All posts by Anne Hendershott

Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction Books) and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). 

The Purge of the Deviants May Go Too Far

Sociologist Emile Durkheim would find validation for his theory of deviance in the fury surrounding sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men in politics, the media, business, and academia. More than one hundred years ago, Durkheim argued that the reason acts of deviance are identified and publicly punished is because defining deviant behavior reinforces social order, and inhibits future deviance. The kinds of public punishment and shaming that Hollywood celebrities and media stars have endured these past weeks affirms our collective beliefs and provides a stabilizing function for society. But, as in all moral panics, the innocent often become collateral damage—sacrificed to make amends for previous injustices.

Definitions of Deviance Change

Durkheim concluded that by defining some forms of behavior as deviant, we are affirming the social norms of the society. But, what puzzles many of us is why the definition of deviance varies so dramatically over time. We cannot always predict who will become defined as deviant, and when the definitions will change. We do know that power plays the most important role in identifying who gets to define deviant behavior.

Until recently, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men were not taken seriously—they were not viewed as deviant because the acts were perpetrated by powerful men on less powerful women. Now, the power to define sexual deviance has shifted to women—those who have collaborated with the media to bring attention to the issue and reform how such behavior is perceived and dealt with by society.

Men on college campuses have been enduring the new definition of deviance, where due process protections have been withheld from them for nearly two decades. Title IX administrators on college campuses like Georgetown and Boston College admit that there is “no presumption of innocence” for males accused of sexual assault. It is ironic that the same congressmen—like John Conyers (D-NY)—who helped create the Title IX nightmare that pressed colleges and universities to withhold due process protections for students is now himself accused of sex abuse, and demanding due process.

Likewise, the same faculty members who failed to protect the students on their campuses from the kangaroo courts that were set up to deal with Title IX violations are now themselves caught up in that same dilemma. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week that two Stanford English professors—one retired and one deceased—have now been accused of rape. And, in even more alarming allegations, renowned professor Tariq Ramadan, a scholar of Islam at Oxford University, has been accused of rape by Henda Ayari, a French feminist author. Four Swiss women claim he made sexual advances to them when they were studying with him as teenagers in Geneva.

The UK Telegraph reports that one of the accusers claimed that Ramadan made unsuccessful sexual advances to her when she was 14 years old. Another alleged he had sexual relations with her in the back of his car when she was just 15 years old. Avari accused Ramadan of raping and assaulting her in a hotel during a conference they attended together in Paris in 2012. Ramadan has taken a leave of absence from Oxford University, where he holds an academic chair financed by Qatar. He denies all the allegations, claiming in a Facebook post that he is being targeted by a “campaign of slander clearly orchestrated by my longtime adversaries.”

There are indeed some adversaries. In 2010, Ramadan was fired from his teaching position at a Dutch University and from an advisory position with the City of Rotterdam amid allegations that his Iranian-funded television program Islam and Life, airing on Iran’s Press TV, was irreconcilable with his duties in Rotterdam. In 2004 Ramadan had to resign his faculty appointment at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies because his visa was revoked by the State Department. The grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ramadan presents himself as a reformist and says he rejects terrorism. But, it seems the State Department thought otherwise.

The Notre Dame controversy triggered a series of protests against the Bush state department by professors throughout the country. The Rev. Edward Malloy, then the President of Notre Dame decried the decision claiming that “We have no reason to think he is a mole or an underground instigator…we see him as a really good fit for our peace institute.”

Well, perhaps not. With a culture shift that has empowered women, formerly acceptable behaviors are now newly defined as deviant. Sometimes the redefinition goes too far as in many of the false allegations of sexual abuse on college campuses like the Duke lacrosse case, and the University of Virginia false fraternity house rape allegations published in The Rolling Stone.  Durkheim would see these false allegations as a kind of “correction” –an over-reaction to formerly unpunished deviant behavior.

Related: Harvey Weinstein and Higher Ed

For decades—until the 1960s—sociologists viewed identifying deviant behavior as central to the process of generating and sustaining cultural values, clarifying moral boundaries and promoting social solidarity. But, defining by consensus what is acceptable conduct is exactly what had disappeared. In the aftermath of the radical egalitarianism of the 1960s, merely to label a behavior as deviant came to be viewed as rejecting the equality—perhaps the very humanity—of those engaging in it.

Most sociologists became convinced that the sociology of deviance was more about the selective censure by those with power—and the subject matter became contested. Once undergraduate students began referring to the college course in deviant behavior as the course in “nuts, sluts, and perverts,” most universities deleted the once-popular course from their catalogs. By the mid-1970s, the overt deconstruction of the concept of deviance was complete. Few university campuses offered the course, and even fewer books were written about the concept of deviant behavior.

But, in the early 1990s, a lone voice encouraged sociologists to consider these problematic behaviors once again. Addressing the 87th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1992, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan did the unthinkable – he spoke of a “worrisome increase in deviant behavior.” In a speech entitled “Defining Deviancy Down” the Senator warned that for the previous 25 years, society has chosen not to notice behaviors that would be otherwise disapproved or even punished. He complained that we had been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized and also quietly raising the level of what is considered normal in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.

The speech was received with subdued applause. Few sociologists were willing to be disrespectful toward one of “their own,” especially since the Senator favored the same progressive policies they endorsed. But most dismissed Senator Moynihan’s speech as the “nostalgic musings” of an old-fashioned sociologist who had lost his way during his years in politics.

Still, Moynihan’s turn of phrase became ingrained in our political vocabulary. Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani invoked the phrase when discussing the ways in which he revitalized the City of New York. And, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal emerged in 1998, some conservative commentators accused President Clinton of having “defined the presidency down.” Everyone knew what that meant, even though few were willing to use the word “deviant” to refer to the President.

There will be dozens—perhaps hundreds more men identified as deviant. Many of them will be innocent, but in the midst of a moral panic like we are experiencing, moral entrepreneurs have the power. Eventually, as in the Salem witch trials, the accusers will begin to be accused and truly innocent people with power will be targeted. We will begin to realize that we need to temper our allegations and perhaps provide due process protections. For now, though, the power to define deviancy up has shifted to women—and the public punishments and shaming have just begun.

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.

DeVos’ New Focus on Rights of the Accused

In her speech last week on how colleges handle accusations of sexual assault., Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised to “end the era of rule by letter” begun by the Obama administration. The reference was to the “Dear Colleague” letter sent to colleges and universities by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights on April 4, 2011, offering “guidance” but in effect mandating new procedures notably harsher toward the accused. Hundreds of schools were placed under federal investigation for failing to treat allegations of sexual assault more vigorously. Schools responded quickly—building a campus “court system” that venerated victims, villainized the accused, and sometimes disallowed evidence pointing to the innocence of the accused.

