Institutional Capture: It Can Happen Here - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Institutional Capture: It Can Happen Here
by
The campus of Saint Vincent College (Saint Vincent College/YouTube)

My name has now been added to the long and depressing list of high-profile academic “cancellations.” I recently resigned my tenured position at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, due to an episode — sadly typical of American higher education — that has been widely documented in national media. Like so many recent academic debacles, the actions of the administrators who precipitated the affair were ridiculous and wholly unnecessary. But my ouster was perhaps unique in the speed with which it unfolded and the degree to which it perfectly tells the tale of why so many of our institutions are in free fall. It illustrates what we must confront — whether we find ourselves among the small number of countercultural voices in academia or the much larger number of citizens who seek to preserve an educational system, and a culture, whose directions are not dictated by fanaticism.

The problem colleges face is institutional capture. This capture is of course ideological, but it’s broader than that. It also has important moral dimensions — it is not only, or mainly, an intellectual phenomenon. It usually happens relatively quickly, but early warning signs are easy to spot. It must be nipped in the bud if there’s to be any hope of saving the vital remnants of intellectual seriousness that can still be found on many American campuses. But it can only be stopped if faculty members and administrators, with the support of an awakened public, exercise the moral virtue of courage — the critical virtue without which the other virtues are impossible. As I have written in these pages, it’s a virtue that is in catastrophically short supply where it’s most needed.

The proximate cause of my resignation was the cowardly administrative takeover and humiliation of the college’s Center for Political and Economic Thought (CPET), which I had directed for many years. CPET is a research and public-affairs institute dedicated to the scholarly exposition of freedom, Western civilization, and the American experience. It is, or was, one of the oldest and most respected collegiate centers of its kind in the nation. 

In announcing the takeover, the president of the college, Father Paul Taylor, cited his disapproval of a single speaker (of the hundreds who have spoken under the center’s auspices over several decades). The speaker gave a presentation at a conference held in April 2022. The conference, entitled “Politics, Policy, and Panic: Governing in Times of Crisis,” was among the first that CPET was permitted to hold on campus since the college’s self-imposed COVID isolationism. Ironically, it was designed to bring to campus serious thinkers who could offer reflections on the nature and implications of the previous two years of political crisis and moral panic surrounding everything from public health mandates to violence in the streets. The speaker, David Azerrad, a professor at Hillsdale College’s graduate school in Washington, D.C., dived into controversies related to what he deemed “Black Privilege and Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America.” The title obviously played on the ubiquity, especially in institutions of higher learning, of the phrase “white privilege.” Had he spoken on that — simply asserting its existence and its overwhelming influence on American life — many campus voices would undoubtedly have praised his “bravery” for embracing what is fashionable. But in denouncing affirmative action in strong terms, he offended the jealous gods of diversity, inclusion, and equity to which most denizens of the academy are now expected to genuflect

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The conference was attended by hundreds. A handful of students showed up for Azerrad’s talk apparently to express anger at his title rather than to listen to his presentation. (Many audience members were convinced that they had not in fact listened.) Also in the audience, for the entirety of the conference, was a partisan trustee of the college named Bibiana Boerio, a failed Democratic congressional candidate. In the immediate aftermath of the conference, she described the presentation as “rage-inducing extreme speech.” Impartial readers of such a comment may be forgiven for concluding that she was doing her part to license and encourage rage as a response to speech. 

Students and professor, illustrating piece on institutional capture (Verde, spectator.org)

Two letters quickly followed the conference. The first was signed by a dean who confirmed to me that he did not write it and was released before full videos of the lectures were even made available. When the dean was pressed into service to sign the letter, he did so as co-director of CPET, even though he exercised no control over the center’s political or cultural programming and had no input into the design of the conference — which was entirely my own. My views were not solicited by the administration, nor by the local news media reporting on the story. The letter implausibly claimed that the speaker’s remarks “may be interpreted as a form of invidious discrimination,” or that they promoted “systemic bigotry,” or that they perhaps even impeded “the evolution of the human race” or “evolution in our society” or … something. 

The letter even denounced the speaker’s “theory” that Kamala Harris “was selected as VP on the basis of her standing solely as an African American woman.” With respect to this point, it should be noted that, as theories go, it’s not a bad one. In fact, it appears to be one of the few matters in America upon which there is broad bipartisan consensus. But I digress. The letter also insisted, without any apparent self-awareness, that the college invites “responsible presentation of viewpoints.” 

