Diatribes - Computer, Economic & Political

This blog is really just for me. If you find something interesting on it, leave me a comment. If you disagree with something, let me know what and why. In this blog I am just putting some of my thoughts for computers, the economy, politics, and other topics in writing.

03 November 2007

Things Which Must Not Be Named

A brewing controversy at my law school. The other day the following email circulated around the 1st year students.

Fellow Classmates:
As I'm sure many of you have heard, it is very likely that Professor Heidt will not be permitted to teach any "required course" (first-year classes) after this year. This decision, from what I understand, has been primarily based on the withdrawal of several students from his class and his personal beliefs regarding affirmative action in law-school admissions.

If you have no yet read his article discussing IU's admissions procedures, it is available here.

I am quite shocked that the law school is even considering this. We can all debate the substance of Prof. Heidt's article as much as we want; I don't really think that's the issue here, though. Personally, for me, this is not an issue of race or affirmative action; this is about expression. It seems like the law school is trying to penalize Prof. Heidt by engaging in some sort of retroactive censorship. We have all been in Prof. Heidt's class long enough to see that his personal beliefs are irrelevant in class.

I would like to start a petition saying that what the law school is doing here is, well, wrong... but, in more polite, sophisticated language. So, I am going to be in our Torts class early on Monday to get input from others of you. I'm going to aim to be there around 10:15 a.m. I will also start to draft a preliminary petition for Monday. I hope that some of you will come with your thoughts.
- Sender's Name Removed

To begin with, I don't have Professor Heidt, so I don't have a dog in this fight. If you read the linked article, I wonder why students aren't angry about the admissions therein, rather than his discontinuance from teaching a 1L class. If he's right, the IU admissions department is actively harming the schools reputation by accepting lower caliber minority students than comparable schools. I wonder though, if these personal beliefs are irrelevant to the way the course is taught (which I can't say, he's not my professor), why remove him from his class? The only reason can be that 1L classes are considered "good," and losing one is bad, though I can't fathom why that would be.

Also, I'm highly skeptical of this claim.  Why would he be punished now for this belief, when this article came out in 2003?  And in the article, he references another article he write even earlier than that.  If the administration was really trying to blacklist him, they're 4+ years too late, the cat is out of the bag, the Michigan cases were decided in favor of affirmitive action (but against Michigan's implementation of these rules) 4 years ago, and those who brought it up again recently have already settled .  But lets say that this is exactly as the student writer is claiming and that Prof. Heidt will not teach 1L classes anymore, even though he wants to, and there is no legitimate reason for this to be the case. If this is some kind of retribution for a criticism of IU acceptance standards, I'd be more interested in finding the decision maker responsible for this move than engaging in some kind of futile discussion about free speech in academics.

Anyhow, on to the substance of this post. It looks as if some students are surprised that talking negatively about affirmitive action is a no-no. This shouldn't surprise anyone who keeps up with the news. Everyone knows there are protected minorities - african-americans, jewish individuals, and muslims are starting to become that way. Asians, caucasians, and to a lesser extent hispanics, are on the opposite end of spectrum. Every protected minority got that status in reaction to gross widespread racism in the past, and many minorities retain that status because of present socio-political concerns.

I can't say I fully support or approve of affirmitive action, but I do approve of its goals - to attempt to remedy the disadvantage statistically inherent to many protected minorities. I won't venture a theory as to why country wide gaps in education, earnings, criminal behavior, and life expectancy, but it is clear such gaps exist with certain protected minorities. Some other protected minorities - such as jewish individuals - don't have the same kind of gaps, and are not typically afforded the benefits of affirmitive action.

Anyhow, through hindsight we can see many monstrously unfair societal norms and attitudes we formerly held. Many people, in a well intentioned attempt to eliminate unfair societal norms from our present society that are, as yet, unnoticed by the "general populace" see gross injustices everywhere. As such our society has many things you can't speak about publicly with impunity. Certain speech about protected minorities is one of those things. Anyone in a public job can find no faster way to ruin their career than to say something negative about a protected minority. Don Imus, a "shock jock" who made a career out of saying offensive things, was only fired when he made another offensive comment about african-americans. Mel Gibson was essentially blacklisted in Hollywood for making an offensive comment about jews while drunk. A similar story played out for Michael Richards, except african-americans were the target of his tirade.

Now, I'm not condoning racism or racist remarks. All three of those comments showed a terrific lack of respect for all people, especially for the minorities directly targetted. If Mel Gibson had said something like that about the Irish, or if Richards had gone on a tirade about hispanics it probably would not have made the news. My point is there are some things we can't say, like when Lawrence Summers suggested that something other than just socialization must exist to explain why more men than women were in high-end science (aside from causing a media outrage he was officially censured). To show how exaggerated this sensitivity is, just think back to when Anthony Howard was forced to resign from his position working for a mayor for merely saying something that sounded like another unrelated offensive word? It seems like you're more likely to be forgiven for cheating on your wife, or even for using cocaine, than for making a racist remark towards a protected minority.

So again I don't see why this is shocking to anyone who keeps up with the news. Affirmitive action became non-controversial in the employment field long ago, and as we've realized the gaps can't be remedied so late in an individuals life, we've pushed affirmitive action earlier. It has largely become uncontroversial in higher education as well. With so many prominent media figures (who probably reflect the public quite well) acting "shocked" and "offended" for a living, is any of this surprising? There are just some things we aren't mature enough to talk about as a society.


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