The deck was quickly stacked against the civil rights of the accused by discouraging cross-examination of witnesses, and in many cases, refusing legal representation for the accused. A lower standard of evidence was created to determine guilt as nearly all campuses quickly adopted the “preponderance of evidence” basis for guilt rather than the “clear and convincing” standard they used in the past.

While a handful of Republican female lawmakers like Senator Kelly Ayotte has promoted harsher penalties for campus sexual assault, there is a dramatic difference between the ways in which the Republican Party platform differs from the Democratic Party platform.  The Republican platform clearly supports due process for all those involved by stating that “Whenever reported, it must be promptly investigated by civil authorities and prosecuted in a courtroom, not a faculty lounge.

Questions of guilt or innocence must be decided by a judge and jury, with guilt determined beyond a reasonable doubt.”  In contrast, the Democratic Party platform demands “comprehensive support for survivors and sexual violence prevention programs in colleges and in high schools. And although they promise a “fair process for on-campus disciplinary proceedings,” they want to keep the proceedings “victim-centered” in what for most of the accused is a hostile environment on campus.

Demanding that colleges and universities comply, the OCR threatened the withdrawal of federal funds from schools that failed to set up an elaborate—and costly—Title IX bureaucracy on each campus—replete with full-time Title IX coordinators. A recent Atlantic article by Emily Yoffe pointed out that Harvard now has 55 Title IX coordinators, and Wellesley College has a full-time Title IX coordinator to oversee sex discrimination on its all-female campus. According to The New York Times, the OCR currently has 496 open sexual assault cases, and the average length of a case is 703 days. The longest pending higher education cases against the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Arizona State University have been open for more than five years.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently issued a “Spotlight on Due Process 2017,” a rating of the top 53 universities in the country based on 10 fundamental elements of due process. The report describes the findings as “dire.” Nearly three-quarters (74%) of America’s top 53 universities do not even guarantee students that they will be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Fewer than half of the schools (47%) require that the fact-finders – the institution’s version of judge and or jury—be impartial. Forty-five of the 53 universities studied received a D or F rating from FIRE for at least one disciplinary policy, meaning that they fully provided more than 4 of the 10 elements of a fair procedure that FIRE rated. Seventy-nine percent of the 53 rated universities received a D or F for protecting the due process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct.

Some of the most prestigious Catholic colleges in the country received the lowest ratings for providing due process rights to individuals accused of sexual misconduct. For example, Boston College received one of the lowest ratings of the 53 schools—an F-rating—for failing to provide a clearly stated presumption of innocence, adequate written notice of allegations, adequate time to prepare for the disciplinary process including notice of the hearing date, and a prohibition on conflicts of interest that could compromise the integrity of the process. The University of Notre Dame received a D rating. Neither Notre Dame nor Boston College provides the accused with the right to counsel. But, both schools fared better than Washington University in St. Louis which received a zero—the lowest score of all 53 schools rated – providing none of the procedural safeguards.   Of the 53, none received an A grade. Two institutions (Cornell and UC Berkeley) received a B for their policies to protect students, and an additional six received at least a C rating.

Senator Kamala Harris is correct when she states that Title IX protections are a civil rights issue. But, she fails to understand that the civil rights of an entire class of individuals have been ignored. Worse, there is an emerging concern that race may appear to play an important role in the denial of due process. A 2015 article by Harvard Law School Professor Jeannie Suk Gerson, published in The New Yorker, found that “in general,” the administrators and faculty members she has spoken with who work on sexual misconduct cases indicate that “most of the complaints they see are against minorities.”

Earlier this month, Emily Yoffe’s essay, “The Questions of Race in Campus Sexual Assault Cases,” was published in The Atlantic. She asks, “Is the system biased against men of color?” And although the data to answer this question with certainty is not available, Yoffe provides preliminary data that are certainly suggestive—and she provides a clear direction for further research. For example, Colgate was recently investigated by OCR for potential race discrimination in its sexual assault adjudication process. Although the university was cleared, there are significant disparities in the numbers. In the 2013-14 academic year, 4.2 percent of Colgate’s students were black, but in that year black male students were accused of 50% of the sexual assault violations reported, and they made up 40% of the students formally adjudicated.

From 2012-2015, black students were accused of 25% of the sexual misconduct reported to the university and comprised 21% of the students referred for formal hearings. Yoffe lists several other schools involved in civil lawsuits filed by accused male students with what she calls “racial aspects” including Amherst, Butler University, Drexel, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, the University of Findlay in Ohio, University of Pennsylvania, and William Paterson University in New Jersey. Yoffe points out that “Each lawsuit states that the student or students were subject to specious charges and in some cases abrupt expulsions because they were minorities.”

The denial of due process protections to the accused—whatever their race—is certainly a civil rights issue and demands systematic data collection and public scrutiny. Secretary DeVos knows it is time to end the real violations of the civil rights that have been occurring in campus kangaroo courts. We should all be grateful to her for having the courage to do just that.

A White Sociologist and the Doctrine of the Black Insider

More than forty years ago, sociologist Robert Merton called attention to an emerging “Black Insider Doctrine” within sociology, the viewing of white sociologists as “outsiders,” incapable of understanding or conducting research on matters concerning blacks. Groups in conflict in 1972 wanted to make their own interpretation of reality the prevailing one. Over the years, as blacks began to participate fully in social institutions—including in the social sciences—attitudes changed as discrimination lessened and counter-ethnocentrism diminished.

But, did it? It is possible that the Doctrine of the Black Insider was always there just under the surface—only to reappear stronger than ever at places like Pomona College where last Spring, 128 (anonymous) “students, alumni and allies” of the Sociology Department published an open letter to the Pomona administration charging that hiring white sociologists who engage in “voyeuristic” research on the Black community can no longer be allowed.

Related: Can Sociology Be Saved?

The Pomona letter protested the scheduled arrival this fall of the white female sociologist, Alice Goffman, as a Visiting Professor in the Sociology Department. Goffman, who studies the impact of mass incarceration and policing in black communities, was hired over two black female applicants for the position. She is the granddaughter of Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century. The letter writers are demanding the job offer to Goffman be rescinded—and given to one of the two black female sociologists who were finalists for the open faculty position. Claiming that “hiring white faculty who engage in voyeuristic, unethical research and who are not mindful of their positionality as outsiders to the communities they study, reinforces harmful narratives about people of color.”

