The Chancellor Resigns — a short story

Posted on 2015 December 13

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Dean Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna stepped down after she sparked a campus protest and hunger strikes by two students this week over her email to a Latina student saying she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” — news item

Is this on? … Okay. Can you hear me? Good.

I have called this press conference to make an announcement. But first, some background.

For more than ten years I have been chancellor of this great university. During that time we have made huge strides, increasing the endowment, adding lecture halls and lab buildings, hiring world-class researchers and professors, and admitting the highest-achieving student body in our history. Together as a community we have done great things.

Recently, however, a controversy has erupted over something I wrote. I had sent out a letter of welcome to the incoming freshman class. In that email I said … hold on … here it is. I said, “Some of you are students of color who may feel concerned that you do not fit the mold of our school. I assure you that you are welcome here, and your unique contributions, of both style and substance, will augment and enhance our culture to everyone’s benefit.” Apparently some people in the community believed I was talking down to these new students, and that bringing up cultural differences was an act of disrespect and aggression.

I can assure you I had no such intentions. But protesters insisted my words were so gauche as to disqualify me as leader of this institution. A motion of censure was brought before the Academic Senate, and during the hearing my attempts to explain myself were shouted down. The vote for censure passed.

I am reminded of an old saying, that we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our motives. It disheartens me to think that my accusers are unwilling to listen to, much less believe, my intentions in writing the email.

It has become clear to me that I have lost the faith of this community, and that my continued presence here will not help but will likely hinder progress toward reconciliation. I will therefore tender my resignation as chancellor, effective today at five p.m. local time.

I am concerned that the purpose of this university is under attack. It appears that more and more among the student body regard a college education, not as an opportunity to grow intellectually and creatively, but simply as a means of acquiring a symbol of status — namely, the baccalaureate degree. For these students it is unacceptable that anyone be permitted to work here who utters, intentionally or otherwise, words the students take to be affronts to their dignity. 

Prestige and status are side effects of successful hard work, but they ought not be the principal goals of an institution of higher learning. Such a purpose, with its recent corollary, the suppression of unpopular speech, runs counter to the spirit and practice of the academy. Worse, it threatens the hard-won academic freedoms we hold dear. 

In the rough and tumble of intellectual debate, it is inevitable that participants will feel challenged. If an idea or assertion stuns a listener, or catches her or him off guard, that person may momentarily feel a sting of embarrassment. It is a common occurrence, a natural property of the quest for knowledge, and I have felt its lash on countless occasions, as have my fellows in academia. But if students balk at any words that might cause them to feel doubt, especially self-doubt, then the free flow of information, questions, and wisdom will be stifled.

If the purpose of the university were merely to endow students with prestige, then one could argue that no student should be subject to ideas that challenge their self regard. But one could also argue that the status value of their bachelor’s degrees thereby would shrink. Employers would come to doubt the value of such a certificate when their new hires become agitated and upset over anything stressful in the workplace. Businesses will believe they have hired a bunch of spoiled children instead of the mature and responsible and productive graduates they thought they were getting.

As for those of the professoriate who supported with enthusiasm the vote against me, I adjure them to consider the dark consequences of their action. Unless they watch carefully their own speech, they will find that the most energetic among the crusading faculty and students will likely conduct searches of their records, examining in detail academic papers and publications for any sign of incorrect thought. Thus, if you value your career here, you should think twice about what you write or say, both in public and private.

It is ironic that, of all the members of this community, I am this morning the only one who retains full freedom of speech. But that is because I am leaving and have nothing further to lose. When only outsiders can speak the truth, the insiders are in deep trouble. I hope they can get out of it.

I leave here with great sadness for what might have been, but also with great joy for the happy memories of my tenure at this fine place of learning. I wish all of you, on both sides of this issue, reconciliation and happiness, and, most of all, peaceful hearts. Life outside these walls is much less forgiving, and it is my fervent wish that all of you take full advantage of the wisdom you can glean from your experience here as you prepare for the wider world. Please don’t throw it away during an ecstasy of repressive rebellion.

…Okay, there’s time for one or two questions. Yes, you over there.

“Will you do as the student protesters demand and apologize?”

For my email?

“Yes.”

If I were to do that, I’d set a precedent that would allow students to dictate the precise manner in which administrators were permitted to address them. This is unbecoming to a university on so many levels, I can’t begin to list them all. So, no, I won’t accede to that demand. I am happy to explain my intentions to anyone who will listen. We are all supposed to be grown-ups here, and adults cut each other some slack. At the very least they inquire in a civil manner when someone says something the listener takes to be of doubtful intent. But throwing a tantrum every time a person communicates in a way deemed inappropriate, that sets a very low standard.

…Yes, in the second row.

“What are your plans for the future?”

Well, my spouse and children have received death threats, and though we believe these are of low likelihood, we have nonetheless taken steps to remove my family to a secure location for an indefinite period of time. I will join them shortly. 

As for my own future, I am looking forward to resuming research and writing, projects which have lately taken a back seat to my duties as chancellor. Perhaps, after this fiasco, if anyone will have me, I’ll also be able once again to teach. 

Thank you all. We’re out of time. I have a plane to catch.

* * * *

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UPDATE: Yale speech bullies win a round

UPDATE: Oberlin says ‘No’ to Africana student demands

UPDATE: College profs have moved sharply left since the 1990s

UPDATE: Micro-aggressions and “vindictive protectiveness”

UPDATE: Calling thieves “criminals” is a micro-aggression?

UPDATE: Diversity of thought is the cure

UPDATE: Liberal arts colleges have become religious schools? (long essay)

UPDATE: On-campus culture of victimhood

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