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June 30, 2004 [feather]
University of Rhode Island endorses academic freedom

The University of Rhode Island has reached a decision regarding women's studies professor Donna Hughes' controversial web site. Readers will recall that URI administrators asked Hughes to remove two articles from her university web page after they drew threats of a libel suit from England. Readers will also recall that when, after more than six months, URI still had not decided what to do, the ACLU came to Hughes' defense. Yesterday, URI president Robert Carothers formally gave Hughes permission to re-post the articles on URI's web site:

Dear Dr. Hughes:

Thank you for your cooperation and patience as we have sought to work our way through the issues raised by a legal challenge to matters printed on your personal Web site, posted through the UniversityÌs Web site. This case has given us the opportunity to explore complex issues associated with the UniversityÌs relatively new policy on Web publishing and to develop procedures for implementing it. Your forbearance through all of this is greatly appreciated.

Consistent with the procedures I described in my June 11, 2004 memorandum, the General Counsel has reviewed the allegations that these publications are libelous. He has determined that while a prima facie case for libel might be made, there are adequate defenses against any legal action taken. Our conclusion is that your work as published in the articles in question is a part of a legitimate exchange of opinions between parties who disagree. It is therefore protected by the UniversityÌs firm commitment to academic freedom.

You are free to repost the articles in question at your convenience.


Robert L. Carothers

Fenster Moop has more.

Erin O'Connor, 10:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Cultivating scholars

In the current Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Hart Benton asks a probing question: "Is Grad School a Cult?" Benton is, not coincidentally, an English professor, and his question arises from his inside observation of the rigidly conformist culture that one so often finds, paradoxically, in programs aimed at training aspiring scholars. You'd think that graduate education for people who plan to be originators of ideas, posers of problems, askers of questions, and producers of new knowledge would emphasize qualities such as responsible creativity, intellectual independence, informed skepticism, and categorical refusal to be pressured--on any level--to adhere to the prefabricated intellectual and ideological tenets of any group. But Benton has noticed that this is not so, that graduate education (and I assume he is speaking most particularly about the humanities, where qualitative evaluation reigns supreme) often works by very different means, to very different ends.

Benton acknowledges that professionalization requires conformity to the procedural and analytical norms of a given field, and he acknowledges, too, via a series of sidelong smirks at his own idea, that there is something excessive about comparing grad school to a cult. At the same time, he finds the comparison useful enough to play it out at length:

For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. ...Ýgraduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.

It's not difficult for a casual researcher to gain entry into the bizarre world of cults and anticult activists. A quick Internet search will inevitably lead one to Steven Alan Hassan's online Freedom of Mind Center (see http://www.freedomofmind.com). Hassan was a member of the Unification Church, and he has become "America's leading expert on cults."
For anyone who has been in graduate school, numerous portions of Hassan's outline of the mind-control practices of cults will seem weirdly familiar. Reading through it, your initial tendency may be to laugh out loud. But proceed down the list and the parallels between cults and the experiences of many graduate students can become mildly disturbing.

Hassan calls his outline the "BITE Model," which stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotional control. Let's review a few of the traits of each category and see if any of them ring a bell.

Behavior control: "major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals"; "need to ask permission for major decisions"; "need to report thoughts, feelings, and activities to superiors."

Information control: "access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged (keep members so busy they don't have time to think)" and "extensive use of cult-generated information (newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.)."

Thought control: "need to internalize the group's doctrine as 'Truth' (black and white thinking; good vs. evil; us vs. them; inside vs. outside)" and "no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate."

Emotional control: "excessive use of guilt (identity guilt: not living up to your potential; social guilt; historical guilt)"; "phobia indoctrination (irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader's authority; cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group; shunning of leave takers; never a legitimate reason to leave)"; and "from the group's perspective, people who leave are 'weak,' 'undisciplined.'"

Are you experiencing some shock of recognition? I was particularly startled when I learned that recent college graduates are one of the groups most frequently targeted by cult recruiters.

In any case, I don't mean to claim seriously that the average graduate program in the humanities is a mind-control cult like the Raeleans (though many academics also aspire to clone themselves). You could just as easily apply Hassan's outline to the Marine Corps, the Mormons, or Microsoft.
Nevertheless, understanding the varied social experiences of graduate school (student culture as well as formal instruction) as a kind of cult helps to explain why so many people cannot be dissuaded from staying in school --Ýor working, year after year, as underpaid adjuncts --Ýwhen it is manifestly against their interests to do so, when they sincerely want to get out the academy but feel impeded by irrational fears.


Maybe thinking of graduate school as a "cult" is silly. What's the difference between indoctrination and professionalization, anyway?

Still, the semantic game seems worth playing when I talk with idealistic, vulnerable humanities majors who are about to complete their B.A.'s and have no idea what they are going to do with their lives. They have been flattered and encouraged by faculty members whom they respect, and who believe (as cult members do) that they are doing a good thing by recruiting young people for graduate school: "You're too smart to go into business, my child."

These students are reassured by the possibility of continuing life as they know it. They think it's easy to leave graduate school if they don't like it or the job market improves; they do not yet understand how their minds will be changed by the experience, how leaving grad school after two or more years can be at least as hard as leaving a cult. Undergraduate humanities majors need to know that they have other options. There are jobs out there for smart, creative people that don't expect you to sell your soul.

I think the cult comparison occurs as a matter of course to people who have thought critically about academic culture from within it. I've certainly contemplated it often enough. I think, too, that most people to whom this comparison occurs recognize it as the sort of exaggerated analogy that minds often deliver up to people whose circumstances render them chronically unable to communicate their realizations effectively to those they most want to reach.

Anyone who has made even a minor career of criticizing academe from within will be intimately familiar with the psychology I am describing here: If you say what you think in a public forum, you may encounter others of like mind, and you may even help people frame inchoate impressions into structured thoughts, but you are not at all likely to change anyone's mind, or to convince the people you really want to reach--the apologists and defenders and deniers who resolutely refuse to see--of anything at all. Those people will discount you as crazy, or manipulative, or dishonest (ad hominem being a proven, if unethical, method of disarming the academic enemy), and will dismiss your analyses as symptoms of your illness. The mind of the insider academic critic does not help things when it responds to this sort of dismissal by generating ever more shrill and shaky ideas. One might say that intellectual petulance is the hobgoblin of belittled minds.

Thomas Hart Benton knows his comparison is off the mark--that's why he satirizes it throughout his essay:

And hey, maybe treating graduate school as a kind of cult from which one needs help to escape might give rise to some unconventional new positions for all the unemployed Ph.D.'s.

Let's say a mother finds an application to Duke University's Ph.D. program in English under her daughter's mattress. Obviously the mother is devastated. If she does nothing, in a year her daughter will be dressed in black and sneering in obscure jargon at the Thanksgiving turkey and Aunt Sally's cranberry Jell-O mold. Where can a concerned parent turn for help?

To serve this need, former academics could reinvent themselves as counselors; they could coordinate interventions with the friends and loved ones of people who are flirting with graduate school, or who have been enrolled for several years but lack the will to leave, or who are trapped in dead-end adjunct positions. These "academic exit counselors" could foster the kind of loving, supportive environments that "academic captives" need to return to a normal life.

Of course, in some cases, tough love may be the only solution. And former graduate students and adjuncts could put together a traveling program for kids who still have time to turn themselves around. They could even make a documentary. It could be a nerdy version of Scared Straight: "You fancy-ass punks think you're so smart? You think you know something about hegemony? I got a Ph.D., 50 grand in student loans, and I clocked 20 years as an adjunct. Now I'm here to tell the truth to suckers like you."

Even as he practically announces the absurdity of his comparison, Benton goes ahead and makes the comparison anyway. It's an interesting move, and ultimately, I suspect, an honest one. If I read Benton right, he both knows he is a making an eminently mockable analogy and believes the analogy's mockability does not prevent it from being intellectually useful. Now the question is: Is it?

Comments are welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 7:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (24)

June 23, 2004 [feather]
Background checks

As the University of North Carolina debates whether to do criminal background checks on all incoming students, Baylor University has decided to run such checks on all student-athletes transferring to this school (additionally, all entering student-athletes will be required to provide character references). UNC is considering the new policy in light of recent events at the school: this spring two students who lied on their applications about whether they had criminal records murdered two other students. Baylor is motivated by similar concerns: last summer, a Baylor basketball player was shot to death; a teammate now awaits trial for murder. Both the alleged murderer and the victim were transfer students. Baylor's investigation of the crime also revealed an extremely dirty basketball program in which players did drugs while administrators looked the other way, failed drug tests that administrators never reported, and accepted payments in violation of NCAA rules. As part of its cleanup operation, Baylor has bid farewell to the corrupt coach who oversaw the program's infractions and who also attempted to interfere with the murder investigation.