That ham-handed missive hardly clarified or calmed the waters. The president soon followed it with another that he himself signed, though he relied on a PR firm to help him write it. It announced that Saint Vincent welcomes “a diversity of responsible opinion on a variety of topics” and that henceforth he and his cabinet would approve all speakers at the college. Presumably, this is to ensure that they are sufficiently “responsible.” The letter also insisted that academic freedom is “treasured” at the college — so long as faculty and students “responsibly debate” topics. That’s a lot of responsibility the president took on. It’s probably more than he should have, since the new policy — obviously drafted by tools that are not the sharpest in the academic shed — has the effect of holding the president and his cabinet accountable for words uttered by officially approved speakers.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) described the administration’s actions as perhaps “the most extreme example of guest speaker censorship” that it had seen in its decades of monitoring such matters (quite a claim for FIRE) and filed a formal accreditation complaint against the college.

Like so many Catholic institutions, Saint Vincent quickly folded under pressure from the mob so as to conform to the secular demands of the age. In its rush to conform, it not only did violence to academic freedom but also made a hash of Church teaching. One might have expected immediate pushback from large numbers of faculty members — particularly from those who are much better versed in such matters than the college’s president, whose graduate training is in “higher education administration” from an institution whose current priorities include “social justice” and “diversity.” (Note to parents and bishops everywhere: don’t let your priests run off to ed school.) Instead, even faculty members who were privately appalled would say nothing publicly. Few choose academic careers due to a surfeit of courage. 

*****

There is a backstory to all this that provides important clues as to how we might stop woke lunacy from co-opting what’s left of our institutions. Saint Vincent is the oldest Benedictine college in the country, and the monks who founded it were critical to the establishment of the Benedictine order in North America. It had long been a place largely unaffected by the most pernicious academic fads and fashions roiling higher education. Like most liberal arts colleges, its faculty leaned left, but successive administrations generally understood well enough the college’s heritage of Benedictine monasticism and the latter’s profoundly important place in the development of Western civilization. They allowed the college to remain a remarkably free institution when it came to the exchange and promulgation of ideas. 

In the “acknowledgments” sections of the many books I published during my time at Saint Vincent, I routinely found myself writing words to the effect that the college remained open and receptive to the conversation about fundamental moral and political questions — and I meant those words. At the invitation of CPET, many of the leading intellectual lights of the conservative and libertarian worlds had spoken on campus. Papers and conference proceedings of those speakers and of countless other scholars and public figures had appeared in print, both in the center-sponsored journals and in peer-reviewed books by outside academic publishers. Center-run fellowship programs had supported generations of students in research projects on the conditions of citizenship in a constitutional republic. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, described CPET as “not only an ornament to Saint Vincent College but one of the mainstays of conservative scholarship in the United States.” And, indeed, it was both of those things.

But all this changed quickly with the arrival — just before COVID — of Taylor. As soon as the masks came off, he leveled sources of opposition to his peculiar brand of racial justice activism. This of course included dealing a hammer blow to CPET, which had established itself as a bulwark against the perversities of wokeism, both at Saint Vincent and nationally. But when it comes to the business of capturing our institutions, dislodging particular individuals is also important. Anyone who will not go gently into that good night — but will instead publicly defend liberal education and open discourse — is a natural enemy. I was a nationally known senior faculty member who held the college’s oldest endowed chair and also a recipient of the college’s highest teaching award. This made me a hard target — but not an impossible one, at least in the absence of others willing to stand with me. It was clear from the early days of the Taylor administration, well before the aforementioned letters, that I would have battles to fight. 

In July 2020, Taylor appointed Jeff Mallory to the position of executive vice president and chief operating officer of the college, making him in effect the second-highest-ranking administrator at the college. Mallory had been a student at Saint Vincent (even in my classes) and held a recently minted doctorate of education in “educational leadership,” much like Dr. Jill Biden. He had also been the assistant vice president of “diversity, inclusion and student advancement” at Duquesne University. High-level appointments such as his are often early warning indicators of trouble on the horizon. Faculty members would do well to question both the budget lines and operational necessities that justify such appointments. 

