Stephen Hsu and academic freedom

Professors in academic regalia

This is the third post in what is apparently a series about Stephen Hsu. Here are the first two for the context:


For a brief time, Hsu had a this note up on his website indicating he would sue his critics. This is a sure indication that he is unfit for his office and that the talk about “free inquiry” is merely posturing for his poor behavior. The note is now deleted but the Wayback Machine saved it:

NOTE ADDED: Many people have offered to help with a Kickstarter (or similar) campaign to raise funds for legal defense and to pursue individuals in the Twitter mob for slander or libel. It is clear that identifiable individuals have participated in such and can be held financially responsible. Slander: the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person's reputation.  Libel: a published false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation; a written defamation. If you are experienced with this kind of crowd funding activity, please get in touch with me as there may be a team assembling to work on this. The Twitter mob attacking me seem to be a small group of extremists, and I see no reason not to fight back to defend my integrity. If you are an attorney with relevant expertise, please contact me.

I wonder if Hsu knows that the discovery process during such a trial applies to him as well as his critics. It would be interesting to see all his emails to folks like Ron Unz or Steve Sailer.

Clarification:  The blog post he appended the note to was posted 13 June 2020. The note was not there when he first posted it. The note is gone now 16 June 2020. The Wayback Machine archived it on 15 June 2020.


Stephen Hsu has posted another attempted defense of his actions as our Senior Vice President, Research and Innovation. For a person concerned about character assassination, he is very quick to complain about the “Twitter mob” and his fear of the University of caving to “mob rule.” Only slightly less hyperbolic is this comment from one of Hsu’s fans: “Now we understand the social dynamics of the Cultural Revolution, Stalinism and witch-hunts.”

The truth is, of course, that Hsu completely reverses the power dynamic: the graduate students, by far the most vulnerable population on campus, are trying to take on a powerful administrator who hold the purse strings of their research funding. The 300+ faculty members who signed the petition calling for his resignation from his office are taking on those same purse strings, someone with the ear of the President,  as well as someone who sits in on the tenure decisions of the untenured among them. Like many ways this controversy has been framed, Hsu’s concern about “mob rule” is the inverse of the the actual situation.

The letters of support for Stephen Hsu are beginning to come in. Only two letters mention Hsu’s support for Ron Unz and his promotion of Unz’s Holocaust denial website, making me suspect that some letters were written with incomplete information. I will also note that since Hsu is being accused of promoting false science infected with sexism that no letter of support for him has been written by a woman.

The letters, and Hsu’s own defense, do not understand the nature of free inquiry and academic freedom. Relieving Hsu of his position as Senior Vice President of Research and Innovation is not a violation of academic freedom it is the fulfillment of it. Academic freedom is a promise to police ourselves, it is a promise to society that says: “Let us explore the world as we see fit and we will produce knowledge. The cost of that freedom we will pay; it is the promise to you that the knowledge we produce is knowledge and not nonsense. We promise to you we can tell the difference.” Hsu, by his actions, has shown he cannot tell the difference between real scholarship and its pretender. He cannot tell if the person he sits down with to discuss genetics and race is a true scholar or a white supremacist. He does not care if his work is appropriated by white nationalists. To allow him to continue to do so while holding his office is to violate the responsibility that academic freedom entails.

Here’s what Hsu’s office does:

The Office of the Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation supports MSU’s research and creative activity by administering research funding, ensuring research integrity for both faculty and students, providing grants support services, fostering collaboration, licensing university inventions, and overseeing regulatory compliance.

My concern is that Hsu’s behavior has demonstrated he cannot fulfill the duties of his office. His office requires him to ensure “research integrity” which means, at a minimum he should be the best possible example of those practices. His responsibility is to make sure that his behavior reflects the responsibilities of his office. He has manifestly failed to do so. Hsu’s hobby (again, he’s a physicist, not a geneticist or psychologist) draws untenable conclusions on scholarship outside his area of expertise, belittles entire disciplines for believing in “social construction,” and occasionally associates him with Holocaust deniers and white supremacists. He refuses to acknowledge the uses racists make of his public statements. He refuses to apologize for his associations with white supremacists and a Holocaust denier. I believe he should be removed from his office and return to the physics department where he is free to continue his hobbies, publish his podcast and blog, and promise us that someday we can engineer babies with 1000 IQs. That is what the case is about. It is about whether Michigan State University believes that he is the best person to reflect our values as a research university. We should oppose his continuation in his present position because we value scholarship and scientific inquiry.

Now, let’s discuss what this case is not about.

Hsu “not a racist or a sexist.”

