When Academic Administrators Lose Their Moral Compass

May 10, 2011

Bill Watts, associate professor of English at Butler University, has just published a compelling and cautionary account of what can happen when university administrators lose their moral compass. In his thoughtful and comprehensive essay in the Journal of Academic Freedom, published by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Watts analyzes the facts surrounding Butler University’s legal attack on one of its students. As Watts noted, the case set legal precedent in America: "The Indianapolis Star ran an article that stated, on the authority of Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, that ‘this is the first case of a university suing a student over online speech.’"

Because Watts does a wonderful job of explaining all of the complicated details, I’ll not do so here other than to make a couple of general points. First, Butler’s senior administrators opted to use the university’s budget and lawyers to attack a student for having the temerity to complain about the actions of some of those administrators. Second, Butler’s actions were so outrageous that numerous international groups, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Reporters Without Borders, all came to the student’s defense. Additionally, more than 20 student newspapers from around the country wrote in support of both the principle of freedom of speech and of the student. Finally, after a huge amount of negative publicity, including two articles in The Huffington Post (here and here), the Butler administration backed down and dropped the law suit.

In fact, the university’s actions have all the hallmarks of a classic example of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit in which an organization with deep pockets uses its monetary power to intimidate citizens with the intent of controlling their behavior. The goal isn’t to actually win a lawsuit, but to scare people into backing down and, thus, stifling their criticism. Large corporations have regularly used SLAPP suits to fight environmentalists seeking to halt institutional pollution. Because SLAPP suits have become so common and because they represent such an imbalance of power, numerous laws have been crafted to limit their use. The case Watts discusses is, perhaps, the only example of a university using this strategy against one of its own students.

As Watts points out, though, the issues this particular case raises — and the lessons they might teach us — go well beyond the specifics of one student. He begins by noting what should be obvious: Given the centrality of freedom of expression "to an academic community, a university’s suing a student for libel constitutes a curious act of self-abnegation, rather like the United Way taking a position against charitable giving, or the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association urging that all Americans embrace a vegan diet." He goes on to explain, however, how "the Butler lawsuit shows what can happen when legalistic reasoning replaces academic deliberation, and when the faculty is marginalized in the decision-making process of a university."

Butler’s senior administrators, Watts argues, lost sight of the institution’s mission and turned to their lawyers to defend their virtue. At the same time, they had so belittled, berated and frightened the institution’s faculty that even tenured professors were scared to speak their minds. Indeed, those faculty members who provided the student with information that the administration found so unpalatable refused to come forward, fearing retaliation from the administration. As Watts puts it, "In one of the stranger moments in this extended conflict, they gave confidential testimony to a minister on campus who then wrote a letter on their behalf."

Watts wisely notes that faculty have a critical role to play in helping to shape, maintain and promote an institution’s values. He turns to words written by AAUP president Cary Nelson to remind us of "the role of shared governance in preserving academic freedom on campus. [Nelson] writes that ‘academic freedom is an empty concept, or at least an effectively diminished one, if the faculty does not control its enforcement through shared governance.’"

The most important lesson that Watts teaches us is one that extends well beyond the boundaries of the academy.

It is the duty of faculty members to preserve academic freedom on campus, and they need to take an expansive view of this obligation. In this case, they needed to say — and they needed to have the courage, support, and collective wisdom to say — "This action is wrong. It is contrary to who we are, and who we want to be. Stop it!" And when the faculty speaks in this way, the president, provost, and other leaders of the university need to listen.

That simple act — listening — might prove to be the most difficult thing of all to achieve.

Let me end with a couple of personal points. First, I feel honored to be able to claim Bill Watts as a friend. I don’t believe that our friendship, however, has in any way colored my view of what he has written and the admiration I have consistently felt for his willingness to stand up to speak the truth as he understands it. His sense of justice and his impulse to work to improve his community are incredibly impressive. Second, as many of you may already know, I have a personal stake in this particular case; the student the Butler administration went after is my son. He too opted to take steps to improve the community in which he was living, working and studying — and I am proud of him for taking the actions he did.

Please, form your own opinions. Read Bill Watts’ excellent analysis. Perhaps his words will help keep other administrators from wandering so far astray.