The State of the University: An Anthropologist’s Perspective

Editor’s Note: The following is a speech delivered by Professor Elizabeth Weiss of San Jose State University at a meeting of the California Association of Scholars on March 16, 2023. It has been edited prior to publication.


Recent reports from Texas Tech University, Stanford University, and the University of North Carolina show promising signs that universities are beginning to move toward more neutral ground regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity requirements. Heterodox Academy has also published a recent op-ed by Musa al-Gharbi, in which he documented a decrease in “woke” research.

Yet, here in the trenches, it looks very different. Anthropology, as a field, is continuing down its destructive path. My university—San Jose State University (SJSU)—and many others like it are doubling down on a woke agenda. Furthermore, even when universities take approaches that seem to support academic freedom, like adopting the Chicago Principles, rarely do they take any action to actually protect professors and students from social justice warriors. SJSU had adopted the Chicago Principles, yet it still retaliated against me for my views. Thus, I am currently suing the university for this breach of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Let me give you some other examples. In anthropology,  the onslaught of removing materials for study is ramping up. Repatriation and reburial laws that were written to repatriate human remains, sacred objects, associated funerary objects, and items of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants and “culturally affiliated tribes”—a vague term that sometimes just means that the tribe lives in the same area that the materials were found in, but that, initially, was supposed to be determined through a variety of sources—are being blatantly misused, and the universities are breaking laws (but no one is willing to go after them).

For instance, the term “sacred” is being expanded to include everything from garbage to European artifacts, such as the sixteenth-century Spanish breastplate being claimed by the Graton Rancheria tribe in Marin County, California from the University of California, Berkeley’s collections. These items are slated for reburial, whereas the law specifically states that it applies only to the above-mentioned categories. Universities are repatriating everything, and by doing so, they are breaking the law. They are doing this because they don’t want to be called colonialists or racists. Furthermore, anthropologists want to continue with their careers, and if they are collaborating with tribes, these concessions—and many others—are necessary.

Animal remains, even from animals who have just died, are also being claimed for burial. When the Los Angeles County puma, known as P-22, died a few months ago, scientists wanted to study this animal, who had been tracked for years, to see how it dealt with living in an urban environment. They sought to understand the pressures these animals face and to improve their chances of survival. Yet, tribes in the LA area, such as the Chumash, stopped scientific research by arguing that P-22’s body should be returned, untouched, to the ancestral lands where he spent his life so he can be honored with a traditional burial. (What is a traditional burial for a puma?) P-22 has now been buried—the data are gone, and the impetus of this action on the tribes’ part is based on repatriation laws, which anthropologists supported.

Across the pond, Scottish anthropologists are questioning the use of the term “mummy” because it dehumanizes mummies! This should not be surprising, since at the academic level—in the journals—terms like “crania” and “skull” have been said to be offensive. Those collaborating with Indians should avoid these terms! Furthermore, no photos of bones (and of some artifacts) are being accepted in flagship archaeology journals, such as American Antiquity.

[Related: “Anthropology in Ruins”]

Just a few months ago, I submitted an abstract to two conferences: the Society for American Archaeology (a couple of years ago it deplatformed a talk that I gave, but I thought that I would see how the land currently lies) and the Society for California Archaeology, only to be rejected by both! My controversial abstract was a proposal to talk about preserving x-rays and assessing the reach of repatriation laws, like the California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as CalNAGPRA.

In the abstract, I outlined the steps I had already taken to try to access x-rays for which a tribe had once given its “blessings,” questioned whether x-rays fall under repatriation laws—I would say they don’t—and considered how to reach a compromise (such as, perhaps, scanning the x-rays and keeping them in a digital form while the tribes take the films). At my own university, the x-rays will most likely be burned, and no scans are planned. Thus, regarding repatriation and reburials, there has been a complete abdication of duty as anthropologists accept all claims for repatriation, no questions asked.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media plays a role in the hysteria over the curation and study of skeletal remains, such as the New York Times’ recent coverage on black cemeteries. In its reporting, one would think that only black and Indian burial grounds were developed over, whereas this is clearly not the case. Most burial grounds throughout prehistory and history have been forgotten or lost. The only real preservation is through the study of the remains or through sites that are protected by historic preservation acts. You have to remember that, over the course of millennia, millions of people died each year all throughout the populated world. In many cases people were buried (but not in all cases), and, thus, the earth is covered with burials that have been lost.

