Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Rhetoric of Unity

I'm supposed to be on "vacation" this weekend but when news like this comes out, it's hard to ignore....

Recently 10 UW department chairs wrote a letter in support of a policy (the NBP). They explicitly stated (at the end of paragraph one) that they did so independently: "We write on our own behalf and not as formal representatives of our departments." Yet they signed the letter with their names, titles (e.g. chair) and department names. Furthermore, the UW Administration -- and other advocates like Students for the NBP -- are promoting it as indicative of widespread support from faculty and "academic leaders" and do not clarify that those directors and chairs do not write on behalf of their departments and units.

First, I'm confused. If these chairs are writing independently, and not as department chairs, why did they use their titles when they signed? Signatures from chairs are commonly interpreted as endorsements from departments, and they must know that. Were department votes solicited before the decision was made by the chairs to act alone? I'm in Sociology, and don't think so-- or perhaps I missed an email?

Second, I'm concerned. What message does this send to members of these departments who do not agree with their chairs? Now, expressing opposition to the NBP requires not only going against your Chancellor's expressed wishes, but also those of your chair. You will have to disagree with someone your Administration is calling an "academic leader." Let me say as someone who knows well, this is very, very risky on our campus right now. I know very few professors, tenured or not, who feel it's safe to do so.

So let's be crystal clear: this letter does not mean the NBP has support from these 10 departments. This letter was ONLY signed by 10 department chairs, and that ain't much--we have at least 100. And finally, this letter is indicative of a real problem on campus right now--in an effort to "save UW" those with power are making it hard for those who lack it to express disagreement (I'm obviously an exception, and conclusions should not be drawn based on my own ill-advised actions). Worse yet, they do so with good intentions. Sadly, that doesn't matter since the effect is the same. It allows places like the SNBP to make such claims like "[we] could not find any negative press from members of our campus community in the past week." Amazing! I suppose the campus community no longer includes me? Beth Huang? Steve Horn? The professors writing on Sifting and Winnowing? Of course not --because much sifting and winnowing is suppressed, and replaced with fear.