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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Should Professor Myers be fired?

Catholic bloggers and newsources have been informing the Catholic blog-reading public of the doings of Professor P.Z. Myers, who publicly displayed an act of desecration against the Eucharist and a page from the Koran. Most recently, Jimmy Akin has called for Myers' termination, on the grounds that Myers has behaved unethically and disrespectfully, in violation of the university's code of conduct.

I don't think the academy works that way, and I'm not sure that it should. Myers is a tenured faculty member. As such, he can be fired for gross misconduct. But generally speaking, tenured faculty members are fired for misconduct directly related to their work as teachers or scholars. A faculty member might be able to be fired for hate speech taking place in the classroom, or at a university-sponsored event. Sexual harassment of a student would also constitute grounds for dismissal.

But Myers' act of disrespect did not take place at a university-sponsored event, and (so far as I know), it wasn't publicized in his classroom. He publicized the event in his private blog, which doesn't claim to be affiliated with the university.

And that's why I, speaking both as a Catholic scholar and a faculty member at a state-affiliated university, have to answer "no" to the question "Should P.Z. Myers be fired?" When faculty members speak and act as representatives of the university, that's one thing. In those conditions they may indeed be held to high and precise ethical standards. But when faculty members speak as private citizens --or even as public intellectuals in their own right-- that's different.

I feel strongly about this precisely because I know that some of my own views don't accord with the common beliefs of the secular academy. There's a reason why I try to blog anonymously, but I know that my anonymity isn't perfect. If a tenured faculty member at a public institution can be fired for displaying his own anti-religious anxieties on a private blog, how can I be sure that a post explaining my views on _FITB_ subject will not be held up as evidence of my lack of professionalism or respect?

I'm not saying that academic freedom has no limits. If Myers publicly abuses the religious beliefs of his students in a university setting, I agree that he should be fired. If it is true that his desecration of a consecrated host is against the law (based on the idea that the only way to obtain such a thing is through a form of theft), that may also constitute grounds for discipline or dismissal.

But I'm reluctant to say that hate speech uttered in a faculty member's private life is necessarily grounds for dismissal. Tenure exists to protect academic freedom, but it also effectively protects what I can only call jackassitude. We all know that there are jackasses in the academy, and one of the effects of tenure is that it protects them. You can't fire someone just for being a jerk. And, much as it pains me to say this, you shouldn't be able to fire a tenured faculty member just for being a jerk. At many schools, a lack of collegiality may be grounds for denying someone tenure- but once that person is tenured, you can't simply weed him or her out of the department on the grounds of being unlikeable. Allowing such dismissals would open the door to all sorts of quiet discrimination.

Having said that, I have to add that there are other sorts of pressure that can be exerted on someone like Myers who acts as a sort of public intellectual. I hope, for example, that people will think twice before inviting him to speak at public events. I hope that his department puts some informal pressure on him to behave. But I can't get behind the grassroots movement to demand his dismissal. I think that's a mistake.


Blogger Lina said...

I found this site called maybe you can use it. It seems to help get me through the issues of dealing with some of the jerks I know. At least I can vent about these jerks, plus I get a kick out of sending them some cards.

11:53 AM  
Blogger La Mama Loca said...

I absolutely agree with you, Teresa. I can't believe people are giving this man so much attention and I can't believe they're calling for him to be fired. What would they say if people called for a Catholic to be fired because he said that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered." That is as offensive to a homosexual as this is to us.

9:29 AM  
OpenID JKW98 said...

As another Catholic (semi) academic (part-time at a non-Catholic church-affiliated college), I struggle with issued like this. At a former workplace, I could be fired if I were seen entering the local casino or drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes in public (on my own time, not on the property of my employer). There has to be a balance between the employer's desire to keep an appropriate image and the rights of the employee outside of work.

4:30 PM  

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