Part of the reason for the angry response had to do with the controversial research methods Goffman employed for gathering the data for her book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City—an ethnographic study in a poor black community in West Philadelphia. The book chronicles a six-year account of the lives, challenges, and most notably the continual interactions with police by those she called the “6th Street Boys.” Goffman rented an apartment and lived for several years in the poor predominantly black Philadelphia neighborhood. Becoming friends with the young men, Goffman allowed several of her research subjects to live with her in her apartment. Her sympathies were clearly with those in the community—as she attempted to expose what she called the “hidden practices of policing and surveillance” in the West Philadelphia community.

Cleared of Wrongdoing

While there were questions about her data collection methods, investigations by the American Sociological Association, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison—her current home institution—have cleared her of any wrongdoing in her research. But that has not stopped her Pomona critics from viewing her as an outsider who has “profited” by exploiting the Black community.

Demanding that Pomona rescind the offer of employment to Professor Goffman, the unidentified letter writers claim that the hire “boasts the framework that white women can theorize about and profit from black lives while giving no room for black academics to claim scholarship regarding their own lived experiences.”  The aggrieved group has decried the fact that Goffman was hired over two black finalists for the position—both of whom presented academic papers on “Intersectionality,” a concept that describes overlapping or intersecting social identities of race, class and gender—pointing to the systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.

Goffman’s arrival on the Pomona campus will surely cause even more divisions. In this, Pomona simply reflects a growing national polarization. In fact, last year’s national freshman class has the distinction of being “the most polarized cohort” in the 51-year history of UCLA’s Freshman Survey, the largest and longest running survey of American college students. Survey data collected from 137,456 first time, full-time students who entered 184 U. S. colleges and universities in the fall of 2016 revealed an all-time high of 41% of women who self-identify as “liberal or far left” with respect to political views. This is compared to only 28.9% of men—yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported liberalism to date.

Stormy Times for Campuses

The polarization is already being played out on many campuses—especially once race is factored into the equation. Even The New York Times has noticed the “stormy times” predicted for college campuses. Reporting on the consortium of Claremont colleges where angry disputes over identity politics and cultural appropriation have drawn national attention, the Times reported that even campuses that had “prided themselves on increased diversity in admissions are now wrestling with students who want more control over the institutions they attend.”

Last spring, a group of self-described “angry and annoyed” Latina students took over a dormitory wall devoted to free speech at Pitzer College (like Pomona, a member of the Claremont group). They wrote the message, “White Girl, Take Off Your Hoop Earrings!” to protest the appropriation of fashion “that belongs to the black and brown folks who created the culture…a culture that comes from a historical background of oppression and exclusion.”

Whether most white Pitzer College students will remove their gold hoops remains to be seen. For Merton, the critical measure of the success of counter-ethnocentrism occurs when the interpretation moves beyond the boundaries of the in-group to be embraced by outsiders. At the extreme, the converted outsider, validating himself as sensitive and understanding becomes even more zealous than the Insiders in adhering to the doctrine of the group with which he wants to identify.

As Merton says, “He then becomes more royalist than the king, more papist than the pope.” More black than those in the black community. Some white sociologists, so guilt-ridden after centuries of white racism, are prepared to identify so strongly with the black community that they begin to see racism where others do not see it—outdoing the claims of the group they would symbolically join—ready to surrender their hard-won expert knowledge if the Insider doctrine seems to require it.

As a converted outsider, Alice Goffman appears to see racism everywhere. In a long essay titled “The Trials of Alice Goffman,” for The New York Times, a reporter noted that “In Madison, we were picked up between appointments by an Uber driver in blue scrubs…Goffman turned to the driver, who was black, to ask—in the offhand way you might ask an Uber driver about his experiences with the company—What have your local experiences with racism been like?” Goffman told the Times reporter that at the airport security gates that morning, she “tried to exchange a look of solidarity” with a young man with brown skin who was being stopped by TSA agents but “he wouldn’t look at me.”

Pomona sociology students will have in Alice Goffman someone with great empathy for the black experience. She is someone who understands the black community as well as any ethnomethodologist could ever understand it. Having lived and loved the people living in the West Philadelphia community, Goffman knows what day-to-day life is like for those who live there. She never pretended to be a dispassionate social observer, and her allegiance is certainly to the community—not to the police.

But, it likely won’t be enough for those who continue to affirm the universal saliency of the ascribed status of race. For them, Alice Goffman is “inauthentic,” simply because she is white—writing in their anonymous protest letter that “Students need authentic mentors. The hiring of Alice Goffman has already, and will continue to discourage students of color, and especially women of color from entering the Sociology Department and academia for years to come.”

As our society becomes ever more polarized, so do contending claims to truth. The attacks on the intentions and the integrity of a young, idealistic sociologist like Alice Goffman do nothing but exacerbate collective insecurities—increasing mistrust and misunderstandings. Eventually, the Doctrine of the Black Insider will again diminish. But, in the meantime, college campuses need to prepare for some difficult days ahead.

Can Sociology be Saved?

While the American Sociological Association continues to congratulate itself for a rising number of bachelor’s degrees in sociology, traditional sociology seems to matter less than ever before. Apart from the recent and brilliant Strangers in Their Own land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, not many sociologists have a good grasp of what’s happening in society today.

The Vote for Trump

And few, other than Hochschild, seem to have any idea of how to explain what motivated union members, women, minorities and the working poor to help elect President Donald Trump. In a series of articles about the 2016 election, published by the ASA, sociologists erroneously blamed racism, hyper-masculinity, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, for the attraction to President Donald Trump.

The increases in sociology undergraduate majors has more to do with student fascination with criminology and criminal justice concentrations within the sociology major than it does with traditional sociology. Realizing that the traditional discipline no longer attracted undergraduates, many sociology departments became savvy marketers promising potential criminology students that they would be studying subjects like serial killers, gangs, school shootings, family violence and substance abuse.  For example, one Texas university sociology website posts “true-crime” photos of the Columbine school shooters, and Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous cannibalistic serial murderer, to draw students to their criminology courses.

The CSI Effect

Even the ASA attributes a kind of “CSI-effect” for the increase in criminal justice concentrations in sociology and laments that part-time adjunct faculty who work in forensics, law enforcement, corrections, and juvenile justice are more likely to teach these undergraduate “sociology” students than traditionally trained PhD-level sociologists.

In fact, the ASA was so concerned about the loss of traditional sociology that the organization commissioned a study in 2011 which acknowledged that increasing numbers of sociology departments fear losing majors as the number of criminology and criminal justice students continue to increase while those who major in sociology without this concentration have dramatically declined.

