Tag Archives: Butler University

Abuse of Power

In many ways the naiveté of youth still clings to me. I was reared to respect authority and to trust those whom society placed in power over me. As skeptical experience wears away at this ancient veneer, I have become more retrospective of the whole enterprise of the social experiment. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read The Call of the Wild after all.

A few months back I wrote a post supporting a student at Butler University, Jess Zimmerman, who was being sued by the university for perceived slights against the administration on his anonymous blog. That post has forged a connection between Jess and myself, although I’ve never met him. That connection is one of justice and fairness, traits that should, above all, be upheld by institutions of higher learning. In an email last night, Jess updated me on his situation. The lawsuit has been dropped (my thanks to all of you who signed the electronic petition through this blog), but the recriminations continue. The details are available on Jess’ blog, but the short version is that in order to have a fair trial the university had placed him under a $100,000 bond. I am saddened, but not surprised, by this abuse of power.

Over the past several months I have wearily retrod this familiar path. I too have been the victim of institutional power in an episode that haunts me to this day. In slow motion I watch and rewatch men “in authority” dismantling the hopes and aspirations of a neophyte academic who was left wondering, like a dog, why he was being beaten so. There is no action to take. There is no club to wield. The only thing required is to be aware of the situation. Although I shouldn’t have done it, I did read Jack London’s Call of the Wild. And it is my hope that young students unfairly targeted, like Jess, have the resilience of Buck and will remember their pasts when they come to lead their companions in forging a better world.

What Are They So Afraid of?

I just had an email from a friend whose son is being sued. By the university he attends. The story was covered in Inside Higher Ed, and although I do not know the ins-and-outs of the episode, it reflects poorly on the state of higher education in this country. The student’s stepmother was dismissed from a chair in the Butler University Music Department and he blogged about it, feeling the dismissal was unfair. I am not privy to the details of the dismissal, but I am intimately acquainted with the ensuing scenario. When the student’s identity was learned, his father, my friend, did not have his contract as Dean renewed. The legal suit, claiming defamation, is still pending.

What saddens me perhaps the most, apart from the obvious social justice issues, is the breadth of such retaliation in institutions of higher education. Having once lost a position in higher education “without cause” shortly after making a principled stand against what I understood to be prejudice, I am particularly sensitive to how schools that have money to hire high-powered lawyers seem to have no difficulty in turning on anyone who criticizes or disagrees with official policy. Isn’t that what higher education is all about? I don’t agree with my colleagues on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean I want them fired! We hand out and we take in.

If it were simply coincidence that I found a single colleague who also faced punitive action from a school for a perceived slight, I might be persuaded that it was an accident of tragedies — two unlikely victims sharing a prison cell. But no, the evidence has been building for some time. During my last years at Nashotah House I taught as an adjunct instructor at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A faculty search had stalled in the Philosophy and Religion Department and I was local and willing. I was present to watch as two colleagues (the remainder of the small department) were dismissed (denied tenure and forced out) after having been critical of some administrative decisions. They were among four faculty so targeted, and I watched them go with worry increasing in my gut. “Gag orders all around!” No one was permitted to discuss what was really happening.

It was the next year that I was terminated. After moving to New Jersey, I attended a professional conference (SBL, for those of you in the loop) in San Diego. It was probably not unlikely that the person next to me on the plane was also headed to the same conference since it was a 6 a.m. economy flight. Sure enough, I saw the woman reading some theological tome and knew we were headed for the same place. As I struck up a conversation with her, I learned that she had also been dismissed from a college in the south for advocating equal racial representation on the student council. This was not in the 1960s, but a couple decades closer to our own time. No reason was given, but her contract was not renewed.

By this point in time a clear image is coming into focus in my mind. It is not a pretty picture. The scene shows a juggernaut called Higher Education, bloated, powerful, wearing a mortar board, with a killer football team yapping at its heels like wolfhounds, but terribly afraid of criticism. Those who lie crushed under its great feet, the general issue instructors, have earned their place in academia by taking the hard knocks and criticism that are anticipated and constantly delivered in higher education, but the juggernaut drowns out any criticism of itself with allegations of being molested by the critical thinkers it hired to give it respectability and who now lie supine in submission beneath it. Something has gone horribly awry. And instead of talking it over, human-to-human, lawyers are hired to frighten off the weak and silence discussion. “Anything you say can and will be used against you,” thank you Sergeant Friday!

Like a co-dependent spouse, I will always love higher education. It has cradled our most influential minds and taken us beyond our earth-bound dreams. The academy has brought us to the place where we stand today. But universities now also parrot the corporate model and intimidate those who do not take their inspiration from free-market economy. If you feel inclined to voice a vote for the rights of students, this link will take you to a petition for the dropping of legal charges against my colleague’s son. (You will be taken to a donation page after signing the petition, but donations are purely voluntary.) I understand it to be a vote for common sense and personal freedom of expression.

Clergy Letter Project

A few years back I had the privilege of working at the same university as Dr. Michael Zimmerman, currently a biology professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. In my temporary stint as a Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered that Dr. Zimmerman, then the Dean of the College of Letters and Science, was the very man responsible for the Clergy Letter Project. I had read about the project before; in an attempt to demonstrate that Creationism is not mainstream Christianity (nor science, for that matter), the Clergy Letter Project was attempting to acquire a few thousand signatures from the ordained of various denominations who were willing to admit that evolution posed no threat to their religion.

As an occupational hazard of someone with my background, I know many, many clergy. I offered to solicit some help in reaching the goal on the list and spent the rest of the semester contacting various sacerdotal practitioners who rightfully saw the Creationist ploy for what it was and continues to be. Creationism is nothing short of an attempt to break through the church and state separation clause and attain federal support for a particular religious viewpoint. That particular viewpoint is not shared by the majority of informed Christians, but the population is easily swayed by Creationist rhetoric. Creationists do not deserve sympathy, for they are much more aggressive than they pretend to be. Subterfuge in the cause of truth is a contradiction in ethics.

Religion may be hardwired into human brains, but it need not seek to pick fights with factual truth as it is learned. At each stage along the progression of human achievement, various religious believers have felt that the new knowledge discovered confronted their faith with unsurpassable barriers. Faith, however, is a belief system, not a factual construct. If faith requires proof, as even the Bible itself says, it is not really faith at all. If you know any clergy who are willing to sign on for common sense and belief in the rational world in which we find ourselves, please send them this link and ask them to weigh in on the question. Nearly 12,000 clergy have signed to date. There are even separate lists for Rabbinical and Unitarian-Universalist clergy. Don’t worry about the Creationists. They will always be back for more.

An early Creationist attempt at intelligent design

An early Creationist attempt at intelligent design