Friday, March 7, 2008

Academic Freedom and the Duke 88

I've never lived with a right-wing culture warrior, but I do share my house with a 10-year old mongrel dog that I picked up in the course of my travels. My purpose here is not to insult the little guy by comparing him to people who obsess over art exhibits and obscure radical college professors and the phantom evils of reverse discrimination. Rather, it is simply to point out one thing that the warriors have in common with a typical canine. When my dog sinks his teeth into a chew toy, he doesn't quit until the thing is ripped to shreds, mangled, and distorted beyond all recognition.

I guess if a cultural movement can still turn beet red and sputter semi-coherently about something dumb that Jane Fonda did nearly forty years ago, then I shouldn't be surprised that they can't stop going on about the Duke lacrosse case from 2006. I would be more than happy to cede the issue to them and never speak of it again, except for the fact that they seem unable to stop hounding a group of 88 professors who once published a controversial "listening statement". But like my faithful companion, the culture warriors appear unwilling to walk away from their favorite chew toy.

Sadly, the latest whack at this already obliterated piƱata (yeah, I can mix metaphors) comes from Erin O'Connor in her blog Critical Mass. O'Connor, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has generally been one of the more reasonable voices among the ranks of the culture warriors. If you don't mind being lectured by a tenured Ivy Leaguer about the academic discrimination faced by right-wingers (we should all suffer such bias!), you'll find that O'Connor's take is generally sensitive to the proposition that most stories have two sides and that not all liberals receive their marching orders directly from Satan.

It was disappointing, therefore, to see O'Connor take up the latest lawsuit against Duke University by those mostly anonymous members of the 2006 lacrosse team who were never under serious criminal investigation. Duke, of course, neither arrested nor indicted any of the players, and only suspended the three against whom charges were actually filed. Among the offenses O'Connor attributes to the university is that fact that "[t]he outrageously inappropriate faculty members who formed the Group of 88 were never sanctioned".

Sanctioned, you say? OK, let's go to the statement itself, a newspaper advertisement, most of which is made up of quotes from various students on and around campus. None of these students, incidentally, accuse the lacrosse players of committing a single crime (indeed, one begins, in language fully deferential to our constitutional protections, "IF it turns out that these students are guilty…"—emphasis mine). As for the original contribution of the 88 professors, this is pretty much it:

"We are listening to our students. We’re also listening to the Durham community, to Duke staff, and to each other. Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday. They know that it isn’t just Duke, it isn’t everybody, and it isn’t just individuals making this disaster. But it is a disaster nonetheless. These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves…"

(Several quotes follow)

"The students know that the disaster didn’t begin on March 13th and won’t end with what the police say or the court decides. Like all disasters, this one has a history. And what lies beneath what we’re hearing from our students are questions about the future. This ad, printed in the most easily seen venue on campus, is just one way for us to say that we’re hearing what our students are saying. Some of these things were said by a mixed (in every way possible) group of students on Wednesday, March 29th at an African & African American Studies Program forum, some were printed in an issue of the Independent that came out that same day, and some were said to us inside and outside of the classroom. We’re turning up the volume in a moment when some of the most vulnerable among us are being asked to quiet down while we wait. To the students speaking individually and to the protestors making collective noise, thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard."

The smoking guns here, if we are to believe the culture warriors, can be found in the language about how "students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman…", as well as the bit at the end thanking the protestors for "making collective noise". This, of course, is laughable. Wondering what "happened" is obviously not equivalent to leveling an accusation of rape. Praising the protestors is not the same as endorsing everything said at every rally. If this statement does not fall safely within the boundaries of both academic freedom and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, then nothing does.

Nevertheless, O'Connor concludes, "'Academic freedom," in Duke's opinion, covers libel, harassment, grossly unprofessional behavior, and targeted mob activity directed at students. I think that just about speaks for itself." Presumably, O'Connor understands the fact that there was nothing remotely libelous within the listening statement (she may be referring to a couple of stray faculty members who went further in their own public comments). In addition, the statement, poorly written though it might be, hardly qualifies as gross unprofessionalism; faculty members are obviously entitled to address their own concerns and those of their students. I will guess that the mention of "mob activity" refers to the actions of protesters rather than those of the Group of 88.

So why precisely should Duke sanction these 88 professors? Because they expressed an opinion regarding the most wrenching issue their campus had faced in years (without—and we can never emphasize this enough—without ever taking an explicit stand on the guilt or innocence of the players)? Because they used jargon-y terms like "social disaster"? Because they are presumably leftists and, really, isn't that reason enough?

Professor O'Connor has spoken eloquently on a number of occasions about the need to support the free speech rights of students and faculty members whose views are unpopular. Often, these individuals say things that deeply offend a variety of people on campus. The whole purpose of the First Amendment and academic freedom is to protect expression which may be disagreeable, but nevertheless remains an indispensable part of the marketplace of ideas. I have, from time to time, had my doubts about the degree to which a university should be regarded as a public forum, and I occasionally find myself sympathetic to the notion of campus speech codes. But Professor O'Connor has never wavered on this point.

Until now.

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