Three Groupthink Conferences—No Dissenters Please

Several years ago, in a seminal Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Mark Bauerlein lamented a campus in which “the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate—instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit.”

The Bauerlein hypothesis projected that this “groupthink” environment would produce a more one-sided academy, with extremist voices becoming more prevalent. Three recent academic conferences, on topics of obvious academic and national import, confirm the point.

The first such gathering, which occurred a few weeks ago at NYU’s Ewen Academic Freedom Center, examined academic freedom in contemporary America. In the post-9/11 world, the topic was certainly timely, although differing viewpoints exist on whether a serious threat to academic freedom exists from outside the academy. Moreover, in an era of academic mobbing, in which by almost any standards most humanities and some social science departments are becoming more one-sided ideologically and pedagogically, any serious conference on academic freedom would surely examine whether the majority in the academy is truly committed to fostering dissenting points of view.

The NYU conference, however, wasn’t interested in viewpoints that challenged prevailing academic orthodoxy. The conference led off with remarks from Alison Bernstein, a Ford Foundation vice president and co-author of Melting Pots and Rainbow Nations, which one reviewer gushingly described as “nothing less than a new feminist approach to global issues.” At Ford, Bernstein has developed a program called “Difficult Dialogues: Promoting Academic Freedom and Pluralism on Campus.” The “model” for this initiative? The Ford Foundation’s earlier “Campus Diversity Initiative,” a program implemented most aggressively by the “diversity”-obsessed AAC&U. Many non-academics, I suspect, would wonder about the relationship between protecting academic freedom and promoting a “diversity” agenda. But for the academic majority that Bernstein personifies, the two causes are very much interlinked: the threat to the academic majority’s “diversity” agenda, and therefore by extension “academic freedom,” comes almost exclusively from outside critics of the academy.

The NYU conference closed with an address from AAUP president Cary Nelson, author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical and an aggressive defender of the status quo on contemporary campuses. It is, of course, perfectly appropriate that an academic freedom conference would hear from the leader of the AAUP. But the Ewen Center didn’t see fit to invite representatives of dissenting academic groups—such as the NAS or ACTA—who might have challenged the AAUP’s record in standing up for those within the academy who have challenged majority viewpoints.

Those looking for a more nuanced view from the panels, moreover, likely left the conference disappointed. Panels explored such ideologically predictable topics as “the Red Scare and the academy” and “academic capitalism and the commodification of knowledge.” In that respect, the conference embodied Bauerlein’s “false consensus” effect, seen when “on a controversial subject, and all the participants and contributors stand on one side of the issue, the tendentiousness is striking to everyone except those involved . . . Instead of uniting academics with a broader public, [the false consensus] isolates them as a ritualized club.”

The second recent groupthink conference occurred at Duke, where several leading members of the Group of 88—the professors who early in the lacrosse case publicly thanked protesters who had, among other things, urged castration of the lacrosse captains—hosted an academic conference on race in contemporary America. The very same people who got things spectacularly wrong in a high-profile case in their own backyard dealing with issues of race and politics offered their insights on “how modern racial prejudice shapes policy.”

In our increasingly multicultural society, such a conference topic might have provided an opportunity to bring together people with both innovative and widely disparate insights. Instead, the conference’s seven sessions (all but one of which was chaired by a Group member) featured little more than a recitation of the race/class/gender worldview dominant in most humanities departments today. Each session, moreover, began with an admonition against taping the panelists’ remarks: Group members apparently feared the possibility that their extremist ideas would be available beyond the campus walls.

The conference concluded with a panel entitled, “Overcoming Racism? Debate On Policy Options.” The topic might have provided the groundwork for any number of fascinating debates. But at Duke, differing opinions weren’t welcome. Session moderator Eduardo Bonilla-Silva had previously demonstrated his nuanced views on issues of race and racism by offering the following item in a course syllabus: “We conclude the class with a discussion of some of the solutions that have been proposed to deal with the racial dilemmas plaguing the United States of Amerikkka (I will remove the three Ks from this word when the USA removes racial oppression from this country!).”

The session’s three panelists provided a sense of what passes for “debate” about race-related public policy issues on campuses today. Sandy Darity’s last published article argued that “the serious and hard task is one of persuading the U.S. public of the validity of reparations for African Americans”—so the public would force Congress to adopt a bill for reparations of as much as $6 trillion, or around twice the amount of the FY 2008 federal budget. Lani Guinier’s recent work has focused on assaulting the principle of merit in education, since “we need to redefine merit. Within each ethnic group talent is equally distributed among all people. All people have merit,” and, in any case, “diversity in problem solving groups trumps individual ability.” The third panelist, Melissa Nobles, has contended that government apologies to minority groups are not enough, especially in a democratic state, since “democracy is the rule of the majority and there are inherent disadvantages for minority groups within democracies.”

And so, at Duke, the “debate on policy options” about race—in a country that elected a black man President in 2008—involves whether African-Americans deserve (1) reparations, (2) “redefining” merit in such a way to grant minorities preferential admissions to higher education and job opportunities, or (3) an official governmental apology, followed by other governmental action. Quite a wide-ranging “debate.”

The Duke gathering provided an almost perfect illustration of Bauerlein’s law of group polarization, or how “when like-minded people,” as frequently occurs in campus discussions of issues related to race, class, and gender, “deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs.”

