Last week I drew attention to the UW Fox Campus Blog, authored by the campus dean, Dr. James Perry. The blog is a forum (sponsored by the university) that the dean has used in the past to encourage students to register for classes, to question whether blatant PDA should be allowed on the campus’s public couches, and to pump up school spirit. Dean Perry’s January 27 posting, “Thoughts on a New Era,” drew some controversy when Dr. M. D. Allen, a professor of English at UW Fox Valley, wrote a comment suggesting that the dean should not have used his forum at a state university to advertise his personal political views—and lamenting that Dean Perry did not even seem to realize they were political.
What followed Dr. Allen’s posting was an extended cyber-discussion on whether terms like “social justice” and “sustainability” carry connotations of partisan politics; whether Dean Perry should be able to “advocate political points of view on the state dime”; and why the Dean why the Dean wrote that at President Obama’s inauguration, “for the first time in a long time I was proud again to be an American." Dr. Allen posed and responded to such questions, writing five comments altogether, out of 31 total.
While some commenters insisted that the dean’s politics were invisible (“He didn't say Democrats or Republicans or Independents or whoever were right or wrong or anything of the sort, at least that I can tell”), most posts expressed gratitude to Dr. Allen for speaking up:
Thank you for voicing what I was thinking when I read Dean Perry’s “Thoughts on a New Era,” your words gave me hope and encouragement. Please continue to speak for those of us who don’t have such clarity and confidence in our voices yet.
Another post affirmed his conclusion: “Dr. Allen is correct to point out that it is high time those in the academy respect the limitations of academic authority and the public trust by which that academic authority is dispensed.” Yet another commenter wrote that although UW talks a lot about valuing diversity, “Apparently diversity at Fox means having a lot of people on campus who look different but think alike.”
After the comments had run on, people began to get antsy. In several posts, they called for Dean Perry to respond to the debate with some sort of explanatory message. The latest comment (anonymous) says, “Where's the dean? Dean Perry has an obligation, particularly as a public figure, to respond to the numerous criticisms lodged here. He should either defend his blog or apologize publicly for misusing his high-profile position to convey political views.”
But Dean Perry did not defend or apologize. On Friday, he wrote a new blog entry about publicizing campus athletics. He made no mention of his previous posting, the comments that followed it, or the vote that ended up heavily in favor of Dr. Allen. He also could not be reached for comment for this article. Last week, his secretary told me she would have him call me back; he never did. I talked to Dr. Allen, who had emailed the dean this weekend, urging him to acknowledge the criticisms raised about the blog entry. Dr. Allen said that the dean wrote back saying he would not, because “you and I just have different perspectives on things like this.”
Shortly after Dr. Allen’s opening comment, a vote was set up on the website’s homepage margin—the first to appear on the blog. Readers were asked, “Do you agree with Dr. Malcolm Allen’s comments concerning the UW Fox Dean’s recent blog posting?" At the end of the voting period, the final score was in:
118 Votes Total
83 Agree (70%)
8 Neutral (7%)
27 Disagree (23%)
Whoever put up the vote most likely expected that the voting would go the other way. The day after the voting closed, the results disappeared.
This is a story of a university administrator who wrongly assumed that his political posturing would be met with widespread approbation. We at NAS think that Dean Perry ought to respond publicly and forthrightly to a challenge that says, in effect, he abused his authority. That’s a discussion that could prove beneficial for the students of the University of Wisconsin, Fox Valley, who stand to learn something about the ambiguous realm where academic freedom becomes a cover for political advocacy. We’d like to think that the higher-ups in the University’s administration realize that Dean Perry was carried away in his political enthusiasm and went too far in turning a university website into his private soapbox—but so far, his administration has been silent.
The National Association of Scholars, of course, often deals with larger issues than a dean’s wayward appropriation of a blog to express his politics. But we also look out for any event that seems to exemplify larger trends. The trend in this case is the widespread assumption by college and university officials around the country that “everybody” is as enthusiastic for “social justice” and “sustainability” as they are. These terms connote liberal ideologies and the attempt to advance them by putting them at the center of higher education is a political act—no less so when it masquerades as the common sense of intellectuals and academics. It is heartening to see that in this case, the effort to promote this political agenda met some principled resistance, and even more heartening that when it was put to an informal vote, a large majority agreed that the dean was out of line.