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He Criticized My Views! He Said My Political Views Are Wrong, Here Are the Right Ones! He Let Me Know That He Knew What I Was Up To!

I'm not an expert on the Dartmouth governance debates, and for all I know there might be something wrong with what the Administration there is doing. But some of the arguments this post (which I mention because it was linked to at InstaPundit) struck me as not terribly persuasive:

Claims of Censorship and Intimidation at Dartmouth

This morning's edition of The Dartmouth carries a worrisome story by reporter Rebekah Rombom....

As the Association of Alumni prepares to vote on a new proposed constitution this fall, heated debate has persisted throughout many sectors of the Dartmouth community. Factions on both sides participate, with weblogs becoming an important media for political dialogue.

The website voxclamantisindeserto.org vocally criticizes the proposed constitution and other administrative affairs. A recent alumnus heavily involved with the website is alleging that he was intimidated in private meetings with members of the Alumni Relations administration because of his views on the proposed alumni constitution.

Nick Stork '06 issued a public statement on the website accusing Vice President for Alumni Relations David Spalding '76 of intimidating him and criticizing his views during a June 7 meeting in Blunt Alumni Center.

According to Stork, he went to Blunt for a morning meeting with Spalding and Assistant Director of Young Alumni and Student Programs Rex Morey '99 to make up a missed lunch for Greek leaders days before.

When he entered the room, he noticed a BlitzMail message concerning the constitution he had sent to members of his fraternity, Gamma Delta Chi, lying on top of a stack of papers in the conference room.

Later in the interview, Spalding neither confirmed nor denied that he had a copy of a Stork's BlitzMail message that was not sent specifically to him.

"I don't recall having a private e-mail that he sent to his Gamma Delt brothers," Spalding said.

Stork alleges that in the meeting, Spalding advocated for the newly proposed alumni constitution, a reversal of his constant dedication to neutrality on the subject.

"I think effectively what he did during the meeting was to say: your political views are wrong, here are the right ones," Stork said, referring to anti-constitution posts on voxclamantisindeserto.org.

"I think when someone tries to let you know that they know what you're up to, there is a serious intimidation there." ...

Harsh — the administrator criticized a student's views. He apparently effectively said "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones." He communicated to a vocal critic of the administration that he was paying attention to people's criticisms of the administration.

I take it that the student might have been somewhat worried that the administrator would somehow affect the closing days of his school career (the student was about to graduate), but it would take someone with a pretty poor view of Dartmouth to think that there's that much of a chance that the administrator would, say, urge professors to unfairly lower the student's grades or some such. (Top universities, to my knowledge, are known for leaving the individual grading decisions to the professors, except to the extent that they leave them to TAs.) And if this was the student's view of Dartmouth, then I'm surprised he had spoken out in the first instance, since the administration could (if it's willing to break all the rules) retaliate against a student whether or not an administrator decides to personally argue with the student. All the evidence suggests is that the administration is willing to talk back to students who they think express unsound views. Not a lot to build a case of intimidation and censorship (much less, as the blogger later says, "indecent tactics"), it seems to me.

Some of the other items in the post might be more troubling, depending on the facts; the post discusses the administration's statements to another student who works for a Dartmouth-affiliated charity, which might be proper or might not be, depending on the facts. The post also argues that the administration has been disingenuous in its public comments; I can't speak to that, but in any event that claim strikes me as separate from the claim of censorship and intimidation-by-criticism. One might also argue that the administrator might have been rude or petty in his actions (as opposed to censoring or intimidating or indecent), though we'd need a good deal more information to evaluate that, it seems to me.

The post also suggests that the administration might have gotten the e-mail to the fraternity brothers by monitoring student e-mail accounts — this would be troubling, but a more probable explanation, I suspect, is that one of the many recipients forwarded the message on, and it eventually got forwarded to the administrators. The post proceeds to argue that even this explanation is troubling, because "it means that a recipient of Nick's e-mails felt that the proper thing to do with a piece of political expression with which he disagreed was to surreptitiously forward it to a College administrator, whom he or she expected would take corrective action. This is not the mark of a campus with an atmosphere fostering of free speech. It is the mark of the precise opposite: chill." But if the "corrective action" is the administrator's "criticizing [the speaker's] views" and saying "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones," that sounds to me like free speech — something even administrators may sometimes be entitled to exercise.

I mention this partly because I've seen similar arguments before in other contexts. Sometimes (perhaps here) they are simply inartful representations of legitimate grievances — for instance, perhaps there really was something more being done to Mr. Stork than "criticizing his views." But sometimes they represent the view that freedom of speech means freedom to speak without criticism, without people tracking what you're saying and faulting you for it, without the "chill" that comes from the possibility that your speech will lead to public disagreement and condemnation. That's not what freedom of speech can be or should be.

