There’s Nothing Left to Lose: On the Stop W.O.K.E Act and Academic Freedom

Last year, Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E Act banned the teaching of certain race-based concepts in K–12 schools and higher education, including the notion that one race is superior or inferior to others. That is an appropriate prohibition in the K–12 system, where young people are particularly vulnerable to the misuse of research by ideological teachers. This aspect of the law remains in effect.

But in higher education, where research into cultural and racial differences is standard, the prohibition is, at first glance, a threat to academic freedom. This is the view of many well-meaning academic groups, including the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), which on June 19 filed an amicus brief in support of legal challenges to the law in higher education, where it is on hold. As the brief notes, studies of comparative development often engage cultural questions. Many scholars, including me, believe that some cultures—at least in their current forms—are superior to others—again, in their current forms—in terms of their ability to deliver the sorts of things that most humans want.

The AFA is correct that people like me could be fired under an equivalent of the Stop W.O.K.E Act in my state for teaching my views about the benefits of Western (“white”) civilization (just as scholars who teach about the evils of “Whiteness” could be fired). Even though the bill does not mention “culture,” the Left is quick to seize on flattering portrayals of Western civilization or culture, or unflattering portrayals of African civilization or culture, as euphemisms for race. This means the Act could be used to silence debate on cultural differences.

This is not just speculation. In 2021, my faculty union issued what amounts to a fatwa against my work on the positive aspects of European colonialism. This work, the union averred, “generates a hostile environment for the members of the university community” and “has the effect of providing intellectual cover for racism and white nationalism.”

[Related: “Reforming American Higher Education: Intended and Unintended Consequences”]

The union boss behind the fatwa, film studies professor Jennifer Ruth, then teamed up with Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University, to publish a book-length treatment of the theme—It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom—that was published in 2022 by Johns Hopkins University Press. It extends the argument for firing professors like me who discuss racial and cultural differences to my National Association of Scholars colleague Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania, among others.

But here’s the thing. Pointing to the blunt nature of the legislation, as does the AFA, is to ignore the even blunter nature of the problem. Yes, the Stop W.O.K.E. Act might have collateral consequences for conservatives and moderates. But without it, the academy as a whole will remain largely inert, and conservatives mostly extinct. By challenging the rote indoctrination that passes for intellectual life in higher education, it will re-establish the principle that the public has a right—indeed, a responsibility—to demand accountability from institutions that live off public monies. The Act will force legislative mechanisms into postsecondary teaching with the broad aim of stopping indoctrination and introducing objectivity.

In fancy academic jargon, higher education has a structural problem: institutionalized leftism that has killed off most serious intellectual life. It is nearly impossible for individuals to act under those constraints in ways that don’t reinforce the stagnation. Once the Stop W.O.K.E. Act takes effect, it is true that a deluge will result. Think of the mayhem of firings, litigation, strikes, and protests. But without it, there can be no serious attempt to restore higher education to health.

The AFA and others who have challenged the policy on academic freedom grounds are micro-correct but macro-mistaken. They are correct in the sense that the legislation may not withstand constitutional scrutiny and that it may have unintended consequences. But they are mistaken if they think it has not become a necessity.

[Related: “DeSantis’ ‘Plot’: Not So Terrifying After All]

The AFA brief makes the point all too well. In illustrating its argument about how the legislation might curtail discussions about racial and ethnic differences, it gives two examples: the success of Chinese immigrants because of their commitment to education, and Germany’s lower level of corruption than that of Spain. But nobody seriously thinks the diversity police on campus would arrest professors for making those points. The AFA cannot bring itself to offer a more germane example. How about this: “South Africa’s economic and political collapse since the end of apartheid is because black African culture was inferior to that of white Afrikaner culture in terms of economic and political governance.” That’s the sort of academic freedom that needs protecting, but it is not one that even this friend of academic freedom can bring itself to utter.

This is why the grandly named Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard—greeted with such jubilation, even in conservative circles, when it was announced in April—is so inadequate. The Council members, some of whom are “even on the right,” promise to “organize workshops, invite lecturers, and teach courses” about academic freedom. They promise “solidarity” and “protest” if campus administrators so much as touch one of those rare non-leftists who speak out on campus. They have nothing to say about the problem of left-wing supremacy in hiring, research, teaching, administration, and campus life. Nothing.

The Harvard council will have little to do outside its workshops because academic freedom has already been killed off by the structural elimination of viewpoint diversity at Harvard (quite a feat, when you think about it).

Therein is the problem. The academy is on guard against anyone who threatens the structures that protect its intellectual stagnancy. It uses diversity statements, job talks, racial quotas, and other forms of gatekeeping, like control of academic journals and threats to bring out student mobs, in order to police its realm.

Bring on the public and its legitimate interest in demanding quality education. There is nothing left to lose, and the Stop W.O.K.E Act has a chance, in the long-term, to restore health to our colleges and universities.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Bruce Gilley

    Bruce Gilley is a professor of political science at Portland State University and a member of the board of the National Association of Scholars. In addition to his work on academic freedom and the revival of intellectual pluralism on campus, Dr. Gilley’s research centers on comparative development and politics as well as contemporary public policy issues.

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6 thoughts on “There’s Nothing Left to Lose: On the Stop W.O.K.E Act and Academic Freedom

  1. Bruce, you decide which culture is better than the next? Native American cultures were sustainable but killed off by your ancestors. That’s the European way. You accept that murder as legitimate “white” culture and believe murderous greed makes you “superior”? Slavery was also apparently acceptable because your violent, greedy ancestors were “superior” to African culture of the 17th century. Your amoral ideology is showing.

    1. There is certainly much in Gilley’s work that one can disagree with and disagree with strongly. But the crucial point is not whether he is right or wrong, but whether one should respond to arguments we think are wrong with ad hominem attacks and condemnation, rather than with evidence and reason.

      For my part, I’d say that it doesn’t make much sense to argue about whether the legacy of colonialism is on the whole positive or negative. That would necessitate running an alternative version of history. Alternative versions of history by definition don’t exist. I also don’t agree with the moralism that would characterize Europeans as uniquely greedy and murderous. As opposed to, say, the Aztecs?

      I’m opposed both to efforts within universities to shut down debates on ideological grounds and to atempts by politicians to legislate what can be thought and taught.

    2. 1.Native American cultures were omitting genocide against each other long before Europeans arrived to the American continent, and continued to long after. The Sioux, Aztecs, Cherokee, and Iroquois being obvious examples.

      2. Murderous greed, as your infantile rant puts it, was also behind the Yuan invasion of Korea, the attempted invasion of Japan, the eventual Japanese invasion and rape of Nanking-none of which involved Europeans in anyway…

      I hope whatever supposed institution of higher education to you skipped class at to protest GPAs offers some refund to you for your obvious, racist incompetence. Better still-it offers refunds to the taxpayer in the strong likelihood that your academic failure was subsidized by government student loan bailouts. Your immoral, racist, Stalinist ideology, (and obviously failed public education) is showing.

    3. Native American culture is not sustainable. You only believe this because you were told to do so to appear non-racist and sympathic towards their perspective.

  2. Thank you.

    You’ve convinced me of the rightness of anti-woke legislation targeting higher education institutions.

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