Monday, March 25, 2013

Real Diversity—Fostering and Protecting Intellectual Minorities and Resisting the Seductions of Group Thinking and Feeling

Five or six years ago, Boston University convened a university-wide committee to study how to promote “diversity” on campus, and solicited faculty input. I wrote the following memo to committee member Carol Neidle and sent a carbon copy to university Provost David Campbell (who had convened and Chaired the committee). My argument was that racial, ethnic, sexual—or any other kind of—“diversity” only really mattered to a university if it was a way to foster intellectual diversity. It meant nothing, absolutely nothing, for the faculty and student body to include people of different backgrounds and experiences if the individuals thought alike, if the so-called minority groups enforced conformity with their own group-understandings of experience, or if administrators penalized “minority” intellectual views and understandings. In this vision of the function of the university, the minority that mattered the most (and that needed the most vigilant and nurturing protection) was the minority thinker, the individual whose ideas and opinions were not an expression of a minority group or movement—or perish the thought, whose ideas and opinions might even be at odds with those of minority groups and movements. In my experience at Boston University, this “intellectual minority” was the minority that was the most imperiled, the minority that needed the most encouragement and protection. 

As will be seen in the memo, I proposed a number of specific changes in university policies and practices to guarantee protection for “intellectual minorities.” I am sorry to say that none of them was adopted and, as far as I can tell, my memo and its recommendations were quickly shunted to the side by Chairman Provost Campbell as being irrelevant and unrelated to the avowed mission of the committee. In short, my understanding of “difference” was regarded as being too "different," and—in the final irony—too much of a “minority view” to be taken seriously.

I have more on intellectual diversity at the beginning of “Part 2: Ten Years of Administrative Retaliation for Speaking Up to Defend the Freedom of Academic Expression Inside and Outside the Classroom,” elsewhere on the site. — Ray Carney

Professor Carol Neidle
Linguistics Program
621 Commonwealth Ave.
Room 101
Boston University
Boston, MA 02215

Dear Professor Neidle:

I've recently learned that you serve on a committee studying how diversity can be protected and fostered at Boston University. If it's not out of order, I wanted to share some thoughts (and personal experiences) with you and your committee.

Diversity can take many forms, but the one I want to focus on in this memo, and the one that most directly and powerfully impacts my own life and work on a daily basis, is what I would call “intellectual diversity.”

I assume it goes without saying that it is critical to the future of Boston University (and, indeed, of any academic institution) that the widest possible range of ideas and points–of–view be expressed and considered. In fact, I would argue that the free play of ideas and open exchange of views is one of the two or three central, defining attributes of a university – one of the essential traits that distinguishes it from virtually every other large institution in contemporary society. Most other corporate organizations are devoted to cultivating univocality, unanimity, conformity, and homogeneity of view. Because of their profit–motivated, sales–focused, public relations–oriented missions, most other American corporations want their employees to stay “on topic” – to be speaking, as it were, with one voice, communicating the same messages, in the same way, at the same points in time. The university exists as an alternative to that mode of functioning. It is an organization not merely tolerant of, but founded on the crucial importance of the unconstrained pursuit of knowledge wherever it may lead, the open exchange of ideas however different they may be, and the free play of divergent or even conflicting points–of–view. The very heart and soul of the university is that it is a place where even unpopular, controversial, or “minority” views are given a forum within which they may be fully and completely expressed, elaborated, examined, discussed, and debated.

I wish I could say that Boston University has been a paragon of having embraced this conception of intellectual openness and expressive freedom for the past four decades, but, as you are undoubtedly aware, the university has a checkered institutional history in this regard. The free play of ideas has been checked, limited, and dampened in many ways in the past. The strong, personality–centered, assertive, “top–down” management style of past senior administrators sent a loud and clear message to the faculty (and often to the students as well) that differences of opinion on certain subjects were frowned on – and, in particular cases, would not be tolerated. I personally know of (and would imagine that you are also aware of) specific faculty members whose pay was frozen or otherwise negatively affected or who were passed over for prizes, awards, or other forms of institutional recognition because their views did not agree with those of specific high–level administrators. Many decisions about promotions and hiring were affected by the central administration’s desire to surround itself with faculty members whose views politically or ideologically “agreed with” those of the administrators. In particular cases, departments or programs found their budgets cut or their administrative support eroded (and, in particular egregious cases, their programs terminated or schools abolished) when their Chairs or Directors dared to take intellectual stands at odds with those of the central administration.

I further wish that such problems could be said to be confined to past decades, but I have first–hand experience within my own College, in the past three or four years and extending into the present, of instances where faculty members who expressed ideas, opinions, or points–of–view different from those of a Dean, Chairman, or Program Director received strongly negative annual evaluations (with resulting negative consequences on their salary); had financial support for their research, academic programs, or teaching cut; were removed from (or forced to resign from) administrative or advisory positions; were denied honors, prizes, or other perquisites liberally bestowed on their colleagues; or were subjected to other forms of institutional and administrative intimidation, harassment, or punishment. These events are not ancient history.

