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May 21, 2005 12:28 pm

The Shame of Shortell

Earlier this week, the New York Sunrevealed that 7 of the 12 members of Brooklyn College’s Sociology Department elected as their new chairman, for a three-year term, a professor named Timothy Shortell. Shortell has some unusual views, all of which, I’m told, were made known to the six other Sociology professors who voted for him. The new chairman has written that religious people are “moral retards”; has compared Karl Rove to Joseph Goebbels; has described the United States as a “fascist” nation; and has urged Leftists to take heart in the realization that, as older people are more culturally conservative than younger ones, the next four years will see more cultural conservatives perish.

Of course, the First Amendment protects Shortell’s right to make such utterances. Nonetheless, that a majority (albeit a bare one) of professors considered a figure with such views a suitable candidate to lead their department is shameful. Shortell's website lists this 1993 Ph.D. having one peer-reviewed article (and no books) published since his coming to Brooklyn in 1998, so it's not as if Sociology voted for someone with academic heft.

In the late 1980s, City College’s African-American Studies Department embarrassed the institution by re-electing as its chairman Leonard Jeffries, who regularly denounced Jews in anti-Semitic language. To avoid another Jeffries fiasco, CUNY’s bylaws were changed to give college presidents authority to act in the best interests of the university and remove department chairs. As we recently saw in the Ward Churchill case, colleges and universities have an obligation to act when department chairs make statements that transparently contradict the academic mission of the institution.

One can imagine the outcry had Brooklyn’s Sociology Department elected a new chairman who had expressed the opposite views of Shortell—say, deeming atheists and agnostics “moral retards”; or comparing Donna Brazile to Stalin; or saying that an unintended positive consequence of the war in Iraq has been that it’s increased the death rate among American youth, who are more culturally liberal. Of course, it’s inconceivable that a professor who expressed such views would ever have been elected a department chairman.

Preventing public relations damage was not the only reason for the post-Jeffries Bylaws change. Under Brooklyn’s governing structure, department chairs shape the college’s personnel policies. At the start of the tenure process, chairs prepare a confidential report on each junior faculty candidate from their department, a document widely considered the single most important one in a junior professor’s tenure bid. Moreover, the final faculty vote on tenure at Brooklyn comes not at the department level but from the Committee on Promotion and Tenure—which consists of the college’s 31 department chairs. This vote technically is advisory, with the President and the Board of Trustees having the final say. But to my knowledge, in the 5.5-year reign of Brooklyn’s current president, Christoph M. Kimmich, the vote of the P+T has been overturned only four times. (Two of those occasions involved my tenure and promotion case, and a third was a direct fallout of my case, in spring 2003, after a Philosophy professor who disagreed with his department chairman in a search was denied reappointment for"uncollegiality.") So, for all practical purposes, Brooklyn’s chairs decide who gets tenure and who gets fired.

Viewed in this context, the Shortell election is highly alarming. Can a figure who has written that religious people are “moral retards” fairly evaluate the tenure candidacy of an Orthodox Jew? Can someone who has compared the nation’s top GOP strategist to a Nazi war criminal fairly evaluate the tenure candidacy of a junior professor who has commented favorably on the GOP? Can someone who has deemed the United States a “fascist” country fairly evaluate the tenure candidacy of an untenured colleague who has editorialized in favor of the Patriot Act? The shrillness of Shortell’s comments suggest not. After all, I doubt that, whatever their political views, many professors around the country believe that “moral retards” should get tenure.

Shortell has been a strong supporter of the current Brooklyn administration, whose chief academic officer, Roberta Matthews, operates under the written mantra that “teaching is a political act." It therefore came as little surprise that the college’s public spokesperson implied to the Sun that Kimmich does not plan to set aside Sociology’s election. But while the president might feel comfortable with a figure like Shortell serving in an administrative post and voting on the tenure candidacies of every junior professor at Brooklyn for the next three years, it’s unclear that the courts will feel the same way. I wish the college the best of luck in trying to prove that Shortell’s prejudicial views—and the administration’s failure to take corrective measures to safeguard untenured faculty who disagreed with Shortell—did not affect future tenure denials to junior professors who are openly religious or who are considered centrist or conservative on campus.

