Political Correctness and “Alternative Bureaucracies”

I’ve just read the most insightful essay I’ve ever seen on a key source of political correctness in American higher education and the intellectual and other absurdities that have flooded ever after.

The author is Neil Gilbert, the Milton and Gertrude Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and Social Services at the University of California, Berkeley.  His article “Institutionalized Discontent,” published last year, is one of his more than 140 articles and 32 books.  With such a history, you might think that (1) as holder of an endowed chair in social welfare and social services (sorry for the italics), Professor Gilbert might be one of the last people in academe inclined to lead the way in challenging P.C., especially on an iconic liberal campus.  And given he has taught at Berkeley since 1969, that (2) he must be slowing down.  Evidently not is the answer on the first point.  And clearly not on the second, as I saw and experienced firsthand when we worked on a project together last summer.

I might provincially note here that we both graduated from Far Rockaway High School in Queens, home of three Nobel Prize recipients – count ‘em, three.  And that he did so (it goes without saying) with far, far greater distinction than I.  He also went first by about a half-dozen-years, though I suspect that doesn’t explain it.

The core of Neil’s argument in “Institutionalized Discontent” (Society, August 2016) goes like this:

“Over the last several decades federal regulations and funds have created an alternative bureaucracy within universities that is devoted not to the core academic mission of teaching and research, but to improving the social climate of university life.”  The “legitimacy and power” of this new bureaucracy, he writes, “depend on heightening the perception that academic life involves a dangerous environment, from which students need protection.”  This perceived need, he continues, has led to campaigns for “safe spaces”; efforts to help students “recognize micro aggressions”; educating and training them in “sexual assault prevention”; and demanding faculty participation in “sensitivity training.”  Among other rote requirements.

How big is this new bureaucracy?  Neil reports that between 2000 and 2015, “the number of full-time, ladder-rank teaching faculty at Berkeley increased by 1%, while the number of full-time staff providing student services and health care increased by more than 100%, at which point they outnumbered the teaching faculty by 13%.”

Or from another angle, in addition to “inhibiting spontaneity, humor, and controversial ideas, the social climate bureaucracy” at Berkeley consumes a fortune, as costs “include not only outside consultants’ fees and faculty time, but the addition of 700 professional staff offering student services hired over the last 15 years, during which time only 70 positions were added to the roster of full-time ladder-rank faculty.”

To the question, by the way, has Professor Gilbert been called nasty names, and have other not-nice things been done to him over the years for raising issues like this, the answer is, what do you think?  There was the time in about 1990, for example, when he critiqued what was manifestly inaccurate but exquisitely politically correct research about sexual assaults on campus.  In response, he writes, students “organized a candlelight vigil” and fliers invited others to join in.  “By all accounts,” he recounts, “it was a lively affair during which they marched around campus chanting ‘Neil Gilbert cut it out or cut if off.’”  A short time later, “a creepy anonymous threat was slipped under my office door and a student petition was sent to the administration asking them to censure my work.”  To its credit, the administration never said a word to him about it.

The bogus research in question, which had been sponsored by Ms. Magazine and reported in the student newspaper, claimed that 25 percent of women on the Berkeley campus had been raped.  Neil questioned what was, on its face, a grossly inaccurate number, and wrote in The Public Interest (as he explains in last year’s Society article) that,

73% percent of the students categorized as rape victims according to the researcher’s awkward and  vaguely worded definition, did not think they had  been raped; 42% of these  women had sex again with the man who supposedly raped them; the FBI’s data from 500 colleges and universities with an overall population of 5 million students showed a rate of rape and attempted rape reported to the police which was 1000 times (not percent) smaller than the figure reported in the Ms. Magazine study. . . . The researcher’s assertion that three-quarters of the female students surveyed did not recognize when they had been [supposedly] raped infantilizes college women and in the process trivializes the trauma and pain suffered by rape victims.”

An incontestable last point in particular.

Such a clear-cut refutation notwithstanding, similarly groundless statistics reemerged a quarter century later, in 2015, in a survey commissioned by the American Association of Universities and announced in a New York Times headline as “1 in 4 Women Experience Sex Assault on Campus.”  But as pointed out by the chronically un-intimidated Professor Gilbert in his Society article, this newest figure “is based on a definition of sexual assault that includes forced kissing, touching, and rubbing up against someone in a sexual way, even if it’s over their clothes.  Conflating an unwanted kiss or dancing too closely,” he continues, “with forcible rape inflates the rate while it dilutes the meaning of sexual violence.”  All true again.

In the very next paragraph, Neil asks, “Why have the conceptual boundaries of sexual violence on campus expanded, as the depth of the problem has diminished throughout the nation?”  (According to FBI statistics, the rate of forcible rape in the United States between 1995 and 2014 fell by 30 percent.)  One explanation, he writes, draws on Irving Kristol’s observation about “jobs, status, and power.”  The rest of Neil’s answer warrants stating in full.

To increase the social climate’s bureaucracy’s jobs, status, and power, it must be shown that serious social problems exist on campus creating a hostile environment.  Hence, this bureaucracy is perforce an embedded source of institutionalized discontent; its existence is justified less by promoting the university’s core mission than by drawing attention to the alleged magnitude of social troubles on campus and the number of victims that need to be served.  A perception reinforced by the media’s inclination to publicize research claiming that problems such as sexual violence on campus are rampant, while ignoring the definitions, measurements, and response rates on which these claims are based.

Neil Gilbert’s analysis is on target in every brave and scholarly way.  Given the fact, however, that PC nonsense, including the violent kind – as has returned to Berkeley – gives no indication of fading away in the foreseeable future, the need for similarly brave and brilliant analyses in vivid opposition won’t be going away either.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.