Faculty are not slow to learn the lessons of these sorts of events, and past policies have had serious negative consequences, not only personally on the lives and livelihoods of specific faculty members in my College, but, more generally, on what I am calling the institutional free play of ideas and free flow of expression. Several faculty members resigned their positions and left the College for good. Others stayed but resigned their administrative positions – in protest, disgust, or discouragement. Others adopted a policy of “keeping their mouths shut, heads down, and staying out of the line of fire” by not expressing divergent opinions in meetings, memos, conversations, classes, or publications. The personal loss has been great, but the loss to the institution has been even greater. The expression of divergent or “controversial” views has been chilled and diminished. Intellectual debate and the free exchange of ideas has been dampened and reigned–in. Faculty censor themselves. They become cautious about who they speak to, what they say, and where they say it. They become afraid of the consequences – to them personally, to their prospects for promotion and bureaucratic advancement, to their programs, and to their professional reputations inside and outside the university. (I leave aside the consequences that play themselves out largely outside the physical boundaries of the institution, including difficulties raising money from disgruntled former students; challenges in recruiting new faculty who have heard about the “BU management style” and the administration’s “ideological litmus tests” for promotion; and the loss of potential graduate and undergraduate students who either do not apply to Boston University in the first place, or who turn down an acceptance offer because someone has told them about the climate of academic discourse or mood of faculty demoralization.)

It is in the context of this historical background and personal institutional experience that I write you. I sincerely believe that this is a special moment in the history of Boston University, a moment that presents a unique opportunity. With the advent of a new senior administration, many faculty, in my College and throughout the university, are hoping that there can be a genuine fresh start toward a “new BU” that will make a sharp break with the past and set a different intellectual and administrative tone from the “old BU.” That is one of the reasons I hope your committee will take an interest in this subject and consider ways to help the institution move emphatically and visibly in a new direction.

To give you something more concrete to work with, I want to make some specific proposals. I will admit that they are almost entirely based on my own first–hand experience in my own College, and are largely a response to the tactics that I have personally seen being deployed to suppress or limit discussion and debate there over the course of the past few years. But under the principle that what happened in my College could happen anywhere at BU (and probably has happened elsewhere), I think they have more general application. I’ll present them as a series of bulleted discussion points:

  • Faculty should be guaranteed the absolute privacy of files on their computer, the emails they write and receive, their use of the internet, their telephone conversations, their written correspondence, and all other personal communications to or from them. The internet age has created many threats to academic freedom of expression that do not fall into the pattern of old style "McCarthy threats” of being harassed or fired for taking unpopular political stands. We must realize that in the computer age the threats to academic freedom constituted by email and internet “spying” are just as corrosive of free discussion and the free flow of ideas that a university depends on as the old style McCarthy threats. In terms of my own personal experience, I’d note that the previous Dean in my College threatened faculty members he wanted to reign–in by implying that he monitored or otherwise knew the content of their emails and telephone conversations to and from each other. Faculty never knew if this was true or if he was even capable of doing this; but the fear he induced had its intended effect, independently of whether the threat was carried out or not. Faculty became afraid to express their opinions in email or in their offices fully and candidly, with an inevitably chilling effect on the intellectual life of the College. The effect on intellectual and policy debates of such threats – whether real or imagined – is what I am concerned about. The faculty’s absolute confidence in the privacy and confidentiality of its interactions must be protected if we want to maintain a free and open intellectual space for discussion and debate.

  • Faculty should be guaranteed that activities and events in classrooms or lecture halls will not be monitored, recorded, or observed without their knowledge and permission. (A side–note: This would not affect required classroom visitations during regular, scheduled reviews for tenure or promotion, where such permission would be requested and granted as a matter of course.) Aside from visits connected with the review process, it is critical that the classroom be a “protected space for learning” where the instructor does not feel that his or her casual remarks are in danger of being taken out of context, monitored, recorded, and viewed by an administrative Big Brother without his or her knowledge or permission. Given the large number of audiovisual–equipped classrooms in my College, this was a particular concern during the previous Dean’s tenure, but the concern should not be limited to audio–visual classrooms. Whether most faculty realize it or not, recent technological advances allow for unobtrusive remote or surreptitious monitoring or recording in almost any setting. A few clicks around will satisfy anyone’s doubts about how easy it is to record things and then take them out of context and replay them in a different setting in order to embarrass or humiliate a speaker.

  • Faculty should be guaranteed that they will not be given low ratings on their annual evaluations for the expression of opinions and points of view or for statements in their publications that differ from the views of their colleagues or administrators. In my College, low evaluations have been and are still being awarded to individuals under the rubric of their not being “team players,” not being sufficiently “collegial,” or failing adequately to execute the “university service” component of their duties. These are all code–words for the faculty member’s daring to disagree with a policy decision or expressing a markedly different opinion from the Chair or Dean in memos, meetings, or publications – or in one case, in my personal knowledge, for a faculty member’s decision to abstain from voting in favor of a promotion he strongly opposed but that the rest of the department was strongly in favor of. (The negative evaluation, of course, has negative consequences on the faculty member’s pay.)

