Countering the Mob at SDSU

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!

– in Marmion, Sir Walter Scott, 1808

Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University, gives us the most detailed picture yet of the behavior, values, and mental state of today’s teenagers and college students. She calls the generation after the millennials iGen (like iPhone), which is short for “internet generation,” because they are the first generation to grow up with the internet in their pockets. … Twenge’s analyses suggest that there are two major generational changes that may be driving the rise of safetyism on campus since 2013. The first is that kids now grow up much more slowly. Activities that are commonly thought to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood are happening later… [W]hen members of iGen arrived on campus, beginning in the fall of 2013, they had accumulated less unsupervised time and fewer offline life experiences than had any previous generation. As Twenge puts it, “18-year-olds now act like 15-year-olds used to and 13-year-olds like 10-year-olds. Teens are physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable.” … Members of iGen, therefore, may not (on average) be as ready for college as were eighteen-year-olds of previous generations. This might explain why college studentsare suddenly asking for more protection and adult intervention in their affairs and interpersonal conflicts.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Gregg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt, Penguin Books, 2019, pp. 146, 148

[NOTE: This article is the Executive Summary of a 21-page article, a pdf of which is available here.]

Nothing is so invigorating to an emeritus professor as to discover, fourteen years after his official retirement, that he is still regarded as a threat by censorious, totalitarian segments of his own academic subculture. And, indeed, a threat sufficient to have inspired serious planning for his euthanasia.

I’ve always liked the British motto of 1939, “Keep calm and carry on.” But increasingly my favorite is, “Youth and ability will get you far, but old age and treachery will get you further.”

On June 17, 2020, from out of the blue an East Coast colleague wrote me, “Have you seen this?” He included the link to a petition started by the Biology Graduate Student Association (BGSA) of my own department at San Diego State University; it is given verbatim as an appendix to the full article. The petition called for revocation of my emeritus professor status and associated privileges. There were already more than 400 “signatories” at that point. But perhaps not such a big deal. The petition had been circulating internationally via Twitter, anyone could sign, and all the brave souls who did were promised that their names would not be made public. As of August 1, there were 554 “signatories.” 77 claimed to be current SDSU Biology graduate students (out of a total of 130-140), and almost all the rest were persons with no connection to SDSU.

Leaders of this attack were the six current officers of the BGSA, none of whom had ever met me or complained to me about my writings, emails, or bulletin board posts: Amanda Alker, Kylie Curtis, Greta Schmidt, Brianne Palmer, Ben Scott and Brandie White.

What could have so provoked these intellectually fragile youngsters? According to the BGSA petition, I have “a long history of bigotry,” have “used biology department space and resources to distribute racist manifestos and texts with diatribes designed to cast doubt on the values of diversity,” have “posted outwardly racist materials” on hallway bulletin boards, have unjustly criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center, have published articles in “a hate group” (The Social Contract), and have sent “mass email tirades filled with xenophobic, eugenicist rhetoric,” among other offenses. You get the picture.

None of those statements are true. But the petitioners only throw labels around and cite no specific articles, email messages, or other documents that provide evidence for their claims, so there is no substance to which one might respond. They attempt no analysis. They simply make the error of adopting in industrial quantities the hate-filled epithets the widely discredited Southern Poverty Law Center employs for writers and organizations who support the recommendations of past national commissions calling for large reductions in legal immigration and effective enforcement against illegal immigration.

Here’s some context: More than any of my departmental colleagues over the past half century, I regarded hallway bulletin boards and email messaging as valuable tools to inform wider audiences not just about my own courses and my own and my students’ research, but also about major environmental, economic, and social issues, especially those neglected in university curricula and censored by many societal institutions. Common topics have included lake ecology, water resources in California, climate change, wildlife conservation, overpopulation, immigration, family planning, ecological economics, race and sex preferences in hiring, statistical malpractice by scientists, and censorship within the scientific community.

