No, Vanderbilt Isn’t Governed By “Principled Neutrality”

The university’s actions give the lie to its professed stance.

Anyone concerned about industrial-scale political indoctrination on American college campuses was given reason for hope this past spring when, in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vanderbilt University chancellor Daniel Diermeier reaffirmed his institution’s commitment to “principled neutrality”—the idea that the university and its leadership will “refrain from taking positions on controversial issues except when the issue directly relates to the functioning of the institution.” The goal of this commitment is ostensibly to encourage “thoughtful debate” and to discourage what Diermeier called (citing Joshua Green) “moral tribalism”: the tendency to “rush to judgment” and “default to moral condemnation in place of argument and persuasion.”

Diermeier’s essay struck a chord with me in part because, as a college professor, I’ve seen firsthand the collapse of non-partisanship on the part of university officials and administrators. It’s now de rigeur for college presidents and other officials to issue statements decrying election outcomes or Supreme Court decisions that disturb progressive sensibilities.

But the essay also resonated with me because, as a student at Vanderbilt in the late ’70s, I was a beneficiary of what Chancellor Diermeier rightly refers to as the institution’s “longstanding commitment to free expression and open forums,” a commitment that former senator and Vanderbilt alumnus Lamar Alexander experienced a decade earlier in the more turbulent ’60s. As Alexander put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed praising Diermeier’s stance, “the university was being pummeled from the left and right for hosting controversial speakers like Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael and Strom Thurmond.” Alexander no doubt spoke for many when he proclaimed Chancellor Diermeier’s statement on institutional neutrality to be “boldly reassuring” and expressed hope that other universities would follow Vanderbilt’s example.

Other universities won’t be following Vanderbilt’s example for the same reason Vanderbilt won’t be following it.But other universities won’t be following Vanderbilt’s example. And they won’t be following it for the same reason that Vanderbilt won’t be following it. American higher education is now honeycombed with sacrosanct warrens of administrative offices whose political activism makes a mockery of any claim to “principled neutrality.” As long as these offices remain on campus, the political indoctrination of students at the hands of the institution will continue unabated.

Take Vanderbilt’s office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) for example. To be sure, the EDI mission statement claims to promote only what is good and true: a “sense of belonging”; environments where “equity, diversity and inclusion are inseparable from institutional excellence”; “human potential and growth”; and “practices that respect the humanity of all.” The office even lists more than two dozen “trainings,” a term that suggests objective instruction on settled subjects.

But whereas Vanderbilt’s Medical Center offers training in CPR, and its cybersecurity office offers training in data privacy, the EDI office promotes training in—to take just one example—“Countering Colorblind Ideologies,” a course administered by Vanderbilt’s “Student Center for Social Justice and Identity.” Quite apart from the misuse of “ideologies” here (routine among administrators), Vanderbilt evidently considers disregarding skin color—yes, disregarding skin color—to be the equivalent of respiratory failure and malware: a recognizable evil that right-thinking people will naturally oppose. The only question is how to oppose it, which is what the “training” is for. So much for President Diermeier’s commitment to “thoughtful debate.”

Once students have been trained to oppose “colorblind ideologies”—that is, once they’ve been taught to reject Martin Luther King’s dream of judging people according to character rather than color—they’ll be better equipped to appreciate the color-conscious approaches to racism that Vanderbilt endorses. “White women … have a history of upholding white supremacy,” writes Elly Belle in her essay “White People Can Hold Each Other Accountable to Stop Institutional Racism.” Lincoln Anthony Blades makes the same point more emphatically in his article “11 Things You Can Do To Help Black Lives Matter End Police Violence.” Vanderbilt’s EDI office recommends both essays—published in Teen Vogue—on its “Anti-Racism Resources” page. Is this what Chancellor Diermeier means when he claims the university is fighting “moral tribalism”?

Of course, it may be true that the U.S. is a deeply racist, sexist, trans- and homophobic police state. It may be true that uncovering and destroying “Whiteness” is the obligatory mission of a genuinely anti-racist politics, as well as the key to racial and social harmony. It may be true that white women have always been a part of upholding white supremacy and that socialism, not capitalism, is the royal road to social justice and human flourishing. In short, the positions that are, by and large, the common currency of Vanderbilt-endorsed “anti-racist” resources may all be true.

An institution endorsing such a narrowly partisan and ideologically homogeneous set of readings is not governed by principled neutrality.What is manifestly not true, however, is that an institution endorsing such a narrowly partisan and ideologically homogeneous set of readings, to the exclusion of any countervailing points of view, is governed by anything remotely resembling “principled neutrality.” And those EDI endorsements are just the tip of the iceberg, since they reveal the ideological operating system of a whole platoon of student-facing administrators who supervise four identity centers, eight identity initiatives, and more than 25 “training” programs and racial-justice “toolkits.”

