I protested political bias at Western Kentucky University, and I was fired for it
Earlier this year, I was fired by Western Kentucky University after I canceled my classes to protest the bias and politicization happening on campus and in the classroom.
In the last year, students had repeatedly admitted to me that they simply ape their professors' politics to get through their coursework, and to avoid confrontation or grading bias. They also told me that they put little time into general education classes—particularly the humanities—because they felt that the faculty politicized their course material. In the Fall 2021 semester, a lengthy discussion with a perceptive undergraduate student highlighted the danger of universities promoting partisan ideas and politics. He pointed out that many students resent the biased teaching they were getting, and increasingly see the humanities and general education as not simply irrelevant but dishonest. Often, students aren't critiquing or grappling with ideas at all because rank partiality turns them away.
This claim troubles me profoundly, and I wish I could say I haven't witnessed its truth. But the reality is that many students feel that the university doesn't open their minds; instead, it shuts their mouths.
A 2020 study shows that, by a tremendous margin, students of all political persuasions report that college faculty express more liberal views in class. 64% of "very liberal" students reported being in a course that espoused liberal perspectives "frequently" or "all of the time." Only 6% of the "very liberal" reported hearing conservative messaging frequently. These numbers are consistent with the other end of the spectrum, as 63% of the "very conservative" responders reported frequently hearing liberal messaging and only 12% heard from the right regularly.
In the same study, 85% of "very conservative" students in arts, humanities, and religion majors felt that they are not simply hearing the messages but feeling "pressured"—with all of the term's ugly, unethical connotations. And while the liberal bent of the humanities isn't news, the data also shows that "very conservative" students in health-related majors feel that same ideological pressure 65% of the time. Nearly 30% of "conservative students" in the health majors also report feeling pressured. These numbers suggest that faculty aren't just failing to maintain neutrality—they are actively proselytizing.
Other anecdotes from my recent classroom experiences suggest these numbers aren't anomalies. In many instances, my meetings with students turned to the challenges of navigating a highly politicized campus. A liberal, Christian drama student suggested her faith was tested from time to time by her aggressively woke professors and classmates. A nursing major recounted being denied a position in nursing school and feeling as if the essay requirement on diversity was ultimately to blame. A middle-aged former soldier returned to college only to find that, despite his service, he was regarded as an oppressor and regularly reminded of such. A management major of African descent was frustrated with their professors’ assumptions that everyone black was on board with identity politics.
I myself had begun to grow increasingly concerned with the consistent push of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) emails and the clear indications of partisanship all around me: colleagues who scoffed at dissenting scholars like John McWhorter and Jonathan Haidt; syllabi declaring that the Middle Ages were, indeed, "queer"; signs in the halls with references to racial justice and messaging referring to "antiracist work"; a barrage of "training" and daily emails from newly minted DEI sinecures. In one instance, the university’s DEI Team urged faculty to: "kick off your new year with the goal of gaining/creating a greater understanding of the intersections of race, power, privilege, supremacy, oppression, and equity." Such emails are now commonplace. It doesn't take much to see the overreach, and the students see it clearly.
Much of this is why many Americans are losing faith in the value of higher education. A 2019 Pew poll found that only half of Americans believe college is a positive for our nation. Nearly 40% believe colleges and universities actually have a negative effect. A 2021 Ipsos poll showed that white Republicans feel the least comfortable on our campuses—about which so-called "inclusion" advocates seem to care little. As the Overton Window has shifted leftward on campus these last years, Americans of all political backgrounds are questioning the use and cost of universities. Indeed, this was a trend before identity politics ascended as the raison d'être of academia, but it would be naïve to suggest that the recent shifts on American campuses aren't in part to blame for crashing enrollments and negative attitudes.
I hate that I must state this to forestall the obvious labels many will attach to me, but I am a liberal. I've never voted for a conservative in my life. On the contrary, I've spent a good deal of time rallying against them. I've donated significant time, money, and energy to liberal candidates and causes. Throughout my career, I have also embraced diversity and inclusion (as defined before our current zeitgeist). I was part of an international education company that recruited students from around the globe and placed them in schools in the U.S. and Canada. My work is responsible for the education of thousands of black, brown, Asian, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Atheist students from all over the globe. I have hired African American, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. I have fired many white people.
But I have always believed that one must be mindful of how tribalism can lead you to believe and do things that violate your principles. The recent shifts on our campuses have abandoned core liberal principles. I see racism being lauded as equality, and former defenders of free speech are now among the most censorious. “Liberal” means something wholly different to the latest batch of college administrators and education school graduates who have quickly declared new, hardly-examined rules by which we must all live.
