Near the end of my favorite TED Talk, philosopher, Daniel Dennett (2002), explains that science is morally neutral; science has no place for hatred or anger. Science is inherently and impeccably civil; it is classy. Science enables us to collect the evidence necessary to learn how the world works. It is a product of the Enlightenment. As Pinker (2018) suggests, science was one of four essential Enlightenment themes (i.e., the others being reason, humanism, and progress), all of which rested upon the Enlightenment’s “foundational demand of freedom of thought and speech (p. 7).” This is true of the study of physical and biological phenomena; it is also true of social and psychological events. Behavioral scientists measure things like perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and interpersonal influence. What we’ve discovered about human nature has become a part of judicial wisdom as well as common knowledge. A century ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes espoused psychological principles when he observed that it was only “natural” for people to want to “sweep away all opposition” to their chosen viewpoint. However, Holmes concluded: “…when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe… that the ultimate good desired is better reached by (the) free trade of ideas…” (in Abrams v. United States, cited in Bollinger & Stone, 2018, p. 21). Holmes observation portends the value of looking beyond political partisanship and committing to an inclusive process to address society’s most important questions. Holmes’ commitment to a free and open marketplace of ideas resonates with Dennett’s advocacy of the inherent civility of science. It is a foundation of higher learning as well as democracy itself.
In these Blogs, I’ll use evidence and argument to support the importance of free speech and academic freedom. Some of those who rely upon academic freedom as well as free speech introduce unpopular and even offensive ideas. These mavericks (or monsters depending on one’s own political viewpoint) have a place in the academy; they are the leavening in our academic loaf. Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that some factions within the academy have developed an appetite for academic lynchings and the martyrdom of those who speak out against the prevailing orthodoxies of political correctness. Creating environments that accommodate them in a manner that is fair, just, and reasonable, even if perceived to be a little uncomfortable (or unsafe) by some, is necessary if educational institutions are to continue to serve society as a locus of higher learning where debate and controversy continue to reveal greater truths. Even the worst ideas and the anachronistic arguments that support them have value: rejecting such falsehoods through evidence and reason, leaves us all stronger, and the things we choose to believe more nuanced as well as more secure. There is a great deal of evidence to support Nietzsche’s famous observation: Things that don’t kill us, often make us stronger (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018).
I must confess this is a matter about which I care deeply. This issue is personal: my experiences with my college and its Title IX program over the last two years have consumed much of my time and attention. In the interest of ecological validity, I created scenarios extracted from actual events relating to the Title IX process. These scenarios addressed issues and assertions without identifying individual participants. They brought to light policies and practices I believed to be incompatible with Title IX and administrative due process. Nonetheless, the issues themselves were determined to have caused emotional distress to some of my faculty colleagues. I endured a painful six-month suspension for conducting the survey. During this time, I was prohibited from communicating with students, visiting my office, the library, post office, or gym without special permission from the my dean. I was restricted from using or sharing data from the survey that was to serve as a capstone project for my industrial/organizational psychology course. I was found guilty of professional misconduct because some felt threatened and “unsafe” and my tenure was ended due to my alleged incompetence and inability to maintain confidentiality. However, confidentiality is neither defined nor required in cases of alleged discrimination by our Faculty Manual or Title IX. I could not remain silent in the face of what I perceived to be profound injustice directed against a colleague. My personal reflections in the wee hours of many mornings, clandestine conversations with students and faculty colleagues, and hours spent scouring the web and plowing through contemporary scientific, political, legal, and philosophical texts have provided insights that may be of interest to others. I confess to being both a maverick and a rebel, but, as I hope to convince you, my cause is worthy; I am not a monster, and I do not intend to remain a martyr.
For some readers my identity is important. Learning that I am merely another “old white guy” will lead some to read no further. So be it. Others will abandon these blogs when I admit to a life of privilege filled with extraordinary opportunities and accolades. All my education (a B.Sc., M.Sc. & DPhil at Oxford University) was funded by the Air Force. I served for 34 years in the military and was promoted to the rank of colonel. By an act of Congress, I became a permanent professor and head of the Air Force Academy’s Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership. I have served as a consultant/evaluator for the North Central Association, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. I was one of the dozen or so assessment consultants who helped establish Western Governors University and served as Provost and Academic Vice President for Berea College from 2001 to 2005. I have been a tenured professor of psychology and general studies at Berea College since 2001. For over a decade, I’ve been dedicated to enhancing my students’ learning and becoming the best classroom teacher and research mentor possible.
