What Should We Do When Values Clash? Moving Forward On Campus Debates

By Daniel Tippens

An abridged version of this essay originally appeared here on Quillette Magazine.

In 2016, allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas Pogge, an internationally recognized professor of philosophy, came to public light. Accusations against him had been made by other students in the past, but the most widely publicized claims were brought by Fernanda Lopez Aguilar, who said that Pogge had invited her to be his interpreter at a conference in Chile, and then proceeded to make unwanted advances toward her, including asking her to watch a movie with him in his bed, fondling her body and pressing himself against her, and sleeping on her lap during the plane ride home.

Yale investigated Pogge, and ultimately found that he had failed to uphold standards of ethical behavior, but not that he had engaged in sexual harassment. This caused an uproar within the philosophical community. Angered by Yale’s lenient attitude toward Pogge, some philosophers wrote an open letter condemning Pogge’s actions, and others went a controversial step further, suggesting that since Yale wouldn’t handle matters appropriately, philosophical academia would take morally motivated action — excluding Pogge’s work from their syllabi.

In response, philosophers Brian Leiter and Justin Weinberg argued that this proposal is objectionable. Leiter claimed that “not assigning his work when it is relevant to the topic… [is] educational malpractice.” Weinberg could be read as elaborating on this, arguing that “Philosophers are interested in figuring out what’s true, or, if you don’t like talk about truth, what we have most reason to believe. Apart from some statements that refer to the speaker or his or her situation, the truth of a statement does not vary according to who is saying it. We may loathe the harassing and unprofessional behavior Pogge is alleged to have engaged in; whether he behaved that way or not has no bearing on the truth of his views.”

What is interesting about this debate is that it takes the form of something philosophers have discussed for a long time — a clash between different types of values. Things we value are things we care about, are motivated to act on, and feel compelled to uphold. One type is epistemic value — we care about forming true beliefs, and feel we should act in a way that upholds this, which will influence our behavior. We will demand evidence, provide arguments, and consider objections before endorsing a belief. Another type is moral value, or our felt motivation to do what is right or virtuous.

Conflict between different types of values happens frequently. Nobody wants to think of herself as a person with vices. But what if, as David Enoch suggests, you come across some evidence that you are the smartest person in your class? On the one hand, you probably value adopting beliefs based on evidence, and so you might feel compelled to endorse the belief. On the other hand, adopting this belief seems pretty arrogant, which would be a moral vice. It seems that either option you choose, believe or not, will leave one kind of value unsatisfied. If you believe you are the smartest, your epistemic value may be satiated, but your moral value is arguably left wanting.

Underlying the debate about excluding Pogge’s work seems to be just this type of conflict. On the one hand, there is a moral pull to try to deter future sexual harassment, and perhaps to apply punishment to a putative bad actor that he seems to have avoided. That could (possibly) justify banning this person’s work from classroom syllabi. But there is also an epistemic pull to pursue truth, which speaks in favor of teaching students material that is likely to be true, or at least contain arguments we have good reason to believe on their own terms. So when it comes to the question of whether we should exclude a bad actor’s material from the syllabus, these two types of value have the potential to pull us in opposing directions.

Some strong disagreements are manifestations of a different kind of irreconcilable clash — one within a particular kind of value. Morally, a parent doesn’t want to cause harm to her son. When the son says he wants to join the military, the parent might want to stop her from doing this, in an effort to keep her out of physical harm’s way. But the parent also recognizes that this restriction might stifle her son’s growth as an autonomous individual, instantiating a different kind of harm. The parent, then, has seemingly irreconcilable conflicting moral motivations — either choice will leave one of her motivations unsatisfied.

This kind of clash can be seen in the trigger warning debate, which was recently fueled when John Ellison, Dean of Students at University of Chicago, wrote a letter to their incoming freshman class of 2016 informing them that the university does not support trigger warnings. Trigger warnings (also referred to as content warnings) are statements made either on syllabi or at the beginning of classes, informing students that some of the material they will read or discuss may involve emotionally distressing material, such as depictions of sexual assault or murder. Those in favor of such warnings differ on how strong the requirement on implementing them should be. Some advocate that instructors should be required to give such warnings as a matter of enforced policy, while others simply think that professors should give warnings, but no policy should force them to.

The reasons in favor of content warnings appear to be both epistemic and moral. In a New York Times article, Philosopher Kate Manne argued that informing students about potentially highly distressing material will help prevent them from experiencing emotional and psychological harm, and in doing so, will also help them to better engage with ideas in the classroom. Morally, such warnings prevent harm, and epistemically, they facilitate getting the student to engage with the ideas in the classroom.

Those against implementing the warnings argue that there are also moral and epistemic reasons against the idea. These reasons are best captured in a now landmark article in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They make two arguments (among many others). First, that trigger/content warnings instill a pattern of thinking that involves epistemically harmful cognitive distortions, such as fortune telling, which takes place when one predicts that future events will be harmful or negative, feels emotionally convinced that one’s prediction is true, and then “sees danger in an everyday situation.” Issuing warnings, for Haidt and Lukianoff, promotes fortune telling-type thinking, which most likely delivers false beliefs, as clearly one doesn’t know what the future holds, and should rely not on their emotional conviction that impending events will be negative but rather on evidence. Epistemically, then, content warnings are problematic (to be clear, they also argue that such distortions are morally problematic, for example, because they cause students to predict harm, and subsequently experience harm when they otherwise wouldn’t have).

Lukianoff and Haidt also contend that preventing students from encountering distressing ideas is a way of treating one’s symptoms, but not addressing the underlying cause. Exposure therapy involves presenting a patient with a phobia or trauma to triggering stimuli, in safe situations. They outline how lightly exposing somebody with an elevator phobia to elevators reinforces the idea that elevators are not, in fact, something to be afraid of. Similarly, exposing students to disturbing ideas in the comfort of a classroom might cause emotional pain to students, but in the long term it helps to get rid of students’ triggers. This seems like a moral concern (though see here for a critique of this line of reasoning).

