Why I'm Giving Up Tenure at UCLA
The ideological takeover of my university has ruined academic life for anyone who still believes in freedom of thought.
I find myself thinking a lot lately about the deficit of imagination among people who consider themselves savvy and sophisticated.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you work for a prestigious company or organization that professes to care about a certain set of values: open-mindedness, curiosity, excellence, hard work. And let’s say you watch as a colleague, previously held up as a paragon of those values, is ostracized and smeared for a thought crime that was not considered a thought crime until about five minutes ago. Maybe he made a bad joke. Or maybe he used the phrase “guys” instead of folks. Or Hispanic instead of Latinx.
Common sense would tell you: If it can happen to him, it can happen to me. Common sense would insist: If the leopard is currently eating the face of the person in the the cubicle next to me, what will stop it from eating mine?
But when the leopard comes for your colleague, what I have witnessed is that something like 99% of people find a way to wiggle out of this obvious next step. They tell themselves the person getting their face eaten deserved it. Or that the leopard was just particularly hungry that day.
That’s what makes today’s essay, by UCLA Anthropology Professor Joseph Manson, so important.
Most people who leave their jobs as professors these days do not do so because they have a choice. They leave because they are pushed out by ideological bullies. But Professor Manson is leaving of his own volition. Why? In large part because he understands the nature of leopards. Here’s his piece. — BW
I’m a 62-year-old professor—by academic standards, still young. But I am retiring this summer because the woke takeover of higher education has ruined academic life. “Another one?” you ask. “What does this guy have to say that hasn’t already been said by Jordan Peterson, Peter Boghossian, Joshua Katz, or Bo Winegard?
Defenestration of a Colleague
I’ve been a professor in the Anthropology Department at UCLA since 1996; I received tenure in 2000. My research has spanned topics ranging from nonhuman primate behavior to human personality variation. For decades, anthropology has been notorious for conflict between the scientific and political activist factions in the field, leading many departments to split in two. But UCLA’s department remained unusually peaceful, cohesive, and intellectually inclusive until the late 2000s.
Gradually, one hire at a time, practitioners of “critical” (i.e. leftist, postmodernist) anthropology, some of them lying about their beliefs during job interviews, came to comprise the department’s most influential clique. These militant faculty members recruited even more militant graduate students to work with them.
I can’t recount here even a representative sample of this faction’s penchant for mendacity and intimidation, because most of it occurred during confidential discussions, usually about hiring and promotion decisions. But I can describe their public torment and humiliation of one of my colleagues, P. Jeffrey Brantingham.
Jeff had developed simulation models of the geographic and temporal patterning of urban crime, and had created predictive software that he marketed to law enforcement agencies. In Spring 2018, the department’s Anthropology Graduate Students Association passed a resolution accusing Jeff’s research of, among other counter-revolutionary sins, “entrench[ing] and naturaliz[ing] the criminalization of Blackness in the United States” and calling for “referring” his research to UCLA’s Vice Chancellor for Research, presumably for some sort of investigation. This document contained no trace of scholarly argument, but instead resembled a religious proclamation of anathema.
As you won’t be surprised to hear, Jeff is not a racist, but a standard-issue liberal Democrat. The “referral” to the Vice-Chancellor never materialized, but the resolution and its aftermath achieved its real goal, which was to turn Jeff, who had been one of the most selfless citizens of the department, into a pariah. He taught—and still teaches—a course called “The Ecology of Crime,” which consistently drew more than 150 students and earned rave reviews. This course had a catalogue number that grouped it with sociocultural anthropology, and it fulfilled a sociocultural anthropology requirement for anthro majors.
In an act of petty spite, ritual moral purification, or both (take your pick), the woke faculty clique, which comprised a majority of the sociocultural anthro faculty, banned him from using—polluting?—any of their course numbers. (Jeff continued to offer the course, just under a different kind of number.)
Even though Jeff stopped attending faculty meetings, and in every other way accepted his punishment of permanent ostracism, his tormentors weren’t finished with him. In early March 2020, the following flyer appeared in the hallways of the anthropology department.
“Predpol” is the name of Jeff’s predictive software. The sponsoring “Institute for Inequality and Democracy” is a far-left UCLA unit whose associate director is Hannah Appel, who also holds a faculty position in anthropology. That is, a professor tried to organize a mob to demand the professional destruction of a colleague.
Within a few days after the appearance of these flyers, the pandemic lockdown confined us to our homes and the anti-police movement soon had bigger fish to fry after the murder of George Floyd. Nevertheless, Jeff remained a popular and powerful hate-figure for the department’s woke faction. On September 23, 2020, during a webinar, “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn?” sponsored in part by the UCLA anthropology department—yes, you read that right—many of the chat comments from graduate students reviled him and called for further action against him.
The entire episode recalls a prescient observation in a 1995 article by the great psychological anthropologist Roy D’Andrade: “Isn’t it odd that the true enemy of society turns out to be that guy in the office down the hall?”
The Other Signs and Portents
Not only was Jeff ostracized, he was effectively erased. None of the faculty talked about him, if they could possibly avoid it. Meanwhile, our department chair opened most faculty meetings by solemnly intoning that our department was a community, a family, and that “we’re here for each other.” In private conversations, I was able to elicit from some of my colleagues an embarrassed acknowledgment that the woke faction had treated Jeff abominably, and that we strongly resembled a dysfunctional family in denial. This pervasive institutional doublethink was partly a result of Jeff’s own apparent decision to refrain from open confrontation: I offered to help him, by defending him publicly if he wished, after both the 2018 resolution and the 2020 flyers. He thanked me, but politely asked me to stay out of it.
