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Trouble at BU

In response to:

Academic Freedom at BU from the June 12, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Commenting on the letter of the amusingly named “Committee to Save Boston University” [NYR, June 12] I must declare my interest: I am a friend and associate of John Silber. But I was a member of the faculty of Boston University before any of the six signers.

In citing the oppressions allegedly inflicted on that faculty, the Committee names no victims. This is not for lack of space: even with hours or reams at its command, the Committee never names names. This is not surprising: for example, only one member of the faculty has claimed that he was denied tenure for criticizing the administration, and the claim was thrown out of court and not appealed. In the handful of tenure cases now in dispute, no one makes such a claim.

Nor does the Committee note that many of Silber’s fiercest critics regularly receive high salary increases. Since they are familiar with their own cases at least, the omission cannot be out of ignorance. Professors Rebelsky and Vendler have, since John Silber came, had increases of 113 percent and 127 percent. Professors Hunt, Vendler, and Miller, in a year when each has attacked the administration with great and regular vehemence, received increases of 13 percent or more. Indeed, the average raise for the six next year is about the same as for all faculty. This group of persistent—and, in the considered view of the administration, irresponsible and dishonest—critics has fared as well as the average faculty member. So much for the question of increases.

As to leaves: one of the Committee, having requested a leave through her chairman, arranged a visiting appointment in Europe without waiting for final approval. When the administration discovered that it could annul her fait accompli only at the other university’s cost, it approved the leave. This grant of a leave has been shamelessly distorted into a charge that the administration has denied not one but a plurality of leaves.

The signers misrepresent matters in saying that Silber accused a faculty member of arson but withdrew the charge. The facts are a matter of record. When a local newspaper reported a faculty member as having said that Silber had made this charge—which he had not—Silber corrected the story publicly, and apologized if his remarks could have been reasonably so misread. The Committee distorts this episode shamelessly.

Space precludes an analysis of the CLUM’s McCarthyite “investigation” of Boston University; not even they said that we have a system of “prior-review rules for student newspapers.” Our student newspapers, independent of the University, are published without involvement by it, a common policy at American universities, and one that antedates John Silber’s presidency.

The Committee’s claim that the idea of “negative merit” has been introduced into merit increases is no more honest than the rest of its farrago. The Dean in question suggested to several chairmen that in assessing service to the University—one among several categories in the merit judgment—they consider that members of their departments had vilified the University by saying many things false on the public record. His position was reasonable enough: how could one possibly serve the University by lying about it? The expression of this uncontroversial sentiment—not the establishment of any policy—is behind the Committee’s lurid charges. There does not seem to be any free speech for administrators.

The Committee claims that “most” of the full-time faculty of the University attended a meeting last December at which it was voted to have John Silber’s head. Readers of The New York Review of Books may be interested to know that “most,” in the bright lexicon of the Committee to Save Boston University, appears to mean 43 percent (668 out of 1556 full-time faculty: those present totalled only 27 percent of the total faculty of the University). Since the meeting voted after a debate in which the Committee and others had repeatedly made charges which the Trustees either knew to be false, or to reflect Trustee policy, it is not surprising they have not acted favorably on the meeting’s peremptory demand. (Contrary to the Committee’s claim, however, the board did act, by giving Silber a vote of confidence.)

The Committee’s summation alleges that the administration has inflicted disorder, harassment, and intimidation of free speech on Boston University. Even in the broad cockpit of campus debate, they provide no evidence.

How can intellectuals behave so? Would they act this way in scholarly controversy? They appear to believe, to paraphrase Orwell, that if one can get good results by lying about one’s opponents, one should do so.

Readers may well consider the controversies at Boston University no more than a squabble among monks. This would be short-sighted. When the Committee to Save Boston University brings the controversy into the pages of The New York Review in a manner that disgraces the most elementary standards of scholarly honesty, it befouls the forum in which it appears. It debases the currency of public debate. Most serious, it cynically misleads readers who quite reasonably assume that the ethical standards observed in such a controversy exceed those of the used-car lot.

The only one of the signers whose serious work I am in a position to read as a professional colleague is Helen Vendler. I shall continue to be stimulated and delighted by her work in these and other pages. But I shall be increasingly inclined to verify her quotations.

Samuel McCracken

Assistant to the President

Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts

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