptions in healthcare revenues. These pressures were real, but USC had “an overall increase in net assets for the year ending June 30, 2021, of $1.9 billion, which [was] largely a result of endowment performance and [the] continued generosity” of donors, as well as an unrestricted endowment share of slightly above 25 percent. Pandemic or not, USC had the means to pay faculty members the 2021 retirement benefits that USC had offered them when USC hired them. My public opinion as chair of the Engineering Faculty Council was that they should. It still is. Some of the institutions that proceeded similarly during the pandemic have retroactively made up contributions to their faculties’ retirement plans.

It is unlikely that USC’s position on the prospect of my teaching further is in response to my criticisms of its business practices. Administrators’ concerns are more strategic and forward-looking than that. If I taught, I would have access to an office, and who knows what I might post on the door?

Ultimately, the USC general counsel rescued my emeritus designation: The university could avoid the reputational risk of withholding due recognition by quietly forbidding my former schools to offer me teaching opportunities. Short-circuiting my teaching role would solve the administration’s problem, though less quietly than they had hoped.

USC’s leaders have a good point. My intellectual and academic foci remain the diversity of ideas, not phenotypes; equal opportunity, never equal outcomes; and inclusion based on merit, not identity. I continue to understand and emphasize the critical roles of due process and property rights in our society. I recognize that we can expect law enforcement to protect the property and lives of all only with the cooperation of those whom they serve. USC’s leaders are broadly wrong about what is most important, and my work going forward can only disappoint them.

James E. Moore, II, retired from the departments of industrial & systems engineering and civil & environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Price School of Public Policy.