Conformity in Academia, Explained

August 2, 2020 Updated: August 4, 2020

Commentary

To people who aren’t professors and don’t work on college campuses, it doesn’t make sense. How can a habitat devoted to open discussion and strong job protections be so constricted and unpleasant, as academia seems to be? And how can people occupying the highest parts of that enterprise be so afraid to speak their minds and contradict the majority opinion?

The cases keep happening, as one person after another is punished for violating the new Woke dogmas and few nearby colleagues step up to object. (See examples at University of California—Los Angeles, Harvard, and University of Oklahoma.)

A special zone in our society dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and protecting inquiry from political pressures has turned into one of the most conformist realms in the United States. Uniformity of political outlook has never been higher; social attitudes are rigid. Everyone is nervous except for the Woke Revolutionaries, and that includes my colleagues who have voted Democrat all their lives, support affirmative action in hiring and admissions, and bow to the idols Diversity–Tolerance–Inclusion.

The explanation for it all is professional. It’s based on the long and complex process through which a person becomes a professor.

The Route to Tenure

It starts in high school when talented seniors compete for spaces in selective universities. If you don’t earn a spot at a known public or private institution, the chances are that you will not be able to earn a spot in a noted public or private graduate program. Without a Ph.D. from a major institution, you have little hope of a job at a good school, at least not in those fields where the job market is very tight such as the humanities, where every job opening draws hundreds of applications. If you do win a tenure-track position, you have another hurdle you must cross a few years later: tenure, that decisive day when you win or lose a job for life.

The key is that at each step you succeeded because of what other people said about you. You made it into a graduate program because the admissions committee liked your application. You were granted a doctorate because your thesis director approved your work. You got a job because the hiring committee that interviewed you gave a strong “Yes” to the department at large. You advanced toward tenure because you had good teaching evaluations—yes, what students say about you matters, too—and because you published research that experts reviewed and cleared for acceptance. If you earned a grant or a fellowship, it was because a panel combing through applications found yours worthy. Finally, you won tenure because more senior professors voted for you than voted against you.

In other words, your value and your future lay in the hands of others. Some professors, it’s true, are measured by the money they bring in, especially federal research dollars that have become so important to university budgets. But most professors aren’t. They aren’t judged on how much their students earn, nor on how many undergraduates they recruit to their colleges. They make their way in academia mainly by impressing senior peers—and by not irritating them.

At an early age, they learn to be politic and reassuring. They know that academics tend to be thin-skinned and to hold grudges. Tenure votes and peer reviews are anonymous, also. People can knock you down without having to justify doing so. Do you really want to risk alienating them by defending a colleague who has been shunned by the rest because he criticized Black Lives Matter? The tenure vote can be a close affair. Two or three votes can make all the difference.

These are the calculations a professor makes when a controversy arises. The consciousness of others is intense because others have played a large role in their success. The stakes are high, the judgments of colleagues dispositive. It’s been happening since they were teenagers, and it will continue beyond tenure when their further research undergoes scrutiny and they hope to be promoted to full professor.

Caution and Diplomacy

After so many years of conditioning, professors have developed a personality trait of caution and diplomacy. They’ve learned to consider how others will react should they voice an opinion. They stay away from controversial subjects and controversial individuals, and when those things are pressed upon them, they take care to track the prevailing winds and get back to work. They would like to believe that they will be judged on strictly intellectual grounds—Is their teaching well-organized and their handling of students conscientious? Is their research informed and rigorous? But they worry that personal considerations come into play as well, and they don’t want to risk bad feelings.

This is why we see the campus in such an intolerant condition. People are afraid to speak out. The work they completed that secured a favorable nod from superiors has been internalized into a general state of mind: “I want your approval.” They pass through their professional spheres in a more or less binding chill.

To break free of it has its costs. People deeply invested in the dominant outlook despise a heretic, and they will levy costs when they can. For instance, they may tell students to avoid him, not invite him to gatherings, and keep him off department committees. They may not be able to damage his intellectual reputation, but they may stigmatize him locally as alien or wrongheaded. In a profession built on peer review, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of this kind of social disfavor. His dissent may have absolutely nothing to do with his disciplinary expertise, but his disciplinary standing will nonetheless suffer.

The Antidote

The antidote is obvious: More professors have to protest against intolerance. They don’t have to agree with the original dissenter who is being punished, but they do have to oppose the punishment he or she is undergoing. When they see a lone dissenter hit by complaints and petitions and smears merely because he or she mocked the canons of Woke-ness (that’s the most common crime at the present time), more faculty members must speak up.

This is not as difficult as people think, for it would only take a few people to object for the whole dynamic to change. A contest of 100-against-1 is a whole lot different than a contest of 100-against-4. The impact of those three people who stood up and declared, “Hey, don’t go after Professor X in this way—counter his words and ideas with your better words and ideas,” is much larger than their meager numbers would suggest. The majority group could no longer treat the lone dissenter as a solitary figure, a rogue, someone beyond the pale unworthy of an academic response.

Conformity works in two ways. One, it intimidates people into alignment; and two, it isolates anyone who doesn’t align. The group wants to make that person singular and eccentric. The substance of his words is ignored, shuffled away with a summary judgment (“he made sexist remarks in class”) that pigeonhole who he is and why he must be exiled. He is now the focus of attention, his poor character and general unfitness. They do it to him very loudly, too, so that others observe the process and take a lesson: “Do what he did, say what he said, and this will happen to you, too.”

But if just a few individuals rise up, the isolation tactic fails. The group knows that it can’t do the same thing to the other three who have asked for a more academic and less punitive response to the dissenter. If it did go after these secondary figures, that would spark a few more silent ones to speak up for them in turn. It would no longer appear that the group has a monopoly on what is right and true. We would realize, too, how fragile is the conformity that the group imposes.

This is where the hope lies. A coercive environment doesn’t make people happy. Nobody wants to walk around with a censor in his head whispering, “Watch what you say.” There are, of course, academic norms and common manners that must be respected, but the current coerciveness is verging on the prosecution of thought crimes. The enforcement of dogma is getting way too strict. It’s contrary to the human spirit; people are getting fed up. It will take longer in academia for the reaction to surface because of the conditioning I have described, but eventually more and more people will cry, “Enough!”

There is no sign that intolerance on campus is waning, and the people who organize campaigns against a putative miscreant are motivated and self-assured. Only a firm counterforce will re-open the campus to a wider spectrum of opinion. We need more professors to stand tall. The more of them that do so, the easier it will be for others to do so.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory college. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS and 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.