My Life as a Snitch
As a younger brother by four years, I’m well-acquainted with the dynamics of “snitching” as a move to assert influence when you may lack direct power.
My older brother held multiple power advantages over me. For one, he was four years older, four years bigger. I don’t know at what point he was no longer able to simply press his hand to my forehead, holding me at arm’s length as I ineffectually flailed away, but it felt like forever.
But perhaps more importantly, he was also a conduit to interesting stuff which he would pretty often include me in, provided that I was willing to go along with the plan, his plan. I was well aware of the no snitching code that’s was supposed to prevail in kid land, but of course, sometimes conflict would arise and because of my lack of power and influence, I had to find someone with greater authority to assert my interests: Mike’s being mean to me!
The response was always some kind of caution from the authority above – Don’t be mean to your brother – but to my mind rarely resulted in in-depth investigations or an adjudication of fault. I had to use the weapon sparingly, as my brother held the ultimate control over my association with the cool stuff he was up to, and I knew if I complained too much, I’d simply be excluded.
At the same time, I think there were some instances where he recognized that he might’ve pushed too far, and the caution from above may have caused him to ease back a bit.
Clearly, I brought something to the table as an occasional aid and co-conspirator, but it was important to recognize that it always going to be his show.
I was thinking about my past as a snitch in the context of Laura Kipnis decrying in the Chronicle that “snitching” has infiltrated the academy. Using the recent “downfall” of University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel as her lead example, she wonders about how Schlissel was deposed on behavior – using his school email as part of a consensual “inappropriate” relationship with a subordinate – that is, by itself “a nothingburger.”
While acknowledging that Schlissel was widely disliked, she objects to the proximate cause of his downfall, arguing that it is an example of higher education becoming “a hotbed of craven snitches.”
In Kipnis’ formulation, snitching involves, “turning someone in anonymously, for either minor or nonexistent offenses, or pretextually. Also: using institutional mechanisms to kneecap rivals, harass enemies, settle scores and grudges, or advantage oneself. Not to mention squealing on someone for social-media posts and joining online mobs to protest exercises of academic and intellectual freedom.
At the end, tongue firmly in cheek, Kipnis proposes a recurring article or website “dedicated to Academic Snitch of the Week.”
Having read two of Kipnis’ books and enjoyed her writing, even when (or maybe especially when) I disagree with her, I’ve always appreciated the free-swinging nature of her work, but I think she’s swung and missed here, and in a way that is illustrative of the conflicts that seem to be roiling higher education, particularly elite higher education.
Maybe, as Kipnis argues, no one likes a snitch, but this is the statement of someone who perhaps never felt the need to snitch to achieve access to the status and power others take for granted.
Rather than litigate the specific examples Kipnis illuminates, many of which by her telling sound quite suspect, I want to take a step back, or perhaps a step deeper, and look at some of the unexamined dynamics around institutional and individual power which Kipnis’ essay raises, but moves on from too quickly.
To Snitch or Not to Snitch. Is That the Right Question?
I never “snitched” on anyone during my time laboring inside higher education institutions, but that doesn’t mean I never saw questionable, potentially even snitchworthy behavior.
There was a senior male professor at a social gathering who, when hearing another faculty member mention the name of a graduate student, asked, “Is that the one with the great ass?”
There was a colleague who said he felt powerless to give attractive female students anything less than a B+ because he didn’t want them to hate him if he decided to hit on them once they weren’t his students anymore.
There was another time where it became apparent that a professor teaching after me in the classroom I used was often not showing up without giving any notice to their students.
A student in the class asked me what they should do. I said I don’t know, because I didn’t.
My decision not to tell anyone of greater authority about these incidents was rooted in several factors. One, I honestly didn’t know what the threshold for reporting something like this was. Maybe each of these things would be simply laughed off. We’re talking late 90’s and onward, and the world was a different place.
Two, I’d been raised with a healthy dose of Midwestern “mind your own business.” This attitude can pay great dividends, but it also has some obvious drawbacks. I witnessed some stuff, but it didn’t have to concern me if I didn’t want it to. That first incident happened in front of three or four tenured/tenure track faculty. Why should I be the one to stick my neck out?
Plus, if this was an instance of sexist male banter not indicative of a prejudice against the student, or part a larger pattern of harassment, what would I be blowing the whistle on? From the point of view of Kipnis’ brand of feminism, it’s possible that this graduate student has no objection to being ogled this way, provided it does not cross the line to harassment, and she suffers no disparate treatment. Who am I to step in and declare myself positioned to make that determination? I could simply be spoiling everyone’s fun.
Third, and most importantly, I knew that having no status and no security within the institution meant that doing what Kipnis might call snitching meant that I was putting myself at risk. No thanks.
