An Open Letter to Lyle D. Roelofs, President of Berea College

In Support of Professor David B. Porter

Peter Wood

Editor's Note: Since the beginning of the "cancel" craze that has swept through higher education (we are tracking attempted professor cancelations here), the National Association of Scholars has been examining individual cases and writing private letters to college and university administrators to urge them either to defend unjustly accused faculty members or to reverse decisions that have violated the principles of academic freedom. In several cases, (Professors HudlickýLowrey, and Jacobson) our letters have gone unanswered and the injustices we sought to correct have been left to fester. We are now taking the additional step of writing again to administrators at these institutions, but in this round, we are making copies of the letters public.

We are posting these letters individually rather than as a bundle because each case deserves to be weighed on its own merits and because the individual postings will lend themselves more easily to those who want to call out the malfeasance of the college authorities.

We do not urge readers who are unacquainted with the cases to rush forward with emails, letters, or posts. Rather, we ask readers to weigh the facts and check our accounts against other sources. If you then agree that a college or university has acted in bad faith or counter to the core principles of liberal inquiry, then we do indeed urge you to speak up.

Colleges and universities these days sometimes give short shrift to academic freedom because their administrators fear they too will be attacked if they do not heed the commands of the censorious activists. They fear for their reputations with this particular group of "stakeholders." We would like to remind them that a greater reputation is at stake: the reputation of their colleges and universities as bodies that protect and nurture free intellectual inquiry and responsible debate.


July 23, 2020

President Lyle D. Roelofs
President’s Office
210 Lincoln Hall
Berea College
101 Chestnut St.
Berea, KY 40404

Dear President Roelofs,

I write concerning a former member of the faculty of Berea College, Professor David B. Porter of the Psychology Department. As you know, Dr. Porter has sued Berea College for breach of contract, for employment discrimination resulting in his wrongful suspension and termination, for defamation against him perpetrated by Dr. Tyler Sergent, a college employee, and for illegal retaliation against him by the college. I write to urge Berea College to withdraw its suspension and termination of Dr. Porter and to vindicate his professional good name.

I wrote to you privately on the same matter on May 29, 2020.1 I believe it is better for a college to have the option of resolving a situation without the pressure of publicity. As you have not seen fit to respond to my private letter, I now repeat my counsel to you in this public letter.

Although I believe that Dr. Porter has a strong legal case,2 I write to you as an interested outside party rather than as a lawyer. The National Association of Scholars has for more than thirty years concerned itself with protecting academic and intellectual freedom in colleges and universities. We have played a role in helping to resolve many cases where academic administrators acted against the guiding principles of higher education.

I should also say that we involve ourselves in only a handful of cases each year. Those are cases that, after due diligence, we judge to need some kind of counterweight to the seemingly settled outcome. The Porter case fits that description. We have spent several months reviewing documents and interviewing individuals who have first-hand knowledge of the situation. We are not working for Dr. Porter or his attorney and we have no financial interest in his case.

Berea College is, of course, a private institution, and as such enjoys considerable latitude in setting its own policies. I respect your college’s freedom to do so.

That, however, is not the whole of the matter. Colleges are also enjoined to adhere to basic principles of respect for the life of the mind and the intellectual independence of the faculty. It is highly unusual when a faculty member is fired for professional incompetence, and colleges rarely engage in such actions. Even where they can establish their legal right to do, they usually impose lesser sanctions, not least so as to preserve the goodwill and mutual forbearance that is one of the prerequisites of academic freedom. Berea College, as any American college, should aspire to live up both to the legal protections afforded to faculty members and to the customs of charitable interpretation of the law that make academic community possible.

I note that Berea College did not investigate the charges against Professor Porter. The college administration also rebuffed Professor Porter’s efforts to respond to the main complaints against him and to discuss the matter and find a compromise.

Dr. Porter was fired, and deemed incompetent, which appears to be the only basis for firing a tenured faculty member according to the college’s Faculty Manual. According to that source, dismissals are predicated on demonstrated incompetence, but no evidence of such incompetence was presented at Professor Porter’s trial. Indeed, your announcement to the campus community indicated that he was being dismissed for “professional misconduct.”

