Academic Controversies and Interpersonal Ethics

Recently, we had a mini-scandal at my university that involved a student group, a speaker whom they wanted to bring for academic credit, some of my colleagues, and me. In my opinion the whole affair was a non-story, but it gained a level of national notoriety due to the political savvy of one activist student. The situation has led me to think more deeply about what it means to be part of a local campus community, and a good member of the academic community more generally.

This is not a post about recent events, but I will use them for illustration.

People matter

One thing that regularly happens in academic discourse is that we can get carried away with our political or ideological goals and forget that we are dealing with real, living people. We must remember that our "opponents" in a controversy are not living symbols for an idea. They are not devious obstacles placed in our way by fate or a demigod. They are not a means to an end, convenient platforms to be used on our way up the ladder. They are human beings with the troubles, doubts, frustrations, challenges, and insecurities that we all share. They love, and they are loved. They are on a journey, as are we, and we should see each human interaction as a stage in the journey, briefly shared.

My hope is that whether I am interacting with students, faculty colleagues, conference speakers, or random internet strangers, I will always see them, and seek to be seen by them.

In this case, I had conducted a private Facebook conversation with a few colleagues about whether I should participate in the proposed event. There were many responses, both in favor of my participation and cautioning me against it. The post was an honest effort on my part to make a wise and well-informed decision. The reason that some colleagues advised me not to participate was because the organization that this speaker represents has a history of holding circus-type events that polarize more than they help people understand the truth. There were some strong opinions expressed about the nature of the event.

A student saw this private Facebook conversation and then published misleading selections with the story that faculty had "taken to social media" to "mock" students. In fact, this was a private conversation about the specific academic issue. No criticism was leveled specifically at the campus group or at any students. I appealed to the group as a professor and as a Christian not to violate my trust and privacy, but they persisted.

I can understand that the students would be dismayed to learn that faculty were antagonistic toward or dismissive of the speaker that they wanted to bring to campus. I get that. The problem was that they turned us into symbols and platforms in order to score rhetorical points.

I believe that we can all do better.

Disagreement not Difference

What happens when we turn other people into symbols is that our disagreement becomes difference, which is difficult to overcome. This kind of rhetorical shorthand is one thing on a larger political level, but it is incredibly damaging in a local community. Those of us in academia have seen it many times: we have professional disagreements about academic topics, but of course none of us is purely "academic," so our method and politics becomes personal. We start to associate "us" with one "side" and "them" with the other "side." The next thing that happens is that personal interactions become political acts, everything from departmental gatherings to hallway greetings.

I never want students to see me as a symbol of "the other" or "the enemy" in any way. Will I challenge and push them? Will I point out when they are misguided or incorrect? Yes, and yes. And I hope that they will challenge and push me, and argue back. That's why we're here.

If a student disagrees with my approach to the Bible, I must never see them as "the other," and pack all of my larger objections, frustrations, and anxieties into our relationship. Do this student and I form two "different sides?" No, we are two people in a room together discussing something that we both love.

If professors are to model academic virtue to our students, we must be honest enough to disagree with each other, confident enough not to make it personal, and compassionate enough to honor the complex humanity of our "opponents."

It makes me sad that a certain segment of the public equates "university professor" with "liberal ideologue." This is certainly the first time that I have been accused of being such a thing. Most of the opposition that I have faced in my career has been for being too traditional. I am enough of an out-lier in academia that I am sympathetic to students who feel marginalized from the academic discourse. We need to do a better job all around of seeing each other as complex people making arguments, and to learn how to disagree openly without making it personal.

Truth matters

Another lesson that this event has taught me is to mistrust anything that I read on the internet. The newspaper article about my issue was fairly accurate, and the initial online op-ed that the activist student wrote was misguided (in my view) but factually correct. From there it got ugly fast. At least two other national websites picked up the story and twisted the facts so badly that if you removed the identifying details you might not even have recognized it as the same story.

This may come as a shock to you, but---turns out!---not everyone is motivated by a desire to speak the truth. Seriously, trust me. Some people are very happy to say things that they know are half-truths and lies in order to get a few more ad clicks or donor checks.

This is a simple fact: if your understanding of an event is shaped only by a partisan website, then you do not know what happened. We saw this with the letters and calls from alumni that we received. These are college graduates, our graduates, who learned critical thinking from us, and who totally accepted the version of events they had heard on talk radio or read in a partisan source.

The decisive thing is that they didn't write me or the Dean asking for clarification or explanation. They wrote in anger based on incorrect information, on mistakes and lies that they had accepted as truth.

In an academic community, it is essential that we reserve judgment until we know all the facts of a case, and that we do not respond emotionally based on misleading or incomplete information. Why? Well, it could be embarrassing for us, but the real reasons are the first two points in this article: the people we are judging are real people, our colleagues and our students and our professors and our family. They deserve better than that from us, as we do from them.