Faculty smear culture
January 22, 2008
Recent articles in the Daily Press and the Virginia Gazette reported a complaint we filed against the College administration for abusing its authority in conducting a program review of the philosophy department last spring. The heart of the matter, however, remains obscure to many.
p. The best way to see the danger of allowing the administration to conduct business in the way that it did in regard to the philosophy department is to think about the alarm caused by the bias reporting network unilaterally set up by the administration. In assigning itself the authority to use anonymous reporting to regulate discrimination on campus, it never seems to have occurred to the administration that others might be concerned about their abusing that authority. “Why would those who have such a noble goal as preventing discrimination ever abuse their authority?,” they seemed to be asking.
p. For very good reasons that shouldn’t have to be explained to any intelligent person, the campus community didn’t buy that response and insisted that regulating discrimination through anonymous accusations is a danger to the community that it will not abide.
Such a system would be vulnerable to abuse in all sorts of ways, not only by the administration, but by students, faculty and staff as well. For example, a faction within the faculty with an agenda having nothing to do with preventing discrimination might exploit the system to smear other faculty members in order to advance themselves or their agenda.
p. Hiding behind anonymity, they could target people to be portrayed as abusers of women or minorities and, over time, spread rumors about what those targeted are like. They could exploit disagreements among faculty members on policy issues by spreading rumors that attribute discriminatory motives to some as a means of empowering themselves. Once the rumor mill (informal talk over lunches, after church, in favorite bars) had done its work, the reporting system would provide access to the administration. Anonymous accusers could then direct the administration to a well-prepared rumor network to confirm their complaints and to escape the responsibility of facing the accused.
How is this relevant to the controversy over the philosophy department?
p. Here are some publicly verifiable facts:
p. 1. During a routine academic review of an academic program last spring, an external review team composed of faculty from other institutions wrote a report accusing an unnamed block of senior faculty in the philosophy department of abusing women faculty, cultivating a learning environment detrimental to student learning and creating a hostile environment for junior faculty.
p. 2. The accusations were unspecific, unsubstantiated and made anonymously by current and former faculty members.
p. 3. At no point in the review process prior to writing their report did the reviewers reveal to any of the unnamed bloc of senior faculty any of the accusations made in the report or give them an opportunity for rebuttal. They never sought any evidence that might disconfirm the accusations and were very solicitous of evidence against those accused.
p. 4. Against the written policy governing the program review, the administration released the report to other departments under review as a public document without any of those accused knowing what was in the report and without having any opportunity for rebuttal.
p. 5. The administration canceled the written requirement of the policy governing the review that called for a department-wide response to the external review report thereby protecting those making the accusations from facing their accusers before the evidence.
p. 6. Despite over nine months of trying, we have yet to be given a formal hearing governed by any public standard of evidence to evaluate our complaint.
p. What this shows is not just an administration that abjures transparency, but also a faculty culture all too receptive to the anonymity of cloak and dagger politics. We have become a smear culture.
p. Last week, a former colleague wrote to warn us that if we continued to push these issues, he feared that others might come out against us. He may not have been threatening us, but someone is. We are not intimidated. We will continue to make our case. Anyone who wants to come out of the shadows of anonymity against us is welcome to do so.
p. __Professor George Harris and Associate Professor Paul Davies are members of the College’s philosophy department.__