The final incitement for my class cancellations was a meeting with the English department head, which I had requested to question the department’s messaging and address the student concerns. The department head confirmed that the department crafted public messages to support Ibram X. Kendi and other ideologically-aligned writers’ ideas, and that individuals in the department wanted to go beyond a simple affirmation that black lives matter and show support for the politics and political aspirations of the Black Lives Matter movement. The message ensures that the department will do "transformative anti-racist work," and the department head affirmed that this concept was intentionally selected as a call to action.
The confirmation that the university was endorsing these specific philosophies meant I couldn't continue to put my back into my lectures. I canceled my classes and agreed to a meeting with the dean. During that meeting, the university representatives assured me that the DEI messaging was general and neutral and that the Black Lives Matter statement in no way meant the people in the department supported these ideas. They told me that no meeting notes existed to document how the department crafted the messages, and none of the representatives could explain the process.
I asked how the university could, under the flag of "diversity," have possibly allowed one of the departments to link to a page collecting bail money for the same organization that recently bailed out Black Lives Matter member Quintez Brown after his attempted murder of a Jewish political candidate in Louisville, Kentucky? I implored them to closely look at the philosophies and actions the university was promoting in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion. After all, the WKU DEI plan acknowledges that there is "animus towards individuals holding viewpoints deemed socially or politically conservative." The evidence suggests that liberal positions have moved further to the left, arguably leaving a greater number falling into what academia deems “conservative,” and thus a target of this animus. I suggested that, in the emotional and dynamic period we've recently lived through, perhaps there had been some overreach.
I asked to see some movement on these issues before returning to my classroom.
The university fired me instead.
What motivated me to challenge the university, risk a two-decade-long academic career, and pen this very essay was a defense of classical liberalism—a defense of free speech and the principles of the Civil Rights Movement. I am asking universities to wake up to the fact that many students are uncomfortable and are not getting what they came to college to receive. Rather than finding campuses a place of analysis and debate, enlightenment and erudition, many students find themselves subject to shaming and inquisition. They find themselves treated not as sparks of knowledge ready to burst into flame, but rather as vessels to be filled with whatever political ideology motivates their professoriate.
The current path will not restore Americans' faith in higher education. To save it, we must speak up.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
We are actively seeking other perspectives on this topic and others. If you’d like to join the conversation, please send drafts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join the FAIR Community
Become a FAIR volunteer or join a FAIR chapter.
Join a Welcome to FAIR Zoom information session to learn more about our mission, or watch a previously recorded session.
Take the Pro-Human Pledge to help promote a common culture based on fairness, understanding, and humanity.
Join the FAIR Community to connect and share information with other members.
Share your reviews and incident reports on our FAIR Transparency website.
Read Substack newsletters by members of FAIR’s Board of Advisors
Common Sense – Bari Weiss
The Truth Fairy – Abigail Shrier
Skeptic – Michael Shermer
Habits of a Free Mind – Pamela Paresky
Journal of Free Black Thought – Erec Smith et al.
INQUIRE – Zaid Jilani
Beyond Woke – Peter Boghossian
The Glenn Show – Glenn Loury
It Bears Mentioning – John McWhorter
The Weekly Dish – Andrew Sullivan
Notes of an Omni-American – Thomas Chatterton-Williams
Culture War Musings - Lisa Bildy
The Wisdom of Crowds Newsletter - Shadi Hamid
Let's Get BOARD! - Jonathan Kay
Broadview - Lisa Selin Davis
This is just a brief note to wish you courage and hope during what I'm sure must be a difficult time. Having recently left a position in a left-leaning liberal arts college in the wake of a public shaming for refusing to go along with a set of DEI-inspired mantras, I can painfully relate to the dilemmas for both students and faculty that you grappled with. I don't think there is a perfect way to respond, but I agree with you that it is important to speak up, whatever the consequences. All we can do is try to act with honesty and integrity. And while organizations like FAIR are making an important difference, we may also need to accept that the universalist model of education - a model in which educational institutions were committed to ideological pluralism - is either gone, or must be affirmed on new terms.
Ryan: Thank you for this! This is such an insightful, important essay. Good Lord it’s terrifying, isn’t it? I write about some of this stuff on my own Stack. I’m the same as you: A classical liberal to the core. I’ve only ever voted Democrat. I loathe Trump and the direction the right has gone. And yet I have slowly but sincerely become more angry at, resentful towards, and frustrated about far-left SJW Wokeism. This is a generational problem. Haidt discusses this in depth (I’m certain you’ve read it) in The Coddling of the American Mind. Maybe the solution is to temporarily give up on higher education. Maybe the last vestige of our collective power lies in saying NO in whatever ways we can. Stop buying into their conceptual structure. Money drives society and culture, right? So if we stop giving these institutions our money, can’t we change the institutions? I guess your data points to the fact that this is actually already happening.
Thanks for this 🙏 You have great courage my friend.
‘Sincere American Writing’