Vox Clamantis in Deserto

 

Most people by now have heard of the "Pessin Affair" at Connecticut College: an episode in which philosophy professor Andrew Pessin was criticized for having, in an 2014 entry on his Facebook page, made a comparison of Hamas terrorists who subjected civilian populations to indiscriminate rocket attacks with rabid pit bulls set free from a cage.

The response, from students, faculty, and administrators, was immediate and dramatic. Articles in the college newspaper claimed that Pessin's remark "directly condoned the extermination of a people." The official Connecticut College web page hosted statements from academic departments, student associations, school officials, and individual facultly members. There were marches and sit-ins. The Office of the Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion played an especially conspicuous role.

Ourselves, we take no sides in the unending Middle East conflict. It is a bloody and tragic business. Our position is that we wish people in both the Middle East and elsewhere would stop butchering each other long enough to talk about making arrangements to live in peace, but that is, we realize, childishly unrealistic.

Out of the Pessin affair, however, would come one great good: an eloquent statement by Professor John Gordon, the distinguished James Joyce scholar, making the simple point that a college that gives itself over to mob behavior and the shouting down of opposing opinions is no longer a college. The point also goes, one assumes, for universities such as (to take a nearby institution right there in Connecticut) Yale.

That's the bad news. With a very few exceptions -- the University of Chicago comes to mind -- there really are no real institutions of higher learning, if by that is meant centers of a free exchange of thought and ideas, left in the United States.

The good news is Professor Gordon's memo to the faculty of Connecticut College. It will be read when all the Offices of Institutional Equity and Inclusion in the land have dried up and blown away, and when their Deans have found more honorable lines of work. It expresses, in our humble opinion, a sentiment for the ages.

 

Faculty Dissent, John Gordon, March 30, 2015

Date: Mon, Mar 30, 2015 at 2:46 PM

Subject: Campus controversy

To: faculty <faculty@conncoll.edu>

Dear Colleagues,

1. First, two excerpts:

Connecticut College accepts the principles of academic tenure as defined and accepted by the American Association of University Professors and the American Association of Colleges (AAUP Policy Documents & Reports, 2001 Edition p. 4), with the exception that at Connecticut College the probationary period in the ranks of full-time instructor and/or assistant professor is seven years except as provided in 1.4.1.2.

– Information for Faculty, p. 10

This report recommends that each institution work with its faculty to develop policies governing the use of social media. Any such policy must recognize that social media can be used to make extramural utterances and thus their use is subject to Association- supported principles of academic freedom, which encompass extramural utterances.

As Committee A previously noted regarding extramural utterances, "Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence."

Obviously, the literal distinction between "extramural" and "intramural" speech—speech outside or inside the university's walls— has little meaning in the world of cyberspace. But the fundamental meaning of extramural speech, as a shorthand for speech in the public sphere and not in one's area of academic expertise, fully applies in the realm of electronic communications, including social media.

-American Association of University Professors, Academic Freedom and Electronic Communication, pp. 50-1

Put these two together, and what they say is that Andrew Pessin's Facebook reflections, on the Middle East or anything else, were, by our rules, none of our corporate business. People were entitled to respond, preferably as individuals, preferably in the original medium. Departmental pronouncements, clearly intended to intimidate, were and are out of line.

Andrew Pessin

2. The argument is made that, however that may be, Andrew's Facebook statements became a part of the campus discourse, with results that may have hurt some students' feelings. Well, yes. They became a matter of campus discourse because one student in particular chose to make them so. If feelings were hurt, it was because she, abetted by a campus culture forever on the lookout for opportunities to affirm its greatness of soul by finding some victim group to noisily identify itself with at, to be sure, no personal cost, wanted them to be. What pain has been caused has been caused by us, not Andrew.

3. With few exceptions, group petitions are for cowards. The one exception that comes to mind from my thirty-five years here is the petition requesting Claire Gaudiani's resignation. But that was against a president, one who had long outlasted her welcome, was doing substantial harm, and couldn't take a hint. It was, kind of, speaking truth to power. These petitions are the opposite. They are gang-ups and pile-ons, acts of bullying the like of which I never before witnessed.