The BGSA petition focuses primarily on items having to do with overpopulation and immigration. I always treated these topics, at least briefly, in my ecology, limnology and man-and-the-environment-type courses. During the last two decades, as board secretary for Californians for Population Stabilization (2000-2012) and then as president of Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization (2013-present), I learned a great deal more about these issues and shared that knowledge widely. My postings and emailing at SDSU constituted a miniscule portion of that effort. With colleagues, I operated exhibitor booths on population issues at the annual San Diego EarthFair from 2000 to 2019, and at least one annual meeting of each of 26 different scientific societies. I have prepared packets of 10-40 articles each on population issues and distributed them at a variety of venues and meetings in San Diego and elsewhere. Under email attack by a smaller mob, I gave a successful invited talk on population issues at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) in 2017, giving out to attendees more than 800 articles on population issues. That led to months-long discussions at SIO on censorship and U.S. population stabilization that I wrote about in a bioethics journal.

Showing a high degree of hostility to such educational efforts and shortly after I had sent out the 2019 article about my SIO adventure to the whole Biology department, the departmental leadership established a new regulation just for my benefit: emeritus professors may not make more than 100 photocopies per month on the departmental photocopier. Since I’ve paid all my own paper costs and done all the labor myself since 2006, there has been close to zero cost to the department. (Oops, I didn’t pay for the staples!) This likely was the handiwork of iGen complainers and their faculty supporters, a 4.2 seismic tremor forewarning of the “big one” they had in preparation.

The day after I learned of the BGSA petition, I discovered that someone, presumably the Biology chair, had prevented me from responding to the graduate students via the departmental listservs for the different subsets of students. My appeals to higher administrative levels were stonewalled.

Around the same time, an SDSU Senate committee was developing a policy to make it easier to revoke the emeritus status of any professor who “causes harm to the University’s reputation.” A draft policy was approved by one Senate committee in July, but there is no current public information on its fate. Senate leaders claimed this draft policy was unrelated to the BGSA petition. Upon hearing rumors to the contrary, I asked three different senators from our College of Sciences whether they or other College senators had used the BGSA petition to push for development of a new emeritus policy. No one replied.

Then reports began appearing in the media discussing and sometimes linking the two matters. In general, they supported me and criticized the idea of “canceling” anyone, let alone emeriti, the most experienced, most politically independent and best-behaved members of any university community. The first was from the director of research at the National Association of Scholars (July 16). Then followed one from an SDSU English literature professor (July 18), two from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s top education reporter (July 20, 24), one from a director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (July 23), one from a writer for Inside Higher Ed (July 23), one from the executive director of Progressives for Immigration Reform (July 25), and one from a student reporter for The College Fix (July 25).

On August 4, I sent a message, with links to these reports, to the entire Biology faculty and the BGSA officers, pointing out that some articles had comment sections with much additional information, and that the sections were still open if students (or faculty members) wanted to further “pile on.” I asked that the message be passed on to all BGSA members, whom the BGSA officers had kept in the dark with regard to developments and whom the Biology chair prohibited me from reaching directly. This was not done.

On August 13, I sent a stronger message to just the departmental leadership and faculty advisors of the BGSA officers, emphasizing that, “I have a right to defend myself directly to the entire BGSA membership. … and you may be seen, eventually by a large audience, as opposing transparency, favoring one group of graduate students over the other and supporting the attack on me.” Again, no response. Most objective outside viewers will understand that, at the moment, an entire departmental faculty has caved to the mob.

We pause now for a long intermission while the second act is written.


Image: Geographer, Public Domain

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Stuart Hurlbert

Stuart Hurlbert is professor emeritus of biology at San Diego State University.

15 thoughts on “Countering the Mob at SDSU

  1. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke
    Even in academia, most people know that the left-wing tyranny is evil, but most are afraid to speak up. It’s essential that those who are relatively secure in their positions do speak up. And support organizations like the National Association of Scholars that lead the fight against cancel culture.

  2. It was a sports talk host in Philadelphia that surprised me by a statement I didn’t expect on that venue. When he commented on criticism of a coach that did not respond quickly enough to one of the demands of the day, he then got criticized. He said, “If I don’t agree with what is said by the extremes of either side, I then become the enemy. I don’t want to be far left or far right, I just want to be me.”
    One of the threats to our country ranks up with global warming and the pandemic. The fact that compromise is now a dirty word, and nobody wants to even consider the views of the other side. See our Congress, when now the most liberal Republican is more conservative than the most conservative Democrat.
    As a judge who presided over thousands of criminal cases, I know the harm when someone is absolutely sure they are entitled and right, and any opposition is either stupid or evil.
    Agree with all of Professor Hurlbert’s positions on immigration or not, his attention to problems of overpopulation and the effect on our planet are worth consideration.
    Unfortunately, hearing both sides of an issue does not seem possible in many of today’s colleges and universities.

