Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Curmie Smörgåsbord

It’s the last-minute frenzy, as Curmie does some traveling over the rest of the calendar year, and is unlikely to have the opportunity to write another post in 2014. So the last round-up of Curmie contenders will be a little rushed, and will leave out a host of potential contenders. There are still a dozen or more stories I really want to get to, and two or three times that many more that I think are worthy of comment. But enough of the scaffolding… let’s talk about as many of these as we can, even if I get to spend less time/space per entry than normal.

Adrionna Harris: thank you.
First up: From March: Middle schooler Adrionna Harris was suspended and threatened with expulsion from Bayside Middle School in Virginia because she stopped a classmate from cutting himself with a razor, took it away from him, and threw it away. You see, she didn’t just let him keep on hurting himself while she scurried away to find a teacher, who may or may not have actually done anything. Oh, and she had possession of a razor (long enough to throw it away!) and did not report it… well, except for the fact that she did, but other than that, it’s a great argument. There’s a Zero Tolerance Policy, you see, because school administrators are too busy feeling self-important to go through the work of finding out if someone actually did something wrong.

In fact, the insane punishment came about only because she mentioned the events to a guidance counselor the next day: there was no other evidence. As Jonathan Turley points out, “[Adrionna] was disciplined for not only grabbing the razor but telling the truth to school officials — quite a lesson for other students.” Here’s the thing. It’s reasonable to want adults to handle these situations. And an admonishment—“if this ever happens again, call a teacher immediately”—wouldn’t have been out of line. But if Principal Paula Johnson wanted to trade her brains for a box of sporks, she’d have to throw in some cash and a future draft choice.

Local television news outlets tend to think that they’re pretty important, so we might want to take it with a grain of salt when they declare that nobody at the school would give the girl’s parents the time of day until “”10 On Your Side” got into the act. The scary thing is, though, that I believe them.

It appears that the events in this incident played out about the same as they generally do in similar cases: 1). the school makes a profoundly stupid decision, 2). they ignore anyone who questions their divine right to be utter idiots, 3). they staunchly defend the decision despite the fact that its inanity is obvious to anyone with an IQ above room temperature, 4). news of the decision gets out anyway, and generally goes viral, 5). everyone laughs at what incompetents the school administrators are, 6). the decision is reversed—not because the principal or superintendent or whoever really understand how outrageous they’ve been (and how absurd it is that they’re still employed), but because they’re tired of being laughed at.

Oh, and Paula Johnson, the cretinous yahoo who perpetrated this stupidity… the 2013 Outstanding Secondary School Assistant Principal of the Year (could I make this up?). God spare us from whoever came in second for that award.

Paul Roof and his impressive hirsuitness
Next up: From June: Sociology professor Paul Roof was fired shortly after being promoted to Associate Professor (and, one presumes, tenured, although that’s not always the case) by Charleston Southern University because his photograph—taken at a beard competition to benefit ovarian cancer victims and their families (over $25,000 raised so far)—was used without consulting him as part of the logo on cans of Holy City Brewery’s Chucktown Follicle Brown beer (well, probably ale, but all the news reports say “beer”). By the way, there’s nothing in the university’s code of conduct that prohibits alcohol use.

Ah, but having his picture on the beer can, despite the fact that he does not own the image and didn’t authorize its use, “was not representative of a Christian environment.” Roof’s response is classic—that for him, “a Christian environment entails two things: looking out for other people and forgiveness of others who've transgressed you.” In any just universe, it would be Vice President of Academic Affairs Jackie Fish, not Professor Roof, who’d be looking for a new job. Under normal circumstances, Curmie would say that Fish needs a little more bran in his diet, but this time, I’m guessing a little beer would help a lot. Might I suggest Chucktown Follicle Brown? If nothing else, it has a great label.

Eric Lopez: not a sexual threat
Next up: From July: Alas, we’ve seen this stupidity before. In Surprise, Arizona, Eric Lopez, a kindergartner at Ashton Ranch Elementary School, pulled his pants down on the playground last spring. For this, he now has an entry in his permanent file for “sexual misconduct.” Let me repeat, kindergartner Eric Lopez did that. Not “kindergarten teacher’s aide Eric Lopez,” kindergartner Eric Lopez. As in, he’s five.

Still, after questioning the boy without his parents’ presence (school regulations say you can do that if the child doesn’t specifically ask for a parent to be there), administrators apparently got him to “sign” a confession of sorts—he can’t really write, yet—that, yes, he committed “sexual misconduct,” despite the fact that he has no idea what either of those words mean and would be incapable of any sexual act even if he wanted to commit one. Oh, and despite the fact that he seems to have been bullied into doing what he did do.

