The Neoliberal Takeover of Universities and the Wokeness Debate

Note to readers: Last Thursday (June 23), I published a new Verdict column, "Social Security’s Good News is Good News," in which I took my yearly look at the health of the world's most successful social program.  After demonstrating that the latest annual forecasts from the Social Security Trustees are even better news than usual -- and that the political hit job on Social Security continues to be based on neither evidence nor logic -- I also gamely offered the optimistic argument that Social Security (and even Medicare) might survive after the Republicans finish turning the United States into a one-party autocracy.

I have no further thoughts on that topic right now.  When the Dobbs decision became a reality, I shared Professor Dorf's immediate sentiments ("Ugh") and called it a (very bad) week without writing my usual second Dorf on Law column.  Today, I will continue to distract myself from our Court-ordered dystopia (and reports about the plate-throwing former occupant of the White House) by writing the column that I had been planning to write last Friday, which might be a balm for those readers who, like me, need to think about something else.

by Neil H. Buchanan
Some non-conservatives have over the last few years complained, with varying degrees of bemusement and bitterness, about "cancel culture" and in particular its impact on American universities.  In so doing, they end up aligning uncomfortably with the reactionary right that is now ascendant in this country, arguing that so-called woke-ism -- "cancel culture" and "woke" being the right's re-branding of the old political correctness (PC) trope -- truly is a problem on our campuses (and elsewhere).
It is always possible, of course, that people who disagree with each other (even fiercely) on various topics can find themselves in agreement on a specific subject.  And when that happens, there is no reason to say, "Well, now I have to change my mind, because I disagree with those people about everything else!"  Political positions should be based on the merits rather than team jerseys.  I thus hereby emphasize that my objection to the consensus between the right and the center-left regarding PC/cancel culture/wokeness is very much on the merits.
[Aside: I have been trying for some time to come up with a shorthand way to refer to political correctness, cancel culture, and "woke," all of which mean the same thing -- or, more accurately, all of which lack actual meaning in exactly the same way, in service of the effort to silence criticism of the powerful.  Ignoring the chronological order in which they entered the popular lexicon, the acronym is WPCCC, which can be pronounced "whoopsies."  I will go with that for the time being.]

Last week, I published columns on Verdict and here on Dorf on Law arguing on the merits that the concerns expressed about Whoopsies by conservatives, joined by many center-left and even some left liberals, do not hold water.  I reiterated my mockery of a hand-wringing piece by the editors of The New York Times from March of this year, which deserves every bit of ridicule it has received.  Even so, it might be possible for reasonable people to reach the same conclusion that the editors of The Times reached without agreeing with their baseless reasoning (just as one can, as noted above, agree with hard-core Republicans on a particular issue almost by accident).
What is the strongest case that can be made by a non-culture warrior who perceives a problem with "censoriousness" or "illiberalism" on the left?  In other words, what is the best argument that people who do not dismiss Whoopsies might offer?

To be clear, I am not reconsidering here the broader point in my two columns from last week, which is that it is truly weird that the non-Republicans who might worry about a Whoopsies problem are so bothered by it that they would expend any political or personal capital to fight it.  As I noted, even if one takes the non-conservatives' description of the supposed problem at face value, it simply does not add up to much.  That is, even on their own terms, there are bigger problems in the world.  Much bigger.
For example, I mention in both columns a speech from 2019 by Barack Obama in which he chided young people for supposedly thinking that they are cool by calling out other people's word choices on social media.  Even if Obama were right on the merits (and he most assuredly is not), why was that important enough to talk about -- at all?  "Hey kids, you're worried about climate change, student debt, unaffordable housing, gross economic inequality, racism, sexism, and state-sponsored violence against the vulnerable.  But I'm going to take some time here to hector you about your habits on social media."  Obama's broader point was that it is "not enough" to tweet at other people, but that was a straw man argument.  Does he truly think that young people are unaware that activism requires action?

I am also not referring here to my argument that some of the piling on from non-conservatives is motivated by the sense that their personal comfort and exalted positions are threatened by a more raucous and democratic political discussion.  I describe as "comfortable liberals" the people who, as one reader put it in an email to me last week, have an insatiable "desire to protect one’s 'right' to have the last word.  As such, it's another example of privilege protection."
Indeed, that reader pointed out that "studies have shown it's Baby Boomers - not millennials - who are more narcissistic and hypersensitive," which is consistent with what I have observed, not just regarding millennials but post-millennials (Gen Z) as well.  In that regard, I do believe that most of the hyper-focus by middle-aged and older people on any story that feeds the narrative about "a new censoriousness on American campuses" is simply a way to shift the focus and judgment onto younger people.

Even so, I do allow for the possibility (note my use of the word "most" in the paragraph just above) that there could be something serious and meaningful happening on college campuses today.  In degree or in kind, can we observe something that would give reasonable people cause for concern?

I still do not think so, but it is important to be clear that this is a much more difficult question.  Indeed, Professor Dorf has pointed out to me that a 2017 book by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman describes polling data suggesting that things are now meaningfully different on campus.  (In a Dorf on Law column earlier this year, I disagreed with a Chemerinsky/Gillman op-ed in The Washington Post, which raises the "heckler's veto" question in a way that I thought evaded the real issue.)  If the data show that people are reporting more Whoopsie-ness, what should we make of that?

