The State of Cognitive Liberty at Today’s Universities

A few weeks ago I reported the results of a survey conducted by UW-Stout’s Menard Center for the Study of Institutions and Innovation and the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service that interviewed more than 10,000 University of Wisconsin System undergraduate students. Questions covered such topics as the First Amendment, whether speech considered harmful should be reported to administrators, and if speakers some students find offensive should be disinvited by campuses. 

University of Wisconsin-Stout

As I reported in the spring of last year, the survey was originally scheduled to be administered in April 2022 but was delayed for months due to opposition by administrators and faculty. Democrats worried that the survey would confirm what they and the public already knew, that the university has become a lot like a cathedral, with professors functioning as a clergy, preaching to a congregation of faithful youth, sitting in the pews and uttering amen to the faculty’s preachments.

You can read the full report here. I highlighted these findings in my February 7 blog: students classified by the survey as “very liberal” were the least likely to report feeling pressured by an instructor to agree with a specific political or ideological view being expressed in class (15.1 percent), most likely to agree that university administrators should ban expressions of views they feel cause harm (40.2 percent), and most likely to agree that the students should report an instructor to university administrators if the instructor says something that some students feel causes harm (71.4 percent). A majority of students described as “somewhat liberal” also agreed that students should report teachers to administrators.

My interpretation of these results is that “very liberal” students find the campus environment one in which their views will be reflected and are the most likely to express illiberal attitudes. Indeed, the number of students expressing illiberal attitudes indicates a deep and profound authoritarianism among those students classified as “very liberal.” I clarified in that blog that this means that they are not in fact very liberal but woke progressive, a sensibility that, while rare in the world outside college, shapes the climate of college campuses across the nation.

I contrasted these attitudes with those students the survey classified as “very conservative.” With “somewhat conservative” students were not far behind them, very conservative students were most likely to report feeling pressured by an instructor to agree with a specific political or ideological view being expressed in class (64.4 percent), least likely to agree that university administrators should ban expressions of views they feel cause harm (79.7 percent), and least likely to agree that the students should report an instructor to university administrators if the instructor says something that some students feel causes harm (13.6 percent).

Some might rationalize the first finding by claiming that conservative students are prepared to overreact and feel that their ideas are repressed. But knowing what we know about the strident anti-conservative views expressed by today’s faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and in light of the two other findings indicating the highest degree of tolerance for a diversity of ideas among conservative students, this could only be a rationalization. In fact, students described by the survey as “very conservative” are the most liberal.

In my February 7 blog, I spent more time clarifying terms, as well as looking at the political leanings of the general population (relying on Pew numbers for comparison), in order to show that what the survey mischaracterizes political leanings. The important point to keep in mind here is that progressives are overrepresented among academics, as well as their students in the humanities and the social sciences. Keeping this in mind helps readers understand the points I make in this blog.

The opinion that students should report teachers to university administrators if the instructor says something that some students feel causes harm was furthermore correlated to the field of study, with students majoring in the humanities and social sciences to be most Stasi-like at 53.7 percent and 48.3 percent respectively. I used this characterization in my previous blog, so I want to explain it here.

Why do I say Stasi-like? Stasi was the secret police of East Germany during the Cold War. Its primary mission was to maintain the political stability of the totalitarian government by suppressing dissent and opposition. With an estimated 90,000 full-time employees and over 170,000 informants among the population of 17 million people in East Germany, it was one of the most pervasive and oppressive secret police forces in history. The Stasi not only operated a vast network of spies and informants, it also engaged in psychological warfare, including disinformation campaigns to discredit those whose speech was believed to undermine the hegemony of the prevailing cultural and political ideology.

That almost three-quarters of the most progressive and well more than half of the somewhat progressive students, think that students should report an instructor to university administrators if the instructors say something that some student feel causes harm—with the harm they have in mind views critical of the prevailing ideologies, i.e., critical race theory, queer theory, and other crackpot standpoints advanced by progressive administrators, faculty, staff, and students—is a frightening level of repressive desire expressed by those who should be demanding an environment that doesn’t shy away from critical inquiry but makes live Karl Marx’s well-known motto regarding the importance of criticism, that is “the ruthless criticism of everything existing.” Like Marx, I am fond of the latin De omnibus dubitandum est, meaning “everything must be doubted.”