In the case of content warnings, then, there is a clash within one’s moral motivations, and a separate epistemic clash. It is tempting to think that the moral part of the dispute is actually an empirical one in disguise — those like Manne think trigger warnings cause harm, and Haidt and Lukianoff think that refraining from issuing such warnings causes harm. Maybe we just need to put on our lab coats and figure out who is right.

This would be a mistake, however, because there are two different notions of “harm” at stake, and deciding between them is a conceptual, not empirical, matter. A young person is diagnosed with a mental illness, and can either spend two years of grueling therapy and treatment to rid himself permanently of the disease, or he can take medicine which will keep the symptoms relatively, though never entirely, in check, but will also leave the underlying pathology untouched. What should he do? The question is like whether to peel off a bandaid slowly or rip it off quickly and get it over with.

The trigger warning debate involves similar issues. One way to harm somebody would be to allow them to experience unanticipated emotional pain, and another would be to stifle their ability to overcome whatever is eliciting the pain. Morally, professors want to prevent both simultaneously, but they can’t. Whether one implements warnings or not, one kind of moral motivation will be frustrated.

Epistemically, content warnings may facilitate students’ engagement with the material in the class which helps them learn the material in that lesson, but on the other hand, they may instill a pattern of thinking (like fortune telling) which is likely to deliver false beliefs in the long-run. An irreconcilable conflict once again. Both sides of the debate, then, represent competing underlying motivations; the pro-warning advocates care most about preventing emotional harm and promoting acquisition of material in class, and their critics push the view that what matters is curing what is causing their emotional harm, and instilling good habits of thinking.

The Pogge and trigger warning debates are but two examples of many that we could analyze using this framework of value conflict. The debate over disinviting morally controversial campus speakers is another, with one side suggesting that epistemic value demands that we allow such speakers to give lectures (promoting free and open inquiry), and the other prioritizing sending a moral message to deter others from holding such morally heinous and harmful views (e.g, racist or sexist positions) by banning them from giving lectures. And there are certainly more many more contemporary issues that fit this kind of framework.

What is interesting about irreconcilable value conflicts is that they can happen between reasonable, moral, and competent people. Consider moral conflict — almost every ethical issue divides intelligent and empathetic individuals, such as the permissibility of abortion, euthanasia, and torture. Anyone who has witnessed a debate between professional philosophers on such issues, or has observed a graduate ethics course, knows this. Interestingly, the disagreement is by and large respectful in such cases.

Respectful polarization occurs between moral and epistemic conflicts as well. Consider the question of what to do with scientific research that has been acquired through morally heinous means. During World War II, Nazi scientists performed countless experiments on Jews, including women and children. In the Auschwitz concentration camp, 1,500 twins were experimented on in an attempt to learn about their genetics. Some twins had dyes injected into their eyes to see if it would change their color, and others were literally sewn together. This was basic research, with no clear therapeutic application. But we are still curious about the knowledge they may have acquired, though it might seem wrong to study their findings — it feels as though we would be vicariously using the subjects of those studies as means to further our epistemic ends. Should we study their results despite the morally heinous way they were acquired?

Given the fact that intelligent, reasonable, and ethical people disagree about what we ought to do in cases of irreconcilable value conflict, it is shocking that so many people, on all sides of a debate, seem to think that if someone disagrees with their position, that person must either lack empathy, be grossly immoral, power hungry, stupid, irrational, or a coddled child.

As David Ottlinger has previously discussed — though not exactly in the way I’m about to — in political discourse this name-calling and labelling could amount to viewing a party that disagrees with you in what the Philosopher Wilfred Sellars called the space of causes, as opposed to the space of reasons. The former is the way we view rocks — we explain their behavior by citing laws of nature that an object is completely governed by. The latter is the way we view agents — creatures whose actions are best explained by considering their reasons, values, beliefs, and desires. When we say that the opposing party lacks empathy, is stupid, irrational, or coddled, we are in effect saying that they lack some basic feature that all ordinary agents have, similar to citing a mental illness to explain one’s behavior — the schizophrenic isn’t in control of his behavior, it is caused by psychological features outside of his control. He can’t really be said to be an agent acting at all. This way of viewing people shuts down any reasonable chance of progress in a debate, leaving both parties feeling unsatisfied and hostile. How do you react when somebody dismissively responds to your claims with “what an idiot?”

That these recriminations don’t happen in most philosophical debates and classrooms is precisely why the disagreement is respectful. Students and professors state their positions, are recognized as reasonable people, and leave conferences and classes feeling pleased with the outcome even if the disagreement isn’t resolved. Of course, when it comes to political discourse, the stakes are higher, as people’s well-being and personal interests are affected by the outcome. So even though respectful disagreement may offer the best hope of making progress in campus debates, it is harder to achieve.

Given the ubiquity of value conflict cases like the trigger warning or Pogge debates, the hostility between opposing factions, and the consequent lack of progress, it seems less important to ask who is right in these particular issues than to ask what we ought to do generally when values conflict — and since people’s tendency to view dissenters in the space of causes is a primary reason that debates are hitting intractable stalemates, we should answer this question in a way that minimizes this as much as possible.

Everybody cares about moral and epistemic aims, opposing parties simply disagree about which value they think overrides the other, or which value should be more important in particular issues such that it governs our actions. One answer to our question of what to do when values conflict would be to flat-footedly hold that the moral overrides the epistemic, in all circumstances, period. Indeed, I suspect that many of those behind advocating trigger warnings and excluding Pogge’s work from syllabi hold precisely this intuition. There are, of course, some clear cases where this is true. If someone were to tell you that you must attempt to believe that the earth is flat or he will set off a nuclear weapon, you’d obviously try to become a flat-earther.

But there are two problems with this proposal. First, the moral doesn’t always clearly override the epistemic. Besides the fact that there are numerous controversial cases, such as that of using Nazi scientific research, there seem to be clear situations where the epistemic overrides the moral. If I had to slightly cut your hand in order to prevent Einstein’s work from being permanently destroyed, you should probably prepare for a tinge of pain. Second, to hold that the moral is simply always overriding, despite knowing that many reasonable people will disagree, dangerously promotes viewing dissenters in the space of causes — irrational individuals who clearly don’t have their values straight. These same concerns apply to conflicts within moral value (e.g which kind of harm is worse) — reasonable people will disagree about whether peeling a bandaid off slowly is better than giving it a quick pull.

