Guest Column: Why Are You So Mad?

The Jefferson Council champions free speech and intellectual diversity at the University of Virginia. We welcome columns, op-eds, and letters addressing issues affecting the UVA community for publication on our guest forum, like the one submitted by Allan C. Stam, University Professor of Public Policy and Politics.


University presidents across the country face intense criticism from both the left and the right, caught in a vortex of political and ideological discontent. The right’s most recent grievances flow from blatant presidential hypocrisy. The roots of this can be traced to the proliferation of trigger warnings, safe spaces, bias response teams, admonitions against micro-aggressions, and the peculiar notion that words, along with silence, are violence. These illiberal restraints on speech exist ostensibly to protect students from harm.

Presidential concern for student emotional safety did not extend to Jews, however. Following the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023, illiberal restrictions on speech were hypocritically abandoned when anti-Semitic speech spread across universities. Today, at the University of Virginia, the same left-leaning administrators who announced a $10,000 reward and an FBI investigation to find the perpetrator who hung a noose on Homer’s bronze likeness now excuse antisemitic speech and calls for the elimination of Israel as free expression. One effect of this blatant and widespread hypocrisy is that half of the Ivy League Universities are now looking for new presidents.

University leaders face a different but equally intense kind of ire from the left. Over the past decade, and particularly since the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s death, many universities transformed themselves into bastions of social justice engagement. Institutions like Columbia University, the University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, and the University of Virginia now market themselves as training grounds for progressive activists.

The opportunity and desirability of “bending the arc of history” and being both “Great and Good” are spotlighted in admissions advertising, signaling the universities’ alignment with progressive causes. University presidents now routinely assert that the mission of their institutions extends beyond research and teaching to encompass a central focus on social justice. This has led universities to assume roles traditionally filled by local government, such as subsidizing public housing, transportation, and food for the indigent within their communities.

These days, humanities and social science professors routinely indoctrinate students with increasingly progressive values. Many of these faculty view their role more as activism trainers rather than teacher-scholars. Progressive community engagement is praised by university leaders. University glossy publications valorize activism over bias-free teaching and research. But why is the illiberal left now turning against university presidents?

In the spring of 2024, these same presidents who have been advocates and salesmen for social justice called on the police to break up campus protests. Ironically, in some cases, the demonstrations took place within a stone’s throw of monuments highlighting previous students’ protests and successful activism. The blatant hypocrisy of a university president in one breath praising the student activists of 1968 and in the next breath calling on city and state police to crack down on the current generation of students has proven too much for the leftist faculty. The same university presidents who championed progressive causes are now cracking down on the very activists they previously recruited and praised. The widespread arrests and disciplinary actions, an apparent betrayal of the progressive cause, have ignited fury among universities’ liberal base.

University leaders have historically tried to appease the liberal left, first with affirmative action in the late 1970s, which courts and state referenda eventually curtailed, and later with speech codes in the 1980s and 1990s, which were similarly struck down. Today, the tools of choice for the left are ubiquitous and costly Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. These programs encompass, among other things, identity-based discrimination, workshops on acceptable behavior, and compulsory training for students, administrators, and faculty.

Just as previous attempts at regulating speech and behavior have been legally challenged and often overturned, DEI policies are beginning to face significant judicial scrutiny. Diversity statements, commonly required in academic hiring and promotion processes, are a prime example of compelled speech, forcing individuals to adhere to a particular ideological stance. This form of ideological coercion is antithetical to academic freedom and free expression principles. As currently practiced, inclusion often equates to a new form of discrimination, excluding those who do not conform to the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. It is only a matter of time before these practices are legally challenged and dismantled.

The backlash against university presidents from both ends of the political spectrum underscores a fundamental crisis in higher education leadership. These leaders are struggling to balance competing demands: from the right, a call for the restoration of free speech and academic rigor, and from the left, an insistence on comprehensive local and national progressive social justice reform. The solution to this impasse is not to capitulate to either extreme but to restore a sense of balance and reason to university governance.

University presidents must reclaim their roles as impartial administrators rather than advocates of progressive causes, ensuring that institutions of higher learning return to their core teaching and research missions. This requires a commitment to upholding academic freedom, fostering diverse viewpoints, and resisting the imposition of ideological conformity. It is time to return the adults to the room and retake the center, steering universities back to a path that respects free expression and the pursuit of knowledge without succumbing to the pressures of ideological extremism.

Allan C. Stam is University Professor of Public Policy and Politics at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

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walter smith
walter smith
1 month ago

This has been brewing for a loooong time.
The romanticism of the 60s protests has lost its luster. (And the outcomes for Southeast Asia with millions of lives lost and more recently the BDS against South Africa…is South Africa better or worse since that activism? Could there be some similarity to the Israel BDS movement? Maybe virtue-signaling has a cost?)

The Leftist “speech” in the form of protests is not really “speech” – it is Alinskyite agitprop to cause incidents to make political hay out of. It is not reasoned debate. Imagine me defending Jim Ryan! He cultivated this, but he didn’t deserve “Jim Ryan you can’t hide, you’re committing genocide” from the red-handed moral reprobates.

Enforce the laws equally. Leftist protests have gotten a pass nationwide, so they escalate. Oh the poor “brutalized” snowflakes removed from their encampment – what’s their position on rape, mutilation, baby microwaving, executing parents in front of the kids, hostages and dead bodies as currency?

Southern States enacted anti-mask laws as a tool to get rid of the Klan. They worked. Enforce the mask laws. Enforce the trespassing laws. Enforce the assaults. And guess what will happen – the agitprop will end, and MAYBE we can get back to reasoned discourse.

And that part is fully on UVA and the BOV – get back to the educational mission and get out of the virtue-signaling “and Good.” UVA was already good before Messiah Jim arrived. Not perfect, but no human institution is or can be .And the virtue signaling “and Good” has come at cost to the “Great.”

SATs. Drop the illegal hardship race run around in admissions questions. Dismantle the DEI department and all of its fortresses within each school and department. Drop the mandated, unconstitutional DEI statements and hiring. A faculty 95% Left did not happen overnight and is a failing for a place built to “follow truth wherever it may lead.” This probably means a LOT of new deans and faculty.

Address the crazy costs. Curriculum reform is needed. UVA has an endowment of $15 billion maybe? What is the real, non-subsidized cost? Make UVA liable for the graduation and student loans – something is needed to create an incentive to control costs.

1 month ago

Excellent concise summation of the core problem at UVA by Professor Stam. And on a day when two other communications add further focus on the task at hand.

Firstly, Victor Davis Hanson, concurrent to Professor Stam, releases his take titled, “The Disgrace and Fall of American Elite Campuses,” in which he concludes and I quote, “These infantile campuses have a rendezvous with adult accountability, both public and governmental. And they won’t like what is soon coming.”

And then Mr. Neale’s reminder that come July 1 Youngkin will install a majority adult-minded BOV tasked with the work of returning UVA back to a focus on Jefferson’s original intent as to a focus on Truth, while not tolerating error, which “social justice” clearly has proven to be.

It will of course entail contention but the new BOV will prevail as long as it stands with an unwavering focus on Truth. We who revere Jefferson know well the contention that Jefferson faced all the way to the end of his days, but his clear message to those who would follow was that a keen focus on Truth will always, yes always, assure the path to victory. Courage for the task at hand comes naturally in concert so long as Truth is kept front and center.