The big picture Kipnis marshals is one of overzealous administrators (Title IX/IRB) with messed up priorities and too much power too willing to give credence to whatever comes out of the mouths of the “craven snitches.”
Her beef is with the bureaucracy, but the blame appears to lie with the snitches.
I am certain there are many folks inside and outside of higher education institutions who embrace Kipnis’ framework. I’m going to bet dollars to donuts that they are also tenured, and primarily work at highly selective or otherwise elite institutions. I bet their gigs are quite good by higher education industry standards, but from a personal standpoint, they’ve gotten a little less good over the last 10 to 15 years.
I bet that they are used to being listened to. I bet that as professors go, they are (or hope to be) high status. I bet they’re used to acting with great freedom. I bet that freedom feels – often for good reason – constrained by the rising power of administrators.
I bet that they know themselves to be good people, so anyone who would impugn them or their reputations is therefore something like the opposite, a craven snitch trying to bring them down.
Worse, to their minds, this kind of behavior, the encroachment of the administrative class on the professorate is a betrayal of the ideals of the academy itself.
There’s a principle at stake here.
Snitches and Busybodies
While being a snitch is a mechanism for the less powerful to strike at the more powerful by bringing in the even more powerful, those with status above the snitches have a mechanism of their own to flex their muscles in the battle for favor, becoming a “busybody.”
Kipnis’ first big public tangle with administrative power came following her publishing of an essay in the Chronicle titled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes in Academe”, which is primarily an attack on what she thinks of as a wrong turn in feminist thinking around sex, and the rise of a larger prudishness around prohibitions such as professors dating their students, declaring, “When I was in college, hooking up with professors was more or less part of the curriculum.” She laments a kind of loss of the potential for intimacy – of both the sexual and non-sexual kind – in a culture that is overly consumed with considering power differentials.
One gets the sense that Kipnis believes the whole thing used to just be a lot more fun, an attitude also recently expressed by Jonathan Haidt in describing the mission of Heterodox Academy, an attitude that I think is likely to primarily, if not exclusively occur in elite spaces.
This shift in culture, combined with an administrative apparatus that is brought to enforce these shifts in blunt and unproductive ways to situations which Kipnis believes hold more nuance, is the main thrust of the essay. The piece is lively and thought-provoking, the traits which have made Kipnis such a successful public thinker.
But as part of the essay, Kipnis defends a Northwestern philosophy professor who was at the time entangled in both a lawsuit (against Northwestern by a student who said the school’s Title IX investigation of the professor was inadequate), and a termination hearing related to the original incident and a subsequent accusation.
From the student’s perspective, I think the implications of Kipnis’ essay is clear. They should have kept quiet, and instead practice the kind of “independent resilience” that marked Kipnis’ generation, a resilience which is not only good for the individual spirit, but which keeps bureaucracies out of situations which should be dealt with at a human-to-human level.
After publishing the essay, Kipnis found herself the target of a Title IX investigation over the piece. Kipnis was cleared – correctly in my opinion – but I’ve always found it interesting how readily Kipnis jumped into the fray regarding a case that was decidedly, even by her own description, “murky.”
I have no doubt that Kipnis felt an important principle was at stake, just as it seems that Erika Christakis thought an important principle was at stake when she pushed back against an urging from a university committee on intercultural affairs at Yale for students to eschew racially insensitive Halloween costumes.
Erika Christakis wrote that she worried that such communications may lead universities to become places of “censure and prohibition,” and questioning if it is the right of “a young person to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative, or, yes, offensive?”
The dimensions of the mechanisms for the struggle for power start to become clear. Students, particularly minority students, experience an institution that has decidedly not made them welcome. We only need to look at the lack of progress at truly diversifying our institutions, and to listen to the lived testimony of students to see the merit in this claim.
The faculty see administrative power being used in ways that encroaches on the academic freedom rights of the faculty. There is certainly ample evidence for this as well.
Kipnis could easily have written her cri de coeur without the specific references to the ongoing case against the Northwestern philosophy professor. Erika Christakis could have chosen to stay silent regarding the Yale committee’s statement on Halloween costumes.
Doing so would merely be following the same recommendation that they have for students, if you are offended or bothered, turn the other cheek.
But in these cases, they saw it as not just their right, but their duty to speak up. They were using the mechanisms available to them according to their station.
When students turn to administration for help via mechanisms like Title IX, or engage in protest, they are doing the same.
If students are snitches, couldn’t we see these faculty insisting that their noses belong wherever they like as busybodies?
Nobody likes a snitch, but are busybodies any better?
Do we simply want everyone to just shut up?
