Thou Shalt Admit Thy Guilt—Or Maybe Not

Thou Shalt Admit Thy Guilt—Or Maybe Not
The main building at Converse College, in Spartanburg, S.C., on Dec. 19, 2015. (PegasusRacer28/Wikimedia Commons)
Mark Bauerlein

One of the clear signs of a totalitarian situation is the imposition of guilt of some kind upon people who have shown no evidence of having perpetrated a crime.

I don’t mean cases of false arrest or mistaken prosecutions, whereby the officials truly believe in the as-yet-unproven guilt of the suspect or have some preexisting grudge against him. I mean cases in which the authorities are willing to admit that you haven’t committed any particular crime, but demand that you nonetheless assume that you're guilty and require correction.

On June 3, the provost of Converse College, a private, liberal arts school in South Carolina, sent a letter to all the faculty members on campus announcing that everyone was obligated to take two online professional development courses. One of them was entitled “diversity inclusion training,” the other “uncovering unconscious bias.”

The mandate followed a statement issued by President Krista Newkirk that spoke in plaintive words of the death of George Floyd and “the many others we have heard about in the last few years [that] highlight the impact of a system of racism.”
The president’s letter proceeded to attribute the higher death rates from COVID-19 among African Americans to the same thing, systemic racism. The pandemic itself “highlights the injustices in our own backyards.” She closed with a fervent exhortation, urging Converse people to “raise our voices to condemn the racist actions around us.” If they do not do so, “we allow hatred, racism, and violence to grow in our midst. In short, we must do better.”

The provost quotes those words from the president’s statement and aligns the training sessions with “doing better.” He also signals his concern over student protests when the fall term begins and hopes that everyone’s participation in the anti-racism program will prove to distressed and angry students that Converse personnel are listening closely and showing sensitivity.

Everything in the vocabulary and tone of the statements indicates that the positions taken by the administration are earnest and conscientious. What they propose, however, is so solemn and urgent, not to mention commonplace, that it's easy to blink at how accusatory and coercive it is. Think about the basic message: Racism is all around us; you are complicit in the problem; if you do not become an active, vocal anti-racist, you are guilty.

In other words, this training plan tells everybody at Converse that they are culpable characters. Professors and staff must undergo that training as a first step in correction.

The willingness of college professors who otherwise pride themselves on their independence and academic freedom to comply with these accusations and orders has been one of the remarkable stories in higher education in this year of woke reform. The mandatory training that has happened at Converse and many, many other places amounts to a disciplinary punishment.

You must be purified of your “unconscious bias,” and we will lead the ceremony. You are guilty, and we will show you how. If you believe you aren't racist, if you support affirmative action in hiring and admissions, if you always include African American material on your syllabus... that doesn’t count. You still must undergo training. Indeed, if you think you don’t need it, that only proves you really do need it.

But something different happened this time. After the provost’s letter went out, a 68-year-old professor in the Department of History and Politics, Jeffrey J. Poelvoorde, issued a long public letter stating, “I cannot and will not comply with this mandate.”

Poelvoorde didn’t like the coerciveness of the proposal, and he also criticized the president for ignoring the looting, rioting, and violence that followed the death of Floyd. He worried, too, that the diversity and bias training imposed an ideological demand that, as the only Jew at a Christian college, he was particularly well-equipped to discern. Added to that, he admits to being “a Republican and a political conservative,” an identity that aggravates his isolation.

Reaction was swift. Students wrote to the president to say how much Poelvoorde’s letter upset them. Newkirk replied with a letter to all students assuring them of Converse’s commitment to diversity and that “Dr. Poelvoorde ... does not speak for Converse.” She repeated her demand that everyone complete the bias videos and asked any students who experience discrimination to report it to the deans.

A few days later, she wrote to Poelvoorde telling him that bias training is necessary because of “a greater disease that affects Converse: racism and discrimination.” She also accuses him of counseling students of color to shrug off the racism of “white student-peers” (she says she “grieves” over the pain he has thus caused them). He must follow the mandate, she repeats, which “is not an infringement of your rights.”

Poelvoorde hired an attorney who sent a letter back to the president in late July. The attorney drew a sharp distinction between professional training in laws regarding harassment and “ideologically oriented trainings,” which she characterized as “an intrusive attempt at thought reform.” She cited the college’s stated policies on freedom of thought and identified the bias training as compulsion of thought. She asks that Converse do but one thing: make the training voluntary, not mandatory.

The president answers with a curt refusal. The training remains mandatory. Furthermore, she argues, the materials aren’t coercive at all, merely a way for personnel to “reconsider” their opinions.

Poelvoorde wasn’t impressed, and he didn’t obey. That led to a note from the provost dated Aug. 4 warning that if Poelvoorde didn't proceed with the training, “Converse will take appropriate corrective action, up to and including termination of your employment.”

A quick reply from the attorney offered a compromise. If Converse would make the training voluntary, Poelvoorde “would happily take it.” But he will not agree if it remains a mandate.

A final letter from the administration ended the episode. The provost informed him that his refusal to complete the video courses constituted “insubordination in the performance of contractual responsibilities.” The administration decided only to reprimand him, however, not to terminate him, though his conduct will be included in “future compensation decisions.”

This ends the story of one man’s dissent. He didn’t lose his job, he had to hire a lawyer, and he endured public shame, but he continues his professional life with integrity intact. Poelvoorde is one of those individuals who react at the sensation of undue pressure. He isn’t willing to accept on faith the college administrator as a moral guide (Newkirk is new to the job). And he doesn’t like being told that he has a problem and needs reeducation. (There is no evidence that Poelvoorde has ever discriminated against students or anyone else in the past.)

Why aren’t there more dissenters like him? Obviously, because campus dwellers are afraid; they don’t want trouble; they have kids and mortgages ... But here is the thing: If only two other professors would have joined Poelvoorde in his resistance, the affair would have ended quickly. The administration would have backed down and made the training voluntary.

One dissenter, you see, can be marked down as an eccentric, a trouble-maker, a kook. Three dissenters begin to look like a genuine protest. If three people object to a policy, it’s hard to chalk it up to personal reasons or sheer obstruction. The real story at Converse wasn't Poelvoorde. It was all the colleagues who failed to stand up and say, “Leave him alone!”

I take his case as a win for academic freedom—perhaps. It depends on whether his example will multiply. We shall see in the coming months, because we should expect many more thought-control initiatives to surface on campuses across the country. Poelvoorde’s case shows that these meddling bureaucrats may not be as powerful as we think.

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 opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
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.