Blogs > Cliopatria > Academic Freedom Update: Columbia and Southern Utah

Jan 3, 2005 1:04 pm

Academic Freedom Update: Columbia and Southern Utah

At Columbia, the lead editorial in today's New York Post focuses on the issue, suggesting that the matter isn't going away anytime soon. In the words of the Post,"Academic freedom and honesty are on the line — as is the reputation of a great university."

The issue has even attracted attention in the Israeli media: the Jerusalem Post had an exclusive interview with Columbia president Lee Bollinger as well as a thoughtful summary of the entire controversy. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but the key quotes come near the end, from Bollinger:

--"In the case of intimidation and abuse of students, it is so much a violation about what we believe in, it is so destructive to the mission of the university, that it really is the only path we can take. We cannot stand by and let that behavior go by."

--"How are we doing and how can we improve our teaching and research on subjects involving the Middle East and Israel-Palestinian issues in particular? I see that as the most important outcome of this."

--"We will not allow intimidation of students, but we must also defend academic freedom. Pursuing one can put stress on the other. I think it's inevitable."

It's hard to see how these quotes could justify anything short of a significant reform of how MEALAC operates.

At SUU, meanwhile, among the first somewhat neutral observers on the Steven Roberds issue, a widely published SUU professor named David Tufte, has provided his commentary.

Tufte says that, based on the record, he would have supported Roberds' tenure, but also notes that many faculty members found Roberds difficult to deal with. He also downplays the teaching award that Roberds received, since it was student-only. On the latter point, the award strikes me as highly relevant nonetheless, since a main allegation against Roberds is that he had treated students badly. It's hard to reconcile a picture of any professor popular enough to win a university-wide teaching award with the college's portrayal of someone who's out of control in the classroom.

Tufte raises two points with which I strongly disagree. First, he notes that"as a personnel matter, the administration here can't say anything publically." But while the administration (the president or provost, for instance) hasn't gone public, Roberds' former chairman (Lamar Jordan) and the president of the SUU faculty senate (David Rees) have done so. Their justifications, to put it mildly, were less than convincing. And, as I've noted before, when colleges break the rules (as Jordan did by summoning Roberds' students in under false pretenses and then, according to their claims, not recording the positive things they had to say about Roberds), it's rather hard for the college to hide behind claims of personnel confidentiality necessary to a process that functions as it should.

Second, Tufte notes that"tenure decisions are often about whether you want to work with someone for the rest of your career," and that there are many nasty rumors about Roberds floating around campus (which he doesn't repeat).

First, any institution with a claim to academic quality should make personnel decisions on the basis of academic quality, and not likability. And while Tufte notes, correctly, that faculty members don't always vote in this manner, it's the job of an administration to cultivate a campus atmosphere in which quality comes first. Second, I'm dubious about rumors--and here I speak from first-hand experience in my own case. At one point, just before my tenure was granted, a supportive colleague came to me to report back that he had heard the"real" reason I was denied tenure. There were six alleged events, none of which were ever mentioned in my file. Five never occurred, and the sixth was a fairly blatant distortion.

This may not be what's occurring in the Roberds case. However, I doubt that the SUU administrators who made the decision to terminate Roberds expected any sort of outcry. Speaking from personal experience, college administrators, when cornered, can be pretty creative in coming up with"off the record" justifications for actions they can't publicly defend.

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Dave Tufte - 1/5/2005

1) I have no idea if Jordan's meeting was a procedural violation. My inclination is to think that there was a more appropriate way of doing this, but that the driving sentiment to get to the bottom of things was appropriate. I don't believe Jordan either when he says it was to protect Roberds' reputation. I think he smelled smoke. Perhaps he would have put out a fire if it was appropriate, but it appears that he felt that it was quite inappropriate once he started poking around.

2) The actions point to something very important coming out of that meeting. I very much tend to doubt that there is a "Miranda warning feature" to our procedures that says that such evidence is not admissible if it was obtained in a way that violates those procedures. That doesn't make it right, but it also doesn't mean we should retroactively delete evidence in a personnel matter just because we do it in criminal cases.

3) A rumor that I will share is that Roberds' College LRT committee returned his application without a vote because it had leaked out that a decision to terminate Roberds' classroom presence - based on evidence that the College LRT committee did not have (and which is still not public) - had already been made. I remain very curious why they chose not to show even symbolic support for him, given that they had advanced his rank the year before.

4) Please note that I am biased the other way about chemistry because of the nasty department I got my Ph.D. in. And I think I may also be biased in favoring Roberds in this case - it is a lot easier for me to do that when I am in another college. If anything, I am biased towards giving him the benefit of doubt - because I do have doubts - but I get the strong sense that this is because I am not in the thick of things on this issue.

5) I don't think Faculty Senate reform has anything to do with this. Deportment on the issue might.

6) I don't think a position on gay marriage has anything to do with this either. I also can't say that Roberds' deportment was an issue with administration, but I can say that it did offend a lot of people on and off campus. The perception is that free speech is a defense - but not a very good one - when a faculty member is taking an active position to seek out and oppose students' activities on campus but outside of the classroom.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/4/2005

Interesting and illuminating points.