UPDATE: For an example of the broader phenomenon I describe, see the incident described in this post from last March. The incidents are of course not identical, but both seem to me to exhibit the "how dare [proessors/administrators] criticize students, 'demean[ their] ideas,' and 'dishonor[ their] perspective'" argument.

UPDATE: I initially misread the story as suggesting that Nick Stork had been an alumnus at the time of the conversation (the trouble with blogging from bed late in the evening); I now realize (thanks to a commenter) that he was an about-to-graduate student. I've updated the post accordingly, but I think my argument is still sound.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Dartmouth:
  2. Probable Lying at Dartmouth.--
  3. Intimidation at Dartmouth?
  4. He Criticized My Views! He Said My Political Views Are Wrong, Here Are the Right Ones! He Let Me Know That He Knew What I Was Up To!
James Lindgren (mail):
Eugene,

The argument you criticize is the reason I didn't post on this. But the main claim you put aside, that the administrator is lying about several points, seems not at all implausible.
8.18.2006 2:59am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
"Harsh -- the administrator criticized an alumnus's views."

I believe you are in error. Nick Stork was a senior, about to graduate, when the "interview" with campus officials took place. He was not an alumnus at the time of the meeting. That sort of changes things, doesn't it?

From what I've read, the conversation seemed to have the flavor of, "Nice little diploma you've got here, boy ... Be a shame if something happened to it, now, wouldn't it?"

"I don't recall having a private e-mail that he sent to his Gamma Delt brothers," Spalding said.


Suuuuure ... And if you believe that, I can give you a great deal on a suspension bridge ...
8.18.2006 4:19am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
If I found myself intimidated by a college administrator, I sure wouldn't admit it. Any nearby Cub Scout might laugh at me

The intimidatee seems to be a recent graduate, which would explain both the spinelessness--those with spines are selected against--and the overdone language which seeks to make up in hysteria what it lacks in reality.

I think everybody should have a college education.
8.18.2006 9:39am
DWAnderson:
I had the same reaction to the post as Eugene, and followed the links trying to figure out why this might be a big deal. The primary source for the story can be found at http://voxclamantisindeserto.org/ and gives a better description. That makes this a little more understandable if taken at face value, i.e. obnoxious behavior by the administration, but "censorship" and "intimidation" seem like hyperbole.
8.18.2006 9:55am
Andrew Edwards (mail):
it means that a recipient of Nick's e-mails felt that the proper thing to do with a piece of political expression with which he disagreed was to surreptitiously forward it to a College administrator, whom he or she expected would take corrective action. This is not the mark of a campus with an atmosphere fostering of free speech

Hilarious. Distributing widely the text of a political opinion is apparently not free speech. I suspect that this viewpoint would, erm... surprise many pamphleteers of the revolutionary period.
8.18.2006 11:12am
Houston Lawyer:
Looks like an attempt at intimidation by some incredibly mean spirited and small minded administrators. Would you want your children to matriculate at a place run by such assholes?
8.18.2006 11:26am
tefta2 (mail):
Report from a former college administrator:
Eugene would that you were right that … there's [isn't] that much of a chance that the administrator would, say, urge professors to unfairly lower the student's grades or some such. (Top universities, to my knowledge, are known for leaving the individual grading decisions to the professors… ).
Politics is game found in every field of human endeavor even, or perhaps especially, at top universities where there's often a lot more at stake. Professors have in front of my eyes, treated students unfairly, written references which "damned with faint praise," and even lowered grades because of petty pique or political differences.
I've been following the Dartmouth saga and I'm sorry to say that it appears that those with the typical left leaning agenda who are running the school are reluctant to give over power by allowing the alumni to vote for a more politically balanced Board of Trustees or even, heaven forefend, a right leaning one.



Report from a former college administrator:

Eugene would that you were right that … there's [isn't] that much of a chance that the administrator would, say, urge professors to unfairly lower the student's grades or some such. (Top universities, to my knowledge, are known for leaving the individual grading decisions to the professors… ).

Politics is game found in every field of human endeavor even, or perhaps especially, at top universities where there's often a lot at stake. Professors and administrators have in front of my eyes, treated students unfairly, written references which "damned with faint praise," and even raised or lowered grades because of petty pique or political differences.

I've been following the Dartmouth saga and I'm sorry to say that it appears that those with the typical left leaning agenda who are running the school are reluctant to give over power by allowing the alumni to vote for a more politically balanced Board of Trustees or even, heaven forefend, a right leaning one.
8.18.2006 11:44am
Glenn@Dartmouth (mail):
The great majority of professor's at Dartmouth are pretty much consummate professionals. The administration is useless, but from what I have seen it is useless in the way that all modern college administration's are useless, rather than in some innovatively nefarious fashion.
8.18.2006 11:52am
Anderson (mail) (www):
We see this on both left and right: students who often hold remarkably strident political views, and aren't afraid to condemn entire categories of people on ideological grounds, suddenly become wounded doves when *they* are criticized.

