Exposing Social Justice Ideology in Higher Education

Scott Yenor

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by The American Mind on April 22, 2021 and is crossposted here with permission.

A new project lays bare the use of public funds to promote hateful discourse.

Many Americans are ignorant of the thorough corruption of our educational institutions. Leading officials at public schools, universities, and many private schools actively undermine the American way of life across nearly every inch of educational terrain. Remember what grandpa used to say in the 1980s? “Once these kids get out into the real world they will have to drop all of this PC nonsense.” But the real world now resembles our educational institutions. PC nonsense is a road to riches. It is way harder than grandpa knew.

Today, our efforts to save America must start locally, making education serve civilization from the ground up. Legislators and governors in red states can, if they choose, use the levers of state power to root out the hateful doctrines of social justice ideology. We need to start yesterday, so we started something up in Idaho.

The momentum of the social justice agenda, underway for generations, is at a critical juncture. Having experienced a quasi-cancellation event in 2017 at my home institution, I grew convinced that thinking about the social justice agenda in the old terms from the 1990s—as free speech vs. political correctness—missed the heart of the matter. Universities are peddling hateful lies that are undermining the country; state legislatures are funding revolutionary forces to indoctrinate the next generation in their false ideology. That is unjust and stupid, and it had to stop. Only the state government, answerable to the people of Idaho, would be in a position to make meaningful changes to the university.

As a private citizen, I partnered with the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), a state policy think tank, to produce a comprehensive account of how far social justice ideology had penetrated Idaho’s universities. The goal of this report was to illuminate the problem to the state legislature, and to offer specific points of action the state of Idaho could take to curtail the intrusion of this pernicious agenda into public institutions of higher education in the Gem State. By disseminating our research to legislators and publicizing our findings, our efforts have borne fruit. Criticism of practices and policies at the University of Idaho and Boise State University has forced administrators to defend an educational agenda that is not aligned with the values of the state. The Idaho state legislature has begun to cut funding to the schools, and with any luck, the universities will reevaluate their woke curricular emphases.

What follows is a brief account of how we produced our reports and got them in front of the relevant decision makers. My purpose here is to offer a modest model for conservatives in other states who are concerned about the rot that has settled into our taxpayer-funded educational systems, and who want a roadmap for pushing against the forces of so-called progress.

The Vision

Briefs against social justice education in general are common; we focused on how far the ideology had penetrated the two major public universities in Idaho, using publicly available information. We aimed to make the report readable and accessible to the average citizen. Evidence was drawn as much as possible from university websites, course catalogues, and strategic plans and policies.

We produced reports about the University of Idaho and BSU, dividing each into two sections—administrative plans and student experience. The section on administrative plans sought to give an account of where administrators would focus on implementing a social justice agenda. The student experience emphasized the penetration of social justice ideology in general education and the departments, with additional information about campus life.

The Plan

Step 1: Discover the Social Justice Story that the University tells about itself.

Make a timeline. Universities frequently publish plans regarding their development to gain consensus on campus for what they are going to do. The University of Idaho has a 24-page strategic plan for Diversity and Inclusion, with eight distinct objectives that are then translated into actionable goals. Our report tracks how far UI has accomplished its goals—and how far it has to go.

Boise State has not yet produced a specific strategic plan on diversity, but a former university president formed a University Commission on Diversity and Inclusion in Summer 2017 that came up with reasons to build out a social justice infrastructure, and making policy suggestions. Two years later, an interim president released a note to the campus community boasting of accomplishments and outlining future goals.

Step 2: Show how lower-level administration and university policies reflect the plans.

All of this reporting must tell an intelligible story about the implementation of a radical ideological agenda.

UI hired its first college-level diversity administrator in its well-regarded engineering program. UI adopted implicit bias training, requiring sophisticated statistical analysis of candidate pools to make sure that their faculty do not just hire people who are like them. We looked at the hiring process, the training faculty and students must take, harassment policies, anti-discrimination policies, Title IX, free speech policies, anti-bias reporting, crime reporting, FIRE evaluations of the university policies, and campus security policies, among other things.

BSU gave student advocates institutional power through the Inclusive Excellence Student Council (IESC), with guidance from administration. The IESC called for the Boise Police Department to be removed from campus—and the administration complied, insisting that the removal be delayed so the Boise police on campus could take implicit bias training during this, their last year. The IESC insisted that a local coffee shop, Big City Coffee, the owner of which had a thin blue line flag flying in her other location, be removed as a campus vendor. The university made it clear that it would not offer no public support for Big City Coffee as it was harassed by these radicals. One administrator even said that the IESC would have power over all future vendors and contracts on the university. Big City is now suing BSU. The IESC impeached and removed the elected student body president because he refused to condemn the police.

Step 3. Assess the curriculum.

We conducted two studies to assess the curriculum.

