• Just Visiting

    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Guest Post: Heterodox Academy Isn’t Perfect -- but You (Yes, You!) Can Help Improve It

A guest post from Musa al-Gharbi.

February 15, 2021

The last two weeks I wrote posts concerning the Heterodox Academy, the first outlining my personal reasons for feeling alienated from their mission despite sharing many of their values, and the second reflecting on the aftermath of some of the responses to that post.

Musa al-Gharbi, former director of communications of HxA, reached out to see if I'd be interested in publishing a response, which I'm pleased to do here, as I think it reflects the values I believe in concerning academic discourse. -- JW

In a recent essay for Inside Higher Ed, John Warner wrote an "Open Letter to Heterodox Academy," explaining what he finds frustrating about the organization these days.

Although I am no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of HxA, I have no small among of insight into the issues he raised. I became involved in the organization shortly after it started, and even served as the director of communications for a time. While I cannot speak as to what HxA is currently doing, nor its plans for the future (I’m sure someone currently plugged in to the organization may be interested in weighing in on these questions downstream), I’d like to take a minute to discuss some of the core tensions Warner raised in his essays.

Elite Schools and Scholars

In his open letter, Warner argued that Heterodox Academy has always been heavily focused on elite schools and has disproportionately elevated voices from elite schools in its events, etc. That is, they often amplify the voices of people who already have a big microphone. This claim strikes me as more or less true, but it is important to understand why HxA has had this focus. Consider the following:

  • According to a recent study in Science Advances, a mere 18 schools seem to produce roughly half of all tenured and tenure-track professors in the U.S. today. The top quartile of Ph.D.-granting institutions seem to account for somewhere between 71 and 86 percent of all tenured and tenure-track faculty.
  • Cartels of elite school professors and alumni tend to control the major journals in most fields and primarily publish scholars who are affiliated with, or who graduated from, these schools.
  • Because everyone wants to be like Harvard, policies and procedures adopted by elite institutions are often rapidly copied by institutions across the country.
  • Most of the major ideological frameworks that are being most heavily contested today were created or popularized by scholars associated with elite schools.
  • Elite schools overwhelmingly shape public perceptions about students and universities (in no small part because media organizations tend to hire interns, journalists and editors who hail from these same institutions, and who therefore prioritize these institutions themselves -- a trend that is especially pronounced at prestige outlets).

In short, there has been a heavy focus on elite schools because elite schools are really important for the institutional dynamics of higher ed writ large. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the battle for the souls of these institutions. They overwhelmingly shape what kinds of scholars are produced and hired at colleges and universities around the country, what gets published in flagship journals (shaping the direction of research in a field), what policies and procedures universities around the country adopt, and how Americans view higher ed writ large. Right or wrong, this is the field HxA has to play on.

But of course, Warner is absolutely correct that most faculty in the country do not teach at elite schools (even if a hugely disproportionate share graduated from them). Similarly, students overwhelmingly attend community colleges and land-grant universities rather than the kinds of institutions that dominate public discussion of higher ed. And it is important to reflect on the ways that the challenges faced by most students and faculty tend to vary in systematic ways from the drama at elite schools. Striking the right balance here is difficult. And it seems reasonable for Warner to argue that HxA is not currently getting that balance right.

When HxA started, all members were publicly listed on the website, and only tenured academics were eligible to apply. Heterodox Academy was especially focused on recruiting people from elite schools at that time, as they could speak up without fear of meaningful termination or reprisal, and could therefore provide cover and credibility to more vulnerable or obscure faculty who saw the same problems but could not speak up. However, the organization gradually felt compelled to expand its ranks because so many others were eager to declare their support, despite the greater risk they faced. The organization started by folding in tenure-track professors (instead of simply tenured faculty), then eventually expanded to adjuncts, grad students (future faculty) and administrators. Now there are thousands of members at institutions across the country, occupying all sorts of positions within those institutions.

That is, over time the organization has become gradually less elite-driven and elite-focused. This is not to detract from Warner’s claim that HxA has more room to grow in this direction -- just to provide some additional context on why things are the way they are.

That said, Warner’s observations on elitism really struck a chord with me. Although I’m now affiliated with an Ivy League school, I graduated from a community college and got my B.A. and M.A. from a land-grant public university. I’ve also worked as an adjunct, and I know firsthand that for the vast majority of faculty today, who are contingent rather than tenured or tenure track, academic freedom is basically a joke. A single negative teaching evaluation or a single upset faculty member, donor or administrator can lead to one’s contract being discontinued -- often with no explanation provided for why one was let go. So most keep their heads down and bust their butts teaching insane workloads under deplorable conditions while struggling (typically in vain) to find a way onto the tenure track.

