Five “Old White Guys”…

In reviewing these individual accounts of five “old white guys,” it’s important to note that many women have also run afoul of the political-correctness and social justice vigilantes that now roam our campuses.  Laura Kipnis’ who suggested that the administration’s policies on consensual relationships between students and faculty was so overly protective of women, they were insulting (Kipnis, 2015 a & b) exemplifies the themes of the call-out culture.  Similarly, Erika Christakis at Yale University who had the audacity to suggest that students be allowed to select their own Halloween costumes appears to have been persecuted (with her husband, Nicholas) by the administration (MacDonald, 2018).  Allison Stanger, who was seriously injured trying to protect author Charles Murray from a hostile mob at Middlebury College (Whittington, 2018) is another example of someone targeted for their commitment to freedom of speech and due process.  However, the combination of being white, male, and relatively senior makes one an opportune target for those seeking to flip the script, flop dramatically, claim grievous injury and severe emotional distress and impatiently await administrative intervention and rescue. 

Val Rust of the University of California at Los Angeles’ Graduate School of Education and Information Studies was a major contributor to the field of comparative education, authoring more than 100 books and professional journal articles.  His research and publications have focused on educational reform, education’s role in bringing about social change, and international higher education.  He was the co-founder and associate director of UCLA’s Center for International and Development Education (CIDE).  He was nearly 80, when he and his graduate seminar in dissertation preparation became the target of a student protest against a perceived pervasive hostile racial climate.  His particular “micro-aggressions,” presented as emblematic of broader institutional problems, included his insisting that students use the Chicago Manual of Style for documentation, correcting a student’s capitalization of the word “indigenous” in her proposal, and putting his hand on the arm of an angry African American male student while trying to quell a heated philosophical disagreement concerning feminism’s misappropriating Critical Race Theory’s rhetoric on victimization (Flaherty, 2013).   

In November 2013, about 25 students of color, 5 of whom were enrolled in Rust’s class of 10 students, invaded his class, encircled Professor Rust and four of the other students in his course, read a letter of protest, expressed their concerns and views about the program’s hostile environment, and departed about an hour later.  Stephanie Kim (2014), another student of color in the program but not in this course, criticized the protesters for their lack of “an open tolerant spirit” in an opinion published in the Daily Bruin the next month.  Concerning Val Rust specifically, Kim (2014) stated: “As a woman of color, I am deeply saddened that my adviser and mentor for the last five years, Rust, was unjustly demonized as the symbol of white male oppression as a cheap way of arousing public support.”  Some students also rallied to Rust’s defense, while others decried the program’s alleged long-standing perceived hostility toward students of color.

In response to Kim’s editorial in the Daily Bruin (2014), students (and apparently some faculty members) on both sides expressed increasingly polarized opinions and the dialog deteriorated into name-calling.  It seems obvious that what was needed from the administration was a calm and patient intervention providing mediation and compromise.  In contrast, university administrators almost immediately sided with the protesters.  From McDonald’s (2018) perspective:  

“Dean Marcelo Suarez-Orozco sent around a pandering email to faculty and students, announcing that he had become ‘aware of the last of a series of troubling racial incidents at UCLA, most recently associated with [Rust’s class]—thus conferring legitimacy on the preposterous claim that there was anything racially ’troubling’ about Rusts’ management of his class.  Suarez-Orozco went on: ‘Rest assured I take this extremely seriously.  I humbly dedicate myself to listening and to learning from this experience.  As a community, we will work towards just, equitable, and lasting solutions.  Together, we shall heal’ (p.66).”

