Review: The Tyranny of Virtue

Tyranny of Virtue

The Tyranny of Virtue, Robert Boyers. New York: Scribners, 2019.

Summary: A distinguished liberal scholar critiques the new academic orthodoxy, one that defines virtue through the excoriating of privilege, identity, safety, microaggression, ableism, and appropriation, creating an academic tyranny in which people fear to speak their minds under threat of denunciation.


Robert Boyers

Perhaps the most stunning thing about this book is who wrote it. This is not one more conservative diatribe against political correctness and speech codes in the university. Robert Boyers is a liberal arts professor teaching English at Skidmore as well as editing the literary quarterly, Salmagundi, which he has done for fifty years. He directs the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He does not have kind words to say about religious and political conservatives.

He also writes trenchantly against a new liberal academic orthodoxy of enforced virtue. He shows how constructs like privilege, microaggression, ableism, safety, identity, and appropriation, that may have a legitimate place in social critique, have become part of a surveillance culture on campuses where fellow scholars of good will can find themselves facing universal denunciation for the smallest, often inadvertent speech infractions, while the denouncers assert their own political virtues. It creates a culture in which faculty fear to say what they think, and students are taught all the things against which they should take offense.

Boyers is concerned with how this shuts down real inquiry and discourse, and often does little, if anything, to advance real efforts toward justice and equity with persons of color, or of other identities that these enforced virtues are meant to protect. He also is concerned with the lack of real intellectual underpinnings to the slogans used in the denunciation of transgressions, using Susan Jacoby’s phrase “junk thought.” One example comes in his discussion of cultural appropriation. As with other matters in the book, he recognizes legitimate instances of appropriation but then shows how all writers, including writers of color appropriate. He challenges the idea that those who are not of a particular culture have no right to write about it and cites examples of those who do so with real sympathy, with the intent to honor and honestly present that culture and who get it right in the eyes of persons from that culture.

Boyers in his epilogue soberly assesses the scene:

In many quarters we are now haunted by the specter of a liberalism increasingly drawn to denial and overt repression. Academic liberals who would have laughed thirty or forty years ago at the prospect of speech codes and draconian punishments for verbal indecorum or “presumption” are now not only compliant but enthusiastic about efforts to enforce standards many of them know to be intellectually indefensible. Those of us who are determined to call what is happening by its rightful name are astonished again and again, by the virulence of efforts to deny what is now unmistakable.

Boyers is describing the shift from the liberal value of honest, fearless exploration of ideas that allowed for difference and debate and discomfort. He decries the loss of a generosity of spirit that assumed good will of one’s intellectual adversaries, replaced by a climate of suspicion, an “us versus them” mentality whose resting state is one of hostility and grievance.

What it seems to me Boyers is calling for is perspective and rigorous mental reflection. Privilege does exist. Microaggressions do occur. Sexual violence on campuses and #MeToo make it clear that campuses are often not safe places for women. “Black face” episodes remind us that cultural appropriation is all too real. It seems, though, that to find instances of this everywhere, even among those with the most impeccable liberal credentials, begs the question of whether we diminish the seriousness of flagrant instances by lumping inadvertent or even non-existent slights with these. To put all the onus of offense on the act also seems to take away the agency of being able to choose to be offended, or to choose other, perhaps more conciliatory responses that mend rather than rend the social fabric.

What Boyers doesn’t address, perhaps in a desire to preserve the work he loves, is the connection between such toxic discourse and the eclipse of the humanities within the university. Yet might it not be contended that instances of the kind of speech codes and public shaming Boyers writes about occur most often with the context of the disciplines that fall within the humanities and social sciences? Might it be that the apparent dying of the humanities at many institutions is assisted by those within these disciplines digging each other’s graves? What I think Boyers gets right is that these things are “not to be done” but rather vigorously resisted. Hopefully his fellow scholars will wake to this realization in time.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Future of Academic Freedom

The future of academic Freedom

The Future of Academic FreedomHenry Reichman (foreword Joan Wallach Scott). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Summary: A defense of academic freedom in a contemporary setting where it is under attack by political leaders, and facing curtailments with the rise of the corporatized university.

What is academic freedom? Classically it has been defined as the protection of the freedom in research and publication, freedom of discussion in the classroom on matters related to their discipline, and freedom when they speak or write as citizens from discipline or censorship, with the expectation that while they do not speak for their university or profession, that they nevertheless represent these and ought speak with both accuracy and constraint. (Summarized from the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure adopted by the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]).

Henry Reichman, the Chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, offers in this work a rigorous defense of academic freedom, and a discussion of some of the related controversies on campus, and trends that threaten that freedom. He opens by posing the question, “does academic freedom have a future?” He explores the different trends threatening academic freedom that he will explore in more detail, from efforts to censor faculty or outside speakers on campus, the limits on students expressive freedoms, and more serious in his view, efforts to administratively or legislatively censor faculty speech,

In his chapter justifying academic freedom, he engages what he calls the “cramped” argument of Stanley Fish that argues that the responsibility of faculty is to research and teaching focused in one’s discipline, and that extramural expressions of ideas (for example on politics or personal ethics) fall outside the duties of faculty. He argues that this is not consistent with historic AAUP commitments that contend that the profession’s devotion to the larger common good justify accurate and responsible speech on wider issues both as members of the universities as citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

This leads to further discussion on faculty freedoms to speak as citizens, including utterances on Twitter. He explores challenges to that freedom by administrations or pressures brought to bear when faculty make controversial public statements. One of the things that comes out is a differentiation between free speech and academic freedom. While faculty can speak freely as citizens, not all such speech may be protected under provisions of academic freedom, particularly when such speech raises questions of fitness for their position. He considers specific cases, some in which he would argue that dismissal was unwarranted.

