Against Scholar-Activism

Neither faculty nor staff should allow advocacy to eclipse inquiry on campus.

The rise of political orthodoxy on campus is often cited as one of the key reasons for reforming universities. But if there is a rise of orthodoxy, what does this orthodoxy look like, who is perpetuating it, and on what grounds are they doing so?

Professors might immediately want me to point out that universities are known for being open environments of intellectual, academic, and expressive freedom, which support their core mission to create and disseminate knowledge. They might also wish to take issue with the idea that faculty members push an orthodoxy, as it’s common for students (or students’ parents, or activist groups reviewing course syllabi) to assume they are engaging in advocacy simply because they’re teaching material that challenges cherished beliefs or questions unexamined assumptions. A creationist might see an evolutionary biologist as pushing a message, and a young man might experience a lecture on the history of sex discrimination as ax-grinding. The Committee for a Better North Carolina argued in 2003 that assigning students Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about poverty, Nickel and Dimed, constituted indoctrination. People do not always understand that studying a subject—inquiry—is distinct from promoting an agenda—advocacy.

Studying a subject—inquiry—is distinct from promoting an agenda—advocacy.But it’s not all a misunderstanding. Some professors actually describe themselves as “scholar-activists.” Teaching a contentious ideological position, not as a subject for critical examination but, rather, with the intent to dogmatically advocate for it in the hope that students accept it as true, represents an abuse of the influential position instructors hold over their students. The activist instructor often justifies her demagoguing on the grounds that the university should be helping improve our democracy. She sees her politics as doing just that. Inspired by scholars from John Dewey to Angela Davis, she frames her activism as advocacy for democratic principles. University instructors, in this view, ought to be contributing to social justice and democratic ideals—and not just on their free time. For if the university is touted for promoting democracy, then it can seem perfectly justifiable to use one’s paid job to advocate.

Another subset of instructors, eager to avoid being seen as pushing an ideology, do little more than let students exchange uninformed opinions—a practice Stanley Fish once described as an “exercise in self-indulgence,” inevitably couched as “interactive learning or engaged learning or ethical learning.” The instructor who gives her class over to the exchange of opinions justifies the approach either on the grounds that she should treat all opinions equally, lest she be a “logic bully” who expects people to follow the evidence wherever it leads, or on the grounds that exchanging opinions or advocating for political positions is the training students need to become engaged citizens in a democratic society.

Whether or not these positions are rooted in an accurate understanding of sophisticated thinkers such as John Dewey, Angela Davis, Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, and others is an important question for another essay. Suffice it to say here that both sets of instructors tether their practices to a questionable idea about how the university serves democracy, and neither the student whose instructor pushes a political agenda nor the student whose instructor encourages the simple exchange of opinions gets a rigorous education.

But, as I and others have noted, much of the pushing of ideology on campus comes not from faculty members but from university administrators and support-staff members who see themselves as promoting certain values and, yes, advancing democracy through their work at the university. As Jeff Strietzel and Rishi Sriram describe, tautologically, in their 2021 article outlining a “scholar practitioner activism” for student affairs professionals,

Social justice activism is an expectation of the student affairs profession because the social justice and inclusion competency necessitates action on the part of student affairs professionals to help create a more just society. […] This active orientation should include using the tools of research and scholarship to advocate for change.

The authors explain that “research findings can help practitioners advocate for needed change.” At the same time, these student-affairs professionals are told to produce the scholarship they need for their activist agenda.

The association of higher-ed student-affairs administrators (NASPA) has for years offered a rubric for a social-justice competency among student-affairs professionals. It states,

Student affairs professionals may incorporate social justice competencies into their practice through seeking to meet the needs of all groups, equitably distributing resources, raising social consciousness, and repairing past and current harms on campus communities.

