Posted by: bmeverett | May 3, 2013

A Dire Threat to American Universities


I’ve just returned home after two weeks of vacation, and would like to offer some thoughts on a general issue facing American universities. Although the incident I am about to relate is not directly connected to energy, be patient and I’ll tie it in at the end.

My brother Ted Everett is a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he has taught for the last 17 years. He is a recognized scholar in his field and has spent his life considering questions of logic, knowledge and reality and studying the works of past philosophers on these issues. Ted sees his job as teaching students how to construct logical arguments, how the great (and not so great) philosophers have addressed the important issues of their day and how students can use this knowledge to understand the world. He has always been well-liked by his students who regard him as an excellent teacher able to address difficult material in a clear, entertaining and often funny way.

April 22-26 was “Sexual Assault Awareness Week” on the SUNY-Geneseo campus. Ted responded by organizing a Philosophy Department colloquium, the purpose of which was to discuss this important issue from a logical viewpoint. He often arranges such colloquia when there is a current issue of interest to students and faculty. These sessions are by their very nature controversial, since they involve questioning the assumptions and logic of strongly held views. He was nonetheless unprepared for the dishonest and vicious attacks he had to endure. His experience should raise red flags for all of us regarding free speech and honest inquiry on American college campuses.

Here’s the background. In 2010, SUNY-Geneseo conducted a survey which concluded that 25% of women at SUNY-Geneseo have experienced a sexual assault during their time on campus – a number similar to survey results at other colleges. Since this survey suggests that sexual assault is epidemic on the SUNY-Geneseo campus, several campus groups, with support from the university administration, have organized annual “Sexual Assault Awareness Weeks (SAAW)”. The term “awareness” here is a bit misleading, since the purpose of the week-long program was not to discuss the issue, but to present to the university community a very specific political agenda, which includes the following components. First, everyone should accept as a given what’s known as “Rape Culture Theory” which posits that white American men are taught to regard women as sexual objects and to believe that forced sex is not only acceptable but manly. Second, women have been so indoctrinated to be submissive that many do not even know that they have been sexually assaulted and therefore need a (very large) cadre of professionals on campus who can help women understand their victimization. Third, since the criminal justice system is part of the oppressive patriarchy, the police and courts do not treat sexual assault seriously. Fourth, the University must therefore step in and punish campus rapists with at least public shame and expulsion. Fifth, since women never lie about sexual assault, there is no real need for procedural safeguards for students accused of sexual assault. There should be no “plaintiffs” and “defendants” in university sexual assault proceedings, only “victims” and “perpetrators.” No need for presumption of innocence, rules of evidence, right of cross-examination, “beyond reasonable doubt” standards or impartial judges. The true purpose of “Sexual Assault Awareness Week” is to advance this agenda.

The radical nature of this political viewpoint becomes even more evident if you look at the survey itself, which you can find at https://www.geneseo.edu/webfm_send/2810. Among other problems, the survey defines “sexual assault” as everything from being raped by a stranger at gunpoint to allowing your boyfriend to badger you into letting him kiss you.

This viewpoint seems quite extreme and radical to most ordinary people. In fact, it runs counter to the most basic presumptions of American society. On college campuses, however, this agenda is often taken as a given. Nonetheless, one would assume that the university community at least ought to have an opportunity to discuss this issue and offer alternative arguments about how to define and address sexual assaults on campus. Alas, not always true, as Ted found out.

Enter my brother Ted and his Philosophy Department colloquium. Ted entitled his talk “Against ‘sexual’ ‘assault’ ‘awareness’”. The scare quotes were intended to demonstrate that the issue was not sexual assault itself but the way the campus organizing groups were defining these terms. The response of the SAAW organizers was to launch an all-out assault.

In essence, their objections to Ted’s talk were as follows. First, disagreeing with Rape Culture Theory or any other component of the political agenda of SAAW is tantamount to endorsing sexual assault. Second, any disagreement with any component of the SAAW agenda is deeply distressing to the victims of sexual assault and should therefore be regarded as unacceptable. Third, the organizers of SAAW own the podium for that week, and the presentation of views they don’t like is an unfair imposition on their program. Fourth, only those people with formal training in Rape Culture Theory are qualified to even discuss the issue.

Rather than offer these arguments in a calm, thoughtful way, SAAW supporters began a petition demanding that the University administration condemn Ted’s talk. Many students demanded that the colloquium be canceled. Blogs were full of nasty and threatening posts. If you can stand it, you can see some of the worst excesses here http://www.campusreform.org/blog/?ID=4722 and here http://trainsplanesbaseball.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/malignantly-dense-prof-lectures-against-sexual-assault-awareness/. The allegations in the latter post are entirely false. The local press reported that the campus was “outraged”, and all this before Ted even wrote the talk.

