Saturday, January 9, 2016

At Missouri, Humanities Professors Support a Communications Professor; at Yale, Science Professors Support a Sociology and Psychology Professor

   What induces professors to sign letters of support for their colleagues  who are under attack? I was under public attack a few years back, and although few actual faculty members attacked me (the Chancellor being  an exception,  while chairing a faculty senate meeting and sitting fifteen feet away from me), none publicly supported me either, and I sensed an atmosphere of fear of public opinion. A couple of recent cases provide interesting data. Roughly speaking, at Missouri  faculty from the humanities supported a colleague under attack, and at Yale faculty from the sciences did, both with a few exceptions from other fields. What is interesting is that of the 116 Missouri signers, 84 were from humanities departments and just 4 were from science departments, while of the 90 Yale signers, 41 were from science departments and 6 from the humanities (all from language or music departments). I excluded psychology from science, but added math and computer science, and did the best I could for Yale to decide which professors in the medical school were scientists.

    Missouri had 0 signers from economics, 0 from the business school and 1 from law. Yale had 3 from economics,  11 from the business school, and 1 from law.  The Missouri professor was in communications and journalism (5 signers) and the Yale professors were in psychology and sociology (18 signers).

   I need to add a caveat for Yale. I am Yale Class of 1980 and was disappointed that only 49 faculty had signed. I emailed the organizer, and he said the letter was not widely circulated--- that, for example, Anthony Kronman was the only person he knew in the law school--- although about half the signers signed after the news media report. I emailed 4 professors in economics and 12 in the law school whom I thought might sign. 1 from economics and 2 from law did. I didn’t include those people in my numbers above.  Five non-signers emailed back with reasons for not signing--- 2 with a policy of never signing open letters and such, 1 who was concerned about what the word “racist” means and about  possible background context he wasn’t aware of, and 1 who as a judge felt he shouldn't sign (Guido Calabresi, whom I remembered arguing with about flag-burning ordinances back in 1992).  Various others emailed back with pleasantries but didn't talk about whether they'd sign or not.  The 3 who signed emailed back on reading my email saying "of course".  Also, at Yale, 1 math signer was prompted by an email from a geometer friend of mine at Indiana who heard my story. 

 69 of the Missouri signers were women (59%), including 19 of the 32 non-humanities signers (also 59%).  22 of the Yale signers were women (24%), including 11 of the 49 non-science signers (22%), so there seems to be a gender difference independent of the departments. At Missouri the professor was a woman; at Yale it was a married couple.  

   The question is why the two letters had such dramatically different types of signers. It may be differing ethical principles in different fields concerning what is punishable behavior in a professor--- see below for the contexts. A second possibility is social networks: that few professors sign letters unless they are personally asked to sign. A third possibility is a mix of the first two:  that the signers are recruited by a few ringleaders who are motivated by principle, but those ringleaders are only found in certain kinds of departments.

   A  test of which forces are at work would be to ask professors who did not sign whether they did not know about the letter and if they did, whether they agreed with it but didn’t want to sign for other reasons.  The third possibility suggests a test. It would be supported if after the initial signers come clusters of signers from unrepresented departments.  

      It would of course be interesting to discover that the humanities and the sciences have such different beliefs, the first explanation. It would also be interesting, however, if the second explanation dominates, because that  implies a big separation in the social networks of the humanities and the sciences. It is not surprising that professors would know people in their own department best, but this would suggest that they actually are interdisciplinary.

And what of the absence of law and of economics? These are both fields intimately connected with  public policy. Law schools, moreover, are notably leftwing,


  At the University of Missouri  assistant professor of communications and journalism  Click threatened a student journalist for trying to interview student protestors. The Daily Caller reports some of the interaction thus:

“You need to get out,” Click told Shierbecker in the video, which you can watch below.

“No, I don’t,” Shierbecker said, prompting Click to grab his camera and shake it.

“Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” Click shouted to the crowd. “I need some muscle over here.”

The implied threat would seem to be simple assault, since it was a threat to use unwanted illegal touching. I don’t know what crime it is to grab a person’s camera. In any case, there was no prosecution, and now  some 120 Missouri legislators have sent a letter to the university asking that she be fired.  In response, 116 professors signed a letter of support for Click (my boldface):  

   Click was part of a group of faculty, staff, and students who temporarily sought to block journalists’ access to the students who had been protesting the administration’s handling of racial incidents on campus. Click subsequently issued a statement apologizing for her role in the incident, saying, “I regret the language and strategies I used, and sincerely apologize to the MU campus community, and journalists at large, for my behavior, and also for the way my actions have shifted attention away from the students' campaign for justice.”...

Some of the coverage has focused on the issues raised by the tension between the rights of the press and those of the protesters, and we welcome discussion of these issues, believing that fostering such discussion is one of the roles of a public research university such as the University of Missouri...

We believe that Click has been wronged in the media by those who have attacked her personally and have called for her dismissal. We affirm our support of her as a colleague, a teacher, and a scholar, and we call upon the University to defend her first amendment rights of protest and her freedom to act as a private citizen.

     It  makes for an interesting contrast with the faculty letter of support for a professor in the Christakis affair at Yale. After heavy-handed Administration advice on which kinds of Halloween costumes were appropriate, students complained to Erika Christakis, who sent students a memo saying that she thought the administration’s Large protests followed against her and  her husband, the Master of Silliman, a residential college (that is, a fancy dormitory in which faculty as well as students live). The President of Yale, after some time, weakly opposed calls for the removal of the Christakises in an email to Silliman students and supported the protesters in other statements.  49 professors (later rising to 90) signed a letter of support for the Christakises, saying:

One can differ with her suggestion that administrative bodies should not play such an oversight role at Yale, but the suggestion itself clearly does not constitute support for racist expressions. We are deeply troubled that this modest attempt to ask people to consider the issue of self-monitoring vs. bureaucratic supervision has been misinterpreted, and in some cases recklessly distorted, as support for racist speech; and hence as justification for demanding the resignation of our colleagues from their posts at Silliman.

Note: Originally I wrote that I persuaded 3 law professors, but actually it's 2.

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