Facing Cancel Culture’s Wrath

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 5/15/23

Tenure was once a status that offered two promises: a life-long job and freedom to teach, research, and publish without fear of retaliation. Colleges and universities, and the activists that run the institutions, have reneged on that promise. Tenured faculty who express concern or outright reject the accepted monoculture of higher ed now fall victim to cancel culture—usually without due process or warning. And cancellations are on the rise.

Take, for instance, Professor Amy Wax and the recent legal proceedings at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). In response to public comments made by Wax, Theodore Ruger, dean of Penn’s Carey Law School, began proceedings in late 2022 to impose “major sanctions” against her, throwing Wax’s tenured status into question and embroiling her personal and professional life in chaos.  

Dean Ruger alleges that Professor Wax has made inflammatory comments, among other similar complaints pertaining to university policies. Almost all cited examples of speech included in his complaint, as well as verifiable testimony provided by the university, are statements made by Professor Wax in public venues, not in class.

In short, Wax made public statements on race, culture, and justice that Dean Ruger deemed “inflammatory,” but that really aren’t. More on this can be found here, specifically in her defense’s closing argument

The sad reality is that tenured faculty who challenge accepted thought are facing the wrath of cancel culture. A tenured professor of history, Matthew Garrett of Bakersfield College (BC) in California, was stripped of his title and dismissed by Kern Community College District’s trustees after BC’s interim president, Zav Dadabhoy, leveled many unfounded accusations against Garrett. Garrett’s actual “crime”? He recruited twenty-three BC colleagues for the Renegade Institute for Liberty, a group that promotes “diversity of thought and intellectual literacy through the free and open discourse of American ideals, including civil, economic, and religious freedom.” The backstory is somewhat complicated (it’s worth reading this article for more information), but nevertheless, Garrett’s dismissal is an egregious violation of his academic freedom. Also, who knew that promoting diversity of thought and intellectual freedom would make you a “white supremacy” group?  

Cancel culture isn’t just affecting tenured faculty. Higher education administrators, students, non-tenured faculty, and concerned citizens and organizations are also being canceled—and have been for a long time. Just last week, John Sailer, senior fellow and director of policy at the National Association of Scholars (NAS), was deplatformed over an “exchange of ideas.” The event, “Diversity Equity and Inclusion in Medicine and the Sciences,” was supposed to be held at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), but MCW president John Raymond rescinded the invitation, claiming that “the exchange of ideas should not disrupt the core functions of a university or jeopardize the safety of our MCW community.” Raymond’s knee-jerk reaction was fueled by the following events:

Students and faculty circulated a petition in the days leading up to president Raymond’s decision. The petition’s authors specifically take issue with John Sailer, claiming without evidence, that he has used “discriminatory language.” They argue that he should not be allowed to speak because of his “opposition to” and “focus on denouncing DEI initiatives.”

As of today, the NAS has counted 279 academic cancellations in the United States and Canada (we’ve been keeping track for a while). “Academic administrators, students, and even professors risk ‘cancellation’ when expressing viewpoints deemed unacceptable by the progressive ideologues ruling our colleges and universities.” And now it’s clear that tenured positions are in jeopardy as well. The aftermath of Professor Amy Wax’s trial, along with Matthew Garrett’s legal proceedings, will have real-world policy effects across higher education, setting the stage for other tenured faculty to face cancellation.

Colleges and universities have ceded their power to the heckler’s veto and cancel culture, placing faculty, students, and administrators who oppose “accepted” thought in precarious positions. We should be focused on excellence in learning and inquiry without fear of facing cancel culture’s wrath. Do better, higher education. Take back authority to preserve academic freedom and institutional integrity.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Adobe Stock

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