Bruce's Blog

Feb. 25, 2010

Stop using my taxpayer dollars to support an activity that is insulting, offensive, and errant.

I do, periodically, receive letters or other communications expressing, with great passion if not anger, the view that we should curtail some activity because it is insulting, offensive, or wrong (factually, politically). It may be a performance or display of some kind, a student activity, a public position taken by a colleague, ….

Last week, it was a long and thoughtful communication from a group spokesperson arguing that we should not have had and should not again have a certain speaker on campus. While I have asked the appropriate Dean to provide a detailed response to that particular letter, I thought I would use some airplane time to share a more generic consideration of such communications. Like any academic, I have thought long and hard about this subject; there are nuances worth exploring; and, fortunately, it is going to be a long airplane ride.

So, I will entertain myself in the writing. That’s one value of doing blogs. At least for the doer. Your mileage may vary.

I present principles we mostly and firmly share, but I am not interested in simply massaging our biases, in evoking your “right on’s.” There are aspects of our commitment to free and unimpeded inquiry where, I believe, we could be doing better, and so, along the way, I will raise several of these for your consideration.

Let me start with the term “wrong”.

The correspondents use other words: “unfounded,” “ideological instead of factual,” or even “lies”. We all know the simplest response: that we expect truths to emerge through intense challenges and, consequently, universities absolutely must maintain an environment in which all ideas can be critically examined.

I think, though, that the concern about our supporting “wrong” speakers or other errant presentations fails on deeper grounds as well. First, of course, is the basic principle philosophers of science have long taught us: facts, alone, say nothing. They must be interpreted in order to then gain meaning. Understandings are not discovered, they are created, created through an intellectual act.

Consequently, all knowledge is inherently subjective. And, if we are to move beyond knowledge and toward wisdom, subjectivity must be further developed by the application of moral principles and ethical considerations.

So, if universities are, as they must be, places of knowledge and wisdom, then subjectivity, morals, and ethical systems are critical parts of our enterprise. And, those with different premises may reach different conclusions – conclusions that are different, that apply or do not apply, but that are not, again as the philosophers of science would tell us and strictly speaking, “right” or “wrong.”

That having been said, we also firmly reject that egalitarianism-gone-wild view that one person’s opinion is as valid as is another’s. We do expect that positions are supported by evidence and reason and, where ethics and morals are applied, that there is coherence in the ethical system and logical consistency in its application.

Getting further into the weeds, the rules we have for deciding what is true and what is not are referred to as methodologies (again in the language of philosophers of science). These fundamental rules vary by discipline. Indeed, have you ever wondered why we talk so much about “disciplines” in academia? It’s not images of whips and leather. Rather, knowing (be it art or science) requires a set of agreed upon and disciplined constructs for organizing, establishing, and communicating meaning. An agreed upon set for this disciplined knowing defines the boundaries of a discipline. These “methodologies” are important and evolving tools that universities regularly refine, challenge, and teach.

How do we get from “knowing” to wisdom, though?

Here, I have a concern. Too often, in my personal experience as a professor, it seems to me that we step back from demanding that our students (and that we) delve into the realm of morals and ethics. Their explicit and logically consistent development and application are important life skills for our students and for our society as they are absolutely necessary to move from facts to knowledge to wisdom.

I think about my own students over the years and their often strong resistance to my insistence upon their taking and defending moral positions in final exams and such. I know we do this well at Western. But, thinking of higher education more generally, how explicitly do we hold – and defend – the position that such attention to ethical and moral systems is essential – whatever the discipline – if education is to be truly “higher”?

Being wrong goes with the territory

I think the “you are pushing something that is wrong” critique misses on other grounds, as well. Basically, I see it as following from a fundamentally mistaken understanding of how universities work, how we go about educating students, society, ... ourselves. Most certainly, universities are not about promulgating “the truth.” But we are also not, primarily, places for simply conveying truths.

We are an enterprise organized to pursue truths: in the sciences, humanities and social sciences, in the fine and performing arts, in the professions. We are organized, share a culture, and adhere to fundamental principles that all surround that notion of pursuit.

In that pursuit, we accept at the outset that all understandings are tentative. We realize that all we now conditionally know is quite possibly going to be later shown to be incomplete or inadequate.

In other words, it could all be “wrong.” And, consequently, accepting the risk of being wrong is something trail-blazing scholars must fearlessly accept. So, too, must universities committed to advancing scholarship and creative activity.

If you accept the last point, then look inward with me at our internal functions. How much do our procedures – those associated with tenure come to mind – propel us in the wrong direction: toward the scholarly conservative and cautious? I am reminded of my major professor, who became the youngest full professor in the entire University of California system because he was a publishing and grant-getting machine. But, he used to complain about the fact that nothing got published until it was fully developed and totally polished. He advocated for a “journal of half-baked ideas.” (Although I don’t think he used the word “baked.”) Because the sociology of organizations like academic departments might force us in other directions, we do need to consciously promote intellectual risk-taking.

Your wrongheadedness also offends me

Usually, those who believe we are wrong also take offense at something we have done or have allowed to be done on our campus. Where it is an activity by a student group, a letter to the editor from a faculty or staff member, a demonstration by an outside group, or such, the response is simple and centers on the First Amendment. No need to say more.

When it is a university program, event, or display, the response is as straightforward: understanding emerges by questioning; that questioning must target conventional wisdom and the status quo; and, consequently, offense on the part of some is sure to be a sometimes byproduct if we are really serving our mission … and the larger society.