That conduct consisted of his distributing a survey questionnaire that Berea College argued had no academic justification and was meant to harass his colleagues. Yet many of Porter’s peers believed the survey was academically sound and in no way contributed to a hostile environment. Porter’s work is publicly available and clearly is academically sound.3 As an administrator and an anthropologist, I have frequently been asked to judge the work of colleagues in other disciplines—and I would unhesitatingly affirm Porter’s professional competence. Moreover, Porter’s students have now presented his research professionally at an undergraduate conference.4 Berea College’s judgment that Porter engaged in “unprofessional” behavior was plainly unfounded.

Moreover, the ensemble of evidence strongly suggests that Dr. Porter was harassed rather than harassing, and that the claims that he was the perpetrator are badly supported. Porter’s own website provides a far more accurate account of the events in question.5 Then too, Berea seems to have violated its contractual guarantees of administrative due process in the proceedings by which it fired Dr. Porter and deemed him incompetent. All these circumstances, ably summarized in Porter v. Sergent and Berea College (2019), argue that Berea acted unjustly.

The injustice is particularly marked because Porter pre-cleared the survey with Berea’s administration, as he had done with every survey he had distributed as part of his class assignments. He realized the subject matter was sensitive—but it was also part of his ordinary professional practice. The Berea administrators cautioned him that the subject matter was sensitive, but they approved his distribution of the survey. Porter crossed every T and dotted every I. Porter acted as befitted a loyal and careful member of Berea College.

After all, Porter had returned to Berea College in 2001 after his retirement from his first career in the United States Air Force, particularly to dedicate himself to service to Berea College. He was himself born in Berea, while his father was a student at the college. He has served in Berea’s administration as the Academic Vice President and Provost. Porter is not a professor who happened to teach at Berea simply because that was the job that was available that year. He is a Kentuckian shaped by and grateful to Berea College, a man dedicated to Berea College’s mission—social justice education in its original sense, a humane concern to educate poor students hungry for the knowledge that would both open their minds and give them an opportunity for a successful career. Everything he has done, including his defense of academic freedom at Berea College, has been done for Berea, by a man who exemplifies Berea College’s highest ideals.

As a private institution, Berea College may see itself as exempt from due process considerations. The faculty contract suggests otherwise, but let’s assume that Berea is exempt from due process in the legal sense. Is it nonetheless a good idea to allow anger or indignation over a seeming transgression to override the customary respect due to a long-serving and well-regarded faculty member? Something more than due process is at stake here. It is the duty of any college to model self-restraint, sober deliberation, and fair-mindedness.

I understand the dynamic of this case, in which Dr. Porter was seen as violating confidentiality presumably out of his zeal to defend a colleague’s reputation. From an outsider’s perspective, I would say the College faced an emotionally charged situation in which both sides believed they were defending key principles. Ideally, this could have been resolved with strict impartiality on the part of the College. But that ideal, unfortunately, does not always prevail. The College ended up leaning heavily in one direction and became a party to the purging of an honorable dissenter.

Berea College has acted unjustly. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All members of the Berea College community, and all Americans, should care about the injustice inflicted on Professor David Porter.

It is not too late to set this right. Berea College should live up to the best standards of higher education. Berea’s conduct toward Dr. Porter has not comported with those standards. I urge Berea College to rescind its decision to terminate Dr. Porter.

I do not urge Berea College to undertake this action just because it is required by law or the prudent exercise of institutional self-interest. I urge Berea College to do this because it is right. Berea College should live up to its own highest ideals.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wood
President
National Association of Scholars

 

1 Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, to Lyle D. Roelofs, President of Berea College, May 29, 2020: https://www.nas.org/storage/app/media/New%20Documents/Porter%20May%20Letter.pdf.

2 Dr. David B. Porter v. Dr. F. Tyler Sergent and Berea College (2019). Commonwealth of Kentucky Madison Circuit Court Civil Action File No. 19-CI-19-CI-00060 Division I and Civil Action File No. 19-CI-00200 Division I Consolidated Action.

3 David Porter, “Survey Results of Attitudes & Opinions about Academic Freedom & Hostile Environments,” https://davesfsc.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Survey-Results-with-Adj-MRC-Analysis.pdf.

4 Deshontanae Davis, Yabsira Ayele, Jenifer Fidela, & Aaron Clark, “The Effects of Identity & Belief on Perception & Judgments about Academic Freedom,” 39th Annual Mid‐America Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference (April 24, 2020), p. 47: https://4b4fc3fa-c690-4e50-aa4b-b10122883488.filesusr.com/ugd/17f24a_07422c1115914795bb78f7002bbea957.pdf.

5 David Porter Free Speech Corner, https://davesfsc.com.


Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

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