Marx believed that critical analysis was essential in understanding and changing the world. He encouraged the examination of cultural, economic, political, and social structures to expose their underlying contradictions with the goal of creating a more just and equitable society. One would think, given the “social justice” and “critical consciousness” rhetoric of the woke progressive, that those identifying themselves as such would be the least likely to report teachers who said things that students feel causes “harm,” i.e., challenges orthodoxy, given that the idea of critique means not holding back for fear of offending or upsetting people. The irony here is that, by subjecting all aspects of culture and society to critical examination, Marx believed that individuals could better understand the underlying causes of inequality and oppression, and work towards creating a more egalitarian and democratic world. But those who are most likely to identify themselves as Marxist have the opposite attitude. Of course, the Stasi, who served a regime that was at least nominally Marxist, were likely to identify themselves in the same way.

Yes, I did mean to describe this attitude as repressive. That word is used to describe a system or climate that suppresses or restricts the expression of free speech or other forms of individual liberty. We see as repressive government censorship of certain books or restricts access to information. We are also coming to see this as also true of private action in the era of corporate statism (Marxists and left-libertarians always have). However, a workplace or social environment where individuals are discouraged from expressing their opinions or ideas due to fear of retribution is also repression. Reporting teachers for saying things that some students find “harmful creates a chilling effect where teachers who might deviate from the woke progressive doctrine so pervasive in today’s university will cause those who are supposed to challenge ideology to avoid arguments and subjects they fear will cause students to report them to administrators—who are inclined to follow up on their complaints.

When I don’t there are consequences. This happened to me last week. As readers of Freedom and Reason know, I have been very critical of Black Lives Matter on my blog. I have shown that major claims BLM and other social justice activists have advanced over the last several years, that racial disparities associated with lethal police encounters and mass incarceration are the consequence of systemic racism, are refuted by the scientific research. Since, in my capacity as an expert in criminology, I talk about these issues in class. I knew it was only a mater of time before students would take issue my criticisms of BLM. I had hope this would have taken the form of challenges in class. But instead, and not unexpectedly, they reported me to administrators. They did so anonymous.

The administrator who spoke with me was very pleasant and reassured me that my political activities as a citizen in a free and open society were my business. I appreciated that. He conveyed that the students felt my speech was contrary to the mission of the program I teach in (I built the program and wrote that mission) and that this may impact retention among, not only devotees to BLM, but LGBTQ+ students, as well. This is because I am also critical of queer theory—not in class, but on my blog—and have pointed out (again on my blog) that both Antifa and BLM are trans-activist organizations. Imagine a world where we are reported to the authorities because we are critical of an ideology. Imagine furthermore that those reporting their professors to authorities for thought crimes do so anonymously. We don’t have to.

One question put to me by the administrator was whether I play Devil’s advocate in class. This was after I confessed my opposition to Black Lives Matter. He explained that he does this in his literature classes, arguing a position that he doesn’t necessarily agree with or believe in for the sake of stimulating discussion or debate, specifically to challenge or test the strength of a particular argument or idea by presenting alternative viewpoints, regardless of one’s personal beliefs. I explained that I don’t use this strategy; rather, my method is debunking mythology with facts. I do steel man arguments, I hastened to add, but I don’t think this is the same thing. I steel man arguments because burning effigies is a religious exercise. I find that distasteful.

Speaking of straw men, it is not without irony that the term “Devil’s advocate” comes from the Catholic Church, where it refers to a person who presents counterarguments during the canonization process of a potential saint. The Devil’s advocate was expected to present arguments against the saint’s worthiness for sainthood, in order to ensure that the canonization process was thorough and rigorous. In other words, the Devil’s advocate puts the potential saint’s faith to the test—as well as the faith of those involved—in order to make sure the saint could in no way afterward be said to fall short of the stature sought at the end of the status elevation ceremony.

This is not the first time I have been reported to the administration, although it is the first time by students. I have been the target of ongoing campaigns of harassment and suppression since coming to Green Bay. I want to talk about this here to establish a coherent public record of the harassment. The facts in support of the narrative I present here are well-known by multiple individuals and already a matter of public record.