  3. There is no issue that is more critical to our future well being than stabilizing our population. In the United States, that means we need to reduce immigration, since that is what is driving our population growth. This discussion needs to be aggressively promoted at institutions of higher learning, not suppressed in a gross assault on academic freedom.

  4. Let me simply add to what has been so well said: As a grandfather, I fear for the lack of fearless thinkers in the halls of U.S. colleges and universities that our grandchildren will be attending.

  5. SDSU is a public institution. A faculty member (emeritus or not) has full right to speak his mind on controversial issues without fear of retaliation from his (governmental) employer. The law on this is well established. Moreover, people at universities commonly circulate lots of essays and opinions on controversial topics, and Hurlbert has no less right to do this than anyone else. The fact that some graduate students take umbrage at his opinions is not important. Lots of Californians (probably most) would undoubtedly take umbrage at a lot of their opinions.

    Umbrage aside, if any of these individuals have made false and harmful statements about him, Hurlbert should consider a defamation claim if the circumstances warrant it. And if officials at his own campus have made defamatory statements, he should definitely consider legal options there as well.

  6. A seminary is entitled to forbid discussion of heretical opinions that are contrary to doctrine. A secular university or college has no business doing that. It should encourage such discussion, because it is essential to critical thinking, whether in the sciences or politics. Critical thinking results in opinions which can be defended and explained, whether or not one agrees with them. Learning how to do this is an important part of becoming an educated citizen and voter. Forbidding such discussion only diminishes the value of a college or university in its purpose of developing thinking men and women. A viewpoint may be distasteful, but the right approach is to challenge its premises and the data which backs it up. It should not simply be forbidden and shut down.

  7. As I continue to read more about the treatment of Professor Stuart Hurlbert by the San Diego State University (SDSU) administration and SDSU Biology Graduate Student Association (BGSA), I cannot stop myself from constantly thinking about how/why this is happening at a university in the United States?

    This sort of authoritarian censorship and persecution is “business as usual” in places like China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia. Such censorship, persecution, and suppression of First Amendment rights has no rightful/legal existence in any university, college, high school, middle school, elementary school, kindergarten, and/or nursery school within United States jurisdiction.

    The BGSA needs to be properly educated and prudently reprimanded about creating an unfounded, slanderous petition. The creators and signatories of the BGSA petition should comprehend the definitions of “sophomoric” and “sociometric status”, and then strive to avoid pursuing such witless, misinformed, misdirected ventures in the future. Furthermore, many creators and signatories of the BGSA petition may want to conduct some thorough research on the cancel culture movement, and then decide if they really want to support it so blindly and enthusiastically.

    Most, if not all, of the recommendations supported by the cancel culture movement, such as defunding police departments or completely removing police officers from campuses, would likely create much-worsened conditions in most countries throughout the world. Even President Obama does not support the cancel culture movement:

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/evangerstmann/2019/10/30/president-obama-says-its-time-to-get-over-cancel-culture/#756451b21617

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50239261

    https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/obama-calls-out-call-out-culture-not-activism-905600/

    As for the offending members of the SDSU administration, there is no excuse. They have tarnished their own reputations and the reputation of SDSU worse than a thousand Stuart Hurlbert clones could intentionally accomplish in five centuries. With the recent experience some SDSU administration members have acquired by attacking Dr. Hurlbert, they may soon become better-suited to work in China, North Korea, Iran, or Russia than in the United States.

    To the eyes of many scrutinizing people, the SDSU administration now appears to be overly supportive, or perhaps, more so, overly fearful, of the cancel culture movement.

    The bottom line is that SDSU should start acting like a university located in the United States, and not like an isolated, Putin-controlled gulag in Siberia.

  8. After reading this, one cannot help but wonder if SDSU’s Biology faculty members are seriously considering sacrificing the hard-won principles of academic freedom and non-politicization of science – principles that protect them as well as Dr. Hurlbert – just to satisfy a hysterical mob.