The district’s point person on this seems to be Jim Dean. He’s the assistant superintendent in Dysart USD. He’s also got the sense of an over-stimulated piranha and the brains of a doorknob. By this description, I intend no offense to the doorknobs of the world. First off, the idea that you can cross-examine a five-year-old without as much as parental notification (or telling the boy he could request his mother to be there) is obscene, and I don’t care what it says in your fucking little rulebook. Such action is as nonsensical as it is unethical, and if it isn’t illegal, it damned well ought to be.

But to call anything that any five-year-old does “sexual” is a perversion of both science and the language that even assistant superintendents (allowing for their diminished mental capacity) should be able to get away with. To compound the problem with weaselly platitudes about “consistent language” is just disgusting. Oh, and if, in fact, “The discussion with a kindergarten student is focused on the specific action, not on the label that is used for classifying the infraction,” then maybe you should not, in fact, worry about the classification of the infraction, and remove that classification from the boy’s record. A kindergartner who was bullied into dropping his pants and then bullied again into “admitting” it should not have “sexual misconduct” on his permanent record.

So STFU, Mr. Dean. Oh, and please resign. Retroactively. Return all salary received since this incident. And never take a job in education again. Ever.

Steven Salaita: should be employed
Next up: From August: Steven Salaita was recruited by the University of Illinois to fill a tenured position in their American Indian Studies program. He accepted the position, resigned from a tenured job at Virginia Tech, and proceeded to prepare his family to move to Champaign/Urbana (where, incidentally, Curmie will celebrate the New Year… and the wedding of a beloved former student).

Of course, there’s a bunch of legalese in faculty contracts, including, in this case, a disclaimer that the offer of a position was subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees. It is, as Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Education points out, “a formality.” Well, almost always.

Between the offer and the beginning of classes, Professor Salaita made some controversial tweets about Israel. To be fair, some of them could reasonably be said to cross the line into incivility. For example: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” But, again to be fair, it doesn’t matter. Salaita has a right, as a private citizen, to say unpopular things. Indeed, scholars have a virtual responsibility to challenge orthodoxy.

The administration at UIUC didn’t see it that way. Chancellor Phyllis Wise broke the precedent of thousands of academic hires at universities every year, and proclaimed that Salaita’s appointment would not be forwarded to the Trustees, because, apparently, that’s what happens to naughty boys. Real reason? Some fat-cat donors and some of the Trustees themselves believe in free expression only when the speaker agrees with them.

The case did find itself to the Trustees (after the semester has already started, if that gives you an idea of how truly unimportant faculty appointments are—and should be—in Trustee meetings), where, predictably, the entrenched businesspeople who don’t really understand universities but sure are worth a lot of money proclaimed their support for Chancellor Wise’s decision:
Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend. There can be no place for that in our democracy, and therefore, there will be no place for it in our university.
Boy, that does sound pretty, doesn’t it? Trouble is, it’s nonsense. If Professor Salaita expects students to agree with him, that’s a problem. But there’s no evidence that he does. His classroom evaluations are stellar, and suggest more than anything else that he respects and values contrary views. The Jewish community at Illinois understands this, collecting over 100 signatures to a scathing denunciation of the administration’s actions. The American Indian Studies Program and the Philosophy Department issued votes of No Confidence.

The real problem isn’t that Professor Salaita would be disrespectful, but that 1). he’d be disrespectful to particular ideas, 2). we’re not really interested in the free exchange of ideas, only in the ones we like, 3). damn those faculty search committees that think they know who’s a good scholar or teacher in their discipline better than we do, and (above all), 4). we might lose that donation that someone might now withhold because we’ve caved so many times and allowed them to attach strings to their largesse so often they now think it’s their right. The function of a university, after all, is to serve its corporate masters.

The actions of Chancellor Wise and the Trustees are cowardly, unethical, arrogant, boorish, anti-intellectual, and in direct contradiction to the appropriate exercise of their authority. Alas, this is becoming Business as Usual on far too many campuses. But hey, there’s some serious Curmie consideration, so there’s something good.

Well, I think that’s all the time I have. Lots of worthy contenders still to go, but I think I got to most of the worst of the worst. Watch this space in early January for the announcement of the Curmie nominees.

And have a Happy New Year, everyone.

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