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  • David Decosimo | WSJ Opinion

How Ibram X. Kendi Broke Boston University

The university totally committed itself to his ideology. It hasn’t backed off despite the scandal.

David Decosimo | WSJ Opinion | September 28, 2023

The debacle that is Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research is about far more than its founder, Ibram X. Kendi. It is about a university, caught up in cultural hysteria, subordinating itself to ideology.

After suddenly laying off over half his employees last week and with his center producing almost nothing since its founding, Mr. Kendi is now facing an investigation and harsh criticism from numerous colleagues complaining of financial mismanagement, dysfunctional leadership, and failure to honor obligations attached to its millions in grant money.

Such an outcome was entirely predictable. In June 2020, the university hired Mr. Kendi, created and endowed his center, and canceled all “classes, meetings, and events” for a quasi-religious “Day of Collective Engagement” on “Racism and Antiracism, Our Realities and Our Roles,” during which Mr. Kendi and his colleagues were treated as sages.

They denounced voter-identification laws as “an expressly antiblack form of state violence,” claimed Ronald Reagan flooded “black communities with crack cocaine,” and declared that every black person was “literally George Floyd.” One speaker said that decades ago “literal uprising and rebellion in the streets” forced the creation of black-studies programs in universities nationwide, and now was the time to revolutionize the “whole institution” and make antiracism central to every discipline and a requirement for all faculty hiring.

That summer many BU departments published Kendi-ist “antiracist” statements limiting academic freedom and subordinating inquiry to his ideology. With their dean’s oversight and approval, the School of Theatre passed a plan to audit all syllabi, courses and policies to ensure conformity with “an anti-oppression and anti-racist lens” and discussed placing monitors in each class to report violations of antiracist ideology. The sociology department publicly announced that “white supremacy and racism” were “pervasive and woven into . . . our own . . . department.” In the English department’s playwriting program, all syllabi would have to “assign 50% diverse-identifying and marginalized writers,” and any “material or scholarship . . . from a White or Eurocentric lineage” could be taught only “through an actively anti-racist lens.” They even published hiring quotas based on race: “We commit to . . . hiring at least 50% BIPOC”—an acronym for black, indigenous or people of color—“artists by 2023.”

I had recently earned tenure and was serving as a member of BU’s Faculty Council and as chairman of its Academic Freedom Committee. By fall 2020, I was hearing from faculty—all progressives—who were disturbed by what was unfolding in their departments on campus but terrified to speak up. They had seen colleagues face major professional damage for falsely being denounced as racist. I tried to help, but the Academic Freedom Committee had no real power. We could only ask the senior administration to act. It did nothing.

Activist faculty weren’t the only ones transforming BU into an officially Kendi-ist institution. The push was coming from the university’s highest levels. In spring 2020, the Faculty Council had approved a major strategic plan for the university over the next decade. All that remained was a board of trustees vote. Suddenly, a revised plan was presented: Being an “antiracist” institution, with specific reference to Mr. Kendi, was proposed as one of the university’s five main aims.

At a September 2020 Zoom meeting, and with explicit reference to Mr. Kendi’s hire, BU President Robert Brown announced several universitywide “antiracist” initiatives, including a task force to examine and expunge racism from BU. A dean claimed the administration would examine not only policies and practices but even ideas—and not only for racism but for whatever might “facilitate racism.”

I pointed out in the meeting that “any notion of ‘antiracism’ presupposes a definition of ‘racism.’ Beyond civil-rights law and common sense, what counts as ‘racism’ is essentially contested and reflective of competing ethical and political views.” I said it sounded as if the university was officially endorsing Mr. Kendi’s views. I asked if his notion of “racism” would guide the BU task force, and I noted that his view that every disparate outcome is caused by and constitutes racism is controversial and rejected by conservatives such as the economist Glenn Loury and progressives such as the Black Marxist Adolph Reed Jr. and my former teacher Cornel West.

Mr. Brown didn’t answer me directly. Immediately, several deans came after me in the chat. I was clearly uninformed and confused; now wasn’t the time for “intellectual debate.” They implied I might not actually oppose racism.

I wrote a letter to BU’s president that afternoon, stressing that beyond the problems with Mr. Kendi’s vision, the more fundamental issue concerned betraying the university’s research and teaching mission by making any ideology institutional orthodoxy. Nothing changed. Even now, BU is insisting it will “absolutely not” step back from its commitment to Mr. Kendi’s antiracism.

Mr. Kendi deserves some blame for the scandal, but the real culprit is institutional and cultural. It’s still unfolding and is far bigger than BU. In 2020, countless universities behaved as BU did. And to this day at universities everywhere, activist faculty and administrators are still quietly working to institutionalize Mr. Kendi’s vision. They have made embracing “diversity, equity and inclusion” a criterion for hiring and tenure, have rewritten disciplinary standards to privilege antiracist ideology, and are discerning ways to circumvent the Supreme Court’s affirmative-action ruling.

Most of those now attacking Mr. Kendi at BU don’t object to his vision. They embrace it. They don’t oppose its establishment in universities. That’s their goal. Their anger isn’t with his ideology’s intellectual and ethical poverty but with his personal failure to use the money and power given to him to institutionalize their vision across American universities, politics and culture.

Whether driven by moral hysteria, cynical careerism or fear of being labeled racist, this violation of scholarly ideals and liberal principles betrays the norms necessary for intellectual life and human flourishing. It courts disaster, at this moment especially, that universities can’t afford.

Mr. Decosimo is an associate professor of theology and ethics at Boston University.


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