The Profession Decomposes

The splintering off from traditional sociology was predicted decades ago by the late great sociologist, Irving Louis Horowitz, in his book, The Decomposition of Sociology.  Horowitz decried the “separation of the substance” of sociology into its elements, and claimed that the breakdown has caused “the decay of sociology as a field of study.”  Pointing out that sociology had dissolved into its parts: criminology, urban studies, demography, policy analysis, social history, decision theory, and hospital and medical administration, Horowitz charged that all sociology has been left with is “pure theory: sections of itself on Marxism, feminism and Third Worldism.” For Horowitz, sociology had become “a strident interest group, a husk instead of a professional society.”

The Discontent of Politicization

The politicization of the discipline has created “a repository of discontent,” he wrote, that is no longer a science of society, but rather a gathering of individuals who have special agendas, from GLBTQ rights to radical feminism and liberation theology.  The consequence of the influx of ideologists and special interests has been the outflow of scientists of those for whom the study of society is an empirical discipline, serving at most, those policy planners interested in piecemeal reform.

Horowitz writes, “Sociology has seen the departure of urbanologists, social planners, demographers, criminologists, penologists, hospital administrators, international development specialists—in short, the entire range of scholars for whom social science is linked to public policy.” Today, in criminology, sociologists play a minor role, eclipsed by the expertise of police officers, forensics experts, legal and paralegal personnel. As Horowitz warned, “sociology is now reduced to barking from the sidelines with such shrill treatises as Against Criminology.”

There was a time when sociology was willing to provide verifiable facts on social phenomenon—even if the data did not support the claims of the advocacy community. But, because so much sociological research is now agenda-driven, many of our statistics are suspect.  Helping to maintain the false narrative that one-in-five women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault, some sociologists have been complicit in promoting a moral panic on campus.

Despite the false narrative that college campuses have become unsafe places for women, a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has revealed that the rate of rape and other sexual assault on college campuses has actually declined from 9.2 per 1,000 college students in 1997 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013.  Far from being a site of violence, the data indicates that female college students are safer from sexual assault while in college than at any other time in their lives.

Didn’t Fit the Narrative

Yet, much of sociology seems to have missed these data because they do not fit the narrative of a hypermasculinized culture that victimizes women. Even the highly respected sociologist Barbara Risman, a former President of Sociologists for Women and Society, has added to that false narrative on the contributors to sexual violence on college campuses. Risman claims to have begun her commitment to ending gender inequality when she experienced sexual discrimination at her own bat mitzvah in 1968—a time when only boys were allowed to read from the Torah.

In a recent article published by the American Sociological Association entitled, “How to Do Sociology in the Trump Era,” Risman suggests that sociologists need to “focus on the culture…get our ideas, research and evidence out there…bring our work beyond the New York Times.” The only problem is that people have seen some of their sociological “research and evidence” and they know that much of it is false.

Many of us have learned that some sociological research studies are “more equal than others.” Just ask sociologists, Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, and Paul Sullins of Catholic University—both of whom have used sophisticated statistical modeling and non-partisan national data sets to study the effects of same-sex parenting on children, and both have been vilified because of their politically incorrect findings.

Regnerus found that children raised in households where at least one parent had had a same-sex relationship reported higher rates of unhappiness and relationship instability. And in a study that used data from the nonpartisan National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to track children raised by same-sex couples over a period of 13 years, Sullins found that those raised in same-sex homes were at over twice the risk of depression than those raised by heterosexual parents.

Misstating Data for a Cause

The children raised in same-sex households were also more likely to experience obesity, “imbalanced closeness,” and child abuse. Worse, the difference between traditional and same-sex homes was even more marked when it came to considering suicide: 7 percent of young adults raised in traditional families reported having suicidal thoughts compared with 37 percent of same-sex homes.

Defining down the Regnerus and Sullins data, the ASA filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in 2015 in the same-sex marriage cases that were then pending before the court. In the brief, the ASA maintained that there is a “social-science consensus that children raised by same-sex parents fare just as well as children raised by different-sex parents.” Referring specifically to the data presented by Regnerus and Sullins, the ASA claimed in the brief that the negative research findings by Regnerus and Sullins has been “mischaracterized” by same-sex marriage opponents, and concluded that “we should not exclude children living with same-sex parents from the additional stability and economic security that marriage can provide.”

Randall Collins, the President of the ASA in 2010-2011, once lamented that sociology has “lost all coherence as a discipline; we are breaking up into a conglomerate of specialties, each going its own way and with none too high regard for each other.” With more than 50 different sections, the ASA itself has indeed splintered into interest and advocacy groups. Sometimes even the sections themselves have had to split over theoretical or methodological disagreements over contested terrain. There are now two separate sections devoted to sexuality: one is called the Sociology of Sexualities, and the other is the section on Sex and Gender. There is talk of a further split as the transgendered have become concerned about marginalization by the other two.

Sociology Lost its Way

Some of the sections are devoted to esoteric topics.  For example, the section on Body and Embodiment is devoted to encouraging and enhancing theory, research teaching on human and non-human bodies, morphology, human reproduction, anatomy, body fluids and other similar topics.  A prize-winning paper in that section a few years ago was titled: “Sometimes I think I might say too much: Dark Secrets and the Performance of Inflammatory Bowel Disease.”

Irving Louis Horowitz knew in 1994 that sociology had lost its way—but his book offered a way out.  He knew that sociology could offer a common language of discourse, logic and method, but he also knew that a positive outcome for sociology required what he called “a double-edged struggle: against the political barbarians at the gate and against the professional savages who have already gotten inside.”  He knew that the price of success would be high, but the cost of failure—to sociology as well as to society itself —makes the effort an absolute necessity.

Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction Books).

Will Georgetown Remain a Catholic University?

While Georgetown University leaders may have said a silent prayer last week for the repose of the soul of one of its most distinguished alums, the best-selling author, William Peter Blatty, it is unlikely that most were mourning his passing. Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, had been making life difficult for Georgetown for more than a decade after he became convinced that the university had abandoned its Catholic mission.  In fact, concluding that his alma mater “takes pride in insulting the Church and offending the faithful,” Blatty filed a Canon Law petition with the Vatican in 2013 asking that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic.

A Jesuit at Every Table

Calling Georgetown a “Potemkin Village,” Blatty once declared, “Georgetown is the leader of a pack of schools that are failing to live up to their Catholic identity.”  Blatty was especially critical of what he saw as Georgetown’s hypocrisy: “At alumni dinners, they will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table, like the floral arrangement.”