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soraida rojas - 6/4/2005

For genuine sacrilege, visit Shameless.

David Silbey - 6/3/2005

"When conservatives do so, they are rightly called bigots."

Sure. And I have no problem condemning Dr. Shortell's words. What I do have a problem with is punishing him for those words, absent any evidence that he has behaved unprofessionally in any way. Do you have evidence that he has done so?

Yehuda Katz - 6/3/2005

The issue is not whether he opposes religion or dislikes Karl Rove. Nor is it whether his rhetoric is too heated. The issue is whether he can be counted on to fairly, and without discrimination, responsibly engage in the hiring process.

As a chairman, he will be responsible for tenure recommendation, and more importantly, the decision to hire and fire adjunct professors. This is a person who believes that religious people (all of them, not just the extremists) are morally immature and inherently irrational.

A person who believes that everyone in a certain class of people is inferior in this way can not be counted on to treat members of that class with equality and fairness. And such a belief violates the very principles of equity that liberal society relies on.

On my rationality claim: "Faith is by definition not rational... the faithful would have to admit that they hold their beliefs without rational basis."

On *all* people of faith: "The reader might point out that some believers are more bland and mild than fire and brimstone. Those whose devotion is moderate are, perhaps, only cowardly fanatics. They want the fellowship and the security but ignore the logic of the system to which they grudgingly adhere."

On the inferiority of the devout: "... religion without fanaticism is impossible. Anyone whose mind is trapped inside such a mental prison will be susceptible to extreme forms of behavior."

Read the whole thing if you must. The link is posted above. Again, the difficulty is not his point of view, or his objection to religion (many people share those views). The difficulty is his lumping ALL people of religion into one.

When conservatives do so, they are rightly called bigots.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/26/2005

Hmmm. I can't speak for the Sun (or for the Daily News, which has also covered this issue), but my sense is that they've covered it because it's a good news story: someone with fairly weak scholarly credentials, who has made transparently inflammatory remarks, has been elected to a position of administrative authority. Certainly, if Shortell had termed blacks "moral retards," I suspect the story would have been covered.

As to the specifics of this case, to my knowledge no one has made any "anonymous" allegations--pernicious, incindiary, or otherwise--against Shortell. I certainly haven't cited any; and the coverage in the Sun and Daily News hasn't either.

As to the issue of ideological litmus tests, I'm not sure what "ideology" is behind a statement calling religious people "moral retards," or comparing Karl Rove to Joseph Goebbels, or celebrating the death rate of older Americans. Perhaps Mr. Fisher sees these views as indicating a certain "ideology," but I don't.

David Silbey - 5/26/2005


I think we're going to have to disagree on what constitutes 'punishment.'

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2005

Mr. Fisher, Is it an ideological litmus test to challenge the naming of someone as a department chairperson who has declared religious people as a class to be "moral retards"? Would you want a person who declared that Democrats (substitute, as you care to, Republicans, Progressives, Conservatives, Socialists, Libertarians, whatever)are "moral retards" to be the chairperson of a department, with a vote on all tenure cases throughout the college? I hope not. KC was not talking about whether Shortell should have been hired or whether he should have been tenured (tho I have my doubts on both those scores). He was talking about whether Shortell should be made a department chair.

Fred Fisher - 5/25/2005

Mr. Luker, you continue to ignore the pernicious pattern of propaganda campaigns engaged in by Dr. Johnson. One can understand why, of course; it's ugly business. One doesn't like to see a colleague engaging in such conduct. I'll make it easier. Please tell us, are ideological litmus tests "inappropriate" in the academy, as Dr. Johnson has argued?