As I explained in my first two posts, Hsu’s personal motives should be completely irrelevant to our judgment of Hsu’s actions. We stand in judgment of what he has written and not written; his public actions not his private beliefs. No one, including Hsu in his two blog posts attempting to defend himself, has denied the following:

  • Hsu hosted his friend Ron Unz, a Holocaust denier, on his podcast. Corey Washington’s letter in support of Hsu claims “Unz has flirted with Holocaust denial” which is completely false; he has not “flirted” with it, he actively promotes it at and Hsu actively promoted Washington continued “I know that Steve is not a Holocaust denier, nor anti-semitic and did not invite Ron to advance such views.” No one said he was or did. My point is that Holocaust deniers are well known to leverage any opportunity to appear respectable. Hsu’s actions, regardless of what he thought he was doing did exactly that. By his own admission, Hsu has been friends with Unz for years and they worked on a campaign together at Harvard. As I said before, Hsu either knew of Unz’s antisemetic views and decided that Unz must be heard anyway or Hsu did not know which means Hsu didn’t bother checking what, the site he was promoting on his podcast, actually was. Either option shows Hsu to be incompetent to judge “research integrity.”
  • Hsu appeared on the podcast of Stephan Molyneux, an antisemitic white nationalist. Hsu defended his appearance with the falsehood that Molyneux wasn’t “controversial” in 2017. Again, Hsu chose to defend his poor decision rather than apologize which, again, shows his lack of fitness to be a judge of “research integrity. He also defended his appearance by noting other psychologists, such as Eric Turkheimer, appeared on Molyneux’s podcast. When Hsu did this, this was Turkheimer’s response:

Note how a commentator on Hsu’s blog see’s this ethical stance of Turkheimer as a performance by the ” ultra woke Eric Turkheimer” rather than a good example of responsible scholarship. Turkheimer admits he made a mistake. Hsu still thinks he did not and offers up inaccurate information about what was known about Molyneux’s views in 2017. This is not the standard to which we should hold our Senior Vice-President of Research.

  • Hsu attacks anti-racist social constructionists and lets white nationalists use his name without objection. As I argued before, Hsu does not understand the social construction of race and its scientific basis. And he has allowed racists like Steve Sailer to use his name and ideas in promotion of Sailer’s white nationalist agenda by not only remaining silent about Sailer activities, but occasionally sending his readers to Sailer’s writings. Hsu is completely insensitive to how his writings have been used by those who oppose the values of the university.

Why Keeping Hsu in his Current Position Violates Academic Freedom

A letter in support of Hsu by Dr. Russell T. Warne contains this remarkable passage:

Dr. Hsu has also been interviewed by Stefan Molyneux and had Ron Unz as a guest on his podcast. Both of these are people that some commentators have labeled as alt-right. However, this is irrelevant because interviewees and interviewers do not adopt all the opinions one another.

First, of course, I certainly have not charged Hsu with sharing those ideas but rather lending his name, and Michigan State University’s credibility, to those political activists. Indeed, it is probably advantageous for white nationalists to appear with people who do not share their views. They can then say, “Look, even our enemies take our ideas seriously enough to interact with us. This shows that we are not on the fringes but actually have some acceptable ideas!” As Robert Paxton’s definitive study of fascism showed, the extreme right has always been adept at this very tactic. White nationalists do not need to have people share their ideas initially; they need people to take them seriously enough to appear alongside them.

Second, “some commentators?” Seriously? Did Dr. Warne do any research into those two before writing that sentence? I like to think my two previous posts (here and here) lay out the case pretty convincingly. The larger point is the abandonment of scholarly judgment that goes into making the remark: “Who knows if they are alt right? Some commentators say so but who am I to judge?” There is some evidence that Dr. Warne is, indeed, incapable of making such a judgment. He has published his work in the Mankind Quarterly. Mankind Quarterly is a journal founded in 1960 for the express purpose of opposing racial equality as I explain in my book, Science for Segregation. For decades it was edited by Robert Gayre and then Roger Pearson, both followers of Nazi race theorist, Hans F.K. Guenther. Its current incarnation follows this ignoble tradition as Angela Saini explained in her new book, Superior: The Return of Racial Science (pp. 63-70). Dr. Warne is either unable to recognize a racist journal when he sees one or, worse, he sees it and just doesn’t care. In either case, he has lent his name, his university’s name, and his discipline’s name to a disreputable journal of shoddy scholarship. It is my duty as a scholar of scientific racism to point this out and reject the notion that a misguided notion of “free inquiry” should prevent me from doing so. My duty extends to pointing out that Hsu has behaved in similar ways.

