Vile, Stupid, and Tenured

I rarely praise university administrators, but then, I rarely have the opportunity to do so. For once, an opportunity presents itself:

The provost did not mince her words about the opinions of a professor on her campus. His views were racist, sexist and homophobic, she wrote in a statement this week. They were “vile and stupid,” she said, and “more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st.”

But the provost, Lauren Robel of Indiana University Bloomington, was equally clear on another point: The First Amendment prohibited the university from firing the professor, Eric Rasmusen, for expressing those views. “That is not a close call,” wrote Professor Robel, who also teaches at the law school.

The unusually candid statement quickly drew attention from students, academics and lawyers, many of whom praised the provost for publicly excoriating the professor’s opinions while respecting one of the nation’s basic freedoms.

For once, a provost who’s struck the right balance between bureaucratic amoralism and opportunistic, pseudo-moralistic pandering. She’s absolutely right: firing Rasmusen is not a close call; neither is condemning him. The only close call is whether he should have been hired in the first place, but that ship has sailed.

And yet, while I agree with both the style and substance of Robel’s comments, a few issues come up in the article that deserve independent comment, having to do with the uninformed moral zealotry that seems to animate a lot of college students nowadays, on all sides of the political spectrum. Students who profess to be physically afraid of the likes of Lisa Durden, Williamjames Hoffer, Eric Rasmusen, or the BDS movement are simply bullshitting us, or trying to. They, and the pseudo-therapeutic appeal to “safety” they keep relying on, should be called out for the obvious fraud that it is.*

Consider some of the student responses to Rasmusen at IU, as reported by the Times:

Still, some students said Indiana University should take further action, and accused its leaders of hiding behind the First Amendment to protect the professor.

On campus on Friday, students were still talking about the controversy, even as many packed up for a week of vacation that runs through Thanksgiving. Selena Drake, a senior studying law and public policy, said she understood that speech needed to be protected, but argued that the provost’s denunciation did little to protect students.

“Her expressing her concerns doesn’t really do anything for us,” said Ms. Drake, 22. She said Professor Rasmusen’s public posts alone were enough to make his classroom a hostile environment for female, gay and black students.

How is invoking the First Amendment hiding behind it? Against what do these students have to be “protected”? To what more, exactly, are they entitled from a university administration over and above what IU’s administration has already done? The answers to this short answer quiz are: it isn’t, nothing, and nothing.

Yes, Rasmusen is an asshole. The world is full of assholes. Unless a student has a specific, verifiable complaint to make against Rasmusen’s in-class conduct, Drake’s demands here are just entitled foot stamping. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to students of this ilk that there are times when students make the classroom a hostile environment (especially the most vulnerable faculty members, adjuncts; consider the Lisa Durden case I mentioned above). When they do, there is rarely a remedy for it on the instructor’s part except to grin and bear the conduct of the little assholes. Message to students: if we can do it, you can do it. Welcome to the real world.

But the claim itself is a fraud. In fact, the provost had done something for them. They just wanted to insist that it wasn’t enough:

The provost agreed, and said the university had altered its policies to allow students to transfer out of Professor Rasmusen’s class and ensure that no one will have to take it to satisfy degree requirements. The university will also make Professor Rasmusen grade student assignments without knowing whose they are, in an attempt to dispel fears that his “expressed biases would infect his perceptions of their work.”

If a student reads the professor’s opinions “and has effectively been told, ‘You don’t belong here,’ I don’t want those students to have to take a course from this man,” Professor Robel said, adding that she did not want students to feel forced to carry “an unfair backpack of bigotry into a classroom.”

I agree completely with Robel. I particularly applaud the anonymous review policy. But let me change the subject a bit.