McDonald goes on to describe the escalation of negative administrative actions and apparent unwarranted persecution of Professor Rust:

“Ever naïve, Rust again reached out to touch his interlocutor.  The student, a large and robust young man, erupted in anger and eventually filed a criminal charge of battery against the seventy-nine-year-old professor.  Rust’s employers presented him with a choice: If he agreed to stay off the education school premises for the remainder of the academic year, they would not pursue disciplinary charges against him.  The administration then sent around a letter to students, alerting them that the school would be less dangerous—for a while, at least—with Rust out of the picture (p. 67)…”

For the next three years, Suarez-Orozco and his administration colleagues would hound Rust, driving him from one makeshift off-campus office space to another and filing baseless charges against him.  Finally, in August 2017, Suarez-Orozco sent out a one-line memo to the ed school faculty that Rust had full status as emeritus professor—the closest thing to an apology that Rust ever received (p. 71).”

Although not mentioned in the reporting or diverse opinions, Wikipedia lists Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and Their Colonial Ancestors which it suggests “examined his own Mormon lineage” as Rust’s most recent publication. The history and perception of beliefs concerning the role of race in religious matters among members of the Mormon faith is confusing and contradictory (Reiss, 2018). Perhaps Rust’s unconscious attitudes and behaviors may have been interpreted (or assumed) by some students to be “hostile.”   However, I could not find any direct, in-person conversations which might have addressed misperceptions and issues underlying the conflict.  By siding so quickly with the grievants, the administration abandoned its responsibility to mediate the conflict. There is little evidence of any authentic investigation or good faith effort to objectively examine the charges brought against Professor Rust. Unfortunately, this seems to be emerging as a recurring administrative strategy.

Bret Weinstein

Bret Weinstein was a tenured Biology professor at Evergreen State College (ESC), a public liberal arts college, with slightly more than three thousand students in Olympia, Washington.  The college offers a non-traditional undergraduate curriculum; students design their own inter-disciplinary programs.  Faculty narratives about student performance have replaced traditional grades to document student performance.  A series of racially-charged incidents led Bret Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, also an ESC faculty member, to resign from the college in 2017.  The couple later accepted a $500,000 settlement of their suit against the college for failing to protect them from racially-based threats and harassment.  Weinstein’s challenge to the administration’s politically-correct agenda was more direct than Rust’s, however, the outcomes and administrative strategy seems similar.

The college’s “Day of Absence” tradition was intended to increase understanding and awareness of inter-racial issues.  One day each year, faculty, staff and students of color left campus and met elsewhere for racial awareness seminars and discussions.  White members of the campus community remained on campus and participated in similar activities.  The two groups then rejoined for communal conversations.  Reporter, Katie Herzog (2018), picks up the story from there:

“Most media reports about what happened at Evergreen last year go like this: Instead of people of color leaving campus, last year, a campus group requested that white students, faculty, and staff leave on the Day of Absence instead. In most reports, the drama started when a professor objected to this change. In response, outraged students protested that professor’s class, footage of the event went viral, the alt-right flocked to Evergreen, and the college was shut down, all because one professor objected to rejiggering an old Evergreen tradition (Herzog, 2018).”

However, Herzog’s (2018) reporting shows the events were far more complicated than reported by the mainstream media.  Both Bret Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, had been among the most popular and beloved faculty members on campus.  They invested deeply in Evergreen’s intense block-study program that assigned sections of students to faculty members for 11 consecutive weeks of intense interdisciplinary exploration and learning.

The “Day of Absence” incident occurred in a much broader context of increasing hostility and discord between and within various campus constituencies (i.e., students, faculty, and administrators).  A highly effective college administration led by a beloved African American college president had been replaced by a new administration led by a president with clear allegiance to a progressive agenda that elevated concerns for equality and inclusion above educational quality or administrative due process.  In response to external events and challenges at both the local and national level (a “wrongful” police action in the local community and the election of Donald Trump, respectively), students of color had increased their demands for a reversal of what they perceived to be ESC’s pattern of institutional racism and discrimination. 

