MARSCHALL: Liberal bias on campus does not just happen

The professors, administrators, students, and activists turning college campuses into kangaroo courts for woke justice are real people.

Campus Reform Editor in Chief Zachary Marschall holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University and is an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky. 

Higher education is suffering under the yoke of leftist ideology, progressive agendas, and liberal bias.

The situation will never change until those who disagree with prevailing leftist dogmas summon the courage to call out academics who have used their power to enable woke orthodoxies to dictate campus life. 

The movement against liberal bias on campus must do better if it is to stop – or even reverse – the damage activist administrators, professors, and student leaders have done to colleges. 

A speech recently delivered by Bari Weiss perfectly illustrates the consequences of not holding those with the levers of power in academia accountable.   

Weiss, an entrepreneurial journalist who cancel culture pushed out of The New York Times, delivered her address to the University of Austin’s first cohort, where she serves as a board member.

Weiss is a liberal who rails against the woke agenda’s use of cancel culture to impose social change on this country, making her a perfect fit to deliver a speech at the University of Austin: a school, started this summer by academics and public figures from both the left and right whose purpose is to counter higher education’s adoption and perpetuation of these trends. 

Unfortunately, Weiss’ speech did not live up to what this experimental institution purports to achieve. I take no pleasure in stating that. 

I am disappointed that a writer as talented as Weiss delivered a speech on the ills of academia entirely in the passive voice. She used the word “was” 36 times, according to my count, to describe an action being done to someone or something. 

Here are some examples of that passive voice:

The professors, administrators, students, and activists turning college campuses into kangaroo courts for woke justice are real people. 

Unlike Weiss, Paul Du Quenoy, president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute, named the people responsible for Katz’s politically motivated removal. 

“Princeton’s Board of Trustees, acting on the recommendation of its President Christopher L. Eisgruber, fired star classics professor Joshua Katz after nearly 25 years of employment,” Du Quenoy wrote for Newsweek in May. 

In 2020, Campus Reform reported that the “University of Wisconsin-Madison student government unanimously voted in favor of a resolution that calls for the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue on campus.”

By not naming those responsible for liberal or leftist misdeeds, Weiss’ speech turned these individuals and groups into mere figures.

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What is a figure and why does that matter for combatting liberal bias on college campuses?

Figures are abstract. They represent the general idea of a person or group. In that sense, I do not doubt that everyone in Weiss’ audience knew who did the censoring and canceling in the examples she listed. However, try to name that figure and tie the idea of it to a specific person.

That challenge demonstrates why the figure is always more evasive that the individual. As with literary characters, the figure can never be reduced to the real person. 

Avatars, for example, can approximate the real person’s likeness with increasing precision, but they will never be the real person they represent.

By choosing not to name those at fault for the misdeeds, Weiss implicitly deflected blame for those responsible. 

Whenever Weiss got close to identifying those preventing diversity of thought from flourishing, her presentation misdirected those accusations. As a result, her speech gave the impression that a phantom presence has created the current problem, not an ideological cohort of real individual people.

The result is that Weiss’ readers and listeners are none the wiser about how power operates within institutions of higher education. Her audience does not learn how and why political bias in the ivory tower is systemic and institutionalized. 

As a result, the speech enables the current power imbalance to continue, because the ability to fire, cancel, and censor based on woke politics is, given Weiss’ rhetoric, a headless power.

Headless power looks like the wind.

People see the consequences for being un-woke in academia, but they do not see who is doling out the punishment because institutionalized policies and initiatives make those in power invisible to those outside of the institution’s power hierarchy.

Only at the center of power within universities do the individuals instigating totalitarian woke policies reveal themselves. But that center of power is inaccessible to those who do not subscribe to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) dogma.

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“Fewer new professors conducting research that could falsify aspects of the dominant narrative will be hired, since they will be screened away through DEI statements,” Max Eden and Scott Yenor recently wrote for American Enterprise Institute. “The result is a successive narrowing of opinion and the sphere of legitimate inquiry.” 

Consequently, the power to censor and cancel in higher education is only available to those that want to.

The relatively few people who can see the detrimental actions being taken have a responsibility to make them legible for others who have a stake in the future of America’s education system.  

In March, I argued here that leftist dogmas dominate college campuses because liberals have capitulated to the most extreme elements of the American left. 

A professor claiming to be a liberal who does not engage in identity politics does not absolve that individual of the university’s systemic discrimination. That is because those who are perpetuating cancel culture in academia are being hired and promoted by committees populated by center-left liberals.

That dynamic is why Weiss’ address was disappointing. Liberals in higher education are culpable for radical leftists’ misdeeds if they enable such behavior by not challenging it at its root: the individual.

Speeches delivered entirely in passive voice do as much to shield totalitarian-minded academics as does the tenure system.

Academia is a rotting tower of scholars’ dogmatic resentment and sinking fast under the weight of administrators’ glut.

These are the individuals destroying the promise of higher education. They deserve the attention.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.