Has it occurred to these students that professors sometimes get students they don’t want in class? How about the student who goes around calling his classmates “niggers” and “bitches”? Or the student who never shows up for class, then sends an email that asks, “Did I miss anything”? Or the student who systematically files frivolous grade appeals? Or the student who won’t stop texting, or won’t shut up when someone else is talking, or comes into class an hour late and demands to be marked “present”? Has it occurred to any of these demanders-of-more-from-the-university that a lot of university classrooms are filled with a lot of warm but not altogether sentient bodies that shouldn’t be there? It’s not as though we can tell the registrar that we don’t want them in our sections. Where I teach, as a de facto matter, we can’t even prevent them from registering over the enrollment cap for a given section because it would be “perfect for my schedule.” Why do students think they get such a raw deal if they can transfer out of an instructor’s class and bypass it as a requirement, but faculty can’t transfer problematic students out and bypass them?

For people who love to go around “OK boomering” the rest of the world, there are times when today’s woke students really just sound like people of any generation whose verbal behavior seems driven by a large stick up the ass:

“It sucks having to do the whole cancel-culture thing,” Ms. Okland, 23, said. “But nothing will happen unless he gets all this internet flak, and the school does. It’s the weird pull of, you kind of have to post about things like that.”

Yeah. That’s why I just have to post this.

Response: Give him all the internet flak you want. But why does the school deserve any? What crime have they committed but to bend over backwards to protect you from even the smallest hint of malfeasance on his part? In attacking “the school,” such students are, objectively speaking, attacking tenure. Easy enough for them. Not so easy for the rest of us. And a real failure of moral imagination, to boot. By the way, if students think Rasmusen is bad as a professor, what do they think it’s like to have to deal with him as a colleague? The average student will be rid of Rasmusen in four or so years. Not the average faculty member.

The irony is that I teach at a non-tenure-granting institution. Nominally, I’m on a three year review. Nominally, I’m also on a one-year renewable contract. But de jure, the Employee Handbook tells us in no uncertain terms that we are employees at-will. We can be fired for any reason or none, with none given when we are. I could get fired for writing this post because I could get fired for anything. That has never stopped me and never will. Only one thing can. But a challenge to anyone who thinks it easy to pull off: try it sometime.

Just a little reality check: untenured faculty run a gauntlet that none of these students ever face. No one kicks them out of school for failing one quiz, or cheating on one paper, or smoking one joint, or for one violation of the alcohol policy. Untenured faculty get fired for a lot less than that. You want something to complain about? Become an academic. But until then, dial it back and deal.


*As someone who’s commented repeatedly on the Parkland shooting, and taught in the West Bank, I’m the last person to deny that educational institutions face actual, lethal threats. And as someone who sympathizes with Antifa, I’m a fan of “cancel culture.” My point is that people don’t become “threats” to anyone’s safety simply because they say things that make other people “uncomfortable” or even frighten them. Fear is not always reasonable. When it isn’t, the people to be blamed for their unreasonability (or even cowardice) are those with the unreasonable fears, not those alleged to have “provoked” them, even when the would-be provokers have false, offensive, even delusional views.

10 thoughts on “Vile, Stupid, and Tenured

  1. Auburn’s student newspaper has been going through a month of similar go-around over the opinions of a tenured professor in the College of Ed, Bruce Murray. Dr. Murray has been dropping loosely-formed conservative turds — mostly on the subject of sexual morality and Religious Right politics — on his personal Facebook timeline, and on the op-ed page of the local (city) paper, for decades. (He was one of the regular cast of characters that I would quarrel with in the OA news letters page 20 years ago about Roy Moore and gay rights in Alabama and the like.)

    Anyway, the Editor-in-Chief of the campus newspaper found his Facebook posts and OA News letters and made it the centerpiece of a long article including some explicit calls from students for Murray to be disciplined or fired; the next week featured Murray’s attempt at a self-defense, multiple open letters signed by dozens of his faculty colleagues (1, 2, 3) condemning homophobia and transphobia, and condemning Murray’s comments as homophobic and transphobic and expressing warm support for LGBTQ students on campus, and another letter from a faculty member stating that Murray’s homophobic speech does not qualify for protection as freedom of speech or of expression (TO BE CLEAR, the other faculty letters did not make any such claim); this week there’s been another round of contention.

