Thursday, October 12, 2006

Kevin Barrett: Why, Believe it or Not, I Still Support this Guy

Last July, when the University community was debating whether to fire Kevin Barrett (see immediately below) there were two questions that absorbed our attention. There was (1) the substantive question of whether he should have been hired. And (2) there was the procedural question of whether this is the right process by which to answer question (1). A politcian hears a professor on talk radio and finds his/her views offensive. Should this result in the professor being fired? That is question (2).

My position was, and is, that it is very, very important, for the sake of academic freedom, that questions like (2) should trump questions like (1). In other words, if this is not the right process, then (1) becomes merely academic. Interesting, maybe even fascinating, but not a reason for taking action at this time.

It's obvious what my answer to (2) is: As a member of the UW community, I ought to hold my nose and fall into formation behind this guy. If we were to make the fateful decision that offended politicians can get professors fired, we would be buying no end of problems. I'm sure that I have views that would be offensive to some people at the other end of State Street: if not Steve Nass, then maybe somebody else who doesn't quite understand what freedom is all about. It's true of many others as well, no doubt about it. As tempting as it might be to throw Barrett to the wolves, one of us might be on the wolves' menu as well.

In addition, however, it is becoming obvious what the answer to question (1) is. It's not just Barrett's conspiracy "theories." It's his errors of judgment, his egregiously bad taste, his lame and nasty attempts at humor, his Michael-Jackson-like inability to appreciate how weird he seems to others. Now it can be said: This guy is a jerk.

But the tiny number of people (if any) who have been following this blog will know that, with respect to question (1), I think the situation is actually much worse than that. By itself, the mere matter of being a jerk is not decisive. There are a number of brilliant professors who happen to be jerks. Hell, some of my best friends have been jerks! What is much more decisive, for me, is that I believe that conspiracism is to history as astrology is to astronomy, as alchemy is to chemistry, as magic and religion are to science and scholarship. Well, you might ask, what would I do if the UW Astronomy Department hired a part-time instructor to teach a course in which, as it turns out, he will spend a week discussing astrology as an interesting, alternative type of astronomy. Would I just stand by and do nothing?

Before I answer that, let me remind you that, somethimes, doing nothing is the best course of action. It can also be a difficult one.

Second, let me give the question a bit of a context. Over the years, the idea of academic freedom has evolved, and part of this process was the development of various traditions and practices that support it or spell out, in institutional detail, exactly what it is. One of these practices is the tradition of departmental autonomy. Suppose I were to complain to the Dean that the Philosophy Department is not paying me enough. There are strict limits to what he can do about that. If he tells them to correct the situation, it cannot be because he has made a substantive judgment about the merits of my work in academic philosophy. Any orders coming from him would have to be made on procedural grounds; the idea would have to be that there is some unfairness in the process by which they have decided on my pay. The substantive issue of my actual merits is owned, free and clear, by the Philosophy Department. Within the confines of their academic discipline, they govern themselves: which is what "autonomy" means.

There are a number of reasons for departmental autonomy, but the most obvious and important one is the fact that it enables people in the university to pursue inquiry in their fields with a minumum of second-guessing and pressure from people outside the discipline.

Now consider what we would be doing to the Astronomy Department if we moved in and fired the astrology buff. We would be telling them that they have made such a totally dumb-ass decision on the substantive question that people who know nothing about the field are qualified to second-quess them and, more than that, breach departmental autonomy and to take control of their personnel decisions out of their hands and give it to outsiders. This would be to put the relationship between their department and the rest of the University on an entirely new footing. This would be a very significant institutional change, and we would be dealing with the fallout from it for some time to come.

Is the Barrett case egregious enough to justify such radical move? My answer is: of course not. Not even close. Just live with it. If that seems hard to do, you have this consolation: His fifteen minutes of fame, that gift lavished upon him by the Wisconsin Republicans, will soon be over.

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