Dartmouth VRWC Yadda Yadda:

In the classic Seinfeld Yadda Yadda episode, the hook is that George's girlfriend obscures anything that is inconvenient or embarrassing by trailing off in a vague "yadda yadda" that leaves the hearer to draw the opposite inference from what really happened.

I was reminded of the Yadda Yadda episode in reading the concerns of The Daily Kos about goings-on at Dartmouth and her paranoid characterization of the situation. The post is written by someone styled "Miss Laura." Brian Leiter credulously relied on the Daily Kos post--seriously--in a related post of his to comment on my colleague Stephen Smith and me (Brian, amusingly, appears to be embarrassed in doing so, referring to Daily Kos as "one of the popular liberal blogs" rather than by name). I'm not sure whether Leiter has read either my speech or Stephen's article that he references. I assume that Miss Laura has read them, but she has simply misunderstood or simply misrepresented them.

Here's what Miss Laura wrote to establish her thesis about the supposed VRWC takeover at Dartmouth, quoting from a speech that I gave last fall (this is exactly how she produces the quote):

It's going to be a multigenerational battle; it's going to take a lot of resources, and a lot of struggle. And I think what you have to understand is that those who control the university today they don't believe in God and they don't believe in country.


Secondly we need to think about investing in alternative institutions or simultaneously or alternatively.

Now, it turns out, the "snip" (which is hers, of course) is actually very important because it suggests the opposite of what I actually said. Here's what I actually said (and to explain the verbal fumbling, this was a informal talk I gave at an academic conference, not a prepared speech)--obviously had I known that many people would take my remarks out of context I would have spoken more carefully:

And I think what you have to understand is that those who control the university today they don't believe in God and they don't believe in country. University is their cathedrals. Their entire being, both those who fund it and those who teach within it, are tied up in the universities.

Leaving aside the inelegance of my delivery, what I actually said seems pretty obvious--and not at all what Miss Laura characterizes as my remarks with her strategic "snip."

Dartmouth alum Doug Anderson explained it when the Gang of 12 Trustees sent out a letter to all Dartmouth alumni (mailed at Dartmouth's expense) that contained the same out-of-context quote:

Third, in a display of chutzpah that is striking from a group of trustees that complains that others have "politicized Dartmouth elections" the letters authors proceed to unearth out-of-context quotes from their fellow Trustee (albeit a petition Trustee) Todd Zywiki "saying those 'who control the university today[,] they don't believe in God and they don't believe in country.'" Does anyone seriously believe that he was accusing the other Dartmouth Trustees and administration of being unpatriotic atheists? Not anyone sensible. In context the quotation was saying (with rhetorical flourish) that the perpetuation of the academy had become and end in itself that its members defend it against interlopers.... After reading this letter from the trustees, it is hard to disagree one other sentence from Zywicki's talk "The establishment within these universities is vicious."

There are a few other misrepresenatations of my remarks in follow-up discussion of the Kos post that I could discuss in greater detail, but I think you get the idea. For instance, I never condemned the various "-isms" that dominate university campuses today, instead I expressed concern that these have risen to the level of quasi-religious orthodoxies that stifle free speech and academic inquiry. So, far from suggesting a reinstatement of religion or nationalism at the center of the university experience, I stated exactly the opposite--namely that all forms of orthodoxy are contrary to the enterprise of the liberal university, whether those orthodoxies are grounded in religion, nationalism, multiculturalism, or feminism. Amazingly, I've seen emails and comments from some that try to characterize my comments opposite to what I actually said. I'm not sure whether this is an intentional misreading or they just didn't understand what I actually said (if the latter, I note that they never bothered to ask me to clarify my comments), but I don't think that my remarks are even reasonably susceptible to the proffered readings.

For those who are interested in serious commentary on my remarks (which I never intended to be anything more than informal remarks at an academic conference in the first place) see John J. Miller, Steve Balch, Greg Lukianoff, John Leo, Jane Shaw, and Jay Schalin.

As for Miss Laura's (and Leiter's) concerns about Stephen Smith who supposedly "questions evolution," those too are based on a misunderstanding of Stephen's essay, which is here. I can't speak for Stephen but I have read the essay and I think it speaks for itself--and again Miss Laura's misreading creates the confusion here. The basic point of Stephen's essay is that the religious and scientific spheres of life should be kept separate--science does not and should not determine religious questions and religion cannot and should not determine scientific questions. Science simply can't prove the existence or non-existence of God or miracles, for instance, and thus these are questions of belief and faith, not scientific method. If miracles occur--and I'm not arguing here that they do or don't--they are defitionally miracles precisely because the defy the laws of science. More fundamentally, this debate has utterly nothing to do with the theory of evolution, which is susceptible to scientific investigation.

Where I think Miss Laura (and perhaps Leiter too) may be confused is in conflating the question of the validity of the theory of evolution (and so-called "creation science") with that of the creation of life and the universe ab initio. These are fundamentally different questions. I express no view here on those questions, in part because some very thoughtful and serious scientists and others continue to wrestle with difficult questions about whether the origins of life and the universe can be best explained through a wholly naturalistic process. As Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich observes for instance, "Only gradually did I come to appreciate how magnificently tuned the universe is for the emergence of intelligent life.... There are enough such 'coincidences' to give thoughtful observers some pause. Scientists who are loath to accept a fine-tuned universe feel obliged to take notice." See also Nobel Laureate William Phillips and Jane Goodall.