The principal driver of the doublethink in my department and so many others at UCLA is fear of the woke faction.
Signs of this fear are omnipresent. Discussing whether to stop requiring the GRE (a standardized test, like the SAT) from applicants to our Ph.D. program, one colleague told a meeting of the biological anthropology subfield that he regarded the GRE as the most informative part of an applicant’s dossier, but that we had no choice but to vote to stop requiring it. Why? Because otherwise we would be regarded as racists. (I was the only person to vote against dropping the GRE requirement).
Asking a question following a public talk, a colleague conspicuously used the word “Latinx” even though the speaker had described both herself and her research subjects as “Latinas” and even though he himself, in a previous private conversation, had mockingly referred to the opinion polls showing that only a small minority of Hispanic Americans prefer to be called “Latinx.”
Outside the anthropology department, UCLA as a whole is showing all the signs of woke capture that typify the contemporary U.S. university. Emeritus Professor Val Rust (Graduate School of Education) was banned from campus after incurring the wrath of graduate student adherents of Critical Race Theory. Researcher James Enstrom (Environmental Health Sciences) and lecturer Keith Fink (Communication Studies) were fired from dissenting from the woke orthodoxy. Gordon Klein, after being suspended by UCLA’s business school in Spring 2020 for refusing to use race-based grading criteria, mobilized mass support and legal assistance, was reinstated, and is now suing the university.
Statements recounting one’s activities on behalf of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion are mandatory in faculty job applications and in promotion dossiers. Among its “Gender Recognition” policy recommendations, a university task force is calling for “curricular updates . . . For example: inclusion of non-binary and intersex identities in biology courses for health care practitioners.” Is this a threat to pressure course instructors in the life sciences and social sciences to deny the human sex binary? The experience of former Penn State evolutionary biology postdoc Colin Wright suggests that it might be. For arguing against assertions that “biological sex is a continuous spectrum” and that “notions of male and female may be mere social constructs,” Wright’s academic career was derailed by an online mob. He now writes on Substack.
Also typical of elite U.S. universities, UCLA is awash in Jew-hatred thinly disguised as anti-Zionism. In May 2019, one of my colleagues, Kyeyoung Park, invited a guest lecturer, San Francisco State University professor Rabab Abdulhadi, to her class to proclaim that Zionism is a form of white supremacism. Unlike Rust, Enstrom, Fink, Klein, Brantingham, Park was celebrated by the faculty and administration as a courageous, embattled exponent of academic freedom. The Anthropology Graduate Students Association chimed in with a resolution agreeing with Abdulhadi. More recently, the Asian-American Studies Department posted to its website a statement accusing Israel of settler colonialism, racial apartheid, and so on.
Irrespective of the content, doesn’t it infringe on the academic freedom of individual professors (and postdocs and graduate students, whose careers are dependent on faculty recommendations) for an academic department to take a political stand on behalf of all its members? Several other Jewish faculty and I have made that case to UCLA and the University of California leadership to no avail.
As Doris Day sang, the future’s not ours to see, but it’s a good bet that the grip of woke orthodoxy on the University of California, and most other once-great American universities, will only tighten in the years to come.
Why am I pessimistic? For a few reasons.
First, the younger faculty tend to be far more woke than their elders. Second, administrators and student protesters perform elaborately choreographed routines that inevitably end with the former enacting policies that they wanted to enact anyway, for which the latter’s public temper tantrums serve as a pretext. Third, now that standardized tests have been dropped from undergraduate application requirements, a growing number of students will be simultaneously unable to handle university level coursework, and predisposed to denounce their professors for heresy, having been chosen for admission on the basis on their leftist activism as high school students. Meanwhile, California’s K-12 schools are increasingly substituting mind-damaging political indoctrination for education.
So Why Not Stick Around for the Paycheck?
One of my more cynical friends, a tenured professor at a different university, is no longer on speaking terms with his colleagues, refuses all requests to serve on committees, and spends as much time as possible out of the country. And yet he remains at his school. He thinks I’m out of my mind, swapping a salary for a pension.
Maybe he’s right. And maybe I’m craven for ducking the unpleasantness that would be entailed by going that route, or by remaining at my job and becoming a chronic troublemaker. But I strongly suspect that mainstream U.S. higher education is beyond the point of self-repair, and therefore no longer a worthwhile setting for the intellectually curious.
A 2019 article by Liel Leibovitz, titled “Get Out,” argued that the increasingly open hostility of American universities toward Jews is inseparable from the universities’ increasingly brazen rejection of two values that, during the 20th century, made them into places where Jews specifically, and ambitious and open-minded people generally, could thrive: meritocracy and free debate. In 2019, I thought that Leibovitz was exaggerating and rather overwrought. Everything that’s happened since has shown that he was spot on.
The rise of alternative institutions, like the University of Austin and Ralston College, are very hopeful signs even though the work is slow-going. But until those new schools are built, I can’t bear to spend one more moment in a place that’s morally and intellectually bankrupt.
That’s it: I’m getting out.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Gordon Klein was fired from UCLA. In fact, he was suspended. You can read more about his story here.