Blatty’s 200-page papal petition contained more than 480 footnotes, 99 appendices, and 124 witness statements.  It also included a commissioned 120-page institutional audit of Georgetown.  According to Manuel A. Miranda, who served as Blatty’s counsel, “We have documented 23 years of scandals and dissidence—more than 100 scandals in the most recent years alone.”  The petition asked Pope Francis to require that Georgetown implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 papal document requiring all Catholic colleges to teach “in communion” with the Church.  The goal of Blatty’s petition had been to revoke Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic unless it complies with Church teachings.

Georgetown is not alone. Defiant from the earliest days of the release of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, most Catholic college presidents refused to implement the papal document. When it was first released by Pope St. John Paul, Notre Dame’s then-president, Fr. Edward Malloy, along with Fr. Donald Monan, then-chancellor of Boston College, published an article in America magazine calling the document “positively dangerous.”  The faculty senate at Notre Dame voted unanimously for the guidelines to be ignored.

With the exception of a few Catholic colleges and universities (like my own academic home, Franciscan University of Steubenville), most of the 230 Catholic colleges and universities have strayed far from their Catholic roots.  This all began in 1967, when Catholic college leaders gathered in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin to create a manifesto that declared their “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical.” Since that time, most Catholic college presidents have ignored attempts by their presiding bishops to bring their schools into communion with the Church.

Workshops on Trans-Health

Ignoring Catholic doctrine on human sexuality and life issues, some faculty members at Georgetown have promoted legislation to provide access to same-sex marriage and to expand reproductive rights. The New York Times lauded Georgetown for its “gay-friendly” campus. Each October Georgetown hosts a 40-day celebration of GLBTQ issues.

The theme for 2016 was “Honoring Our Histories” and focused on legislative pathways to securing rights across the decades for trans and gender nonconforming people; the intersections between faith, sexuality, and disability; stories of coming out and coming together; and journey of transitioning through the constructions of gender.” With workshops like “Trans-Health in the Military,” and “Queer in the Capital,” Georgetown has been long been a leader in lobbying for same-sex marriage and other GLBTQ rights.

An important part of OUTober is Georgetown’s “I AM” Campaign that encourages students, faculty and staff to discuss was I AM” means to them.  Posting videos online Georgetown faculty and staff proudly described their appreciation for Georgetown University’s acceptance of their same-sex marriages and relationships.  This year, several gay and lesbian faculty members spoke about their pride in being part of the GLBTQ community at Georgetown.

‘Not Just Tolerated’

In one of the online videos, Samuel Aronson, Assistant Dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, said that for him, the “I AM” campaign means that at Georgetown he is “not just tolerated” as a gay man who is “happily married.” Rather, Dean Aronson says that at Georgetown, “we love you not despite who you love, or your gender expression, but because of who you love.”

Beyond lobbying for same-sex marriage, and transgender rights, some at Georgetown have encouraged undergraduate students to help expand abortion rights as a social justice issue. Collaborating with the dissident Catholics for Choice, Law Students for Reproductive Justice, a student law school organization on several Catholic campuses, aims to produce a new generation of abortion advocates to help “train and mobilize law students and new lawyers across the country to foster legal expertise and support for the realization of reproductive justice.”

As recently as 2015, the LSRJ website listed chapters of  Law Students for Reproductive Justice at Georgetown University as well as DePaul, Fordham Law; Loyola, Los Angeles; Loyola Chicago; Santa Clara University; Seattle University; St. Louis University; Detroit Mercy; University of San Diego; University of San Francisco, as well as Loyola, New Orleans and Boston College.   And, although several of these chapters were deleted from the new LSRJ website, the Cardinal Newman Society (an orthodox Catholic higher education resource organization) maintains that there remain 13 active LSRJ chapters on Catholic campuses.

Working with Planned Parenthood

Law Students for Reproductive Justice is still listed among other law student organizations on the Georgetown University law school website, but now there is a disclaimer that the organization “is not funded by the university.” The University attempted to suggest that was also so in 2015—even though public meeting notices on campus listed LSRJ activities as being held on campus at the Tower Green, and in various rooms in McDonough Hall—the main Law School building.

Georgetown’s LSRJ chapter past president was Sandra Fluke who gained fame by publicly criticizing Catholic colleges and other Catholic institutions for their unwillingness to support “reproductive health” for women by paying for contraceptive care—including abortifacients.

Blatty was concerned about the ways undergraduates were being socialized at Georgetown. The Cardinal Newman Society has documented several connections between Planned Parenthood and Georgetown University involving faculty and undergraduate student internship opportunities.

Signs of Life at Georgetown

Blatty was joined in his concerns about Georgetown’s Catholic identity in 2012 by Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the presiding bishop of the Washington DC Diocese, when he denounced the University’s decision to invite Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-choice Catholic Secretary of Health and Human Service, and the creator of the controversial contraception mandate, to be the Commencement Speaker. An editorial published in the Catholic Standard, the official Archdiocesan newspaper representing the Cardinal, concluded that “Georgetown has undergone a secularization due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel…they reflect the values of the secular culture of our age.”  

The fact that the Law Students for Reproductive Justice felt the need to change its name and hide its chapters can be viewed as a positive development for Catholic identity at all Catholic colleges and universities. At Georgetown, the student group “Hoyas for Choice” appears to have been encouraged to change its name to “H*yas for Choice.” But, what is even more encouraging is that the campus pro-abortion culture itself may be beginning to change. In a recent op-ed in The Georgetown Voice entitled “H*pocrites for Choice a self-described “liberal feminist Catholic” criticized H*yas for Choice because “they are hypocrites…they must admit that the Catholic Church now has some, although very negligible domain over their lives.”

H*yas for Choice

Complaining about the growing pro-life culture on campus, bloggers at H*yas for Choice believe their pro-abortion group has been unfairly marginalized:

While we receive no funding to promote students’ right to bodily autonomy, Georgetown University Right to Life receives a large budget from the school each year that enables them to fund their efforts to force their own values about behavior and what forms of health care acceptable onto all students’ bodies.

While there has been little change in the faculty culture at Georgetown, the student pro-life culture continues to emerge as the pro-life generation comes of age. While pro-life messages on campus have been vandalized by pro-choice advocates, the fact that pro-life messages have been allowed at all on the campus is a positive development.

Georgetown University will be well represented at the Annual March for Life in Washington DC this week. And, although few faculty will join them, they cannot help but be moved by the growing activism of a growing and vibrant pro-life student campus culture. William Peter Blatty would be proud of these student-led developments at Georgetown.

