April 28, 2005

Trouble at Southern Illinois University

On April 11, the student newspaper for Southern Illinois University, the Daily Egyptian, printed a letter from six history faculty condemning one reading distributed by colleague Jonathan Bean, a source that Bean had taken from David Horowitz's Front Page online rag (which has no real rag content, so maybe we need to find a different term for online yellow journalism). I haven't read what Bean distributed, but it doesn't really matter. Sending an open letter to blast a colleague is simply unprofessional intimidation. What ever happened to walking down the hall and talking with a colleague?

And then the administration went further—the dean cancelled his classes for a week and told his TAs that they needn't work with him for the rest of the semester. Fortunately, there are sane heads on the campus, including a few colleagues, one of whom blasted the school's response as a back-door speech code to suppress offensive speech in the class, as well as individual students and the Daily Egyptian editorial board. Eventually, Bean was assigned other graduate students—a recovery of some decorum, but sheesh—talk about making a dungheap out of a molehill.

According to one newspaper account, Bean was first called into his chair's office, who harangued him because two of the graduate students were upset with the material. Apparently, the TAs didn't talk to Bean directly or think about providing their own materials to help students think about the article. And neither the department chair nor other faculty thought of mentoring the TAs to assert their own academic freedom in providing an example of thoughtful dissent. All around, it looks like there was insufficient thought on the affair until far too late.

Let's take a more extreme example, for argument's sake—what should faculty do if, as SIU English professor Tony Williams asks in his defense of the college's censorship, a colleague distributes something like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as if it were truthful? If, after talking with a colleague and providing some material to educate her or him, and if the faculty member then still claims something that is factually untrue in a matter of substantive weight in the course or program, then faculty have an obligation to go through a more formal process of saying, "No, you're wrong." Usually this process doesn't begin in a fruitful way with a broadside to the student newspaper. It's the academic equivalent of calling the cops the first time your neighbor's guests park in your driveway.

And administrators who reward this behavior are even more foolish. It's their job to break the walls of any echo chambers and do their best to turn a potentially explosive situation into a learning opportunity. Despite my discomfort with the fuzzy phrase teachable moment, that is how one should view controversies in classes.

Thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing this out. (My apologies to him in forgetting to credit his blog earlier.) Update (4/29/05): See Inside Higher Ed's article, which generally overlaps the other accounts except for a memo from the dean's office asking faculty to "exercise restraint and reason." As Ralph Luker pointed out late last night, maybe she should have thought of that a wee bit earlier?

Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on April 28, 2005 10:20 AM |