Perhaps, then, what we should do is reserve judgment and refrain from acting, like scientists and philosophers who refrain from believing some proposition when there is insufficient evidence to determine its truth. The problem with this is that it leaves one side of the debate wholly unsatisfied. If we reserve judgment on what to do about Pogge’s work, the default is to carry on using his work, which is objectionable to those who disagree. In On Liberty John Stuart Mill recognizes this concern, saying, “If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed.” Indeed.

These proposals fail because they inevitably neglect one side of the debate, or they promote viewing people in the space of causes. The answer which best overcomes these problems, I believe, is to be found in negotiation; an attempt to recognize competing conflicting values and find a solution that maximizes both parties’ interests as much as possible, even though neither party will be fully satisfied.

Let me illustrate — suppose you come across evidence suggesting that African Americans have a lower IQ than Caucasians, and that there is a genetic basis for this. You present this evidence and one person says they object to holding such a morally dangerous belief despite any amount of evidence, given that it is likely to be wielded to cause harm. A different individual says we should be open to going wherever the evidence takes us, because we seek true beliefs. After recognizing these competing values, the best solution, I think, would be to increase one’s standards of evidence for adopting this morally suspect belief — demand more evidence than you would normally require. In this way you have taken an action to respect one person’s moral concern, by raising standards of evidence, and have also left open the possibility that the IQ claim could be true.

In such a negotiation, neither party will be fully satisfied. In the IQ case, the epistemic defender might feel that they shouldn’t have to raise their standards of evidence, and advocates of moral supremacy would be bitter about the very idea of adopting such a belief, no matter what the evidence says. But what matters is that they will both leave feeling that their interests have been heard, respected, and acted upon. The virtue of negotiation is that it requires that both parties listen and hear the reasons and values motivating their positions, forcing everyone to enter the space of reasons.

On campuses, negotiation would look like what Emory University recently engaged in with their students. After protests on campus took place where activists assembled to ask for change to improve the racial climate at the university, students sent a list of demands to the administration. Ultimately, Emory decided to host a retreat with 100 people — 50 student activists and 50 administration officials who had the power to implement policy changes. The students spoke to the administration about their demands and timelines. One demand was that students be able to report bias in classrooms. The administration pointed out that a large number of the faculty who teach controversial material, in which bias is most likely to be reported, are faculty of color. At this point the students recognized this concern, which they might not have considered before, and began taking a more middle ground approach — discussing ways of informing faculty about ways they can instruct students in a more sensitive way.

In this case, the administration’s concerns, about faculty being subjected to intense and stressful scrutiny, and the students’ concerns, about preventing particular patterns of behavior, were maximized, though neither party got exactly what they initially may have wanted. One striking fact is that despite the fact that the students didn’t have all of their demands implemented, they reported being very pleased with the outcome of the process, feeling that their concerns were heard and that their values were respected.

To me this suggests a policy that universities should consider: when a significant number of students, say  20% of them, sign a petition or raise a set of concerns, there should be a direct avenue available to them where they can engage in negotiation with the administration. With this option in place for students, we funnel disagreeing parties into a place where they must view each other in the space of reasons, drawing out the heart of their conflict in values, and preventing hostility from festering between them. Additionally, if this route is available to students, they will not take to the streets in protest as their default action, which has only served to heighten tension and anger between the administration and the activists.

Of course, these institutional negotiations may fail, but again, at least in going through the process; both sides will hear the values and reasons that are important to them, which can only be a good thing. Until we make negotiation our default way of handling normative conflicts personally and institutionally, debates are likely to remain static, with both parties attempting to gain ground through a shouting match of name-calling and demonization, and in such a state of dialogue, one can only observe that everybody suffers.






28 responses to “What Should We Do When Values Clash? Moving Forward On Campus Debates”

  1. I thought Isaiah Berlin had addressed this thoroughly with respect to the problem of incommensurable goods.

  2. This seems in many ways like a fair characterization of much of the current landscape, but given that so much of that landscape involves confused or outright bad thinking, I think that we need a critique more than a characterization. A few things:

    1. The so-called “clash” between epistemic and moral values is bogus, in an academic context. There, only one value matters and it is the epistemic. The purpose of the university is epistemic. Period. The rest, frankly, is detritus. Stanley Fish, as left wing as they come, made this point quite strongly in the following dialogue. (Fish begins at: 23:42)


    2. Trigger warnings are another bit of pernicious nonsense. Students with bona fide disabilities requiring accommodation are already covered by the ADA, and their needs are attended to by the university disability office. This is a matter of federal law. Trigger warnings *by definition*, then, are for things that are *not* matters of bona fide disability but rather, pertain to things some students would rather not hear. Which brings us back to (1) again, and the fact that the sole purpose of the university is epistemic.

    3. It is a *very* bad idea for universities to capitulate to student demands of the sort that are being made today, in *any* capacity. Fish, in the video linked above, explains why. Students are at best apprentices in the academic environment. The professors, who are credentialed and proven, are the masters. The relationship is therefore one-way, all the way. To compromise that, again, directly undermines the epistemic mission of the university.

    The discussion of Emory reflects a fundamental confusion on all of these issues. I understand that this is the way things are going now and they are likely to go a lot farther in that direction. It is not surprising, then, that universities are becoming shells of their former selves — the Harvard of today being a shadow of the Harvard of yesterday, and the Harvard of tomorrow barely registering as a ghost, in comparison. The losers, of course, will be the students themselves — and everyone knows that the college graduate today is inferior in just about every academic respect to the college graduates that came before him — and it will be because the adults, rather than living up to their responsibility and being in charge, capitulated instead and let the proverbial children raise themselves. In a familial context it would be bad parenting, and in an academic context it is bad teaching.