Emotions were high but accounts of specific, objective incidents or respectful engagement were almost entirely absent.  Reviews of collective academic performance outcomes by race showed disparities, but the myriad of confounds associated with such post hoc studies left the path forward unclear.  As tensions heightened, student gangs roamed the campus with bats and cudgels and campus police were given orders by the administration to “stand down.”  Most faculty members and students remained silent in the face of intimidation from these groups and the administration’s willingness to validate the activists’ thuggish methods as well as their understandable goals.  Bret Weinstein’s willingness to share his story with Tucker Carlson of Fox News inflamed an already volatile situation.  A subsequent anonymous threat (eventually traced to a New Jersey resident) to bring a .44 magnum to campus and start executing as many people as possible required a brief, cautionary closure of the college (Herzog, 2018).

After extended legal battles and concern for the safety of their two young children as well as themselves, Weinstein and Heying resigned.  Later, after several attempts to rejoin the college were unsuccessful, they accepted a $500,000 settlement from the college. Other students and faculty also left the college, some with severance agreements but most without.  The chief of police, noting that she was given complete responsibility but no authority, resigned and is now suing the college.  Student enrollment has dropped sharply, (traditionally, ESC accepts more than 95% of those who apply and have the necessary financial resources) and the administration has announced that a 10% cut in the operating budget will be necessary; many academic as well as extracurricular programs will need to end (Herzog, 2018).

Peter Boghossian

Another school in the Pacific Northwest, Portland State University (PSU) is much larger.  With nearly 30,000 students (80% of them undergraduates) offers a wide variety of academic programs in a distinctly urban setting.  PSU Assistant Professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian is a 52-year old philosopher and by all accounts a very effective classroom teacher.  Much of Boghossian’s academic experience was garnered during his time at the University of Phoenix.  He has devoted himself to bringing philosophical thinking skills such as scientific skepticism and the Socratic Method of inquiry to the wider public, including those who have been incarcerated.  According to his Portland State University Faculty Page:

“Peter has a teaching pedigree spanning more than 25 years and 30 thousand students – in prisons, hospitals, public and private schools, seminaries, colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, and small businesses. His fundamental objective is to teach people how to think through what often seem to be intractable problems.”

Boghossian is one of three academic investigators involved in what has come to be known as “The Great Grievance Study Hoax.”  This study has also been referred to as “Sokal Squared” after a similar “stunt exposing a humanist journal by Alan Sokal,” a New York University physicist, in 1996 (Ruark, 2017).  He and his two “co-conspirators” spent months preparing the 20 hoax papers they planned to submit to professional journals representing what they labeled collectively and pejoratively as “grievance studies.”  These included journals focusing on gender, race, sexuality, activism, politics and other related fields.  Boghossian and his colleagues suspected that the scholarship of the journals they chose lacked academic rigor and sought to collect evidence to support their suspicions.  However, half way through their protocol, an inquisitive Wall Street Journal editor exposed their scheme (Melchoir, 2018).  The particular faux article that led to the unmasking of their hoax had originally been recognized for excellence by the journal, Gender, Place, and Culture. This entirely fabricated study falsely claimed to be the product of a year-long observational study of canine rape culture in Portland, Oregon dog parks.  Their study bore the impressive title: “Expression of Concern: Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon.” Another of their studies accepted for publication was “Our Struggle Is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism.”  It used passages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to create a contemporary argument about social justice theory.

Reaction to their scheme varied greatly (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018).  The assessments of a variety of academic pundits ranged from phrases like “hilarious meta-textualism” and “morally righteous” to derisive labels such as “mean-spirited mockery.”  Despite the lack of agreement in academic responses to the hoax studies, Portland State University, determined the activity reflected “professional misconduct” and is considering Boghossian’s dismissal as an appropriate consequence.  As the Chronical of Higher Education (Mangan, 2019) reports:

“The decision to move ahead with disciplinary action came after a group of faculty members published a letter in the student newspaper decrying the hoax as ‘lies peddled to journals, masquerading as articles’. These ‘lies’ are designed ‘not to critique, educate, or inspire change in flawed systems’, they wrote, ‘but rather to humiliate entire fields while the authors gin up publicity for themselves without having made any scholarly contributions whatsoever.”

