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A collection of the 13 book covers for the books discussed in the accompanying review.

Duke University Press/Georgetown University Press/Harvard University Press/Penn State University Press/Princeton University Press/Stanford University Press/Syracuse University Press/University of Chicago Press/University Press of Kansas

The fall catalogs from university presses now in hand feature a number of books on leadership, the culture wars and the world of higher education itself—concerns that overlap in real life, of course, with some volumes falling under more than one heading.

Here is a selection of notable titles likely to be of interest to IHE’s readership. The publication dates indicated are taken from the presses’ listings. So is the material appearing within quotation marks.

Nicholas Lemann’s first book on the SAT appeared in 1999, and his Higher Admissions: The Rise, Decline, and Return of Standardized Testing (Princeton University Press, September) revisits both the test’s origin story and his own critique of meritocratic thinking. But an enormous amount of water has passed under the bridge over the intervening quarter century: While “anticipation of the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision banning affirmative action, plus the COVID pandemic, led hundreds of universities to stop requiring standardized admissions tests,” they seem to be returning to their original position as part of “the narrow chokepoint of admission to highly selective colleges.”

Lemann proposes “an alternate path that American higher education could have taken, and can still take,” toward “a significant upgrade of the entire higher education system" that would “create as much meaningful opportunity for flourishing … for as many people as possible.”

Another author, drawing on interviews with more than a hundred students at public universities, finds that “the choices and flexibility of college” are a boon to some, and matters of pervasive uneasiness for others. Blake R. Silver’s Degrees of Risk: Navigating Insecurity and Inequality in Public Higher Education (University of Chicago Press, August) argues that the “low-income, first-generation students” often find deciding things like “which major to choose, whether to take online classes, and how to find funding” to be an anxious undertaking. Students from “financially secure families with knowledge of how college works” are more disposed to seeing the same challenges as “an adventure or a wealth of opportunities.”

Nor is the playing field level for those with unusually wired brains. In Mad Scholars: Reclaiming and Reimagining the Neurodiverse Academy (Syracuse University Press, August), co-editors Melanie Jones and Shayda Kafai assemble essays by academics from “nearly a dozen disciplines across three continents” who “proudly embrace the label of the ‘mad scholar.’” That embrace is surely meant to neutralize the label’s stigmatizing power, as other scholars have done with “queer” and “crip.”

In any case, neurodiversity is a broad category. It covers autism, obsessive-compulsive behavior and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to keep the list brief. Contributors discuss “the challenges of simply existing within the traditional university model” and advocate “a more open-minded administrative approach to academics who identify at the intersection of various marginalized identities,” arguing that doing so “would be a boon both to students and faculty.”

Cass R. Sunstein’s Campus Free Speech: A Pocket Guide (Harvard University Press, September) acknowledges that “frank exchanges of opinion" are "a core component of the educational enterprise and the pursuit of truth,” but underscores that free speech “does not mean a free-for-all.” An academic institution is obliged to “regulat(e) speech when doing so is necessary for its educational mission.”

The author presents “a wide range of scenarios involving students, professors, and administrators” as case studies of the principles involved in deciding, say, “why it’s consistent with the First Amendment to punish students who shout down a speaker, but not those who chant offensive slogans”—or “why a professor cannot be fired for writing a politically charged op-ed, yet a university might legitimately consider an applicant’s political views when deciding whether to hire her.”

Sunstein also considers “the thorny question of whether a university should officially take sides on public issues or deliberately keep the institution outside the fray.” The grounds for distinguishing “reasonable restrictions from impermissible infringement” are themselves open to debate, and Campus Free Speech is certain to incite some.

Polemics around “cancel culture” and “wokeism” typically recycle arguments underway since roughly the first Clinton administration, when they were called “political correctness” and “multiculturalism,” respectively. Or that’s how they may register to someone old enough to remember the culture war’s initial skirmishes. So I must admit to a faint twinge of nostalgia while reading about Musa al-Gharbi’s We Have Never Been Woke: The Cultural Contradictions of a New Elite (Princeton University Press, October).

There is a certain novelty to seeing a favorite conservative term of disparagement taken up by someone making a left-ish argument. The author understands “wokeness” to be a manipulative ideology of phony egalitarianism fostered by “the rise of a new elite—the symbolic capitalists,” who “work primarily with words, ideas, images, and data” from the commanding heights of “education, media, nonprofits, and beyond.” While “very likely to identify as allies of antiracist, feminist, LGBTQ, and other progressive causes”—and perhaps even perfectly sincere in their sentiments—the symbolic capitalists use “the language of social justice” to shore up their own power. Wokeness enables them to treat “the losers in this knowledge economy as deserving their lot because they think or say the ‘wrong’ things about race, gender, and sexuality.” But woke symbolic capitalists “regularly provoke backlash against the social justice causes they champion.”

As someone who first encountered the same lines of thought during the late twentieth century—in the writings of Daniel Bell, Barbara Ehrenreich, Christopher Lasch, and a few other figures—I find myself experiencing “deja vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra put it. The earlier critics of the “adversarial culture” promoted by a “professional-managerial class” made up of “symbolic analysts” were responding to the impact of the 1960s. Plus ça change …

Taking up the other contemporary bit of culture-war lingo is Adrian Daub’s The Cancel Culture Panic: How an American Obsession Went Global (Stanford University Press, September). While recognizing that the hue and cry over “cancelation” started out on the American right, the author stresses that concern over it is no longer partisan or provincial. “[C]entrist, even left-leaning, media” have taken it up and “defined the outlines of what cancel culture is supposed to be.” Meanwhile the controversy has gone international: “Media in Western Europe, South America, Russia, and Australia have devoted as much—in some cases more—attention to this supposedly American phenomenon than most U.S. outlets.”

