Monday, August 25, 2008

Debating the Delaware Question

Thomas Wood of the National Association of Scholars criticizes my thoughts on the Delaware controversy. Wood blames me for “the relentless perversity of its interpretations of the issues before the faculty senate.” To the contrary, I think my analysis is still on target, and here is my point-by-point rebuttal.

Contrary to his claims that he’s not proposing to ban controversial activities, Wood proclaims, “a university should not have any ‘programming,’ as Res Life conceives it, at all.”

Wood claims, “If university staff want to bring speakers onto campus they may do so, and students do it all the time. Faculty may also do so. But those events are not university programs that have been awarded the imprimatur of the university.” That’s not true: most events on campuses are organized as part of university programs. Freedom must apply to university programs, not just those organized on the side.

Wood writes, “When a faculty senate approves a course, it is not given an official sanction or status by the university itself in the way that the Res Life curriculum has been.” However, it Is not clear why a Residence Life program represents the official position of a university any more than a course does.

According to Wood, “it is absurd to think that non-faculty staff at the university should be able to teach anything they want without the approval of the faculty.” It’s not absurd at all. In fact, the opposite is absurd. Anybody can “teach” anything to voluntary groups without the approval of faculty.

Wood argues, “it is the responsibility of the faculty to terminate programs in the dorms that in its considered view are inappropriate for a university.” Actually, no, the power of the faculty to terminate programs is primarily limited to the power over the curriculum. No one imagines that the faculty actually have the power to eliminate the entire Residence Life program, and the administration would overrule them if they tried. Faculty don’t have the power to ban this program, and they particularly don’t have the power to ban certain aspects of it because they’re deemed controversial.

In response to my question, “Why can't a residence hall have intellectual activities and engage students in serious ideas?” Wood replies, “It can. If it wanted to, it could ask the faculty to organize such activities. It could also ask the University itself to pay for such activities.” The problem is that faculty are not experts at organizing student activities, as Residence Hall staff are. Nor do faculty usually have the time or interest to organize such activities. Nor can most universities afford to hire faculty to work organizing these activities. I wish that universities hired faculty for Residence Halls, and I wish that most faculty volunteered to organize extracurricular activities. But until that happens, we have the university as it is, not the dream university where anything short of some ideal can be banned.

Of course, even if faculty were truly in charge of Residence Hall activities, Wood would still object to controversial programs. So it is clear that the “faculty control” issue is a mere convenient tool utilized for this case, and not a true argument.

I am glad that Wood admits that compulsion and the particular flaws of the past Delaware programs are not at issue: “Even if a program like U Delaware’s is offered on a voluntary basis, and there are students who might want it, it still shouldn’t be offered by a university, because a university should not itself support such ‘programming.’”

Wood claims, “dorm residents can arrange for ‘intellectual activities’ that ‘engage …serious ideas’ on their own. But their having the right to do this doesn't mean that Res Life should be able to run its own programs at the university’s expense.” But if a faculty member was banned from mentioning politics in the classroom, would we say that this protected academic freedom on the grounds that students would still be free to speak? That, in fact, is David Horowitz’s approach, and it proposes a tremendous restraint on intellectual freedom.

Student freedom is not sufficient for a free university. Nor is faculty freedom. A free university must have freedom for everyone, and it must include freedom to organize activities relevant to the duties of the individual. If the job of Residence Hall staff is to add to the enjoyment and education of students (and it is), then they must be free to develop those plans. Selective bans on political or controversial speech are never allowed, and that’s what Wood is demanding.

Wood quotes me writing, “The quality of the ResLife program is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether it should be banned” and declares, “This is absurd. It is entirely relevant to the question whether the proposal should have been rejected—as in fact it should have been.”

Of course, quality always matters at a university—but not to the question of whether freedom is allowed. When a program is bad, you might fire the employees or seek to make it better; but you must never declare a ban on controversial or political views from being expressed. Wood doesn’t object to Delaware’s educational program being badly done; to the contrary, he objects to the entire concept. An effective and well-done program might be even worse to him.

Wood argues. “Staff members at a university do not teach. That is the function of the faculty…There are widely recognized norms and standards for faculty instruction in the academy, such as those adopted by the AAUP….Because teaching is not the responsibility of staff members, there are no comparable norms or standards for them.” That’s not true. Staff members do have norms, standards, and qualifications. One of these norms is that staff should seek to educate students through extracurricular activities. Some people may not like the choices staff make in educating students, but they should seek to criticize, not prohibit, those choices when the rights of students are not being violated.

According to Wood, “Students pay tuition and attend college in order to be treated as students not global citizens.” Who decided that? And what does it mean? Why can’t the education of students include informing them about the world? Of course, students are perfectly free to ignore anything about being a “global citizen” and concentrate solely on their studies. But for students who want to be global citizens, why can’t staff be allowed to organize programs that inform them?

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