Don't Say This, I Won't Tell You What:

In Russian fairy tales, some powerful person sometimes sends the hero off on a quest by saying, "Go there, I don't know where, bring that, I don't know what." Somehow the hero manages, but that's because it's a fairy tale.

I've been reminded of this by reading the accounts of the Brandeis administration's finding that Prof. Donald Hindley was guilty of "racial harassment" because he said ... well, the administration isn't saying exactly what he supposedly said. Press accounts agree that it involves (at least) the use of the word "wetback," but the context is far from clear. Since my earlier post, I've looked a bit at the coverage in university newspapers, and here's what I see:

1. Hindley's account:

Hindley defended his discussion of the term, saying he had used it to describe racism of a certain historical period. Throughout American history, he said, "When Mexicans come north as illegal immigrants, we call them wetbacks." ...

"[Administrator Jesse Simone, who was questioning Hindley,] said, 'Did you use the word wetback?' Well, I teach Latin American politics and I'm currently teaching Mexican politics, and of course I use the word wetbacks, [but] not in any derogatory sense," Hindley said ....

Hindley said Simone also asked if he had referred to "young, white males having contact with women of color," which he said he had.

2. From the same article, a statement by Lily Adams, a student of Hindley's who defended him:

Adams also denied Hindley had used the term in an offensive context. "If he had made comments that were legitimately racist, the whole class would have complained,' she said, adding, It was never him saying, 'This is what I call them,' or, 'This is an appropriate term.'"

3. From an article in a different student newspaper (thanks to Prof. Margaret Soltan (University Diaries) for the pointer), here's the student's account:

Jane [the complaining student's pseudonym] explained that her complaints dealt with alleged insensitivity by Hindley to the issues in his class, including usage of the terms "mi petite negrita" and "wetbacks."

"The thing that pushed me over the edge was a story about a Brandeis student that he had who came from an elite Mexican family. He said, 'he came here and he paid his way.... but when he came back here, his back was still wet,'" said Jane. "That was the day I came to my professor and said, 'this is crazy.' These flippant remarks, he doesn't see that they affect other people — it's a joke, to him."

Jane also makes other allegations (and the article also notes that "[d]espite her complaints, Jane said she may take another course with Hindley, because 'I won't have to do work'").

4. From the same article that quotes Jane, a quote from student Ramon de Jesus, and a respone from Jane:

"I think that the allegations which are being made against Hindley are being done so by someone who is taking things out of context. It is interesting that the person whom you interviewed almost brushes context off as if it does not matter, when in fact, it is extremely important," said Ramon de Jesus '08.

"If context were not important, everything anyone ever said could be misconstrued one way or another. As a student of color who has taken both Latin American Politics classes with Hindley, I can honestly say that the man is not racist."

He added "I'm not in a Hindley class currently, but if given the opportunity I would sign up for another one."

Regarding Hindley's statements, "sure there is context, but it should be treated gently, especially with students from so many different cultures," said Jane.

"You have Latin American students, Mexican students ... there are Jewish students, homosexual students, black students — you're just running the gamut in this classroom. I would think that would call for extra sensitivity, but I guess he doesn't think so," she said.

Now the Brandeis administration obviously thinks that what Hindley said was impermissible, and indeed "racial harassment." It thinks that professors shouldn't say such things. But what is it that they shouldn't say?

If Brandeis thinks Hindley said "wetback" in the context as he describes it, then I take it that Brandeis's view is that professors should never use such terms in class — perhaps not even in direct quotes, and certainly not (as Hindley says he did) in made-up quotes characterizing what people think. If Brandeis thinks Hindley said "wetback" as part of a humorous aside, then I take it that Brandeis's view is that professors shouldn't say such things in class in a humorous context. If Brandeis thinks Hindley said "wetback" in a way that endorsed the view that illegal immigrants (or illegal immigrants from Mexico) are bad people, then I take it that Brandeis's view is that professors shouldn't express such views in class using pejorative terms. Or perhaps Brandeis thinks any condemnation of illegal immigrants (or illegal immigrants from Mexico), whether or not using the term "wetback" (a term that the administration didn't even mention in any of the documents I've seen from it), is a view professors shouldn't express in class.

But how on earth is a professor to know what he shouldn't be saying when the University doesn't even reveal what led to this high-profile discipline? And how are faculty members — and students and alumni and others — to know whether the University's action invades academic freedom, promotes good teaching, or whatever else without knowing what it is that Hindley supposedly said?

Nor is the University's explanation for its silence remotely justifiable. As best I can tell from the accounts, the University's argument is that it can't describe what specifically was said because it needs to protect the student's confidentiality — but if this was supposedly said in open class, why would revealing the statement jeopardize the student's confidentiality? (The article that quotes Jane quotes her as saying that she "came to [her] professor and said, 'this is crazy'"; presumably she means someone other than Hindley when she says "my professor," but if she did tell him, then I'm still more baffled by how there could be any risk to the student's confidentiality here.)

Finally, I realize that the administration might conclude that it can't specifically identify exactly what was said, but that it can figure out the general gist sufficiently to conclude that a racial harassment finding is warranted. Fine — but tell us what that gist is, so that professors can know what they shouldn't say, and so that others can evaluate the administration's actions. But the administration didn't do even that.