  9. I have been suspected of racism myself for saying that African fertility rates should come down. (That’s even genocide to some.) I get irate, point out that I marched with Dr. King in Mississippi, spent a volunteer (somewhat dangerous–there was a KKK death threat against me and I was picked up for an interview by a police department that had murdered a local black civil rights activist) and have been a lifelong opponent of racism. And I note that unless Africans (fertility rate averaging 4.7) bring family size norms down to European levels (less than 2 children/woman), the 900 million people stunted by hunger will increase. Refugees from violence will increase. Iconic wildlife will disappear. Forests and soils will be permanently impaired. Human misery of Africans will increase. So I respond that it is racist not to worry about population growth in Africa. Africans need to change fertility norms as part of modernization and establishment of universal human rights, especially the rights of women and children.

    But maybe there is such a thing as implied racism. Those who are for cutting immigration advocate policies that affect mainly non-white people. That’s true. But I don’t think it should be assumed that favoring reductions in immigrations makes one racist automatically. So I suggest that Stuart talk more about his anti-racist opinions and actions and that he explicitly condemn racism.

    I’ve disagreed with Stuart about how to deal with immigration–I favor aid to cutting fertility in source countries, a win-win solution that worked to stop immigration from Europe (and more recently, from Mexico where fertility has fallen and incomes risen).

    In the end the academic freedom issues, the free thought issues are more important than the student’s concerns in this case. Overpopulation is a real world problem. Stuart deserves credit for talking about it. My university (Wisconsin), after a famous “academic freedom trial” of Richard T. Ely in 1896 (his crime was supporting a labor union), quoted the decision in a bronze plaque on Bascom Hall, “Whatever the limits that trammel inquiry elsewhere, the great state university of Wisconsin must ever encourage the endless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth may be found.” Maybe SDSU’s version should say, “Stuart, we disagree, and here’s why….., but you have a first amendment right to your opinions.” Meanwhile, get a lawyer Stuart. And good luck.

  10. We are living to regret the internet for many reasons, not least is that the internet is not yet subject to lawsuits for libel or slander and enables the unsubstantiated vilification of people and academicians merely because of their personal beliefs and politics. None of this vilification is based on actual “crimes” but simply on the word of someone who has taken offense at something. This is a vicious ideological battle being waged that echoes perfectly the Stalinist mock trials that sent intellectuals, scientists, scholars and others to their deaths. Today it is the regressive left, angry anti-intellectual black revolutionaries and trembling liberals who have shown an eagerness to overthrow the reign of reason, logic, dissent and intellectual independence, not to mention all of science and arts organizations. It is in essence a war against Enlightenment principles, the same ones that freed us from the iron grip of fanatic religion and merciless monarchies and thus motivated our forefathers to found a nation on universal principles. Now BLM and the SJW, today’s anti-intellectual barbarians, who seek to dismantle and then take over our
    educational institutions and our media. Stewart Hurlbert’s mistreatment and slander is only one of many such examples. The question is: will citizens stand up to the new
    Stalinism? Are they willing to join in the abolition of the very things that stand for and
    protect democracy and their personal freedom as well?

    1. Just a factual correction: it’s not correct that “the internet is not … subject to lawsuits for libel or slander…”. If someone defames you online (makes false and harmful claims about you while showing negligence about checking into the facts), you can sue them. If Stu has been defamed by any of the graduate students he mentions, he could sue them (whether that would be smart to do would depend on many factors–a separate conversation).

      What are not possible are lawsuits against the *creator* of a website based on comments made by users of this site. The website is not considered to be a “publisher” who is responsible for all the words that others express on their site. So if BBC.com or Yelp allows user comments on its website, and some user writes a defamatory comment, the commenter is the one who can be sued for defamation, not BBC or Yelp.

      Hope this is helpful.

  11. In a country about evenly divided between climate change denialists and overpopulation denialists, who can’t believe that their favorite dogmas (unrestrained capitalism and unrestrained immigration respectively) lead to serious environmental harms, Stuart Hurlbert is a voice for reason and genuine ecological sustainability.

    Of course, given the state of things, that means he needs to be attacked and impossible, silenced. I hope it doesn’t happen. Academic freedom only has value when it protects the small minority of academics, like Hurlbert, who actually have something useful to say.

