Americans generally take a dim view of lying and liars. We venerate George-“I cannot tell a lie—Washington and those giving testimony in court must swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth and those lying under oath risk being be found guilty of perjury, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison in federal cases. Particularly relevant is how universities punish those falsifying research. All in all, while deceitfulness may be ubiquitous in today’s morally challenged environment, mendacity has yet to become a valued cultural norm.
Why, then, do so many university administrators, including presidents at elite schools, tell bold-faced lies regarding race-related issues? (We assume that campus administrators know that reality differs from what they assert and this, technically, makes them liars) On the advice of counsel, I’ll prudently skip naming names but these lies are all too familiar: we don’t discriminate on race, affirmative action admittees are academically equal to non-AA admits, there are no racial quotas, African Americans are not disproportionately found at the bottom of class rankings, diversity enriches campus intellectual life, students of color struggle academically due to invisible white privilege, unconscious faculty bias, retention will work if we just supply adequate remediation, and on, and on.
These falsehoods are remarkable insofar as they often emanate from administrators who as faculty spent decades pursuing truth and nothing but the truth knowing that exposure as a cheat would be career-ending. Indeed, if federal research funds are used in bogus research, the culprit might face criminal changes and be forced to return the funds. Do professors receive an official lying license when moving from the Physics Department to the Provost’s Office? Does the administrative job description include a talent for knowing how to keep a straight face when telling former colleagues that standards are not being lowered in the latest drive to increase faculty diversity? Might the new big salaries of administrators be compensation for the awaiting humiliation that comes with public dishonesty, a sort of combat pay in today’s contentious universities?
Such lying cannot be a psychological pathology—over a decades-long career chronic dissemblers would never move up the academic greasy pole. Nor can this mendacity be dismissed as socially essential “little white lies,” for example, attributing a colleague’s death to heart failure, not alcoholism in an obituary.
Let me suggest that high-level mendacity can be best be explained by today’s academic incentive structure and, conversely, truth-telling is a liability save among very private conversations with trusted colleagues. Now for the Great Principle of PC Academic Advancement: only would-be administrators who boldly lie in public can be trusted since their future utterances are totally predictable; on the other hand, who knows what a truth-teller might say? Lie-flavored PC Kool-Aid is the “energy drink” that helps ambitious academics advance their careers when they opt for administrative positions. The truth-telling Dean is a loose cannon, and nobody wants a loose cannon making important decisions.
What search committee for Yale’s next president would invite a candidate whose letters of reference celebrate his uncompromising honesty regarding hot-button taboo topics, particularly those that might be deemed offensive to thin-skinned minority groups? Could this “Honest Abe” defeat a rival notable for his skill at deceiving agitated social justice warriors while misleading the press about a campus cheating scandal? Clearly a no brainer—chose the liar. When was the last time a campus had to call in the police because an administrator had lied about illegally admitting unqualified blacks?
Understanding this incentive structure begin with the pressures for social uniformity in any social groups including the university’s apparatchiki. Whether it is a fraternity or a university’s administrative elite, if 2+2=5 evolves into the dominating the orthodoxy, announcing 2+2=5 is the rite de passage for admission. There are worse humiliations–outlaw motorcycle gangs have initiation rituals where prospective members lie on the floor in full regalia while members urinate on them.
Keep in mind that private heresies are irrelevant; nobody cares about private options provided the PC gods are honored in public. The public profession of the PC faith is so easy and so gratifying on today’s campus that only a fool could resist, and who would hire a fool as school President?
And speaking of committee search requirements, what committee would list “courage” as a job pre-requisite? Hard to imagine the sentence, “Successful candidates must be willing to face hostile groups and forcefully defend the university’s core intellectual mission even if physically threatened.” A military background is bad enough in today’s wussy climate, but for a candidate to have personally led his troops into battle is, ironically. the kiss of death. Cowardice—draft dodging, for example– would be, to use admission-speak, a plus factor in assessing a resume.
Moreover, climbing up today’s administrative ladder entails serial lying with winning job candidates telling the most outrageous lies in the shortest time. Makes perfect sense since recruitment committees typically include representatives of campus grievance groups whose support is non-negotiable (grievance groups exercise a so-called “Polish Veto”). So many aggrieved constituencies, so little time and only a second-raters would just allude to the Queer Studies Department and stop at that; the winner in this mendacity derby would insist that Queer Studies is vital to the university’s historic mission and as President he/she would increase its funding. The upshot is, of course, that schools will hire only the best serial liars—no amateurs need apply.
The University of Chicago’s Robert Maynard Hutchins once opined that his job was to provide football for the alums, parking for the faculty and sex for the undergraduates. Today, perhaps second only to fund-raising, the university’s president’s paramount job is to keep the peace, and this often entails lying with great sincerity and this is especially true if grievances are inconsequential. Woe to the administrator who fails to give an Oscar-winning performance when campus Hispanics riot when served enchiladas prepared by white hillbillies in the school’s cafeteria.
Nor are there disincentives for lying on today’s “post-truth” academic environment. It would be professional suicide for a professor to call out the school’s president on the claim that affirmative action admittees are just as qualified as other students. Everybody has to “get with the program” and “mere” professors who object will pay the price. Sad to say, provided the mendacious administrator remains in the administrative world where dishonesty is socially sanctioned, he/she enjoys diplomatic immunity. In fact, a would-be top administrator can probably misrepresent past accomplishments but need not worry that former colleagues will tell tales. Colleagues who have drunk gallons of the PC Kool-Aid late into the night will not rat on each other.
Clearly, ridding the campus of the PC Pox will require hiring administrators who relish honesty but how do we measure this trait and convince others that telling the naked truth is vital to a university, even if this brings raucous discord? Should prospective administrators be required to take a test to assess their commitment to truth? Encourage military veterans who’ve earned at least a bronze star to apply? What about hiring only those close to retirement since they no longer care about being harassed for being blunt?
Assuming that current universities are worth rescuing from the PC plague, it is essential that truth-telling and courage be made integral to the administrator’s job description. Alas, given all the obstacles, particularly today’s robust market for clever liars, we must start modestly. To use administrative-speak, fans of truth and the courage to speak it might list these virtues as “two of many factors in a holistic assessment” alongside the usual criteria such as sexual preference and commitment to diversity. Indeed, with a little luck, a demonstrated passion for the truth and nothing but the truth and a willingness to express it might be considered a “tie breaker” or even a “plus factor” in recruiting university administrators.