A witch hunt accomplishes three things at once. He discourages overly ambitious and threatening upstarts. It provides a moral justification for eliminating rivals. And that adds to the prestige of wizards. Every organization has Puritans who love a good hunt. While not explicitly tasked with defending virtue and rooting out evil, they usually grow up in that role because of their character and personal history.
Witch hunters can emerge anywhere, with or without a snitch line, and hunts are nothing new. Purges are inevitable in most organizations, as prolonged impotence is intolerable for most people. When you find yourself at the bottom of the ladder, it is natural to try to climb up, even if it means harming the organization by disrupting its mission and victimizing its members. A witch can still be produced, one way or another.
Peter Herman, in “Soft Coercion at the Woke University”, seems to understand this when he points out that “there is [subtle] ways for awake university administrators to control what professors say and do, methods which do not allow banning or overt threats but are still frighteningly effective.
He writes: “Anyone familiar with the current culture on campus knows what reviewers will consider acceptable beliefs: only those that conform to a particular philosophy, namely the critical theory of social justice and its various ramifications. This not only violates intellectual freedom, but also generates an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. He implements an oath of loyalty and encourages arrests and self-censorship. You say you’re not a witch, but we’ll see if you float.
Herman argues forcefully that even the smallest regional and state universities grapple with this form of soft coercion, but he thinks it’s something new: “The SDSU is known as the crown jewel of the system. from California State University; it has a student population of around 35,000; it forms a large percentage of the region’s future teachers and is a major driver of San Diego’s economy. What happens at SDSU matters. And last year, only one administrator changed the faculty assessment criteria for retention, promotion and tenure.
But when was implicit coercion and over-administrative reach absent from academia? The tenure is not as impregnable as people prefer to imagine. The SDSU has always been embroiled in social and political tensions, but I think the turning point came during the campus unrest in the early 90s. I was there for that.
In 1992, Thomas Day, then president of San Diego State University, responded to an eight percent cut in public funds by laying off 146 full and tenured professors, thereby wiping out entire departments (anthropology, religious studies, recreation, various languages), reducing nearly half of the history department, and cutting off a wide range of upper division sections in philosophy, English, theater, art, music, and other arts and humanities disciplines. He didn’t see the need for soft coercion. He went straight to the tough stuff.
The San Diego Union-Tribune called the student protests that followed “the biggest on campus since the Vietnam War” and many students took the unrest as an indication that it was time to give up and quit. find a job or seek better education elsewhere. Prior to President Day’s tenure, SDSU was considered the best university in the Cal State system. But even when CSU Chancellor Barry Munitz found the money to repair most of the damage, the psychological and professional fallout persisted. Now history is repeating itself.
Some professors, especially those at the top of the salary scale and thus costing their department too much, were not encouraged to return. Students who followed Cal State’s centuries-old tradition of working three jobs in order to reach the end of a severely reduced bachelor’s degree, were told they would have to wait another year (or maybe two) before they could get the course they needed to graduate. The demonstrations of anger therefore continued. Day’s response was to send campus police in the student quad to hit protesters at the campsite – an event briefly mentioned in local TV news, but nowhere else.
As a stunned sophomore at SDSU, whose high school friends all went to either chic eastern universities or the Marines, I had already thought about leaving when a musicologist I knew s his fingers are broken by a baton. As I walked across campus, I passed a screaming crowd with police officers throwing professors and students to the ground.
After that, I decided that was enough and gave up. Four years later, I graduated from UC Irvine with a BA in English to law school, but my early years in San Diego were hard to forget. People are emotional. Intimidate them and force them to conform to a particular orthodoxy, dogma or movement and the trauma will not go away.
According to friends and family who continued at SDSU, a tangible sense of paranoia lingered there throughout the millennium. Now Peter Herman is pointing out the new Puritanism, the new signage of bureaucratic virtue, the new mechanism for weeding out those who profess what may be unpopular or embarrassing or threatening to those in authority.
As he puts it, “The mandatory declaration of diversity… seeks to enclose the faculties in philosophical conformity and uniformity. This subtly prompts them to adhere to the ideological program or suffer the consequences. No one is surprised by this. And President Day must be laughing in his grave. Loyalty oaths and vague evaluation criteria prove to be more useful than the dodging stool.