I have no doubt that there are now more instances in which students say and do stupid or reckless things where the motivating issue is about race, gender, or other issues that track as "woke."  In that sense, it is absolutely the case that things are different today.  I also am certain that there are more situations in which professors are put in difficult positions because of student complaints.  I do not, however, think that those two facts add up to an argument supporting the idea that campuses are being ruined by Whoopsies.

The underlying problem/change that affects the entire landscape is that higher education has been hijacked by a neoliberal desire to monetize everything, which means that learning is now treated as just another commodity.  Students are customers who are to be catered to, and everyone who participates in the production process of the commodity called education -- the product that students and their parents purchase -- is increasingly expected to live by the adage that the customer is always right.

That sea change in the way we think about post-high school education has shown up in the predictably regressive attempts to promote "useful" majors (with billions of dollars poured into STEM) while attacking "soft" majors (in extreme cases, even closing entire humanities departments, including English and History programs).  But the ethos of student-as-customer has in some ways been more damaging in the push to expand administrative offices within universities to be the equivalent of a retailer's Complaints Office.  This then filters down to faculty, some of whom try to maintain standards while others stop resisting, either out of cynicism or a misguided sense that faculty need to be customer-friendly to a fault.

Two instances of this in my teaching career have stuck with me over the years.  In one, about ten years ago, a student became quite agitated when I criticized a federal appellate court decision (even sending me an angry email saying, among other things, that he "bristle[d] at the irreverence with which you characterize the holding of a presidentially appointed federal court judge"), at which point he simply stopped attending class for the second half of the term.  When I tried to apply the attendance policy that I had announced on the first day of class, the student appealed to a faculty committee.  When that committee turned him down, he found a different committee that overturned his failing grade -- even though the chair of that committee (a tenured law professor) admitted to me that my decision was subject to clear error review but that he had decided to treat it de novo.  (He was still wrong even de novo, but whatever.)  Why?  I was not giving the student what he wanted.
So that student was gifted a B in a class that he should have failed.  Earlier in my career, I had a student (in an economics class in a small liberal arts college) who told me in class that I was wasting her time, after which she completely disappeared.  When I tried to uphold academic standards (in a case that was hardly a close call), however, an administrator informed me that "we don't do things that way here," that "the student was upset," and in any case, the department would be taking the matter out of my hands.  She ended up with an A-.
I describe those two moments of intense personal frustration because I remember them every time I hear a story about a professor today who honestly reports being put in a difficult position because of a student's complaint.  I am obviously not saying that it would feel the same to be accused of being racist or sexist as it is to be accused of being irreverent about federal judges or (gulp) of being boring.  I am, however, saying that the pretext of the students' complaints can change even as the underlying problem is not about Whoopsies.  Moreover, even if the problem seems to be getting worse over time, the neoliberal distortion of universities has also gotten worse over time.
As a friend who is an associate dean at a top law school put it to me recently, growing numbers of students have become more and more spoiled and entitled about everything.  Increasing numbers of students want their grades changed based on nothing, and they complain whenever they are disappointed (which is often).  The issue is not that students have become empowered to complain about racism or sexism.  The issue is that students have become increasingly empowered to complain as customers about whatever they think they can complain about.  And those of us who try to maintain standards are worn down by those who enable that kind of learned behavior from our students.

In my earlier columns, I stated that I personally had not observed the types of on-campus problems that have been widely decried in the media.  I also noted that my current research assistants had told me that they perceived this whole thing to be over-hyped at best.  Expanding beyond these limited personal observations, I have read and listened to situations in which something is reported from a college campus as a PC/cancel culture/wokeness "thing."  Each time I have drilled into the situation, however, I have found myself thinking that, yes, there are times when bad decisions are made within universities, no doubt.  That is the nature of any human institution, but the next step -- saying that we have an explosion of illiberal intolerance, supposedly caused by a uniquely censorious turn among students and colleagues in higher education -- is still too big a leap, based even on the most sympathetic review of reported cases.

Again, I absolutely raged at the way my situations were handled in the two cases that I described above.  I have no doubt that I would be beside myself if those situations had involved accusations of socially unacceptable behavior on my part.  We definitely need to figure out how to prevent motivated reasoning to cause administrators (and even other faculty) to sweep things under the rug and otherwise make bad decisions.
Even so, I continue to believe, based on the evidence available, that the honest part of this debate (that is, not Fox News-style trolling) generally misattributes an underlying trend to PC/cancel culture/wokeness.  Whoopsies are not the problem.  They are a manifestation of a genuine problem that is political in a very different sense.

A reasonable reader might, however, conclude that what I have described here only explains part of the problem, and that there truly is something remaining that one could attribute to increasing censoriousness.  Remember again, however, that even the worst defensible assessment of the problem is nowhere near important enough to take up space in the current public debate.  Even if my explanation covered only a fraction of the supposed problem, that would mean that "Comfortable Liberals" are wasting precious time and effort even more than we might have thought.  The world is falling apart, but it is not because everyone is too woke.  Whoopsie.