The University Record, April 17, 2000

Letters

The University Record welcomes letters from members of the University community. Those on topics of broad University interest will be given preference for publication. Letters should be no more than 500 words in length and must be signed. The editorial staff reserves the right to reject any letter and to edit and/or condense letters for publication. The editorial staff also may limit the numbers of weeks letters may be published on an issue, and the number of times any one person’s viewpoint on a single issue will be published. Letters may appear in small type. Organizations submitting material must include the name and address of an appropriate officer. Letters must be received by noon Wednesday to receive consideration for publication in the next issue.

Editor’s Note: The following letter initially was sent privately to President Lee C. Bollinger by Prof. David Velleman, and the president replied privately. The signers of the letter then asked him to respond publicly, and that response follows this letter.


President’s statement raises concerns about academic freedom

Dear President Bollinger:

We write to express our concern about your statement of March 13, which appears to have serious implications for academic freedom at this University. We hope that you will consider clarifying your statement so as to reassure the faculty that it does not threaten academic freedom.

In your statement, you announced that the panel recently formed to study the allocation of space to student organizations will also “consider under what circumstances and in what ways the University, its administrators and faculty members should be associated with such organizations,” adding that the panel “will recommend guiding principles in this regard” which “[t]he University’s Executive Officers and I will then decide whether and how to implement.” You continued:

“In considering this issue, the panel will consider the concerns that have been expressed about whether and to what extent associations between the University, its administrators or faculty can or have given rise to the impression that the University endorses racial or ethnic ridicule, and whether and to what extent those associations can or have contributed to marginalizing or disenfranchising other groups or students.”

Together, these sentences might be interpreted as implying that you would consider taking action to restrict faculty members’ freedom to associate with groups that were judged to have engaged in “racial or ethnic ridicule.” We believe that such restrictions would violate fundamental principles of academic freedom, because of the way in which they would inhibit the expression of opinions and ideas.

Of course, we do not seek to defend racial or ethnic ridicule. What we seek to defend is the right of all faculty, students and staff to engage in, or associate themselves with, forms of expression that could potentially be interpreted as offensive, even on racial or ethnic grounds. This right is essential to the pursuit of research, instruction and creative art on sensitive topics, including the topics of race and ethnicity.

We hope that we have misinterpreted your statement and that you will soon clarify its implications for academic freedom.

Roger Albin (neurology), Carl Berger (education), Andreas Blass (mathematics), Donald R. Brown (psychology), Edwin Curley (philosophy), Scott Dennis (U-M Library), August Evrard (physics), Bruce W. Frier (classics/law), Peter G. Hinman (mathematics), Thomas Hofweber (philosophy), Theodore S. Lawrence (radiation oncology), Eric Lormand (philosophy), George Mavrodes (philosophy), Thomas E. Moore (Museum of Zoology/EECS), Donald Munro (philosophy/Asian languages and cultures), John O’Shea (anthropology), Ian Proops (philosophy), Stephen Rush (music), Lawrence Sklar (philosophy), Charles B. Smith (pharmacology), Ben van der Pluijm (geology), J. David Velleman (philosophy) and Kendall Walton (philosophy)

Dear Professor Velleman:

I appreciate your writing to me, in the spirit in which you did, about part of my March 13 statement. I want to say clearly that none of my statement was intended to raise the possibility of restricting faculty members’ freedom to affiliate with various organizations, including student organizations. There are really two reasons why the part of the statement you refer to was included.

The first is to probe into a highly complicated but important problem: namely, when does “University” involvement with particular student groups transform them (under the Constitution) from independent parties, with their own First Amendment rights, into the “state,” making them, therefore, not entitled to those rights. This is, to be legally technical, the “state action doctrine” issue under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

It is an issue that has surfaced before during my time at the University, and it can become serious. Since I have defended the rights of student groups, such as Michigamua, to hold whatever opinions they wish, free of any official penalties by the University, I must also address the issue raised by others that Michigamua has lost that independent status by the ways in which the University has associated itself with that organization. This is the question that I have asked the panel to explore in general terms.

The second reason for raising the issue concerns the University’s choice about when to speak out publicly, or privately, for that matter, about its values. If a misimpression is created about the University’s principles and values, whether through actions of its members or affiliated organizations, or in other ways, we then have to decide whether and how to correct the misimpression through our own speech and actions. The University, of course, has a responsibility to communicate generally about matters central to its functions.

I hope that this clarifies the intention of my March 13 statement and allays any concerns.

Sincerely,

Lee C. Bollinger


Researcher responds to bias charges

Editor’s Note: Researcher David R. Williams replies to a letter published April 10, which is excerpted here.


Excerpted letter:

. . . the following comment is totally without justification: “Likewise, whites who subscribed to statements reflecting a less blatant, more contemporary brand of racial prejudice—agreeing, for example, that Blacks should work their way up, that Blacks blame whites too much for their problems . . .”

I believe if the authors looked outside of their narrow conception of how racial groups think/behave (i.e. many supposedly prejudice free, e.g. educated academics, believe that the Black community is a monolith), they would find that many Blacks would agree with those supposed racist comments. I think Ms. Swanbrow and/or the authors of the study should look more closely at their own biases before they self righteously declaim against those they imput to others.

Kevin B. Atkins, senior health science research associate, Internal Medicine-Nephrology

Response:

It is difficult for a single press release to fully capture all the subtlety and detail of a 24-page scientific paper. Suffice it to say that the nature of racial prejudice has been intensively studied by social and behavioral scientists for more than 50 years. We did not invent the measures used in the Detroit study. Instead, we utilized established measures of contemporary prejudice. The press release included examples of items that came from the Modern Racism Scale—a widely used scale to measure contemporary prejudice.

Unlike traditional prejudice, which focused on the inherent inferiority of Blacks, considerable evidence suggests that contemporary prejudice focuses on the pathological culture, maladaptive responses and deficient attitudinal orientations of Blacks. The Modern Racism Scale attempts to capture some of these dimensions.

While the answer to any single item may be open to alternative interpretations, the average score across all items captures a view of Blacks as culturally inferior. Equally important, a failure to endorse positive emotions has also been shown to be a critical defining feature of modern prejudice (our confirmation factor analyses also supported this). Instructively, this second measure of contemporary prejudice (the lack of positive emotions for Blacks) was more strongly linked to opposition to affirmative action than the items from the Modern Racism Scale.

David R. Williams, senior research scientist and professor of sociology