Universities Must Address the Creep of Ideology

September 2022

Back in 2007, when I became a doctoral student, my professors made two points crystal clear: first, high academic standards must be maintained; and second, critical thinking was of paramount importance. We were expected to investigate the validity of truth claims and to avoid blind partisanship.

Over the past few years, however, the creep of ideology has become difficult to ignore. Some scholars advocate for a preferred worldview and, in the process, downplay the importance of epistemic constraints.

The consequences here are serious. If allowed to flourish, ideological thinking will discredit universities in the eyes of the public, which will view them—rightly or wrongly—as sheep factories. The following examples illustrate this concern.

In a publication by professors Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan, the authors reveal how scholars deliberately mislead their target audience by utilizing deepfake methodology. Wæver and Buzan outline in detail how this deceptive practice is employed to produce meaning disconnected from reality, with the goal of advancing a political agenda.

For instance, to bolster their claim that all Western social science is systematically racist, the academics in question sidestep relevant evidence, select quotations out of context, and forward fallacious arguments. According to Wæver and Buzan, those who subscribe to such shoddy practices are guilty of “serious academic misconduct.”

Professors who weaponize deepfake methodology may feel that championing a noble cause, such as anti-black racism, is more important than academic rigor. They could not be more wrong. This destructive tactic—labelling entire branches of study racist without factual analysis—only serves to discredit progressive causes in the long run.

A lapse in standards is also evident in charges concerning systemic racism on campus. A prime example involves the Princeton ultimatum, a letter signed by approximately 350 professors, lecturers, and graduate students decrying the ways in which various forms of racism “thrive” at Princeton University, specifically within its hiring, admission, and recruitment efforts.

Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy calls the accusation “untenable.” As Kennedy notes, Princeton has made genuine efforts to recruit, hire, and promote visible minorities. Moreover, its most prominent educators of colour—including Toni Morrison, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Cornel West—have never characterized Princeton as a bastion of racism. As well, any demographic disparity on Princeton’s faculty is not necessarily the result of biased hiring policies. Social and historical factors impacting black communities—discriminatory laws, poverty, and incarceration rates—all contribute to a lack of representation.

If the charge of systemic racism is exaggerated, why would so many academics defend the ultimatum? The reasons vary. Collegiality, political opportunism, and peer pressure all play a role. But many academics wholly embrace the ultimatum’s core message. The problem lies in the sacralization of anti-racist assertions and demands. The solution, therefore, is to interrogate them like any other set of propositions, not to subscribe to them unconditionally.

Joseph Heath, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, further recognizes how ideology has crept into academia. While serving on a jury to select the best work published by a Canadian university press in the social sciences, Heath reviewed 16 books for this honour. In his blog, he described most of them as “profoundly cringe-inducing.”

Heath reveals how the majority of scholars under review engaged in polemics, made sweeping moral judgments, and relied heavily on jargon. Critical inquiry—the kind that prevents academic disciplines from becoming echo chambers—was largely absent.

In its place, normative commitments were forwarded. The authors felt duty-bound to combat social injustice and to end oppression but, in doing so, side-stepped evidentiary standards and established modes of argumentation. When professors adopt an activist approach, they function as sermonists, not detached researchers. The result: reasoned debate is marginalized in favour of proselytizing.

When acting as expert witnesses in court, academics periodically adopt dogmatic beliefs. In R. v. Anwar, a provincial case concerning prostitution, a doctoral student and a lecturer provided testimony condemning sex work; however, their perspectives were anything but empirical. Both witnesses rejected objectivity within social sciences, described prostitution as inherently harmful without exception, and lobbied on behalf of anti-prostitution organizations. Other academic sins included a failure to publish in peer-reviewed journals and the use of inflammatory rhetoric.

Justice McKay addressed the “inability of both witnesses to consider any position other than their favoured ideology,” adding that an expert witness “should never assume the role of an advocate.” Years of indoctrination led them to believe that personal conviction alone possesses merit. They were simply incapable of making an intellectual argument.

If academic values are worth defending—chief among them critical thinking—then it is the responsibility of universities to marginalize ideology. This begins with some serious soul-searching within those departments that continue to lend credence to it.