Before you auto-fill all the remaining spaces in my autobiographical sketch, let me share a little more information. While an AF Academy cadet (many years ago), I was charged with “Blasphemy” for organizing a group of my classmates into a Cadet Humanist League that met in the Jewish tabernacle on Sunday mornings instead of attending mandatory Protestant or Catholic services. While serving in the Air Force, I was a rescue helicopter pilot, chief functional check flight pilot, behavioral scientist, equal opportunity and treatment officer, race relations instructor, and the organizational maintenance officer of the first aircraft maintenance unit to have women assigned as aircraft mechanics. I complained to the Air Force Inspector General that the inclusion of photographs in promotion folders was potentially prejudicial and, thus, inappropriate. I often made choices and supported causes that went against the advice of my more conservative superiors and colleagues. Cadets at the Air Force Academy enrolled in my sociology course had face-to-face encounters with lesbians, gays, atheists, and witches. I led efforts at the Air Force Academy to integrate women and civilians into the all-military, and nearly all-male faculty and assess the effectiveness of cadets’ onerous educational experiences. As one of few “liberals” at the Academy, I wrote the first concept paper suggesting how gay men and lesbians might be integrated into the Cadet Wing. I was president of the local Unitarian Universalist Church, served on program committees for the first few national environmental film festivals and was one of the founding directors of Citizen’s Project of Colorado Springs established to counter efforts by the religious right to encroach on the rights and freedoms of others in the local public school system.
I’m a good teacher; students consistently have rated my courses in the top ten percent. My first-year general studies course entitled, “Questioning Authority; skepticism and science as antidotes for oppression” was especially popular and effective in helping students learn to thrive at a liberal arts college. In this course, we considered oppression at three levels: institutional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. My senior research students earned awards for the quality of their research in state and regional undergraduate conferences regularly (about twenty awards in the last decade). Our psychology department grew in popularity, attracting increasingly larger proportions of women, students of color, and international students. Our former students had one of the highest rates of graduate school enrollment at the college (about 75% within 3 years of graduation). Approaching the end of my educational career, I can honestly say that regardless of the eventual outcome of my current legal battle with the college’s administration, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to serve such wonderful students and contribute to Berea College’s unique mission of educating and inspiring economically disadvantaged students and propelling them toward lives of learning, leadership, and service.
Preparing these Blogs has been a labor of love, an opportunity for me to better understand much of what has transpired. Expressive writing is not only good for the soul, it is good for the psyche (Pennebaker, 1993; Frattaroli, 2006). I have long admired Mahatma Gandhi’s counsel that one must become the change one wishes to see in the world. Despite these not being Gandhi’s actual words (Ranseth, 2015), it is a useful paraphrase and captures Gandhi’s sentiment. The question is how to organize all the information I want to convey into accessible narratives. The DIKW pyramid (Wikipedia, 2018) provided a useful framework: Data in context provide Information; Information in context is Knowledge; and Knowledge in context yields Wisdom. I plan to segregate and organize my observations and ideas by arranging them in a series of topics and issues nested inside one another, like Russian Babushka dolls. In dealing with information, context is the key to understanding.
Starting with the largest components of our social system and keeping the focus on the context provided to successively smaller and more specialized components, I’ll begin with some general observations about contemporary American society and the role of free speech. Just like the human brain (Eysenck, 2012), human societies are composed of many modules with distinct functions and characteristics. Two modules that are essential to my perspective are the judiciary and higher education. We will consider not only their current state but the paths that led them there and the somewhat peculiar present relationship between them. Historically, the judiciary has granted institutions of higher education broad latitude in determining the internal processes which accomplish their educational goals. In fact, the notion of academic freedom, has been a defining feature of the relationship between the judiciary and educational institutions since the AAUP’s historic Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure (AAUP, 1915) and includes the freedom of institutions from oversight as well as protecting individual scholars. However, in several recent high-level legal decisions, the court has shown a willingness to intervene in college’s and university’s decision processes when these institutions appear to have ignored, neglected, or abused rather than protected the freedoms and Constitutional rights of faculty members and others (Chemerensky & Gillman, 2017; Whittington, 2018).
Colleges and universities discover and distribute knowledge (Whittington, 2018). They also endeavor to provide students with appropriate and effective thinking skills in the process (Bok, 2013). As Postman and Winegartner (1969) suggested in their classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity, higher education requires students to become first-class crap-detectors. Fortunately, these functions are not mutually exclusive. Education is complicated. Hierarchical administrative superstructures are ubiquitous. It will be necessary to consider the administrative structures and processes that characterize higher education organizations and often constrain higher learning. If it is to occur at all, higher learning often occurs within academic courses taught in classrooms and laboratories. Concern with student learning and its assessment has become increasingly important in recent decades (Porter, 2015). However, there is reason to be concerned that the higher learning being promised publicly is not being achieved through current pedagogies and classroom practices (Arum & Roksa, 2014). Might the lackluster performances in our classroom reflect something about the organizational and campus contexts and in which courses are taught? Might the “chilling effects” that are of such concern to legal scholars already be oppressing our faculty members and students? If learning is not clearly prioritized as an organization’s primary objective, we should not be surprised that evidence of institutional accomplishment in this area is difficult to garner.
A brief review of the psychology (including the neuro-chemistry) of human learning can also provide insights providing reasons freedom of speech is a necessary component of the kind of vibrant and active learning process in college classrooms most likely contribute to student motivation and a commitment to lifelong learning. Once this general contextual framework has been constructed, it will be used to explore several recent illustrative incidents in our higher education community involving “old white guys” and consider the relationship of these events to the broader questions of free speech and academic freedom in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty.