The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Faculty and Student Pledges

Universities can ask members of the community to stay safe during the COVID pandemic. But they cannot prescribe what shall be orthodox.


My general policy, which I flagged on Friday, is to not sign any statement I do not write. I share many of Keith's concerns about the risks of joining open letters. Fortunately, most professors have the discretion to sign, or not sign public statements. But this year, I suspect that many faculty, as well as most students, will be asked to sign pledges. I italicize asked, because the request is not really optional.

Consider the pledge at the Ohio State University. The bulk of the pledge asks members of the community to take certain precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. [Update: Ohio State is not merely asking people to sign the pledge. Faculty and students are required to sign the pledge to return to campus.] Whatever. This document will not serve as a valid liability waiver. And if undergraduates are as careful as Major League Baseball players, classes will be online by Labor Day.

But the pledge also requires signatories to "acknowledge the Buckeye values." What are those values? Here are two of them.

it is important to embrace diversity in people and ideas; foster the inclusion of all Buckeyes.

In the abstract, this language is nebulous enough. What does it mean to "embrace diversity"? What does it mean to "foster inclusion." Who knows? But the ambiguity presents a precise risk. Signing onto this language will bind faculty and students to a pledge with an unknown direction. And the direction is not hard to figure out.

May I provide an insight where these measures are headed? Consider the "Race and Social Justice" curriculum that Seattle city employees will have to take. The classes separate employees by race, including a "whites-only training." White employees will have to process their "white feelings" and consider "what we do in white people space." Then the employees must examine their "relationships with white supremacy, racism, and whiteness." The white employees must explain how their "[families] benefit economically from the system of white supremacy even as it directly and violently harms Black people." And so on.

Some people may wish to take these classes. Others may not. But no mistake: there is no possible disagreement with these lectures. There is only one right answer. Any dissent will be deemed dispositive proof of bigotry, racism, and fragility. There is only one, orthodox truth.

In my mind, Justice Robert Jackson addressed this issues six decades ago:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us

Faculty and students should understand what they are signing up for when they agree to such pledges. These pledges are not meaningless statements.

Tenured faculty will have more autonomy to decline these pledges, but will still face pressure to join. Untenured faculty will reasonably fear retaliation for refusing to sign pledges. As it stands now, faculty candidates are required to submit "diversity statements." Students who decline to sign the pledges may be subjected to forced re-education.

This sort of regime is not limited to higher education. New York City public schools separated teachers by race for "affinity groups." Recently, a public high school teacher in Texas contacted me in a panic. He said his principal wanted to separate students by race, along the lines of the Seattle program. Black students could go to the white session. But white students could not go to the black session. This teacher had tenure protection, so he was prepared to object. But others may not be willing to do so.

This year will be very different from previous years. Faculty and staff should begin the semesters with their eyes wide open.