However, as the Chronicle (Mangan 2019) hastens to add, not all educators found Professor Boghossian’s study to be without academic merit and the censure appropriate.  In fact, some with extraordinary intellectual and academic credentials supported the study:

“Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, was among the high-profile scholars who defended him. ‘Criticism and open debate are the lifeblood of academia; they are what differentiate universities from organs of dogma and propaganda … If scholars feel they have been subject to unfair criticism, they should explain why they think the critic is wrong. It should be beneath them to try to punish and silence him…”

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, author, and professor emeritus at the University of Oxford, had this to say: ‘If the members of your committee of inquiry object to the very idea of satire as a form of creative expression, they should come out honestly and say so. But to pretend that this is a matter of publishing false data is… obviously ridiculous.’ (Mangan, 2019)

This tale provides evidence of themes and strategies similar to those employed by the Evergreen State College administration.  The administration yields to the demands of an outraged minority who seek to suppress free speech by punishing someone who undertook an arguably legitimate inquiry.  However, unlike Evergreen, Portland State administrators were willing to intervene directly in the process and punish an individual whose actions other faculty member consider to be reprehensible because they are at odds with their own viewpoint and allegiances.  Thus, the administration has encouraged and empowered a vociferous and volatile campus constituency to retaliate against someone whose academic activity is potentially harmful or hurtful to the professional journals they support.  This certainly sounds like viewpoint discrimination.  Can skin get any thinner than this?

Richard Lebow   

Seventy-six year old, Professor Richard Lebow, Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth College, and a professor of political theory at Kings College, London was best known for his work in political psychology, international relations, and the philosophy of science.  He is now at the center of a maelstrom whirling within the International Studies Association (ISA) because he uttered the words, ‘ladies’ lingerie,’ when a female colleague at a recent conference asked, “What floors?” as she and her colleagues squeezed into an elevator.

Simona Sharoni, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College, was offended and filed a formal complaint with the (ISA).  After considering the matter, the ISA concluded that this was, in fact, a case of sexual harassment and is requiring Lebow to apologize; a requirement he has thus far refused.  As is often the case, opinions in the academy were sharply divided. Columnist Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post (cited by Freidsdorf, 2018) seemed to strike a reasonable balance:

“It was a lame, outmoded joke, the sort of thing you say in a crowded elevator to alleviate the discomfort of being jammed among strangers, an artifact of the days of fancy department stores with operators announcing the floor stops… the days of women feeling compelled to stay silent in the face of sexist remarks or conduct are thankfully on the way out… (however) not every stray statement by a 76-year-old man warrants a resort to disciplinary procedures…  For goodness sake, let’s maintain some sense of proportion and civility as we figure out how to pick our way through the minefield of modern gender relations.”  

Wayne Messer

Berea College in the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachians has a unique identity and admirable mission.  Founded in 1855 by John Fee, an ardent abolitionist, it was the first college south of the Mason Dixon Line to educate men and women, both black and white, together.  In addition to its strong commitment to inclusion and diversity, it charges no tuition and admits only students with significant financial need (basically those who are Pell grant eligible).  The college offers about 30 different academic majors and its faculty of 130 is divided into about thirty departments and programs. 

Until recently, 65 year old, Wayne Messer, associate professor of psychology, chaired the Psychology Department.  The program produced about 25 graduates each year with most of them being admitted to graduate programs in the professions and the social sciences.  Many of them went on to earn doctorate degrees.  Students in the program regularly won awards for their research from the Kentucky Academy of Sciences and other undergraduate research competitions; they rated the department at the top of course critiques for the amount learned from their classes.  Graduating seniors rated the psychology program higher than any other large academic program at the college for modeling positive working relationships between men and women and showing the values of diversity and inclusion.  The average graduating senior in the program scored at the 85th percentile on the Major Field Achievement Test in Psychology.  By all these objective measures, the department provided a positive, supportive, and productive higher learning environment.

