Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The uproar over a Fresno State history lecturer’s tweets about assassinating President Trump is understandable, but in the end the outrage is pointless. It’s doubtful the feds will charge the fellow, given how outlandish and obviously hyperbolic the tweets are. Nor is he likely to be fired. All the commotion has accomplished is to turn a nobody into a left-wing martyr persecuted for “speaking truth to power.”
The fact is, there is nothing this guy said that wouldn’t be applauded by most faculty in the social sciences and humanities, even if they don’t have his gumption to say so out loud. The politicized university is entering its fifth decade, and was already a done deal when Alan Bloom publicized it in his surprising 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. Thirty years later, focusing on the stupid statements of individual professors, or in this case lecturers, does nothing to get at the root of the problem. They are symptoms of deeper structural changes in the administrative apparatus of most colleges, and these changes in part have been responses to federal laws, particularly affirmative action, sexual harassment law, and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. With federal agency thugs backing campus leftists by threatening administrators with investigation or the reduction of federal funds, it has been easy to transform the university from a space for developing critical thinking and intellectual diversity, into a progressive propaganda organ and reeducation camp.
The most important of these government-backed instruments is “diversity.” This vacuous concept was created ex nihilo by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in the 1979 Bakke vs. University of California decision as a way to protect admissions “set asides” for minorities without falling afoul of the law’s prohibition of quotas. Since only a “compelling state interest” could justify exceptions to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on discrimination by race, which naked quotas obviously did, “diversity,” along with all its alleged social and educational boons, was by judicial fiat deemed a “state interest.” In 2003, Grutter vs. Bollinger, and again in the two Fisher vs. University of Texas cases (2013, 2016), the Supreme Court confirmed Powell’s legerdemain in order “to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” as Republican-appointed Justice Sandra Day O’Conner said in the first Fisher case.
Of course, there exists no coherent definition of “diversity,” and no empirical evidence demonstrating its power to improve educational outcomes or create “educational benefits.” If there were such pedagogical benefits from diversity, we would have long ago dismantled the 107 historically black colleges and universities. On the contrary, there is much evidence that mismatching applicants to universities damages minority students and segregates campuses into identity-politics enclaves.
But using race to privilege some applicants over others wasn’t just about admitting students. The campus infrastructure had to change, which meant the expansion of politicized identity-politics programs, departments, general education courses, and student-support administrative offices and services. As a result, the cultural Marxism ideology that created identity politics in the first place now permeates the university far beyond the classroom, and enables an intolerance for competing ideas, not to mention shutting down the “free play of the mind on all subjects” that Matthew Arnold identified as the core mission of liberal education. And this corruption is encouraged by federal law and its leverage of federal money that flows into higher education.
So the issue isn’t a two-bit adjunct and his juvenile tweets. All the rancorous attention being given to him may make some conservatives feel better, but it will do nothing other than turn a nobody into a somebody. This bad habit is indulged by conservative outlets like Fox News: to entertain their viewers, they dig up some second-rate professor or blogger, and bring him on a show to be slapped around by the host. But in that person’s world, he is now a star, with credibility and a megaphone he would have paid Fox to give him. Getting angry at such a person is like blaming a dog for the stinking mess it left on your lawn. Of course it stinks, that’s its nature. The real culprit is the neighbor too lazy or inconsiderate to walk his dog and clean up after it.
What we should be talking about, then, is getting at the real causes of the corrupt university, not the predictable byproducts of those causes. Take the problem of leftists shutting down conservative speakers in order to reinforce their intolerance of opposing points of view. This could be solved with a Department of Education “dear colleague” letter informing college administrators that they will be held accountable if they do not use campus police to remove disruptive protestors and protect the audience and speaker’s Constitutional right to free speech, the heart and soul of a genuine college education. And if such behavior continues––or if the university imposes astronomical fees on the organizers, as UC Berkeley did to cancel the appearance of Freedom Center founder David Horowitz––the offending campus could be hit with an investigation by the DOE’s Division of Civil Rights, and the reduction or elimination of federal funds. That’s how Obama’s DOE back in 2011 set off the current plague of campus star-chambers persecuting alleged sexual offenders with unconstitutional investigations and hearings.
More important, Congress needs to pass legislation revising sexual harassment law and tightening its overly vague language like “hostile” and “intimidating.” Likewise with Title IX, an open-ended invitation for any subjective, neurotic, or even psychopathic perception to turn disliked behavior into legally sanctioned “discrimination” requiring investigation and prosecution. These bad laws, and the politicized interpretations of them by politicized federal agencies, are the source of the “microagression” and “safe space” nonsense now metastasizing throughout college campuses. Tightening up the language of the law, and mandating investigations and financial penalties for institutions that abuse it, would do much more good than yelling at another childish faculty member who said something stupid. Saying something stupid is pretty much what most professors outside the sciences and some professional schools do for a living.
The Fresno State lecturer is being investigated for his comments, and some are calling for him to be fired. I doubt that the investigation will lead to anything. Saying “Trump must hang” or Republicans should be executed is not proof of an actionable plot to assassinate the president or commit murder. During Bush’s two terms, there were numerous fantasies of assassination and even a movie on that theme. I’m not aware that any of the writers or film producers ended up being charged. Such rhetoric is considered political speech, at best warranting an investigation to make sure the person involved is just a dope rather than a credible threat.
As for firing the guy, good luck with that. As a lecturer, he does not have tenure, but adjuncts in the Cal State system enjoy three-year renewable contracts which can be terminated only for budgetary reasons or for a sustained, documented record of lousy teaching or dereliction of duty, such as not showing up for class. Without such evidence, the faculty union would probably fight any attempt to fire him just because he tweeted some nonsense that embarrassed the university president and angered Fox News. And with the high profile this Trump-hater now enjoys, trying to fire him will likely turn him into a martyr for academic freedom and the First Amendment.
There is, however, one thing taxpayers can do to punish universities, and that is to withhold donations. If you’re wondering why Fresno State’s president followed up his initial mealy-mouthed response to the tweets with a promise to cooperate with the feds, I’d put my money on a barrage of phone calls from irate deep-pockets donors. A modern university president is pretty much a glorified fund-raiser and public relations hack, so hitting the campus in the wallet is a good way to get his attention. If more donors did that, nonsense like making campuses “sanctuaries” for illegal aliens, as every campus in the Cal State system has done, would stop.
But the offending lecturer? That’s a dog-bites-man story in the university. Focusing on him merely gives him a profile he could never earn otherwise. He is a symptom, not a cause. If we want to drain the fetid swamp of higher education, first get Congress and Trump’s DOE to reform bad laws.