  3. “Until we make negotiation our default way of handling normative conflicts personally and institutionally, debates are likely to remain static, with both parties attempting to gain ground through a shouting match of name-calling and demonization, and in such a state of dialogue, one can only observe that everybody suffers.”

    Obviously it’s necessary to have formal procedures in place in institutional settings (including universities) so people at various levels can put concerns and have them addressed and so on. I won’t get into details here, however. I just wanted to say that *not everybody suffers* in the shouting-match approach which is becoming increasingly the norm. Group-think and mindless shouting go together well. There seems to be a lot of both about these days. (And bandwagons. And personal attacks. Let’s get so-and-so. Great fun.)

    Part of the reason for this is that there are many people who *like* this approach and feel very comfortable with it. What makes them uncomfortable (“suffer”, if you like) is talking seriously with individuals who have different views.

    From Dan Kaufman’s comment: “… the Harvard of today being a shadow of the Harvard of yesterday, and the Harvard of tomorrow barely registering as a ghost, in comparison.”

    We were recently discussing rhetoric. It always has a role to play, of course, but I tend to like it more when it is deployed (as here) in support of perspectives similar to my own. (Note that I don’t go as far as Alfred Korzibski on this: he was said to reject all metaphors but his own.)

    On the future, who knows? Short term, things look bleak, I grant you.

  4. DT: “Both parties” implies some sort of parity. There is none, here, I am afraid, when one “side” is howling for the heads and jobs of faculty because …. Halloween costumes.

    Hopefully university faculty and administrations will come to their senses soon, rather than continuing to allow the lunatics to run the asylum.

  5. Mark wrote:

    “Part of the reason for this is that there are many people who *like* this approach and feel very comfortable with it. What makes them uncomfortable (“suffer”, if you like) is talking seriously with individuals who have different views.”

    This is spot-on.

  6. Hi Dan T, most of what I would want to say has been said by Dan K. I thought your piece did a good job capturing an issue within a framework, but it is one I reject (or don’t find accurate) so somewhat problematic. However, I did appreciate that you were showing that moral considerations are often trade-offs, even within a person, and so negotiation is a useful (I would argue only) solution.

    I guess I will go further than Dan K to say that I don’t see how “epistemic value” is separate from “moral value”. To me (but then I am coming out of Virtue Theory) knowledge, or desire for knowledge, is a trait related to human action and judgment the same as loyalty, courage, altruism, etc. So the question is how knowledge (as a virtue) gets ranked against other interests. And then I am in near total agreement that in school, especially university, knowledge is the focus. It gets prioritized.

    Dan K’s point 2 is most pertinent in these discussions. If a person has a disorder that actually prevents them from handling information and so knowledge building, that is a personal issue that must be dealt with by that person. The first idea might be that they should not be at university, because they are not ready for that activity. It would be like a person joining a flying school, when they suffer from fear of flying or heights. It makes no sense, and seems unreasonable to expect the flight school to alter anything (including listing warnings) to cater to that problem.

    And that really seems a point where the university can say *no* to negotiations with students. That should have been covered in the “negotiation” of whether they wanted to go to (that) University. Are they ready to learn or not? Do they need training wheels on their minds? Then they need to seek specialized help, rather than lowering general education practices to fit their specialized needs.

    I think much of what the person argues in Dan’s video is correct (Note: a lot of the time he is quoting someone else). This seems less about academic interest, and more about gaining political and enacting political agendas. That example you gave of the students rethinking their approach when confronted that their method might hurt the group they wanted to help (by it seems making some stereotyped assumptions about other racial groups) is a good example. The concern was never about academics, but flexing political muscle.

  7. Hi Dan K, I agreed with much of what you said, and really appreciated the video clip… but I have to disagree to the extent you and the guy in the video (Mr Fish) appear to be arguing students should not be active at university. The idea that teachers and administration are above all and not open to question on any topic seems to go too far the other direction.

    The university itself was a product of students and teachers negotiating practical matters so it seems somewhat ahistorical to argue as if it had formed from the organization and accreditation of teachers by teachers alone, to which the students are merely lucky guests. What’s more, to argue as Fish did, that universities should not teach practical skills for a profession, or be treated as an industry (by students), is to ignore that is exactly what it has become: an industry, run and promoted (by the universities themselves) as an industry that will get students practical skills for a profession. So it’s a bit of an odd thing to hammer students (who are new to this) for thinking this after they have paid a lot of money for a service as it was advertised.

    I think a line has to be drawn between different concerns. When there is a practical concern, including whether a teacher is doing a good job teaching is something that is open for debate. I’ve known two cases where teachers were not doing a good job and it took action (in one case against administrative support for that teacher) to change their practices or duties. I should also add I was part of an action by PhD students to get concerns of students heard, including graduation requirements which had become counterproductive because the nature of research and publishing had changed (since they were written), and alternate avenues to deal with problems in labs so that students were not exploited. From what I understand this has gone on to the Royal Academy of Sciences for gov’t review. This is appropriate.

    The same goes for students voicing (dis)interest in speakers paid for by their own money, especially at graduation. In class is one thing, student functions, which are supposed to be about the students, should be somewhat relevant to their interests. Of course I am against stopping speakers that are invited in for specific topics or not paid by student money.

    And finally, I thought Fish was way off when he supported some university official’s rejection of student appeals to stand against the Iraq War. The comment “The University has no foreign policy” was as dishonest as it was cowardly. The Iraq War was a specific thing, an event that would effect student lives as well of other people in the country. It was not about some generic feel good try to change all society for the better idea. Universities certainly care about how they get funding and students from other nations and so (when looking for money, teachers, and students) support specific foreign policies (and domestic ones as well). And staying quiet on major events/actions like that lend support for it. Sometimes saying nothing is to take a position.

    If I were to accept that last point, then I would have to side with Trump and Co that schools should not be caring what happened to their students with the travel ban (and decry student activism on that point), and (going more historical) believe students were wrong for standing up for Jewish faculty being kicked out of Universities in Germany?

    Maybe you agree with these exceptions, but the strength of your commentary (and your citing Fish) made it seem otherwise.