Nonetheless, a grievance filed by the three junior faculty members led to Professor Messer’s removal from his position as well as his office.  By and large the incidents were not identified as being a problem at the time of occurrence and his alleged inappropriate behavior never persisted after the first sign of discomfort. He was no longer chair and forced to relocate from his corner office on the building’s second floor to a basement abode where the only other residents were the 60 or so snakes in the college’s herpetarium.  He had been charged with discrimination in hiring, promotion, retaliation, and creating a hostile workplace environment.  While the initial investigation found no support for the charges of discrimination or retaliation, three of the dozen incidents cited as evidence of a hostile workplace environment were confirmed by a three-person faculty hearing committee and another five-person committee decided that these incidents did not warrant academic freedom protection.  The president ignored Professor Messer’s appeals based on violations of academic freedom and administrative due process and the demotion and office relocation were effected by the dean.

I served as Professor Messer’s faculty advisor and participated in his defense and appeals.  Based on my own experiences in academia as well as working with other Title VII and Title IX cases throughout my career, the violations with which he was charged seemed to fall well short of the “severe and pervasive” standard set by the Office of Civil Rights.  One incident involved Professor Messer’s effort to engage his faculty colleagues in a conversation concerning the backlash to singer Chrissie Hynde’s revelations on NPR of her role and responsibility for her own provocative actions that had contributed to her rape many years earlier.  Another incident involved an inappropriate but otherwise innocuous joke about a “Jewish American Princess” just prior to a department faculty meeting.  The third incident involved his use of the words “militant lesbianism” during a heated discussion of his frustration with a very disruptive and belligerent student in one of his classes.  These events had occurred over a span of two years, but the other incidents included in the original grievance stretched over a 6-year period.

Objective evidence showed that the charges of his discrimination against women in promotion and hiring were unfounded (his 6 highest rating scores in his alleged discrimination violation had gone to female applicants).  Objective evidence that a grievant had manipulated her own rating scores to the discriminate against male applicants was ignored by the hearing panel.  Similarly, the claim that the department’s atmosphere had become so hostile that grievants had to go to a different floor of the building to make copies and avoid encountering Professor Messer were not supported by contemporaneous electronic copier records.  False assertions during the proceedings that the Faculty Manual prohibited mediation as an appropriate remedy for hostile environment violations were ignored by the administration.  It became apparent during the hearing concerning academic freedom, that the Title IX administrators had many inconsistent and unreasonable beliefs about academic freedom (e.g., that it only applied to classrooms and lecture halls but not hallways and faculty offices or that it was something that was dependent on the discretionary acquiescence of the recipient).

Professor Messer was found to be guilty of being erratic and oblivious; no mention of intention was made, but the discussion of the negative consequences of his behavior was a veritable Kabuki theater of emotional distress and psychic damage.  Several things happened in the months following his exodus from the psychology department faculty area.  He completed a psychological assessment at Eastern Kentucky University that provided a clinical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Being erratic and oblivious are among the most common characteristics of this disability.  Also, after numerous request and months of promises, the president provided a letter formally exonerating Professor Messer of the charges of discrimination in hiring and promotion and retaliation.  Because his disability was undiagnosed and thus unknown at the time of the grievance, the administration was unwilling to amend its decisions or the punishments it had levied against him.

In each of these cases, “old white guys” came into conflict because the views they expressed did not support the prevailing, politically -correct, campus zeitgeists on their respective campus. Rather than taking the time to conduct a thorough, objective investigation of the charges against these individuals, the institutional administration almost automatically sided with the the grievants. As is characteristic of the “call-out culture” that is emerging on many campuses, public protest and broad claims of injustice have replaced quiet conversation and a careful consideration of alternative perspectives. Issues such as individual rights and institutional promises receive scant consideration. Increasingly, these factors have eroded the quality of higher education and extended the chilling effects foreseen by philosophers and jurists over the last century.   


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