I don’t, actually, which is why I reject my own frame of Kipnis and Christakis as busybodies, just as I reject Kipnis’ frame of snitches. Both are unproductive. I think it’s vital that faculty use their voices to shape the operations of their institutions. I only wish it happened more often.
But what can we do to make it so everyone has an opportunity to speak up, and to be free from harassment and intimidation from those who indisputably do hold great power over their individual fates?
The Biggest Snitches in Higher Ed
One idea to start.
I would like to see championing the importance of “viewpoint diversity” on campus, such as Heterodox Academy and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), to do more work acknowledging the fact that there is a well-coordinated, well-funded snitching infrastructure aimed directly at minority and female scholars, an operation which results in direct attempts at intimidation and even death threats.
Kipnis dismisses those actors in a short aside, saying “There are, to be sure, right-wing students and organizations dedicated to harassing professors whose politics they object to, but that’s to be expected,” and then transitioning to chastise the campus left for embracing a “carceral turn” through the weaponization of social media as a mechanism for bringing collective shame on individuals who do not deserve it.
I think the rhetorical term for this dodge is “weak sauce” and if the goal is to actual create an atmosphere conducive to human thriving, forces that are engaging in the very behaviors Kipnis finds demaaging cannot be handwaved away as she does here.
The website Campus Reform offers a literal bounty ($75-100) for reports of “radical professors” attempting to silence or indoctrinate conservative students. These reports once published on the Campus Reform website invariably lead to direct harassment of faculty by third parties.
Eric Ruiz Bybee, a BYU professor, recently posted a lengthy Twitter thread of the calls and emails he received after being targeted (along with a colleague) by Campus Reform. After tangling with an anonymous campus conservative group over their sharing of the colleague’s assignment on the group’s Instagram page without permission (a violation of the school’s honor code policies), Bybee was added to Turning Point USA’s “Professor Watchlist” and targeted by Campus Reform.
Emails and calls harassing Bybee came in, calling him a “pussy,” and other profane names. One suggests they’ll be contacting Bybee’s “bishop” to complain.
Bybee is not alone. He’s merely the most recent handy example illustrating the kind of harassment this operation generates. A 2021 AAUP study found that 40 percent of faculty contacted for the study reported receiving threats, including physical violence and death in some cases, after being targeted by Campus Reform.
I do not doubt that Kipnis’ brief tangle with her school’s Institutional Review Board after “some Stasi acolyte” informed them about an anonymous and voluntary Google survey Kipnis had posted in order to gather perspectives on relationships for her book, Love in the Time of Contagion was an irritation, but we should have a sense of proportion here.
At the end of her lament about IRB’s interference, Kipnis asks, “Has anyone stopped to ask whether this is actually what we want the world to look like?”
I would ask the same question of her and HxA, and FIRE about the work of Campus Reform and wonder why they’re so dismissive of these harms.
The Problem of Sending Bureacuracy to do a Community’s Job
To Kipnis’ point, we also must grapple with the fact that the institutional mechanisms we do have for adjudicating these disputes are often inadequate, sometimes dysfunctional, and also vulnerable to being weaponized by people far worse than Kipnis’ craven snitches.
While Kipnis focuses her critiques on uses of Title IX and diversity offices in the interests of policing speech, or innocent behavior that’s confused with the sexually suggestive, or other picayune incident, many of her examples are of the internecine variety, disputing parties in a struggle that looks weird from the outside and manages to drag all involved down.
There seems to be very little familiarity with approaches to de-escalation or conflict resolution at work. My older brother and I were better at this when we were children. If community norms are as polluted as Kipnis believes, calling those she opposes “snitches” is gasoline on a fire.
Kipnis does not mention an episode which is the most troubling example of a weaponized bureaucracy I’ve ever seen, the story of what happened to Sarah Viren and her wife, Marta Tecedor, when Tecedor was falsely and maliciously accused of harassment by an academic rival (who had posed as a friend) to Viren.
Viren had received a dream job offer at the University of Michigan, but public accusations against Tecedor online delayed final approval, and ultimately a formal Title IX investigation was triggered at Viren and Tecedor’s current employer, ASU. Viren and Tecedor needed a spousal hire to make a move from Arizona to Michigan viable. The investigation put a hold on everything.
The full story of what this malicious fabulist perpetrated against Viren and Tecedor must be read to be appreciated, but it well highlights how ineffectual a bureaucracy can be against a malevolent actor. Viren and Tecedor were able to deduce who was doing this to them, but even the justice system could not help, as it would cost tens of thousands to bring suit against the individual. Viren declined the Michigan job, and they remained in Arizona.
Why is this nightmare story not more central to our debates about the role of administrations in policing issues around Title IX?