Both the victim and the alleged murderer were black, as are most of Baylor's student athletes. The Baylor student body is mostly white. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2000, while less than five per cent of the Baylor student body was black, more than half the football and basketball teams were black; one out of four black men on Baylor's campus was a scholarship athlete. Singling out transferring athletes, most of whom will be black men, for background checks leaves Baylor wide open to the charge of discrimination--people may rightly suggest that the new rule is a way of allowing the school to single out for particular scrutiny black men who want to enroll at Baylor, that as such it presumes that black male students are predisposed to commit crimes, and that it thus amounts to a form of racial profiling. It would be both more politic and more rational to conduct such checks on all new students.

Erin O'Connor, 6:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

June 22, 2004 [feather]
What's wrong with this picture?

A group of faculty from the University of Florida has issued the following call for papers:

Call for Papers: Playing with Mother Nature: Video Games, Space, and Ecology

Editors Sidney I. Dobrin, Cathlena Martin, and Laurie Taylor seek proposals for a new collection of original articles that address the use and place of space and ecology in video games. This collection will examine video games in terms of the spaces they create and use, the metaphors of space on which they rely, and the ecologies that they create within those spaces. This collection will address the significant intersections in terms of how and why video games construct space and ecology as they do, and in terms of how those constructions shape conceptions of both space and ecology.

The editors seek proposals for innovative papers that explore the intersections between ecocriticism, theories of spatiality, and video games. Ecocriticism of video games straddles studying ecology as the Earth (or alternate world setting), nature, and land, while adding physical representation and experimentation through video game spaces and other technological spaces. These video games spaces create their own spatial practice through their representation and through the players' lived interaction with the gaming environments as constructed worlds. Video game spatial analysis comprises the created representation of space in the games, the players' experiences with those spaces, and the nuances by which those spaces are constructed and conveyed, including their portrayal of cultural norms for space and spatiality. In addition, the editors are looking for several papers that specifically address children's culture and education in terms of video games, space, and ecology.

Editors seek contributions which explore and initiate conversations using the triple lens of ecology, space, and video games about areas that may, but will not necessarily, pertain to:

* Role of imaginary space in video games
* Implications of Sojaís Thirdspace and other spatial theories on video games
* Artificial intelligence (AI) and artificial life (AL) and the creation of artificial ecologies
* Games specifically designed for education about ecological concerns, places, or uses (Oregon Trail, free online games)
* Over-all ecological educational/conceptual effect of video games
* Environment in video games and how it is constructed spatially and rhetorically
* Relationship of the players to the game worlds arenas, landscapes, cities, and worlds
* Rhetorical effect of nostalgic and romantic representations of nature
* How video games effect eco literacies
* Rhetorical effect of architecture and the creation of game spaces
* Function of utopian and dystopian World Constructions
* Creation of communities within artificial lands (often in MMORPGs, like Everquest homes and communities)
* Ecologies of play: evolutionary change and progression (powerups and enemy progression in relation to evolutionary models); cycle of life and death and the disruption of that cycle with re-play
* Game creatures / anthropomorphism; cyborgs / cloning
* Relationship of science and nature (control in games like Zoo Tycoon, science as a perversion of nature sci-fi games)
* Analysis of ecolological tropes: mastery or control of nature (SIMCITY and the natural disasters as the opponent; land as something to be controlled and colonized in Civilization)
* Cultural construction of nature (prevalence of post apocalyptic worlds in Japanese games like Final Fantasy)
* Virtual zoos viewing and capturing 'nature' (photographs of alien creatures in Beyond Good and Evil, capturing creatures in Pokemon)
* Intersections of eco-theories and visual rhetoric as portrayed in video games
* Historical representations of physical spaces and its relationship to the cultural definitions of those spaces (Battlefield 1942, Medal of Honor)

Some of the following questions may help in orienting essays, but they should not be limited by these questions:

* What role does the physical setting play in the plot of the video game is it interactive, is the space helpful, is the space important in terms of game play or game narrative, or is it just a blank space on which the game is played?
* How is nature represented in video games or a particular video game?
* For the symbolic construction of species, how do games define human and nonhuman?
* Are the values expressed in the video game consistent with ecologiocal wisdom?
* Do different genres treat nature in different ways that are consistent within those genres? Are there stereotypes within games that relate to nature?
* How are the nature and technology represented narratively and spatially in video games - what are the implications of this?

Notably absent from the questions above: "What does an essay collection on the ecology of video games have to do with the discipline of English?" and "Why is this study originating from within an English department?"

Hat tip: Jonathan Winkler

Erin O'Connor, 10:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (29)

Columbine moment

Last Friday, a twelve-year-old Virginia boy chose to commemorate the last day of school by expressing his anger at how other kids treated him. Outraged at how he had been teased about his weight, his glasses, and his clothes, he brought several guns with him to school. His mother, a school cafeteria worker who drove him to school that morning, saw the guns but did not ask her son about them. Later that day, the boy retrieved the guns from his mother's car. Dressed in full camouflage and wearing a red bandanna over his face, he walked into the principal's office with a loaded shotgun and ordered everyone to get down. They did.

While the boy roamed the halls of the school, the school went into lockdown and police were summoned, following nationwide procedures devised after the Columbine shootings. They stormed the building, and subdued the boy before anyone was hurt. Things could well have turned out differently: The boy and and several friends had been planning a violent takeover of the school, with the aim of hurting or even killing those who had been mean to them. But at the last minute, the boy's principal accomplice backed out and he was left to terrorize the school alone. The accomplice has since been charged with conspiracy to possess firearms on school property. The boy himself has been charged with possession of a firearm by a minor, use of a firearm in commission of a felony, conspiracy to commit abduction for money and conspiracy to commit murder. He is being held without bail. His mother, who did not know of the plot, has been charged with possession of a weapon on school property.

Stories like this one are becoming archetypal. We have heard so many of them by now; parallel episodes at other schools in other places are reported seemingly constantly in the papers. And some of the most influential narrators of our time are recognizing this. Say what you will about Michael Moore and his fast-and-looseness with facts in Bowling for Columbine, the man saw an archetypal story in the making, and in his film he made a powerful bid to be the guy who tells us what the archetype ultimately means.

Moore is not alone, though. Francine Prose, the novelist who brought us Blue Angel, a chilling tale of how so-called progressive campus policies on sexual harassment recreate a punitively neo-Puritanical campus culture, has recently turned to teen fiction in order to meditate on the Orwellian character of post-Columbine schools' safety measures. After is well worth reading, not for its literary value, but for its historical interest as a document seeking to comment constructively on how the phenomenon of school shootings is reshaping--and at points misshaping--the terms upon which kids today grow up.

Where Moore's film argues that America's love affair with guns predisposes disgruntled kids to try to solve their problems with guns, Prose's novel argues that the post-Columbine preventive measures instituted by schools across the country--the metal detectors, the random searches, the surveillance cameras, the pervasive atmosphere of distrust and suspicion--pose their own very real threat to kids' freedom and wellbeing.

Both Moore and Prose are seeking to shape an emerging, recurring pattern into some semblance of meaning. As mythmakers--and Moore is much more in the business of telling viscerally powerful stories than in making objective comments--both see in school shootings the outlines of an archetype for our moment. Both recognize that school shootings are fast becoming a defining event in our age, and both are, in the earnestly aggressive manner of the fabulists they are, eager to define what that event will come to mean to us. They are aware that above and beyond the practical problems schools face when confronted with preventing and managing violence, there looms the problem of what it all means--or, to be more precise, of what we are going to decide, collectively, that it means. What we say about school shootings, after all, says a lot about us.

I'm interested in readers' thoughts--on the Virginia case, on the larger phenomenon of school shootings, on the related phenomenon of school safety programs, and on the ways and means artists and commentators are working to frame our understanding of it all. Comments are welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 8:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)

June 21, 2004 [feather]
Entrance requirements

Should colleges conduct criminal background checks on new students? The University of North Carolina is considering doing just that after a two UNC-Wilmington students were killed by fellow students (one was shot to death by an ex-boyfriend, another was raped and strangled by a friend). Both murderers lied on their applications when asked whether they had criminal records, the one concealing a prior conviction for felony sexual assault, the other concealing a misdemeanor conviction for larceny. The question is being debated here.

