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The assault on academic freedom at UCLA

Over the past few years, UCLA has lost four prominent scholars: James Enstrom, Keith Fink, Val Rust and Tim Groseclose.

Each incident is different, whether they left, resigned, or were forced out. But they all have a common thread: each professor took a stance against left-liberal principles at UCLA — and now they are no longer teaching there.

This attack on conservatism is not unique to UCLA, but the school has become the perfect case study for the phenomenon.

The converging timelines of these four professors’ experiences show that rejection of intellectual freedom in academia is a pattern of behavior, not an isolated event.

Stifling speech and diverse thought on college campuses takes place nationwide, and UCLA is no exception. Although the four recent examples found at one of California’s flagship research institutions are particularly egregious and should cause concern that the problem is pressing and must be addressed.

The case of James Enstrom

Enstrom, a professor at the UCLA School of Public Health since 1976, received a notice from the school of his termination in June 2010. His research, they say, was “not aligned with the academic mission of the Department.”

Enstrom’s crime? He had published a well researched, peer-reviewed study that debunked the false scientific theory that fine particulate air pollution kills Californians. This, he argued, was reason to eliminate many unnecessary environmental regulations in place in California, some of which were pioneered by fellow faculty.

Enstrom had been given every reason to believe his position at UCLA was secure, but once his unpopular opinions gained traction, administrators pulled the rug out from under him, and he was fired. With the help of FIRE and the American Center for Law and Justice, Enstrom sued for “being unconstitutionally retaliated against for his research and writing.” In the end, UCLA settled and Enstrom was allowed to keep his “retired researcher” status, effectively undoing the termination.

The case of Val Rust

Today Rust is a professor emeritus at UCLA. Before that he was a pioneer in his field of international and comparative education, and spent more than four decades mentoring students from around the world and assisting in international development efforts.

But after Rust corrected one student’s capitalization of the word “indigenous” and questioned modern feminist theory, students grabbed their pitchforks.

On Nov. 14, 2013, a group of students made a sudden entrance into Rust’s class, and proceeded to form a circle around him so they could read to him the grievances that “graduate students of color” had about him and his class, reports City Journal.

The school reacted to this “troubling situation” that they were taking “extremely seriously” by placing three other professors in the class with Professor Rust. Rust, presumably, was no longer capable of handling his classroom alone.

In the following weeks, the students circulated a petition for further action to be taken, and convened for a town hall. The situation escalated after Rust approached one of the protest leaders after class to engage him in conversation. The conversation resulted in the student filing a criminal charge of battery against Rust, a then 79-year-old, for at one point reaching out and touching the student’s arm. Rust was banned from school premises for the rest of the academic year.

The case of Keith Fink

Fink, an attorney, was a continuing lecturer at UCLA teaching highly popular classes on free speech, among other subjects. He was also critical of UCLA administration, and in particular their tendency to stifle students’ free speech rights.

Fink was subject to a job performance review earlier this year to determine if he will continue lecturing at the school. This is standard practice, and according to Fink, usually a breeze to pass. However, Fink said he was railroaded by a star-chamber process run by peers biased against him. He failed the performance review.

Despite petitions against the review decision and support from fellow faculty and students, Fink was terminated in June 2017. But he continues to fight back against UCLA’s oppressive administration. He even plans to establish a nonprofit to provide free legal services for UCLA students and professors whose rights have been violated.

The case of Tim Groseclose

Groseclose had taught at UCLA as a professor of political science since 2003. He’s a known conservative, and published the book “Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind” in 2011.

He came up for a promotion, but despite extremely favorable letters, and even some support from his far left-wing colleagues, the promotion was denied by an anonymous committee of five people.

In a recent email to The College Fix, Groseclose said that the “incident made it clear to me that conservatives were no longer welcome at UCLA.”

Groseclose also says it became clear that if he stayed at UCLA, his salary would not keep pace with inflation. And in some of the world’s best timing, a peer at George Mason University called to ask him to apply for a position there. Groseclose happily agreed, and accepted a job offer there in the fall of 2013.

