Friday, October 23, 2009

Reaching Out

It’s been striking how many of the comments on my blog, and on the news stories, have mentioned the fear that people in the Butler community have about speaking out about our administration. I’ve had many people, both faculty and students, talk about it with me in person. That fear of retaliation was mentioned repeatedly at the teach-in, an event that many faculty members were frightened to attend. This isn’t a call out: In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a reach-out. It’s an invitation. I can’t promise you that you will no longer be afraid, but I promise that sharing that fear with others makes it far more manageable. If we are to make change, we will need many, many people to be willing to face their fear of the administration and take a principled stand. Then, and only then, Butler will be able to move in the positive direction that its students and faculty so rightly deserve.

Dr. Marshall Gregory, the Ice Professor of English at Butler, is nationally renowned for promoting the liberal arts. In an open letter to the Butler community, he offers an impassioned plea for the University administration to do what’s right, and to help us all move on and move forward.

Because his message is so powerful and because I feel that it is important for students and faculty to see such a distinguished member of our community speaking so forcefully, I am printing (with permission) Dr. Gregory’s letter here. Please share your thoughts about what he has to say.

An Open Letter to the Butler Community

I have been deeply disappointed, frustrated, and angered by the way in which the higher administration at Butler University has handled—or, in my view, mishandled—the affair of the Soodo Nym blogger who said some things that the administrators did not like. I have read the evidence the administration proffers as alleged proof of the student’s terrible assaults on human decency and personal safety, and, in my opinion, what he said seems innocuous, neither dangerous nor threatening, and certainly not hostile enough to justify legal retaliation.

I cannot believe that Butler University’s institutional identity is so vulnerable that the administration thinks it desirable and defensible to react to a bit of undergraduate twitting with heavy legal muscle, bullying intimidation, and self-righteous claims about “civil discourse.” It is hard to imagine any sort of discourse more uncivil than hanging the threat of a lawsuit over the head of an undergraduate for months on end.

What one student writes on a blog, even if it is intemperate, will not damage Butler’s national reputation, but that reputation has been damaged by administrative actions that have focused a national spotlight on the university as a place where students will be threatened with a lawsuit for speaking their minds or for trying to speak truth to power. In one crude display of temper and temperament, Butler’s administration has given the university the appearance of being intellectually obtuse, more invested in power than in discourse, and more committed to its own version of truth (what Bakhtin calls “authoritative discourse”) than to the genial and collegial exchange of opinions. If Butler University has become the kind of place where a student’s attempt to speak his mind is met with displays of naked power and threats of coercion, then Butler University has become a vastly different, and vastly diminished, institution than I have thought it to be.

But in fact the university’s ethos has not changed; it is being misrepresented by the administration’s actions over the past several months. I have been talking about teaching in concentrated and intense ways with faculty members across the Butler University community for more than a decade, and I find it overwhelmingly true that most faculty members are committed viscerally and intellectually to developing the talents, abilities, and capacities of their students. Butler is the kind of place where students are nurtured, treasured, and developed by teachers who possess personal kindness and professional expertise, and who react in measured, nuanced ways to their students’ uncertain management of rhetoric and tone. If I were a parent helping my child choose a college, however, and if every Google search about Butler referred me to a shocking story about how the university’s administration sued a student over a blog, I would drop Butler from consideration in a heartbeat.

When students on this campus break the law by engaging in illegal actions such as, say, underage drinking, or when they cause social disruption by engaging in immature and dysfunctional conduct, these infractions are generally dealt with in nuanced and delicate ways by a student affairs staff that knows how to exercise influence rather than threaten power. In a striking contrast to this practice, it seems very mysterious to me that when a single student blogger expresses frustrations over particular administrative decisions, the university abandons restraint, and, in a huge and over-reactive spasm of authority, suddenly mobilizes its resources of money, lawyers on retainer, and its ability to penetrate the mechanisms of communication (email accounts). It’s the last thing one would expect to see at Butler. It’s like watching Socrates who devoted his life to making arguments suddenly turning into a back alley mugger. Why? What does the administration think is really at stake here? President Fong’s explanations leave me unenlightened and unconvinced.

It seems to me that the university administration should apologize to the entire community for the damage it has done to Butler University’s reputation, and, potentially, to its recruiting ambitions. The administration should especially apologize to the young man whom they have callously placed at the center of a controversy that they themselves seem mostly responsible for having generated.

Marshall Gregory
Ice Professor of English, Liberal Education, and Pedagogy


  1. Wonderful letter.

  2. thank you for posting this. do you think the administration is registering any of this? or is it falling on deaf ears? i know that it is not likely that they will not turn around and drop the lawsuit or apologize right away, but i just wonder if they are ignoring this or if it is actually making them rethink their actions. i know that the bigger we grow and the more people who join, the harder it will be for them to continue the way they have. i look forward to the word continuing to get out and the number of people invested in this story growing.

  3. I agree with the assertion of the "authoritative discourse." In my interactions with administrators this is very prevalent. It's an attitude of, "well if you simply talk to us, we will give the best truth, the truth you should always write." Of course, it is THEIR version of truth. Not to be completely disregarded of course, but certainly not absolute.

