Resistance Is Not Futile

Professors are speaking out against progressive dogma

University faculties are reeling from an unrelenting bombardment of progressive artillery aimed at decimating American traditions and laws intended to protect free speech, academic freedom, and racial and gender impartiality. Expressing even modest dissent prompts escalating aggression from students, administrators, and others. Careers, the Fourteenth Amendment, civil rights laws, and university policies have been shattered.

Those who decline to endorse decisions based on race, gender, or gender identity are falsely castigated as racist or sexist, and are viewed as insubordinate by administrators looking for pretextual legal grounds for penalties ranging from forced apologies to termination.

From January 2020 through February 2022, the National Association of Scholars tracked 144 disciplinary actions against university educators for writing or speaking against progressive dogma, including at least 50 in which a professor was terminated, forced to resign, or placed on administrative leave. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which provides legal assistance to victims of cancel culture, reports at least 111 professors targeted for their speech in 2021, up from 30 in 2015. Almost 70% of the incidents came from individuals and groups on the left.

[Related: “Forbidden Campus Speech”]

Perhaps bolstered by parental opposition to the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools, university professors are resisting the onslaught by speaking out, and then litigating to protect their rights from administrators seeking to discipline them for doing so.

In an open letter to the University of Massachusetts Boston posted this month, more than 50 faculty members criticized a proposed new mission and vision statement for the university that shifts the priorities from education and research to becoming “an anti-racist” institution dedicated to “equity, environmental sustainability, social and racial justice.” The faculty letter observes that research and teaching are barely mentioned in the university’s proposal.

The university’s proposal holds each faculty member “accountable” for ensuring that “these values drive all decision-making,” including decisions about research, the allocation of funds, and the development of campus policies. The faculty’s retort is that the university’s vision would seriously damage “the demographically and ideologically diverse group of students we serve—particularly those who see education as a means to rise socio-economically,” adding “under no circumstances can political or ideological activism be the primary purpose of a public university. . . . the role of the university is to empower people to take action themselves—not to coerce students, faculty, or institutional units to do so.”

In bold face, the faculty letter proclaims what was until recently an infallible tenet of higher education: “[W]e believe that the main goals of a university are to empower the pursuit of knowledge, to cultivate lifelong learning, to foster the exchange of ideas, to encourage critical thinking, to unequivocally support free inquiry, and to instill respect for a diversity of ideas and viewpoints.”

Another open letter signed by more than 1,200 STEM investors and educators, largely university professors, castigates the proposed California Mathematics Framework for its potential to “steal a promising future from our children” by “de-mathematiz[ing] math.” The open letter condemns the California framework for promoting fringe teaching methods, eliminating advanced programs for gifted students, replacing math with political indoctrination, and explicitly rejecting the idea that mathematics is a neutral discipline.

In February, Rev. Gregory Schulz, a professor of philosophy and Lutheran pastor at Concordia University wrote an article in Christian News critiquing the university’s “woke dysphoria.” Showing the perils of opposing progressive doctrine, the university suspended Schulz for his transgression. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has taken Schulz’ case pro bono, with support from FIRE.

Other professors have risked the ire of their institutions by writing for the National Association of Scholars, including for Minding the Campus. That many of these authors are retired or hide their identities underscores the risk of speaking out.

Professors who are suspended, terminated, or demoted for opposing woke ideologies are responding with litigation (for example, see here, here, and here). Some, like Gordon Klein, an accounting lecturer at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, have been reinstated. Others remain in arbitration or in court.

[Related: “Another Hopeful Sign: Hiers v. Board of Regents”]

This month, San Diego State University (SDSU) Professor J. Angelo Corlett, a tenured professor of philosophy and ethics, held a class discussion about the use-mention distinction, a foundational concept of analytic philosophy that distinguishes using a word or phrase from simply mentioning it. In his discussion, Corlett gave examples that some students found offensive. That evening, the dean of SDSU’s College of Arts & Sciences advised Corlett that he was being reassigned because of student complaints. Rather than accept the re-assignment, Corlett brought in FIRE, which demanded that he be reinstated, citing Corlett’s First Amendment and academic freedom rights, as well as SDSU policy.

Corlett’s legal position is supported by federal courts. In 2018, Shawnee State University fired professor Nicholas Meriwether for refusing to use the pronouns requested by a transgender student. Last year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously held that Meriwether could sue for violations of his religious and free-speech rights. In Hardy v. Jefferson Community College (2001), the Sixth Circuit backed the rights of a white adjunct instructor who, when lecturing to community college students about language and social constructivism, discussed how language is used to marginalize oppressed groups. The court found that the instructor’s use of “illustrations of highly offensive, powerful language” was “clearly” relevant to his lecture exploring the “social and political impact of certain words” and was not “gratuitously used . . . in an abusive manner.”

Speech First, Inc. (SFI), a national organization of “students, alumni, and other concerned citizens” has used litigation to force public universities to scale back their woke policies. SFI sued the Universities of Central Florida, Houston, Illinois, Michigan, and Texas, Iowa State, and Virginia Tech, obtaining agreements from the Universities of Illinois, Michigan, and Texas, and Iowa State to change bias-response procedures, digital-use policies, and other protocols used to silence moderates and conservatives.

In most of the United States, the law is clear that a public university professor may not be disciplined for exercising free speech in or out of the classroom. In Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. (1968), the Supreme Court prohibited public schools from disciplining a teacher for political action outside of the classroom on matters of public importance “absent proof of false statements knowingly or recklessly made.” In Connick v. Myers (1983), the Supreme Court further held that a state could not end-run Pickering by requiring a teacher to waive his “constitutionally protected interest in freedom of expression.”

When the Supreme Court later limited First Amendment rights for certain government employees acting in their official capacities in Garcetto v. Ceballos (2006), the Court deferred consideration of whether its analysis would apply to speech related to scholarship or teaching. Since that time, the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth Circuit courts of appeal have held that Garcetto’s limitation on First Amendment rights does not apply to public university professors, making clear that public university professors have considerable freedom of speech when teaching their students. No appeals court has taken a contrary position.

I write extensively on the subject of diversity, equity, and inclusion in numerous publications. As a result, professors often email me about their colleges and universities. Their fear is palpable. They face a powerful, vengeful horde that is indifferent to the law and intends to decimate anyone who gets in its way.

The resistance is in its early stages and will no doubt result in casualties. As more faculty members speak out and public interest law firms step up to defend them, the tide will begin to turn. The United States’ constitution, federal law, and core values don’t disappear just because liberals say so.


Image: Tapio Haaja, Public Domain

Kenin M. Spivak

Kenin M. Spivak, a lifetime member of the National Association of Scholars, is founder and chairman of SMI Group LLC, an international consulting firm and investment bank. Spivak was chairman of two publishers and of the Editorial Board of the Knowledge Exchange Business Encyclopedia. He regularly contributes to National Review, The American Mind, and other publications. He received an A.B., M.B.A., and J.D. from Columbia University.

3 thoughts on “Resistance Is Not Futile

  1. The administrators and faculty members responsible for the new totalitarianism perhaps can be called “progressives” as long those quotation marks are used, but they certainly are not anything close to “liberals” in the classical sense. Perhaps “illiberal progressives” would be the best label.

  2. Nice to see this pushback. Unfortunately, faculty at private universities have very little protection, beyond any procedural guarantees that may or may not accompany tenure at that institution.

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