Roses and Thorns: NAS's Top 10 List for 2015

Ashley Thorne

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a list of its top 10 “influencers” in higher education this year. It includes an advocate for trigger warnings, an activist for women in science, and the University of Missouri students who forced Tim Wolfe to resign. We at the National Association of Scholars have a somewhat different lay of the land of higher education.

Our list overlaps in one case (Laura Kipnis) with that of the Chronicle but pays attention to other aspects of higher education: the student movement to get colleges to divest from fossil fuels in their endowments; the persecution of a feminist professor for voicing unpopular views on campus sex; how a martyr student sought attention; a famous case of unscrupulous scholarship; the way U.S. history is presented in a nationwide college-level course; the “microaggression” phenomenon; the problem of “coddled” students; the embattled college leaders forced out by student protesters; the small bands of students standing up for free speech; and the unpopular truths about affirmative action.

We present these roughly in chronological order, according to when each one was most in the news this year:

  1. Eco-Activist: Bill McKibben.

In 2007 McKibben and six Middlebury College students created the activist group which became It now advocates for divestment from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) and has campaigns at about 1,000 colleges and universities. In 2015 the divestment movement hit its stride, with 450 events in 60 countries participating in Global Divestment Day (February 13-14). McKibben and his colleague, best-selling author and critic of capitalism Naomi Klein, led the charge to make divestment the moral high ground of the moment. Thirty-three colleges and universities divested from fossil fuels in 2015, including Oxford, Georgetown, Syracuse, the University of Hawaii system, and the University of Washington. The National Association of Scholars published in November a report on the movement titled Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels. At NAS’s invitation, Bill McKibben contributed an essay to the report.

  1. Feminist Attacked by Feminists: Laura Kipnis.

Northwestern University film professor Laura Kipnis’s provocative February essay, which mocked “sexual paranoia” on campus and argued for the permissibility of casual liaisons between faculty members and students, struck panic in the hearts of the people she criticized—the Title IX enforcers. Two students brought Title IX complaints against her, saying she had retaliated against them in mentioning them (though not by name) in her previous article. The charges resulted in a Kafkaesque series of bureaucratic interrogations. Kipnis wrote about the ordeal in “My Title IX Inquisition.”

As Natasha Vargas-Cooper wrote in Jezebel, Kipnis’s case “is a stunning example of feminism devouring itself.” A division has opened up between the old advocates of political correctness, who still valued a degree of intellectual freedom, and the more radical generation that dispenses with freedom in favor of strong-arm demands for power.

Kipnis’s troubles spin from the extraordinary regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under its radical director Catherine Lhamon.

  1. Mattress Martyr: Emma Sulkowicz.

Also known as “mattress girl,” Emma Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia University in May 2015. Sulkowicz, an art major, had gained notoriety for carrying a mattress everywhere she went on campus and calling it her senior art project, titled “Carry That Weight.” She did so as a protest against the university’s handling of her accusations against fellow student Paul Nungesser. Sulkowicz claimed he had raped her, but the university had cleared him of wrongdoing. At commencement, Sulkowicz carried a mattress across the stage as she received her degree. Her protest inspired copycats around the country to stroll their campuses while shouldering their pallets.

Sulkowicz’s protest gained prominence after the Rolling Stone published Sabrina Erdely’s article “A Rape on Campus,” which set off major protests before it was revealed to be a complete fabrication. Likewise, Sulkowicz’s claims were widely repeated in the press until journalist Cathy Young demonstrated that they too were a tissue of fabrication.

Nungesser, who also graduated from Columbia in May 2015, sued the university for failing to protect him from “gender-based harassment” from Sulkowicz and others. Columbia filed a motion to dismiss his suit in September 2015.

  1. Fraudster: Michael LaCour.

UCLA graduate student in political science Michael LaCour published a paper with Columbia political scientist Donald Green in Science in December 2014. The article presented results of a survey showing that people who had conversations with gay canvassers were much more likely to vote in favor of same-sex marriage than they were before. These findings appeared a huge break-through in the effort to influence Americans’ opinions on gay rights. But in May 2015, scholars who had been impressed by the LaCour-Green paper and had gone on to examine its methods in detail published findings that shattered LaCour’s claims. In effect, these scholars proved that LaCour never even conducted the survey on which his article was based. Science retracted the article, and Donald Green admitted to failure in his role as coauthor for not recognizing the fraud before.