Erin O'Connor, 7:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

June 18, 2004 [feather]
Offensive language

There is a very fun discussion at Blind Cave Fish and Sheila O'Malley's about words one hates. Not words that mean hateful things, necessarily, but words whose sheer phonetic misshapenness repels us. The lists are wonderful, full of both oddly idiosyncratic peeves ("the word 'scone' makes me uncomfortable," quoth one reader; others cite "moist" and "slacks") and widely held but hitherto unacknowledged ones ("dungarees," "cooch," "smegma"). Since this site so frequently deals with the topic of offensive language, it seems only appropriate to join in. I've made a very restrained list below. Readers are welcome to add their own. And when this game tires, we'll list our favorite words.

A short list of words I sincerely dislike, in no particular order:

downward dog (love the pose though)
pussy (I say this without reference to connotation: this word is a phonetic disaster, and would be hideous even if it only ever referred to actual cats)

Comments are open. Slainte.

Erin O'Connor, 5:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (41)

June 17, 2004 [feather]
Religious liberty 101

San Diego school administrators have engaged in viewpoint discrimination against a student, and now they are being sued for it.

Chase Harper, a sophomore in the Poway Unified School district, was offended when his school recently participated in the "Day of Silence," a national event sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. GLSEN describes Day of Silence as ìan annual, national student-led effort in which participants take a vow of silence to peacefully protest the discrimination and harassment faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in schools.î About 300,000 school kids participate in the event each year. According to Harper and his lawyers, the school sponsored the event and administrators worked with the Gay-Straight Alliance, a student group, to coordinate it.

To protest his school's promotion of a viewpoint he, as a Christian, finds immoral, Harper commemorated the Day of Silence by coming to school in a homemade t-shirt protesting homosexuality. The next day, he did so again, wearing a shirt bearing the words ìBe Ashamedî and ìOur School Embraced What God Has Condemnedî on the front, and reading ìHomosexuality is Shamefulî and ìRomans 1:27î on the back. That's when the trouble began.

Harper's Christian friends warned him to lose the shirt, but he wouldn't. When school administrators found out about it, they attempted to "counsel" him into taking it off. A vice principal advised him that, in Harper's words, ìWhen I come to school, I leave my faith in the car, and you should leave your faith in the car when it might offend others.î The principal initially told Harper that the problem was that he wore a homemade t-shirt to school, but he quickly came clean about what the real issue was: "It wouldnít have mattered whether it was homemade or not," Harper reports him saying. "Itís your viewpoint that youíre expressing on your T-shirt that is offensive and inflammatory.î When Harper refused to remove the shirt, he was suspended.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group dedicated to defending religious liberty, filed suit in federal court on June 2, alleging that Harper's First Amendment rights were violated when he was suspended for wearing a shirt that expressed his view that homosexuality is a sin. The ADF contends that when the school told Harper he was not allowed to bring his religious beliefs about homosexuality to school with him, it violated his constitutionally protected right to religious freedom.

It looks like the school's defense is going to be that the shirt was harassing, that it created an unsafe environment, and that it therefore was not protected speech. While the school is not commenting on the case, it has supplied the media with copies of its policies on "hate behavior," free speech, and acceptable dress. These, in turn, look like they may not be constitutional. Jordan Budd, the legal director for the San Diego ACLU, explained it to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Poway High's dress code, which is given to each student at the beginning of the year, states that unacceptable dress includes clothing that promotes or portrays "violence or hate behavior including derogatory connotations directed toward sexual identity."

The district's policy on freedom of speech and expression recognizes students' rights to express ideas and opinions through their speech, writing and clothing, but cautions against anything that would "incite students so as to create a clear and present danger .Ý.Ý. of unlawful acts .Ý.Ý. or of the substantial disruption (of school)."

Jordan Budd, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, said Harper's case may have merit. "The school district is not empowered to censor based on what they deem inflammatory, it has to be based on a constitutional standard."

As long as Chase's T-shirt did not substantially disrupt activities, he had a right to express his political or religious beliefs, said Budd. He said the T-shirt could not be construed as harassment because harassment has to be directed against a particular individual.

This one seems like a slam dunk. If a public school wants to get into the business of promoting certain political and ideological viewpoints--which it should not be doing, even in the name of tolerance--it should recognize that there will be some students who disagree with the school-sponsored party line. For the school not to grasp that it is out of line when it officially sponsors something like a Day of Silence, and for the school to compound that problem by punishing students who are unwilling to be herded into viewpoints that compromise their beliefs, shows either a lamentable lack of administrative savvy, a disturbing ignorance of the law, or a deplorable lack of ethics. Whatever the case, it seems clear that the school crossed the line when it told Harper that it would not tolerate his protest.

It is not necessary to agree with Harper, or to like the way he chose to express his views, to see that what the school did was wrong. The irony of the case--that the school's attempt to promote mutual tolerance was really nothing of the kind, that its so-called promotion of tolerance was in fact an attempt to impose belief--is so rich that it hardly needs stating.

UPDATE: Alex Carnevale disagrees with me, citing as his reason, "Homosexuality is not a sin. Period." But I am not arguing that homosexuality is a sin (not being a religious person, I don't think in terms of sin to begin with; more to the point, I don't have the least problem with same-sex attraction). What I am arguing: that Harper has a right to believe that homosexuality is sinful, and that he also has a right to express that belief.

Erin O'Connor, 8:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

June 16, 2004 [feather]
Virgin territory

An English university student is auctioning off his virginity. It looks like it will go for around $11,000 at the current exchange rate. That should help with the tuition, and then some: Bournemouth University costs £1125 per year.

Erin O'Connor, 8:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

June 15, 2004 [feather]
Bucknell Bias

Bucknell University is the scene of one of the more coordinated and even-handed movements to alert the public to bias on campus. The Bucknell Conservatives have worked tirelessly to alert all students on campus--not just conservative ones--to the manner in which Bucknell's speech code chills expression at the school as well as to how selectively school administrators enforce the code. They have documented ideological double standards in how the school enacts policies about who is invited to speak on campus. And they have even been featured in the New York Times Magazine as examples of the newer, cooler brand of conservatism that is sweeping the nation's campuses.

Now the Bucknell alumni are organizing as well. At Bucknell Bias, a site addressed explicitly but not exclusively to Bucknell alums, you can download video about political correctness at Bucknell. Recognizing that alumni donations are an important form of currency in the campus culture wars, the people at Bucknell Bias are asking that Bucknell alums take a moment to think about what their money actually supports. Check it out.

Erin O'Connor, 8:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

June 14, 2004 [feather]
Rhode Island update

Readers will recall the case of Donna Hughes, the University of Rhode Island women's studies professor who was asked to remove two articles from her university web page after they drew a libel complaint from a London law firm. The articles in question had both been published elsewhere; Hughes was offering copies of them on her URI-sponsored site in order to make them more accessible than they otherwise would be. Last fall, Hughes agreed to remove the pieces that drew the legal threat while URI administrators evaluated the situation. When they still had not completed their evaluation six months later, the ACLU stepped in in Hughes' defense. Debate about the URI situation was heated here at Critical Mass. You can read my posts and readers' comments here, here, and here.

URI's president, Robert Carothers, has now issued a policy statement designed to address the questions Hughes' case has raised about liability and university-based web publications. It's lengthy, but I'm reprinting it in full so that readers can trace the full train of URI's thinking. While Hughes continues to await a determination on her case, readers are welcome to peruse and comment on the policy statement that has arisen out of it.


Date: June 11, 2004

To: Frank Annunziato
Executive Director, URI AAUP

Faye Bartels
Chair, URI Faculty Senate

From: Robert L. Carothers

Subject: Policy on Personal Web Pages

Recently, the question has been raised regarding the Universityís policy on personal web pages and the consequences which may flow from the use or abuse of such pages. As defined in the University Manual, personal Web pages are ìWeb pages developed by students, faculty and staff and contain non-official information about the authors, including their backgrounds, interests and/or opinionsî (4.1). Section 4.2 continues:

ìResponsibilities: A personal Web page is the responsibility of its author rather than of the University. It can be hosted on any computer regardless of the machineís affiliation with the University. Every personal Web page stored on a University-owned computer or computer that depends upon University-owned communications for access must include the following disclaimer on its top-level Web pages: This personal Web page is not an official University of Rhode Island Web page. See disclaimer.

What this language means is that the University is not the publisher of these personal Web pages. Rather, it is a distributor of the pages and does not assume any responsibility for its contents.