In 2002, early in my professorial career, I published “Advancing Accumulation and Managing its Discontents: The US Anti- Environmental Countermovement,” in Sociological Spectrum. I would win an award for that article in 2003, and I was set to testify in a lawsuit in Connecticut, but the case never went to trial. In October 2002, at the Mid-South Sociological Association conference in Memphis, Tennessee, I presented the paper “Paper Mills and Science Mills: The Battle for the Fox River.” I wouldn’t know this yet, but my work in this area put me on the radar screen of polluting corporations who would attempt to sabotage my bid for tenure in 2004. 

In the meantime, I had turned my attention to criticisms of the Bush/Cheney regime which was warmongering over Iraq in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks against the Untied States. I published two articles in the newsletter of the Marxist Section of the American Sociological Association, From the Left, critical of the war plans—“A Shrill Cry for War” in 2002 and “God’s Gift to Humanity” in 2003—as well a March 2003 article in The Public Eye (a publication of the anti-fascist organization Political Research Associates) “Faith Matters: George Bush and Providence.” Just before my Public Eye essay, on March 4, I gave a speech before hundreds of students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (“Bush’s Dream of a Democratic Middle-East”). My polemics were delivered on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I was highly critical of the government and the machinations of the Project for a New American Century that was driving the war push. 

Recordings from this speech, and likely additional content from classroom lectures from that semester, were played on the Bill LuMaye show (AM 1360) for several days. My colleagues heard the programs. The host and callers were incensed at my rhetoric and analysis. I was “anti-American” and a “communist.” The College Republicans, who had attempted to disrupt the March 4 teach-in, and who had likely been the source of the recordings, sought to publicly ridicule me on campus, naming me “Man of the Year” and distributing flyers around the school of my image draped in American flags. Students overwhelmingly expressed support for me and condemned the College Republicans. At another event on campus, which I did not attend, community members disrupted the proceedings complaining about the “mistreatment” of conservative students on campus. Their complaints concerned the fallout from my treatment—the College Republicans had lost their faculty sponsorship. Faculty had also rallied around me. 

Then, in May of 2004, as I was preparing to the come up for tenure that upcoming fall, the chancellor, Bruce Shepard (who later became president of Western Washington University), received an email from somebody who claimed to have “discovered” on the Internet writings by me critical of administration and faculty. The Secretary of the Faculty forwarded the letter to me (it never made it into my personnel file) and I could see that the phrases were taken from that 2002 speech in Memphis and twisted around to make it appear as if I had slandered my colleagues—at least that was the Chancellor’s spin on my words. I wrote the chancellor back explaining what was going on. He didn’t have the decency to respond. As it turned out, he had written the email in a white heat—in the presence of the university attorney, who either could not or did not try to stop him from hitting send. 

Again the faculty rallied around me and I was awarded early tenure in June of 2005. But I was now in the crosshairs of some powerful forces. I had not let up on the corporate polluters and their political operatives. And I continue to condemn the warmongers. In 2004, I delivered a keynote address at a sociology conference in Tennessee, “Threatening Uncertainties: Fossil Fuels, Climate Change, and Foreign Policy in the 21st Century,” that lambasted the Bush administration. I published an essay that same year, first in the German language, then in English in 2005 (with Pluto Press), titled “War Hawks and the Ugly American: The Origins of Bush’s Central Asia and Middle East Policy,” in the collection Devastating Society–The Neo-Conservative Assault on  Democracy and Justice. The essay came out in Arabic a year later (and Indonesian after that). The collection contained an additional essay by me criticizing the Bush energy policy. Throughout all this I continued to hammer away at the government with essays in From the Left, for example “Bush and Sharon: Securing the Realm” (2004) and “The Downing Street Memo—Why it Matters” (2006). 

In fall of 2006 and spring of 2007 I accepted two stints at the United Nations University International Leadership Institute, held in Amman, Jordan, giving two high profile lectures, in addition to running workshops and participating in roundtables with individuals from across the planet. The first was called “Youth Leadership, the Politicization of Religion, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East” (see Journey to Jordan, November 2006) and “Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Challenges of the Globalizing World” (see Journey to Jordan, April 2007). At the second meeting, I was confronted in the back of the room by a Bush official, serving in the US embassy in Jordan, about my political activities. He told me that he had been informed of the contents of my speech the day before and that he was there on this day to provide the administration’s position. This was right after the new US embassy building had been built and the US and Jordan had renewed their security arrangement. My institution had been working closely with the University in Jordan at Amman, a process in which I was deeply involved. Apparently word had gotten back the university about all this and I was never informed of another meeting of the committee after that. 