Groseclose said he had seen the writing on the wall at UCLA, citing the Enstrom affair.

“So when the committee voted against my promotion, things were clear to me: Even if your research productivity is the highest in your department, even double that of second place, if you have conservative political views, then you’re not welcome at UCLA,” he said.

‘Playing russian roulette’

Reached for comment, a right-leaning UCLA professor still working there told The College Fix that “conservatives, if they are going to be conservatives [at UCLA], they are playing russian roulette. They are taking their lives into their hands.” He asked to remain unnamed.

UCLA did not respond to The College Fix’s request for comment.

The summaries of each case does not do them justice. All are clear acts of assault on academic freedom, and should not be taken lightly. But as each case is different, it shows there is more than one way for universities to expel intellectual diversity.

The examples at UCLA have borne that out.

To say there is no conclusion to be drawn between these four incidents at UCLA would be willful ignorance of a larger problem facing higher education today.

For every public case, there are perhaps a dozen more professors self-censoring to protect their jobs.

This limiting of speech in the classroom must end, or students suffer. Thinking critically is rather difficult when you have never had anyone be critical of your thoughts.

Yet this trend will likely continue at UCLA and elsewhere, and our country’s self-proclaimed bastions of diversity will continue to get more and more homogeneous.

MORE: Researcher punished for exposing climate fraud beats UCLA

MORE: Tired of Racism Claims, UCLA Student Sets Record Straight

MORE: UCLA students blocked from enrolling in conservative professor’s ‘Free Speech on Campus’ class

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About the Author
Kathryn Hinderaker is a junior at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. She studies political science, media studies and management studies. Kathryn is president of the St. Olaf College Republicans and founder and president of her campus’s Turning Point USA chapter. Her campus efforts have been featured on Fox News, Minnesota Public Radio and Twin-Cities Public Television. In addition to The College Fix, her writing has been featured on the Minnesota Star Tribune. 

Add to the Discussion

  • Byrd Westbrook

    Nice work. Keep it up.

  • Dr. Donny

    Excellent work by Ms.Hinderaker. As a UCLA alumnus with 3 STEM degrees from the turbulent 60’s and early 70’s, I am saddened but not surprised. When I went there, the best students were Asians and Jews and they made up a very significant part of the student population which was far beyond their size in the state population. Nowadays, the university brags about Latino freshman numbers exceeding that of whites – showing diversity, not student quality is the metric. The fact that California ranks 47th in k-12 achievement and much of that is due to a heavy concentration of poorly educated minorities makes any reasonable person suspicious of biasing in the current admission practices simply for the purpose of improving diversity. Sad.

  • Joe Joe

    This is a very good summary. Bookmarking.

  • D B

    The law school is different than UCLA but I wonder how long Volokh (a libertarian, not a conservative) will be able to stay there.

  • Bobbi60

    “He even plans to establish a nonprofit to provide free legal services for UCLA students and professors whose rights have been violated.”
    I especially like this– Fink is turning the school’s own unfair actions against them! Talk about hoist with your own petard.

  • Glenn Trost

    Nice job. We met in 2005 when your parents brought you to a Claremont event honoring Mark Steyn. I am happy to see such fine work from you now.

  • wpm327

    I am wondering why they are not protected by union, tenure or other such devices?

  • Muthaucker

    There is a business opportunity to create private educational institutions that offer traditional, critical thinking based, degrees. The main customers will probably be progressives.

    • (((kingschitz)))

      I’m in violent agreement.

      There is also a dramatic political opening. Few Americans understand how aggressively the tax code subsidizes higher ed. Tax free endowment growth (Harvard is at $37 bill), tax deductibility of contributions, free ride on local property and state taxes, and so forth.

      Nothing compares with big time ed for unearned prestige, mission failure, and hatred of the public that feeds them. My guess is that most of the voting public gets this.