These question of the origins of life and the universe are fundamentally separate questions from the scientific validity of the theory of evolution. It is a fully coherent intellectual conclusion to fully accept the theory of evolution while believing in God generally or retaining doubts about the plausibility of wholly naturalistic explanations for the existence of the universe or the origins of life. As noted, serious thinkers do grasp that these are different questions. And it is obvious that there is nothing inconsistent with the theory of evolution or science generally to simply say that science and religion occupy different spheres of life and inquiry and it hardly seems controversial to say that they can and should be kept separate. And this is the real point of the essay. I'm not saying here whether I agree or disagree with the argument, I'm just noting the importance of accurately understanding it. Miss Laura apparently has simply misunderstood the central point of Stephen's essay and attributed her own intellectual errors to him.

The larger point here is to illustrate the silliness and paranoia of the whole "vast right-wing conspiracy" business and the errors (and perhaps even dishonesty) on which the claim is founded. It is just an effort to distract Dartmouth alumni from the real question in the current election, which is a referendum on the board-packing plan. Miss Laura's endorsement of the board-packing plan appears to boil down to the idea that if you don't like the outcome of elections then you should simply get rid of elections. I, and the pro-parity slate for the Association of Alumni Executive Committee, disagree.

In the end I retain faith that Dartmouth's alumni are too sensible to be fooled by all of this rhetoric. Consider the comments of Daniel King '02, published on Dartblog:

I am an openly gay man, a teacher, a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party, the ACLU, and the Human Rights Campaign. Heck, I even voted for Bill Bradley in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, Howard Dean in 2004, and am currently one of those "Obamaniacs." To call me anything near a conservative would be a gross misnomer.

I don't really think my political leanings should have anything to do with how I vote in the current Association of Alumni elections, nor should it have determined how I voted in the past four alumni Trustee elections. But, according to the slate of candidates supporting the Trustees' Board-packing plan, it does.


This claim, though, that the current controversy is part of some ridiculous "vast right-wing conspiracy" could not be further from the truth. The real battle going on is one between an overly paternalistic College administration, supported by a rubber-stamp Board of Trustees that has totally abdicated its oversight responsibilities—and, on the other side, loyal alumni from all sides of the political spectrum who wish to not see the value of their Dartmouth degree plummet and to preserve the historic and unique ties that alumni have to our alma mater.

I have been a supporter of the "petition Trustees" since the first petition election in 2004. I, along with a large number of alumni, wished to register my dissatisfaction with the direction of the administration and the complete disconnection of the Board of Trustees.

And an excellent column by current student Nathan Bruschi, published in The Dartmouth last week:

David Shipler's letter to the editor demonstrates a lot of what is wrong with the expansion plan for the Board of Trustees ("The Conservative Campaign," May 5). He postulates that the motive behind the AoA lawsuit — designed to maintain parity between elected and appointed members on the Board — is "to allow inroads by a highly publicized and pervasively ideological brand of conservatism." This encapsulates the perverse logic of those in opposition to the lawsuit — the assumption that we only support democracy insomuch as we agree with those who get elected.

I confess that I once supported the anti-lawsuit position. I remember being happy that the Board was going to expand itself to stop seemingly delusional and disconnected petition candidates from overtaking the Board. I remember being upset when I learned that the supporters of those petition candidates were suing the College. I even briefly joined Dartmouth Undying's Facebook group. But in the end, it was the anti-lawsuit partisans (not the litigants) who caused me to switch my affiliation. Let me explain.


This is the crux of the argument: Charter trustees are upset because petition candidates with views hostile to theirs keep winning Board seats, and they want it to stop. It would be a downright lie to claim that the current Board "restructuring plan" did not arise in part because of four consecutive petition candidate victories.

Taking drastic action requires impressive rationale, and so far the Board has not made a sufficiently compelling case for adding charter trustees. If anything, the Board endangers its own credibility, as this radical scheme smacks of corrupt bargains and anti-democratic values. By removing one of the few checks on College governance, we ultimately stifle the voices of alumni — the College's most valuable asset. As a quote etched onto a stone overlooking the BEMA darkly reminds: "Who doth not answer to the rudder shall answer to the rock."

In addition, one previously-undecided Dartmouth alum told me that he is voting for the pro-parity slate specifically because of the repeated misrepresentation of my remarks that have been made.

Finally, I should also add that Leiter also incorrectly reports that my speech was denounced by the Alumni Association--in fact, it was the Alumni Council, not the Alumni Association. The distinction is important, although Leiter doesn't realize it because of his unfamiliarity with the situation. The Alumni Council is a self-perpetuating unelected body of alumni. The leadership of the Association of Alumni is actually elected by all of the alumni. With respect to the Alumni Council's denunciation of me, the elected leaders of the Association of Alumni condemned the Alumni Council "as reflecting selective outrage out of political motivation, by an organization whose members simultaneously have, in their official capacity, issued condemnations of others in the Dartmouth Community that mirror the stridency of the remarks they condemn." The Association of Alumni Executive Committee has sought to protect the bargained-for rights of the alumni, as favored by 92% of alumni in a poll last year. By contrast, the Alumni Council has aligned itself with the Board in endorsing the Board-packing plan, even filing an amicus brief against the Association of Alumni's lawsuit seeking to enforce the 1891 Agreement. Thus, being denounced by the Alumni Council doesn't amount to quite the rebuke that Leiter believes it does (to say the least).