State politicians are finally stepping up to exercise appropriate oversight of K-12 education under unrelenting pressure from parents who have learned what Texas and many other states have allowed to replace education in our public schools. Unfortunately, there remains extreme hesitancy to tackle the upstream problem of the co-opting of higher education toward mindless activism instead of rational inquiry. Legislators seem frozen by a fear of interfering with the academic freedom of state universities. This fear is completely unfounded, and in fact the only way to preserve academic freedom within state universities is direct intervention to eliminate the “critical theory” paradigm from such institutions.
That’s because “critical theory” and “social justice” in higher education are fundamentally incompatible not only with the idea of academic freedom, but with the ultimate goals of seeking and conveying truth, which should be the cornerstone of any university.
What are these approaches? Essentially, they hold that the goal of teaching and research is to promote predetermined activist goals and that suppression of dissenting ideas is a preferred means to promote the activist goals. These two immutable axioms are why a ban on this approach is in fact conducive to academic freedom rather than the reverse; no institution can seek truth and attempt to provide students with the best understanding of reality available while also holding to these two supposed principles.
Going in a bit deeper, we can see that there are at least three important reasons why intervention is needed to restore universities to the mission for which they were set up and funded in the first place. First, it is bad enough to abandon the mission of a university in order to promote any activist agenda, as articulated well in the Kalven Report produced at the University of Chicago. But, beyond that the specific agenda at play here is the disruption and dismantling of society to bring about revolutionary change, after the failure of violent revolution in the United States. When the Texas Legislature sends money to fund critical theory departments and schools at state universities, this attempt at revolution is exactly what they are funding. This claim may seem absurd, and it is, but it is also true. The total failure of state governments to exercise even a modicum of oversight of universities has allowed such destructive and silly ideas to continue to grow until they took more or less total control of these institutions; indeed our “Vice President of Academic Priorities,” the hand-picked chief deputy of the University of Texas at Austin president for all academic matters, is an adherent to this ideology.
Finally, once an institution turns to being focused on a specific type of activism, and one that explicitly rejects the ideas of freedom of inquiry, preservation of the autonomy of that institution cannot be seen as promoting intellectual freedom. So, we not only have universities inappropriately promoting a specific social and political agenda, that agenda itself is fundamentally damaging and disruptive to our society, and the agenda explicitly seeks to silence any debate or discussion that could oppose it, which would eliminate any purpose for having an institution like a university at all.
To see concretely how the actions of the critical theorists in faculty and administrative positions have already eliminated much academic freedom at most state universities, it is only necessary to look at the growing “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” policies at these institutions, which is one of the key ways that critical theorists operationalize their efforts to take control of higher education. While these policies often appear on the surface to be attempts to work around bans on racial discrimination to promote hiring of people with certain identities, they in fact go much deeper and serve as political tests on hiring. Our policy requires that every hire and promotion take into account the candidate’s commitment to the critical theory based versions of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Thus, a person who believes in merit, equal treatment, and open inquiry will, by explicit policy, have a harder time getting a job or advancing at UT-Austin. Operationally, failing to express support for DEI will make it effectively impossible to be hired outside of very narrow circumstances. Beyond just suppressing speech that goes against their ideas, the critical theorists have made compelling speech in support of their ideas an official requirement or near-requirement for employment and promotion. And the demands for further “sharpening” of these restrictions continues, as I learned while serving on the UT-Austin Faculty Council.
One of the key tools of the CT approach is the concept of “inclusion.” In this context, an institution is inclusive if it takes steps to ensure that “marginalized” groups are not made to feel uncomfortable. The practical application of this concept is that facts that would work against the interests of “marginalized” communities should be suppressed, and the people who speak those facts should be punished. The recent uproar in the University of Texas Astronomy Department over a paper that attempted to provide objective measures of early career research success is an excellent example of inclusion in action. The paper was withdrawn under pressure. Previous examples just at UT-Austin include an abusive research inquiry launched against a sociology professor for findings that contradicted the desires of the campus left.
Such policies, particularly the implicit or explicit requirement than no research findings cause members of particular groups to be upset, must be eliminated; anyone claiming concern about academic freedom must see this as the first priority rather than worrying over infringing on the autonomy of the people imposing such policies. But, even if the DEI policies were unwound, the personnel making hiring decisions would be the exact same people who sought to impose such political tests through policy. It is inconceivable that they would not continue to apply such tests, at least in their own departments. Indeed, faculty in these departments openly demand greater power to impose their ideological tests on hiring committees and aggressively work to shut down any attempts to bring competing ideas to campus. Thus, we have to go further. Critical theory-based departments and programs should be eliminated, along with the supporting personnel. All adherents to this ideology should be removed from positions of authority within universities. These steps, rather than being an ideological purge, are necessary to undo the ongoing and almost complete ideological purge that has already taken place. Such departments and personnel lost any claims to be protected from such interventions when they used their positions to drive competing ideas out and to shift the goals of the university away from inquiry and toward activism. We cannot let our own principles prevent us from implementing the institutional changes needed to allow those principles to operate.