Me and US Embassy’s Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs Philip Frayne

The ramifications of all this have been rather significant. Permit me to speculate here. I do not have evidence to support my suspicions. However, with the release of the Twitter files, which exposes the collaboration between the administrative state and social media companies, it seems apparent to me why, after more than ten years on Twitter, I have only 180 followers. Compare this to my number of followers on Gettr, the right-wing version of Twitter, where, despite being open about my Marxism, I have more than 700 followers, this after only being on that site for a year or so. Was my name entered into the shadow banning algorithms at the inception of the Twitter? This might explains why, when I search Google for blog entries from Freedom and Reason, certain ones of a certain character are not returned (you can probably guess which ones). (See Is Freedom and Reason Being Shadow Banned?

However, even with my marginal(ized) presence on Twitter, I still managed to find a way to get reported to the administrators of my university. Before this recent anti-BLM dustup, and after the campaign of right-wing harassment, I was reported for informing Nikole Hannah-Jones about the uptake of mRNA in the black community (see Cognitive Autonomy and Our Freedom from Institutionalized Reflex). Instead of educating the person who complained about the vital importance of academic freedom and the political and intellectual autonomy of teachers and researchers in the university’s employ, the complaint was sent down the chain of command and I was asked to consider not identifying my affiliation with the university in my Twitter profile. My response was to ask the colleague, who is also on social media, and politically active in Democratic Party politics, as well as in organized labor, whether his university affiliation also appears in his profile. There is an obvious double standard.

The soul-crushing part of the attempts to suppress me are the anonymous letters and messages from colleagues who beg me to come home to the tribe they think owns me (I even get this from some relatives). When people who have claimed to like and love you, people with whom you have had a social life, gaslight you it does some work on you emotionally. It’s also terribly disappointing because you want to respect people and that becomes very difficult in that situation. Even when they apologize, it goes to character. The point I want to make before moving on (and I am getting near the end of this blog) is how obvious suppression makes the prevailing hegemony. That quote shared on social media wrongly attributed to Voltaire is spot on: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” That apparently white nationalist Kevin Alfred Strom penned that quote doesn’t change its power (although I am sure it does among the identitarians whose logic is necessarily rooted in the fallacy of ad hominem).

That reminds me! White supremacist Paul Nehlen sent cryptic and somewhat threatening messages to me and a colleague (who is Jewish) several years ago. The messages came as cards with text scrawled in Sharpie in big white envelopes delivered to our campus mailboxes. Why us? We turned over the messages to campus police, who returned them to us after determining that there was nothing to be done about it. The faculty around us condemned the letters. I can with almost 100 percent certainty guarantee you that I will never find faculty rallying to my side when the harassment comes from progressive students, colleagues, and community members.

* * *

During the Cold War in the United States, there was a period known as the “Red Scare” where citizens were made afraid of the perceived threat of communism and Soviet influence. This led to a culture of suspicion where people were encouraged to report any potential communist sympathizers to the authorities. As part of this culture, there were instances where students were encouraged to report their professors to authorities if they believed that they held communist beliefs or were teaching subversive material. 

These reports were made not only to government agencies such as the FBI, which would investigate the allegations and potentially take action against the accused professors, but were most frequently reported to department chairs, college deans, and chancellors and presidents of colleges and universities. Many professors had their careers destroyed and their lives ruined as a result. I don’t need to tell historians that the culture of surveillance and suspicion that developed during this time was a dark chapter in American history and a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked government power and the importance of protecting civil liberties. 

But I feel that I do need to tell them that it is no different now that it’s those claiming to have communist and left-wing sympathies who are reporting teachers they suspect of holding conservative beliefs and teaching subversive materials, i.e., criticism of Antifa, Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, and gender ideology. 

Resistance to facts is not only frustrating in its tenacity and therefore its function as a barrier to learning, but has become dangerous in the depth of its repressive reflex. Too many students today think it’s their duty to report their teachers to the authorities. They think this is what democracy looks like—just like students thought during the Red Scare when they reported their leftwing teachers to the authorities. And, just like during the Red Scare, compounding the problem are teachers who enable youth by failing to stand up for cognitive liberty and free speech—teachers who deny that repressive praxis is a serious problem when its the other side they think is being repressed. 

