Conformity Among the Academic Elite

June 21, 2021 Updated: June 21, 2021


Last month, President Lawrence Bacow of Harvard University sent out a brief letter to the university community addressing a “disturbing rise in anti-Semitism” that had surfaced in the preceding days. Jews had been harassed on the streets and the Harvard Hillel house had been vandalized. The letter was only three paragraphs long, and here are the last two:

“I have had too many occasions during my time here and at Tufts to condemn acts of hatred and bigotry in our nation. Each time, I have thought about my mother and father. They came to this country as refugees to escape religious persecution in Europe. They were embraced and afforded the freedom and safety to pursue their lives peacefully and productively. Everyone deserves the same opportunity my parents found here.

“As the words of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remind us, ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ None of us should tolerate the targeting of any religious or ethnic group. It is our collective responsibility to speak out and condemn such acts of hatred and bigotry. Let us work together to build a better Harvard and a better nation.”

A serious pledge, but in truth those lines don’t much differ from statements made by 100 other college leaders in recent times as they’ve responded to incidents of a racial or sexual kind on and off campus. We have straight off the claim the president makes to having opposed hatred for a long, long time, along with the personal turn to prove his commitment (“thought about my father and mother”), and then the expansion to justice for all (“Everyone deserves the same opportunity …”). The subject matter is there, but what really counts in these sentences is what rhetoricians call ethos, that is, the establishment of the speaker’s high character. This is, in fact, a crucial element of every message issued by a college president, the affirmation of his thorough fitness for the job.

The next paragraph has another purpose, though still a rhetorical one. It states in solemn tones that to which all thoughtful persons agree. It cites Martin Luther King Jr. on justice, and who wants to argue with that? It insists that nobody should tolerate racial targeting, as if there’s any human being in the Harvard community who does tolerate such a thing. And then comes a big hug: Let’s stop hate, all of us together, and make the world a better place.

No surprises here, nothing unusual, not a single word that seems out of place or pointed in any way. Justice, hate, tolerance, responsibility, bigotry … all of them standard fare, a familiar script. Read but a few of these missives by college leaders and they all start to sound the same. The mood is always oh-so-earnest, with indignation for the bad things and pious promises of better things to come. These are super-smart people, ultra-successful in their fields, and one expects now and then a sparkling metaphor, a fresh bit of diction, an unexpected turn in the argument. But no, nothing like that ever emerges. This is a studied conformity. It’s deliberate.

Conservatives usually treat these sober intonations from the president’s office as tiresome specimens of political correctness, and they’re right to do so. But at this point, after years of hearing the blather, I look differently at it. It brings to mind something else, not politics.

The Dynamics of Status

When I was in my 30s, freshly-tenured, liberal and secular, hoping to make a little name for myself in academia, I had a girlfriend who supported that ascent. I was a public school guy from Los Angeles who’d worked all through college and lived in crummy rooms through graduate school. She was raised in Princeton, went to Harvard and Columbia, and had a father renowned in literary circles. I cared about her very much, she was a remarkable woman, and the pedigree was intimidating. The names Andover, Maidstone, and Whiffenpoofs, which she and her acquaintances muttered as casually as I did the Rose Bowl, were foreign to me, and I took that as a drawback. She knew people who wrote for The New Yorker and the back-of-the-book of The New Republic, and I didn’t. I was nervous at the gatherings, and I’m pretty sure that the others didn’t think much of me.

As time went on, however, I got a little more distance on the scene and noticed a paradox. For all their background advantages, when they got together these people never seemed entirely relaxed and self-confident. They had all the prestige in the world—Ivy League professorships, successful parents, MacArthur grants, European travel every year, and regular features in The New York Review of Books—and yet their mannerisms, the opinions they offered, the introductions of someone new … they came off halting and coy. There was an anxiety in the air that put a filter on conversation. At one dinner, I’d said something about a Princeton historian—I think I called him a “dope”—and on the ride home my girlfriend worried that others didn’t like it, one of them perhaps a friend of the man. I didn’t respond, but remember thinking, “Big deal.”

