Monday, March 8, 2010

Are We Willing to Fight Like Animals?

The following is an open letter to the Shimer Community from David Koukal. David is a 1990 Shimer alumnus, long-time Shimer financial and moral supporter, Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Detroit Mercy, Director of UDM's Honors Program, and most recently, was one of the 6 "tabled" alumni candidates to our Board of Trustees. Our dear thanks go to David for contributing this encouraging and inspiring letter.

Dear Fellow Shimerians,

I am a 1990 Waukegan alumnus who discovered Shimer College by complete happenstance. Shimer is where I met one of my best friends (Bill Paterson ’89) and my wife of eighteen years (Sharon Vlahovich ’89). My chance encounter with the College also led me to go on to graduate school, and I have been a teacher of philosophy for almost twenty years. It is neither an overstatement nor a cliché to say that Shimer changed and immeasurably enriched my life.

I presently teach at the University of Detroit Mercy, where I also direct the honors program. Over the ten years I have been at Detroit, I have been very active on campus, serving on several committees, including a union negotiating committee, a college mission statement committee, as well as a core revision committee and the faculty assembly.

Despite these qualifications, and the thousands of dollars my wife and I have donated to Shimer over the years, I am one of the six nominees to the board of trustees whose nominations were tabled in January 2010. Because recent events at the College have convinced me that my nomination has virtually no hope of coming before the full board for a vote any time in the near future, I want to speak frankly and openly about the situation in which the College currently finds itself.

I once spoke with Mr. Lindsay on the phone, not long after he assumed the presidency of the College. I can report that we spoke for 20-30 minutes, and that I found him to be collegial, personable and reasonable. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, and after hanging up, I felt reassured that the College was in good hands. Given this conversation, I cannot square the president’s recent actions with the person I spoke with on the phone some while back. But as Aristotle intimates, it is more prudent to judge someone by their actions than by their words.

Putting aside for the moment the ideology with which the president and his supporters seem to want to align the College, let me focus on the genesis of the new mission statement and the immediate aftermath of its adoption by a narrow majority vote of the board of trustees.

The revision or replacement of a mission statement is a serious undertaking, no matter the educational institution. Typically, this is given over to a task force or self-study committee populated by the major stakeholders across the institution—faculty, students, administrators, alumni, trustees and staff—who collectively begin a deliberative process that is fraught with difficulty because it goes to refining or re-defining the very identity of the institution. It is not unusual for this process to take a year or more, especially in older, established schools. This task must be undertaken with great care, because the mission serves to unify the institution. In short, if there is a situation within academia where one wants to foster as much consensus as is humanly possible, this is it.

Unfortunately, this did not at happen at Shimer. The president offered a series of “guideposts” for revising the mission in October 2009, but did not offer his own draft of the mission until February 2010. Even then, he submitted this draft not to the relevant stakeholders but only to the board of trustees, who—three months ahead of schedule, according to the timetable Lindsay set down in his own “Overview of the Strategic Planning Process”—voted to adopt this draft by a narrow vote of 18-16, despite the manifest opposition of the vast majority of the College’s stakeholders.

Such unilateral re-definitions of a school’s mission statement simply do not happen in academia. To put it bluntly, in this instance the president failed to subscribe to standard academic good practice. Instead of engaging in a good faith dialogue with all of the College’s constituencies that would have allowed him to better acquaint himself with the community he is charged with leading, he relied solely on his narrow support among the trustees to foist his mission on the College, thereby passing up an opportunity to unify the community behind his vision for the College. Some might consider the president’s action an act of strength, but to my mind it testifies to his weakness as a leader, and suggests that he wants to establish a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas that is Shimer College.

Then, compounding his error in judgment, apparently the president intimated that if individual faculty did not confirm their allegiance to his new mission statement, they could seek employment elsewhere.

Set aside, for the moment, the glaring contradiction between this infringement on academic freedom and the following sentence from the president’s own mission statement: “The Shimer community recognizes that the intellectual liberty it pursues depends on its being situated in a system of political liberty.” Set aside how offensive a loyalty oath is to freedom of conscience. Set aside the conceit of a college president who mistakes himself for the college. Focus instead on the breathtaking audacity it must take to question the loyalty of these faculty—these faculty—who have achieved so much more than what most college faculty achieve in their careers. Focus on the great personal and professional sacrifices these faculty have made to shepherd the College through countless crises over a period of decades. Focus on what these faculty have given up in order to sustain an ideal exceedingly rare in higher education. These are truly noble people. To threaten them with the loss of their calling is the deepest cut, and profoundly indecent.

These actions have created a great deal of disharmony within the College, but on another level, they have had a unifying effect—they have unified opposition to the president’s leadership. The faculty, courageously and unanimously, rejected the president’s loyalty oath. The Assembly has overwhelmingly rejected the president’s mission statement, and demanded that the board vote on the tabled nominations to that body. I have special praise for the Shimer student body: you have been magnificent, and conducted yourselves with integrity, dignity, reason and—all the more remarkable under the circumstances—good humor. You have exemplified the democratic responsibilities that the president only talks about in his mission statement. Chief among these responsibilities is assuming a state of perpetual vigilance over those in power, in order to assure that this power is not abused. I admire you deeply, and I pray that your vigilance doesn’t waver.