He discusses some of the much-ballyhooed threats to free speech on campuses (particularly speakers who are dis-invited or shouted down) and contends that these threats, while real and requiring a vigorous response, are often isolated and exaggerated. He points to the thousands of counter-examples of speakers on a variety of issues who speak on campus, sometimes with vigorous dialogue, which he contends is what campuses are for. He contends for the expressive freedom of students, which, while not academic freedom, per sé, nevertheless is consistent with the university as a place of free inquiry.

The real issue, he believes come from the pressures exerted on administrations by donors, cost-cutting pressures in increasingly corporatized universities that are reducing the numbers of tenured faculty and resulting in the increased use of contingent faculty, and political pressures attacking the idea of higher education, particularly public education, and seeking to reduce research funding and student aid.

One of the most revealing aspects of Reichman’s discussion is the evolving AAUP stance on unions and collective bargaining. AAUP has sought to maintain itself as a professional organization, and yet the pressures of both faculty speech and finances around both the corporatization of the university have necessitated the evolution of unions or union-like structures in AAUP chapters at many universities. One senses that Reichman accepts this as a necessary evil that has arisen in an era of bloated administrations and eroded faculty governance and standing.

Reichman gives us a discussion at once careful, grounded in historical precedent, and at the same time attuned to the changing environment of contemporary higher education. The work serves both as a good introduction to the idea of academic freedom, and a spirited discussion of what that means in the present time. He shows that academic freedom is not a mere indulgence, but essential for the education of students, the advance of learning, and the wider common good of society.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University

The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University
The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University by Ellen Schrecker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ellen Schrecker is a historian and what she writes is a history of academic freedom issues at universities through the twentieth century. The surprising thing to me is that by and large, there are very few instances, and most in the McCarthy era of breaches of academic freedom. Even here it seems that Schrecker is working with a far more expansive idea of academic freedom that simply the freedom of a professor to address curriculum objectives in the matter he or she deems best and to choose freely one’s lines of research inquiry. What is less clear in the whole area of academic freedom what protection should be given to speech and associations that have nothing to do with one’s discipline but affect the reputation of the institution you work with. The truth is, except for rare instances, even here tenured faculty are generally protected. Primarily, Schrecker’s finding is that the exception almost always involves the squeeky wheel who doesn’t get along with colleagues or who insists upon saying outrageous things outside the classroom context, such as the Ward Churchill incident.

The last third of the book focuses on corporatization, and it seemed to me that the book could have simply focused here. Her account of the cost economies brought on by the recession of 2008, the increases in contingent or adjunct faculty and the almost complete lack of standing these individuals have is probably the most revealing part of the book. This has major implications for the quality of instruction,the governance of the university, as well as the just treatment of the new teaching “underclass”. The real story of the lack of academic freedom is here–adjuncts are employed “at will”, often have no offices or even university emails. Indeed, they hardly exist outside the classes they teach in the university’s eyes.

In sum, I thought this was really two books in one. Each was worthy of treatment. I suspect the historic survey of academic freedom was attractive to the author while the corporatization issues far more pressing. I also would have like a greater consideration of academic responsibility–what are the obligations of faculty that go along with the freedom and protections for which this author advocates. Here, Stanley Fish in Save the World on Your Own Time was actually far more helpful in outlining both the obligations,and in his mind, limits of academic freedom, which doesn’t extend to proselytizing students for one’s own cause or to one’s out of classroom and research activity.

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Defining Academic Freedom

It has been my experience that tenured professors can say or do quite a bit under the protection of “academic freedom” (those without tenure, not so much!). In particular I’ve heard of professors advancing political views that have little or nothing to do with course material. I’ve known them to advance anti-religious views or attack religious perspectives, not in a spirit of open inquiry but simply as an expression of their opinions.

Stanley Fish would have none of this. In Save the World On Your Own TimeFish argues for a definition of academic freedom as the freedom within the agreed upon course description and requirements to choose written materials and courses of inquiry to accomplish the goal of teaching students the content of the course. This also includes the freedom to pursue research in one’s discipline along the lines of one’s own intellectual interests without the intrusions of boards of trustees or other interests.

He would also argue that academic freedom has nothing to do with advancing multiculturalism, any political perspective or any particular moral value (other than academic honesty). Insofar as any of these are legitimate areas of inquiry in a particular course, academic analysis is appropriate–but not advancing them as ideas students must embrace.

Fish is not opposed to individuals advancing such views in other fora. That is freedom of speech. And he would argue that academics are in fact free do advance whatever views they want on their own time and undertake whatever crusades they wish outside the classroom. But he contends that their job in the classroom is instruction and inquiry related to the objectives in the course. He says some surprising things. He doesn’t think it legitimate for biologists to crusade against Intelligent Design in the classroom. He does think it legitimate to rigorously inquire whether it meets the criteria of good scientific theory.

I find this strangely refreshing. I’ve known students who have been in classes with professors who use their position to propagandize and proselytize and they fear disagreeing in discussions or papers because of the dogmatic fashion in which these positions have been asserted. The classroom in these cases has ceased to be a place where good argument and good data and the pursuit of truth are uppermost. In most cases, this abuse of power works against itself–students may comply with course rubrics for the sake of a grade, but the only thing they learn is a lesson in the use of power.

Fish takes a very limited but consistent view of academic freedom. Fish has argued vigorously in books and NY Times  op-eds to this effect against far more expansive versions he sees rampant in academic circles. He thinks all these go beyond the modest but crucial mission of educating students.  I would be interested in how others who have an interest in the life of higher education take his arguments, and how they would define academic freedom.