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2005

Mr. Fisher, I recommend that you look at Professor Shortell's publications (and lack thereof) for yourself. We've done a good bit of that here already. Shortell's "scholarship" is _weak_. He is also remarkably careless. Go over to Margaret Soltan's University Diaries and see what she has to say. Finally, Shortell is given to making bigotted statements that sound more like Joseph McCarthy than anything KC Johnson has written about him. Is it a witch hunt if the prey is a witch?

Fred Fisher - 5/25/2005

Mr. Luker, you should be offended (and frightened) by your colleague's pernicious pattern of organizing incendiary propaganda campaigns against colleagues with whom he disagrees. The scenario repeats itself again and again: when someone with whom Dr. Johnson disagrees assumes a position of responsibility, suddenly snarky reports and editorials begin to appear in The New York Sun; on the desks of university and college officials arrive letters from Dr. Johnson *filled* with baseless accusations, portrayals of the target of his attack as incapable of objective decision-making, innuendo, carefully selected quotations, and dire predictions; and this is follow by a flurry of correspondence, mostly from anonymous individuals who claim to have "heard" or "read" about the latest matter at the college. It is as predictable as the day following the night.

An advocate of witch hunts at America's colleges and universities might not deem Dr. Johnson's pernicious pattern of propaganda campaigns to be problematic. Surely you are no such advocate, Mr. Luker. So I am compelled to conclude that your colleague's conduct comes as news to you.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2005

David, If KC called for Shortell to be fired or for his tenure to be revoked, that would be punishment. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons why someone given to inappropriate language and apparent prejudice ought not be rewarded with a responsible position that carries with it considerable power.

David Silbey - 5/25/2005

I have no idea whether someone who called a racial minority group "moral retards" would be considered fit for an administrative position. That's not the case we're discussing here. In the case we are discussing here, you are advocating the punishment of someone for words they have spoken, and criticizing those who elected him chair of the department. You have not mentioned any misconduct, either actual or alleged. Instead, it is simply his words that you find troublesome and base simply on those words, you would see him censured.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/25/2005

Mr. Fisher, My colleague, KC Johnson, can speak for himself, but your language here is more deeply offensive than anything KC might have said: "fatwa", "smear", "destroy." This is a public site. Shortell is free to respond here. He's free to engage in the rough-and-tumble of ideas with Professor Johnson if he wishes. Since Professor Shortell has been elected to chair his department, it's fairly obvious that KC's post is hardly a "fatwa" or that Shortell has been either smeared or destroyed. It's hard, therefore, to see your language as anything other than overblown hyperbole.

Fred Fisher - 5/25/2005

Just a few months ago, in yet another of his several incendiary propaganda campaigns against a colleague with whom he disagreed, Dr. Johnson declared that "ideological litmus tests" and profiling were "inappropriate" in academia. He claimed to be deeply concerned about those who were "unwilling to concede that colleagues, in good faith, could disagree." Now the expedients of Dr. Johnson's latest campaign take him in an entirely different direction: an ideological litmus test *must* be applied to the election of a department chairperson--or, at least, Dr. Johnson would apply one. Clearly, when it comes to the exercise of his heckler's veto, Dr. Johnson will not allow quaint trivialities such as consistency and principled argument to get in the way.

Whatever one may think of Timothy Shortell's views--I don't happen to think much of a number of them (although I am puzzled as to why anyone other than perhaps Karl Rove's mother or spouse should be so concerned about insulating him from the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace of ideas)--principled members of the academic community and all reasonable people should recognize the significant threat Dr. Johnson's most recent fatwa poses to free speech and the robust exchange of ideas.

When one considers Dr. Johnson's disturbing pattern of attempting to smear and destroy those with whom he disagrees--a pattern that proves he does not believe colleagues can, in good faith, disagree--Joseph Welch's famous words seem most appropriate: "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Robert KC Johnson - 5/24/2005

I'm very doubtful that someone who wrote that a racial minority group were "moral retards" would be considered fit for an administrative position. Tenure protects Shortell's right to say whatever he wants; but the college also has the right to protect its reputation. The Bylaws provision regarding presidential approval of chairs' election was inserted for cases such as this.