      My hope is that some enterprising orange haired pol gets the message and decides to send these freeloaders the way of the “three martini lunch.”

  • The lead “scientist” of the CARB at the time of the Enstrom matter was shown to have fabricated his academic degrees.
    “Hien T. Tran was the lead scientist who wrote the report upon which the heavy duty truck and bus regulations are based. He bought a mail order Ph.D. from Thornhill “University” located at 255 Madison, New York. Using his fake Ph.D., the unqualified liar applied for and got the position as Manager of the Health and Ecosystem Assessment Section. Some of the board members, the chair of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols knew of the fraud before voting on the controversial regulation. The board members who knew, kept the information from other board members for nearly a year after the vote. The Governor also had the information and failed to take action. “

  • Vox_Clams

    Very well written and informative, Kathryn – thanks for the hard (and important) work!

  • Brosan55

    Kathryn, congratulations on continuing the very formidable Hinderaker brain trust. Terrific article! Best wishes.

  • MDP

    Another reason why publicly-funded education must go the way of the Dodo. Education is ALWAYS ideological. I do not want to directly fund anyone’s idealogy. Paying for the never-ending train of freeloaders is more than enough tax burden in California.

  • VoteOutIncumbents

    This kind of behavior by college administrators has become standard. I have a close friend at a mid-sized university in the Midwest who tells me that if it ever became known he’d voted for Trump his contract would not be renewed. Honestly, this stuff makes Joe McCarthy look like a boy scout.

  • Thomas

    First off just an FYI to anyone reading this James Enstrom was one of the researchers who was paid by big tobacco to do research on second hand smoke and concluded that it wasn’t a dangerous thing to worry about. The data Enstrom collected was from a very small set, and was also collected in the 1990’s AND was funded by tobacco companies.. He re-analyzed his findings DECADES later to try and come up with something. (These findings concluded that The association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed) The scientific community has found this to be problematic, considering that his research was funded by tobacco companies that would love to say second hand smoke isn’t as big of a deal as we thought AND have been since proven wrong. The problem was his research was from a small set of data and was done so long ago. To say this was a well researched project and that it was peer reviewed is fine and all, but you fail to acknowledge that MOST of the peer reviews and journals that he submitted his findings to rejected his claims and would not publish his paper. This is because he did a poor job of collecting his data and analyzed information that he collected from YEARS ago, and the data he collected during that research project was conducted with money he had received from a company that had a conflict of interest with what he was trying to prove. (http://www.scientificintegrityinstitute.org/CPSIIRej122716.pdf). To play this off an assault from leftists to try and promote an agenda of attacking academic freedom is ludicrous. Should he have been let go of? Maybe not.. but there is a reason why the college chose not to support his findings; they were not backed by adequate or current research, and also were rejected by most professional journals. If you were to actually do research on Enstrom’s findings, see what other journals have said about them, and read through his methods, you would see why his paper has been rejected and criticized negatively many times, not only by UCLA, but also by the majority of the scientific community. It is not an assault on what you call “academic freedom”. It is a simple rejection of a research project that was backed with very small amounts of outdated information. He also was under a lot of heat from UCLA because the American Cancer Association sent UCLA a letter charging Enstrom with misrepresenting scientific evidence to deny that second hand smoke was harmful. This guy was one of the people who tried to defend tobacco companies so obviously his research was “not aligned with the academic mission of the department.” If you were actually passionate about academic freedom you would have included in your article that one of the men you are defending was trying to help big tobacco promote their lies about nicotine not being harmful or addicting. Instead you left that part out to try and promote an agenda about the left attacking others academic freedom. It’s an ironic situation, but you feel into the trap that you are attempting to write about. You have simply censored the facts to make them cater to your paper. It saddens me to see this is what academic research writting has come to.

  • Rick Caird

    Unfortunately, it is California. The Legislature and the Governor will take no notice. The 9th circuit Court of Appeals is more interested on progressive propaganda than in the law. So, the situation will continue unless the Federal government, somehow, becomes involved.