  8. I’m afraid I pretty much agree with Fish on almost everything, Dwayne. To the extent that things like the Travel Ban directly affect students’ ability to return to the university in which they are enrolled, I would agree that the university has an interest, but that’s not what Fish means when he says the university is not a political or foreign-policy oriented institution, though these subjects are of course, studied in the university.

    I also think that the vo-tech-ization of the university has been one of the things that has most damaged it. Subjects like accounting and nursing should be taught in trade schools, not research universities.

  9. Hi Dan K,

    “I’m afraid I pretty much agree with Fish on almost everything, Dwayne”

    Well that’s what it looked like. But then, although you might allow for being against the travel ban, this seems to support the idea Universities were right in being neutral (and students groups rightfully dismissed) on gov’t policies to purge Jews from Academia. If there is a difference, where would that come from?

    “I also think that the vo-tech-ization of the university has been one of the things that has most damaged it. Subjects like accounting and nursing should be taught in trade schools, not research universities.”

    Ok, I agree with that. And I should be clear, I was against what he said because the students are merely dealing with the university as they were sold it to be. What it ought to be, and what it is, are two different things. While it is being run and sold (for a lot of money) to people as an industry for skills, it is odd to demand those who bought the service treat it otherwise based on a “but it *should* be an ivory tower” position. If Fish wants things to be the way he wants, he would be better served changing things from the providers side (how it is run) than attacking those who treat it as it was sold to them. I think we need a paradigm shift from schools and gv’t so that universities (are able and understood to) provide the experience you (and Fish) discuss. The profit motive has really injured liberal education.

    To get clarification, you believe students should not be able to question the teaching ability of teachers?

  10. Dwayne: Re: the keeping Jews out of academia issue, I don’t see why that would not be a university concern, just like keeping Muslims out would be. That goes directly to the educational mission of the university.

    Re: student input, it is very tricky. At one level, it would seem obvious that the people being taught by the teacher should be in some position to comment on the quality of the instruction they are receiving. The trouble is that their perceptions are tainted by (a) their ignorance — which is why they need to be taught in the first place and (b) their self-interest, not to mention fixation on irrelevant characteristics (like “hotness”) as indicated all too well by the execrable “Rate My Professors” website. At this point, then, I am in favor of pretty much entirely eliminating the student evaluation portion of a professors’ review. It simply is too corrupted, and I see no way of fixing it.

  11. Hi Dan K, ok, while consistent in position (so I can’t say you are wrong) I would disagree regarding universities *not* taking positions on specific actions/policies by the gov’t when they threaten to affect quality of life and knowledge at universities. To me that would actually be one of those things that universities should be doing (sort of a duty), albeit in very limited situations (no general comments).

    I’m torn on generic teacher evaluations. In the end I could see scrapping them. But I think students should come forward when they see a real problem. And such comments should be listened to. Sometimes faculty and administration make mistakes avoiding such concerns, to the detriment of the students. When we talk again I can give you some interesting anecdotes.

  12. I’m confused. I think that universities *should* speak out, with regard to issues that affect the academic function of the university. What they shouldn’t do is speak out on politics more generally.

    As for the latter point, tough anecdotes make bad university policy, just as tough cases make bad law.

  13. Hi Dan K, I think where we would disagree is whether specific policies (such as to purge Jews from schools, or wars which would clearly sap massive resources–people and money–with no evident need) affect academic function. I didn’t find criticism of the Iraq War as making a general political statement as it did not require any specific political position to hold. And I would argue the facts have born that out, and silence (from many quarters) did give that ill-conceived war cover.

    “As for the latter point, tough anecdotes make bad university policy, just as tough cases make bad law.”

    Sure, but so does ignoring the presence of anecdotes that show where policies/laws fail and could be improved.

  14. There should have been a smiley on the end of my last sentence. 🙂

  15. Dwayne, it is very dangerous — and a serious mistake — for universities to adopt political positions. Especially public universities, which are funded by the taxpayers.

    Across the country, now, we are seeing public universities receiving “payback” from right wing legislators, who have tagged universities as hotbeds of left wing activism and as fatally biased institutions. My own state is a prime example of this. We are about to eat one of the biggest cuts we have ever faced and may even have tenure eliminated, both of which would have been a lot harder to do politically, if the conservative voters in the state did not have all sorts of legitimate reasons to wonder about the political neutrality of our institution.

    Keep politics out of education. They have no business being there and can only do harm. The fact that you think some cause is righteous is — pardon my French — fucking irrelevant. (Smiley.)

  16. I think there’s a blending of ideas here that don’t necessarily sit well together. The problem of trigger warnings, the problem of academic freedom (within the appropriate field), the problem of student protests or of student demands – these are all getting tossed into the same stew, and I think they need to be considered separately.

    On the issue of negotiation, with which you conclude – well, it sounds reasonable enough, but there’s a problem. DanK and Fish are absolutely right – the roles of the faculty and off the students are incommensurable. Do we really want to change the very nature of the university on the basis of a what students demand – given that they will be gone in 3-4 years? Given that they obviously have no long term commitment to the university community (unless they want to hang around indefinitely in student slums; or get advanced degrees and end up teaching in the same university – and good luck with either of those plans)? No, this isn’t making any sense.

    When I was in school, I did join student protests twice; once protesting a tuition hike (obviously in my interest); and once to pressure the trustees of a university to divest stock in South Africa during apartheid (which I saw as a business ethics issue, and which did not include any protest over academics). I never had any interest in political correctness (which my friends and I spoofed mercilessly), and I never thought it a good idea to change the direction of a department in any manner unrelated to the field. I knew I was just a guest with a ticket to ride for a little while. I came from a working poor background, I was lucky to be there at all.

    Academics should be responsive to a student’s desire to learn – and let’s admit that there are some who are not. Indeed, the more political the less likely to teach on that basis. When there’s no pragmatic difference between the ‘radical whatever’ professor and the professor who’s only there for cushy job, there’s a problem. And unfortunately some students get themselves all in a tizzy over ‘radical whatever’ that they don’t see the con going on, and miss what they should really be demanding of a teacher – which is to challenge, to share knowledge, to question, to raise possibilities in a world that is otherwise rather stale and limited.