David Silbey - 5/24/2005

Then, surely, he is also not fit to _teach_ students. Following your logic, are you also advocating that he be stripped of tenure and fired from his job?

Robert KC Johnson - 5/23/2005

Today's Daily News had student reaction to the appointment--which was overwhelmingly negative.

One other job of the chair at Brooklyn is to deal with student issues (there are deputy chairs, but they aren't required to be on campus 5 days a week). Would anyone expect a chairperson who had deemed blacks "moral retards" to be suitable for dealing with black students? We do have a sizable number of religious students at Brooklyn.

CUNY Bylaws, Section 9.1(c), requires the “careful consideration by the president of the qualifications of those selected by the respective departments” to serve as chairperson. It also requires presidents to base their recommendation to the Board “on the capacity of the individual selected to act effectively as the departmental administrator and spokesperson and as a participant in the formation, development, and interpretation of college-wide interest and policy.”

Personally, I don't think someone who has described religious people as moral retards, compared the tactics of Karl Rove to those of Joseph Goebbels, and welcomed the political effects of old people dying meets the standards laid out in the Bylaws.

David Silbey - 5/23/2005

Ralph--Unlike your chair, Shortell did not declare such intentions. Where did he say that he would not tenure a professor with strong religious beliefs? You and Dr. Johnson are substituting your expectations of his actions for any actual actions he has undertaken, and that's where I have a problem.

"And if I were voting on the choice of a chairperson, I think I would be justified in taking a clue from your declared biases."

I think you'd surely be justified in asking him about those declarations and weighing the answer you got. But evaluating him and the department from this distance and with those small measures of text is not the careful conclusion of historians, but the hurried summation and dismissal of politicians, and I think we can do better than that.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

And if I were voting on the choice of a chairperson, I think I would be justified in taking a clue from your declared biases.

Jacob paul segal - 5/23/2005

Does Shortell get no allowance for rhetorical excess? Is it possible that he may honestly believe that the religious belief in a monothesistic deity dispending justice here and there may be slightly retarded and be able to put aside that belief in a hiring decision. I think conservative beliefs to be morally retarded: cuting taxes for the rich and cutting medicaid for the poor. I am sorry but that is morally retarted. However, if on a hiring committee, and I quite sure I could bracket my moral/political views and vote to hire a conservative who would serve students and the department well.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

David, I suppose that we'll just have to agree to disagree on this, but having served in a department with a long-standing chairman who was candid enough to tell us that he would not hire a female, a person who was not a cultural Protestant, a non-white, a radical -- I can't recall _all_ his prejudices -- I'm prepared to take a person at his word and think of giving power to such a person as "shameful."

David Silbey - 5/23/2005


At very least, I would--should I be in the position of voting on it--ask the person to explain their remarks and then ask them how they could deal with a potentially difficult case in a professional way. But I would not let my expectation become my assumption. Words are not deeds, and until Dr. Shortell has actually _done_ something wrong, I think it's highly presumptious to label anything about the situation 'shameful.'

Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

David, If someone refers to religious believers as "moral retards," wouldn't you expect that attitude to influence their decision-making in hiring or tenuring situations? How would giving that person the power of a chairmanship suddenly change his attitudes so that he was prepared to make an even-handed decision? If a person said that Jews or African Americans were genetic inferiors, should you not let what they say influence your decision about whether they should be given the power of a chairmanship?

David Silbey - 5/23/2005


No, I understand what Dr. Johnson is saying. I am uncomfortable, however, with anointing the situation as 'shameful' based solely on things that Dr. Shortell has said. Such a labelling assumes--without evidence--that Dr. Shortell cannot act professionally and responsibly, whatever his views, as chair of the department. It assumes--without evidence--that the other members of the Department should have eliminated him because of that. Ringing endorsement or not, perhaps we should wait until Dr. Shortell does something more than exercise his First Amendment rights before we rush in to condemn him and his department.

