Academia is a cult

I “blew out” of the cult — to use its own lingo for leaving — after my senior year to attend a Catholic university 20 miles away. I still read the Apostle Paul, but Jane Austen and James Joyce, too. Then I earned a PhD in English at the University of Minnesota, where I rehearsed Marx’s and Freud’s critiques of religion. Simmering with smug resentment, I was certain that I, an intellectual, was on the right side of history, a sworn opponent of the oppressive ideologies I ascribed to organized religion.

But I had to climb only so far up the ivory tower to recognize patterns of abuse that I thought — in my new, secular life — I had left behind. Because academia, I slowly realized, is also a cult.

Cults are systems of social control. They are insular but often evangelical organizations whose aims (be they money, power, sex or something else) are rooted in submission to a dogma manifested by an authority figure: a charismatic preacher or, say, a tenured professor. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is couched in unwavering commitment to a supposedly noble, transcendent cause. For the Living Word Fellowship, that meant “the Lordship of Jesus Christ”; for academia, “the production of knowledge.” In both cases, though, faith ultimately amounts to mastering the rules of the leaders, whose infallibility — whether by divine right or endowed chair — excuses all else.


Exploitative labor practices occupy the ground floor of every religious movement, and adjuncts, like cult members, are usually required to work long and hard for little remuneration, toiling in support of the institution to prove their devotion to academia itself. Contrary to stereotypes of professors as contemplative eggheads at best and partisan layabouts at worst, many academics use their summers and sabbaticals as opportunities to catch up on articles and book projects held over from previous academic years, overworking as many as 60 hours per week. The cliche “publish or perish” belies a constant demand to prove one’s commitment and worth, amounting to a crippling fear of being “intellectually pantsed,” as a mentor of mine once said. It’s difficult not to see these abuses as rites of passage in the service of some higher cause. Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track. Follow the leader, or prepare to teach high school.

Like others who’ve come to this realization, I was not surprised when I learned of the recent sexual harassment investigation of Avital Ronell, a professor of German and comparative literature at New York University whom I cited heavily in my doctoral dissertation. Less shocking still was the smear campaign that many of her celebrated colleagues launched against her accuser, Nimrod Reitman, which resembles the silencing tactics deployed by the Church of Scientology and other cults. These scholars fail embarrassingly to embrace the radical theories on which their careers and reputations rest.