Then, of course, there’s also the NYT’s credulous coverage of the residential school burials, in which it tried to trump them up as clandestine burials of murdered children rather than state the obvious: children who died were given Christian burials (and sometimes a mix of Christian and Indigenous burials), the wooden crosses rotted away, and, over time, some of these sites were abandoned. This happened to the teachers, priests, and other residents who died there too.

I now move on to the state of the university with a focus on SJSU. At my university, we got a new president. In her opening speech at the beginning of this semester, she emphasized that to proceed and progress we all need to move in the same direction—in lockstep, of course—toward diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE). She made sure to highlight her own minority status and mention that she came from humble beginnings—although her statement that she never had to worry about missing a bus or having her car not start to get to work or class belies her narrative. She is dedicated to promoting DIE—more so than any previous SJSU presidents.

Almost daily, I receive emails about safe spaces—not for students, but for faculty. The LGBTQ+ Writing and RSCA (Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity) Support Group announcement, for example, asked, “Are you interested in a safe, supportive place to share writing or RSCA projects that are in the works? If so, please join us for the LGBTQ+ RSCA and Writing Support Group!” And the provost called on us to create “Identity-Based Spaces” in which faculty can “strive to create a campus community … free from systemic and cultural barriers to academic and professional success”.

[Related: “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow”]

The most recent dean search includes a finalist whose curriculum vitae contains more woke titles than the Berkeley library. He’s also a preacher, black, and gay—all traits he made front and center in his application materials. I think we all know by now that religiosity is fine to the Left if it doesn’t come from white Christians. In the open forum part of his job talk, he made no mention of research (beyond surveys) and focused on DIE. He maligned Americans by saying that they are the least generous people and are apathetic to the problems of others, but research has consistently shown that Americans donate more to charities (even when weighted for income) and spend more time volunteering than people of any other nation.

But it doesn’t stop at these new hires. Throughout our university, there are Title IX posters featuring a professor who was hired about ten years ago and who played a key role in helping to start the HonorsX program (which is not really an honors program at all, but rather a program to further indoctrinate students by focusing on equity and sustainability).

In my department, the new chair is eager to revisit departmental policies to more fully embrace DIE and to align ourselves with the professional standards of anthropological associations, which may sound fine until you realize that these organizations are against open inquiry and are for accepting any mythology that tribes will peddle.

At SJSU, the offices are still empty, professors hold office hours on Zoom, faculty cancel classes and move them online (seemingly with great frequency), and students trickle in and out (with far more absences and lower enrollments than there were pre-COVID).

I am going to end on a note about students. They parrot the politically correct agenda whenever they’re asked anything controversial—government money and government education is the solution to everything from childhood obesity to poor math scores. When challenging them on these topics, I suggested that even at a very young age, we know that lollipops are not healthy, while broccoli is. They tried to deny this to keep their mantra: government money, government education. I don’t know if they’re being dishonest or if they have been brainwashed!

Do students even have a chance to receive a nonbiased education? In anthropology, which reaches nearly all students through general education courses, a look at some syllabi will reveal an unending onslaught of woke topics, such as “Colonialism and the Culture of Terror” and “Gender, Performativity and Normalcy.” A look at gen ed course titles throughout the university reveals much of the same, including “Global Warming: Science and Solutions,” “Introduction to Queer Arts,” and “Women of Color in the US.” This may explain why some students questioned my use of the term “Eskimo,” while only half of the class was able to identify Egypt on a map in my class on mummies.

I don’t know what will happen in the future, but if I were starting out as a student, I wouldn’t want to attend college now. That’s why I feel the need to continue to fight for anthropology and the academy more generally.


Image: Adobe Stock

Author

  • Elizabeth Weiss

    Elizabeth Weiss is a is a professor of anthropology at San José State University. She is on the board of the National Association of Scholars and is also currently a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy. She is co-author of "Repatriation and Erasing the Past" (2020). You can contact her at Elizabeth.Weiss@sjsu.edu.

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7 thoughts on “The State of the University: An Anthropologist’s Perspective

  1. Thank you for this outstanding post! It’s evident that you’ve put a lot of thought into it. The content is informative, engaging, and well-presented. Keep up the great work!