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    • Reading some of that, it occurs to me in that I may have overstated some of what I said in the original post about students’ fears. Or rather, not acknowledged sufficiently that there are cases and there are cases.

      The LGBTQ students quoted in the Auburn articles have legitimate fears that I don’t mean to belittle. And I can see how the fears trace back, indirectly, to Murray; he’s encouraging the bigots who produce the fear. That said, I wouldn’t entirely take back what I said, either. Far too many students see an opportunity for sheer disruption and drama in claiming to fear things that just aren’t that scary. It just isn’t plausible (to me) to believe that Lisa Durden is so very frightening that white people in her vicinity should be afraid for their lives because of her, or that Williamjames Hoffer is a white supremacist who might cause (or even unwittingly encourage) physical harm to black students at Seton Hall, or that BDS is somehow in league with “terrorists,” and should inspire the same kind of fear as would an armed cadre from Islamic Jihad. But that’s how people talk about all three cases. Something similar has started to happen with Antifa: the name is thrown around with this sense of fear and loathing, as though all that Antifa ever did was beat people up or blow things up.

      In the IU case, I can understand some apprehension produced by Rasmusen’s tweets, but not the accusation that students live in an atmosphere of fear that’s gotten nothing but indifference from the university. Southern Indiana is, to be fair, a pretty right-wing place, so I’m not saying apprehension is completely unfounded.

      The Auburn case seems to be different from all of the preceding. (I’m mostly referring here to the first article, in your first link.) It really does sound as though there’s a live undercurrent of genuinely menacing homophobia and transphobia over there (down there), at least among students–maybe in town, as well–and that Murray’s views fan the flames. On the other hand, the views themselves, however offensive, are not overtly (or even implicitly) threatening. In this case, it’s not the students I find exasperating, but people of this sort:

      David Virtue, a professor and department head of the College of Education, referred The Plainsman to the previously mentioned section of the Faculty Handbook when asked if he was disturbed by what some students said are homophobic and transphobic remarks by Murray on his Facebook page and in letters to the Opelika-Auburn News.

      “I won’t comment on personal matters related to my faculty,” Virtue said.

      Virtue said the College of Education “needs to be a place where we can come together and talk about what it means to be supportive of students wherever they come from, whatever identities they bring to the classroom.”

      “If we’re coming at it from very different perspectives, [I hope] that we can feel safe getting those ideas and debating those ideas and not people or parties, but rather ideas,” Virtue said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

      These are such classic, exasperating academic-bureaucratic evasions. He’s asked a straightforward question that he turns into a mysterious guessing game for no apparent reason. “Are you disturbed by these comments?” Well, er…hey, look at the Faculty Handbook! “Right, but are you disturbed by them? What’s your comment on them?” Oh, well I can’t comment on personal matters. “Yeah, but it’s not so much a personal matter; we’re talking about a comment intended for public consumption and comment.”* That seems to be his cue to start singing “Come Together” and dance the “safety” dance. “[I hope] that we can feel safe getting those ideas and debating those ideas and not people or parties, but rather ideas.” Such piety–the audacity of hope in action. Can’t people have ideas about people or parties?

      This is the kind of thing that drives me insane. What is it that induces these people to talk like this? Is it a virus? A bacterium? “A lot of work to be done,” my ass. That’s exactly what he’s not doing.

      In that context, I actually understand the students’ fears. Faced with a moral situation that requires straightforward condemnation, you can count on so many of these bureaucrats to hit the moral equivalent of Esc. And his bloody name is “Virtue,” no less. You couldn’t make it up.

      *He may well have said “personnel matter,” but it’s not really one of those, either.