  17. davidlduffy

    “My own state is a prime example of this. We are about to eat one of the biggest cuts we have ever faced and may even have tenure eliminated, both of which would have been a lot harder to do politically, if the conservative voters in the state did not have all sorts of legitimate reasons to wonder about the political neutrality of our institution.”

    I think you overreach here. Here in Australia, tenure disappeared many years ago, a fact that had nothing to do with political activity of universities or staff, but to economic rationalization (the Australian term for neoliberalism/financialization), around the time the tertiary education system expanded. Tenure was bypassed by completely dissolving departments then reforming a new department with contracts. (In one case someone I know of obtained tenure a month or so before this happened, and was not going to be offered a new job.) You are just catching up, driven by the economic situation and what voters and their politicians think is the “rational” way to respond to this.

    As to an animus from certain sections of the population against the university, when did that ever not exist? It is merely that there is currently an opportunity to express it. Each year here (as in the US), members of parliament go through the funding announcements, and denounce grants in the humanities eg “The quest for the ‘I’: reaching a better understanding of the self through Hegel and Heidegger”


    As to free speech in universities, the question of Pogge’s papers or results of Nazi experiments engages interesting moral psychological issues. Are we contaminated if we use these ideas or data? Shouldn’t we punish bad people by not citing their work, since one of the pleasures of academia is being cited? Shouldn’t we then feel guilty if we reference them?

  18. Hi Dan K, I was going to let this drop, but since someone “liked” your comment (which misrepresented my position) I guess I better respond.

    “Dwayne, it is very dangerous — and a serious mistake — for universities to adopt political positions.”

    Was I writing in Greek? If you go back and reread everything I wrote, I praised just about everything you said, and much of what Fish said. We are disagreeing on a corner of a corner of your position. And that issue is *not* whether schools should adopt political positions.

    The question is if they should take positions on specific policies that effect their mission. The fact is that they already do, you seemed to suggest that was ok, and I was only pointing out that I believe (and stated it was an opinion) that specific events like wars are things that do effect that mission. Now you can disagree about that, but that does not make me wrong, or us in disagreement on the general principle.

    In defense of my claim regarding the Iraq War, there were dems and reps on both sides of that war, as such it was not taking a “political position”. The result was students and teachers pulled out of school (a direct effect), and a ballooning of the debt which then and now grants power to arguments that we need to cut costs (in education). This had nothing to do with “righteous” and all to do with very practical concerns, though in this case they dove-tailed nicely. The fact that it is now widely accepted by both sides that it was a completely ill-advised war, which has cost us way too much, both in disrupted lives (and educations) and funds, reinforces that concept.

    If you want to look at a “righteous” political position, that would be EJ’s protesting for divestment from SA. So you can go ahead and swear at him if you like. But since you entirely mistook my position I will take your criticism as “fucking irrelevant”.

    “Across the country, now, we are seeing public universities receiving “payback” from right wing legislators, who have tagged universities as hotbeds of left wing activism and as fatally biased institutions. ”

    For opposition to the Iraq War? I think not. That position is largely applauded by the base. About the cases we are currently talking about? Yes, which is where I agree with you.

    But…uhmmm… right wing legislators are correct? Your quote above raises an interesting problem which brings us back OT.

    One of those “left wing activist” items for which (many) conservatives argue universities are fatally biased institutions, and have already tried punishing schools, is the teaching of evolution. Here is a direct threat from the political side against epistemic values of the University.

    Worse still, the sciences (across many fields) are taking a major hit under the current administration, with the support of conservative reps, to undercut science research into the environment. There is a definitive effort to support anti-climate change and pro-fossil fuel industry narratives. That is policy. And they are silencing people right up to the EPA (which if you do not understand, grants funds for research to universities) where all discussion of CC has been removed.

    From my perspective, this is where universities have to stand up for interest in and integrity of the knowledge they are generating and disseminating. Again, it gets to mission. But these *are* patent, politically loaded policies coming from the gov’t with advocates set to strangle institutions into compliance with funding (or regulation) where they disagree with a single (moral? certainly political) view point. To stand against them is to take a political position (on top of an epistemic one).

    Are students wrong where they push for universities to fight such policies? Are you arguing that if the financial threat posed by conservatives against the universities is great enough, they should be willing to teach creationism or intelligent design, and renounce evolution? Climate change research?

    I guess I see those conservatives you are talking about as being the same as the PC students we are criticizing, only they are using gov’t resources as the club to back their “righteous” cause, while the students only have their own tuition money and voices as actual students (with some expectation the university they paid directly care about their concerns) as their club.

    As much as I dislike the PC movement, and agree where universities should stand on it, a greater concern is strangling of education by conservative PC thugs. Though your worries are real the comment above seems more to me like blaming the victim. Conservatives were going to be using any excuse to cut funding to education anyway (that is their political position), this merely gives them an excuse to do so, while shaping what remains to their own PC culture.

  19. You can think whatever you like and appeal to whatever disanalagous cases you choose. The fact is that this situation in the US is a direct result, in good part, of the fact that there is a largely correct perception that the universities are not politically neutral but lean heavily to the Left. And I agree with Fish, in the video, that this is not the business of the university.

    As for the point re: Pogge, it is nonsense. If we were to have a moral litmus test for whose scholarship/literature/art, etc., we were going to include in the canon, there would be virtually nothing left.

  20. Blaming shmaming. It is what it is. And I don’t agree that things will happen whatever happens. That is simply to ignore realities.

    Maybe we should just let it drop.

  21. Hi All, I want to repeat something in my last reply and amplify the point (and question) because it seems on topic.

    Dan K rightly pointed out that conservatives in gov’t *are* squeezing universities, and in some measure using the “liberalism” of campuses as their excuse. Dan used this as an argument to keep politics out of universities.

    My response/feeling is that such conservatives are not acting as some equilibrating force bringing universities back to some political, moral, or epistemic neutral or valid position that liberals have been undermining. Rather they are the same category of actors, who are demanding their own set of political (moral etc) goals be met, and using the power they have over gov’t funding to impose them.

