Below is my column in The Hill on the rise of advocacy courses and degrees in higher education. Activism has always been a valued part of our colleges and universities. Indeed, many departments have long incorporated advocacy subjects in their course of study, including in law schools. My concern is the degree to which advocacy is now overwhelming academics in some of these programs. It is often hard to tell the difference between advocacy groups and advocacy programs in these universities. For some schools, a new B.A. model — a Bachelors of Advocacy — is emerging in higher education.
Here is the column:
“Field trip for an extra 5 points.” The offer to students at the University of California-Berkeley sounded like a typical offer for students to go to a special exhibit at a museum or lecture at an institute. The “field trip” referenced by graduate assistant Victoria Huynh was joining a protest “against settler-colonial occupation of Gaza.”
This extra credit offer is all too typical of higher education today, where advocacy is now being taught as if it were a course of study. After an outcry, the school solved the problem by ordering “a number of options for extra credit, not just one.”
Many advocacy-based classes have course descriptions that sound analytical and clinical. The UC Davis course “Asian American Communities and Race Relations,” for instance, states that it covers “race relations and the commonalities and differences between Asian Americans and other race and ethnic groups.” However, the assignments and lectures often reflect a political viewpoint that students are expected to mimic if they want to excel in the class.
In this course, a screen shot showed that the class would discuss “Palestinian history in relation to class concepts like colonialism, imperialism, and Third World solidarity.” It is clear enough that “the solidarity” cannot extend to Israel.
Advocacy has increasingly displaced academics in higher education. Activism now permeates higher education as social justice becomes the touchstone for many departments. Today protests rather than Plato are more likely to be the concentration of many students.
Even journalism students are now sometimes told to drop “objectivity” and “leave neutrality behind.” Former executive editor for The Washington Post Leonard Downie Jr. explained that “pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading ‘bothsidesism’ in covering stories about race, the treatment of women, LGBTQ+ rights, income inequality, climate change and many other subjects.”
Advocacy has long been part of graduate programs like law and social work, where students are trained to represent the interests of clients or other individuals. But now, advocacy and activism itself is being offered as a general course for students in place of education. Where protests were once defiant demonstrations held in the university yard, they are now a course of study in classrooms led by academic activists.
For example, Arizona State University offers a BA program entirely on “community advocacy and social policy” that focuses on “historically under-served individuals, families and communities.” Students “complete courses in two core areas: diversity and oppressed populations and social issues and interventions.”
Many schools offer “advocacy and social justice studies.” At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, students are offered the opportunity to “study social justice with distinguished instructors from a wide range of academic departments, from Afro-American Studies to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies.”
Camden County College offers a diversity and social justice degree based on the advocacy work of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic, which “revealed the depth of social inequality and its life-or-death consequences.” Others offer “a certificate of proficiency in social justice and an A.S. degree in Human Services, Social Justice Advocacy.”
These courses offer far left-faculty platforms to proselytize and politicize. It is often confined to one side of the political spectrum and occurs now on every level of our educational system. In academic departments, future primary and secondary teachers are taught that “teaching is a political act” that allows them to instill political and social values in their young pupils. Those students can then attend college and get degrees in activism and advocacy.
In New York, 1.1 million students were excused by the Department of Education to leave their classes to march against climate change. It seems doubtful that the same accommodation would be allowed for countervailing conservative causes like pro-life marches or demonstrations in favor of gun rights.
These courses dovetail with faculties that have moved radically to the left, with many faculty using their courses to espouse political viewpoints more than educate. The clear message to students is that they are expected to express the same views in their own analysis.
One professor erased any pretense and directly required students to contribute to her advocacy group as part of their training. In the meantime, conservative faculty find themselves censored or suspended for engaging in unpopular speech or attending controversial rallies.
Universities as a whole have largely purged their ranks of Republicans and conservatives over the last few decades. A new survey conducted by the Harvard Crimson shows that more than three-quarters of Harvard Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences faculty respondents identify as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Only 2.5 percent identified as “conservative,” and only 0.4 percent as “very conservative.”
Another study by Georgetown University’s Kevin Tobia and MIT’s Eric Martinez found that only 9 percent of law school professors identify as conservative at the top 50 law schools.
In these departments with advocacy and social justice components, diversity of thought runs from the left to the far left.
Some of these faculty advocates can teach by example. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, feminist studies associate professor Mireille Miller-Young physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. She later pleaded guilty to criminal assault, but the university refused to fire or discipline her.
Other professors continue to engage in violence or destruction in front of students in order to block pro-life or other views from being expressed on campuses.
The same blind rage was shown after the massacre of Israelis by Hamas this month as faculty rallied students to denounce Israel. UC Davis Professor (and undergraduate adviser) Jemma Decristo posted social media threats against the faculty and the families of those supporting Israel as possible targets. Decristo wrote: “one group of ppl we have easy access to in the U.S. is all these zionist journalists who spread propaganda and misinformation…they have houses w addresses, kids in school, they can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more.” This threatening language was accompanied by pictures of a knife and an axe, followed by three drops of blood.
The university eventually denounced Decristo’s violent, threatening comments, but it had no prior qualms about the professor teaching American studies to UC Davis students. She is part of the radical chic — the far left professors who have populated departments for years.
The emphasis on advocacy at the expense of education has also contributed to the increasing hostility toward opposing views on campus. These professors and students often show little tolerance for others’ views and “advocate” by canceling or silencing other views as “harmful.”
Many of us encourage political activism and engagement of our students. They need to bring their passion and voices to the debates today over issues ranging from abortion to the environment to wars.
We have long benefited from intellectual activists in our country, but they were intellectuals first and activists second. They were thought-leaders who used classic education to advance societal change. As jobs and markets become more competitive, we are not doing these students any favors as we crank out thousands with few skills beyond staging demonstrations.
Jonathan Turley is J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at the George Washington University Law School.