The word “censorious” is often used to describe this situation. But this is the wrong word. “Censorious” is an adjective that describes someone who is highly critical or disapproving, especially in a fault-finding way. A censorious person is quick to point out the mistakes of others, often in a harsh manner or moralistic tone. The word “censorious” describes an atmosphere, climate, environment that is highly critical or disapproving, such as a workplace or a social group where people are quick to judge or criticize one another. 

“Repressive” defines a climate or system or climate that suppresses or restricts the expression of free speech or other forms of individual liberty. This is the word we are looking for. We see as repressive government censorship of certain books or restricts access to information. We are also coming to see this as also true of private action in the era of corporate statism. 

However, a workplace or social environment where individuals are discouraged from expressing their opinions or ideas due to fear of retribution is also repression. Reporting teachers for saying things that some students find “harmful” creates a chilling effect where teachers who might deviate from the woke progressive doctrine so pervasive in today’s university will cause those who are supposed to challenge ideology to avoid arguments and subjects they fear will cause students to report them to administrators—who are inclined to follow up on their complaints. 

I admit that it has limited my own expressions—that is, I have engaged in self-censorship. 

“Repressive” refers to the act of controlling or limiting something, whether by authority or coercion. A repressive culture, regime, organization, system is one that seeks to control its citizens or members by limiting their freedoms and rights. Repressive systems use tactics such as censorship, propaganda, and surveillance to limit the flow of information and to suppress dissent or opposition. 

Such actions may be directed towards individuals, groups, or entire populations, and can have serious consequences for human rights, democracy, and social justice—even while appealing to these very things as the motive to repress. 

In a social or psychological context, repressive may refer to an individual’s attempt to suppress or deny their own thoughts, feelings, or desires. This can be harmful to an individual’s mental health and may interfere with their ability to form authentic relationships or to fully engage with the world around them. Repressive circumstances forces people to live in bad faith.

* * *

I will close on this business of retention because this is one more rationalization given to cover the pervasive authoritarian character of progressive students. It is not interesting how administrators, who in my experience promote the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, do so while never asking whether the climate at today’s institutes of higher learning make it difficult to retain conservative and liberal students—or, for that matter, deter them from seeking a college education?

It is important for readers to understand is that the argot of DEI is not supposed to be taken on face value. One would think that diversity refers to the recognition and celebration of differences among individuals and groups, and the importance of including diverse perspectives and experiences in all aspects of society. But in practice, diversity means elevating the perspectives and experiences of nonwhite, non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual, and female above those of white, cisgendered, heterosexual men (I am using here the terminology from the UW System survey).

Equity does not refer to the creation of a level playing field where all individuals have access to the resources and opportunities needed to succeed regardless of their background or identity. Rather, diversity and equity are code words for preferences for those of minority status. And inclusion, despite appearing to emphasize practices of actively involving and valuing all individuals and creating a culture where everyone feels welcome and supported, actually means suppressing those attitude and opinions that minorities find harmful and worthy of reporting to administrators.

The reality of today’s university is that there has been an illiberal takeover of higher education by DEI activists and bureaucrats. Their work has been in stifling intellectual diversity, undermining equal opportunity and treatment, and excluding those who dissent from from the rigid orthodoxy of woke progressivism. This agenda that has been pushed down into 4k-12 education, producing students who value identity over liberty and exhibit authoritarian tendencies. By teaching young people that there are expressions that are harmful, teachers encourage young people to behave like the civilian informants that made the Stasi so effective in the repression of thought in totalitarian East Germany.

The solution? First, administrators, staff, and teachers have to explain to young people the importance of cognitive liberty and free speech to their own struggles for justice. The great civil rights victories of history occurred because the norms of free speech, association, and assembly allowed people to develop their arguments, legitimize their struggle, and persuade others to join them. We must also abolish DEI bureaucracies and end mandatory diversity and sensitivity training. Tragically, too many administrators, faculty, and staff are committed to DEI. And there is inertia in bureaucratic systems. Many colleges and universities invite, and some even require current and prospective faculty to demonstrate, often in written statements, what appear as loyalty oaths (and they are just this), their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), statements used not only in hiring decisions, but in evaluations, contract renewals, tenure, and promotion decisions.

I was appointed to my current position in 2000. This was before the madness. If I were entering the job market today, I would either have to lie or find another occupation. Given how fast and how completely the institution of higher education delegitimizing itself, I would probably regret having gone to graduate school in the first place.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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