May 20, 2008

What to do with scoundrels

Since Mike Petrilli's May 12 blog post, arguing that AERA should not allow Bill Ayers to sit on its executive committee, there has been a host of responses, criticisms of Petrilli from Eduwonkette and Marc Dean Millot, and then rebuttals by Petrilli, Diane Ravitch, and Jeff Kuhner. And don't forget the last Gadfly podcast, when Petrilli and Rick Hess debated the issue.

There are several side issues mixed up in this, from the partisan attempts to use Ayers against Barack Obama (how Ayers became a news item) to the terminology and legal issues (which Millot addressed) and the questions of private association rights (what Rick Hess argued), but let me focus on what Petrilli is arguing at the core: Ayers is a scoundrel making his living in academe. Strip away questions about whether we can apply the label terrorism to Ayers, and the charge essentially is that academics (and education researchers specifically) are letting Ayers live without the consequences of being in the Weathermen.

Couched in that form, we can put the debate over Ayers in a broader context. There is a long tradition in American political culture of resuscitating scoundrels and wondering what to do after their lives are back on track and their past laundered through some patina of establishmentarian approval. While Petrilli is focusing on someone associated with the left side of the political spectrum, I can name a number on the right who are in equal or far better positions than Bill Ayers: John Yoo is now a tenured faculty member at Berkeley's Boalt Law School, G. Gordon Liddy is now a major talk-show host, and Oliver North hosts a Fox News show.

I know that legally, all of these individuals have rights, and you don't have be Mother Theresa to have those rights respected. Socially, I know what Miss Manners would say. On the other hand, neither of those answers the question that Petrilli asks, which is about public, professional recognition. My thoughts on the subject are usually along the lines of, "Okay, what do I do if I meet Scoundrel X in Situation Y, where I know of some pretty disreputable private or professional behavior, but where there is some work to do in that situation?" And my general answer is that if Yitzhak Rabin could shake hands with Yassir Arafat, I should be able to hold my nose and work with a lot people. (Don't tell me about the results of that handshake. I'm talking about ethics, not a strict parallel on consequences.)

But saying that I will work with almost anyone to accomplish some good end doesn't really address Petrilli's question. I will confess that I have no good answers to the question of what we should do publicly with scoundrels. But I'm not sure Petrilli is willing to follow his own advice, either, because what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Will Petrilli read the riot act to scoundrels on the right, publicly denounce them, and distance himself and the Fordham Foundation from them? And if so, what happens if he decides later that he needs to work with one of these individuals?

Listen to this article
Posted in Academic freedom on May 20, 2008 11:31 AM |