  12. Moral cowardice is an epidemic! It is a rare faculty member or administrator who will stand up to the mob of social justice snowflakes. Much more common are people in those positions who will cave in to ludicrous demands, or even encourage such behavior. This article by Terence Corcoran in the Financial Post (Toronto) does a good job of explaining how we got to where we are:
    https://financialpost.com/opinion/terence-corcoran-you-are-not-you-and-other-truths-of-the-new-world.

  13. “18-year-olds now act like 15-year-olds used to…”

    When I was 15-years-old, I was on (and often running) fishing boats (in both the lobster and herring fisheries), with loaded rifles because we might need them for self-defense (drug smugglers were plaguing Maine’s Penobscot Bay at the time), and fully aware that I and others could likely would die if I took a nonchalant attitude toward what I was doing at the time.

    I think the problem with the current generation of young adults is that they have never been trusted with responsibility. They have been regulated and micromanaged to the point that the term “fascism” isn’t exactly inappropriate, but they have never had to make a decision on their own. They have been programed more than educated, they have been told explicitly *what* to think, but not why and basic concepts of logic escapes them.

    That said, I caution Professor Hurlbert that they may not be the perpetrators behind this.

    Whenever administrative appeals are stonewalled and emails to responsible people go unanswered, you have to suspect that the university’s Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) is involved. The BITs are high-level “cross-silo” administrative star chambers where “problematic” individuals are tried in absentia and without their knowledge. A consensus is reached on what is to be done (i.e. to) the individual, with the relevant instructions being passed down the relative chain of command.

    This is why the administrative appeals processes can’t be followed, this is why the otherwise-responsible persons can’t answer inquiries.

    The BITs arose after the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting and are designed to expediently remove crazy and dangerous individuals from campus. That itself, while legally questionable, would be one thing — but the problem is that all conservatives are considered to be both crazy and dangerous and hence the BITs have largely become the campus thought police.

    The BITs are called a variety of Orwellian names — The Assessment Care Team is a common one but almost any university with more than a thousand students has one today. (Its existence is often mentioned or hinted to in faculty handbooks under the heading of what to do about “disruptive” or “troubled” students.)

    I highly doubt that SDSU cares what the BSGA or any other student organization thinks — student organizations are little more than “useful idiots” which administrators groom to support that function. No, I suspect that Professor Hurlbert has managed to offend someone who is either on SDSU’s BIT (whatever it is called) or someone with a political connection to such a person.

    And if so, I fear that the second chapter has already been written, and that SDSU is just taking a pro-forma delay so as to obscure what really happened and who was really behind it.

    One aside on photocopiers though — paper is not the only expense involved.
    They often are actually leased and like with miles on a leased car, there are significant penalties if you go over a specified number per year. There is also toner (the black on your copies) and it isn’t cheap — and a photocopy with graphics or pictures uses a lot more than plain text does. Depending on the machine, it can also be a real pain to change the toner — something you really don’t want to do with your good clothes on.

    Politically, it’s often easier to by a cheap laser (not inkjet) printer and print out your stuff yourself. Some of the HP Office Laserjet printers can produce counts at (or above) those of an actual laser printer. But I suspect this is a pretextual issue in this case.

  14. I recall a young academic at Cambridge, Noah Carl, attacked by a similar mob of mostly young, mentally fragile graduate students — by means of some sort of petition sent to Cambridge’s administration. The online magazine Quillette took up his cause. Memorable paragraph from a Quillette editorial:

    “The fact that Noah Carl’s story does not have a happy ending—at least, not until he sues St. Edmund’s College and is awarded hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation—doesn’t mean all these efforts have been in vain, any more than the widespread condemnation of Harvard’s decision to defenestrate Ronald Sullivan as dean of Winthrop House is a waste of breath. One of the most effective ways of persuading university administrators to defend intellectual freedom is to raise the cost of not doing so. Consequently, we should continue to condemn spineless officials like Matthew Bullock, the Master of St. Edmund’s, up-ending a trash-can of bad publicity on their heads in the hope of making them and their colleagues think twice next time they’re tempted to capitulate to the mob.” (“Noah Carl: An Update on the Young Scholar Fired by a Cambridge College for Thoughtcrime, Quillette Magazine, May 28, 2019)

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