Challenging conventional wisdom and the status quo? That means we have a responsibility to be controversial. Here, if I have a worry (and, again, it is about higher education generally and not Western particularly), it is that we are not controversial enough. With worries about public funding and with groups specially organizing to pounce from all political directions, caution results. Not in a calculated or explicit fashion – i.e., it does not have to be some controlling edict from “the administration.” But, still, even though the caution is only self-inflicted, the damage to our responsibilities in higher education is no less pernicious.

And, it is our liberal bias that is particularly offensive

Often, those critical of our efforts to raise the controversial will assert a “liberal bias.” This is certainly and necessarily true in one sense. One of the defining characteristics of “conservatism,” at least as I was taught political philosophy, is the predisposition to assume that the status quo is likely preferable to something new and untested. On a number of levels, a very sensible predisposition in my view. But, think about how it fits with the requirement that, if we are to fulfill our responsibilities as a university, then we must challenge conventional wisdom and the status quo. So, our responsibility to question the status quo is a challenge to one of the fundamentals of classic conservatism. We mirror a precept that defines liberalism: that the human enterprise can be perfected through changing the status quo.

Usually, though, the “left wing college professors” critique centers on the assertion that faculty are more liberal than the population as a whole in their political views and political affiliations. And, we are. A variety of studies establishes this fact (but, also, make clear that there is considerably more diversity of political views among us than the usual stereotype assumes). From this fact, though, it does not follow that our personal politics in any way affect how we teach, what we teach, and what we expect from our students. Indeed, we hold to the principle that that must not be the case even as professors, we must necessarily profess.

And, for the parents who write me about our biases, I want to shout: trust your sons and daughters! They are bright, motivated, caring individuals. They are not being taught what to think; they are being taught how to think. With those tools in place, they will do you proud.

Still, I do wonder. Our role, I have asserted, is to challenge, to be controversial. Thinking of higher education generally, though, and reflecting on some experiences through my career, I believe our critics can, with some justification, assert that we do not challenge ourselves with the same vigor with which we seek to question external societal arrangements. It is not something calculated but goes back to that caution – not wanting to rock the boat – which I mentioned earlier as characteristic of the sociology of our enterprise. I believe that intellectual integrity requires that we make special efforts to protect and encourage intellectually defensible challenges to those more liberal political views that do tend, on average, to distinguish faculty from the larger society.

By the way, recent research has shed insight into why, to some degree, faculty are more liberal than the societal norm. It does not have to do with our refusing to hire conservatives as conservative critiques assert. Rather, it can be largely explained by who wants to be a professor (and who wants to be a police officer or investment banker). Ideological orientations correlate with career aspirations. Somewhat more conservative people seek careers in, say, the public security sector; more liberal folks disproportionately are drawn to careers as faculty members. In neither sector, is there any plot to exclude the non-conforming.

What you do is not only offensive but also insulting

Offense can shade off into “insult.” The criticisms I hear are from groups who find that some individual action or campus activity has disparaged the status, identity, or ethical beliefs of a group. Here, I think, we walk a very difficult tightrope. We must challenge conventional wisdom and the status quo; we must raise the controversial; we must stimulate our students to do the same. But, our discourse, while passionate, does need to be civil and mutually respectful. I think that simply follows from our commitment to be an academic community. It is a narrow path we walk between passionate controversy and civil discourse. Dangerous chasms loom on either side. Still, I again ask myself: Do our critics have an element of truth in their assertion that a preoccupation with “political correctness” actually erodes our commitment to challenge, to be controversial by making certain subjects taboo? That is a question we must not shy away from regularly asking ourselves.

And, after all, I am a taxpayer so how dare you do this with my taxes

Finally, I get to what bothers me most in the letters I get from people upset about something that is controversial, insulting, or perceived to be errant. It is, in one form or another, in almost every communication – the assertion that, as a taxpayer, the author should not have to have their money used for the purpose to which they object.

What is our reply? (I cannot do as a university president what I once was tempted to do as an uppity assistant professor when one writer objected to my actions being a misuse of his taxes: calculating his share of my salary to be 7 cents and offering to send the pennies to him.)

There is the obvious point: once collected, it is no longer your money; as a polity and by the rules we have mutually agreed to as a requirement of citizenship, it is all of our money to be put to the public purposes that our governmental structures arrange for.

People don’t want to hear that. So, there is the other obvious point: if universities could only do that to which no taxpayer could object, then there would be nothing that we could do. At least, nothing worth doing.

And, there is the more important point: if we are not challenging conventional wisdoms and the status quo, then we would be unworthy of taxpayer support for we would not performing our most critical role for society.

That is all obvious. But, I find something much more troubling in the “I am a taxpayer so stop doing what I don’t like” criticism. And, I sometimes respond in just about these words.

You are the taxpayer. We are a proudly public university. You, then, own this university. Why would you ever hand over to a government bureaucrat like me the authority to decide how your university can be used? Each taxpayer cannot individually make the calls on what is allowed. So, either you let me make the calls – as, by writing to me, you would seem to want. Or, you insist that I make no such calls, keeping your university open and accessible for you and the exploration of your preferred positions as well as the positions of others.

Seems to me, there are plenty of historical examples of societies or movements that have succumbed to the superficially appealing simplicity of imposing strict limits on what may be intellectually considered. It is a line that runs at least through the Third Reich and on to Al Qaeda. And, in the “don’t do what I as a taxpayer object to” position, I hear scary echoes of those dangerous dynamics.

Well, the flight is about over: majestic Rainier looms off the port side; we have been told to shut down all electronic devices; and my mind is turning to the much-missed Cyndie, … and puppies Andy and Lucy. Hours flew by as I have enjoyed the chance to cover some of what shapes my thinking on the topic. I would welcome hearing about the components at the core of your reasoning.



Page Updated 01.24.2014