Defending our Universities from the Ideological Onslaught: An Invitation to Action

Adam Ellwanger

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Minding the Campus on August 31, 2020.


As you read this, an open letter that I recently wrote is circulating online among academics and professors who share a deep concern about the rising ideological conformity and intimidation on display in our colleges and universities. As of the publication of this brief invitation, 41 academics from all over the world have signed the letter, and we are seeking more like-minded signatories before we publish the signed letter within the next few weeks. Before I offer a formal invitation to other sympathetic academics who wish to sign, I want to briefly outline the genesis, content, and purpose of the letter.

completed a PhD in rhetoric and writing in 2009 when I was 30 years old. Given that I went on the job market just as the Great Recession hit, I was fortunate to land a tenure-track job at the University of Houston – Downtown. I have been a political conservative for most of my adult life. When I started college in 1996, it was already clear that the academy favored certain political outlooks, but in general, higher education still seemed genuinely committed to unfettered intellectual exploration. Over the past decade, though, I watched as what had been a quiet, informal, implicit endorsement of the political left grew into a broad campaign to enforce total intellectual and ideological conformity on campus. A latent bias that had been limited to discussions in classrooms and the faculty lounge came to infect the procedural workings and larger administrative culture in our institutions. This emboldened the most zealous factions on campus to undertake a sweeping crusade to silence, punish, discourage, or otherwise marginalize ideas and perspectives that do not conform to the worldview of the progressive left.

These trends have made it so that our universities can no longer fulfill their primary functions: transmitting a shared cultural heritage and teaching students critical, tolerant habits of mind that are necessary for the proper function of democracy in a pluralistic society. Here are some of the trends I have in mind:

  • So-called “free speech zones” and “safe spaces” teach students that the open exchange of ideas is something that must be restricted on campus.
  • Mandatory “training” sessions on “privilege,” “antiracism,” “inclusion,” and “social justice” make clear to faculty the consequences of deviating from university-endorsed politics in teaching, service, or research.
  • Job candidates for faculty positions are forced to submit “diversity statements” in order to screen out the ones who deviate from leftist political orthodoxy.
  • The Obama administration’s coercive expansion of Title IX protections enabled the persecution of students and faculty upon allegations of often minute offenses, while depriving the accused parties of due process rights (read about the fraudulent Title IX complaint that I faced here). Secretary DeVos’s reforms, while welcome, will be insufficient to check the immense power of the Offices of Diversity and Inclusion that use a variety of draconian measures to undermine viewpoint diversity and the free exchange of ideas.

These examples (and others) work in aggregate to advance a fundamental reimagining of the university as a place for sociopolitical indoctrination.

The open letter that I wrote addresses these concerns and many more. Not all of our signatories agree with every proposition in the letter. But we all recognize that these issues sketch the general contours of a dangerous shift in higher education—one that purposely constrains the ways that professors can pursue excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service.

Some faculty members who have inquired about the letter have asked how this one is different from others that have recently made news—notably, the letter in Harper’s magazine that was signed by a number of luminaries in academia, journalism, and popular culture. For starters, the Harper’s letter was broadly focused on what is commonly called “cancel culture” in society at large. Our letter specifically discusses the climate on campus and addresses the various ways that our universities use bureaucratic procedures and institutional policy to advance a particular set of ideological commitments.

Secondly, while the Harper’s letter was signed primarily by individuals with large public platforms and names that are familiar to educated people across the country, ours represents more of a grassroots effort. Compared to the many academic rock stars associated with the Harper’s letter, I’m a nobody. I am grateful that some very well-known professors have signed my letter (and I invite more!), but like me, most of the signatories are relatively anonymous people: the rank-and-file members of the academic world. As such, many of them have a great deal to lose. I have been deeply humbled by some graduate students and untenured faculty members who explicitly acknowledge these risks and yet insist that I include their names.

This brings me to the purposes of my letter. One purpose is to drive home this fact: if so many people from within the university—people who have so much to lose by putting their name to such a critique—are nevertheless willing to make their concerns public, then the state of higher education must be truly dire.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the letter has another purpose. It doesn’t simply state opposition: it outlines specific ways that the signers may actively resist these trends. Many of those who are out of step with campus orthodoxy feel they are alone on their campuses. This sense of isolation creates a fear of merely voicing any misgivings about the dangerous trends in our colleges, let alone actually undertaking pragmatic action to counter them. Thus, the letter is a statement of our solidarity with one another—a reminder to dissident academics everywhere that they are not alone in their dedication to the university’s historical culture of open inquiry, free expression, and rigorous debate. Knowing that others are also committed to actively defending that tradition will strengthen each of us to undertake practical forms of resistance when we are able.

And so, with the other signers of the letter, I invite sympathetic faculty members of all ranks and higher education administrators around the world to join us by adding their names. While some of the resolutions might seem tailored to conditions in the American academy, international scholars would be wise to take preventative action against these trends in their home countries. In some nations abroad, the conditions already mirror those in the United States.

We will continue to collect signatures over the next few weeks. Readers will note that you cannot currently view who has signed the letter. We are waiting until we achieve a critical mass of faculty members and administrators, at which point we will debut the letter with all the signatories at a highly visible site online. We invite inquiries from any publication who may be interested in hosting the letter at that time. If you wish to sign, please email me at [email protected] with your name, the highest degree you attained, your rank, and your university affiliation.

All of the signatories extend our thanks to those of you who consider signing the letter. If the traditional values of education and learning are to be restored, it must begin with those working within our institutions. While this letter cannot achieve that restoration in itself, it represents a new willingness to collectively fight the trends that have corrupted our institutions. We hope you join us.


Image: wal_172619, Public Domain

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