Saturday, February 11, 2012

"I want to believe."

Poster available at
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While wanting to believe may be necessary for the religious and Fox Mulder, I think society could benefit from a healthy attitude shift toward the don’t-rush-to-judgment end of the spectrum.  An objective, skeptical, cautious, and even indifferent approach to life has its rewards.  Unfortunately, however, the attitude on some college campuses these days seems to be leaning—or, more accurately, falling over—in the opposite direction. 

We all know what happened in the Duke Lacrosse case a few years ago.  I’m not referring to the false allegation itself; that sort of thing happens all the time.  Even a poorly constructed web search will reveal hundreds of proven false allegation cases, including those at Duke University, in small town Port Washington, WI, and at Northeast High School in Macon, GA.  And of all the false allegations that are levied, only a fraction of those can be conclusively proven false, and only a fraction of that fraction are ever reported by the media.  In reality, then, there is good reason (and evidence) to believe that a very large percentage of all accusations are, in fact, false.  But again, that’s not my point.

My point about the Duke Lacrosse scandal is that a massive amount of metaphorical egg landed on the faces of the dozens of professors and administrators at Duke who rushed to judgment, believed an accuser whom they had never met and knew nothing about, and condemned their own students who were, as it turned out, falsely accused.  (I’m not a Bill O’Reilly fan, but it is fun to watch him confront the professors—some of whom fit the professorial stereotype—after the allegations were proven false.)  Duke’s president later apologized for turning his back on members of the Duke family in their dire time of need.  He also recognized that “one lesson that the world should take from the Duke Lacrosse case is the lesson of the danger of prejudgment, and our need to defend against it at every turn.”

Unfortunately, universities today are not heeding that simple but important lesson.  Instead, university procedures for dealing with accusations against students are, once again, leaning toward the I-want-to-believe end of the spectrum.  These procedures, at the urging of a government bureaucracy known as the OCR, no less, often incorporate the lowest possible burden of proof, little or no opportunity for confrontation or cross-examination, and even appeal rights for the accuser.  One student and Rhodes Scholar nominee at Yale is currently feeling the impact of this “undue process.”     

But, surprisingly, due process is only half of the problem on college campuses these days.  The other half is substantive—that is, not the procedure for determining whether behavior was unlawful, but rather the way that schools define "unlawful behavior" in the first place.  In a recent and outrageous example, creative writing students at Oakland University in Michigan were encouraged to “try out ideas and record impressions and observations” in a “free writing” exercise.  Unfortunately, when one student wrote about the obvious truth that attractive professors can be distracting, he was charged with “unlawful individual activities.”  The result?  The student was

found "guilty" and was being sanctioned with suspension for three semesters through Fall 2012; no ability to transfer credits during the suspension; persona non grata status with a warning that he would be arrested for criminal trespass if he entered the campus; and disciplinary probation for the rest of his college career. If [the student] chooses to enroll for Winter 2013 courses, he also must show evidence of "counseling ... to work on sensitivity issues.”

How academic of them for using a Latin phrase.  In any case, it is a mad, mad world, indeed.  So in accordance with the late Christopher Hitchens’ advice to “never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity,” I offer my own advice to the professors and administrators of the world:

First, on the due process side, you must understand that people (men and women alike) make serious, false allegations all of the time.  Sometimes they do this because they have a strong incentive to lie, sometimes because they are delusional, and sometimes because they are legitimate victims but are misidentifying the perpetrator.  So learn from Duke University and heed its president’s warning: don’t rush to judgment. 

Second, on the substantive side, know this: people (men and women alike) sometimes find other people physically attractive.  (This is especially true when they have to sit through long and boring college classes.)  And when people write down these observations, especially when they are required to “record impressions and observations” as part of their class assignments, they are not engaging in an “unlawful individual activity,” nor do they need “counseling to work on sensitivity issues.”

And finally, for the offended teacher, it appears there is some evidence that you are physically attractive.  (If you wonder whether others share this student's view, you can check out your "hotness" rating at ratemyprofessors.com, where other students report that you are "hot," and "very nice on the eye.")  This might even be why you got the job in the first place.  So don’t ruin a student’s life because of it.  Just get over it. 

1 comment:

  1. I don't know why, but we're more likely to believe bad news than good news.

    ReplyDelete