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Who is in charge at Heterodox Academy?

I ask because even though I have publicly discussed my discontent with the organization, I was nonetheless taken aback by a recently published piece at the Heterodox Academy website because it went well beyond what I would’ve previously expected from the organization in its defense of viewpoint diversity.

The article is by University of Illinois professor of sociology Ilana Redstone and titled “Condemning the Harassment Shouldn’t Mean Dismissing the Concerns: A Response to the Campus Reform Controversy.” The essay is a response to an in-depth study by a team of researchers working under the American Association of University Professors banner, and a brief write-up of the study at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The original study used a survey instrument to ask faculty who had been targeted by the website Campus Reform what sort of consequences they experienced. The survey found that 40 percent of respondents had been threatened, including threats of “physical violence or death, following Campus Reform stories about them.” A disproportionate percentage of those facing threats were African American, and the vast majority of stories Campus Reform had covered involved public speech, outside the classroom or other professional contexts.

Campus Reform is funded by the right-wing Leadership Institute, which is turn funded by the Koch family. The Leadership Institute is dedicated, in its own words, to training “freedom fighters to effectively defeat the radical Left.”

In a fundraising message on its website, Campus Reform declared that “the time has come to expose leftist thugs and their attacks on freedom.”

Campus Reform operates on an outrage for clicks and cash model. Writing at The Intercept, Alice Speri reports that Campus Reform’s contributing writers (primarily students) are paid per piece, moving up in pay with the number of pieces accepted. The highest-profile pieces may find the authors in more prominent spots like Fox News and pave the way for careers in partisan conversative media. Tipsters of liberal abuses who don’t want to write the articles can make $50 for their information.

So, you know, just your garden-variety news and information resource operating within the well-established ethics of the profession of journalism and a totally reliable source on potential liberal bias among college faculty.

The explicit aim of Campus Reform is to intimidate faculty and squelch their public speech and constrain their academic freedoms.

It works! The AAUP survey found that of those who had received threats of harm, 39 percent had curtailed their social media presence. Twelve percent had changed their teaching and 6 percent had changed their research agenda out of fear of additional harassment.

Speri shares the specific story of Alyssa Johnson, an assistant professor at LSU who was targeted by Campus Reform over a tweet, which ultimately resulted in harassment and threats that forced her to leave her home.

In her article, Redstone starts the whitewashing of Campus Reform with her characterization of the site as “a conservative outlet focused on higher education,” which is the equivalent of calling the coronavirus “a biological entity interested in close contact with humans.”

Redstone is not pro-harassment, she assures us, but she also feels that the original researchers “fail to address the real concerns that spurred the Campus Reform articles in question.”

Plus, as Redstone says, who’s to say that these faculty didn’t kind of deserve it? In her words, “Although it provides evidence that the instructors named in the Campus Reform articles do indeed tend to receive threats, the results convey no information regarding whether the incidents mentioned in these articles merit concern. Perhaps we’re just supposed to assume that Campus Reform’s coverage is solely based in conservative hysteria.”

Rather than pursuing this line of inquiry herself and presenting specific cases that do merit concern, Redstone instead returns to the survey, somehow twisting the fact that the vast majority of the targeted faculty were engaging in public speech into a potential indictment of their classroom practices.

Redstone says, “However, is the burden on Campus Reform to affirmatively demonstrate that instructors bring their public persona into the classroom?”

Um … yes? Completely and totally, unequivocally yes?

She continues, “Or is the burden on instructors -- or on academia more generally -- to demonstrate that those with overtly biased social media personas leave their biases behind when they enter the classroom?”

You will never find a better example of “please tell the jury when you stopped beating your wife” logic, ever.

There are a couple of other questions that go begging in this construction, the most important whether or not the Campus Reform accounting of what happened is accurate in the first place. Considering the fact that a high-profile incident at Boise State University of a white student being shamed and humiliated over his identity appears to have been entirely fabricated, as judged by an independently investigating law firm, perhaps a bit more circumspection is in order.

The remainder of the article works to offer additional exculpation for Campus Reform’s approach and is even less convincing than what came before, essentially a series of desperate “what abouts?” positing absurd alternate explanations for the original researchers’ conclusions.

Campus Reform is propaganda, tied to a far-right ideology that is, by any reasonable definition, not a good-faith interlocutor into the questions of viewpoint diversity on campus that Heterodox Academy is concerned with.

“The HxA Way” -- 1. Make your case with evidence. 2. Be intellectually charitable. 3. Be intellectually humble. 4. Be constructive and 5. Be yourself -- seems incongruent with a defense of a group that would like nothing better than to destroy the academy.

Frustrated, I aired my pique on Twitter, asking facetiously “Is anyone at the wheel at that place?”

As it turns out, the answer is no, according to Musa al-Gharbi, former director of communications for the organization, (and guest blogger at "Just Visiting"), who says that the previous president resigned more than a year ago and has not been replaced. “There’s no one really at the helm.

Granted, I don’t have a dog in the fight, but this seems like a problem to me. HxA is a 501(c)(3) organization with over $2 million in gross receipts, according to its most recent publicly available tax data. It boasts thousands of members and produces and promotes content and events. Its Board of Directors includes co-founder of the organization Jonathan Haidt, as well as prominent figures in venture capital, private foundations, academia and investment management.

Its advisory council boasts everyone from David Brooks to Cornel West.

Lots of intellectual and organizational firepower seems readily available, so I’m wondering what’s kept them from having an organizational leader for more than a year, and whether or not that failure has resulted in the publishing and promoting of an article that defends those who seek to do great harm to faculty.

While obviously no one believes that all individual members of an organization support everything put out by that organization, in this case, the essay is published under the HxA banner, clearly implying an endorsement of the views. Is this truly a view that reflects the spirt of Heterodox Academy?

I hope someone looks into what’s up soon.

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