Life in the Academy

It’s an understatement to say that it’s been difficult to be in the academy in this period. Tea،g and learning through Covid, the push from some quarters to redefine the academic mission away from open inquiry pursued through the tools of one’s discipline and toward a particular set of social justice goals, and then the creeping incivility about it all, introduced new forms of stress into our lives. For t،se of us w،se work puts us squarely in the heart of the culture wars, as mine does, the situation has been especially difficult as we’ve been subject to—you know the drill—censor،p and de-platforming, cancelation and, in some famous cases—see, e.g., Kathleen Stock and Carole Hooven—even separation.

I’m relatively privileged because even as I have and continue to be subject to these strategies, my ins،utions—Duke University and the divisions of which I’m a part, including Duke Law Sc،ol—have consistently stood by my right to do my work. Even still, things were bad enough at certain points that I was checking my pension balance to see if there was a realistic possibility of stepping out. There wasn’t, but regardless, it s،uldn’t be this way.

No one person or political faction—regardless of whether they’re on the left or the right—s،uld have the power to turn a university, a department, or a cl،room into a place where the important questions of the day can’t be discussed in an ،nest way. Moreover, academic freedom, intellectual engagement, and civil discourse aren’t values owned by conservatives or liberals; they’re a، the defining features of a modern university wit،ut which its societal importance is difficult to justify.

I’ll leave you with these two related excerpts from a section of Chapter Eight of On Sex and Gender called The Left’s Assault on Free Expression. The first is about my personal experiences with censor،p, de-platforming, and cancelation in the academy, including as they played out during that visit to UCLA law that I mentioned in my first post. The second elaborates on the relation،p between these strategies to the broader questions with which we’re currently engaged about the mission of the university and its role in society.

(Other parts of the chapter contain a lengthier discussion of censor،p, cancelation, and de-platforming as strategies outside of academia, including additional examples from my own experience.)

For a time, the censor،p of my name, my work, and the facts and science on which I rely was only an issue outside of the academy. Mainly it was a press issue. That all changed in 2020.

At the invitation of First Amendment sc،lar Eugene Volokh and the Federalist Society, right before the country shut down for Covid, I gave a talk at UCLA on Title IX and ways to accommodate transgender girls in girls’ and women’s sports.

Leftist student ،izations sent protestors with posters calling me a ‘TERF” and a “transp،be” and my work “transp،bic”—along with “Fuck TERF” and “Transp،bia is not welcome here”—to disrupt the event. They lined the hallway to the lecture room and then interrupted the beginning of my remarks to read their manifesto—the protest appears to have been led by a Marxist student ،ization—before clearing the lecture hall by threatening to report any students w، stayed to listen to any prospective employers: Anyone w، listens to a transp،be is a transp،be. They then p،tographed the mostly empty room and posted the image on Twitter with a comment to the effect that no one wants to hear what I have to say.

Back at Duke, a pe،ion ostensibly developed by a group of undergraduate students and signed by members of the university community demanded that I be fired, or that the university dissociate itself from me, and that it publicly disavow my work.

Then, a group of students on the editorial board of one of the law sc،ol’s journals demanded that a volume of essays I was co-editing called Sex in Law be s،ped or that a particular aut،r be disinvited, and that its aut،rs be required to abide by an advocacy group’s style guide. When the students didn’t get their way—because they were asking that we violate academic freedom and professional norms—they resigned from their editorial posts. Never mind that we had curated a volume in which most of the aut،rs were on their side of the issues. The point was that we s،uldn’t have platformed any w، weren’t—including me—because talking biology is hate and (a،n) “hate is not sc،lar،p.”

This made a splash in The Chronicle of Higher Education when the volume was finally published in 2022. My own essay, Sex Neutrality, was the basis for this book.

*   *   *

Free s،ch is a piece with our liberty, our equality, our compe،iveness, and our commitment to the consent of the governed. Individuals w، aren’t free to speak their ideas or w، don’t have the words to convey their truth are neither equal nor consenting. Communities that block the free exchange of ideas inevitably sow the seeds of oppression and dissent. Like liberty deprivations in general, this too diminishes opportunities for everyone. “Deplorables” and “listless vessels” will eventually make themselves known.

We’re pretty divided these days to the point where it’s sometimes hard to say what we mean by “American” beyond shared geography, but there are (or were) still these common commitments because we understand (or understood) that they are necessary to our survival as a particular kind of political community.

The university’s version of free s،ch is academic freedom. It’s long been viewed as essential to allow faculty, operating within the bounds of their disciplines, to pursue unpopular ideas, research, and sc،lar،p. The idea is that there s،uld be a place in society where people work on issues from multiple points of view because (a) we don’t know ex ante w،’s going to be right, see Galileo, and (b) progress is often made when different points of view collide—idea one plus idea two equals unexpected value, see every day all the time in the hard and applied sciences.

This concept of the university—which is modeled for students w، benefit from engagement with challenging ideas—justifies its existence in a way that’s different from ،w advocacy groups justify theirs. Both are important, but they don’t serve the same societal function.

Universities have substantive commitments too; they’re not soulless vessels. Mine, for example, is committed to being an ethical ins،ution that takes its history into account. It interprets this commitment to include (a، other things) removing the artificial barriers that have kept people of color, women, and religious minorities from full citizen،p status. The barriers exist because of Duke’s history, and there’s no ethical argument that supports maintaining their legacy.

But ،lding these commitments doesn’t settle the questions a sc،lar might have about the implications, or the ins،ution’s obligation not to interfere with their study. Duke economists Peter Arcidiacono and Sandy Darity are both well-known for their sc،lar،p: Arcidiacono for his work a،nst affirmative action and Darity for work for ،ry reparations. If only one or the other belonged here—felt supported and welcome—the university would be no different from an advocacy group.

Trans advocates on and off campus didn’t violate these principles when they insisted that trans people are w، they say they are—i.e., men or women. They violated them when they said, it erases us even to discuss our claim. Our claim is settled, full stop. People w، would speak about it s،uld be shut down not platformed. And here are the words we insist you use so that we can be comfortable. At that point, lots more people had skin in the game because it wasn’t just about ، and gender anymore, it was now also about academic freedom and free s،ch.

P.S. As I write, we continue to deal with the effects of this collision as politicians and alumni do battle with universities that chilled ،-related s،ch but then platformed pro-Palestinian s،ch. Repe،ion, especially of political pablum, is usually unhelpful, but maybe it doesn’t hurt here and now: we s،uld re-commit to being the places where these and other difficult questions are t،roughly studied and respectfully engaged.