Monday, December 7, 2009

When in Doubt, Sue

Inside Higher Ed recently ran an interview with Professor Amy Gajda, the author of The Trials of Academe: The New Era of Campus Litigation published in October by Harvard University Press. The book and the interview have much to teach us about Butler’s reaction to The True BU.

Take a look at how the interview opens and see if it sounds familiar: “When in doubt, sue. That philosophy has become an expected part of American society and (to the frustration of many in higher education) academe as well.”

Professor Gajda was asked to comment on the notion that “Many college administrators these days complain that lawyers for their institutions have too much power.” In response, she said, “University counsel have never been busier or more important, but there is a danger in letting lawyers call all the shots. The ‘safest’ course from a litigation standpoint may not be the best for innovation, research, or teaching….College administrators and faculty generally need to be alert to the legal risks, while remaining true to their academic judgment.”

Remember that Butler’s president is on record saying that the university lawyers were operating without his knowledge and not under his control. Actually, though, I don’t think that is what Professor Gajda meant when she said that “lawyers for their institution have too much power.” Frankly, I doubt that she would have ever imagined a situation of the kind Butler’s president wants you to believe. But I have no doubt that the lawyers were complicit in creating Butler’s strategy with respect to intimidating me into shutting down The True BU. And I have no doubt that they play too large a role in the Butler administrative ethos.

Professor Gajda was asked about ways to reduce litigation: “Can you summarize the steps you recommend to colleges to discourage litigation as a means of solving disputes?” Her advice makes good sense. “The most important thing is for colleges to find a way of defusing academic disputes before they harden into a legal complaint. If colleges and universities took greater care to promote communication and a sense of community on campus, there would be fewer lawsuits.”

It seems to me that Butler has a great deal of work to do on this front. What sort of a “sense of community” exists on Butler’s campus when faculty member after faculty member expresses great fear of the administration? How can the administration ignore the problem when music faculty feel they can only come forward anonymously under the protection of a priest to document that what I wrote in The True BU was what they shared with me and that it was accurate? There is one thing that is helping faculty come together and build a shared community: their sense of fear of the Butler administration. Similarly, the Butler administration is all about secrecy. They “classify” more documents than you can imagine. Their two-pronged strategy when dealing with conflict, as has been so well demonstrated throughout my experience, is to demand that the content of all meetings remain secret and to have meetings with as few people at a time as they can get away with so they can tell each group a different “secret.” Amid a climate of fear, this strategy ensures that no one knows what anyone else knows – and thus that administrators are never asked tough questions.

One of the main points of Professor Gajda’s book is that recourse to the court system, while being overused now, came about to correct abuses present on college campuses that occurred when colleges acted as if they were outside of the law. She paints an unsettling picture of how things were: “At one time, colleges were basically unaccountable in the courts. They ignored contracts, trampled speech rights, and dismissed students and faculty on whim or prejudice with basic impunity.” She concludes that thought with the only statements she’s made with which I disagree and which is demonstrably false, at least on one campus in central Indiana: “No one should want to go back to those days.” It is all too obvious that Butler administrators yearn for the good old days when they could act with impunity, when freedom of speech stopped when someone in power didn’t like what was being said.

Professor Gajda does a great service by documenting a very real threat to higher education and the actions of Butler University serve to prove her case definitively.


  1. Jess, You're doing a great job with this blog! These posts are very insightful and informative. Keep it up and good luck!