In the months before the fateful conference, major warning signs had appeared. I first found myself alone on a matter of campus-wide concern when I publicly resisted a faculty call for certain “anti-racism” initiatives. The call was largely in response to the nationwide riots and insurrections that began in the spring of 2020 and included “amplifying” voices that happen to emanate from members of the so-called BIPOC community, especially “Black voices,” holding “peers and the institution accountable for continuing this discussion,” and the rejection of “colorblindness” in favor of race consciousness. At the time, it seemed to me that it would have been useful to have a large cohort of faculty members in my corner, publicly, on matters so important to the flourishing of intellectual freedom on campus — not to mention to the fair treatment of all. There were certainly many faculty members who recoiled from such ideas, but, for the most part, they opted for private murmuring. Consciously or not, they thereby telegraphed weakness. Bullies, of course, sense weakness and thrive on it — and such personality types are generally necessary for institutional capture to succeed. 

Most importantly, the college’s then chief academic officer, John Smetanka, made a stunning announcement in the fall of 2020. He indicated in an email that faculty members would face negative employment consequences should they use a particular “racial slur” in the classroom. (For the record, in my more than two decades of employment at Saint Vincent College, I had never heard the word uttered on campus anywhere, by anyone, as a racial slur — in other words, with the intention to demean or insult another human being.) I immediately objected to this new policy and indicated that I could not abide by it. I have always taught almost exclusively through primary sources — particularly the Great Books of Western civilization and the great political writings of the American tradition. I noted, to no avail, the appearance of the word in many important works by authors ranging from Mark Twain, to Flannery O’Connor, to James Baldwin. I stated flatly in faculty meetings that if I viewed works to be important enough to appear on my syllabus, I would teach them the way they were written. I was then informed that I could teach such works, so long as I dared not “vocalize” the forbidden word. But even if it were possible to teach them in this manner, it was not possible to erase the word from their pages, nor to avoid courting complaints from students or faculty who would have a sympathetic ear in the administration. A clear signal had been sent: assign them at your peril. 

At no time did the president intervene to clarify the college’s position, even after I solicited the opinion of the college counsel on the compatibility, or lack thereof, of the new policy with the institution’s formal commitments to academic freedom. In raising public objections, I was, again, alone. This was despite the fact that a number of my colleagues also taught primary sources and were very much aware of what was at stake — which is more than one could say of Saint Vincent’s senior administrators. Some faculty members, I suspect, simply shied away from teaching such works entirely. Others kept teaching them as they were written but very much under the radar — likely hoping and praying that no one would raise an objection. 

The continuing costs of acquiescence are as predictable as the sun setting in the west.

As a result of being forced to stake out public positions at odds with the priorities of the college’s president (but very much in keeping with the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts tradition), I had painted a rather large target on my back. It was clear that I would not go quietly. It was also clear that, should a decision be made to remove sources of opposition to the new woke agenda, resistance from faculty would not be forthcoming — the administration could act, at least internally, with impunity. And so it did. 

The modus operandi of those on scorched-earth marches through our institutions — whether academic, corporate, political, religious, or cultural — is captured with dark humor in an internet meme: they find something good, gut it, wear it as a skinsuit, and then demand respect. It is highly unlikely that such people will prove capable of learning, unless they are challenged by large numbers of individuals who reject their forays. In fact, it’s unlikely that they will even realize there are large numbers of people who do not share their assumptions. They will instead continue to believe that “history” is on their side and will exhibit the hubris of moral superiority that goes along with this belief. 

*****

In the immediate aftermath of the conference, I was personally the target of some rage. I fielded phone calls from a small number of people who identified themselves as angry alums of the college. The mob, though small, was circling like a school of hungry piranhas. One of the callers even posted a screenshot of my contact information, describing it as “dick heads [sic]” and concluding with the exhortation to “blow this man up.” I forwarded this to the president and to the two men most responsible for drafting the ill-informed apology letter — college counsel Bruce Antkowiak and executive vice president Mallory. I asked, via email and also a public faculty forum, if they would be as quick to condemn such obvious hatred as they were to condemn an invited speaker. I heard only the sound of chirping crickets. If it weren’t for double standards, academia would have no standards at all.

Students, illustrating piece on institutional capture (Verde, spectator.org)

Throughout the ordeal, many faculty members seemed pleased by the administrative takeover of a “conservative” enclave on campus and the concomitant limiting of speech with which the president and cabinet members disagreed. Others, privately concerned or repulsed by the president’s actions, remained silent. An ironclad law of academia seems to be that, when the going gets tough, friends head for the hills. I confess I am unsure why this is the case. One would not necessarily expect it, given the job security and formal protections that academics enjoy — which are unheard of in the non-academic world. A primary purpose of tenure is to allow academics to fight battles for academic and intellectual freedom and to ensure that only minimal levels of courage are required to do so. Yet both the spirit and the flesh are weak and unwilling. Academics are not people with whom you would want to be in a foxhole. 