Jim Williams - 5/23/2005

Oscar, your question is a good one. Like Shortell, I am not a great scholar(in part due to 24 years in the Army Reserves and becoming chair as soon as I retired). I did not wish to become chair, but "someone had to do it". Here most colleagues don't want more power; it means more work!

KC's concerns about the tenure system are valid. at SUNY Geneseo, I do write an evaluation of all candidates from my department for renewal, tenure, and promotion (as does my department's Personnel Committee - one totally independent of mine), but my responsibilities end there. Faculty at SUNY Geneseo elect a committee of peers to serve as a college-wide personnel committee. They make a third recommendation, the provost makes a fourth, and the president makes the decision based on the two written eveluations and the two additional recommendations.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/23/2005

I think you're both mis-reading what KC wrote. It seems to me that he's suggesting, based on what Shortell said in a number of places, that he's a poor choice for a department chair. First, given the way decision-making is distributed at Brooklyn College, making him chairman of a department puts a lot of power in the hands of someone with highly prejudicial views. Second, a 7-5 vote for him as chairman is no strong vote of confidence or a sign that he's capable of concensus building.

Jacob paul segal - 5/23/2005

Indeed just so. We can imagine anyother post: "The shameof Berube" based on Johnson's faulty reading of Berube's writings.

David Silbey - 5/23/2005

Wait a minute. Dr. Shortell has said things that Dr. Johnson finds problematic, and he would like that speech to prevent him from being department chair. Does Dr. Johnson have any indication of actual wrongdoing by Dr. Shortell?

But perhaps Dr. Johnson is correct. Perhaps we should create a code of speech for university professors that they have to follow if they are not to be excluded from certain jobs.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 5/23/2005

I don't know about the wisdom of appointing this particular man to chair a department. However, it doesn't seem to me that opposing organized religion or believing that Karl Rove is a horrible propagandist should disqualify one from being a department chair. Is it his views that disqualify him or a perceived lack of diplomacy? Should people with strong political views be prevented from occupying administrative positions?

Sharon Howard - 5/22/2005

Exactly, Alan. I was referring to the contradiction between what he says in one article - the Church in El Salvador, led by Romero, became a radical agent for popular reform in opposition to an oppressive state government - and what he says in the other (that's the full text, I think; yesterday's link appears to have been just a taster) - a pile of overwrought generalisations to the effect that all religions are evil, oppressive, totalitarian, intolerant (etc) and all religious people are irrational and immature (at best). "It is no accident that the history of world religions is a history of violence, hatred and intolerance... In every religious tradition, there is an orthodoxy with an elite (priests, ministers, rabbis, mullahs, etc.) to enforce it, and considerable effort is made to suppress dissent..."

Robert KC Johnson - 5/22/2005

Yes. From what I've been told, the vote was 7-5, with the other candidate being the sitting deputy chair.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/21/2005

Oscar, When I was there, the chairman of the history department at Chapel Hill said: "If you ever see a little power just lying around, pick it up."

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/21/2005

People become department chair for many reasons. One possibility is that no one else wants the job. Another is that the person was chosen because he or she is better at administration than the competition.

I have no idea what the circumstances are here, and the reports of Shortell's statements are discouraging. But it is possible that he has useful skills that don't show up in his ideological utterances. If so the choice could have been rational.

Robert KC Johnson - 5/21/2005

Yes, it would be hard to design a worse personnel structure than that at Brooklyn. From what I've been told, it dates from the early 1980s, when the college was substantially reorganized: a downtown Brooklyn campus was merged into the main campus, and deans for the various divisions were abolished. A power vacuum resulted, and the department chairs took advantage, creating a personnel system that gave the chairs extraordinary power and essentially shut all other senior faculty out, except in the initial hiring process. As theorists of congressional logrolling would have guessed, it almost never occurs that a junior professor gets tenure over the opposition of his or her chair, since the other chairs are inclined to go along, with the expectation that when they need a vote, their fellow chairs will back them.

