The Campus Left’s Mass Attack on Amy Wax and Middle Class Values

In an attempt to document “the impact of web-driven political outrage” on the lives of professors, The Chronicle of Higher Education launched a series called “Professors in the Political Cross Hairs.” Updated periodically whenever a new story unfolds of web-based attacks on professors for their classroom comments, opinion essays, tweets, or Facebook posts, The Chronicle series added an essay one week by a professor who promises to: “Teach Administrators Not to Cave Into Right-Wing Outrage.”

It is disappointing to see that The Chronicle’s series is devoted to exposing only the outrage directed toward progressive professors. Ignoring the recent attacks on the academic freedom of conservative professors like University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and her co-author, Larry Alexander, a professor at the University of San Diego’s School of Law, who published an op-ed on the “culture of poverty” in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chronicle’s series has devoted itself to protecting progressive professors by publishing articles like “How Conservative Media Outlets Turn Faculty Viewpoints into National News.”

No Conservatives ‘in the Crosshairs’

Professors Wax and Alexander obviously should have been included in the “political crosshairs” series. Not only have they been denounced in a “web-driven” campaign against them, the Academic Deans of their own universities attacked them for writing that “all cultures are not equal,” and suggesting that it is the collapse of bourgeois norms among large segments of the U. S. population that has contributed to long list of social problems ranging from opioid abuse, out-of-wedlock parenting, inner-city violence, and idleness.

Promoting norms that encourage marriage before children, working hard, and avoiding idleness, Wax and Alexander suggest that we should “Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”

For the crime of listing “bourgeois norms” as something to strive for, Wax and Alexander received a torrent of criticism from the left—including from administrators from their own law schools. The University of San Diego’s Law School Dean, Stephen Ferruolo, published a formal statement on the University’s website to say that he “personally do(es) not agree with those views, nor do I believe that they are representative of the views of our law school community.”

He promised a long list of new initiatives, including “expanding the law school’s curriculum to offer additional courses addressing the issues of discrimination and civil rights, inviting prominent speakers to give lectures and hold workshops, initiating small group discussions with faculty and administrators to improve racial and cultural sensitivity, and designing and introducing new training programs on the issues of diversity and inclusion for all our community.” In addition, the San Diego law dean is personally establishing a working group, consisting of students, faculty, and administrators “to develop an action plan to ensure that the law school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion remains strong and irrefutable.”

The Media Piles On

Not to be outdone, Penn’s Law School Dean, Ted Ruger, published an op-ed in Penn’s school newspaper coupling Professors Wax and Alexander’s op-ed with the deadly violent events in Charlottesville. He wrote, “These tragic events (Charlottesville) follow a few days after a controversial op-ed about relative cultural worth written by two tenured legal scholars, one of whom teaches at Penn Law School. Although uncoordinated and substantively distinct, the contemporaneous occurrence of these two events has generated widespread discussion both internally and externally about our core values as a university and a nation.”

Finding themselves in the political crosshairs, faculty, students, alumni and the entire progressive media piled on. Thirty-three Penn Law faculty “categorically rejected” the Wax and Alexander claims about the cultural foundation of prosperity. And, 18 law professors from Temple, Rutgers, Drexel and other schools called the article “racist and classist.” Labeled as “white supremacists,” few—including The Chronicle of Higher Education and the AAUP—attempted to defend their academic freedom.

Disagreement Must Be Racist

Certainly, Wax and Alexander did not write a racist article, and they did not incite the kind of violence we witnessed in Charlottesville. Yet, few have come to their defense. In contrast, when progressive professors face online backlash for real incitement of violence, university administrators often cite academic freedom as a reason they must continue to support their progressive professors. Sometimes college administrators provide a revisionist account of what the progressive professors “really meant” when they appeared to incite violence.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education essay entitled, “Professors’ Growing Risk: Harassment for Things They Never Really Said,” the case of Texas A & M Philosophy Professor Tommy Curry is completely redefined in the most positive light possible. In an online podcast, Curry stated, “In order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die.” Acknowledging that Curry indeed said that in the podcast, The Chronicle was critical of The American Conservative for characterizing it as “racist bilge…. Mr. Curry and many of his supporters say the publication took his statements out of context.” Michael Young, the president of Curry’s university, initially seemed to criticize the Curry statement calling the professor’s comments “disturbing” and “in contrast to Aggie core values.” But, a week later, the Texas A & M president backtracked—affirming his “support for academic freedom.”

When Trinity College Professor Johnny Eric Williams posted several facebook messages encouraging the “racially oppressed” to put “an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system,” and shared a post called, “Let them F***ing Die,” referring to the June 14th shooting of Rep Steve Scalise at a congressional baseball practice, Williams did not apologize. Rather, he said that his posts were “a provocative move to get readers to pay attention to my reasoned, reasonable, and yes, angry argument.” While Williams was placed on leave briefly during the summer, the administration reached the conclusion (in a 31-page report) that his Facebook posts were “extramural utterances” protected by Trinity College’s policies.

Likewise, Dana Cloud, professor of communication at Syracuse University was viewed by some as inciting violence. While participating in a protest at the federal building, she tweeted, “We almost have the fascists on the run. Syracuse people come down to the federal building to finish them off.” Although many might have defined her tweet as inflammatory, the office of academic affairs issued a statement claiming that Professor Cloud “had clarified that her remarks were not intended to invite or incite violence.” Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud issued a statement that Professor Cloud’s statement is “susceptible to multiple interpretations.”

Conservative professors do not have the luxury of having their words open to “multiple interpretations.” Professors Wax and Alexander were branded racists for simply suggesting that the collapse of bourgeois norms has caused an increasing number of individuals to be left behind. They had quantitative social science data to back up their claims. Social scientists in the past—like the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), who coined the phrase “defining deviancy down” to refer to the acceptance of behavior that used to be considered deviant—used to have the courage to say that in the past.

But there are few sociologists willing to use quantitative data to demonstrate that there may be cultural contributors as well as structural causes of poverty, or educational outcomes, declining marriage rates, out-of-wedlock births, and decreasing labor force participation rates. It is time for social scientists to bring their data into the public square and contribute something valuable to this conversation.

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