How Woke Transformation Grinds Forward in Higher Education

The Left has created a ratchet to move campus culture in a single direction.

Institutional change typically happens slowly and in ways that are difficult to see from a distance. Over the past several decades, institutions of higher education have been steadily adopting more and more ideas and practices destined—as those proposing the changes admit—to transform them, the goal being greater diversity, inclusion, and equity, or DIE.

A view of the university as a site for radical moral and political propagandizing is getting stronger every day, steadily erasing the traditional view that the mission of higher education is the pursuit of objective truth. Every day, we get stories of how this transformation is operating at the administrative level. But how does this look on the ground? Much of the change is happening at what we sociologists call the micro-level. Rules, structures, and norms are transformed, to be sure, but they take effect in the actions of individuals in empirical situations.

Here are a few examples from my own experience.

Student DIE Complaints as a Mechanism for Reducing Academic Freedom

As DIE’s impact on admissions and curricula is felt, one of the effects is seen in the level of outspoken commitment to DIE ideology by students. Students have become significantly more activist on this in recent years, and the radicals now have the whole DIE apparatus to mobilize.

Students have become significantly more activist in recent years, and the radicals now have the whole DIE apparatus to mobilize.Over the past few years, I have had several occasions to meet with department chairs or deans to discuss the complaints of students about classroom readings and lectures on topics that were too much to bear for those of the Woke faith. Two of the topics that predictably generate student unhappiness (a portion of which gets translated into formal complaints) are feminist thinking about “the patriarchy” and the concept of “structural or systemic racism.”

Feminist thought challenges the very notion of any meaningful biological differences between men and women. It also frequently, at least implicitly, argues about stratification and power along gender and sex lines in a way that assumes a quasi-Marxian standpoint concerning the identity and solidarity of the two “classes,” men and women.

I teach students about the evidence for, and the consequences of, sex difference in our species. My goal in this is to complicate the simplistic view commonly encountered in my discipline of the complete “social construction” of gender and sex differences.

Social forces certainly matter in contributing to such distinctions, but the evidence is overwhelming that there are also innate, biological sex differences that have real consequences for how men and women map as groups in terms of many characteristics. I inform students that the class argument in feminism—that men and women basically operate as substitutes for bourgeoisie and proletariat in Marxian terms, with solidarity among men as one of the main sources of male power over women—falls apart in the same way that the Marxian class argument does.

This is too much for a growing number of radical students.

A few years back, several brought a complaint to my department chair that I was making arguments about male supremacy in class. In fact, I repeat to my students throughout our discussion of this topic that proper social science must avoid that kind of value statement and limit itself to description and explanation.

Some students, though, cannot tolerate such statements. They are certain that any indication of sex differences is proof of male malevolence and complain about hearing anything to the contrary.

One of the central modes for activism is a strenuous effort to penalize and eliminate the expression of non-radical ideas on campus.Here’s another example. For the past several years, I have received comments in my course evaluations in which students charge that any critical discussion of “structural racism” is by definition itself racist. (They have learned this anti-intellectual perspective from my faculty colleagues.) A few of these students have gone beyond attacking me in course evaluations and have levied complaints to my supervisors. This is how the revolution proceeds at the student level.

Faculty Groupthink and the Shrinking of Campus Expression

Faculty are also operating vigorously to push things forward. One of the central modes for such activism is a strenuous effort to penalize and eliminate the expression of non-radical ideas on campus.

My department received, some years ago, a gift from an alumna that was designated for use in enhancing the educational experience of departmental majors and other students in our courses. The fund has been used from the beginning to bring external speakers to class, in person or via video link.

Early on, my requests for speakers were approved, just as those of all others in the department were. In recent years, however, the department has demographically shifted. Younger, more outspokenly ideological faculty now exercise considerable power. In the wake of the George Floyd Revolution, some older faculty, already on the left, shifted dramatically further to be in tune with the times. This has made a big difference.

A few years ago, my request to have Amy Wax visit my course on conservative social and political thought was challenged. The claim was that, as a professor of law, Wax had no relevant expertise to speak in a course offered in a social-science department. No mention was made of the fact that Wax engages thoroughly and expertly with social-science literature on the relevant topics of my course.

More recently, I was informed that my request to invite another law professor, Robert Blecker, to discuss his book on capital punishment had also rubbed some department members the wrong way. He, too, I was informed, did not have relevant expertise on the topic on which he would be speaking.

Blecker’s book The Death of Punishment, is, in fact, a complex consideration of the death penalty in light of just the questions that morally concerned social scientists are interested in. But it is not the scholarly care of Blecker’s book that was at issue in the view of my radical colleagues, who had almost certainly not bothered to engage with it.

Woke professors are simply incapable of tolerating pluralistic debate about charged issues.The problem is that Blecker argues that the death penalty can be justified. Only “the worst of the worst” should be considered for the ultimate judgment. But it is essential, he strongly believes, that we do not eliminate capital punishment as a matter of principle, as to do so would be to fail to recognize our moral obligations to victims.

Hostility to the death penalty as purportedly “racist” is nearly universal among contemporary social-science and humanities professors, for the same reason that such faculty resist the contribution of biology to human nature and embrace beliefs about the ongoing power of white supremacy. Woke professors are simply incapable of tolerating pluralistic debate about such charged issues.

This time, in response to my effort to bring a speaker from outside the ideological consensus, some members of the department suggested that we needed to reconsider our rules on how vetting speakers should work. The radicals claimed that there was no intention of restricting the range of legitimate debate, only a desire to eliminate speakers who lacked scholarly expertise and demonstrated insufficient knowledge of the topics on which they proposed to speak.

Of course, what was happening was not an objective evaluation of what is and is not intellectually plausible argumentation on a given topic. It was instead an exercise in moral groupthink. My colleagues desired to control the range of views presented to my students, and their numbers assured me that they could achieve that end. I therefore withdrew my request.

In both of the cases I describe above, the incremental advance of Wokeism is apparent at the micro-level. In such cases, official administrative action is not even necessary to click the ratchet a few more notches in the desired direction, though such action becomes more likely as student complaints and faculty radicalism increase. Even short of punitive action by administrations, it can be expected that some of those facing efforts to police their academic speech will respond by conforming. I have seen it happen.

I haven’t the slightest doubt that many other professors are enduring similar experiences. Those numbers will keep increasing, at least until the faculties are sufficiently purged of those who are not fully on board with the revolution. At that point, most of the transformative work will be done.

Alexander Riley is a professor of sociology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Scholars. All views expressed are his and do not represent the views of his employer.