Ruined by the Beach Boys and Other Title IX Disasters

In the latest expansion of the intent of Title IX, a University of Kentucky Professor drew punishment this month, partly, he says, because he was found to have engaged in “sexual misconduct” by singing a Beach Boys song at a university gathering in China last year. The professor, Buck Ryan, who directs the University’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center, claimed in an op-ed published in the Lexington Herald Leader  that “under Administrative Regulation 6:1, Discrimination and Harassment, University of Kentucky’s Title IX coordinator ruled that the song, “California Girls,” with names of Chinese universities and cities inserted for the event,  included ‘language of a sexual nature’ and was offensive.”

Although there were no student complaints—essentially no victims—the professor who has three decades of college teaching experience, was refused due process—as is the case for most accused males in Title IX cases—and has been stripped of a prestigious award worth thousands of dollars.

A heavily redacted letter, released by the university, says that no charge of having sexual relations is involved in the case against Ryan, but leaves the impression that Ryan did something major. On December 20, an op-ed in the Louisville Courier-Journal by University PR man Jay Blanton said the Beach Boys song was not the key factor in the case and that Ryan had engaged in “inappropriate touching” and “language of a sexual nature.” Still, no formal hearing, no clearly stated charges and no on-the-record complaining witnesses, but a heavy financial loss and damage to Ryan’s reputation.

Related: The Title IX Mess: Will It Be Reformed?

In comments to the university senate Monday, Ryan said, “UK has weaponized its Title IX office and made the legal office its enforcer. It’s time the faculty stands up to the bully.” Ryan added that the Chinese students at the event, none of whom were contacted by the university, “found the charges against me mortifying and wanted to defend me. They were looking to clear their names, too.”

Since its passage in 1972, Title IX has been expanded from its original intent to end discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding, to include regulations promulgated in the name of preventing a hostile environment for women—broadly defined as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” Today, any unwelcome comment to a female student from a male student, faculty or staff member is grounds for a Title IX investigation—with Title IX coordinators empowered to act as police, judge and jury in allegations of sexual harassment ranging from offensive speech to claims of rape.

Harvard canceled the men’s soccer team season because team members sent emails to each other rating women on their physical attractiveness. Columbia University followed suit by canceling the wrestling season after “misogynistic and homophobic” text messages were found to have been sent by members of the team.

This was never the intent of Title IX.  While Presidents Reagan and Bush enforced the original intent of Title IX, the overreach of the law began in 1996 with an ominous “Dear Colleague” letter sent from President Clinton’s Education Secretary to all college and university administrators.  Warning that colleges that did not ‘equalize the participation’ of males and females in athletics, would lose federal funding, the Clinton administration mandated that if the schools could not produce enough female athletes, they would have to cut male athletes—and male athletic programs—until the participation rates of both sexes were exactly the same.

That was just the beginning. While the George W. Bush administration did not expand Title IX, it did nothing to curb the abuses. And, once the Obama administration took power, the Title IX industry that had been created was so confident in its ability to manipulate gender politics on campuses throughout the country, that a whole new set of “Dear Colleague” letters began to arrive on campus in 2011. Enlisting the U. S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to handle all complaints in very specific ways, the “Dear Colleague” letters required colleges to be responsible for harassment and assault that occurs off-campus as well as on-campus.

Related: How the Feds Use Orwell to Apply Title IX

The Obama administration also allowed a lower standard of evidence to “prove” the guilt of the accused. A “preponderance of evidence” standard replaced a “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.  And, as in the University of Kentucky case, there are no protections for the academic freedom of professors and the free expression of any male student, professor or staff member on or off campus.  There is no right to due process no right to an attorney for the accused—and sometimes, no appeal process allowed.

President Obama’s overreach has caused an explosion of cases. Even Brett Sokolow, who in 2014 as director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, acknowledged in a newsletter to members that in their efforts to enforce Title IX, “they are running afoul of Title IX.”  Claiming that colleges are getting it “completely wrong,” Sokolow advised campuses that “every drunken sexual hook up is not a punishable offense.”

Sokolow knows that colleges and universities have implemented Title IX so poorly that the Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating more than 200 institutions following complaints that the colleges and universities have mishandled sexual misconduct cases.  In just the past few months, lawsuits were filed by students claiming “unfair treatment” at Albany Medical College, the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, Shenandoah University, the University Cincinnati and the University of Maryland.

This follows high-profile lawsuits at Occidental College, Columbia University and the University of Tennessee.  Several of these lawsuits have been successful in vindicating the male student, and actually holding college administrators accountable.  Earlier this year, an Ohio federal judge allowed an Ohio State University student’s due process claims to survive a motion to dismiss, holding that the campus Title IX training at the Ohio State University may have “biased Title IX panel members,” allowing the plaintiff to proceed against OSU’s Title IX Coordinator.

Related: Title IX Tramples Free Speech and Fairness, So Now What?

In October, the Office for Civil Rights found that Wesley College in Delaware violated the Title IX rights of a male student who was accused of sexual assault—citing unfair treatment.  And, a  federal appeals court revived a lawsuit by a Columbia University male student who alleged that the university had subjected him to sex discrimination during its investigation of a sexual assault report against him.

For the unjustly accused, the ability to bring these lawsuits are themselves a victory because they reveal that colleges and universities have not been complying with their own procedures.  In most cases, accused students are not given due process – they are denied a chance to respond to allegations, they are not informed of their options for resolving the complaints, they are not given copies of the incident report or other evidence against them before the hearing, they are not allowed to call witnesses on their behalf, and they are often denied legal representation.

Last year in a case at the University of  California, San Diego, Superior Court Judge Joel M. Pressman found that the accused student was impermissibly prevented from fully confronting and cross-examining his accuser and that there was insufficient evident to back the university’s findings that the male student had forced the accuser into sexual activity without her consent. Ordering UC San Diego to drop its finding against the male student, the judge quipped that “When I finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was Where’s the kangaroo?”

These campus tribunals are indeed kangaroo courts. A forthcoming book (January 24) The Campus Rape Frenzy, by K C Johnson and Stuart Taylor, draws upon data from two dozen of the hundreds of cases since 2010 in which innocent students have been branded as sex criminals and expelled or otherwise punished by their colleges.  It shows why all of us are harmed when universities abandon the pursuit of the truth—and “accommodate the passions of the mob.”

For those of us who are concerned about free speech and equal protection for all students, the selection of Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos is encouraging.  But, Secretary DeVos will be battling an entrenched anti-male campus culture and the Chronicle of Higher Education has already published a warning that: “Trump Administration May Back Away from Title IX, but Campuses Won’t.”

