Conflict or Collaboration?

Michael's picture

We continue to analyse and comment on the distressing conflict within the English Department at the University of New Mexico (UNM) because of two recent events. The first involves the resignation, effective April 15th , of the Director of the Creative Writing Program, and the second the follow up to our decision not to publish an anonymous commentary on this matter.

This is a critical time for the Program, and a new Director needs to be appointed urgently to provide leadership out of this situation. That leader will face unique challenges – to be seen as not aligned with any particular side of the conflict, to have strong interpersonal and mediation skills, and to be able to draw on the resources of the university community to move the programme forward. They will need to earn the trust of faculty, and to be backed up by the Chair, Dean and Administration. A change in leadership that places someone not directly involved in the events at the helm represents a critical opportunity for healing the rifts and putting the good of the Program, Department and University above people’s undoubtedly strongly held personal views about what has transpired. To do less runs the very real risk of further destroying careers and morale, and seriously impacting on retention and recruitment of students and staff to the Department.

As expected, the author of the anonymous contribution has simply posted it elsewhere on the internet, in fact in several places, and understandably accused us of bias. Our actions have been supported by other but unfortunately not all websites. We wish to make it quite clear from the outset that, setting aside considerations of our legal liability for publishing material that may well be actionable for defamation, we are not taking sides in this conflict. Our primary interest is the defence of academic freedom and freedom of expression, the integrity of the academic and teaching programs of the University, and the appropriate management of conflict in the academy. We believe, on the evidence presented to date, that there may also be a question of the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sexual expression .

We have examined the materials posted on various websites commenting on the situation at UNM and believe they are worth further analysis and commentary as they are likely to represent the views of those who continue to express concerns regarding the outcome of the University’s investigation. They are also likely to be the issues that the new Director is going to have to face. We should say at the outset that these comments have been uniformly anonymous, as was the original accusation in 2007, raising the possibility that they all represent the work of one person. In contrast we have published comments from people involved here, and other graduates of the programme have published collaborative commentary elsewhere under their own names. Our policy is further supported by UNM’s student newspaper, the Daily Lobo which refuses to publish anonymous comment. Furthermore the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness include the right of the accused to face their accusers (we have commented earlier on whistle blowing, and confidential reporting) and these are guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment. There is also a presumption of innocence, which places the burden of proof upon the accuser.

We of course would be more than happy to hear from others, and to publish reasoned analyses, with the proviso that it is the issues not the person that is at stake here. Indeed we would urge members of the English Department to speak up on how to move forward, rather than allow matters to simmer. It has been stated before that we see only a facet of the situation, and we acknowledge that, indeed it is likely that by definition all of the players see only a piece of the picture. In particular we have very few primary source documents, such as the letter allegedly circulated to members of faculty on March 10th from the Provost’s Office. To date members of faculty we have spoken to have denied seeing this letter, despite verbatim quotations in the media. Imagination has a habit of rapidly filling the void, which is why we have urged transparency. It would be completely understandable if the University has wished to contain this and preserve confidentiality. However in view of the media reports and the fact that people have taken this matter to open fora, the Provost’s Office should rethink the wisdom of this policy, given that the principles of freedom of information allow for the redaction of certain identifying details.

The investigation is consistently criticised, but in the absence of open documentation of the investigation and report this is unverifiable. What must be avoided is confusing a verdict that one does not like with a miscarriage of justice. We have commented earlier on the appropriate channels to pursue such grievances. Similarly it is stated with confidence that several UNM policies were violated, but without providing any details this is unhelpful. We had previously studied these policies and side with the Provost in not finding contravention. As an extension to this line of concerned argument, we were referred to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) policies. We were in fact familiar with those too, and found no evidence that these were contravened either, on the basis of publicly available information. More specifically AAUP fiercely defends academic freedom, freedom of expression and the concept of citizenship. AAUP specifically refers to the right of self expression in extramural activities when not acting or speaking as a member of the university community. AAUP also places great value on tolerance and civility, values that we hope a new director would instil into the Program. As the AAUP policy on freedom of expression states, no idea or viewpoint should be forbidden or not expressed.

We have been accused of not understanding how serious the matter is, we assure readers that we understand only too well how such conflicts of vision can escalate and destroy an institution, when the protagonists fail to realise how their positions affect so many people. We have also been accused of not consulting with the affected people. We have held discussions with faculty, and with current and former students, and people continue to approach us. It is of course quite likely that we have not heard from a representative cross section to date. We have referred to the problem of conflation which appears to need further elucidation. Our understanding was that the original allegation, and hence investigation related to whether extra-curricular activities by faculty contravened university policies, and in particular if postgraduate students were in the same place. However the nature of the allegations now being discussed relate to such issues as personality, personal habits, classroom demeanour and activity, and relationships with students on campus. These are separate issues that are frequently discussed, subjective, and difficult to evaluate. They also have different fora for resolving differences, and were not the purpose of our original expression of concern. This is not the forum for holding a referendum on a teacher's popularity, nor are popularity and effectiveness the same attributes in a university teacher any more than perfection is the standard by which we should all be judged. However it is important to appreciate that none of these problems are unique to either the Department or this particular institution.

We are anxious that there are lessons learnt from what has happened here. One of these involves the interface of private and public morality. There has been much discussion as to whether the internet constitutes the former or the latter. While the vast reaches of the internet appear prima facie to be public spaces with private enclaves, and are accessible in that they are searchable, it is also multi-layered and sectored in that individuals do not in the normal course of their lives stumble upon material or information far outside their usual range of interests. The principle of offence requires infringement of the citizen's right to carry out their lives free from involuntary exposure to information contrary to their values, it does not include explicitly searching for information and consequently claiming contravention of personal values.There are clearly different opinions as to the actual events, however conflict does not arise in a vacuum, but exacerbates pre-existing dynamics and stresses, and all too often takes on a life of its own. There is scope here for dialogue rather than confrontation. Alternative viewpoints deserve to be heard, audi alteram partem, but need to be directed towards finding solutions rather than retribution.

At times when emotions run high, as here, it is particularly important that we play close attention to critical reasoning, particularly in an academic environment. An issue in regards to this is the use of rhetorical devices to imply credibility. Much of what has been written uses the first person plural and inclusive adjectives such as ‘most students’ implying that the message is at the very least a semi-official communication on the part of a majority – a statement we have no evidence for. Nor do we even know which students (the denominator) are being referred to – all students enrolled at the institution, all postgraduates, the English Department, or just those in the Program? We have been in touch with current and former postgraduate students in the department as well as faculty, and have formed the opinion that certainly some people are disaffected, but by no means could we verify that this was in any way a substantial majority.

The restructuring of the Creative Writing Program represents a unique opportunity for the English Department to move forward. If the department and the institution are unable to provide a supportive and encouraging working environment and eliminate harassment then other bodies such as the AAUP are likely to step in, which could even result in censure.

Michael Goodyear, Dalhousie University

Elizabeth Wood, Nassau Community College