By virtue of being officials of the institution—rather than, say, faculty members of an academic department—these administrators are endowed with an aura of impartiality. Students assume they’re getting objective information from the EDI office and the other offices in its orbit, just as they assume they’re getting it from the registrar or the career-planning office. But, in fact, they’re getting tenets of woke orthodoxy, indistinguishable from those of the doctrinaire and often extremist essays, books, and interest groups EDI endorses on its “anti-racism resources” page. It’s a deceptive abuse of Vanderbilt’s advertised commitment to “the highest academic standards, a spirit of intellectual freedom and a pursuit of excellence in all endeavors.”

Chancellor Diermeier’s claim of institutional neutrality has the unfortunate effect of masking this abuse by implying that anything coming from the institutional side of Vanderbilt can be considered “neutral.” It’s worth remembering that incoming students have already been primed to accept DEI orthodoxies as consensus opinion, owing to the fact that the vast majority of their K-12 teachers were licensed by education schools, which have the dubious distinction of being both the weakest academic institutions in the nation and the most ideologically doctrinaire.

In this connection, it’s no coincidence that most of the people staffing Vanderbilt’s EDI and affiliated offices have degrees from these same ed-schools. Nor is it a coincidence that an Inside Higher Ed opinion piece opposing principled neutrality was written by a Vanderbilt education professor, Brian Heuser, who rejects the idea in favor of what he calls “prioritizing the common good” and “defending basic human rights.” It seems not to occur to the author that “principled neutrality” is intended specifically to allow for the fullest and freest deliberations about what “the common good” might actually be, as well as about how to proceed when “basic human rights” conflict, as they inevitably do.

For Professor Heuser, it’s perfectly obvious what the “common good” is, just as it’s obvious whose “basic human rights” should prevail. He’s adamant that Vanderbilt take public positions on controversial issues, because it’s self-evident that the university would oppose the legislative measures he opposes and support the ones he supports. This same level of hubris is demonstrated by Professor Heuser’s counterparts among student-facing administrators when they pretend that “social justice” is the inevitable consequence of their own favored policies, or that their discussions of “Whiteness” and “Blackness” involve something less intellectually fraudulent than the crude racist stereotyping they claim to reject.

By claiming to promote “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” administrators enjoy the benefit of the clergy.Chancellor Diermeier can certainly enforce an embargo against partisan political statements being issued from his office or those of other senior administrators. That’s commendable and would distinguish Vanderbilt from 90 percent of the colleges and universities in the nation. What he cannot do without imperiling his job, however, is confront the institutional sources of partisan propaganda that dwarf anything that even the most “activist” university chancellor or president could manage. These administrators can’t be confronted in part because, by claiming to promote “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” or “Multicultural Engagement,” or “Inclusive Excellence,” or “Social Justice,” they enjoy the benefit of the clergy. Then, too, they have the means to encourage “spontaneous” and career-ending protests among students—a widespread if clandestine practice that rarely comes to light except in legal proceedings, as it did recently when it was revealed that Oberlin dean of students Meredith Raimondo had not only incited students against Gibson’s bakery but had freely discussed “unleashing students” on Oberlin professor emeritus Roger Copeland, who had the temerity to warn the Oberlin administration against the rush to judgment that ended up costing the institution $36 million in a defamation case.

That the only member of the Oberlin faculty willing to criticize the administration’s witch hunt was a professor who had retired in 2017 points to another problem facing Chancellor Diermeier in his quest for institutional neutrality. The faculty ranks are now filled with professors whose entire academic experience has taken place in the increasingly illiberal hall of mirrors that is the American educational establishment. Not only do most of these professors see nothing wrong with DEI indoctrination, but many will enthusiastically support it—especially since it softens students up for their professors’ own “activist” pedagogy.

An example of the growing continuity between administrators and faculty on this score was revealed in September 2020 at Vanderbilt, when a student took a screenshot of a true-or-false question on a quiz: “Was the Constitution designed to perpetuate white supremacy and protect the institution of slavery?” The “correct” answer was “true.” This question did not appear, as one might have thought, as part of a DEI “training” program but in a for-credit political-science course entitled “U.S. Elections 2020.” This course was taught by four professors, one of whom is the historian Jon Meacham, who, a month later on MSNBC’s broadcast of the second presidential debate, had this to say about roughly half of the American electorate: “There is a lizard brain in this country,” and “Donald Trump is a product of the white man’s—the anguished, nervous white guy’s—lizard brain.”

It only makes sense that, three months later, in January of 2021, Professor Meacham would be named one of the co-chairs of the Vanderbilt Unity Project, whose aim, according to Chancellor Diermeier, is “to supplant ideologies and inflammatory rhetoric with facts and evidence to advance our democracy and restore legitimacy to the institutions that support it.” It makes sense, that is to say, in the way that most things in higher education make sense—through a logic of inversion whereby “anti-racism” means racism, “supplant[ing] inflammatory rhetoric” means supplying it, and “principled neutrality” means unbridled partisanship. Other than that, great job, Vandy.

Lyell Asher is an associate professor of English at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Most recently, he is the author and presenter of “Why Colleges Are Becoming Cults,” a 15-part video series produced by Peter Boghossian.