    In addition to identity politics issues, such conservatives also target research and instruction regarding things like evolution and climate change. They even point to the idea that when liberals held the power they forced these ideas into university agendas with biased funding. Outside of purely academic issues, conservatives also support positions like open carry (of firearms) on campuses which liberals oppose.

    Am I wrong in viewing such conservatives as being the same thing as the liberal PC actors being criticized? If so, why? Because they aren’t students? That seems arbitrary. And the fact that they control funding streams seems beside the point since students themselves are also a stream of funds, and moreover that control of public funds can move from side to side.

    Otherwise, if liberals (well… progressives as Dan K and I might call them) gained control of funding and used threats of defunding to get their own curriculum, and non-academic concerns implemented the argument given would seem to legitimize those acts. In fact, if they decided to only fund schools where students were active and had significant power over academic (and general university) practices, the very things being debated in this thread as “negative” would be considered “positive”.

    So I think that to be interested in knowledge (epistemic value), sometimes requires standing against specific policies that are thought to undercut this mission, and that can at times mean challenging a political group or ideology. No question this line has to be carefully watched, and I agree the current PC activities of liberals is going to far. But then, kind of by definition, I am arguing that universities stand up to that political group and ideology by opposing specific policies they demand.

  22. Dwayne: Some of the most accomplished physicists alive also “question climate change” or at least, what they call “climate change alarmism.” Unlike chemistry and physics, climate science is a lot more speculative and also a lot more recent. Just a few decades ago, climate scientists were telling everyone we were going to have another ice age. So it’s not as if everyone who isn’t sprinting off after Al Gore is some sort of anti-science knuckle-dragger.

    The real debate, there, is what we ought to do, given that a good part of the world has not yet industrialized and what that means in terms of human life expectancy and quality of life. And to suggest that there’s only one sound answer to these questions is itself ideological nonsense.

    As for the rest, university professors in the US are overwhelmingly liberal and vote something like 9 out of 10 Democrat. So, it’s hardly a wild thing to suggest that universities in good part, are not non-partisan.

  23. Hi Dan, I’m not questioning the liberal nature of university campuses (% students and profs). That’s why I agree universities should be careful of political agendas being pushed from internal sources. My question goes more to the fact that political agendas are also being pushed from the outside, and at the moment that is conservative.

    On the climate change issue, you are correct that there are people in science that challenge “alarmism”, and to a degree I am one of them, certainly being critical of Al Gore (having worked at the EPA under clinton/gore gave me a special antipathy for his “work”). That is not the same thing as denying “climate change”, which is what I am talking about. If you believe that removal of CC data and research from EPA (which in turn means university research), while looking to prop a pro fossil fuel industry narrative is somehow consistent with mainstream science, not interfering with Academia, and somehow upholding epistemic value, then you do not understand the field.

    “And to suggest that there’s only one sound answer to these questions is itself ideological nonsense.”

    Who is arguing there is “one sound answer”? In fact, one of the main problems I see is that a viable answer (or answers) have not been developed at all. What people have been wrestling over is a commitment to try to develop some answers that they might implement.

    However, one “answer” that is clearly not tenable is maintaining or (as conservatives want now) an acceleration of fossil fuel energy sources. The conservatives have been pushing a single answer and it is “drill baby drill.” IIRC the only one on Trump’s team that even acknowledges climate change is Rex Tillerson, and his position is basically “It’s too late, so let’s work on engineering to deal with whatever comes, and maybe it won’t be as bad as some models predict.”

    The other “answer” that is clearly not tenable is to remove research, data, and models. Demanding people not talk about CC, or trying to filter it through a corporate-political ideology is censorship and a total rejection of epistemic value.

    *But we can set CC aside.*

    What about evolution? On non-academic issues, what about open carry at universities?

  24. Dwayne: Forget about conservatives. The only way that the non-industrial world will industrialize is indeed through the use of more fossil fuel sources. That is part of the very hard conversation we have to have and the one which too many climate change activists are acting like we don’t have to have. And none of it has anything to do with the topic.

    As for the rest, you are getting us way off the track. I’ve said that universities have an academic mission and therefore, a purely epistemic function. Teaching modern biology clearly falls within that mission. As for campus carry, I am against it. So?

    I think this conversation has very little to do with the topic or the initial responses, so I suggest we end it.

  25. Hi Dan K, the issue of climate change activism has nothing to do with the topic, and why I never mentioned it*. I will explain how what I was arguing is relevant. You don’t have to answer if you aren’t interested, but I want to make clear what the connection was. I’ll number the different parts of the argument.

    1) In the essay: Dan T argued that…

    “To me this suggests a policy that universities should consider: when a significant number of students, say 20% of them, sign a petition or raise a set of concerns, there should be a direct avenue available to them where they can engage in negotiation with the administration. With this option in place for students, we funnel disagreeing parties into a place where they must view each other in the space of reasons, drawing out the heart of their conflict in values, and preventing hostility from festering between them. Additionally, if this route is available to students, they will not take to the streets in protest as their default action, which has only served to heighten tension and anger between the administration and the activists.”

    This opens a door to negotiation on issues (conflicting values) with the benefit of reducing protests, something you had been concerned with.

    2) Your initial response (which I largely agreed with) was that there should be no negotiations with students, because of the special relationship students have with the university whose sole interest is epistemic value.

    3) My disagreement with your position was that there are a couple of areas where student interests should be taken into consideration, particularly if epistemic value is of primary concern. During ensuing exchanges on this point, I argued that in standing up for epistemic values, universities might have to (and in fact do) take positions on gov’t policy and in so doing may take a political position.

    4) As part of your responses to me, you argued universities should never take political positions, and pointed to financial reprisals that conservatives are set to inflict on universities for being liberal.