I can see possibilities where the age comment might seem in a bit bad taste, but not terribly objectionable. Yet the comments are framed in such a way to be deliberately antagonistic--almost what might be expected of someone in junior high or high school. In some ways, the age comment strikes me as the most offensive, because of its seeming celebration in the fact that people die--that this realization caused him to cheer up. (It's also silly political analysis, since it assumes that as people age, their ideologies remain constant.) As to the Rove comment, I find it hard to see how any profitable intellectual purpose could be served by comparing the propaganda tactics of Rove and Joseph Goebbels.

Adam Kotsko - 5/21/2005

I think I've solved the dilemma -- during that period of history, all Latin American Catholics were actually Marxists. (Just ask Pope Benedict XVI!) No cognitive dissonance is required, then.

Greg James Robinson - 5/21/2005

Thanks, Sharon, for the link. I have occasionally met what I think of as "fundamentalist atheists" who blame religion for the world's problems. I am always tempted to hit them with Clarence Darrow's defense of his agnosticism, "I do not pretend to know, whereas many ignorant people are sure." Certainly this is not a good sign of broad-mindedness, and I would be wary of making someone like that my judge. (what kind of vershluggine tenure system does Brooklyn College have? However did it develop that way?)
I might add that I do not think the Karl Rove comment nearly so bad. I think of Harry Truman's line that the US Marines have a propaganda machine that is the equal of Stalin's. Similarly, I am not sure what is so objectionable about saying that as older Americans pass away, the political calculus changes. On many issues, if polls are any guide, people over 65 are as a class by far the least liberal. Nobody is suggesting that your sweet grandma be terminated (or sent off for dangerous duty in a war of dubious origins) for opposing legalization of marijuana.

Alan Allport - 5/21/2005

I think Sharon's point was that such courage is surprising, deriving as it does from such a moral retard as a Catholic Archbishop.

Louis N Proyect - 5/21/2005

I don't understand Sharon Howard's reaction to the statement about Archbishop Romero in El Salvador: "With the courageous ministry of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Church [in El Salvador] became a key member of the popular movement fighting for social justice..." This seems uncontroversial to me.

Sharon Howard - 5/21/2005

I've just found a copy of the Sociology of Religion article online. I can only think that this guy must be suffering a touch of, well, cognitive dissonance. "With the courageous ministry of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Church [in El Salvador] became a key member of the popular movement fighting for social justice..."

Robert KC Johnson - 5/21/2005

To answer Greg's questions--yes, the faculty who voted for him knew of his writings. That's what makes the vote even more depressing--that they would consider someone with such views a good choice to serve as the public face of their department.

On academic heft, I don't consider one peer-reviewed article and a couple of book chapters--no books--12 years out from getting a Ph.D. to be terribly impressive.

His service as head of the Core reform committee lasted one year and produced no recommendation--hardly an example of successful administrative service.

On tenure votes, in the Brooklyn administrative system, all faculty do not vote on the tenure candidacies. (Our structure is very different from the U.S. norm in this regard.) The department's 5-person appointments committee, upon which the chair automatically sites, casts the first ballot, after which time the chair writes a confidential report. That recommendation is then forwarded to a 5-professor divisional subcommittee, before which the chair and the candidate testify. The divisional subcommittee's recommendation is forwarded to the divisional committee of chairs. And that committee's recommendation is forwarded to the P+T, the committee of 31 chairs.

So, in the two key committees, the department chairman is the ONLY member of an untenured faculty member's department to vote. In the two bottom committees, he has vote in the first and personnally testifies before the second. Even more alarming, because of our system, a Chairman Shortell would have a vote on the tenure of every junior faculty at the college, regardless of department.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/21/2005

Thanks for the citations, Sharon. The pretention that his secularity emancipates Shortell from "religion"'s high dungeon and aggression is breathtakingly delusional and stupid.

