‘Students Are Not The Enemy of … Faculty Unless We Invite Them To Be’

November 21, 2011

The past few days appear to have launched “Hypocrisy Week.” First, the New York Times public editor turned to Wendy Murphy—Wendy Murphy!—for guidance on how journalists should cover sexual assault cases. Then, the Chronicle of Higher Education turned to Cathy Davidson—Cathy Davidson!—to deliver a plea about protecting students’ due process rights on campus.

During the lacrosse case, Davidson distinguished herself for her “revisionist” interpretation of the Group of 88 statement, which she displayed in a January 2007 N&O op-ed. In a bizarre inversion of reality, the Group member claimed that the period between March 24 and April 6, 2006—when Duke administrators, professors, some students, and “activists” regularly denounced the lacrosse players—in fact featured a Duke campus with widespread, boisterous defenses of lacrosse players coupled with racist attacks on black women. “It was,” fantasized she, “as if defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann necessitated reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women.” (In an e-mail circulated at the time, Davidson confessed that she penned the op-ed after consulting with a lawyer, and being informed that Group members could be vulnerable to civil suits.)

Davidson’s latest stab at commentary came in response to the pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters at UC-Davis—which today led to the suspension of the campus police chief. Cal-Davis deserves all the criticism that it gets for this incident, and I agree wholeheartedly with the remarks of FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff on the issue. Yet there’s something . . . peculiar . . . about seeing Cathy Davidson standing up for due process, given what was (at best) her indifference when three of her own institution’s students faced the highest-profile case of prosecutorial misconduct in recent U.S. history. It’s even more remarkable to see her pen an article entitled “A Plea to College Presidents: Exercise Your Moral Leadership,” given the failed “moral leadership” exhibited by her own institution’s president in the lacrosse case.

Davidson, however, appears unable or unwilling to detect her hypocrisy. “Students are not the enemy of administrators and faculty unless we invite them to be,” writes the Group member. If nothing else, the Group of 88 statement invited dozens of Duke students to recognize that some of the most outspoken faculty members on campus viewed them as the enemy.

The Davidson essay is notable for another matter relating to academic hypocrisy. Over the past several weeks, I’ve heard of troubling instances in which CUNY faculty members have brought the Occupy Wall Street protests into their classrooms, including at least two occasions of professors “encouraging” their students to actually attend the protests. Davidson seems to see little problematic with such conduct, noting approvingly that she has “heard from faculty and administrators who see the Occupy activities as appropriate for thoughtful conversation and debate across a numerous departments, whether economics or ethics.”

It would be interesting to see how many professors who see OWS as a “teachable moment” had a similar reaction to the Tea Party movement, which in many ways was OWS’ mirror image from 2009-10. (I rather doubt that Davidson had such a reaction, for instance.) From defenders of the academic status quo, we often hear (correctly, in my opinion) that the partisan affiliation of professors, in and of itself, is irrelevant to the quality of education. But that argument becomes much harder to sustain when professors so blatantly bring their political sympathies into the classroom.

“Students are not the enemy of administrators and faculty unless we invite them to be.” Cathy Davidson certainly knows of what she speaks.