Philosophers battle administration
January 18, 2008
Philosophy professors Paul Davies and George Harris don’t look like rabble-rousers or schismatics. Harris, with his long haircut and thick moustache, seems like a younger L.Q. Jones, and Davies’ relaxed personality and good-natured chuckling puts one at ease.
p. But these two professors have been bees in the administration’s bonnet since last summer, when a report from an external review team alleged that senior faculty mistreated women and junior faculty, triggering Dean of Arts and Sciences Carl Strikwerda to remove Noah Lemos as the philosophy chair and replace him with an English professor.
p. Davies and Harris said that the administration, through the report and subsequent actions, has led a “smear campaign” against them and others in the department. While the report was vague and the accusations anonymous, the two professors said they felt it implicated them and others.
p. “I suspect on campus if you went around and asked people in other departments, they’d know we were targeted [in the report],” Harris said.
p. Davies and Harris feel that the review team, made up of four scholars from across the country, conducted the review questionably.
p. “Whatever procedures they used for gathering information, they’re not procedures that any institution, upon reflection, would endorse,” Davies said. “They were completely one-sided. There was no attempt to be complete in gathering information. There was no attempt to be balanced or fair.”
p. The team spent two days on campus, meeting with the whole department, including Davies and Harris, as well as in private sessions. It was in these private sessions, the two say, that accusations of misconduct were made, disregarding College rules governing grievances.
p. The College’s guidelines for external reviews state that the report should have been released along with a departmental response and a report from the dean. Strikwerda, however, released the external team’s report without a departmental response, or even alerting professors to the contents, which upset Davies and Harris.
p. “You take away even one of [the sections], let alone two, you’ve given up any attempt to produce a report that is of any use to the institution,” Davies said. “It was hijacked for some other purpose.”
p. Strikwerda has previously defended his actions by stating that he believed the threat outlined in the report was dire enough to merit immediate action.
p. “Like the rest of the faculty, academic administrators are very concerned that the College continues to be seen as the strong intellectual center that we believe it is,” he said.
p. Davies and Harris, however, doubt this claim and were surprised by the dean’s response time and distressed by his attitude.
p. “It took the dean three weeks to send us a memo saying, ‘Oops. I now have information that shows there isn’t an issue about the environment for women or for students,’” Davies said. “Three weeks.”
p. From that point on, Davies and Harris refused to cooperate because of the procedural violation. Harris said they have since become isolated from the administration and their colleagues.
p. Feiss stressed that the two professors have not done wrong.
“They have raised issues that they believe are substantive. I disagree,” he said. “Disagreement and challenge of authority contribute to the strength and vitality of the academy.”
p. The two said that they are not clear on why the administration acted like it did. Although they do not think it is political, they believe that the administration is not acting properly. They argue that a culture has arisen in the administration that places the College’s image above all else.
p. “There’s some culture here at the College that’s in a fever pitch about — well, here’s a very important thing — protecting women against assault on campus,” Harris said.
p. He and Davies charge that the culture extends beyond Strikwerda.
p. “The problems started with the dean, but we’re not focusing just on the dean; we think it’s the dean, the provost [Geoffrey Feiss], the president [Gene Nichol],” Davies said. “And, we also have problems with our colleagues.”
p. He added that appeals to the Faculty Hearing Committee were deflected. Davies also said that they had met three times with Nichol, and each time he supported the actions of Strikwerda.
p. Davies believes that the administration is opaque, preventing inquiries into its actions and protecting it from oversight.
p. “You can’t have accountability with such insularity,” Davies said, adding that “there is an arrogance that they know what’s best for everybody.”
p. Harris agreed.
p. “If a university is not insular enough, then there will be micromanagement, and usually in this country what happens is the right has too much influence on what goes on. If it becomes too insular, given the history of this country, then it becomes too influenced by the left,” Harris said. “So what do I think? I think there’s a bit of Big Brother about it. It’s not a simple matter. And we need to break that culture, and I don’t know how to do it, except this. We do know this: we’re not taking this.”
Feiss disputed the Orwellian charge.
p. “This is not true,” he said. “My office nor the president’s has any oversight over an academic department in the operational sense. The dean has clearly specified responsibilities and exercises those in accordance with established procedures and in consultation with the Faculty Affairs Committee … and the Dean’s Advisory Committee.”
p. Davies and Harris are uncertain of their futures. Harris, who recently renounced his title of Chancellor Professor of Philosophy, is on research leave this semester. Davies is teaching this semester but is on leave next year. Neither is sure if they will continue teaching at the College.
p. Feiss and Strikwerda both said that the two are faculty members in good standing, although Davies and Harris said they feel isolated and threatened.
p. “The fact of the matter is we may just be ruined here,” Harris said. “If we are, it’s a disgrace to this community, not us.”
Nichol declined to comment.