One thing that I've discovered in the aftermath of my case is how incredibly different the personnel process is at every university, and the first piece of advice I've given to anyone who's contacted me since to discuss their tenure problems is to thoroughly learn the rules of their institution. (This was the best advice I got in my case.) From the outside, there are two aspects of the Roberds case that I find procedurally troubling.

The first is Jordan's summoning of the students under false pretenses, and then submitting a supplementary report based on that summons. I recall from the first article on the case that even a couple of chairs noted their surprise at Jordan's taking this approach. Given that the supplementary report (from all that's been revealed) formed a key piece of evidence in the dismissal, this strikes me as a clear procedural violation.

The second is the decision by the college tenure committee to return Roberds' file without any recommendation. I don't know the custom at SUU, but this strikes me as an extraordinarily unusual act. I realize that by so doing, the promotion/tenure committee opened the way up for an administrative act of dismissing Roberds. But if that's how it felt (as Rees implies in its article), it should have voted no.

One clear difference between the Roberds case and mine, as Dave's reply points out, is that the views for which I was attacked are mainstream positions outside of the academy (demanding balance in a university-sponsored event on the Middle East; opposing the use of gender quotas in a search after the college affirmative action officer had tole us we couldn't give special preference on the basis of sex). Roberds' case seems to be the opposite--his views strike me as well outside of the mainstream in Utah. That complicates his case considerably.

On the department/college chemistry point, I see the argument, and I admit that because of my own experience I am wholly biased on this question. My fear is this: we all are inclined to tolerate behavior among those with whom we agree far more easily than we would tolerate behavior among our ideological opponents. From the outside (and, again, I'm going on just what I've read in the articles and the public forums), it seems like some portion (exactly what percentage is unclear) of Roberds' difficulties came from positions that he took on the Faculty Senate reform issue and on the question of gay marriage.

The counterfactual: if Roberds hadn't protested the Faculty Senate reform, and if he were a supporter of gay marriage, would he have fared differently? If not, why didn't the university move against him earlier?

In all of this, though, the single most troubling event for me is Jordan's secret session with the students and his extraordinarily unconvincing explanation as to why he took this approach (that he wanted to protect Roberds' reputation).

Dave Tufte - 1/4/2005

OK ... now that I've got that bug worked out. Just a few points of clarification.

1) I downplayed that particular teaching award because the process of determining the winner can be gamed. There are other awards on campus with a more serious process of evaluation. Roberds didn't win any of those (me neither ;)

2) I have not read the linked Lamar Jordan piece (the papers went fast and the link here is bad). I don't know Jordan either, so I can't really speak for him. I do know Dave Rees well, and I have read his piece. I am not surprised that it seemed weak - Dave is diplomatic to a fault. If he knows anything he wouldn't divulge it in that sort of forum. Might that have made him stretch a bit? Possibly. So, why throw out a weak piece? As President of the Faculty Senate, I think Dave may have felt obligated.

3) I like your point that the University does not have a valid confidentiality position if they broke their own rules. However, no one on the ground here has made a very convincing case that they did. There has been some venting, but I haven't heard a factual justification of that argument yet. I would go so far as to call the absence of support for Roberds on that issue emblematic of the weakness of that position. Unlike the Johnson case (and forgive me if I'm wrong here) - I think Roberds has strong support from a great many people in his department and college ... but they are not making a case that there was something wrong with the process.

4) Your argument about academic quality is weak. There are two distinctions: an individual's academic quality, and the quality of the overall unit. Just as in sports, the "chemistry" that determines the latter often doesn't show up in the former. Accepting your position implies (to me) that we need to throw out all the assistant professor "horse races" that occur at top schools because the individual assistant professors may all be of high quality. Clearly that isn't what we do, and those top schools are not ready to reject that system either. Now, SUU is not a top school, but it is a non sequitar to claim that this implies that chemisty should be excluded from the decision. In any event, the real point in this case is that even Roberds supporters are not claiming that he is a slam-dunk candidate because of academic quality. He was a reasonable candidate with some baggage. Again, forgive me if I'm wrong on the Johnson case, but you seem like you were a much stronger candidate with much less baggage (if any).

5) I'm certain that administration on this campus expected an outcry in terminating Roberds. In fact, I'd say he was on a list of perhaps 2-3 people that could be expected to make the biggest outcry if they felt they were harmed. He was a very squeaky wheel that many administrators would have left alone even if they had cause. My point here is not that administration did or did not have cause, but that Roberds potential for outspokenness (is that a word?) certainly would have pushed many administrators away from a firing decision - who needs the headache?

There hasn't been much new news about this issue on campus. But here is a tidbit to think about. Everyone is talking about this around town, and in my circle of friends (mostly academic, few Mormons, mostly social liberals and financial conservatives, almost everyone from out of state) there is a rough breakdown between the academics and the non-academics. The academics are conflicted about this. But the non-academics can't believe that Roberds wasn't fired ages ago. Appalled doesn't even begin to describe the views of most of him. And, if they've seen the video, they pretty much can't shut up about how lousy SUU is for even having someone like Roberds around. In these groups I end up getting berated for supporting Roberds.

Dave Tufte - 1/4/2005

Forgot my username - just testing.