All members of the University community are guaranteed the right of free speech and of academic freedom, both on constitutional grounds and on the basis of our policies and our collective bargaining agreements. For faculty members, the AAUP has been the champion of academic freedom, and the Board/University and the URI AAUP incorporated the language on this matter from the ì1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenureî into both policy and the collective bargain agreement between the parties. This freedom is a cornerstone of our values as an institution of higher learning. That freedom is not without restraints, however, as the final paragraph of Section 7.2 of our contract makes clear:

ìThe college or university teacher is a citizen, a member of a learned profession, and an officer of an educational institution. When he/she speaks or writes as a citizen, he/she should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but his/her special position in the community impose special obligations. As a person of learning and an educational officer, he/she should remember that the public may judge his/her profession and his/her institution by his/her utterances. Hence he/she should be at all times accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that he/she is not an institutional spokesperson.î

So it seems reasonably clear to me that consistent with our policies that a student, faculty or staff member may place on a personal Web page whatever content he or she wishes, provided that he/she makes it clear that the Web-page is not a publication of the University and that the University accepts no responsibility for that content. Both administrators and faculty members are also bound by the collective bargaining agreement and AAUP Principles to exercise all due diligence to ensure that the content of such a personal Web page is accurate, reflects restraint , and shows respect for the opinions of others.

This is not, however, the end of it. There is still the law, an ever-evolving set of rules and regulations for our conduct as citizens. The advent of the Web has raised a myriad of questions, since it is a form both of institutional publishing and of self-publishing that goes out instantly, world-wide. The most pressing problem to date has been the protection of intellectual propertiesópatents, copyrights, licenses and suchóand the most aggressive parties seeking new laws to regulate the activities of others are those in the music and entertainment industries. College campuses have been among the places most active in infringement of copyrights, and the challenge for colleges and universities has been to separate themselves from the liability that attaches to the illegal acts of members of the community, using the universitiesí computing systems. In the past few years, Congress recognized this problem and passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to protect the interests of both the holders of copyrights and the institutions wherein freelance infringements might occur.

There are no such statutory protections related to the common law torts of slander, libel or defamation distributed via the Web or by any other media. The textbook explanation of the responsibility of a distributor and publisher of defamatory matter can be found in Sections 578 and 581 of the Restatement, Torts2d.

A publisher is the originator of the libel, and one who repeats or otherwise republishes defamatory matter is subject to liability as if he or she had originally published it. A distributor, on the other hand, is one who only delivers or transmits defamatory matter published by a third person. However, a distributor can also be subject to liability if, but only if, he or she knows or has reason to know of its defamatory character. (Italics added)

The official comments to the text further provide the following explanation:

Each time that a libelous matter is communicated by a new person, a new publication has occurred which is a separate basis of tort liability.

Thus one who reprints and sells a libel already published by another becomes himself a publisher and is subject to liability to the same extent as if he had originally published it.

Subject to the [knowledge/notice] limitation, stated in ß 581, the same is true of one who merely circulates, distributes or hands on a libel already so published.

It is no defense that the second publisher names the author or original publisher of the libel.

Thus a newspaper is subject to liability if it republishes a defamatory statement, although it names the author and another newspaper in which the statement first appeared.

And remember that there is no First Amendment protection of libel or slander other than the conditional privilege applicable to public figures and officials. Even in such ìpublic figuresî cases, an injured plaintiff can prevail if he/she can establish the requisite malice. Of course the case law in this country, based on the First Amendment, is largely irrelevant if the claim is brought in a foreign court. Some of these foreign courts have asserted jurisdiction in libel claims based on where the injury is alleged to have occurred. Since a libelous statement on the Web is arguably published world-wide, plaintiffs can do what is called ìvenue shoppingî for the court most sympathetic to their claims.

The facts in the case we have been discussing recently might be described as follows: a faculty member at URI publishes on his/her personal website article(s) in a highly controversial area of scholarship. (If the matter ended there, we would not be having this discussion since the controversial nature of an issue plays no role in the equation.) However, persons living outside of America claim that the publication is mere polemics and contains libelous statements which have injured them personally. The professor at URI believes that he/she has an absolute right to publish his/her articles containing these statements on his/her personal Web site, which he/she asserts are not libelous. The persons living in another country--on the face of it researchers at a foreign university (or universities)--claim that the existence of the article(s) and statements on the URI faculty memberís personal Web siteóin their view published by the University of Rhode Island--libel them and constitute an infringement on their academic freedom as well. Their attorney gives notice to the University of their claims and states that their clients are prepared to file suit in a foreign court to get a judgment against the University. As indicated in the discussion above, once we are given such notice, our continuing distribution of material which may later be determined defamatory can expose URI to the same liability as the original publisher, even under American law. The fact that these issues may be determined in some foreign jurisdiction applying foreign law can only increase that exposure.

So what should be our policy? On the core issue of academic freedom to publish, consistent with the language of the 1940 AAUP Principles, we are completely clear. URI must not and will not prevent any member of this community from writing and publishing their scholarship and opinions. But are we, as an institution, to become the publisher of those writings? Our Manual policy intends to erect a firewall between what is published on personal web sites and the University itself. Were these publications found on official University Web sites, the University would be required to exercise due care to prevent libelous statements. But it is neither desirable nor practical, from a policy viewpoint, to expect the University to do so on personal Web sites. Were the Manualís firewall able to stand in the face of legal challenges, our worries as an institution would be largely over. That would make the student, faculty member or staff individually responsible for the content of the personal Web site, as our Manual policy seeks to do. But it is unlikely that the law will let us escape so easily.

Let us think of it generally in this way: as the AAUP language affirms, faculty are ìofficers of an educational institutionî and agents of the University when they act within the scope of their employment. Publishing in refereed journals, for example, is an action for which they are employed and therefore within the scope of their employment. Publishing their opinion in the local newspaper is protected from any interference or reprisal from the University, but when a faculty member does so, he/she is not acting as an agent of the University but as an individual for whose actions the University takes no responsibility. Publishing on a University-based personal Web page is a protected activity, but it may or may not be an act within the scope of a faculty memberís employment, depending on the facts determined on a case-by-case basis.

My conclusion regarding this very interesting question is, therefore, that the publication of writings and opinions of individual employees on personal Web pages as defined and described in the University Manual are protected from interference by the University. When employees are writing and publishing on these individual Web pages, they are generally not agents of the University, and their actions lie outside the scope of their employment with the University.

When the University is given legal notice of an alleged libel, however, the Universityís General Counsel will access the publication in question to make a prima facie determination as to whether it is reasonable to believe that a libel has occurred. If in his/her best judgment there is no basis for the claim, we will so advise the complainant and maintain the publication. If there is a prima facie case for libel apparent, we will so advise the employee and attempt to reach a resolution that is acceptable to both the employee and the institution. If that fails, the Universityís General Counsel will make a recommendation to the President.

In unusual or exceptional cases, the President may also convene a panel to consist of the employee, the Universityís General Counsel, and a representative from the AAUP, the Faculty Senate, and the Office of the Provost. It will be the charge of this panel to review the issues raised and attempt to facilitate an appropriate resolution and response. This panel shall have no authority to respond on behalf of the University or to impose a resolution on the employee. However, the panel shall provide appropriate input to the President that it feels should be taken into consideration in rendering a decision regarding the maintenance of the publication. The decision of the President shall be final.

C: Judge Frank Caprio, Chairman of the Board
Commissioner Jack Warner
Provost Beverly Swan
General Counsel Lou Saccoccio

Scholars have very legitimate reasons for wanting to use the web to reproduce their scholarly work. They get wider dissemination of their ideas that way, particularly if their work originally appeared in a paper publication without a web presence. They can also disseminate their work more quickly via the web than via traditional scholarly publications, which can often take a year or two to get an article into print. In fields like Hughes', where timeliness of publication is of the essence, and where policymakers want access to the most current research, that's essential. Hughes had good academic reasons for wanting to make her work available on her university website.

URI's concerns about liability don't dovetail all that neatly with the scholarly interests cited above, and the lip service paid in the statement to academic freedom and case-by-case evaluation don't inspire confidence that URI is interested in being a defender of its faculty's right--some would say obligation--to attempt to reach a wider public than one can typically reach with peer-reviewed journals published at a snail's pace for tiny audiences of specialists.

URI has said to Donna Hughes that the case against her has no merit--but the school is nonetheless framing a policy more centered on protecting itself from lawsuits (even spurious ones) than on defending the free inquiry and free expression of its faculty. That's both understandable and sad. It remains to be seen whether URI will decide to support Donna Hughes against a potential libel action that it has already said, off the record at least, is groundless. I don't think anyone would argue that URI--or any other university--should have to defend libelous statements made on its servers. The question is what URI will do when material published on its servers is accused of libel. Donna Hughes' case will be a defining one.