  2. Prof. Weiss’s article is a list of grievances without any logical or empirical back-up. As an anthropologist, I fail to see how the courses she lists are inappropriate. There are I am sure more traditional courses, such as the People and Cultures of ….., taught at SJSU. But topical courses, as we called them during my days at Stony Brook U and UMASS were also important components of a curriculum.

    There is much I would love to debate about this critique of DEI anthropology. But let me state a few general comments to raise some conversation.
    1) Although anthropology is often cited as one of the “progressive” liberal arts disciplines because of it multi-cultural and historical perspectives, we have to remember that as Prof. Kathleen Gough stated a half of a century ago “A daughter of imperialism.” That is to say many of the founders were complicit with colonial methods of undermining the socio-political structure of non western society.
    2) Anthropologists also played a role in undermining southeast asian society during the Viet Nam war era.
    3) At the same time, Anthropology is I would argue in the best position to critically examine socio-economic inequity and its cultural roots.

    I would close by saying: the issue I have with Prof. Weiss and others that argue with her is that they impugn motives to the DEI process without any evidence. I served as a chair and dean for over twenty years and I never saw DEI used in a nefarious or discriminatory manner. I did see an amazing level of bureaucracy and often incompetence in understanding the notion of culture and the processes that have historically created a white male college faculty and administration. I saw faculty and administrators look to people who were like them and in their intellectual comfort zone in their hiring practices. More than this , I saw a nearly total lack of ability to implement fair practices to open up higher education to non-white candidates.

    I close with a quote from Jon Stewart concerning the so-called woke divide:

    “There is a difference between viewpoints that don’t align and weaponizing issues to create fault lines.”

    Calling people woke (is the opposite asleep?) doesn’t help anyone’s cause.

  3. The practices of diversity, inclusion and equity need to be reformulated. We clearly need to understand the role and importance of these practices. But we need to prevent them from being the perpetual institutional and cultural deconstruction that they have become. Recognition of history, practices of hegemony, colonialism and domination, have to be understood. But reducing them to an infinite regress of personal identity is not useful and doesn’t lead to a reconstruction of culture and institutions. It leads to their pointlessness. Choices need to be made that allow both/and rather than either/or solutions.

  4. Professor Weiss spoke the truth in a well-crafted speech. It just makes me terribly sad that so much has been lost historically and educationally. I can only be grateful that she is continuing the fight.

  5. I wish Professor Weiss the best of luck in her quest to salvage higher education, and our culture in general. She is certainly correct in rewriting DEI as DIE, which is what it portends: the death of serious thought and study. Identity politics kills most everything it touches.
    The University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I taught for decades, now emblazons its website with the vacuous slogan “Be Revolutionary.” How embarrassing.

    1. Actually, knowing how truly fascist that institution has become over the past 20 years, I find UMass adopting the slogan “Be Revolutionary” to be truly hilarious.

      Do those idiots know even a scintilla of Massachusetts history?
      Do these idiots even know what actually started the American Revolution?

      It goes all the way back to the Massachusetts Charter being revoked in 1684 because Massachusetts sought to be independent of the King’s DIE agenda. The agenda was factually different, it involved fealty to the King and not Progressive values, and a lot of it lingered from the days of Oliver Cromwell and the belief that Puritan Massachusetts hadn’t been properly loyal to the Crown — and it hadn’t, remember that Cromwell was a Puritan.

      This conflict progressed over time, and included a religious aspect as the Puritans were essentially similar to the Congregationalists (which they became), the congregation voted to elect (and fire) their minister. By contrast the Anglican Church was hierarchical in nature, with the King as its head. The Old South Meeting House was Puritan, while King’s Chapel was Anglican (it became Unitarian after the Revolution).

      While there was a lot more involved, including an economic recession caused by the end of the French & Indian Wars and the imposition of taxes to pay for it, the “Revolt” was over the King’s attempt to impose fealty to him — essentially a DIE-type agenda.

      And these folk might not want to encourage being “Revolutionary” if they knew the fate of Thomas Hutchenson. https://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/thomas-hutchinson

      Personally, knowing whom the Revolt was against and why, I find this hilarious…

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