In her essay, Kipnis edges towards what I believe to be the most meaningful factor at work in all of these things. She hears from a grad student who “had been anonymously reported for sexual harassment because he’d played the words “juicy” and “Girl Scout” during a word game at a party, then snickered,” and was investigated an let off with a warning. The student, “speculated that the tattler was someone after his spot when summer teaching assignments were handed out.”
Kipnis observes, “And indeed, resource competition did often figure as possible subtexts in a lot of the stories I heard.”
Scarcity Keeps Us Fighting
It is not surprising that in a culture predicated on competition for scarce positions that these sorts of disputes arise.
The individual who attacked Viren and Tecedor wanted that job at Michigan. The mechanism professors use to harass students that necessitates Title IX protections is the promise of favorable treatment as they move through the system. They use their influence to prodcure silence.
We know that the vast majority of public disputes over speech and protest happen at elite institutions most predicated on competition and scarcity.
If you are not a music theorist, you do not care about a dispute over what was published in the Journal of Schenkerian Studies, an example Kipnis cites, and that I can barely parse for all the intrigue and counter-intrigue, but for those in the field, we’re talking blood sport.
I have long argued that the viewpoint diversity movement which arose out of objections to things like trigger warnings and safe spaces is primarily part of a larger power struggle over changes to the status quo at elite universities as administrations assert greater authority and professors like Kipnis feel squeezed.
To me, this suggests that the problems are structural, not individual, and that inveighing against a culture of snitching in a way that does not acknowledge the kind of harassment that is real, and must be dealt with, does nothing to address the fundamental problems.
We must have faculty like Kipnis speaking up on issues of institutional values and practices, but I also believe the focus needs to be on identifying the structural problems which make it possible for individuals to harm each other using these mechanisms she finds overbearing
We cannot demand good will for ourselves while simultaneously refusing to extend it to others, as Kipnis does in labeling anyone who turns to administrative remedies as a potential “snitch,” just as it would be unproductive for me to dismiss Kipnis as an attention-seeking “busybody.”
When students speak, faculty should listen to them, and recognize that generational changes in values and practices are not only inevitable, but also (in my view), largely desirable, a movement toward progress.
Attempts to silence students or discredit their points of view by describing their attitudes through the lens of psychological pathology and character defect, as is done in Coddling the American Mind, should be viewed as problematic as any act from students that seeks to quell someone else’s speech, or the use of institutional bureaucracies to hassle opponents over truly trivial matters.
If viewpoint diversity is a value we’re expected to hold, student voices should be part of that diversity. Demanding assimilation into a status quo before one is allowed to be heard is a form of silencing itself.
We must be prepared to experience turbulence on our way to the destination, but that destination must be worth it when it’s all said and done.
I must confess, that my perspective is rooted in being one of higher education’s “waste products,” a laborer who was used up by the system, and discarded once I was no longer willing to participate in my own exploitation. I want to say this gives me a kind of clarity on what’s happening, but I must be conscious of the possibility that my point of view has been tainted by these experiences.
But from my perspective, what Kipnis describes is not a problem of leftist illiberalism, or even right-wing intimidation. The problems are also not rooted in a collective deficiency of character, or in bad bureaucrats drunk with power.
No, we have a system where some are going hungry and desperately wish to be fed. We have others who are fed, but recognize that there is little slack between them and hunger.
I have more questions than answers.
How do we create a system where someone like Mark Schlissel, “widely disliked,” operating without the confidence of his community can be removed without resorting to what Kipnis calls “snitching” over a “nothingburger?”
How do we make room for students to change the operations and mores of institutions in ways that reflect generational progress without rending asunder those things that deserve preserving?
How do we make sure faculty are not subject to harassment and intimidation either from those inside or outside of the institution?
How do we create a shared view around creating abundant institutions, where fighting for scraps, or clawing one’s way to the top of the heap by any means necessary is not incentivized?
How so we figure out how to live together as my brother and I once did, knowing that we were bound together, part of a family, needing each other?
I wish I knew.
 I have a memory of one time that I was able to sneak in a blog that actually hurt him, in which case I took off out of the house and ran around the block, staying a safe distance ahead of him until Mom got home.
 Ultimately, the professor resigned before the conclusion of the termination hearing, leaving some frustrating open ends in this case.
 Indeed, one correction and one clarification had to be appended to Kipnis’ essay post-publication in order to more accurately characterize the nature and status of the dispute.
 As an aside, it’s interesting to note how my previous engagement with and enjoyment of Kipnis’ writing, most specifically Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, makes me predisposed to give her some benefit of the doubt on her motives and intentions. Benefit of the doubt I probably do not extend to other figures I’ve tangled with on these subjects.