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.
Ice Professor of English, Liberal Education, and Pedagogy