Lehigh University gives faculty a lesson in the price of wrongthink

Professor Frank Gunter has learned that, the next time Lehigh University asks him to talk about poverty, he should keep his mouth shut. Earlier this year, Lehigh asked its business school faculty to offer counsel to the Biden administration in a series of short “kitchen table talk” videos. 

Gunter, a professor of economics, did as he was asked. In late January, Lehigh posted his video on “Three Myths Concerning Poverty.” Sounding a lot like AEI’s own Ian Rowe, Gunter argued that poverty is not “mostly a matter of race,” that it’s not a “generational curse,” and that individuals have great agency when it comes to determining their own economic fate.

Gunter observed that most black Americans are not in poverty and that three-quarters of poor Americans aren’t black, while pointing to data on economic mobility to rebut those who suggest that poverty is an inherited condition. He proceeded to note that evidence on the “success sequence” suggests that a series of straightforward actions (finish high school, get a job, get married before having kids) will keep most Americans out of poverty.

For doing what Lehigh had asked, Gunter was soon attacked by students and faculty for his choice of topics, evidence, data presentation, verbiage, and context. Students for Black Lives Matter thundered, “The points brought up by Professor Gunter were not points of opinion, but incorrect and damaging statistics meant to put blame on impoverished people.” Of course, what Gunter said is more accurately characterized as a series of “accurate data points” than as “points of opinion.”

Via Twenty20

In any event, Students for Black Lives Matter labeled Gunter’s little video “racist and ignorant” and then gave the game away, declaring, “We don’t need a debate, we need action.” In short order, the university complied. It took down the video. The College of Business then explained that, to correct for Gunter’s wrongthink, it would “post more videos with diverse perspectives on this topic.” Lehigh then reposted Gunter’s informal little video chat alongside a critique created by its departments of sociology and anthropology, without informing Gunter of what it was doing or giving him a chance to respond in turn.

Lehigh explained that “criticism regarding the selective use
and manipulation of the available data” made it “clear [that] we needed to do
more.” That, university officials explained, is why it felt compelled to offer
a video correction, which shows “how our colleagues who study sociology and
anthropology would analyze [Gunter’s] arguments.”

Gunter has presumably learned his lesson, which is that certain thoughts need to be carefully “contextualized” — and others don’t. If Gunter had asserted that the United States is a genocidal, white supremacist “slavocracy,” it’s a safe bet that there would have been no rush to shut him up or recruit colleagues to set the record straight. It’s an equally safe bet that plenty of faculty are watching incidents like this and observing the professional cost of wrongthink. I fear that’s the point.

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