RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Chancellors and unpopular student speech

I used periodically to write letters, some quite snarky, and post comments to the Daily Nebraskan, the local student newspaper. I gave it up after a conversation with an older colleague who happened to be a good and very popular teacher. He pointed out that regardless of how faculty regard the relationship, students tend to see faculty as authority figures, and what the professor might think to be a reasonable challenge to an idea, could easily be seen by them as bullying, and one needed to be careful. (This, obviously, does not hold if the student has initiated open hostility or rudeness.)

This came to mind this week in the controversy about a speech a Association of Students of the University of Nebraska senator gave at a student senate meeting. The student reportedly, in a debate about free speech and a resolution advising against derogatory language, read part of a racial-epithet-laden monolog from African-American comedian Chris Rock, and also deplored complaints from Mexican-American students about wearing of sombreros on homecoming floats. I'm merely inferring this, but I think the points he was trying to make were (1) that it's unreasonable for there to be words that one group of people can use without recrimination, but can't be used by other groups of people and (2) that everyone is too gosh darn easily offended anyway. Both points are valid. I happen to agree with both, but even if you don't, I hope you will concede they're valid positions to take.

Even though the chair of the ASUN senate meeting allowed the speech to proceed, Mr. Murphy is now facing 'impeachment' by the student senate. Evidently the irony of punishing someone for what he said during a debate on free speech has escaped some of the members of that august body. And that itself would be fine; it's not as if expulsion from the ASUN senate will blight one's career, and student representative bodies should, except in extreme circumstances, be left alone by the university. It would be nice if its members had been imbued in their college education with an appreciation of the importance of free speech, particularly freedom of political speech, but that's on us, not on them.

All of this was proceeding merrily -- in fact, I'd paid almost no attention to it -- until the Chancellor of the university turned up with a sledgehammer to attack this tiny nut. He sent out this email to everybody -- students, staff and faculty.

I'm sorry, the most pejorative descriptor of Mr Muprhy's remarks, as reported, that I can come up with is 'ill-judged', and that's in hindsight. Not to mince words, calling his speech 'harmful, despicable, and intolerable' is ridiculous hyperbole, and whether Perlman accepts it or not, coming from a chancellor to a student, it is bullying. Perlman apparently thinks very little of free-speech, and apparently doesn't agree that of all speech, political speech deserves the highest level of protection. That is not a 'nuance', it is a cornerstone of freedom and democracy. And if Perlman 'can't imagine' why the language was used, well, let's just kindly say his imagination is deficient.

The statement had its intended effect. Mr. Murphy has indeed been silenced, as Perlman wanted, and won't speak to the newspapers. Meanwhile, last night, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences sent out his own statement, which included a clich├ęd call for "critical thinking and engagement in dialogs on race, gender and sexual orientation".

The UNL administration's actions show they're not in the least interested in a dialog. Rather, anyone who expresses a contrary view is to be browbeaten until they shut up. And faced with such powerful adversaries, who wouldn't shut up?

No comments:

Post a Comment