It may well be that URI is within its rights to frame a policy about the web pages it hosts in the way it has here. It may also be that those members of URI's faculty who wish to make their scholarship available to the world can do so most effectively via self-purchased commercial webspace. It will be up to the University of Rhode Island to decide whether that is or is not a shamefully self-discrediting outcome of its new policy. That, in turn, will depend on how URI enacts that policy, and on what criteria come into play, behind closed doors, when libel threats are assessed on the case by case basis outlined above.

Erin O'Connor, 11:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

June 10, 2004 [feather]
In other news...

So I go to Google News, and I type in "teacher" as a search term. The top six stories are:

Three Teens Plead Guilty to Plotting to Kill Middle School Teacher

Teacher Accused of Viewing Porn in Class

Teacher Accused of Sex With Students

McKinley Students Accused of Trying to Poison Male Teacher (this is not the same murder plot as the one cited in the first story--that one involved a gun)

Death of Elderly Somner Co. Teacher Ruled Homicide

Music Teacher Faces Sex Abuse Charges (this is not the same teacher sex abuse case cited above--this one does not involve the teacher's students, but does involve child porn)

I hate to think what I would have pulled up if I had actually been looking for teacher-centered crime.

Erin O'Connor, 9:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Speaking out at SUNY Brockport

Breaking news in the effort to eliminate speech codes on campus:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) announces the fourth lawsuit in its campaign to rid public campuses of repressive and unconstitutional speech codes. The federal lawsuit was filed June 3 against the State University of New York College at Brockport (SUNY Brockport), in upstate New York, on behalf of students Patricia Simpson and Robert Wojick. The two students seek to overturn policies that violate their rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The suit was filed in federal court in Buffalo, New York, by three pro bono FIRE Legal Network attorneys: Robert A. Goodman and Elizabeth A. Wells, both of the law firm of Arnold & Porter in New York City, and Amherst, New York, attorney David R. Koepsell.

"Oppressive speech codes such at those at SUNY Brockport have no place on Americaís college campuses," said Greg Lukianoff, FIREís director of legal and public advocacy. "Not only does SUNY Brockport tell students what not to say, it actually tells them what they must say and even what they must think. A free society does not tolerate such Orwellian horrors," he continued. "The defeat of this speech codeóand of all other unconstitutional speech codes at public universitiesóis inevitable. FIRE will not stop until students' rights are vindicated and the rights and values of a free people are restored."

The speech code at SUNY Brockport bans expression that is clearly constitutionally protected. The collegeís harassment policy, which applies to students and faculty, lists the following among examples of harassment: "cartoons that depict religious figures in compromising situations"; "calling someone an 'old bag'"; "jokesÖmaking fun of any protected group"; and even merely "discussing sexual activities." "Administrators at SUNY Brockport must have read the First Amendment to some other nation's constitution," Lukianoff added.

SUNY Brockport's regulations have been used to chill the speech and to threaten punishment of the plaintiffs in the case. The Brockport College Republicans, to which plaintiffs Patricia Simpson and Robert Wojick belong, were twice targeted for the content of their expression in the last year. In October 2003, the group passed out a pamphlet that jokingly urged people to "Bring Back the Blacklist" for liberal celebrities. The College Republicans were confronted by an angry faculty member who called the pamphlet "offensive" and demanded they stop the pamphleteering. Fearing punishment under the college's speech code, they halted distribution. Then, in February of 2004, the College Republicans distributed a flier that exhorted members of the college community to "End Liberal Indoctrination on Campus." Yet another faculty member declared the flier "harassment" and demanded that the group either be denied funding or be shut down altogether.

Read the entire FIRE press release here, read the Associated Press here, and consult the FIRE case archive for information about prior suits against the speech codes at Citrus College (settled successfully out of court), Texas Tech (ongoing), and Shippensburg (a resounding victory posted last January). To learn more about speech codes at colleges and universities across the country, check out speechcodes.org.

Erin O'Connor, 7:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)

June 9, 2004 [feather]
When a teacher goes too far

For a number of years now, Dan Wieden, the man who came up with Nike's "Just Do It" campaign, has taught a journalism course at the University of Oregon. This year, he thought it would be a good idea to give students an assignment in which they were forced to confront and overcome fear. Things unravelled from there, as one might expect. It's a bad idea to mix consciousness-raising and classroom teaching. It's a particularly bad idea for a teacher to tell students that they have to expose themselves emotionally in order to earn a good grade. Wieden may have had the best of intentions, but he crossed the line between teacher and therapist with this one, and the fallout was predictably ugly.

News reports are a little foggy on what the assignment actually was. Some suggest that Wieden quite seriously expected students to do the exact activities he suggested they do, while others suggest that when Wieden made these suggestions, he was speaking metaphorically. Today's Chronicle of Higher Education notes that both Wieden and the dean were surprised that students took Wieden literally when he told them to go streaking, stand up and object at a wedding, and come out to one's parents. "The assignment was not to do these things but to prepare a creative presentation," the dean of journalism told The Chronicle.

But Wieden's students did take him literally. The student assigned to run naked in public did just that, filming himself, per the assignment, streaking across a private golf course and, not unimportantly, thereby breaking the law. Other students merely agonized about being given assignments that they felt would compromise them morally, and worried about what would happen to their grades when they failed to complete the tasks required of them.

Eventually, complaints made their way to the dean, and now the university is apologizing profusely for putting students in the position of having to choose between doing homework that either broke the law or compromised them personally, and receiving a failing grade for an assignment they failed to complete. "It is clear that some students found themselves in a position that resulted in behaviors that are inconsistent with the mission, ethics, values, and vision of the School of Journalism and Communication and the University of Oregon," the dean of the journalism school told The Chronicle of Higher Education. "I should never have been exposed to a learning environment where the instructor seemingly took advantage of his authority for his own amusement at the expense of the students," declared one member of the class.

That's true. But there seems to be some question about whether that's really what Wieden was doing. Other members of the class readily understood what was being asked of them, and creatively modified the assignments in ways that suited them personally.

The University of Oregon is apologizing up and down for not making the assignment more clear. That's fine as far as it goes. But it also ignores what seem to me to be two crucially important underlying issues: Wieden's confusion of the classroom with a group therapy session, and the disturbingly blunted powers of comprehension displayed by some of his students. Neither will be addressed by promises to make things more clear in future; both will, in fact, be encouraged.

Erin O'Connor, 9:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)

June 8, 2004 [feather]
History for fun

Random Penseur is compiling a list of history books, historical novels, and biographies that meet two essential criteria: they are well written, and one does not need to have a lot of prior background in order to enjoy them. I thought I'd add to the list, and I invite readers to do the same in the comments.

Kevin Kearns, Dublin Tenement Life: I picked this up in a used bookstore in London last year, and devoured it with great pleasure. It's a richly illustrated, totally unassuming oral history of Dublin tenement culture, one that contains numerous firsthand accounts of life in the early twentieth-century Dublin slums.

Tony Horwitz: Confederates in the Attic: excellent social history of contemporary Southern ways and means of remembering--or forgetting--the Confederacy.

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory: riveting account of how World War I reshaped Western consciousness, with special emphasis on the life and literature of the trenches.

Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute: the little known and phenomenally interesting story of how it was that early nineteenth-century medical schools secured the right to dissect the dead.

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce: the mother of all literary biographies. Simply a stupendous piece of work.

Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde: some of Ellmann's claims and some of his research have been disputed, but this is nevertheless a magisterial and highly readable account of Wilde, one that quite movingly gets at the man behind the epigrammatic facade.

Leon Edel, Henry James: okay to use the abridged version. It's still 700 pages long.

Victoria Glendinning: Trollope. Better than his novels, and yet very like them.

Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: charts the complicated and often pathological marriages of five Victorian couples--the Carlyles, the Dickenses, the J. S. Mills, the Ruskins, and the George Henry Leweses (of George Eliot fame).

Peter Ackroyd, Dickens: if Dickens had written his own biography, it would read like this and it would be this long.

Historical Fiction:
Peter Quinn, Banished Children of Eve: I read this last week, despite the lurid title. It's an excellently researched novel set in New York City in 1863, during the period immediately preceding the draft riots. Lots of great local color, especially for those interested in Irish immigrant life in old New York, which I am.

Annie Proulx, That Old Ace in the Hole: with the exception of the awful Accordian Crimes, Proulx isn't usually thought of as a historical novelist. But she is very much one. Her best work (I would include Close Range: Wyoming Stories in this category) sets out quite self consciously to document dying ways of western American life and to draw meaningful connections between the present moment in which the fiction is set and the past whose traces it contains. That Old Ace in the Hole is a wonderful evocation of the decaying ranch culture of the Texas panhandle.