Hsu’s supporters and Hsu himself throw around the phrase “free inquiry” quite a bit. The letter they addressed to President Stanley claims “More important, however, is that the core values of educational institutions and of scientific discovery are the principles of free inquiry and free expression.” “Responsibility,” you will note, is not mentioned, but it is the core concept of academic freedom. Our responsibility, as academics, is to sit in judgment of what counts as knowledge. The responsibility demands that we distinguish responsible scholarship from irresponsible scholarship. As Joan Scott wrote in the journal of the American Association of University Professor’s Journal of Academic Freedom:

Free speech makes no distinction about quality; academic freedom does. Are all opinions equally valid in a university classroom? Does creationism trump science in the biology curriculum if half the students believe in it? Do both sides carry equal weight in the training of future scientists? Are professors being “ideological” when they refuse to accept biblical accounts as scientific evidence? What then becomes of certified professorial expertise?

Hsu would be outraged to be told that the physics department should be led by someone who believes the earth is flat. The faculty of the College of Human Medicine would howl with outrage to be led by someone who believes that vaccination causes autism. Yet entire disciplines on campus who study racism and sexism are supposed to sit silently while being led by someone who promotes antisemites and racists and to do so because of “free inquiry.”

Do Hsu’s defenders really believe that Hsu’s promotion of a Holocaust denier is a matter of free inquiry? Do they really believe that our scholarly judgment of that action should be suspended because, after all, “free inquiry” means we should not call out antisemitism using our professional expertise? On the contrary, calling out irresponsible actions is the heart of responsible free inquiry. No one was more clear on this point than philosopher John Dewey who first laid out the principle of academic freedom in 1915. Because only experts can call other experts into account, Dewey recognized that we have a duty to police ourselves:

“It follows that university teachers must be prepared to assume this responsibility for themselves… The obligation will doubtless, therefore, seem to many an unwelcome and burdensome one…but the responsibility cannot…be rightfully evaded. If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others—by others who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action is sure to breed suspicions and recurrent controversies deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities. (pp. 66-7)

“Do you want to know what ‘research integrity means at Michigan State University?” we are telling the world, “Look no farther than Dr. Stephen Hsu, our first among equals in research. A man who writes on a subject outside his professional training, who irresponsibly promotes racists, and who is silent when they appropriate his writings to further their noxious political ends.” This cannot be the best we can do. Our academic freedom depends on the promise we made to society to be accountable to one another. To allow Hsu to continue to represent research at Michigan State University is a violation of that promise.

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8 thoughts on “Stephen Hsu and academic freedom

  1. 10 years ago Hsu encounters (and finds kinship?) with an “ethnic German guy” visiting China and the talk goes into why Africans are genetically lazy when compared to Chinese…conclusion is that Africans lives are too easy and they were not exposed to “harsh winters” to make them smarter. (Christ). Quotation below w/link.

    “I had an interesting conversation with an ethnic German guy from Namibia that I happened to sit next to on the train from Hangzhou to Shanghai. He owns a chain of supermarkets there and in South Africa and was in China on a buying trip. He noticed me reading a paper on psychometrics and immediately wanted to discuss the implications for development. (Note the paper was a pretty abstract one — about causal inference!) His thoughts on the prospects of Africa, and comparisons between the US, China and Africa were quite interesting. He was familiar with the results showing group differences between Asians, Europeans and Africans and he accepted those as consistent with his own experiences. But he claimed that the main factor that held Africans back was lack of drive — why do something today when it can be done tomorrow? He didn’t view this as a fault, though. The mad pace of development in places like China seemed excessive to him: Do material things make people happier? he asked.

    According to this German-Namibian, in much of Africa one can survive with a minimum of effort — long term planning and organization aren’t required as they would be in a place with harsh winters. Hence, less selection for such traits has occurred. This is of course an old theory, but it was rather amazing to hear it stated so matter of factly by an educated person with first hand knowledge of Africa.”


    • Totally not racist. I’m certain that the pillaging of natural resources and actual people from the continent during colonialism as well as widespread oppression from outside nations has NOTHING to do with developmental differences between many African nations and China. [/sarcasm]


      • Jim above is a moron who makes a deliberately vague charge that is easily falsifiable. He doesn’t give any examples of what a “left wing history” of Africa might be, and he alao doesn’t seem to realize (with his lazy grasp on history) that the “pillaging” of Africa by Arabs (who in many cases did come in waves raiders but who only in specific northern countries remained afterwards) is nowhere near analogous to the fundamental and ongoing transformation of Africa that occured during the modern era, under European rule. The latter is more fpcused on because it is more relevant, though there are countless Arab and African socialist academics who write about and have written about Arab imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa for centuries. You can find there works in countless academic journals on Google Scholar or JSTOR if you bother being more than a lazy shit-flinger with a garbled, self-serving understanding of history.


  2. Pingback: Stephen Hsu and the Upside-Down World | Fardels Bear

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