  • Faculty should be guaranteed that they will not be administratively or pedagogically penalized in other ways (beyond the annual review) because they express opinions and points of view that differ from those of their colleagues or administrators. In my College, in the past three or four years, punishment for thinking different or for speaking up has taken many different forms: research funds and travel support have been withheld or cut; leaves and sabbaticals have been delayed; classroom assignments have been changed to unfavorable locations or locations lacking necessary audio–visual equipment; permission to use standard campus facilities – e.g. the college Xerox machine – has been denied or cut back; nominations for prizes and awards have been withheld, (e.g. the Metcalf Award and various special college prizes); and faculty have been denied or scanted on other perquisites of their position (e.g. not being asked to teach at or visit remote campuses, not being asked to represent the university at prestigious functions, not being included in other special events).

  • Faculty should be guaranteed that conversations and other communications with administrators for which they request confidentiality, will, in fact, be treated confidentially, and that confidentiality will be waived only with the permission of the faculty member. This too comes out of recent experience in my College, where the previous Dean and at least one Department Chairman and Program Director routinely violated requests for confidentiality by relaying nominally “private” comments or observations to others (including to students) in order to pit other faculty, staff, and students against the particular faculty member in a series of “whispering campaigns” designed to undermine the stature and professional reputation of the faculty member who expressed the private opinion to them.

·      Faculty members should be guaranteed that no material will be added to their permanent file without their knowledge, and should be given the opportunity periodically to review the material that is in their file in order to be able to respond to it, correct mistakes in it, and verify that this procedure is being followed. This policy simply extends the provision in the Faculty Handbook giving faculty who have been recently reviewed for tenure or promotion access to material that has been employed in their reviews, so that the provision of having access to material in their files, would now apply to all full–time faculty members, giving them the right to review it, respond to it, and correct mistakes in it. This proposal is also based on first–hand experience in my College, where the previous Dean told faculty members who voted against his proposals at meetings or who expressed views he disagreed with that he was inserting adverse material – including statements against them and their conduct he bragged he had independently solicited from past and present students – in their permanent files “to take to the administration and use against them” if they persisted in expressing views different from his own. He explicitly referred to this as “playing chess not checkers” or “dealing with trouble–makers.” Faculty were never allowed to read this material or to respond to it, and as was the case with the Dean’s threats about monitoring their email and telephone conversations, faculty members never knew if their files were actually being “tampered with" in this way or if it was merely empty words, but the threat itself was sufficient to intimidate them and dampen the expression of independent points–of–view. A concluding aside: If the Federal Government has laws that give individuals the right to review their credit report information and credit ratings, surely the university should give a similar right to faculty to review the even more important material that is in their files, and not merely as a consequence of a promotion or tenure decision. In short, administrative openness and transparency in the assessment and evaluation process is crucial to maintaining intellectual openness and transparency in faculty discussions and debates. Faculty should not have to fear that administrators are getting back at them for taking principled stands by inserting negative statements about them in their files.

One might reply that such flagrant violations of fair, just, and ethical treatment are rare events. Most administrators in many Colleges at Boston University do not and will not abuse the trust that has been placed in them in these ways. One might also argue that the problems I have described are confined to the past.

I’d offer two responses: The first is that not only do many of the “threats” to the free, open, unfettered, and unintimidated exchange of ideas I’ve described continue in the present, but many of them can be carried out in increasingly subtle ways in the present and future (e.g. given the increasing ease of internet eavesdropping and email spying and of surreptitious audio and video recording). I’d also point out that many so–called past events continue to have ramifications in the present (e.g. particular faculty members in my College and no doubt elsewhere in the university are still taking the hit from past low annual evaluations in terms of their salary still not catching up with what it would have been otherwise or their permanent files still possibly containing false or unsubstantiated material that they are not allowed to have access to in order to respond to or have removed). Furthermore, past policies and past decisions made under duress or pressure of retaliation from a past administrator continue to be enacted in the present as current policies. My point is that what happened in the past is not really in the past; its consequences are still very much with us.

My second response is that even if the top levels of management have changed at Boston University, many of the middle–level managers at the Vice President, Dean, and Chairman levels, who enforced punitive and coercive policies in past decades, are still in place throughout the university. The fear that these administrators could, at some future date, revert to their previous patterns of behavior will continue to have a potentially chilling effect on intellectual and institutional discourse until these and other forms of behavior are explicitly forbidden.

I hope your committee will take this issue of fostering and protecting “intellectual diversity” seriously. I am convinced that a series of guidelines relating to the issues I have touched on (and others that will undoubtedly occur to your committee) will go a long way toward establishing that there truly is a new and different atmosphere of intellectual openness and freedom of expression at the “new BU.” That will be an important step toward creating a new tone and direction in faculty–administration relations.


Ray Carney
Prof. of Film and American Studies