Taking on the sexual assault industry that has been built up on the backs of innocent male students will be difficult, but President-elect Trump—no stranger to false allegations himself—has already shown a willingness to speak for those who have been silenced.

Killer Clowns on Campus? A Sign of Moral Panic

Sociologists define a moral panic as a feeling of fear shared by a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.  The recent clown panic that has emerged from the belief that that murderous clowns have surfaced throughout the country to terrorize schools –including college campuses — says more about the state of our society and our own feelings of vulnerability, than it does about the preposterous possibility that covens of killer clowns are on a rampage to kidnap and kill.

“Inside Higher Ed” has reported that creepy-looking clowns are now stalking “dozens” of college campuses. Students have reported seeing clowns at the Universities of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Miami, Missouri, New Hampshire and Texas at Austin. Students have also claimed to have seen clowns at Bloomsburg, Butler, Sacred Heart, Merrimack, Texas A & M and Syracuse as well as Western Carolina, Mississippi and York Colleges.

When police received concerns about clowns at Auburn, officials sent a campus-wide email telling students to resist the urge to track down the clowns on their own and avoid wearing clown attire. At Penn State — where the panic surrounding the sexual abuse of minors by Jerry Sandusky continues to haunt the campus — university police reported that between 500 to 1,000 students formed a mob that was “screaming and running through the streets” on campus in an attempt to “hunt the clown down.”

If the World Seems Precarious

Moral panics emerge when rapid social change threatens the status quo and society’s norms and values are changing so quickly that people cannot easily adjust to new societal demands. In the face of such precipitous social change, people begin to feel a sense of anomie—or normlessness as Durkheim called it — as the norms and values of the past no longer have meaning, and the world becomes a precarious place.

Anomie describes societies like our own that are characterized by disintegration and deregulation. It emerges when there is a generalized perception of a breakdown in social fabric—an erosion of moral standards, and a decline in leadership and legitimacy. Undifferentiated fears surface and vague feelings of unease develop resulting in confusion, distrust, and suspicions about the motivations and behaviors of others.

Throughout history, America has had its share of moral panics—and all of them can be understood as struggles for cultural power in the midst of rapid social change. The Salem witch trials in 1692 followed continued fears about a smallpox epidemic in the colony and coalesced around fears of attacks from neighboring Native American tribes.

There was also hostility related to emerging class differences and a rivalry with a more affluent neighboring community. Residents’ suspicions and fears of outsiders—fears of otherness—combined with a changing culture surrounding the role of women, fueling the belief that Satan was operating in Salem by endowing witches with demonic power to act against the Puritans.   It is noteworthy that the first woman accused of witchcraft in the Massachusetts colony was Tituba, the ultimate outsider, a Caribbean slave who was executed for “bewitching” young women into service for Satan.

Clowns in White Vans

The 1980s clown panic emerged at a time that is very similar to our current era of rapid social change and threats from external enemies.  While today we have fears of ISIS, domestic terrorism, school shootings, urban rioting, racial divisions, and an extremely contentious presidential election season, the 1980s was similarly filled with fears of AIDS, the cocaine panic over “crack babies,” the Iranian threats, and the frightening assassination attempts against President Reagan, St. Pope John Paul II, and Anwar Sadat.  And, although Reagan and the Pope survived the attempt, Sadat was killed, creating further fears of violent extremism from the Middle East.

Today’s clown panic on college campuses parallels yet another moral panic on campus surrounding fears of campus assault.  Women are told when they arrive on campus that they have a one in four chance of being sexually assaulted.  Undeterred by data debunking the notion that college campuses have become what Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has called havens for rape and sexual assault, the Obama administration is now investigating nearly 100 colleges and universities for possible alleged sexual violence.  Suggesting that “women are at a great risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus,” Senator Gillibrand introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, and all colleges and universities receiving federal aid have had to implement mandatory sexual abuse prevention training for all campus employees.

Related: Criminal Law and the Moral Panic on Campus Rape

The only problem is that much of what has been reported about the “epidemic of campus sexual assault” is itself a myth.  A study last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that the rate of rape and other sexual assaults over the past two decades was 1.2 times higher for non-students of college age than for students on college campuses.  In fact, campus sexual assault has actually declined from 9.2 per 1,000 college students in 1997 to 4.4 per 1,000 in 2013.  Far from being a site of violence, the study found that female college students are safer from sexual assault while in college than at any other time in their lives.

But data mean little in the middle of a moral panic.  Driven by irrational fears, panics like these emerge quickly, garner much media attention, and then, disappear as quickly as they began.

Eventually, the creepy clown moral panic and the panicked response to the belief that college campuses are a site of rape and violence will pass as we begin to substitute new fears. In the meantime, it is helpful to look closely at them as an opportunity to begin to understand what we are really afraid of—the very real fears that we are likely too afraid to even discuss.

The heightened levels of fear that we are seeing on college campuses is best understood when viewed through the lens provided by NYU Social Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt in an interview here.   Haidt believes that college campuses have been places fraught with fear for students.  Part of this is due to the dramatic changes in child-rearing that happened in America in the 1980s: “With the rise in crime amplified by the rise of cable TV, we saw much more protective fearful parenting.” Parental fears over the previous panics surrounding child abductions, crack houses, crack babies, gang violence, and day care abuse by mythic satanic day-care workers have changed the ways in which parents protect their children.

Haidt believes that “Children have been raised very differently —protected as fragile. The key psychological idea which should be mentioned in everything written about this is Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility.”  This theory states that “children are anti-fragile. Bone is anti-fragile. If you treat it gently, it will get brittle and break.  Bone needs to get banged around to toughen up.  And so do children.” Haidt believes we have treated our children as “too fragile” – not allowing them to ever suffer any discomfort in their lives.  When they reach college, they can be terrified of everything.

Toughening up our college age children will take a generation.  But, in the meantime, it is helpful to look closely at these kinds of panics as an opportunity to begin to understand what we are really afraid of—the very real fears that we are likely too afraid to even talk about.

Catholic Colleges Define Down Their Catholic Identity

In an essay on Catholic higher education published in First Things before his death in 2009, Fr. Richard Neuhaus wrote: “When a school is haggling over its mission statement, it is a sure sign that it has already lost its way.”  While Fr. Neuhaus never taught on a Catholic campus, he understood that debating over the mission statement was just the start of the defining down of the Catholic identity itself.

