A time comes in the life of every campus leader when a regrettable or silly mistake is made. If you serve long enough, errors are inevitable, but leaders should be judged not for their errancy, but how they handle mistakes when they do come up. By that measure, let’s take a look at Charles W. Sorensen, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
On Sept. 12, 2011, UW-Stout theater professor James Miller posted this tribute to the captain of the starboat Serenity, Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, from the beloved and short-lived sci-fi series Firefly, on his office door:
If you take two seconds to think about what this quote means, it becomes pretty obvious that it is the character’s way of saying, "Hey, I play fair." Indeed, this quote is from the pilot of Firefly, during which Mal reassures the new ship’s doctor after he asked him, "How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?" The answer is macho, over-the-top and very Mal, but it is really saying, "You have nothing to worry about." (Full disclosure: I am a HUGE fan of Firefly and all things Joss Whedon.)
Rather than ask what the poster meant, the campus police stepped in. Professor Miller was contacted by Lisa A. Walter, the chief of police/director of Parking Services, after she removed the poster and informed him that "it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing." She also warned the astounded professor that any future such posts would be removed and would cause him to be charged with "disorderly conduct."
Miller rightly deduced that this was an insane overreaction. The Constitution protects speech far, far harsher than a quip from Firefly. It seemed that someone at the college either had an axe to grind or was just power tripping at Miller’s expense.
So, on Sept. 16th he posted this:
In a feat of intentional misunderstanding of the kind that is unfortunately all too common on campus, the university interpreted Professor Miller’s protest as being essentially pro-fascist and advocating violence. The police tore down this poster, too, with Chief Walter claiming this time that the problem was that the poster "depicts violence and mentions violence or death." She went on to say that "it is believed that this posting also has a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat." Walter also told Miller he had been reported to the "threat assessment team."
See how they did that? Walter had transmogrified a post intended to poke fun at her into a clearly pro-fascist threat against the university. It is as absurd an interpretation as it is self-serving. No one was threatened by the Firefly poster, and no reasonable person would understand the second poster to be anything other than a rebuke of Walter’s heavy-handed action in the first place. The university overreacted to a poster and then decided to double down rather than admit error when the professor decided to make fun of that overreaction.
When my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote the university to protest, I admit I assumed the chancellor of UW-Stout would realize this was a serious overreaction on their part that made the school look like it was unable to accept criticism and one that also could place the college on the losing end of a First Amendment lawsuit. When we took the case public on Monday and everyone from Firefly star Adam Baldwin, to Gawker, the Onion‘s AV Club, Reason.com, and even Nathan Fillion, the actor who played Mal, publicly pointed out the absurdity of the case, I was even more certain the chancellor would apologize and rectify the situation. That was what I figured a sensible leader, or at least one that cared about his professors and his college’s reputation, would do.
And boy was I wrong.
Last evening Chancellor Sorensen, Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes issued a statement to all faculty and staff passionately standing by their decision in this case. Sorensen and his fellow administrators claimed that the posters were removed because their top lawyers believed they "constituted an implied threat of violence." Further highlighting the deep denial of the top administration at UW-Stout, the email concluded, "This was not an act of censorship. This was an act of sensitivity to and car e for our shared community, and was intended to maintain a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure."
I’ll have to correct you on that, Chancellor Sorensen. Tearing down harmless posters and threatening the professor who put them up with criminal punishment is the very essence of censorship. Again, the reaction to the first poster was unreasonable as no reasonable person would have felt threatened by it. The reaction to the second poster was utterly disingenuous, as the school pretended a criticism of the heavy-handedness of the administration was actually some kind of threat in a transparent attempt to punish a critical professor. Rather than admit a mistake, the chancellor has doubled down yet again, this time invoking the safety and security of the community. To invoke such serious concerns in this case is to cry wolf. And lest we forget, the point of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" story is that it is dangerous to let people believe you are in serious danger when you’re not, as, God forbid, should you ever be in true danger, people are unlikely to take you seriously.
But it is not too late, Chancellor Sorensen. If you really care about making the campus "welcome, safe and secure," you might want to start by letting your students and faculty members know that they don’t risk criminal charges the next time they quote a beloved line from a Joss Whedon show.