LaCour is a prominent example of the volume of non-reproducible research being published in the social sciences. Brian Nosek drew attention to this problem with his Reproducibility Project, in which 270 scholars made 100 replication attempts of previously reported studies, only 39 of which were successful.

  1. APUSH Warriors: David Coleman and Stanley Kurtz.

After designing the notorious Common Core K-12 State Standards, David Coleman became president of the College Board in 2012. He announced his determination to make the SATs and the Advanced Placement tests “aligned” with the Common Core. In 2014, the newly revised Advanced Placement course in United States History (APUSH) became the subject of a nationwide controversy. The National Association of Scholars took the lead in criticizing the new APUSH as heavily biased in favor of leftist perspectives on American history and against traditional understandings of the nation’s past. Ethics and Public Policy Institute fellow Stanley Kurtz pursued an independent investigation of how the new APUSH came to be written.

Soon many professional historians as well as legislators, parents, and others concerned about the quality of history teaching began to express serious reservations about the College Board’s initiative. Several states, including Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma, began calling for a competitor to the College Board.

The AP course is especially important because students can substitute it for a college-level requirement in U.S. history—so for many of the nation’s brightest students, this is the last course in American history they will ever take. 

In June 2015, 55 history scholars weighed in on the controversy, urging the College Board to “do better.” David Coleman then met with some of these individual scholars to listen to their concerns. He assured them the College Board was working on substantial changes. Sure enough, at the end of July, the College Board released a much-revised version of the standards for AP U.S. history.

Although the Wall Street Journal headlined a story “Hey, Conservatives, You Won,” the NAS, Stanley Kurtz, and many others continue to look for deeper changes in APUSH.

  1. PC Nemesis: Heather Mac Donald.

Mac Donald, the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is uniquely gifted at lampooning the politically correct campus agenda. Her summer 2015 City Journal article “Microaggession, Macro-Crazy,” a send-up of the University of California’s bias training for deans and department chairs, put a spotlight on the institution’s kowtowing to the doctrines of “diversity and inclusion.” Mac Donald noted that UC was making an effort to police speech by labeling certain speech as “microaggression,” including comments such as, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and “America is the land of opportunity.”

Mac Donald was ruthless in response:

Why exactly saying that the most qualified person should get the job is a microaggression is a puzzle. Either such a statement is regarded simply as code for alleged antiblack sentiment, or the diversocrats are secretly aware that meritocracy is incompatible with “diversity.”

Mac Donald’s work drew national attention to the absurdity of the aggressive “microaggression” movement sweeping American colleges. This movement has been pushed not only by top administrators, but also by students, who are now trained to perceive tiny acts of unintentional bias all around them, and to police their peers.

  1. The Grown-Ups: Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff.

Haidt and Lukianoff’s Atlantic article in September, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” responded to the campus trend in which students demand “safe space” to shelter them from ideas with which they disagree. Students have pressured faculty to announce “trigger warnings” before lectures, class discussions, or reading assignments which might contain provocative material. Several students at Columbia University, for example, protested that they were “triggered” by the depiction of rapes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Lukianoff is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Haidt is a social psychologist at NYU. Their article combined Lukianoff’s experience fighting for freedom of speech on campus with Haidt’s knowledge of cognitive behavioral therapy. Their diagnosis of the problem went viral, even apparently reaching the attention of President Obama, who in September said he didn’t think students should be “coddled and protected from different points of view.”

Haidt subsequently created a new organization called Heterodox Academy, which brings together faculty members around the country who wish for more “viewpoint diversity” in American higher education.

Haidt and Lukianoff’s article came out a month before the explosion of campus protests across the country that have been aptly called the “cry-bully movement” and which have occasioned hundreds of analyses building on Haidt and Lukianoff’s insights.

  1. The Fall Guys: Tim Wolfe, and Erika and Nicholas Christakis.

In October 2015, University of Missouri student protesters confronted Mizzou president Tim Wolfe with complaints about racism on campus. The students were dissatisfied with his promises of more diversity programs. They organized under the name Concerned Student 1950 and delivered a list of demands, including the “immediate removal of Tim Wolfe as UM system president.” A graduate student, Jonathan Butler, pledged not to eat, and black players on the Mizzou football team refused to play, as long as Wolfe was president. On November 9, Wolfe sacrificed himself and announced his resignation.

A similar story played out around the same time at Yale. The day before Halloween, Erika Christakis, a lecturer at Yale in child development who served with her husband Nicholas Christakis as faculty advisers in residence at Yale’s Silliman College, sent an email to Silliman students. She responded to a mass email sent to the student body advising them not to wear Halloween costumes that could be construed as offensive to racial and ethnic minorities. Christakis questioned the motive behind the mass email, writing, “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?” She instead encouraged tolerance and conversation: “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Erika Christakis’s exhortation to students to act as mature adults was met with rage from students themselves. This was most evident in a viral video of a senior student, Jerelyn Luther, screaming at Nicholas Christakis on the Yale quad, “Who the f*** hired you?” and telling him to “Be quiet!” when he tried to speak.

Eighty-nine Yale faculty members signed an open letter, published at the end of November, expressing “our strong support of the right of Erika and Nicholas Christakis to free speech and freedom of intellectual expression.” This followed a November 10 open letter signed by 500 other Yale faculty members (and praised by the administration) which did not mention the Christakises by name but professed support for “all students and faculty of color.”

On December 8, Erika Christakis resigned her teaching position at Yale, telling the Washington Post, “I have great respect and affection for my students, but I worry that the current climate at Yale is not, in my view, conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

  1. Voices of Reason: Claremont dissenters, including Nathaniel Tsai, Hannah Oh, Steven Glick, and Taylor Schmitt; and Princeton Open Campus Coalition, including Allie Burton, Evan Draim, Josh Freeman, Sofia Gallo, Solveig Gold, Andy Loo, Sebastian Marotta, Devon Naftzger, Beni Snow, and Josh Zuckerman.

A few principled students have had the courage to push back as they’ve seen their peers manipulating administrators with their demands. One is Nathaniel Tsai, a junior at Claremont McKenna College, who wrote a campus-wide letter that has by now been signed by over 300 students. The letter chides protesters for excluding “discussion or debate” and for silencing those who disagreed. Tsai’s memo followed a November 13 editorial “We Dissent” by Claremont Independent editors Hannah Oh, Steven Glick, and Taylor Schmitt. The editors expressed their deep disappointment with everyone involved in the “cry-bully” ousting of former Dean Mary Spelling: disappointment with Spelling for allowing herself to be bullied into resignation; with the students for bullying her; and with President Hiram Chodosh for failing to stand up for a dissenting student. Claremont McKenna professor of government Charles Kesler also spoke up calling the College back to its traditional insistence “that students hear conservative as well as liberal arguments.”

At Princeton, a group of undergraduates has created the Princeton Open Campus Coalition in response to protesters’ demands to have Woodrow Wilson’s name removed from campus buildings; to create discrete “black housing”; and to require courses focused on racial grievance. Their petition, which now has over 1,800 signatures, calls on Princeton to affirm that the university “maintains its commitment to free speech and open dialogue and condemns political correctness to the extent that it infringes upon those fundamental academic values.”

Individual students on other campuses, such as Ian Paris at the University of Missouri and Jessie Pringle at the University of Kansas, have also responded to racial protests on their campuses by summoning campus leaders and fellow students to join them in affirming the principles of free inquiry and civil discourse.

  1. Mismatch Gurus: Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr.

A little-understood engine of the current campus unrest, wrote Stuart Taylor, Jr. in November 2015, is the “mismatch” that occurs when minority students are accepted to institutions where they are not academically competitive with others around them. They cannot help but recognize the disparity and become, understandably, frustrated and discouraged.

Taylor and UCLA law professor Richard Sander, who co-authored Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It (2012), gained a fresh hearing on December 9, 2015 on the occasion of the oral arguments in the Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas. The case considers whether racial preferences as currently practiced in college admissions are constitutional.

During the oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia referred to Sander and Taylor’s arguments when he said he thought black students would benefit from being admitted only to schools for which they were academically suited. His comments were taken as a racist statement that no black students deserve to be admitted to good colleges.

But as Sander explained, “The mismatch theory is not about race…Far from stigmatizing minorities, mismatch places the responsibility for otherwise hard-to-explain racial gaps not on the students, but on the administrators who put them in classrooms above their qualifications.”

The National Association of Scholars signed an amicus brief on behalf of Fisher in this case, and NAS board member Gail Heriot, a professor of law at the University of San Diego, authored a major study that confirms the mismatch problem and finds racial preferences often hurt the students they were intended to help. 

Other gurus in this realm include Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity and Joshua P. Thompson of the Pacific Legal Foundation, as well as Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide Fisher vs. Texas in June 2016.

Image: "Thorns" by dalioPhotoCreative Commons

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