The university administration responded by stating unequivocally that they agreed with the SAAW organizers and were fully in support of their political agenda, but did at least acknowledge that Ted had a right to state his views. Nobody in the administration supported open discussion of this issue or dared question any aspect of the organizers’ radical agenda.

Ted proceeded with his talk to a crowd estimated at 800 people. His remarks were, as always, thoughtful, analytical and logical, and he received strong support from Prof. Heidi Savage, a feminist colleague and rape survivor who also believes that the issue of sexual assault should be subject to rational discussion and open to a variety of views. Hopefully, the furor will now die down, and Ted can get back to work. It was, however, a distressing episode for a long-service faculty member whose interest is in knowledge and not politics.

This kind of incident highlights a problem on college campuses today. Universities are supposed to be bastions of rationality and scholarship. Humanity’s body of knowledge expands precisely because different viewpoints are subjected to tests of logic and empiricism in university communities whose members are committed to the process, even though they disagree on the specific arguments. University departments have always been subject to internal political pressures. Faculty members are naturally inclined to hire new people who agree with them. By the same token, smart young academics often prefer to work with distinguished like-minded colleagues. The result is not always bad. The University of Chicago, for example, developed a distinctive view of economics based on the work of Milton Friedman, Friederich Hayek, Ronald Coase and others. The Chicago School, however, was still forced to argue its views against prominent economists from other equally prestigious universities with very different views. These conversations do get nasty and personal at times, but few university economists would support silencing their opponents.

The danger comes when everyone in a particular field at every major university in the country is in substantial agreement and they all then decide to translate their work into (at least in their view) positive and necessary political action. This situation can easily create a condition in which young scholars with different views can’t get hired anywhere, political solidarity becomes more important than intellectual integrity and people who disagree are assaulted by the collective with the intent to embarrass them, damage them professionally and ultimate force them to just shut up.

Most university fields of study have successfully avoided this situation. The hard sciences, engineering, medicine and most of the social sciences are still thriving in the US. The camel’s nose in the tent has been the multicultural movement, beginning with Black (now African-American) Studies, followed closely by Women’s or Gender Studies, Hispanic Studies and other similar departments. These fields are too often defined not by a field of study but by a particular political viewpoint. In many cases, the primary purpose of these departments was to meet self-imposed quotas for minority and female faculty. If the university could not attract sufficient qualified minority candidates into traditional fields of study, the “diversity” departments and their corresponding administrative staffs created additional slots. Almost by definition, most PhDs in these fields share powerful views not only about their fields of study, but about the political implications of their work.

To be sure, there is some very good work done in these departments, and there are excellent feminist and ethnic studies scholars who want their fields of study to establish and maintain high standards of academic integrity. Ted did receive some support from feminists in addition to Prof. Savage who support open inquiry even on “hot button” issues. These courageous scholars, however, are often fighting a losing battle against a dangerous alternative academic model in which political intensity substitutes for rigorous scholarship and in which dedication to common political objectives trumps any commitment to academic integrity. Often, other members of the university community are afraid to even raise these issues for fear of being labeled racist, sexist, homophobic or any of the other nasty epithets thrown around college campuses so easily these days.

I promised that I would bring this discussion back around to energy, so here goes. Environmental studies departments in the US are falling prey to these same political pressures. The environment is an excellent field of study where hard science can combine with economics and other disciplines to advance our understanding of how to deal with the very real and serious consequences of a globalized and growing industrial economy. In recent years, however, a dangerous level of agreement has developed, particularly on climate change. An uncomfortable number of environmental faculty members (including those trained in hard sciences) have made the transition from scholarship to political advocacy. They see this high level of agreement as evidence of the correctness of their views, but in reality we are seeing far more political solidarity than scholarship. As discussed in earlier posts, the constant refrain of more severe storms, more severe prolonged droughts and wildfires is seen not as a logical interpretation of the available data, but simply as an effective strategy for convincing people to accept severe carbon constraints. In too many cases, the academic rigor of climate science has simply fallen by the wayside under the pressure of political solidarity. In many other cases, dissenting scientists face the same nasty and dishonest treatment that so shocked my brother Ted.

University administrations too easily sign onto the full climate agenda as an expression of political correctness and show no interest in encouraging any discussion on campus of what is actually true. Whether or not the views of university administrators are sincerely held or not, it’s troubling that university administrators tell eighteen year old students in no uncertain terms that the climate change hypothesis has been proven correct and that further discussion of climate science and of the cost and trade-offs of carbon reduction is a damaging distraction from required political action. We need to resist strongly the conversion of our universities into political action committees.


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