September 30, 2007

Duct tape and sand

From Stanley Fish's blog today, disapproval for Lee Bollinger's comments last week at the Ahmadinejad speech: 

The obligation of a senior administrator is to conduct himself or herself in such a way as always to bring honor and credit to the institution he or she serves. Just what this general imperative requires will vary with the particular situations an administrator encounters, but at the very least we could say that an administrator who brings attention of an unwelcome kind to a university is probably not focusing on the job.... as a general rule what an administrator should do when a controversial speaker comes to campus is lower the stakes and minimize the importance of the occasion. Not minimize the importance of the issues, but minimize the role of the university, which is not a player on the world stage but (at most) a location where questions of international significance can be raised in an academic manner.

Duct tape and sand: this is the essence of Stanley Fish's vision for a university administrator, to go around afraid to speak for fear of giving offense and to establish the university as the equivalent of a generic public facility, no greater or worse environment for a public speech than a beach (except that university lecture halls have better sound reinforcement and considerably worse views). If followed faithfully, Fish's principles would reinforce the unfortunate tendency for administrators to fear standing up for principle. If administrators and faculty are better off silent than making mistakes, then what use is a faculty? If the best environment for a controversial speaker is an anaesthetized audience, what use is a university as a forum for public speech?

Fortunately for the Duke University English Department and Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Fish had no such external restrictions on his own actions as an administrator, frequently speaking about public discourse either in his debates with Dinesh D'Souza or in his columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fish's outspokenness was an advantage for both institutions, even when he was being outlandish and even where many of us disagreed with him. He had a right to speak wrongly, and he still does!

A far healthier description of the key issues with administrators and academic freedom is in last Wednesday's blog entry from Dean Dad.

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Posted in Academic freedom on September 30, 2007 9:24 PM |