There needs to be a mandatory college course on debate and argument. Our "Crossfire generation" has no idea how to politely disagree, or how to confine one's argument to the merits rather than cheap shots. Not a good thing for the democracy.

(Of course, many college professors would benefit from taking such a class as well ... present company excluded.)
8.18.2006 11:55am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Harsh — the administrator criticized a student's views. He apparently effectively said "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones." He communicated to a vocal critic of the administration that he was paying attention to people's criticisms of the administration. [...]

But sometimes they represent the view that freedom of speech means freedom to speak without criticism, without people tracking what you're saying and faulting you for it, without the "chill" that comes from the possibility that your speech will lead to public disagreement and condemnation. That's not what freedom of speech can be or should be.


I'd give your argument more weight if in fact the administrators had made public their criticism of the student. But this was a closed meeting. Furthermore, now that the public has been informed, the administration is prevaricating as to what went on during the meeting. It also seems likely (to me, if not to you) that the administration, contrary to university rules, had intercepted the private e-mail of a student.

Please tell me -- if the purpose of this closed meeting were not to intimidate the student, then why was it held? Wouldn't (say) an e-mail to the student, and to the rest of the fraternity brothers on the routing list, have been more effective, more open, and less subject to misinterpretation?
8.18.2006 12:17pm
CJColucci:
Houston Lawyer: No kid of mine is going to matriculate anywhere. I raised them better than that. Not to mention the savings on eyewear.
8.18.2006 12:37pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
I partly agree with Prof. Volokh, but he overstates his case.

Consider for example the DePaul incident he refers to. Did the professor ask one of his students to come to his office, and then proceed to tell him why his political views were wrong? This would have been intimidating, given the relative power of a professor. Instead, the professor merely engaged in a public political discussion in a forum chosen by the students (who later complained). The professor was not "in uniform" at the time.

Similarly, if the police disagree with a political statement I've made, and so issue a statement in response, no harm has been done. If, on the other hand, they invite me to the police station for a lecture, the situation is completely different.

Do I think that the Dartmouth administrators consciously planned any intimidation? No, I don't think that university administrators consciously plan anything.
8.18.2006 1:07pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Mike G: Because when someone thinks that someone else is flat wrong about something, he'll often remonstrate with him one-on-one (especially if he, rightly or wrongly, feels like it's his job to make sure that students be shown the error of their ways). It's a pretty natural human reaction (as the DePaul incident illustrates). Among other things, it's probably why I've gotten many e-mails arguing against my blog posts, both before I opened up comments and (to a lesser extent) after.
8.18.2006 1:31pm
CKH:
Eugene,

I am afraid I am going to have to disagree with you on this one. I think that part of the problem is your frame of reference is based on someone with more life experience rather than a college senior. My reading on the facts as described is a follows:

1. There has been some bitter disagreement regarding the governance of Dartmouth. This has resulted in the election of three trustees who were not endorsed by the existing board.

2. The board has proposed a new constitution and delayed trustee elections. This has been perceived by the opponents of the current board majority as an unethical move to remain in power and prevent the election of more dissident trustees.

3. These actions have elevated discussions to a rather acrimonious level and caused some to speak with intemperate words.

4. The dissident faction believes that the administration, as employees of the board, is required to remain neutral in this matter.

5. Allegations of inappropriate bias on the part of the administration have been made by the dissident faction.

6. The student in question chooses to advocate for the dissident position. The student does not believe that there will be any adverse actions to him based on this speech.

7. The student is misses a routine meeting and is invited to a special meeting with the VP of Alumni Affairs. Which the student believes is unusual. The student does not appear to be aware of the subject matter of the meeting.

8. On the date of the appointment, the Assistant Director appears to be waiting in the hall for the student and ushers him into a conference room.

9. A stack of papers is in the conference room with what appears to be a copy of the student's email on top.

10. The VP of Alumni Affairs enters and refuses to answer the student's legitimate question about the perceived email.

11. The discussion on governance ensues with the authority figure creating an impression on the part of the student that the VP believes the opinions expressed were "incorrect, spiteful, and "flat-out lies."

12. The administrator is then alleged to have discussed the email of which he was not an intended recipient.

13. Finally, the student alleges that his campus activities and were reviewed.

This situation clearly did create the impression by the student of an intent to intimidate. Circumstantial evidence would point that fact. Consider:

A meeting was requested by the administrator. The student does not appear to have understood the topic in advance. Perhaps the administrator had requested the meeting with a subject line on an email, "r.e. please join me for a debate on you position on governance and a review your school career, show up at the appointed time and date", however, such advance notice would probably have caused the student to prepare in a different manner and show up with some representation. So we should probably conclude the administrator did not appropriately apprise the student of the subject matter nor that the meeting was optional.