The absence of even traces of the critical moral virtue of courage impedes the development and exercise of other virtues, including intellectual ones. Courage is required not simply for acting but for thinking. Prudence or practical wisdom, in other words, knowing what to do in fraught circumstances, presupposes courage. A certain amount of fearlessness is required for practical wisdom to be, in fact, wisdom, as opposed to the consolation of “prudence” that masks cowardice — the unwillingness to look risk in the eye and think rather than blink. Even if all the ridiculous calumnies launched against a single guest speaker had been true, they could not have justified the effective destruction of a major academic unit of the college — a conclusion that would not tax the intellect of a courageous man. 

Without courage, even the human good of friendship is compromised. It remains possible only on utilitarian grounds, and it is therefore as fleeting as the shifting sands of self-interest and pleasure. In the great film adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, Richard Rich is awarded high office for Wales, advancing himself at the expense of the truth and eventually condemning Thomas More. Sir Thomas remarks, “Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world — but for Wales?” Academic perks and privileges don’t even stack up to Wales.

The continuing costs of acquiescence are as predictable as the sun setting in the west. Saint Vincent is now advertising “Cluster Hiring for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence,” seeking to hire a “cohort of faculty” around these objectives. Cluster hiring is relatively new in academia (and also in the private sector). It tends to be driven by the senior administration in order not just to hire individual faculty members who might be needed by a department but to make several hires in tandem, around some transdisciplinary objective, or, nowadays, around the objectives of diversity, inclusion, and equity. It is the ultimate virtue signal, often with special funding lines. Almost everyone knows that DIE cluster hires are designed to exclude as much as to include. They appear to be a way of getting around federal anti-discrimination law, although some ads are blatant enough to court legal problems. Faculty members in existing departments often acquiesce to such hiring practices because they “get” another hire that they might otherwise not. But what they really get is trouble. Ideological commitment statements are often required of candidates, along with plans to implement them. 

None of these things can happen without high-level support, or, at least, high-level negligence. An institution’s board members either know what’s going on or they don’t. Either way, they are fully culpable — institutional capture happens under their noses and on their watch. Yet they too are likely to be unaware of the existence of dissenting voices when those voices are prone to silence and inaction. The chairman of the Saint Vincent board is none other than Art Rooney II, who is also the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, thereby, the keeper of the “Rooney Rule” of affirmative action within the NFL. According to the reporter Jonathan Barnes, when asked about Rooney’s involvement in the Saint Vincent affair, the Steelers director of communications indicated that “[Rooney] and the organization are comfortable with how Father Paul Taylor addressed the situation and the policies and changes they put in place to ensure it would not happen again.” The ominous “it” in that sentence cannot help but send chills down the spine of anyone who cares about intellectual freedom and the capture of our institutions. 

*****

There is a point at which it becomes clear that an institution cannot be saved from itself — although, in fairness, it remains to be seen whether a less craven and more intellectually capable administration might in the future reverse some of the damage done to a place as historically worthy as Saint Vincent. My decision to resign in the summer of 2022 was an exceedingly difficult one. I had been blessed in many ways during my decades at the college. With the support of generous donors (who rightly walked away in the face of the administration’s draconian actions), I had enjoyed opportunities that come only rarely in academia. In addition to making a career for myself in a disfavored field, I had been instrumental in helping to build to national prominence a center that allowed for the presentation of heterodox arguments in a sea of academic orthodoxy. I had also managed to build a small but influential “Great Books” politics department. Each of these things had in turn benefited generations of students who were fortunate that a place such as Saint Vincent existed. It’s not easy to walk away from such things, particularly with the sadness that comes from the realization that decades of work can be undone in an instant. But each of us has only so much energy to expend in the battle to preserve our increasingly captured institutions. Prudence must dictate where it is best expended. 

I still think the fall of Saint Vincent need not have happened had a determined and united group of tenured faculty members resisted. I cannot be sure of this; but I am sure that it was worth a try.

Bradley C.S. Watson teaches in the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C. He has authored or edited many books, including, most recently, Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea (Notre Dame).

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