The Diversity Dog Whistle

Patrick Flynn | @patrick_flynn_

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There is a fire raging through the halls of our universities — one that threatens to incinerate the academy and the cherished ideal of a liberal education. This is, at least, the warning issued in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Pulling the alarm are Colleen Sheehan and James Matthew Wilson, professors at Villanova University. The crisis, they explain, is an act of arson, its origin being the inclusion of two questions to the course evaluations that students fill out each semester.

The incendiary additions ask students to indicate their level of agreement with the following statements:

The instructor demonstrates cultural awareness.
The instructor creates an environment free of bias based on individual differences or social identities.

These prompts — accompanied by a text box wherein students can explain their responses — are the kindling responsible for the blaze, according to Sheehan and Wilson. “In short,” they write, “students are being asked to rate professors according to their perceived agreement with progressive political opinion on bias and identity.” No attempt is made to explain this characterization; instead, readers are expected to accept the new questions as sufficient evidence to prove some sort of progressive Trojan Horse, infiltrating the academy with the intent of destroying its ideals.

Judging by the comments on the Wall Street Journal website, their strategy seems to have been largely successful.

Incidentally, there are real threats to academic freedom, both nationally and on Villanova’s campus, though they receive no consideration in Sheehan and Wilson’s article. The Koch brothers, for instance, unambiguously proclaim their mission to subvert academic freedom. In a 1974 speech, Charles Koch observed:

We should cease financing our own destruction . . . by supporting only those programs, departments or schools that ‘contribute in some way to our individual companies or to the general welfare of our free enterprise system.

These were not idle musings. At Florida State University, the Kochs leveraged their multi-million dollar investments to gain veto power in the hiring of an economics professor, ultimately overruling 60% of the economics department’s proposed candidates. Their network implemented a similar strategy at George Mason University. The free and organic development of the academy could jeopardize the Koch’s material interests, an outcome wholly intolerable.

If Sheehan and Wilson have written an impassioned opinion piece decrying this brazen assault on academic freedom, I am not aware of its existence. It certainly has not stopped Professor Sheehan from accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Kochs in support of the Matthew J. Ryan Center, the conservative student group she runs at Villanova. Nor has it prevented her from sitting on the Academic Council of the Jack Miller Center, another cog in the Koch brothers’ ideological machine. It is at the very least cause for concern that such a vocal proponent of academic freedom is funded by two of its greatest antagonists.

The dissonance only intensifies when we consider that grandiose appeals to “liberal education” and “academic freedom” are rarely employed in support of those from marginalized communities. For instance, when the far-right slandered Tim Miller, the president of Villanova cancelled a planned workshop with the artist and gay activist on account of his “disturbing” choices. To my knowledge, the cancellation generated few, if any, grave think pieces about the collapse of liberal education.

Five years later, Professor Sheehan and the Koch-funded Matthew J. Ryan Center organized a lecture with The Bell Curve author Charles Murray. When many members of the Villanova community argued that his history of promoting racist pseudoscience was “disturbing,” the very same university president who cancelled Tim Miller’s performance refused to reconsider Murray’s invitation. Instead, Mr. Murray delivered his speech, supported by a cadre of armed police officers.

And, surely enough, the mainstream media was practically tripping over itself to proclaim their categorical support for Murray and his sacred right to free speech. The same media has been conspicuously silent in the face of attacks on professor Marc Lamont Hill, fired from CNN and facing the potential of punishment from Temple, all for the misdeed of advocating Palestinian human rights.

Were the appeals to academic freedom and liberalism that we find on the pages of the Wall Street Journal rooted in a genuine principle, this tension would no doubt pose a serious obstacle. Sheehan and Wilson’s expressed fear about the increased focus on diversity and inclusion, however, is little more than a dog whistle, a way of using coded language to signal meaning while maintaining plausible deniability.

That is to say, the gratuitous alarmism of the piece — warning that two questions on an evaluation is part of a plan to terminate conservative professors, for example — is a choice not merely of style, but also substance. It functions as a discursive device, marshaled to insulate a historically white power structure — the academy — in the face of even the mildest of challenges. Simply the potential for a degree of accountability is, for Sheehan and Wilson, cause to sound the alarm.

Indeed, if we want to have a serious conversation about systemic racism and classism at Villanova, and in higher education at large, we would not be hard-pressed to come up with an agenda. To start, we could discuss the price of attending Villanova, which comes close to $70,000; according to data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, more students at Villanova hail from the top 1% of wage earners than from the bottom 60%. We could further consider the composition of institutional decision-makers: 91% of Villanova’s Board members are white and 78% are male. Or perhaps we could consider our professors, those most directly responsible for shaping our intellectual community; at Villanova, 80% of tenure or tenure-track professors are white. Or, more broadly, we could examine the exploited labor of adjuncts and graduate students upon which much of American higher education rests.

The fact that two questions with no connection to institutional power have engendered such histrionics is a sign of how shallow our discourse has become.

The authors go onto predict that the expanded evaluation will have a chilling effect on the free flow of ideas. Their reasoning is illustrative:

Professors of political philosophy, history or literature may avoid introducing the texts of John C. Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass or Flannery O’Connor, for fear their sometimes racially charged language may be interpreted as “insensitivity.”

This framing would be laughable were it not so brazenly contemptuous of students’ intelligence. It suggests that students will be unable to distinguish a professor’s lecture on the legacy of slavery from a professor’s assurances that slavery is morally justifiable (the latter being an actual comment made by a Villanova professor). It implies a student will be incapable of differentiating guidance on the academic barriers faced by first-generation students from an advisor’s warning that graduate school is too ambitious for someone whose parents did not attend college (the latter being actual guidance offered by a Villanova advisor). I tend to think more highly of my peers and their capacity for critical thought.

The authors conclude by urging a recommitment to “the principles of liberal education,” something that “cannot be achieved in an atmosphere of fear-imposed silence.” We are thus left to ask: whose fear matters? The professors fretting that two new questions on their evaluations will result in an anti-conservative purge, or the students in marginalized groups, forced to contend with individual and institutional racism on a daily basis?

Sheehan and Wilson’s opinions on this question are clear. So too, I hope, are mine.

In writing this article, I am greatly indebted to the investigative and intellectual work of Kinjal Dave (Villanova ’17) and Jack Flynn (Villanova ’18).