And while administrators were responsible for this transition at the outset, today many departments actively perpetuate this state of affairs because the minority of faculty who are tenured and tenure track really enjoy having a pool of "disposable scholars" at hand to take on the tasks they don’t want to do, dirt cheap, and with little say in governance decisions. The kind of elitism and exploitation that increasingly defines institutions of higher learning was on full display when a critic of Warner’s referred to him as an "academic nobody." It is, of course, extremely ironic that someone would offer this kind of response in an attempt to defend an organization premised on elevating marginalized perspectives and promoting constructive disagreement. Which is a perfect transition to another important concern Warner put his finger on:

Bad Hombres

In his initial essay, Warner expressed concern that although the mission of HxA is important, and the problems it has identified are real, it is also the case that bad actors have tried, and continue to try, to exploit the organization’s critiques in the service of their own agendas. In his follow-up essay, Warner noted that although the vast majority are not this way, a troubling number of HxA’s sympathizers do not seem to practice the values they claim to uphold, and are themselves closed-minded, vicious and condescending while demanding that other people be more open and civil. I’ll just say outright, both of these are very real issues -- and the organization has consistently tried to confront them head-on.

For instance, during my time with HxA I have repeatedly pushed back against a sense of self-righteousness among Heterodox Academy’s members and fellow travelers (e.g. here, here, here) and emphasized the importance of reflexivity in research and activism. But this is a struggle that must constantly be waged, because it is easy to fall into a certain kind of mental trap: in criticizing parochialism, bias and incivility in others we can lose sight of our own shortcomings and those of our allies; we can become blind to the limitations of our own knowledge and beliefs; it can become tempting to respond to perceived malfeasance of others by fighting fire with fire because the ends justify the means, and so on. These are natural impulses, but they are also precisely what Heterodox Academy was created to fight.

As it relates to attempts by bad actors to co-opt HxA’s cause, as I’ve discussed a few times (e.g. here, here), I have no small amount of personal experience with right-wing attacks on academic freedom. I’ve consistently pushed back against these incursions, and HxA has unflinchingly supported me in those efforts.

During my tenure at HxA, we published content on how political donors can undermine academic freedom, breaking down the Fox News outrage industry targeting professors, highlighting the political firings of left-leaning professors, condemning the neoliberalization of higher ed, exploring how the rhetoric of "anti-woke" intellectuals is often exploited by the alt-right, criticizing the "grievance studies" hoax, detailing the history of right-aligned movements to promote "viewpoint diversity," and more. One of the rare statements HxA has made as an organization -- and the first such statement -- was to condemn Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist.

Conservative members of the team, meanwhile, have denounced efforts by conservative groups to troll liberal students, have explained the importance of conservatives learning from the left (just as the left should learn from conservatives), and more.

When Betsy DeVos attempted to appropriate one of Jon Haidt’s arguments, he pushed back and emphasized that “the political world is playing a very different game [from those of us in higher ed], and it’s a game that almost always damages our ability to do our work in universities.” Indeed, the organizational leadership and core team have been clear, consistent and outspoken against legislators meddling in higher ed to pursue partisan goals (e.g., here, here, here, here, here).

This is another struggle that will continue indefinitely, and it is critical for organizations like Heterodox Academy to stay engaged in that struggle. The bad actors cannot be permitted to capture this issue; the stakes are too high. Indeed, at the same time we push back against right-wing attacks on universities, it is critical to understand why these attacks seem to resonate with so many Americans:

Whole regions of the country have essentially been left behind by institutions of higher learning. Historically marginalized communities, while better represented than in the past, remain significantly underrepresented. And as I have explained elsewhere, all of these trends are deeply interrelated. A growing number of people do not feel as though they have a voice or stake in institutions of higher learning; they do not feel as though these institutions reflect their values or interests. And when people feel this way about a given set of institutions, they generally try to delegitimize, defund and dismantle those institutions.

As I’ve explained previously for Inside Higher Ed, it is incumbent upon those of us in institutions of higher learning to work to bridge these divides, rather than smugly condemning the people who feel locked out as ignorant, stupid or anti-intellectual. This is why organizations like Heterodox Academy are so important. Those who feel HxA is headed in the wrong direction -- especially those people -- should join and help steer the organization down a different path. Similarly, if there is an issue that people would like to see HxA address, and they have not seen it addressed, the easiest way to resolve this problem would be to send something in oneself.

This is the point of Heterodox Academy -- encouraging people not to wait for other people to step up, but encouraging our members to take point themselves, to themselves intervene in these debates, and themselves take the lead in reforming the institutions they are embedded in. The vision for Heterodox Academy has never been to orchestrate higher ed reform top-down nationwide. HxA has never thought it has all the answers. The idea has always been that together, people in higher ed can get a better understanding of the problems and can figure out how to effectively tackle them.

That is, the primary objectives of the organization have always been to 1) open up space for discussion, 2) provide useful data, tools, resources and frameworks to understand the challenges facing higher ed, and 3) to inspire and mobilize academics to lead the charge in their own local contexts, in the institutions they are embedded in.

However, like the academy it seeks to reform, Heterodox Academy is not perfect. It will continue to grow and evolve, and you (the reader) can help guide that evolution. In that spirit, I celebrate John Warner for holding HxA’s feet to the fire. And it is my hope and expectation that people inside the org are listening to what he has to say. People like Warner are not "academic nobodies." They, and you (the reader), are the solution to the problems HxA seeks to address.


We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Back to Top