Bad Examples

By Chait, Jonathan | Reason, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Bad Examples


Chait, Jonathan, Reason


"SEXUAL AND RACIAL HARASSMENT IN U OF M SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT," read the headline of a flyer distributed last spring at the University of Michigan. Students in Sociology 510, a required intro-level graduate class, had made the charges against David Goldberg, a professor of sociology who taught the course during the 1992-93 school year.

The accusations against Goldberg, and the Sociology Department's reaction to them, show that even tenured professors can no longer count on the protective shield of academic freedom when faced with challenges from politically powerful students and junior faculty members. In fact, professors with unpopular views may find the officials who are supposed to defend academic freedom apologizing for it instead.

The Goldberg controversy was not the first time the department had seen such accusations. In 1989 Professor Reynolds Farley had suspended his course on the history of race relations after several campus activists charged him with racism. The evidence: examples he used in class to demonstrate the history of racial conflict--a description of Malcolm X that called him a "pimp," quotations by a nativist senator deriding Mexicans as lazy, and the like.

Farley, a liberal who has dedicated his career to understanding and combating racism, did not in any sense endorse the material, which he used to demonstrate the persistence of racial stereotypes. Yet in the charged atmosphere of the University of Michigan, Farley became a symbol of racism and the unwilling focal point of campus debate. A soft-spoken and sensitive man, Farley concluded that he could not teach the course in such a politicized environment. Four years later, he remains in the department but steers clear of teaching in the area in which he is considered a national expert.

Goldberg has enjoyed less support from students and colleagues than Farley, due mainly to his abrasive personality. Philosophy professor Carl Cohen, who defended Goldberg in an impassioned letter to The University Record, a faculty newspaper, described him this way: "A powerful scholar whose very prickly manner has long irritated colleagues and students alike, he simply will not suffer fools without response. He has no patience with incompetence; hypocrisy he treats with open contempt."

Some of Goldberg's detractors use somewhat cruder language. All agree that this is not a man who pulls punches. One of his recent memos begins:

"TO: The Chair, The Executive Committee, Sociology Faculty

"FROM: David Goldberg

"RE: PARTICIPATION IN THE CURRENT WITCH HUNT, STAR CHAMBER, REIGN OF TERROR, STALINIST PURGE"

The "witch hunt" followed a semester of conflict between Goldberg and his students. Although Sociology 510 is a statistics course, students taking it often examine issues involving race and gender. In March, several students who objected to the way Goldberg handled these issues sent a lengthy, unsigned letter to the Sociology Department, the Affirmative Action Office, and university President James Duderstadt. The letter cited several parts of the course as particularly offensive:

* A statistical breakdown of mortgage applications by blacks and whites at a Detroit-area bank. The study demonstrated that approval of mortgages was based on credit ratings, which were better on average for whites. Once differences in credit ratings were taken into account, there was no correlation between race and likelihood of approval.

* An examination of the claim that women earn 59 cents for every dollar that men make. The study broke down mean income for each sex by age, education, and marital status. A table showed that while female incomes overall are only 53 percent of male incomes, the "discrimination index" ranges from 51 cents to the dollar in some categories to 93 cents in others. The example concluded, "Do you really think 59 cents is a fair representation of sex discrimination in wages?"

* A complex analysis of SAT scores. …

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