We cut and pasted all general education course descriptions, by category, into an Excel sheet. BSU had 28 social science courses in the general ed, 26 in natural science, 2 oral communications classes, and so on. Then we looked for code words in the course descriptions—diversity, multiculturalism, equity, oppression, sexism, racism, systematic racism, etc.; if the courses had them, they were social justice courses.

We then examined each academic department according to mission statement, program learning outcomes, required courses for major, and contributions toward the general education. All of these were collected into an Excel sheet. We developed a coding system to categorize the departments either as social justice departments, social justice departments in training, and not social justice departments.

Analysts in higher education peer-reviewed our final report. Both complained that our method of counting social justice courses and social justice departments was too lenient; syllabi for these courses would be better indicators of social justice ideology, they said. Departments usually go well beyond their mission statements. But collecting and coding hundreds of syllabi would hamper the completion of the project and be a kind of overkill.

Then we needed to present this material. There is no good way of saying how many social justice courses students must take at any university. Too much depends on majors and chance. We devised a visual way of depicting the curriculum. The path showed how many red social justice courses and majors students encounter.

We then put examples of mission statements, learning objectives, and courses to illuminate the path through the curriculum. The path tells the story, and the additional evidence adds flavor.

Step 4. Assess Other Aspects of Student Experience.

Much of the “campus experience” occurs through programming designed by residence hall directors, the broader division of student life, and agencies on campus seeking to impact campus culture. Analyzing residence life requires evaluating campus bureaucracies like Incident Bias Response teams, who actively police students and faculty members thoughts, words, and action for bias.

Universities hold a large number of social justice events sponsored by various administrative branches like the Office of Equity and Diversity, or the Office of Multicultural affairs. The number of these events should be weighed against the number of conservative or non-partisan events held on campus. These events, and the programs they are embedded in, give a sense of the variety of ways that students are subjected to an atmosphere of indoctrination into the social justice agenda.

Experiential or service-learning programs divert university resource and student labor and tuition money toward supporting progressive organizations. These programs are often present in general education courses, senior capstone courses, study abroad programs, and double-counted courses. The goal of service learning is to train students for careers as progressive activists. The UI offers more than 70 courses with a service-learning component. Even the College of Business and Economics and the College of Engineering offer service learning.

Step 5. Write a compelling Executive Summary and offer specific recommendations

Most people will only read the executive summary and the policy recommendations. The executive summary should contain the most important developments on each university and put those developments into perspective. We compared BSU to Ohio State University and concluded that “social justice education at BSU is no longer in its infancy. It is heading toward maturity, spreading into hiring, policies, curriculum and student life. BSU is adding to its social justice mission every year.” We had a similar conclusion regarding UI.

Our reports offer two pages of policy recommendations, involving budget matters, legislative resolutions, student choice initiatives, and other issues. The Martin Center is developing a clearinghouse of such policy recommendations.

Step 6. Publicize and Defend the Findings.

The universities tried to ignore the reports, but the state legislature pressed them on details. Members of the Joint Finance and Education committee asked the university presidents tough questions. The presidents were caught in a dilemma. If they defended social justice ideology, the legislature might wake up from their slumber and do something; if they denied that social justice ideology was penetrating campus, they would traduce a beloved doctrine. The presidents cast their policies as favoring students, multiple perspectives, and open dialogue, and said that our report was based on bad data. Allies outside and inside the legislature defended the indoctrination, while the university presidents denied there was any propaganda.

Other shoes began to drop. Faculty and staff from around the state began leaking information, much of it unusable because it would expose their identities. Other activists from around the country started telling us about more ways that our universities were violating federal law (e.g., discriminating against men is a Title IX violation). Boise State suspended its mandatory “UF 200” courses, all of which our report characterized as social justice courses.

Michelle Goldberg wrote an article in the New York Times covering the threat to free speech of legislative oversight. Conservatives, in this view, must allow social justice warriors to tell lies with impunity and to undermine the country itself—all in the name of values sacred mostly to conservatives. The legislature set up universities and defends free speech so that the common good is served through the financing of higher education. When higher education undermines the common good with its embrace of the social justice poison, the legislature must act.

Some cuts have been made to the university budgets. More may be on the way. The legislature is considering intent language to ban public monies from funding social justice events, clubs, and activities on the university. People are engaged. This fight, a central issue of our time, engages the spirit of citizens. The public needs vehicles through which to express its righteous outrage against the poisonous ideology.

Such efforts should be reproduced in all red states, where local lobbyists and interested citizens can join in the cause. Every university should be held accountable—and every government agency too. All interested in producing such reports for their own local state universities should contact us at [email protected] so we can get started.

Scott Yenor is a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life. His new book, The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies, is just out from Baylor University Press.

Image: Apstrinka, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, cropped.

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