Much the same could be said about “political correctness” in its prime, especially with regard to alarms sounded by centrist and liberal commentators. But rebranded as “cancel culture,” the same phenomenon has had wider circulation and is discussed at a higher pitch of rhetorical urgency. Daub examines “how various global publics have been so quickly convinced that cancel culture exists and that it poses an existential problem.” Adopting a concept formulated by the criminologist Stanley Cohen, the author identifies cancellation as the focus of a “moral panic”—a quickly propagating and emotionally charged belief that some group or tendency poses an imminent threat to established and legitimate order and authority.

Restoring that order and authority takes strategy, and time. Chelsea Ebin’s The Radical Mind: The Origins of Right-Wing Catholic and Protestant Coalition Building (University Press of Kansas, June) traces the genealogy of what she calls the New Christian Right as a force in “the morally supercharged political landscape we face today.” The possibility of an alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants was by no means obvious—or even all that plausible—for most of the twentieth century.

“Drawing on extensive archival research,” the author shows how “conservative Catholics and Protestants overcame their long-standing antipathy to form a political coalition.” Their alliance consolidated around “an imagined past that they projected into the future as their ideal vision of society”—a strategy the author terms “prefigurative traditionalism.”

Coming from the other side of the culture-war barricades from the coalition studied by Chelsea Ebin is When Monsters Speak: A Susan Stryker Reader (Duke University Press, July), edited by McKenzie Wark, which spans the career of “a foundational figure in trans studies … from the 1990s to the present.” Besides selections from Stryker’s academic writings, it collects “her hard to find earlier work published in zines and newsletters” and grounds her thought in the "innovative queer, trans, and S/M cultures” of San Francisco in the 1990s. Library acquisition risky in some states.

Michael Keeley’s Mirrors for Princes: How “Tips for Tyrants” Became Clichés of Leadership (Georgetown University Press, September) revisits the long and incredibly repetitious history of books offering management advice to the harried executive. The literature of “mirrors for princes,” emerging in the medieval period, offered advice on strategy, team-building and public relations to a select audience of royals. These books “taught the same formula, over and over: that people behave badly because of their pursuit of self-interest, which needs to be harnessed to a common goal by the ruler or leader.” (Machiavelli’s The Prince is the best-known example, though atypical in its author’s penchant for saying the quiet part out loud.)

Although the genre did not survive in its original form, the author holds that its platitudes did: “The rhetoric of common goals and transformational leadership has a pleasing resonance for top managers, affirming their authority, just as it did for kings and queens in mirrors for princes.” The author suggests that management literature would do well to “avoid replicating the clichés … by adopting a social-contract model of organizations”—as opposed to anything with its origin in the divine right of kings.

Another new contribution to the leadership literature comes from Edward Brooks and Michael Lamb, the editors of The Arts of Leading: Perspectives from the Humanities and the Liberal Arts (Georgetown University Press, December), who cull “insights from eminent scholars in the classics, philosophy, religion, literature, history, art, music, and the theater” to offer “alternative ways of imagining and embodying leadership across different historical, moral, political, and cultural contexts.” The contributors aim to go beyond the “reductive paradigms and quick fixes” offered in other leadership manuals.

Mary J. Waller and Seth A. Kaplan’s Crisis-Ready Teams: Data-Driven Lessons from Aviation, Nuclear Power, Emergency Medicine, and Mine Rescue (Stanford University Press, September) works inductively from evidence regarding leadership under extreme stress. The authors analyze “audio and video recordings of hundreds of hours of crisis simulations involving flight crews, nuclear power plant control rooms, mine rescues, emergency room doctors and nurses, etc.” in search of insights into “how crisis teams and leaders can cement crucial behaviors … especially in the first few minutes of a crisis.”

Examining “the mediated self-representations of a set of liberal, illiberal, and authoritarian political leaders” recently on the world stage, Julia Sonnevend’s Charm: How Magnetic Personalities Shape Global Politics (Princeton University Press, August) focuses on how “contemporary politicians often perform the role of a regular person—perhaps someone we would like to have a beer with.” By contrast with the association between charisma and eloquence, the author identifies charm or “personal magnetism” with leaders’ capacity “to appear authentic and accessible in their quest for power.”

Charm “relies on proximity to political tribes and manifests across a variety of media platforms.” And it can be “weaponized to shape the international image of a country.” Learn to fake authenticity and the world is yours!

Finally, there is Mónica Brito Vieira’s Democracy and the Politics of Silence (Penn State University Press, November). The expression “having a voice” is practically synonymous with political agency, but the author “investigates the largely overlooked role of silence in democratic politics.” The list of examples considered is promising: “the Silent Parade of African Americans in 1916, demonstrations by the Women in Black in Serbia and Falun Gong practitioners in China, Gandhi’s political vows of silence, debates related to the representation and rights of nonhuman beings, and the famous Miranda judgment on the right to silence.” The possibility of “building political community and resisting despotic rule” through a strategic deployment of silence is intriguing, especially when claimants to leadership make so much noise during their charm offensives.

Scott McLemee is Inside Higher Ed’s “Intellectual Affairs” columnist. He was a contributing editor at Lingua Franca magazine and a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education before joining Inside Higher Ed in 2005.

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