Groupthink on the Middle East is featured at a third high-profile conference, coming next week at the CUNY Graduate Center. Co-sponsored by various departments and programs from the Graduate Center and Columbia, “CRISIS STATES” explores “the uncertain future of Israel/Palestine.”

I asked the co-organizer of the event, Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, why the conference title referred to “Israel/Palestine” rather than Israel and Palestine; she did not respond. But the motive is hardly difficult to discern; as the conference announcement explains, “It is often said in popular representations of the region that it is now ‘too late’ to establish a two-state solution; that recent developments (or non-developments) have closed off possibilities for peace. In other words, political realities and the future possibilities that they imply—including but not limited to the increasingly desperate circumstances of Palestinians in Gaza or the construction of the separation wall, settlements, and the infrastructure of closure—may now demand attention in new ways.” In other words, referring to the entity as “Israel/Palestine” provides a jumping-off point for delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state.

The conference mostly consists of senior faculty discussing graduate student presentations, providing a window into the next generation of Middle East Studies professors. The papers combine such only-in-academia titles as “It’s still safe to come: Freedom/Security, Zionist Nationalism and Queer Sexuality” and “From a Wall of Bodies to a Body of Walls: Politics of Affect | Politics of Memory | Politics of War” to topic after topic (“Notes Toward a Palestinian Zapatismo”; “Co-Producing Landscapes of Resistance”; “The Case of Israeli Refuseniks”; “International Law, Sovereignty and the Last Colonial Encounter”) suggesting vitriolic opposition to Israeli national security policies. No paper topics appear to provide a more balanced perspective, nor do any of the sixteen presenters appear to have taken public positions in any way supportive of post-1995 Israeli security decisions.

Bookending the presentations are two high-powered events almost comically transparent in their one-sided interpretation of contemporary Israel-related matters. The conference opens with a one-hour address from Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi—the former chair of Columbia’s notorious Middle East Studies Department and the man who once asserted that his Arab students and only his Arab students knew the “truth” about the Middle East.

And the conference closes with a roundtable discussion featuring Lila Abu-Lughod (Columbia), Amahl Bishara (Tufts), Zachary Lockman (NYU), and Vincent Crapanzano (CUNY Graduate Center). Abu-Lughod and Bishara both endorsed a recent letter asserting that “Israel maintains an apartheid regime, in practice if not in name,” a “regime no less criminal” than South Africa in the 1980s, a government guilty of multiple “crime[s] against humanity” and “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.” According to the duo, Israeli policy in Gaza constituted “the dramatic extension of an insidious policy of extermination of a people that refuses to disappear,” meaning that “almost certainly, the only hope of a lasting solution is a single state in Israel/Palestine, committed to the civil and human rights of all peoples within its boundaries, irrespective of religion or ethnicity.”

Lockman and Crapanzano did not attach their signatures to the Israel-as-apartheid letter, leaving them to represent what passes for balance at this event. Neither, of course, would be confused with a moderate on Israel-related issues, much less a strong supporter of Israeli policies. This review by Andrew Sullivan (himself an increasingly fierce critic of Israel) provides a glimpse into Crapanzano’s worldview. As for Lockman: in 2004, he denied that an open letter entitled “Boycott Israeli Academic and Research Institutions” constituted a call for boycotting Israeli academics or universities. (He said he signed the letter as an expression of his “support for the defense of the academic freedom of Palestinians.”) And earlier this year, the NYU professor made the extraordinary assertion (at 5.31-6.17 of this link) that the Israeli campaign in Gaza offered not only a “whole new level of brutality” but was “unprecedented in its disregard for human life.”

Such remarks testify to Bauerlein’s observation about “the first protocol of academic society,” the common assumption, whose “argumentative hazards” are profound: “academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom.” For the Israel/Palestine conference attendees, it’s obvious that Israel is South Africa, that Gaza is Guernica, and that the Palestinians are the idyllic manifestation of revolutionary nationalism. Such extreme viewpoints, of course, would persuade only hard-core critics of Israel—which remain a tiny minority of the American public, at least outside academia.

Bauerlein concluded his essay by appealing to the academic majority’s better angels. Abandoning the groupthink cocoon, he argued, would accord “with the claims of diversity,” while “facing real antagonists strengthens one’s own position.” Moreover, he correctly noted, “to earn a public role in American society, professors must engage the full range of public opinion.”

The recent conferences at NYU, Duke, and the Graduate Center show that we remain a long way from an academic environment that welcomes a wide range of viewpoints of controversial issues of the day—and that the problem of “groupthink” is likely to grow only more pronounced.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

2 thoughts on “Three Groupthink Conferences—No Dissenters Please

  1. There is considerable value in congregating sympathetic radical or extreme viewpoints in order to seek some consensus?
    For example the “CRISIS STATES” conference seems to represent positions which are largely correct though not popular within the mainstream U.S./Israel axis.

  2. Group think can cause laughable, self-contradictory statements. A couple years ago I read on the web about the Ford Foundation grant recipient for the Difficult Dialogues: A proposal from Trinity U appropriately stressed that getting people together to discuss the most controversial issues must allow all views to be received with civility and open minds. Yet the very topics seemed to contradict that theme, such as “compulsery heterosexuality,” “islamaphobia, which would make me, as a conservative feel a bit unwelcome. Why not, e.g. us the phrase: Hostility Toward Muslims: Justified or Not?”

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