Roddy Doyle, A Star Called Henry: magical realism set during the era of the Irish Civil War. Beautifully written, entirely unforgettable.

Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever: Barrett has made a career out of writing meticulously researched stories about nineteenth-century science. One of a kind.

A.S. Byatt, Angels & Insects: Barrett draws a lot of inspiration from Byatt, who in turn owes a lot to George Eliot (but that's another post).

Charles Palliser, The Quincunx: this is the novel of nineteenth-century London that Dickens wishes he wrote, but did not. Don't start it unless you are prepared to be hijacked by it. Totally addictive.

In other news, Mandalei has launched an online reading group dedicated to The Iliad. The immediate motivation: her strong impression that no one in Troy had actually bothered to read Homer as preparation for making the film.

Erin O'Connor, 11:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (40)

June 5, 2004 [feather]
No go for NAACP

Last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education defended the Advocates of Conservative Thought, a would-be student group at the University of Miami, after the group was denied recognition by the Committee on Student Organizations. The university took the position that one conservative student group was enough, and that since there was already a College Republicans chapter on campus, and since there was already a political forum on campus (the Council for Democracy), there was no need for this new group to form. FIRE successfully defended the group's associative rights, demonstrating not only that the mission of the group differed substantially from those of the College Republicans and Council for Democracy, but pointing out, far more fundamentally, that UM had no business making viewpoint a criterion for assessing the viability of prospective student groups. FIRE additionally noted that there are numerous liberal student groups on campus and urged UM not to impose a politically-oriented double standard on student groups. UM president Donna Shalala agreed, and ordered ACT to be recognized.

Now an intriguingly analogous case has arisen at Catholic University of America, where a group of students proposing to open a campus chapter of the NAACP has had their request denied. The university says that the proposed NAACP chapter would be redundant, as there are already two black student groups on campus. The university also says that the NAACP's recent support of a pro-choice rally reflects views that are not consistent with those of the school, and that therefore a campus chapter is out of the question. The NAACP does not have a formal position on abortion, and the students who sought to open the chapter say they wanted to do so in order to promote voter registration, not reproductive rights; they even pledged not to use the group as a forum for advocating choice. No go.

Catholic University of America, as a private institution, does have the right to engage in viewpoint discrimination when it comes to deciding what student groups it will and will not allow. At the same time, its reasoning in this case seems more than a little shameful, and more than a little spurious. It is as insulting to black students as it is to conservative students to tell them that all their associative interests and needs can be served by one or two groups (for the record, there are no other civil rights groups on campus--so the NAACP would hardly be redundant). It is also disappointing to see the university refuse to recognize an active, interested, engaged group of students simply because the organization with which they wish to affiliate themselves has supported the rights of others to express views the school does not like (picture a school refusing to recognize a campus chapter of the ACLU because the ACLU has been known to support the KKK's rights to free speech).

Worth noting: Georgetown, which is also Catholic, has an NAACP chapter.

The NAACP is threatening to sue.

Hat tip: intrepid reader and commenter Stolypin

Erin O'Connor, 3:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (25)

From URI's president

Critical Mass reader Ken Menzel wrote to University of Rhode Island president Robert Carothers to ask him what's up with the university's unwillingness to tell Donna Hughes whether she can or cannot re-post on her faculty website two articles that drew a letter of legal threat from a UK-based law firm last October. Usually when university presidents get letters of this sort, they send template responses that say nothing in reply. Carothers, however, offered a bit more than that. Here is what he wrote:

... The professor here is free to put anything on her personal website she chooses. The real issue is whether the University will indemnify an employee against a libel judgement in a foreign court, particularly should that court determine that the act is an intentional tort. The plantiff's counsel has put us on notice that they will allege that this is an intentional act. There is no insurance coverage for intentional injuries, and whether we think the claim is justified or not, people are venue shopping around the planet for courts that will make such determinations. For example, in England, where this action would be filed, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to prove that the plaintiff's claim is false, as opposed to the USA, where the burden falls upon the plaintiff to prove that the statement is libelous and that damage has been incurred.

The University already has a policy statement regarding personal websites on the University's larger website, disclaiming responsibility for the content. This was designed chiefly to protect us against students who might be infringing on music copyrights, etc. The current issue is one we had not really contemplated, and we will need to do some work on that policy to balance our corporate interests and our commitment to free speech.


In a subsequent email, Carothers informed Menzel that he did not learn of the Hughes case until last week (presumably he found out about it when the ACLU wrote to him about it).

Readers with legal training are particularly invited to comment.

UPDATE 6/7/04: The Chronicle of Higher Education has picked up the story. Subscription only, unfortunately.

Erin O'Connor, 2:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

June 4, 2004 [feather]
More on URI

Yesterday's post on censorship at the University of Rhode Island drew a number of comments, ranging from outrage to legal analysis to speculation about Hughes' politics to denial that there is any issue at all.

As I stated yesterday, my position is that the content of Donna Hughes' work is irrelevant at this particular point: What matters is that the University of Rhode Island has allowed a legal threat to trump its stated commitment to free and open inquiry, as well as its legal obligation as a state school to protect the expressive rights of faculty and students (those who argue that web hosting is not included in those obligations are both right and wrong--if the university offers no web hosting to any faculty, then it does not have the obligation to offer web space to Donna Hughes; but if URI, like every other respectable institution of higher education in the country, offers free web space to faculty for the express purpose of publishing their professional activities, then the university cannot make content-based decisions to refuse to allow legitimate, published work to be posted on its servers. The university has no obligation to permit professors to publish defamatory material on their sites--but there is no proof that this is what Hughes did. The university does, however, have an obligation to treat faculty web pages as an expressive domain where academic freedom and First Amendment rights apply.)

I do have some more information about Hughes' case for interested readers. First, one of the two articles that drew the legal threat is available on line. "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing" appeared in National Review in October 2002. The piece is harshly critical of an upcoming conference on sex trafficking, and singles out several of the scheduled presenters--not, however, by name--as apologists for a practice the author deplores. The second piece is the talk Hughes gave at that same conference. It is not online now that URI won't let her post it, but it is published and you can read it in Vital Speeches of the Day, January 1, 2003, Vol. 69, Iss. 6, pp. 182-183.

Hughes' talk explains everything:

... a man who is a suspected trafficker-in fact, he is on Interpolís watch list-was listed as a presenter at this conference. Another speaker-a woman, who was known to have been detained by police on suspicion of falsifying documents for trafficked women-was on the program. When some of us saw these suspected criminals passing themselves off as anti-trafficking activists, we decided to blow the whistle on them. Thankfully, they are no longer speakers or participants at this conference. In addition, a number of people in this room contacted the government of Bangladesh to tell them that a suspected trafficker was working as an Anti-Trafficking Advisor for the Ministry of Women and Children. Iím happy to tell you that Bangladesh has run him out of the country.

I make no apology for being contentious or for exposing wolves in sheepís clothing. I donít believe he should have been a speaker at this conference, although I know he has supporters here.

The man Hughes had bounced from the conference--the one she does not name but does accuse of being a (suspected) trafficking wolf in activist's clothing--was one of the people behind the letter URI received.

So let's review the facts. Hughes called an unnamed "suspected trafficker" a "suspected trafficker." Everything she wrote at National Review and said at the conference was previously published in London's Sunday Times or
The Independent (UK) or Canada's Macleans or the St. Louis Post
. Hughes blew the whistle on a "suspected trafficker" at the Hawaii
conference. He was uninvited and did not attend.

She then placed the two published articles on her web site at URI, at which point two people threatened to sue URI and Hughes herself if they weren't removed. According to Hughes, URI administrators say they don't think the case has any merit at all, but they are afraid of the cost of defending it in the UK. They have told her that directly on more than one occasion.

So, the issue is: can a university prevent a member of its faculty from placing controversial published work on the university web site? Can it force a faculty member to remove that work if it is threatened? Can the university refuse to defend Hughes? Can it, in other words, get out of its own indemnification policy? These are issues that go to the heart of academic and intellectual freedom, and they affect all academics--no matter what their views, no matter what their politics.

Meanwhile, Hughes has three options. She could continue to wait for URI to give her a straight answer--which I don't think she is likely to get anytime soon, ACLU involvement notwithstanding. She could put the disputed articles back up on her university website and force the university's hand. Or she could post her articles on a non-university website that she pays for and maintains herself. If she were to choose this last option, she could link to the disputed articles from her university site. Or, she could simply move all her online materials to her own, privately hosted site and have done with URI's machinations. That might not be the most satisfying solution when it comes to principle, but it would be very satisfying indeed from a pragmatic standpoint.