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      • Only meaning to explain, without meaning to excuse, I think that Professor Virtue’s way of talking about things may be even more of a bureau-semantic vacuum than you might normally expect from academic bureaucracy because in context, he’s Bruce Murray’s immediate supervisor (the article kind of bobbles on explaining this, but the reason they’re talking to him is that he is Head of the Dept. of Curriculum and Teaching, which is Murray’s Department within the College of Ed), and Murray is apparently coming up for review for promotion (he’s had tenure for decades, and is currently an Associate Professor; so I assume the bump would be to full Professor). This is likely to elevate the basic terror structure of any University bureaucrat, since a positive decision on the promotion might lead to any negative comments being thrown back in his face in a backlash of bad publicity, whereas a negative decision on the promotion might lead to any negative comments becoming Exhibit A in a temper tantrum by Murray, or his supporters, or possibly even in litigation, etc.

        I would note that the Associate Dean of the College (Theresa McCormick), who under most circumstances would be positioned to be an even more opaque Bureaucratese speaker than the department Head, does have a much better and more straightforward response, along the lines of the Not Even Close comments by Robel in the IU case.

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        • I actually thought the article did a not-bad job of describing the overall situation; at any rate, I understood it. Still, that doesn’t excuse, and if the Associate Dean could say what she said, so could Virtue.

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        • The Auburn case seems to be different from all of the preceding. (I’m mostly referring here to the first article, in your first link.) It really does sound as though there’s a live undercurrent of genuinely menacing homophobia and transphobia over there (down there), at least among students–maybe in town, as well–and that Murray’s views fan the flames.

          This is something that I honestly struggle not to get too melodramatic or Uncle Grandpa about, because from my point of view, while it’s true that LGBTQ folks have all kinds of crap to deal with in Alabama, and some genuinely nasty stuff to deal with on campus, I also have been on campus — and out on campus, and an officer for Spectrum’s predecessor organization AGLA — at different times over the course of 20 years now, and I think the difference between the climate on campus 20 years ago and the climate on campus today is just night-and-day different, and very much for the better, across every front.

          Despite the gaseous emanations from Professor Virtue in the article, the actual environment on campus is much better characterized by networks of support for queer students are just much larger along every dimension: over 100 faculty members signed open statements of support; peer support through Spectrum is an order of magnitude larger and better organized; we have numerous public events every year including Pride and a regular drag show at local businesses that everybody knows about; student counseling and student life services are very supportive; the upper administration mostly stick to diversity platitudes — but I don’t expect much more out of administrators and they don’t now do much of anything to hinder the students, faculty, and student services that do provide constant, active, expansive support for a far more open environment on campus than what used to exist.

          Without wanting to minimize how much nasty jokes can be hurtful, can create a hurtful climate, etc. I would argue that in day-to-day life on campus — at least what I’ve seen of it — views like Murray’s, which used to be the entrenched views of a powerful culture at Auburn within my own living memory (I could tell stories about much worse than nasty remarks from frat boys before class), have now become really very marginal. I’m glad they have done, and the overwhelming response to Murray’s comments from the larger campus community is itself evidence of a powerful and very positive change in the state of affairs; but for precisely that reason it’s also something that makes it very hard to take seriously claims like Nate Hardy’s that “Murray’s homophobic speech is quantifiably harmful to the LGBTQIA community in that LGBTQIA students are more likely to be bullied in school. […] Excusing Murray’s hate speech as free speech [sic] only affirms that we value LGBTQIA students less than we value straight white men,” etc., or the claims directly reported in the article that Bruce Murray’s employment at Auburn University is per se a danger to queer students’ ability to participate in college life. I don’t have any kind words to say about Bruce Murray, or any complaints about his idiotic stuff getting roasted, but if someone is looking for prejudice plus power here, the power is really notably lacking, and the real story here is one where I’d like to see at least a bit more willingness to recognize a clear win where it has happened.

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