4. Which brings me to the response of my colleague Blanche Boyd. Blanche, honestly: how – pick one a. disingenuous or b. delusional – is it possible for one body to be? The "faulty premise" that these petitions are about Andy? "Faulty premise?" "Faulty premise?" Can I see a show a hands out there from all signers who did not feel that what they were signing was, to some significant extent, "about Andy" and Andy's statements? (I'm not seeing many. Maybe Blanche's.) Is the fact the most of you didn't name his name – "a certain faculty member" and all that – really supposed to have fooled anybody? Blanche mentions a meeting, apparently unattended by Spencer (me too: I'm on sabbatical, thank God) that's supposed to have changed everything in that regard, but one does note that the same petitions, in the same language, keep dribbling in. "Not about Andy." NOT. ABOUT. ANDY? In 1968, a guy, probably stoned, said to me, "Wow, wouldn't it be great to wake up next morning and be a spade?" And I thought to myself, "Gordon, that is the stupidest thing you will ever hear anyone say." Well, I was wrong. It was the second stupidest. Just ask Andy.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

5. And, Blanche: again is it possible to have such discussions – or any at all – without playing the ethnic/race/gender/orientation-whatever card? OK: I give. Here goes. I'm not Jewish. My ancestry, as best I know, is Scots/Dutch/Irish/Italian. It's true that the Scots part came by way of Australia, to which an ancestor had been transported. Does that count as a victim card? But in any case, I'm definitely not Jewish, which is why I can feel free to point out that a certain amount of what's been going on could well, to some people, fall into the category of anti-Semitism. I don't really think that's mostly true, but hell: you guys can demagogue the issue, so can the other side. I could for instance point out that a few years ago one unquestionable anti-Semite by the name of Angela Davis was welcomed to campus as a kind of moral paragon, by some of the same people who have signed some of those petitions. But then, of course she was black, female, leftist (also, some of us still think, an accessory to murder, which gave her a certain radical-chic cachet) – and there we go again, with those cards. An African-American anti-Semite who calls for the destruction of Israel is welcomed with open arms. An American Jew who wants to defend Israel gets the pogrom treatment. Let's run that past some of our Jewish alum donors and see how it flies.

6. This is not how I think of the issue. It's actually a pretty debased way of thinking of it. Why? Because: This is a college. A collage, a collectium, a collection of thoughts and thinking, which by the nature of thinking will be sometimes be at odds, even hard to stomach. Not a nudist colony. (Not about pigmentation.) Not a Marxist cell. (Not about hewing to the party line). Not a kindergarten (No telling on someone, running to the principal's office, for using naughty words.) Thinking is not an epiphenomenon of one's organic inheritance. If it were, places like this would have no reason for being. Go out and inform the parents paying for tuition that in your considered opinion nothing really matters but the biological givens of birth, that we judge right or wrong by how many pity points someone's inheritance has earned them. See what happens. This is a not a Petri dish. It is a college. A place where thinkers are supposed to be able to say what they think without (speaking of dogs, pit bulls included) being hounded into submission. And yes, feelings will be hurt. So what? Show me a community, college or otherwise, where not hurting feelings is the main priority and I will show you a thought-free dead zone.

7. And, to get people's attention, it's just possible that there could be real consequences. Antioch ceased to be, because it sillied itself into extinction. And right now we are setting ourselves up to be a) the most expensive college in the world, and b) the Third Reich of Political Correctness. How is that going to play, outside this little bubble of ours? Partial answer: check out the on-line NPR account, then read the string of responses. Most of them think we need to be informed about free speech. That is because we do.

8. A year ago I caused a bit of a stir by saying in public, against the FSCC or AAFF or, I dunno, some other alphabet, that its recommendation that ConnColl faculty officially present themselves as moral mentors to their morally challenged charges ran afoul of the obvious fact that there was nothing about being a ConnColl professor which automatically qualified one for any claim of moral superiority, to our students or to anyone else. I said, horrors, that there was no objective reason for considering ourselves ethically superior to, for instance, the day shift at the local Walmart's. Some people thought I was overstating the case. Boy, did they ever get it wrong. Given the events of the last month, I would kill for a faculty at the moral level – with, say, the average-human level of probity, integrity, and loyalty to one's colleagues, especially the vulnerable ones, and above all reluctance to throw one's colleagues under the bus when it seemed the smart move – of the local Walmart's.

Submitted with all respect to my colleagues Spencer Pack, Catherine Spencer, and to a very very few others,

John Gordon