Academic freedom rests on a basic principle: professors’ specialized training makes them qualified to have control over academic matters, such as evaluating scholarship, making new hires, setting up curricula. It’s hard for the media, or the general public, to challenge the evaluation of academics about the quality of a professor’s scholarship, or the appropriateness of personnel decisions.
The lacrosse case, however, has shone a light into the thinking of an outspoken minority of the arts and sciences faculty at one of the nation’s finest institutions—on an issue where the media and the public are perfectly capable of evaluating academics’ opinions. And the academics’ performance has not been impressive.
The pattern started early on. Citing the “abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us,” Houston Baker’s March 29 public letter demanded the “immediate dismissals” of “the team itself and its players.” Two days later, Bill Chafe, a nationally esteemed civil rights historian, suggested that the whites who lynched Emmett Till provided an appropriate context through which to interpret the actions of the lacrosse players. Chafe’s column, ironically, misidentified the year of Till’s lynching, a critical event in the development of the civil rights movement. (The lynching occurred in 1955, not, as Chafe informed Chronicle readers, 1954.) Last fall, another Group of 88 member, Grant Farred, alleged that Duke students who registered to vote in
No specialized academic training is necessary to determine the intellectually dubious nature of the arguments presented by Baker, Chafe, or Farred. Are their analyses of academic matters, outside the public spotlight, of equally questionable quality?
At the so-called “Shut Up and Teach” forum a week ago Monday, AAAS chairman Charles Piot tackled the issue head-on. Then, a few days later, he expanded on his defense in an e-mail to John in
[Wahneema] Lubiano and others are deeply committed faculty, brilliant teachers, folks who love Duke and love their students (whether left or conservative). They are also complex nuanced thinkers, who don’t just toe an ideological party line.
I take Piot’s words at face value: I have no doubt he truly considers Lubiano a “brilliant” teacher and a “complex nuanced” thinker, someone who treats all students fairly (“whether left or conservative”) and doesn’t “just toe an ideological party line.”
1) “Brilliant” teacher
Commenter Locomotive Breath, who attended the forum, responded to Piot:
If her lecture that night was any indication, Prof. Lubiano is a terrible classroom instructor. She read as fast a she could from a prepared text, barely pausing to take a breath, and never even made eye contact with the audience. Twelve minutes was torture and I cannot imagine a full hour of that. More importantly, she left me with nothing identifiable to take away from her remarks.
I encourage those with a few minutes to spare to listen to her presentation. Would you consider either the quality or the style of these remarks characteristic of a “brilliant” teacher?
2) “Complex nuanced” thinker
Lubiano recently sent in a letter to the Chronicle accusing Brendan McGinley of “actual lies”—not disagreeing with her, not misunderstanding her opinions, but lying—about her “perfect offenders” essay.
The Chronicle comment thread featured several perceptive rebuttals, which included the following:
The McGinley article neither misrepresents nor distorts Lubiano’s essay. It does call the Duke students “perfect offenders.” Lubiano’s central point seems to be that ALL acts of racism and sexism—most of which, she says, are “banal and routine”—should nonetheless be treated with the utmost gravity and societal outrage, EVEN IF they (unlike the Duke case) don’t feature “perfect offenders” (i.e. white, male, well-off athletes), or a “perfect victim” (poor but upstanding, black, single mother, honor student, as the accuser was initially represented as being), or a “perfect crime” (an alleged violent gang-rape accompanied by racist abuse.) Lubiano doesn’t criticize the use of the concept of the “perfect offender;” she advocates it. And she emphatically does place the Duke lacrosse players in the category of “perfect offenders.” Her essay did not (as her letter now implies) urge people to stop demonizing the lacrosse team as “perfect offenders” and to stop glorifying the accuser as a “perfect victim.” Far from it. Rather, it urged the reader to find and condemn racism and sexism everywhere—not to wait for golden opportunities such as that presented by the “perfect offenders” on the Duke lacrosse team.
Lubiano’s approach seems to be to write in dense prose that can be interpreted in different ways, and then to accuse those who disagree with her of lying. Those are not the habits of complex or nuanced thinkers.
3) Treats all students fairly (“whether left or conservative”)
Lubiano once deemed it her “privilege” to seamlessly blend her political activism with her teaching. This approach defies the AAUP’s 1915 and 1940 guidelines on academic freedom and tenure, which require professors to keep unrelated political content out of their classrooms. Reflecting her approach to the job, Lubiano’s two spring courses are: “Teaching Race/Teaching Gender” (which explores such issues as, “How do you overcome the reluctance of male undergraduates to avoid anything with “gender” in the title? . . . Within the terms of a heteronormative culture that has made individual aesthetics the bedrock of sexual relations, how do you introduce the idea of the social to questions of relationships?) and “Teaching Critical
In any case—as JinC observed—Piot unintentionally provided a glimpse into how he really feels about those who disagree with the Group. The Group’s academic critics (like me), Piot fumed, should “shut up and teach.” If he responds in this manner to faculty who criticize him, imagine how he treats students who challenge his worldview.
4) Doesn’t “just toe an ideological party line”
In recent years, Lubiano has:
- opposed the war in
, urging instead a “just peace” based on “dismantling the unquestioned commonsense of capitalism, and dismantling the unquestioned commonsense of market religiosity.” Afghanistan
- advocated reparations for African-Americans, citing “activity of the state in the aid of theft” of free labor from slaves.
- walked out of class to protest the war in
- participated in DRAGnet (Duke Radical Action Group), which, according to the Chronicle, featured professors “running around campus dressed from head to toe like drag queens” performing political skits.
- opposed increased campus security measures, lest Duke “produce students as the future gated community citizens of the nation and the world.”
- demanded that Duke divest from companies doing business in
- served as closing speaker at a 2001 conference called “Black Queer Studies in the Millennium.”
- called for an international tribunal to explore the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
to recognize a graduate student union. New York University
- deemed the government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina “cover for other forms of class warfare on the part of the powerful and cover for the work of dismantling, one disaster or crisis at a time if necessary,” the welfare state.
- spoken at gatherings of the “Triangle Vegetarian Peace Society.”
Piot doesn’t consider that record toeing an ideological party line. How many people outside academia, do you think, would share his judgment?
(At the forum, by the way, Piot fused his anti-lacrosse activism with his academic credentials in one other way. He has, to date, refused to release a transcript of remarks, although some of them can now be heard here. Piot has claimed that they will appear in an (unnamed) academic journal, thereby suggesting that the Group’s anti-lacrosse quest constitutes an “academic” effort in and of itself.)
The ramifications of this case will continue long after—as seems increasingly likely—charges are dismissed. Events of the past 10 months, including the recent forum, have exposed an unimpressive quality in the insights of some Duke arts and sciences faculty.
If a program chairman like Piot considers Lubiano an example of a “brilliant” teacher who’s open to all ideas, how confident are you in his overall academic judgment?
Hat tip: L.B.