Jonathan Haidt seeks technological solutions to fallen human nature.
Boise State University (BSU) has been my academic home since 2000. The university has grown as the greater Boise area has grown: the area has been a wonderful place to live and work.
National trends in higher education come a little later to Idaho and, perhaps because it is a deep red state, they often come a little gentler too. BSU is making a concerted effort to catch up to the rest of the country and to get with the diversity program.
I learned the hard way that I had “mis-underestimated” BSU’s effort to build what Jonathan Haidt calls a Social Justice University (SJU). Just how much BSU had changed became evident when I published a series of reports and articles concerning feminism and its relation to transgenderism in 2017.
This experience forced me to take a step back to see what happened at my home institution and why. I found that, brick by brick, BSU was building a diversity infrastructure to dismantle its “deep red” environment.
An Insider’s View of the New University
BSU traveled through three distinct phases in building an SJU: an emphasis on new “Shared Values”; a Report on Diversity and Inclusion; and the translation of this report into action (currently underway). My research became an opportunity for how this new university would manage dissent.
The statement of Shared Values was the “fire bell in the night.” It seemed innocuous. Who could object to a university embracing Academic Excellence, Caring, Citizenship, Fairness, Respect, Responsibility, and Trustworthiness as Shared Values? Posters about these shared values were pasted on walls throughout university offices.
The Shared Values were aspirational. For example, respect demanded that all on campus “treat people with dignity regardless of who they are or what they believe.” Some on campus asked about such declarations. How are we to know we have treated people with dignity? Who is to judge? The administration assured the campus that our values are shared, but people need not share the same meaning of these values.
As such assurances were made, BSU’s President Bob Kustra announced our “obligation to protect the University by reporting potential or apparent violations” of these Shared Values. They needed fleshing out.
This fleshing out proceeded in the second phase, when President Kustra established a Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, which released its report in July 2017. This report would continue to change the university’s shape. The Commission that President Kustra established unsurprisingly thought “the time is right for President Kustra and his executive team to prioritize inclusion, diversity, and equity at Boise State.”
The Commission defined diversity and inclusion. Diversity “recognizes the uniqueness of individuals, populations, groups and their perspectives and experiences.” Inclusion required “the creation of an accepting and nurturing campus climate where similarities and differences are respected, supported, and valued by ensuring the active participation of the entire campus community.”
Boise State was a seedbed of prejudice and oppression—and new policies must fix the problem. The university would “provide training and engagement around key aspects of diversity, inclusion, and belonging for faculty, staff, students, and the wider Boise community (e.g. implicit bias training, etc.).” Affirmative action in hiring and student recruitment would be emphasized. The university would also find “opportunities to expand or highlight curriculum focused on diversity and inclusion.”
The administration put themselves in the dock and found themselves guilty. “Our institution and those that lead it have reinforced cultural, structural, and personal norms of what success looks like in Idaho and rural America.” The new vision of “true success” would center on “inclusive excellence – which is achieved through a self-reflective and uncompromised commitment to the practice of inclusivity, which seeks to break from implicit and limiting biases that reify exclusionary practices.” The university will, from now on, work to “replace dominant cultural norms” with a more “welcoming culture.”
It turns out, however, that “implicit and limiting biases” do not merely influence campus culture, but supposedly permeate all the old ideas of academic success. Identifying and eliminating such subconscious, implicit biases would be a centerpiece of the new academic culture.
Moreover, uncovering such bias would require a continual creation and re-creation of an environment where all are affirmed and nurtured in their own individual identities. It hired a Director of Student Diversity and Inclusion, Francisco Salinas, with a budget funded through student fees. Programming would follow. Diversity, long haphazardly incorporated into curricular goals, would be the explicit focus of required classes on campus.
The Academic Diversity Brigade Attacks
Building this new environment would require tearing down elements of the old. This is where I stepped in. I published my works on feminism and transgenderism in July 2017, right as the Commission’s report was published. As my work with the Heritage Foundation became public, entities across campus—starting with Director Salinas and then students and the Faculty Senate and even my own School of Public Service—got into the act of condemning me and my work.
A petition to have me fired was started. A segment of students demanded this action, since my presence was offensive. Posters popped up headed with “FIRE YENOR” because he has “BLOOD ON HIS HANDS.” BSU President Kustra, and my Dean, Corey Cook, have defended my legal rights as an academic in the face of this mob. (The incident could have been a lot worse!)
They also endorsed the view that my protected speech has hurt marginalized groups and reflects an “implicit bias.” The administration broadly endorses the premises of the student mob. It agreed with the mob on ends, but not on means. This double game is a bridge from one vision of the university to another.
Dean Cook’s greatest wink in the direction of the new university came when he allowed Salinas to post a letter on the School of Public Service’s website. Salinas “connected the dots” between my work and the violence in Charlottesville and to genocide generally. Anyone who might agree with my work was, illogically, a Neo-Nazi.
Salinas revealed much in this post. “Reducing the impact of toxic seeds by identifying them,” he wrote, “helps us to ultimately control the character of what we will inevitably have to sow.” Shaming and un-personing (to use Orwell’s term) opponents of left-wing identity politics would help the new university to control the students and hence to win the future. Stamping the university with left-wing identity politics comes across as the goal of BSU’s new policy of inclusion.
The Boise State Faculty Senate met to deliberate on a motion that I had “violated clear policies that govern our institution, our statement of shared values and the State Board of Education policy regarding academic freedom and most important, our concern for our students.”
I had, Sen. Lynn Lubamersky contended, expressed “bigoted, homophobic, and misogynist views.” Another senator read a statement, later published in the student newspaper, characterizing my writings as “misogynist, trans-phobic, and homophobic.” Another senator accused me of committing the crime of “hate speech.” Several senators were “appalled” at my writings but thought that the Senate was not the place to bring the question.
Sen. Lubamersky, speaking on her authority “as a historian” thought that it was “no coincidence” that I had published my work in the Daily Signal, named, she risibly contended, for the “propaganda newspaper of the Nazi regime,” (which was Der Stürmer, which literally means “The Striker”). These were denunciations, not arguments.
No one in the Senate called any of these assumptions into question. No one doubted that “hate speech” was illegal and should be illegal—it was a question of whether the Faculty Senate had jurisdiction. No one called Sen. Lubamersky to task for embarrassing herself with such a ridiculous claim. No one objected that the denunciations were inconsistent with the university’s mission and perhaps even a violation of our Shared Values. No one on campus has taken Salinas to task.
An Orwellian Expansion of Shared Values
After the formal efforts to condemn me ran into dead ends for lack of jurisdiction, the effort turned to indirect condemnations through passing additional statements of Shared Values. The Faculty Senate took this route, as did the tenured members of the School of Public Service (SPS) where I teach.
I believe the intent of this Shared Values statement was to isolate me, to make it more difficult for any other faculty member to defend me publicly, and to signal to students that my voice on campus was not a respectable one. Otherwise why was this statement put out when it was?
Here is how it worked. The Shared Values memo circulated around SPS. I was shown what appeared to be the 12th draft and was asked if I would sign. I studied the statement and consulted wise friends on the left and right from across the country. I asked for clarification and justifications before I would sign since the Shared Values statement appeared to undermine BSU’s dedication to rational inquiry.
Much was objectionable, but consider only the following as a representative sample. The signers contend that “excellent teaching and research includes being guided by compassion and understanding toward others, including considering how certain communities have been abused, repressed, or oppressed.”
This statement strikes at the heart of the academic enterprise. Excellent teaching and research is guided by evidence, logic and argument, not “compassion and understanding toward others.” This signer’s formulation violates the State Board policies, I argued. “Anything other than a focus on the advancement of knowledge and the thirst for truth hitches our teaching and research to a moving target and undermines the raison d’etre of the university.”
Again, no intellectual response—not even a revision along the lines of “excellent teaching and research are guided, among other things, by compassion. . .” That would still be objectionable but less so.
I withheld my signature (all but one other tenured faculty member signed).
BSU as an SJU
BSU is moving in the direction of an SJU. Is this progress?
The SJU assumes that all people (and especially students) are products of their environment and that that environment is hostile to them. They are thus victims. Universities make space for victims to announce their victimhood and hence affirm those individuals in their weakness. The SJU would also cultivate an environment where individuals compete with one another in finding signs of their victimhood. An excellent SJU will act as a third party to register grievances, manage resulting conflict, and remove, so far as possible, their causes. BSU’s administration grants the premises of the hate speech movement (the implicit bias, the micro-aggression seminars, the diversity curriculum) and will wait accept the inevitable changes in law when they occur.
Free people, in contrast, see strength and honor in overcoming their environment through the cultivation of excellence and character. No one is strictly speaking a victim: all are individuals with obstacles to overcome and the university provides a venue where one can learn perseverance, skills, and intellect to become a free individual. Honor and notoriety come from one’s excellence, magnanimously scorning slights, and achieving dignity through one’s actions and service.
No one is beyond criticism. The very purpose of the Diversity and Inclusion infrastructure is to put a slew of people and ideas beyond the pale of respectable debate. Dismantling the Diversity and Inclusion infrastructure on public universities is a good place to start if universities educate as opposed to indoctrinate.
It is not too late for places like BSU to continue virtuously lagging behind the lemmings from the rest of the country.