Identifying the strategies that some Catholic colleges have used to redefine themselves, Fr. Neuhaus wrote that describing themselves as having been “shaped” by their “Catholic heritage,” or their “historic Catholic tradition,” was a sign that the institutions were distancing themselves from the Church.  And, he noted that some referred only to the name of the founding religious order rather than the Church itself.

For example, the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, described itself as having been “shaped by the educational mission of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.”  Ohio’s Ursuline College describes itself as offering an education, “within a Catholic tradition marked by the Ursuline heritage of educating women.” And, although the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota maintains that the college has been “dedicated as a campus community to our Roman Catholic heritage and identity,” the College distances itself from that heritage by stating that St. Catherine’s affirms the aspects of the Catholic identity that are “appropriate to higher education,” and claims that the College “values the rich and diverse history of the Church and the vision of Vatican II.”

Related: A Controversy at Post-Catholic Georgetown

While the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, CT describes itself as having been “founded by the Sisters of Mercy in the Roman Catholic tradition,” the “Core Values” section of their website states: “The University of St. Joseph is grounded in its heritage as a Catholic institution expressing the Catholic tradition in an ecumenical and critical manner.” And, although Stonehill College describes itself as a Catholic institution, it reassures potential students and faculty members that the College has a “long tradition of free inquiry.” Likewise, Holy Names University described itself as being “rooted in the Catholic tradition,” but the reference to the lower case spelling of “catholic” is meant to show the university’s inclusiveness—what they call the University’s “universality:”

Rooted in the Catholic tradition, Holy Names demonstrates a respect for others’ values and customs. This is evident in holiday displays that incorporate symbols for Kwanzaa, Muslim, Jewish and Christian celebrations.  Students experience the universality of a catholic education at Holy Names University.”

My own campus—Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, one of a few dozen truly faithful colleges and universities in the country—describes itself on its website and in all promotional materials as “Passionately Catholic.”  In contrast, most Jesuit colleges and universities have historically described themselves as “Jesuit institutions,” rather than Catholic colleges and universities.   But, recently, the Jesuits have defined even that identity down in what a 2014 article in Atlantic Monthly called a “major rebranding.”

The Jesuit Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri removed the word “Jesuit” from the university tagline; and Regis University in Denver, Colorado, launched a new brand campaign deleting both the words “Jesuit” and “Catholic” in the school’s definition or its brand platform. “We hide the word ‘Catholic’ from prospective students,” Regis spokesperson, Traci McBee, told an interviewer for Atlantic Monthly: “We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece.  We’re able to transform a little quicker because we are not waiting for the archbishop to give us permission. We don’t have to ask the Pope when we want to make changes.”

Related: Marquette’s Reputation at Stake

While such actions may seem to be a drastic departure from the Catholic identity of each of these schools—and a refusal to acknowledge the mission of Catholic higher education as articulated in Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae—the truth is that when one visits the websites of each of these Jesuit institutions, there is no question of their commitment to helping students become “men and women for and with others” in terms of addressing poverty and social justice.

The ideological commitment to social justice has not only become institutionalized on Jesuit campuses, it has also reached far beyond the twenty-eight Jesuit campuses to the majority of the more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities. Such a commitment can be noble, but sometimes the commitment to social justice can become so distorted that it requires a pro-choice perspective on abortion, or women’s ordination—both counter to Catholic doctrine—to ensure social justice for women.

For example, in an attempt to help create a new generation of Catholic law school graduates who are ready, willing and able to expand access to abortion through shaping public policy, and defend organizations like Planned Parenthood, Law Students for Reproductive Justice now have chapters at the following Catholic University law schools: De Paul, Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola (Los Angeles), Loyola (Chicago), Santa Clara, Seattle, St. Louis University, University of Detroit Mercy, University of San Diego, University of San Francisco and Villanova.  The Cardinal Newman Society has also documented that many Catholic colleges and universities provide undergraduate student internship credit for volunteering to function as clinic escorts at Planned Parenthood and other abortion facilities.

The movement away from evangelization and toward social justice is reflected in the mission statements on each of the Jesuit campuses and is increasingly part of the mission statement of the more than two hundred non-Jesuit Catholic colleges and universities. Sometimes the social justice mission is reflected in the campus itself. The newest building on the Sacred Heart University campus in Fairfield, CT has been named Jorge Bergoglio Hall.  An enormous residence building in the heart of campus, Bergoglio Hall stands across the street from Angelo Roncalli Hall—a residence for first-year students.  

Neither building has any indication that the buildings are named for the papal leaders of the Catholic Church, and it is likely that some students have no idea who Angelo Roncalli is. But, in a two-sentence explanation on an obscure page on the Sacred Heart website, students can find that “Jorge Bergoglio is the birth name of Pope Francis…his views align perfectly with our mission to instill in our students and other members of the SHU community with a deep sense of the Catholic intellectual tradition and its emphasis on social justice.”

A similar entry on the website reads that “Angelo Roncalli is the birth name of Pope John XXIII, the “Good Pope.”  Crediting him with “radically changing the face of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century by calling the meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962,” both men are viewed as social justice advocates. Neither Karl Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) nor Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) have been given such honors on the Sacred Heart campus.

On many Catholic campuses, the mission of social justice is a phrase with the power of a command.  During a public debate at the Jesuit St. Joseph’s College of Philadelphia, the dean of the faculty stated, “a student who did not believe in social justice would not qualify for a degree at this school.” Fairfield University’s mission statement makes the promotion of justice “an absolute requirement.” The problem with mandating a commitment to social justice is that students and faculty are often mandated to agree with the ways in which social justice is defined on campus—and beyond.

Earlier this month, the Catholic Theological Society of America awarded its most prestigious annual award to University of San Diego theologian Orlando Espin, a theologian whose work was lauded by the CTSA as having “wrestled with problems associated with the historical and contemporary legacies of colonization, slavery, racism, and prejudice against LGBT persons.” In accepting his award, Espin thanked his husband of eight years.  Expanding access to marriage for same sex couples is viewed as part of the commitment to social justice on many Catholic campuses—despite Catholic teachings to the contrary.

Still, a commitment to social justice, without a commitment to teaching students about the Church’s natural law foundation for social justice makes a Catholic education no more distinctive than a secular education.  In 2013, concluding that his alma mater “takes pride in insulting the Church and offending the faithful,” William Peter Blatty, author of the best-selling book, The Exorcist filed a Canon Law petition with the Vatican asking that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic. Calling Georgetown a “Potemkin Village,” Blatty complained that “at alumni dinners, they will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table, like the floral arrangement.” Others have filed similar lawsuits. Whether the Vatican chooses to respond remains uncertain.