Friday, November 13, 2009

Purdue Gets It Right on Chapman; Students....Not So Much!

Ahhhh....the idealistic and ignorant of public relations!

I might get grief for this, but...(1) Purdue University was absolutely right not to bow to student demands for the termination of professor Bert Chapman, and (2) the students, though well-intentioned, "chose poorly."

Calls for Chapman's ouster came after he posted comments about the alleged economic costs of homosexuality on his conservative blog.

The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." Too many Americans who haven't actually read the passage think "the First amendment" means speech without consequences. It doesn't.

The focus is on government stiffling free speech, not private individuals (or even groups of students). This is why I said "knock yourself out" when a bunch of good old boys with belt buckles bearing their names crushed Dixie Chick CDs with a steamroller. I said the same thing when people protested Don Imus and Lou Dobbs, as well as when conservatives boycotted the Teletubbies because one carried a purse and had a triangle on his head. (As an aside, did anyone else find it amusing that conservatives branded Tinky Winky gay while somehow missing that two of the other Teletubbies have phalluses coming out of their heads?)

Individuals and groups can protest, and they can boycott. But when they start trying to force government entities like public universities to take sides on a moral debate, they've crossed the line. In addition, if freedom of expression deserves extra protection anywhere, isn't it on a college campus, the alleged bastion of academic freedom?

Too many people in my party try to stifle dissenting views they find deplorable. We must ask more from ourselves, or we'll get trapped in the same yoke when the political tide turns. Remember the plea from The American President?

"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center-stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free."

Maybe it's the lawyer in me, but I get nervous when people try to stop others from raising questions, and that's what's transpired here.

I read Chapman's piece because I didn't want to be one of those folks who criticize without first-hand knowledge. Chapman asks, in an admittedly semi-demagogic and only semi-scholarly way what we could have achieved healthwise had we not spent billions on AIDS funding.

While I say, given how the federal government's tragic inaction in the early 1980's permitted the proliferation of HIV, sums spent thereafter were necessary, isn't the most fundamental question a citizen gets to ask his government, "What was the next best alternative for the dollars you spent?"

Chapman's piece is undoubtedly anti-gay, as it classifies homosexuality as "aberrant." But it does something else that is not customary in gay-bashing screeds - it classifies all sex out of heterosexual marriage as aberrant and costly to society.

This is noteworthy because many Republicans/conservatives tend to draw the lines of acceptable conduct right at the ledge where they stand, which is why a staggering number condemn homosexuality while also being serial adulterers. Chapman seems intent not to let them off the hook, and if he cannot ask his questions on a private blog without fear of the governmental hand slapping him down, where can he?

Now, do I think Chapman's comments are wrong? Yes. But this is precisely why I do not fear their injection into public discourse. If Chapman's views are off-base, they will not take hold, we'll win on the merits, and Chapmans of the world fade into obscurity.

That didn't happen here.

My hope is that one day the self-aggrandizing who are so eager to lead protests will realize that the main byproduct of their actions is nothing but heightened publicity for the ill-formed view and its purveyor. I promise you, Chapman is now a political martyr for the right and his blog traffic has gone up 1,000 fold.

Maybe it's the students who needed to be shut up.



Pete said...

I am going to disagree in a couple of key regards.

1. While Purdue is by no means obligated to fire him, if the Professor currently doesn't have tenure, I'd be awfully reluctant to grant it to him.

2. I would deny the good prof tenure specifically because of the "semi-academic" blog post in question. By reducing the granting of Civil Rights to a bizarre Accounting Review, the professor clearly has no grasp of critical thinking. Moreover, I'm fairly certain that the HIV infection rate is MUCH higher among straight drug users than it is among lesbians. Yet, the good professor is using his HIV metric as an excuse for intolerance towards lesbians as well.

3. If a Professor had written a blog post entitled "An Economic Case for Apartheid", would you also be defending him or his job status?

4. How can the Purdue students be assured that the professors homophobic attitudes wouldn't affect his teaching or grading?

Blog Admin said...

Pete, to your points:

1 and 2. I don't know if he has tenure or not. I'll leave it up to school officials to grant it to him or not. They wouldn't be wrong to deny him tenure even if this blog post never existed.

3. It doesn't matter what he wrote. You can't just fire someone (let me rephrase that, shouldn't), particularly those employed by the government to promote education, for controversial opinions.

I'm going to agree with IPOPA on this, let the free market of students and classes decide. If they don't take his classes, he won't teach, and that's a good first step to losing his job.

4. I'm not big on raising hypotheticals. If the situation does happen, let's have faith in the academic system rather than putting someone on trial for a crime that hasn't been committed or even thought of.

Chris Worden said...


Your comments are always thoughtful, so thanks for stopping by again. In response, I'd say:

1. I worry that whether a university keeps somebody hinges on what views (s)he expresses on a personal blog. I'm one of those "ends don't always justify the means" guys, which means I care about equal application of a principle, and I can't shake the notion that a lot more people would be saying what I am were academia populated by conservatives.

2. While it's clear the professor opposes gay marriage, the focal point of his article is HIV funding. As heterosexual drug use and promiscuity is more of a cause now than gay sex, I don't see how you can say reducing funding for AIDS is akin to denying civil rights. But more importantly, look at how on the money you correctly detect that lesbians don't really cause ANY of the problems Chapman flags, but they're still chucked into the bucket. And this is what the free exchange of ideas does. It lets us debunk some notions and call others out as intellectually suspect. Let students figure out how to do this. When we insulate them from "controversial" ideas, we cripple them.

3. Yes, I would defend a professor who wrote an academic case for apartheid and posted it on a personal blog. He would get obliterated by his peers (and by me) and on campus, as (s)he should, but if you give government the right to jeopardize someone's livelihood because of what he thinks, even if it doesn't affect his/her job performance, I assure you, if conservatives take over, you're not going to like the world you're living. My only concern would be your excellent point that penning such an article comes from a place of dark bigotry, which gets me to your #4....

I'd monitor closely the grading of all students to see if African-Americans were scored lower than other students, and if so, THEN I'd can the professor. But not until then.

I remember in college when certain students would say a conservative professor, Edward McLain, scored them poorly because he disagreed with him. I found that funny because we went to WAR in damn near every class, but I always got A's. He was a pro-life, anti-gay, anti-affirmative action, state's rights, limited government, strict constructionist. But somehow he always made a fair critique. That's the spirit I embrace, and honestly, I do so because I'm objective enough to admit that I seldom hear liberals expressing worry that conservative students will be graded poorly by liberal professor because of their beliefs. Lord know I haven't done so until just now. Why is that? Is it because we think liberals are so much better at being fair in the face of contrary views, or is it because, quite frankly, we don't give a damn?

Look, I hear what you are saying, but to me the marketplace of ideas is a competition, and I don't want to win anything because I handicap the opponents. I want to win because I kicked their @sses.