On another occasion, we went to the Whitney Museum where a painter friend of someone else in our crowd was showing some works, and we sat around and stared at these Minimalist objects and commented, reflected, and remarked in an open, oblique way, careful to display a speculative eye and avoid concrete verdicts. We went to a party in a Manhattan apartment where in one room a famous feminist who’d been a classmate at Yale with another friend held court, pregnant and glowing, describing her experience while others in the room nodded like practiced courtiers.

At the end, before we separated, I would say to my girlfriend, “Do you ever get tired of this nonsense?”

“Gawd, yes,” she would blurt, “what a bore!” No belly laughs, no boisterous raillery, no startling exchanges, and no cases of one standing against the rest on any delicate social or political matters. I didn’t like Republicans in 1998, but it would have been amusing if someone were to have said, “Hey, this Gingrich character is kind of entertaining, don’t you think?”

But nobody could do that. People were too guarded, and at the same time they were ready to chide anyone who wasn’t. Say the wrong thing and everyone would notice and remember. They would disagree with you, but more importantly, they would consign you as someone who’d shown bad form, blown the etiquette, proved that you hadn’t developed the bien pensant habits you should have from the right schools and the best people. I was envious before, but after a couple of years of watching them, I felt lucky not to have done so. Besides, I’d encountered too many second-rate minds from Harvard to be impressed by the degree.

It wasn’t complicated, of course. This was just good old-fashioned status anxiety, now carried into the intellectual zones. My friend thought I had a class chip on my shoulder, but that wasn’t really the problem. I just didn’t like the company of people too uptight to speak their minds, whose skins were too thin, and who weighed so scrupulously what others thought of them. (I have found a similar division between East Coast conservatives, who care a lot about where you went to college, and Western conservatives, who don’t.)

It was a relief to get back to the professional world, where the judgment of others, mainly through various forms of peer review, stuck to concepts and evidence and argument, not ad hominem. There, you could cut and slice and advise without any of it seeming personal. By this time, I was reading manuscripts for more than a dozen scholarly presses and quarterlies, working up evaluations that did a lot more than advise yes or no on publication. I did pages and pages of line edits, suggested larger conceptual changes and smoother transitions, and offered to read the completed revision. Press editors came back to me again and again because I was doing much of their job for them, and it took some of the pressure off. The authors may have been up for promotion and needed a quick book contract, and he may have had powerful supporters, too, but I kept those factors out of the process. One had to be honest, and I went so far as to sign my name to the reports, foregoing the standard confidentiality and letting the authors and others know exactly who was doing the critique.

There was nothing terribly courageous or principled about this. On the contrary, I thought it was a way to get ahead, the only way. The more critical and forthright and independent you were, the more you showed your merit. Hedging wouldn’t please the superiors, who demanded rigor and honesty. The social atmosphere of that other world had no place here. The well-scripted discourse of the Upper West Side dinner party wouldn’t fly in the deliberations of scholars and intellectuals at the finest institutions.

Well, here we are now, and the words of our distinguished college administrators sound exactly like the upper-crust get-togethers from 20 years back. That’s how it seems to me, and I’ve been watching and listening to them for years. At a time when America needs the astute and penetrating honesty of the academic top, we get instead the guarded, curated language of the Northeast Corridor elite. It’s frustrating to hear people who are so astute speak so tritely. They say nothing that risks the disapproval of the consensus. The mottos of their schools speak of truth and freedom, but they all don a straitjacket when rising to speak on a heated issue. It’s a sign that academia is governed increasingly by social norms, not academic freedom.

The dynamics of status in the leisure classes are now fully operative in the academy, and they’re undermining the integrity of the whole thing. To be a college president is to conform, readily and dutifully—that’s how you get ahead. They can’t help sounding like wind-up toys. This is a paradox for institutional psychologists: The more power you have and the higher you climb the professional ladder, the more careful you must be, the less direct and candid, the more conscious of the precariousness of your elevation.

I find no better indicator of the corruption of higher education in the United States than this, the PR twaddle of college leaders, which every leader must learn to practice, or end up sharing the same fate as Larry Summers, former-president of Harvard, who had to step down after uttering provocative remarks about women in science, even though everything he said was fully within the bounds of academic discussion. For college leaders, and for the rest of us, too, those bounds have shrunk to dispiriting measures.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.