The perception of the assistant director waiting for the student and an apparent dossier in the middle of the table are typical power plays. Like having an administrative assistant dial your phone calls. Why would the stack of papers be in the middle of the conference room table? Was the student discussed in an administrative discussion prior to the scheduled meeting? Were underlings gathering information on the student for the VP? If so, why were the left in the middle of the table? Looks odd if you are 22.

The VP fails to answer the question the student poses. This is a clear power move.

In the student's mind, the VP violates the neutrality of the administration, which could be considered unethical conduct. The VP of Alumni Affairs should be aware of such allegations and should be highly sensitive to not creating such an impression.

The meeting has no apparent purpose.

In his position, the VP must be aware of the perception of administration bias. Consequently, the unexpected behavior of the VP sends a signal, to the student that his expectations as to the effect of his opinion may not be correct. Furthermore, person in the position of the VP of Alumni Affairs would appear to have the power to influence the future career of the student based on his contacts.

The creation of impressions and relating to many different individuals in various settings is the job of the VP of Alumni Affairs. I am skeptical that the intimidating environment note above was undetected by a person with the skills to perform this job.
8.18.2006 2:45pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
Mike G: Because when someone thinks that someone else is flat wrong about something, he'll often remonstrate with him one-on-one (especially if he, rightly or wrongly, feels like it's his job to make sure that students be shown the error of their ways). It's a pretty natural human reaction (as the DePaul incident illustrates).


Yes, it's a natural human reaction, and the intent of such exchanges in some cases can be to gently persuade. But both the end result and the initial intent in other cases can be to intimidate and to enforce "correct" behavior.

One-to-one remonstrations between authority figures and lowly citizens to show them the error of their ways? For a moment there I thought that was a description of "socialist self-criticism" sessions in China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Come to think of it, I still do.

It's possible that the administration is as blameless and as pure in motive as you seem to believe. But I don't think that this interpretation of events is as slam-dunk obvious as you implied in your original post. Given (1) the fact that the initial issue that the two sides disagree on can be characterized as a naked power grab by the administration, (2) the imbalance of power between the two sides, (3) the murky-at-best circumstances of the meeting, and (4) the administration's prevarications afterward, I suspect that the university officials were in fact trying to intimidate the student. (They're evil, I tell you! Eeee-vill!)

In any event, neither of us has sufficient information to make a truly informed appraisal of the situation. I guess we'll have to see how this unfolds.
8.18.2006 3:10pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I dunno. I tend to think this is the academic equivalent of (b) in the following:

(a) two persons meet on a plane of equality, and one person says "go to bed with me and I'll make it rewarding." An appropriate response might be a witty and sarcastic response, or a slap, or a knee to the groin.

(b) two persons meet where one is an employer or superior, and the same happens. An appropriate response might be any of the above, or an action at at law, or better yet, all of the above.

At the very least, it is none of the administrator's flipping interest what the student says on this matter. If the student sent a summons to the administator, demanding that they meet at the student's home for discussion of the issue, it would justly be seen as arrogant and obnoxious. If the matter does not concern the administrator's proper official concerns, I think the converse is true.
8.19.2006 1:43am
Pantapon Rose (mail):
I think you are underestimating the potential intimidation a student might feel when confronted by a professor/administrator. You may be correct, from your perspective, that he was 'wrong' to feel this way, you may even be correct from an objective perspective of a rational adult, but still be wrong when the incident is viewed from a student's perspective.

I can tell you from my experience that intimidation on personal views in law school is more subtle than Professor X is known to lower someone's grade who publicly disagrees with their views. For example, in my civil rights class, several students decided to remain silent rather than engage in class discussion with an extremely liberal professor. This was not because the professor was known to lower grades for disagreeing with him, but because of the way he presented his views (as if you'd have to be a moron or an extreme right-winger to disagree); and the possibility, even if school guidelines prevented it, of grades being lowered (especially since, in law school, it's very hard to know if this happened, because your final is graded in relation to other students' finals). You can say this is cowardice on the part of students, but let's be honest, many people go to law school (and, to a lesser extent, college) so they can make a decent living, and grades influence this, so it's just not worth it for many students to run the risk of disagreeing or confronting professors/administrators.
8.19.2006 5:08pm
Non (mail):

I wager that if a member of the Gay Students Association were called in to discuss the contents of his private email, and his opinions of the administration, at a conservatively run university, tenured professor Eugene Volokh would rather quickly find all sorts of menace, intimidation and actionable malice on the part of the administrator in question. But, of course, "that would be different", I'm sure.
8.20.2006 11:48pm