Would the "suspected trafficker" still try to sue Hughes if she separated herself from the university's deep pockets? There's only one way to find that out.

Erin O'Connor, 8:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)

Not making the grade

There are 80,000 third graders in New York City. 11,700 of them scored well below grade-level on either their math or English assessment tests. Once all the appealing and the summer schooling is over with, 10,000 of them will probably be held back for another year in third grade. There's lots of controversy about it all, and the New York Times rehearses a lot of it. But the bottom line is that more than 12% of the third graders in New York City can't read, can't do basic math, or can't do either one.

Erin O'Connor, 7:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

June 3, 2004 [feather]
The secret lives of teachers

Dave Eggers offers a heartbreaking work of staggering support for increasing teachers' salaries in the current Mother Jones:

As a nation, we're confused about how we see teachers. Most polls show that respect for the profession has risen in recent years, yet we have certain quietly entrenched ideasóthat teaching is easy, that teachers get out at 3 p.m. every dayóand these notions, all ludicrous, allow us to accept the injustice in teachers' dismally low salaries. We love teachers, we think they're saints, but most of us consider unavoidable the fact that they are underpaid and often have to work two or three extra jobs to maintain a middle-class existence.

The latest statistics put the average teacher's salary at about $46,000; some teachers earn a little more, some a little less (the average teacher's salaryónot the starting salaryóis $38,000 in Kansas, $36,000 in New Mexico, and $32,000 in South Dakota). Overall, that's about the same that we pay pile-driver operators ($45,980) and about $8,000 less than the average elevator repairman pulls down. Meanwhile, a San Francisco dockworker makes about $115,000, while the clerk who logs shipping records into the longshoreman's computer makes $136,000.

The first step to creating an education system full of the best teachers we can find is to pay them in line with their importance to their communities. We pay orthodontists an average of $350,000, and no one would say that their impact on the lives of kids is greater than a teacher's. But it seems difficult for everyone, from parents to politicians, to shake free of a tradition in which teaching was seen as something of a volunteer project for women whose husbands brought home the real money. Today's teachers need to, but very often can't, support a family on their salaries. They find it difficult or impossible to buy homes, to save money, to live comfortably, and, in wealthier areas, to live in or near the towns where they teach.

I vividly remember, while growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the '70s, knowing that my sixth-grade math teacher was alsoóeven during the school yearóa licensed and active travel agent, and I recall seeing a number of my high-school teachers, all with master's degrees or Ph.D.'s, painting houses and cutting lawns during the summer. This kind of thing still happens all over the country, and it's a disgrace. When teachers are forced to tend the yards of students' homes, to clean houses, or to sell stereos on nights and weekends, the quality of education is diminished, the profession is disrespected, and we parody the notion that we hold our schools and teachers in the highest regard. Teachers with two and three jobs are tired, their families are frustrated, and the students they teach, who want toóand shouldóconsider their instructors exalted figures, learn instead to think of teaching as a part-time gig, the day job for the guy who sells Game Boys at Circuit City.

Read the article. What follows Eggers' short manifesto is a number of personal anecdotes from working teachers who clean houses, mow lawns, sell stereo equipment, and deliver newspapers in order not only to make ends meet, but to provide their students with the things the school district should provide but does not--supplies and adequate food.

Hat tip: Amardeep Singh

Erin O'Connor, 10:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (49)

June 2, 2004 [feather]
Censorship at the University of Rhode Island

A press release from the ACLU alerts us to the University of Rhode Island's failure to defend the academic freedom--and First Amendment rights--of one of its faculty members:

The ACLU of RI has called on URI President Robert Carothers to intervene and correct "a very disturbing issue of academic censorship" at the University. It involves Women's Studies Professor Donna Hughes, an expert on the international trafficking of women and children.

Last October, prompted by a London law firm's letter threatening a defamation suit against URI and Professor Hughes, university officials removed from her university website two articles she had written in her area of expertise. At the time, the professor reluctantly agreed to the action because URI officials indicated that the removal was a temporary measure while they examined the legal ramifications of the threat. Seven months later, however, the articles still have not been reposted.

In a letter sent yesterday to President Carothers, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown expressed concern about both the University's censorship and the "lackadaisical manner" in which the matter has been handled. Following the initial "temporary" removal of the article, Professor Hughes heard nothing further from the university until March, when she advised the school's legal counsel, Louis Saccoccio, of her intent to repost the articles. Mr. Saccoccio responded that Professor Hughes could not publish her work using the university's resources "until a final decision has been made on this issue." No decision has been forthcoming. Thus, said the ACLU's Brown in his letter, "some seven months after this incident first arose, two articles written by a distinguished professor remain censored by the University."

Calling the ramifications "enormous," Brown's letter noted the great cost to URI "when it allows the mere threat of an action by an individual overseas to result in removal of speech of public importance on the university's web site. The University's failure to quickly deal with this threat to academic freedom sends an extremely poor message to Professor Hughes's colleagues and the institution as a whole. In an age when so much information is transmitted, read, researched and stored electronically, the University's unilateral decision to remove the articles and force Professor Hughes to fend for herself if she wishes to defend her academic work is extremely troubling."

The ACLU's letter concluded by urging Carothers to "reverse course and show support for academic freedom by agreeing to represent Professor Hughes should any action be taken against her. Only in this way can the true mission of the University be fulfilled."

Professor Hughes said today: "Academic freedom is essential to my work on sexual slavery and exploitation of women and children. My scholarly work includes researching and writing about organized crime, corruption, and harmful government policies. The University of Rhode Island's capitulation to intimidation threatens the progress of my work and the work of other scholars in the future." Dr. Frank Annunziato, executive director of the URI Chapter of the AAUP, added: "Professor Hughes is one of the leaders in the fight against the trafficking of women and children. This University should extend to Professor Hughes, and to the women and children whose horrible lives she is struggling to bring to the light of day, all the support necessary for her work to succeed."

As long as the administration at the University of Rhode Island is willing to suppress the scholarship of anyone whose work attracts the litigious bluster of anyone else anywhere in the world, and until the URI administration develops some reasonable procedures for dealing with legal threats of the sort Hughes attracted, URI will be doing far more to damage the pursuit of truth than to uphold it. Parents, students, faculty, trustees, taxpayers, and state legislators should all understand this about the school.

Here's to URI getting embarrassed enough by bad publicity to do something other than censor controversial faculty work by way of eternal cowardly deferral.

If the spirit of freedom--or outrage--moves you, you might want to write a reasoned, civil note to URI President Robert Carothers. The ACLU already did so, and you can read it online here.

Erin O'Connor, 8:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (20)

Going the extra mile and then some

As school districts across the country shut down rural schools, more and more students are finding that their lives are becoming defined by hellacious commutes--it's common for kids in rural school districts to spend upwards of 90 minutes on the bus each way, each day. The New York Times profiles one of the toughest bus routes in the country:

BLANDING, Utah, May 22 ó The sky is still dark over the canyon lands of southeastern Utah at 5:30 a.m., but two dozen Navajo students are already preparing for school. Their bus driver, William Mustache, is circling his yellow rig, checking the running lights before setting out through the backcountry dawn to fetch them.

Lasting nearly two hours, Mr. Mustache's route is one of the longest, dustiest, most bone-rattling school bus rides in the nation.

Bouncing its way along the washboard roads of the Navajo reservation and a two-lane blacktop north to Lyman Middle School and San Juan High School in Blanding, a 67-mile trip, Mr. Mustache's 24-seater rattles the students mercilessly and kicks up a dust cloud that showers them with a powder of red clay.

The dust- and rattlefest conclude a few minutes before 8, when the bus arrives at the school just in time for morning classes. The whole routine is repeated in reverse later that afternoon:

At 3:30 p.m., students gathered outside Mr. Mustache's bus for the ride home. Weariness prevailed. Even before the bus was out of town, half the students were asleep. Some cradled their heads in their arms. One boy lay on the seat, his feet splayed in the aisle. Watson, Mr. Mustache's son, was curled in a fetal position on a rear seat. Nobody was doing homework.

"A bus is just not a good environment for study," said Douglas Wright, the district superintendent. Utah educators have not tried to calculate the effect of bus rides on student achievement, Mr. Wright said. "But there's definitely going to be an impact when a student loses four hours out of his day," he said. "Some students who ride the bus do extremely well. Others don't."

