Over the weekend, Ross Douthat published a blog in the New York Times, “Diversity and Dishonesty,” where he contrasted Sandra Korn’s Harvard Crimson essay on “academic justice” with the recent resignation of Brendan Eich from Mozilla and the decision by Brandeis University to rescind an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
The Mozilla and Brandeis outcomes each resulted from controversies over an individual’s personal beliefs. Eich, Mozilla’s CEO, was found to have supported Proposition 8, which would have banned same-sex marriage in California. Ali, a human rights activist, is known as a critic of Islam. Douthat points out that neither of the official statements from Mozilla or Brandeis actually says something to the effect of, “We are excluding this person because we cannot endorse his or her beliefs.”
Rather, as Douthat observes, Mozilla’s statement is peppered with language about “diversity and inclusiveness,” “equality for all,” and “a culture of openness.” Brandeis does say that Ms. Ali’s statements contradict the university’s “core values,” but it patronizingly invites her to join in campus discussions “in the spirit of free expression that has defined Brandeis University throughout its history.”
What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.
The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.
Essentially, Mozilla and Brandeis are using “diversity” and “free expression” as euphemisms to sugar coat the sour realities of one-sided ideology. At least Sandra Korn, in her declaration that we discard academic freedom in favor of “academic justice,” was being honest in drawing the logical conclusion to which campus political correctness naturally leads. Korn argued that instead of providing a platform for a variety of views, a university should restrict academic research to ideas that coincide with “our goals.” She said that if a university claims to oppose views it deems offensive, it should put prove that opposition by censoring such views. (For more on Korn’s article, see Peter Wood’s essay “Academic Justice and Intellectual Thuggery.”)
Douthat concludes his post by saying he doesn’t mind the progressivism, just the dishonesty. But honesty won’t solve the problem. If universities—and elite corporations such as Mozilla—were perfectly candid about discriminating against people with unpopular views, that wouldn’t make the discrimination any less problematic, just less hypocritical.
Central to Its Mission
Notably, Brandeis is among the more social-justice-obsessed colleges in the country. Named for Supreme Court Justice and Progressive Movement leader Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), the private research university annually awards two paid fellowships for research and contributions to social justice. It “considers social justice central to its mission” and offers a minor in Social Justice and Social Policy, as well as a first year seminar track called JustBooks. The JustBooks webpage declares, “At Brandeis, social justice is more than an extracurricular option; it informs all our fields of study.” And indeed, the idea is a pervasive one at Brandeis. The student newspaper has published waves of anxious op-eds full of questions about social justice: What can we do to bring about lasting “rape awareness, cross-cultural education and racism consciousness?” What does social justice mean on a personal level? Do students get frenzied over social justice?
It seems that immersion on social justice corresponds to the goal of “academic justice,” á la Korn. Brandeis, was, after all, somewhat honest about its reason for rescinding the honor: it said that some of Ali’s past statements “are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values.” Professor Jay Bergman, a Brandeis alumnus and NAS board member, noted in a letter to the university’s president that Brandeis had chosen to honor others who had made harsh critical statements about Israel. “It is clear that at Brandeis University Israel can be smeared and those who do so are rewarded, but someone who properly criticizes Islam is unfairly attacked and dishonored,” he concluded.
For many colleges and universities, “diversity,” “sustainability,” and “social justice” are among their core values. These are positive-sounding terms but ones that represent closed debates on important issues of policy and personal belief. They are often used as litmus tests for opinions.
That’s what happened at Mozilla, which fell back on the fuzzy phrase “diversity and inclusiveness” to justify pressuring its CEO to leave. Brandeis openly admitted that it was excluding someone who didn’t fit with its “core values.” If, along the same lines, other universities began admitting that their core values trumped academic freedom and open exchange, their candor would not make higher education any better off.
Perhaps what Douthat is suggesting is simply that such honesty would force universities to confront the raw unfairness of giving an audience only to “correct” opinions. But even raw unfairness can seem sweet to those who believe in academic justice rather than actual justice. Self-delusion is infinitely possible.