Viewing this alarming situation from a distance, I wouldn’t dare second-guess the strategies the Assembly and faculty have adopted in resisting the president’s abuse of power, as they are closer to the conflict. So what I offer here should be construed only as another perspective on this situation, as possible food for thought.

To the extent that Shimer has embraced his pedagogical method for decades, it would perhaps be permissible to say that Socrates is the de facto patron saint of the College. And throughout the present conflict, the larger Shimer community has repeatedly manifested the Socratic devotion to rational discourse, though, it seems to me, the same cannot be said of the president and his allies on the board. This small faction has made it clear it has no use for the Assembly, and routinely ignores its resolutions. This begs the question of whether there is a duty to dialogue with the willfully deaf. We may valorize Socrates’ way of life, but remember how it ended. In my eyes it would be no consolation at all if the College was to martyr itself in a similar fashion.

It seems to me that Thucydides’ account of the Melian dialogue has something useful to contribute here. On this account, the neutral Melians offered every good faith argument to avoid war with the Athenians, only to be forced, in the end, to fight for their independence. After a long siege the Athenians prevailed. They then executed every adult Melian man, sold every Melian woman and child into slavery, and colonized the depopulated island.

This episode is instructive because it more starkly portrays the confrontation between reason and naked power. More specifically, I take the Melians to represent the discursive Shimer community, and the ruthless Athenians to represent the president and his allies. Is this comparison born of overwrought hyperbole? I would remind the reader of the president’s threat toward the College’s faculty. What is this but an attempt to depopulate the College of a significant source of opposition? Once the faculty are gone, I suspect that many if not most current Shimer students would understandably continue their education elsewhere, in schools that actually respect freedom of inquiry, leaving the College to be “colonized” as the president and his allies see fit. But I think the main lesson to be drawn from the actions of the Melians is that once dialogue failed, they fought.

Let me be quick to add that I understand that dialogue is a form of opposition. But its efficacy is negated if one’s opponents reject reasoned discourse as a means of settling a conflict. Where dialogue fails, other forms of resistance must be adopted. Here the playbook is The Prince, not Plato’s dialogues, and despite his nods toward liberty and virtue, the president’s leadership style seems to owe far more to Machiavelli than to Aristotle.

The Prince is devoted to the pursuit of power, not wisdom. Chapter 18 is especially noteworthy, where Machiavelli praises the ruler who knows how to employ cunning to confuse and disorient and overcome those who place store in integrity. Here Machiavelli stresses the importance of being a “clever counterfeit and hypocrite” who only needs to appear to have the qualities of reliability, sympathy and honesty. But most important to my present point, Machiavelli plainly states that there are two ways to fight: by the rules, like a man, or no holds barred, like an animal. In this connection, he says that a ruler must know how to be both a man and an animal, but even more importantly, to know when to act like a man and when like an animal.

It is growing increasingly clear to me that the president and his allies are not fighting by the rules—at least not by the principles of shared governance embraced by the rest of academia, and certainly not by the rules that have governed the College for the past forty-some years. Can there be any doubt, after the threat to our faculty, that the president and his allies are fighting like animals? Can there be any doubt that they are antagonistic toward the College’s traditions and ethos? And can there by any doubt, after our faculty have been menaced with loss of livelihood, that unless we too start fighting like animals, the College will be savaged and mauled beyond recognition?

About the president’s mission statement I will only say that any move to privilege some texts over others is contrary to Shimer’s long pedagogical tradition, and flirts with the establishment of an orthodoxy. For quite a long time now, Shimer’s mission has been about the pursuit of wisdom in the broadest sense. This pursuit cannot be bounded by any dogma; it must be allowed to wander freely. In the article that recently appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Shimer was described as “fiercely independent.” If we understand this to denote intellectual independence, then I think this is a quality worth preserving because it fosters an education (to paraphrase Plato) that begins and is sustained in wonder. This wonder nurtures a healthy questioning of the endoxic that allows for the emergence of truly independent and liberated thinkers.

By way of contrast, orthodoxy, according to Orwell, is “the absence of thought . . . it is unconsciousness.” The orthodox do not to need to think because they think they already have the truth, and Orwell’s 1984 vividly illustrates the terror that can result from those who have sworn blind allegiance to a dogma. History is awash with cases of cruelty and absurdity in the service of a dogma or orthodoxy—the mutual slaughter of Catholics and Protestants during the Thirty Years War, the denial of heliocentrism by the Church hierarchy, the Holocaust, the imposition of historical materialism onto Soviet science, the killing fields of Pol Pot—the list is endless. Behind every indecency is a dogma waiting to be exposed by truly liberated minds, including the indecency of a college president who threatens his faculty over a matter of conscience, which by itself disqualifies Mr. Lindsay from holding the presidency of Shimer College, or that of any other institution of higher learning for that matter. Contra totus dogmata—against all dogmas—and against all dogmatists!

In the end, I think the main question we have to confront is this: are we willing to fight like animals to save this school? How far are we willing to go to save Shimer College? I feel sure we have enough fertile and devoted minds to take up the whys and hows of these questions, but I think we must move quickly because time is not on our side.

I will help in any way I can.

Most Sincerely,

David Koukal

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