    5) I argued that your position in #4 raises questions about commitments to epistemic value. Putting it more explicitly right now, that smuggles in practical, financial concerns as something more important for universities than epistemic values, and so drives universities to take political positions to obtain revenue. If your argument in #4 is accepted, it is not merely the PC demonstrations that you dislike that would have to go, because conservatives are even more concerned with the “leftwing activism” of scientific research and education regarding evolution and climate change (in academics), and anti-gun rights policies (in non-academics). That is to say they are equally wanting to punish universities for supporting those things.

    Given that I assumed you supported all three, the concept was to force you to admit that in some cases universities, and by extension students, are right to oppose policies and so take a political position where conservatives attempt to force universities via external mechanisms to adopt *their* political position.

    With this in mind:

    “Teaching modern biology clearly falls within that mission.”

    So, if conservatives threaten universities financially (or via other regulatory policy) because they view evolution as “leftwing activism” (and they do) you would agree that this would be contrary to epistemic value, and should be resisted even though it would require taking a political position? And that student demonstrations against such (anti-science) gov’t policies, petitioning their universities not to accept such policies, would also be valid? If so, that would seem to make my point. If not, that raises questions about the consistency of your position regarding commitment to epistemic value.

    “As for campus carry, I am against it. So?”

    Same thing as evolution, but this is clearly not about epistemic value, except perhaps indirectly. Would you be against students demonstrating and petitioning for their universities to keep campuses gun-free?


    *additional note on the climate change *research*

    “The only way that the non-industrial world will industrialize is indeed through the use of more fossil fuel sources. That is part of the very hard conversation we have to have and the one which too many climate change activists are acting like we don’t have to have.”

    I am uncertain how scientific research and education regarding the environment (which *is* modern science) gets immediately equated by you with activism and a lack of concern for the plight of pre-industrialized nations. With some irony, here you directly argue for political or moral value to take precedence over epistemic value. Presumably the physicists you referred to as being against alarmism are engaged in (or with) climate change research and education. If not, their opinions (such as people like Halley) are as irrelevant as the demonstrating students you criticized (they are *not* masters of that field).

    When a political group uses their power to prevent research and information sharing, that ought to be a red flag that they simply do not like the way the evidence is going for their pet project. If it supported their position, they would be asking for more of both and getting it as widely displayed as possible. If it were simply a matter of difference in interpretation of data (consensus scientists being biased in interpretation), why would they have to get rid of data?

    I am against alarmism. I am for research. That is all I was talking about. Activists (on either side) have to use what is considered the best data to support their arguments.

  26. Hi Dan Tippens, I have changed my mind.

    Remember, I liked the fact you has set things up as a negotiation between values. I agreed with DanK that for the most part there was only one value in play, and students really weren’t in a place to make the call as to what served that value.

    However, my discussion with Dan K made me realize my position was wrong, because I viewed universities as “closed systems” with only the administration, faculty, and students as the major players. In fact, they are “open systems” with pressure coming from outside sources that students have to contend with as much as (if not more so than) administration or faculty (and vice versa). And those pressures include different kinds of values. To tie the hands of students while external agents make their demands is unfair.

    Of course, the concept of a “demonstration” is to *demonstrate* the power a group has, and its interest in an issue, not to say “we are powerless, but hey, we exist, so give us what we want”. The latter is public pleading or begging and should only be used in the most desperate, necessary situations. The question then becomes how to determine what kind of support a group and issue command, and if it is not widespread in its support then if it is a desperate case.

    You gave a good way for a student group to measure support for a position, and an arguable metric where a university should probably give it a listen to avoid further action by that group, or (if low) a group realize it enjoys so little support any action will be pointless and not waste their time. I would still advise a university not to adopt anything unless it was clearly in support of its mission, but they might as well listen, if anything to diffuse tension (by explaining the situation to each other).

    That said, support is not the same thing as power. A demonstration is useless if it is not tied to something that really shows the university will be effected in a way they care about. Students might be better off organizing to time their demands with something like… paying tuition, getting funding from alumni, students working (as opposed to going to class). After all *financial value* seems to be the main value these “ivory towers” care about, no matter how much lip is paid to not being industries (to be clear I’m not blaming faculty for this fact). University owners are certainly not concerned with moral or political value (unless it has a $ impact).

    Even more important, might be for students to ignore pestering the university as students. Get people into political positions, either from their own ranks or outside reps, so that they gain power over external funding streams for higher education.

    Then step on their necks.

    After all, this is exactly what the red-state snowflakes are in the process of doing. Some don’t go to university and even speak ill of it. But they have been busy infiltrating committees and other gov’t orgs with power over regulation and funding. And there they cry about the “minority status” of conservatives on campus, as if “minority status” means they should be listened to and need protection of some kind (hypocrites). This includes their gentle minds, where they need “safe rooms” from evolution, atheism, different genders, and climate change. But unlike the students, they wield real power and can at least threaten to get what they want.

    Speak softly and carry a big stick… that kind of thing.

  27. marc levesque

    Dan T,

    Agreed, and I enjoyed your essay. Good discussion parameters can be very helpful when there’s conflict between either student, faculty, or administration demands, and that neither epistemic nor moral values automatically take precedence.

    I’d add that epistemic and moral values can’t be treated as completely separate concerns, though I understand you didn’t touch on that and that’s not a critique.

    I think you covered the conflicts well (in writing and links), I won’t add my perspective except to say that the more complex the issues, the more the idea that there actually are distinct sides can become a problem in itself.

    I also like your policy suggestion, seems to me a reasonable consideration,

    “these institutional negotiations may fail, but again, at least in going through the process; both sides will hear the values and reasons that are important to them, which can only be a good thing. Until we make negotiation our default way of handling normative conflicts personally and institutionally, debates are likely to remain static, with both parties attempting to gain ground through a shouting match of name-calling and demonization, and in such a state of dialogue, one can only observe that everybody suffers”

    having a good discussion, toning down debate, getting to where it becomes obvious that it’s counter productive to refer to people with terms like snowflakes, SJWs, privileged bullies, or insensitive clods, and to where people aren’t so sure anymore that they have to shut down or shout down discussion because the other side is so wrong and not even worth considering.

  28. I’m afraid I don’t see anything here that contradicts either the point of my == and Fish’s == position. So, I’ll just leave it.