Nonconformity in an Age of Capitulation
Have you heard? Writers for The Chronicle of Higher Education are concerned. Very concerned.
It turns out that not all colleges and universities are exercising their academic freedom in the same way. In fact, some have even proposed alternative approaches to engaging diversity contra the antiracism of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi.
Now, you may be thinking this sounds exactly like what academic freedom should entail—different people approaching important issues from their own considered perspectives. But don’t worry, the higher education commentariat will set you straight.
You see, the only way for colleges and universities to foster success for all students is to implement Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives grounded in Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Gender Ideology. It’s just a fact. People who question this fact are dangerous to democracy.
One such person is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Keith E. Whittington declares that DeSantis has unleashed a “terrifying plot against higher education” via his Stop WOKE Act, which threatens majors in Gender Studies and CRT. Presumably the threat to democracy also includes the 6 in 10 state lawmakers who voted for the bill, as well as the 6 in 10 Floridians who returned DeSantis to the governor’s mansion for a second term after the bill became law.
Lest you conclude that the problem could be limited to just one state, Megan Zahneis is here to alert you to the insidious consequences of anti-woke activity. She reports that the spread of anti-DEI legislation “is having a chilling effect on the recruitment of faculty members and administrators in Florida and Texas.” Even more worrisome is the totally real threat of brain drain from these states—plus Georgia and North Carolina—where a staggering one-third of faculty “said they were actively considering employment in another state.”
Conditions are so dire that colleges have begun building a modern-day underground railroad for beleaguered students. Amita Chatterjee profiles Colorado College’s Healing and Affirming Village and Empowerment Network (HAVEN), a program targeting students from the anti-DEI states of Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. This altruistic initiative aims to give refuge to as many as 10 transfer students, each of whom will receive credit for previous coursework, guaranteed campus housing, and full consideration for financial aid.
A clear picture emerges from these stories. Threats to democracy have so damaged American universities that faculty and students alike must seek shelter in the remaining academic enclaves that still know how to properly honor diversity. The situation is bleak, or so we are told.
By this point, you may have developed the sneaking suspicion that a certain political agenda is directing the reporting of one of our nation’s leading trade publications for higher education. Unfortunately, the next story will do little to disabuse you of that notion.
Helen Huiskes, herself a senior at Wheaton College (IL), reports that the woke wars have claimed another casualty—the integrity of Christian higher education. It seems many Christian colleges are reacting to the DEI controversy in ways both cynical and craven. Some are policing the content professors teach in class. Others are writing statements on CRT to attract more applicants. Few will host Jemar Tisby on campus anymore, and one can only assume that Tisby’s former boss, the aforementioned Kendi, won’t be receiving many more speaking invitations either.
In Huiskes’ telling, these developments point to Christian higher education’s willingness to abandon racial justice in pursuit of stronger enrollment. Hers is a shopworn progressive framing: “Don’t subscribe to critical theory’s worldview of power, privilege, and intersectionality? You must care more about the bottom line than about loving your minoritized neighbors.” Against the backdrop of recent trends in American higher education, however, the institutional behaviors she describes should be viewed as praiseworthy acts of courage and conviction, not recalcitrant avoidance of the real issues surrounding race in America.
For decades, leftist ideology steadily advanced through key American institutions, laying the groundwork for the cultural revolution that erupted in the summer of 2020. Colleges and universities were central sites for this advance, the activist spirit of which became more aggressive and transparent after the election of President Donald Trump. The trajectory of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), a national organization of scholars of postsecondary institutions, is illustrative.
The 2016 ASHE Annual Conference commenced the day after Trump’s election, which sent shockwaves through the left-leaning association. The following year, ASHE President Shaun Harper described American higher education as an enterprise conceived in racism and declared that scholars must fight the abuses of white power in the academy. The 2018 ASHE conference theme, “Envisioning the Woke Academy,” was promoted by an eight-minute video of scholars declaring that “current higher education research is in an awakening process.” The ultimate goal? To cultivate a critical consciousness that recognizes existing forms of systemic oppression, such as inequality and microaggressions, and brings about institutional “transformation for justice.” Reflecting on her tenure as ASHE President that year, Lori Patton Davis lamented the “academic sleepwalking” of many scholars and contended that research should be viewed as a “revolutionary act.” To that end, Davis launched a novel professional development program offering training in “woke research methodology.” Thus, the major national association dedicated to the academic study of colleges and universities—whose research informed administrative practice across the country—was now actively resourcing a radical perspective on racial justice.
As campuses grappled with the aftermath of George Floyd’s death two years later, a critical theory perspective on race was routinely presented as best practice. Nearly everything the experts provided used the framework of intersectionality, privilege, and oppression. Even the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, the largest national association for intentionally Christ-centered institutions, featured antiracism materials rooted in critical theory on its website. In the turbulent environment of 2020, many Christian colleges reflexively adopted the widely promoted framework on their home campuses, ostensibly out of a concern for racial reconciliation.