    I think their truth might fare better if they effectively participated in this community discourse. Somehow these calculated press releases seem unlike engaging debate.

  4. Dr. Gregory,

    Very well said; however with the lack of trust the the community has for it's current administration, it is time for a chnage in senior manamagement. When the president goes too far it is the responsibility of the vice-presidents to real him in. No one has attempted to stop the president from pursuing this lawsuit. I will agree that the faculty at Butler Univeristy are wonderful educators, but they need to stand up for the community as well. The staff and students depend on it. The question is that even if the apology came from the administration, with their history, can you trust them moving forward?

  5. As a tenured faculty member here at Butler, I have experienced a whirlwind of emotions since the story of the lawsuit broke. On one hand, I am embarrassed, disappointed, and heavy-hearted over the administation's misguided and short-sighted decision to pursue a lawsuit against Jess Zimmerman. It is simply an indefensible action taken by what can only be seen as insecure administrators who have resorted to scare tactics to stiffle the voices of their dissenters. It is a shameful embarrassment that I am not enjoying explaining to my colleagues across the country. And I should say, they are asking. But on the other hand, I feel proud of my colleagues, of the students, and especially of Jess who have stood up to call this situation what it is and to bring truth to light. The real rub for me is that I have not yet managed to stand up with them. I am afraid. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation here at Butler is pervasive and it is silencing many of our voices. I have yet to talk to another faculty member who does not think that the actions by the administration are
    reprehensible. But we are not speaking up out of fear of retribution. For what it is worth, I want to go on record to say that many of us care deeply about this situation and this institution. Many of us are angry, embarrassed, and deeply concerned. I only hope that we will eventually be able to follow the examples of those before us and rise up and trade our fear for respect - respect for ourselves and our opinions, respect for our colleagues, and ultimately respect for Butler.

  6. What are you tenured professors scared of, for heaven's sake? Too scared to stand up with a 21-year-old, one of your own students, who had the guts to do what should have been your work? Remember 'faculty governance?' Show some responsibility. What a disgrace.

  7. I agree with everything Dr. Gregory says, and I am grateful for the eloquence and wisdom of this letter. He speaks for many of us.

    Susan Neville
    Professor, Dept. of English

  8. Greg,

    Damn. A fine letter, just as I would expect from you. I am proud to be your friend and colleague. But I'm not tenured, so I cannot sign my name (and should BU run a trace, I'm using my netbook on some complete stranger's unsecured wifi. Yes, the untenured faculty is that scared.).

    (Anon 2:25 -- you have tenure. I don't. Speak truth to power. You can. I cannot.)

  9. Technically, ANYONE could have written that letter "from a professor"...

    So... don't just assume it really was. That's the thinga bout anonymous internet use...

  10. Marshall Gregory is on target here. I speak as an outsider. I don't know anyone at Butler personally and, in fact, I hadn't even heard of Butler University until about a week or so ago.

    But I will attest to this. If they go through with the suit against you then they will be shooting themselves in the foot. They will seriously damage their ability to recruit new students if they go through with this.

    For them to win a libel suit against you they have to show that:

    1) What you wrote on your blog about them were statements of fact, and not just opinion.
    2) Those statements of fact were wrong. AND
    3) You knew that you were lying when you wrote those statements or that you made your statements in reckless disregard of the truth.

    That third requirement is the killer--I really doubt they can do that. But before they can even do that, they must first PROVE that what you said was factually wrong.

    Well, if they have the ability to prove that what you said was factually wrong, then why don't they prove it in the court of public opinion rather than spend thousands on legal fees proving it in Court? As the Supreme Court noted in Gertz v. Robert Welch:

    "The first remedy of any victim of defamation is self-help--using available opportunities to contradict the lie or correct the error, and thereby to minimize its adverse impact on reputation. Public officials and public figures usually enjoy significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication, and hence have a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements than private individuals normally enjoy."

    The complaint alleges that the blog was viewed over 2000 times on Dec. 21. That's a lot of people. But surely, the Administration could have put up THEIR side of the story on the University's website. And they probably could have gotten their side of the story out to the newspapers and local TV as well if they wanted to.

    Maybe they did make an attempt at telling their side of the story to the local media--I don't know. But if they did, and if they had a compelling truth on their side, then why would they feel the need to file a libel suit? If they do pursue this suit they will probably have to spend tens of thousands on legal fees. Why do that, if you have a convincing case and can present your side of the story to the public practically for free?

    They seem upset that you called their honesty and their competency in question. I have no opinion about their honesty, but making a martyr out of you does call into question their competency.

    It is hard to imagine leaders of any other University behaving this way.

    Disclosure statement: I am not a lawyer and the above is not legal advice. While I BELIEVE the administration is incompetent based on how they are handling this case, that is my constituionally protected OPINION and not a statement of fact.

  11. Oh, you might also want to check out this website. I have summarized what I believe to be the most important libel cases and the most important quotes from those cases. And I have linked to the cases themselves if you want to study the basics of libel law in more detail. of Libel cases.htm