Sharon Howard - 5/21/2005

Very briefly: the Web of Science offers 2 print articles published by Shortell since 2000, in Social Science History and Sociology of Religion. The comparison with Karl Rove is on his webpage and, specifically referring to the use of propaganda, runs: "Karl Rove owes a lot to Joseph Goebbels". And you can find the 'moral retards' quote here.

Greg James Robinson - 5/21/2005

Touché--I make no claims for this journal, being in any case a hardened anti-theory slut! Shortell does appear to have been professionaly active, though, especially in giving papers at reputable professional organizations like the American Studies Association.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/21/2005

The Brooklyn Journal of Social Semiotics? Sounds like cutting edge scholarship to me! It appears to have published only one (1) article ever, that one six years ago, and it was by one of the two editors!

Greg James Robinson - 5/21/2005

Not being someone who trusts the NEW YORK SUN for balanced and complete coverage, I did some internet research on Shortell. His writing in 15 Credibility Street is not available. However, as far as academic heft is concerned, his website lists his recent work. It seems that he has contributed to several published collections, including Rhys Williams CULTURAL WARS IN AMERICAN POLITICS. He also has been involved in efforts to bring online technology to academia, inclusing creating his own website to store all course information etc. for students and editing an online journal "The Brooklyn Journal of Social Semiotics."
I also discovered an article from 2003 by Professor K.C. Johnson, "The Use and Abuse of Academic Freedom," on anti-Israel bias. It mentioned that the NEW YORK SUN had slammed Brooklyn College for assigning Timothy Shortell to chair the committee charged with reviewing its core curriculum, since he had called religious people "moral retards." (Actually what the SUN's article states is that that "weakness is demanded of us by religion and consumer capitalism," so I suppose he would also be dangerous if he had to vote on tenure for someone with a credit card). This suggests, first, that the Department people knew perfectly well what Shortell's views are and are OK with them, and also that Shortell is someone who has spent a lot of time doing administrative stuff, with consequently less time for research (I have heard various academics refer to a colleague as "a good administrator," meaning less comptetent on the scholarly side). The SUN seems to be watching professor Shortell closely. No doubt they can explain on the basis of his work with the core curriculum exactly how uncollegial and biased his work is.
By the way, have I grown rusty working outside the US, and has voting on tenure become the exclusive responsability of the department chair, or do I recall that all tenured faculty vote on tenure--in which case Shortell's being chair would be irrelevent?

Robert KC Johnson - 5/21/2005

I think there are two issues here on these points. The first is the enormous power of the department chairs within the BC personnel system. Votes of one department, therefore, affect not only that department but the personnel process of the entire institution. In a more department-centered administrative structure, I'd be willing to give more leeway to individual departments. But the authority to remove department chairs within CUNY was given to presidents for the very reason that one department's action could threaten the academic freedom of untenured faculty in other departments, as well as the institution's public reputation.

With Shortell, I'd agree that the key issue is "a question of their willingness to tolerate and support faculty members whose views are quite different from their own." The rhetoric that he's used--religious people are moral retards, Karl Rove is comparable to Joseph Goebbels, Leftists should be cheered by the fact that old people die--is so intemperate that there is no indication that this is a mind willing to tolerate, much less support, those who disagree with him ideologically.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/21/2005

KC, Wouldn't we be upset if the choice of the new department chairperson had not been or had overturned the decision of the majority of the department members? And what would be the outer limits on what a department chairperson can say politically? Actually, I've known instances when faculty members of rather extreme views came to the defense of less secure faculty members on the other end of the political spectrum, so it isn't so much a question of the marginality of a person's own political beliefs so much as it is a question of their willingness to tolerate and support faculty members whose views are quite different from their own.