Yet the hallmark of Christian higher education is not the simple adoption of secular approaches, but an intentional integration of the Christian worldview throughout all areas of institutional practice. It is expected, then, that campus leaders would eventually reassess knee-jerk reactions made in the crucible of cultural revolution. Despite Huiskes’ insinuations to the contrary, this is exactly what happened at Grove City College (GCC), an institution with a longstanding commitment to faith and freedom. Deeply encoded in the college’s DNA is a devotion to Christian liberal arts, the conservative tradition, and the foundations of free society, as well as a willingness to fight for its principles. GCC famously defended its independence before the Supreme Court nearly 40 years ago; today, the college and its students continue to forgo all forms of federal financial support, which frees the college from intrusive regulations that could undermine its mission.
Over the years, these principled stands have won many admirers, but they have also made GCC the target of activist attacks. Most recently, a group of disaffected alums launched a BLM petition against the college in the summer of 2020, claiming that certain GCC faculty, courses, and practices promoted white supremacy. At the start of the next academic year, a President’s Advisory Council on Diversity was formed to enrich the campus culture, presumably in response to the alumni petition. Members of that council led initiatives to promote diversity across campus, including in student life, the chapel program, and even the classroom. Eyebrows were raised among the Grover faithful when these efforts employed language and concepts central to CRT. Was “Freedom’s College” going woke?
Concerns began to surface a year later. In November 2021, a group of GCC parents launched an online petition decrying the creeping wokeness they perceived to be advancing within the college. The letter garnered over 700 signatures. After months of public back-and-forth between members of the administration and supporters of the parents’ coalition, a group of faculty members released a letter calling on the Board of Trustees to intervene.
In response, the GCC Board appointed a special committee to review alleged instances of mission drift and recommend remedial actions where necessary. After acknowledging their responsibility for stewarding GCC’s institutional mission, the full Board articulated a defiant defense of the college’s historic identity: “We unqualifiedly reaffirm GCC’s Christ-centered mission and commitment to a free society, traditional values, and the common good. That has not changed one iota and will not change on our watch. Fidelity to the College’s founding principles secures GCC’s unique place as an oasis in American higher education. In particular, the Board categorically rejects Critical Race Theory and similar ‘critical’ schools of thought as antithetical to GCC’s mission and values.”
Two months later, the special committee released its findings. Pages 3–8 of the report recount at length GCC’s historic character, its understanding of academic freedom, and why CRT is incompatible with the college’s mission, vision, and values. It then presents findings of fact and issues recommendations for corrective action to bring the college’s practices back into alignment with its principles. The report is a detailed, thorough, weighty document. Any fair reading renders laughable the attempts of some to discount the report as a mere “act of performative political piety” aimed at conservatives trying to avoid the real issues surrounding racial justice.
The same could be said of a statement issued by another institution Huiskes featured, Colorado Christian University (CCU). Noting that the university views “issues of race and racism through the lens of a Christian worldview,” the statement characterizes CRT as “an inadequate social theory with a fundamentally flawed foundation, diagnosis, and prescription for the human condition.” Like the GCC Report, CCU’s Statement is considered, substantial, and theologically rooted, offering not only a critique of CRT but also a positive vision for racial reconciliation. Colleges and universities are quick to profess distinctive commitments, but often the follow through is lacking when the rubber meets the road. It is rare when an institution proactively applies its foundational values to the pressing challenges of the day, especially when facing significant cultural headwinds. These institutions should therefore be celebrated for their courage and conviction, not held in contempt for unproven ulterior motives.
The recent performance of Christian higher education illustrates an important lesson: owned space is a mirage when the gatekeepers of conventional wisdom live rent-free in the minds of organizational leaders. Given this reality, the most compelling question becomes not whether recent anti-CRT declarations are performative acts aimed solely at juicing enrollment numbers (spoiler alert: they’re not), but rather why some campus leaders felt compelled to move away from the mission in the first place, and how such drift can be prevented in the future. The posture of a third institution mentioned by Huiskes may prove instructive.
Like GCC, Hillsdale College is known for its conservative disposition, defense of the Western tradition, and independence from federal funding. Also like GCC, Hillsdale received its own BLM blowback from disaffected alums in the summer of 2020, who accused the college of apathy toward racial inequity and tacit support for white supremacy. Yet Hillsdale didn’t bow to the pressure and modify its academic program to satiate the mob. Instead, college leaders boldly defended the institution’s historic mission and principles, arguing that their promotion was itself a statement. Hillsdale wasn’t apathetic toward racial justice; it simply approached the matter through a conservative philosophical framework—one it wouldn’t abandon to suit the times.
What enabled this response when so many other institutions folded under the same set of circumstances? Surely the resolute character of the college’s leadership played a major role, but so too did its deeply ingrained philosophical commitments and spirit of independence. While other institutions chose from a limited range of response options curated by the sector’s tastemakers, Hillsdale disregarded such constraints and acted according to its own unique identity. Years of principled independence, as well as learning how to absorb all the slings and arrows that come with it, had prepared the college to remain steadfast in such a moment as this.
This is the diversity we need: Christian colleges and universities that are unafraid to pursue their distinctive missions regardless of the spirit of the age. When acting in accordance with its trademark commitment to curricular intentionality, faith integration, and programmatic integrity, Christian higher education offers something different in the marketplace than the vast majority of educational options available to prospective students. Professional handwringers may lament the lack of conformity to regnant ideologies, but the rest of us should applaud principled independence as a buttress to academic freedom, religious autonomy, and freedom of association. In an age of capitulation, American higher education—and the public it serves—are better for it.
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