To be sure, the student-affairs staff play an important role in helping students who live and learn in close quarters despite ideological and lifestyle differences to comply with university regulations and laws, so that they can succeed in school and not become a barrier to others’ ability to do the same. But when these employees engage in “raising social consciousness” and “repairing past and current harms on campus,” they cross the line from acceptable and worthy facilitating to catechism. Some college students are surely unreconstructed racists and sexists, but it is not the job of student-affairs professionals to change their beliefs and feelings—only to steer their actions to comply with law and policy. Likewise, the activist effort to engage in compensatory educational efforts to “repair past harms” could rationalize all sorts of intolerance, censorship, and arrogant bullying.

The activist effort to “repair past harms” could rationalize all sorts of intolerance, censorship, and arrogant bullying.During my time as a professor, I faced this blurring of boundaries between inquiry and advocacy multiple times. In one case, my sociology students had a guest presentation organized by (what was then called) the LGBT Center. A panel of several people came to class for a discussion of LGBT issues. My students, having learned to engage in inquiry and debate, asked the panelists a number of critical—but not harassing or discriminatory—questions. The panelists, evidently expecting to walk in and enlighten my students with their “lived experience,” later complained that my students were “hostile.” Clearly, there was a clash in expectations: The guest panelists wanted to advocate; my students wanted to inquire.

Later, when I coordinated the many sections of the required academic First Year Seminar (FYS) course, I received numerous requests from student-affairs professionals seeking access to the FYS classes for advocacy purposes. When I served on the university’s Interpersonal Violence Council, some people wanted to give academic course credit to students for completing their sexual-assault-prevention training. I don’t know if such people mistook their trainings for academic material, but it was clear they wanted to incentivize students to take them. The academic curriculum was useful for their purposes. This is not unique to the institution where I worked; whenever the university is seen as the home for advocacy, we see advocacy encroaching on inquiry. Inquiry, with all its questions, need for evidence, assumption of the value of examining an issue from multiple perspectives, and encouragement of feedback and debate, gets in the way of advocacy’s need for making judgments, disclosing feelings, dismissing minority views, and urging courses of action.

I would argue that the problem of orthodoxy is worse among the staff than the faculty. Scholars who privilege political criteria over academic ones are more obviously violating the standards of their profession, whereas activist criteria are baked into the professional standards of the student-affairs profession. The preparation scholars receive is fundamentally rooted in curiosity driven to find knowledge, while the preparation student-affairs professionals receive is more likely to be rooted in advocacy.

But the larger point is that those who think neither faculty nor staff have any business pursuing political agendas on their employer’s or the taxpayers’ dime should be cautious of efforts to make supporting democracy the mission of the university. Well-meaning efforts to improve democracy through the university, be they from faculty or staff, from internal or external constituents, or from the political left or right, can lapse into efforts to compel instructors and students to espouse certain ideas or to prevent them from teaching or learning certain material.

The confusion between advocacy and inquiry indicates a need for universities to clarify their purpose.Attempts to reform universities by making funding contingent upon new requirements and metrics can easily get used by university actors to justify spending more money and time on the very initiatives that reformers dislike. Given the ways in which “promoting democracy” works for scholars who fancy themselves activists, and for the activists who fancy themselves scholars, new initiatives to better serve democracy might be just what the activists ordered.

For example, as North Carolina universities take up the call to better prepare students for engaged citizenship in our democracy, we might see more, rather than less, confusion between inquiry and advocacy. The UNC-System proposal to give all UNC-System students a shared foundation in the principles of American democracy could result in conflicting politicized approaches to preparing students to thoughtfully participate in the democratic processes of the state and nation.

I do not oppose universities engaging in research, artistic, and learning experiences that inquire into democracy and citizenship. And, of course, many university staff members embrace and support their university’s mission, including many of those whose work helps their campus comply with anti-discrimination laws. I am simply suggesting that the confusion between advocacy and inquiry indicates a need for universities to clarify their purpose. When democracy and social-justice goals become the point, rather than secondary outcomes, of the university’s mission, advocacy can trump inquiry.

Martha McCaughey is professor emerita in sociology at Appalachian State University and an adjunct professor in the department of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Wyoming.