Danaman said he struggled to complete homework aboard the bus. He reads, but has given up trying to complete written assignments amid all the dust and rattling, he said.

"Teachers kept saying they were too sloppy," he said.

Students stared in boredom at the bus's shadow, racing through the roadside pinion bushes. One boy drew pictures on his arm.

Needless to say, kids who spend four hours a day on the bus are not only going to be losing sleep and study time, but will also be deprived of the chance to play a sport or pursue some other after-school activity, such as acting in the school play or working on the school newspaper or singing in the chorus or joining the debate team. One bus rider--the one who has stopped trying to do his homework on the bus--rises at 5 am so that he can get in a two mile run and a few minutes at the piano before the bus comes. Most aren't as proactive about ensuring that their four hour commute doesn't totally define, drain, and impoverish their days. It's easier to sleep or to kill time by drawing on your arm.

The NYT reports that the bus routes just keep getting longer in states where rural schools are closing--kids in Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Ohio have all been hit hard--and that commute time for students has become a political issue:

The West Virginia Legislature shelved action this year on a bill limiting bus rides to 30 minutes for elementary school students and an hour for high school students. Long bus rides persuade many students to drop out, advocates for children say.

It makes sense that the action was shelved. Unless you open new schools, find a way to board rural kids in town, or figure out how to apparate kids to school Harry Potter-style, this is one problem that isn't going to be readily solved.

Erin O'Connor, 10:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

June 1, 2004 [feather]
Don't know much about history

In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, Princeton professor Theodore Rabb reflects on the role the No Child Left Behind Act is playing in guaranteeing the continued decline in students' interest in and understanding of the past:

Anyone who has taught history to college students for more than 40 years, as I have, has watched a steady decline in the background they bring to the subject. Increasingly, their studies have been geared to contemporary issues like global interactions rather than a sustained immersion in the rich variety of the past.

Why has this happened? To a large degree, it is a byproduct of schools' new commitments --Ýclasses in character education, conflict resolution, or international holidays; the move from Western Civilization to global studies, which concentrate on the recent past --Ýaccelerated by students' growing attention to sports, community service, and other nonacademic interests. The results, as shown by the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests are dismal.

Appalled by what has happened to historical literacy, three years ago Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia persuaded his colleagues in Congress to support a program, Teaching American History, to enable school districts around the country to enhance teachers' knowledge and skills, refresh curricula, and in general improve history instruction. That was certainly a promising move, but it is now being undermined by another Washington initiative: the No Child Left Behind Act.


No Child Left Behind is draining academic substance out of the classroom. Increasingly, Americans are being taught skills, not content; they are being trained, not educated.

Here, I would argue, is the most insidious effect of the law: not its financial, pedagogic, or constitutional shortcomings, but its devastation of subjects other than reading and math in the first eight grades.

That outcome is clear and widespread. Because so much money is at stake, school districts are shifting primary- and secondary-school class hours to reading and math, the only subjects tested by the law. The Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit group founded in the 1950s to shore up democracy through quality public education, has documented the change, as has testimony from states as diverse as Indiana, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, and Tennessee. In response to a survey I conducted in New Jersey, one superintendent reported: "We have double periods of mathematics and language arts each day in grades 3-6, and sometimes only three periods a week of social studies and science." "When extra practice time is needed for test-taking strategies," another superintendent notes, "it is taken from social studies or science classes." A gathering of superintendents in January told me that 90-minute social-studies classes are regularly cut in half or even by two-thirds, while reading and math gobble up the time.

The consequences a few years hence are predictable: a further (possibly precipitous) drop in students' familiarity with their heritage. Denuded of history in the first eight grades, how can they possibly redress the balance in high school, when new subjects and activities clamor for attention, and one-year classes are forced to scamper through the entirety of state, U.S., or world history?

Rabb sees NCLB as the latest in a long series of educational mistakes that have together worked to erode the quality of K-12 education in the U.S. He also sees that erosion as something that, quite logically, compromises college education at even the most elite schools.

Critiques of K-12 education and critiques of higher education don't take one another into account as often as they should. Critics of higher education in particular are often working in a bit of a vacuum when it comes to assessing why the curriculum looks like it does, what students do and don't know, how college coursework follows from high school and prepares for the workplace, and so on. (The common assumption on the part of college teachers, for example, that people arrive at college awash in conservative ignorance, and that the job of college teachers is thus to "enlighten" their students politically, shows a remarkable ignorance of the prevailing liberalism of K-12 curricula, especially in public schools.) Rabb's essay stops short of drawing out the implications of NCLB for college teachers and college students, but it does open the door for that discussion to take place.

Erin O'Connor, 12:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Conspicuously consuming the Ph.D.

Grant McCracken, whose scholarly work sits at the crossroads of economics and anthropology, speculates on why so many people keep going to graduate school when they know there are nowhere near enough academic jobs to accommodate them:

I think itís possible (and without the ethnographic work, I am just speculating) that some people take Ph.D.s that will never bring them academic employment with the full knowledge that it will never bring them academic employment. There are two possible reasons.

First, I think that people raised in the humanities and social sciences in the post modernist regime created by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, are inclined to see the world outside the university as unrelieved by the possibility of interest, hope, curiosity, surprise or engagement. (And here, in too telegraphic summary, is why: the postmodernists say that we canít generalize about the world because our analytic categories are unstable, but, whew, we donít have to because it is all about power. [And you thought I was cynical.]) This is perhaps a Stiglerian ìefficiencyî we have not thought about. The value of the degree is not the employment it is supposed to bring. It is its short-term prolongation of protected status.

Second, I think itís possible (and now I am entirely out on a limb, but surely thatís what blogging is for) that people take Ph.D.s is order to ìspikeî their careers. Once you have a degree in an exalted field (from, one hopes, an exalted school) and no employment, you have established grounds for an act of world repudiation. You can now claim to be worthy of higher things, to have be refused those higher things, to have been forced to retire from the world, and that you are now entitled to nurse, cultivate, and frequently vent an dystopic view. The world has done you wrong. You have replied by withdrawing from it, and no one can blame you. In sum, the value of the degree is that it allows you to disengage from the world with full justification.

Letís go back to the intersection of anthro and econ. Economics goes looking for the actorís rationality, the pursuit of advantage. This is almost always the smart thing to do, and anthropology does it too rarelyÖas if Adam Smithís assumptions are peculiar to our culture and should never be exported in the study of other cultures. Anthropology goes looking for the ways in which people build and embrace ideas about the world. It cares about behavior that is purposive because it makes the world make sense.

And thatís I think whatís going on here. This apparently irrational moment of consumer behavior, the purchase of a Ph.D. that will not bring employment, is actually knowing and deliberate. It is an act of self and world construction. It allows the individual to make certain claims to identity. It allows them to build and to occupy a certain understanding of the world.

I've written a lot about the need to make sure that people who want to go to grad school in the humanities know what they are getting into. So have lots and lots of other bloggers. What gets discussed less, but what is well worth discussing, is what it means when people make informed decisions to go anyway. The usual explanations for that seemingly counterintuitive decision tend to revolve around issues of intellectual dedication and real-world escapism: idealists say they are going to grad school anyway because they love the life of the mind and they simply must pursue it by way of graduate work, whether there is a job at the end or not; cynics say that's the logic of someone who is too young, too inexperienced, and too impressed by the faux glamour of the ivory tower to realize that a) intellectual life goes on outside the academy, possibly even at a greater pace than it does inside it; and b) idealism in this as in so many things is not self-sacrificingly noble, but cynically self-serving.

McCracken's reflections sidestep the deeply worn grooves of this much-traversed topic by focussing on the Ph.D. not as a professional credential, but as certification for inhabiting the world in a particular (naively disengaged? terminally disgruntled?) way. Looked at that way, the degree is as useful if it doesn't lead to academic employment as it is if it does. Looked at McCracken's way, the degree is a kind of affective license, a lifelong permit to make certain kinds of pronouncements about the world, and to excuse--even dignify--behavioral patterns that tend not to result in the most stable, secure, or happy lives. McCracken's analysis may look cynical on the surface--but it may be more accurate to say that McCracken is proposing that the pursuit of the Ph.D., at least in the humanities and softer social sciences, is itself a deeply cynical act.

I don't think there's much debate that the academic labor crisis is turning academe's youth culture into a culture of cynicism. My hunch is, too, that the affective cynicism that pervades young scholars' sense of their positions bleeds into their attitude toward their work, affecting the topics they choose to study, the kinds of arguments they are interested in making, the nature of their commitment to their work, and so on. I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on this; anecdotes are more than welcome.

Erin O'Connor, 10:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (23)