Archive for May, 2008

A Point of Personal Privilege

Monday, May 12th, 2008

I hope my colleagues will forgive me a brief digression from Russian history, though it does concern academia and the teaching of history.

In between grad school at Yale and my current position at Kansas State, I had a one-year visiting position at Hamilton College at upstate New York. In every respect but the weather, it was a wonderful opportunity. I got a lot of lecture writing done, met some very bright students, had supportive colleagues, and worked out the kinks in my teaching before I was at a place where it counted for tenure. The library even delivered books to the departmental office on request.

The chair of the department when I taught there was Bob Paquette. His students worshiped him, though he made them work like dogs. It was no secret, since he and everyone else in the department acknowledged it, that in political and ideological terms he was far apart from most of his fellow faculty. In all dealings I had with him, he was utterly and fully professional, in the best sense of the word, and prized that in others.

Which makes this triply ironic that he was penalized in May 2007 with a zero percent raise–not because the school was suffering from financial exigency, but for lack of service and collegiality. This lack of service involved raising large sums of money for an academic center at Hamilton, and then going public when the plug was pulled. There’s a long history of the disputes around this center and the academic politics involved, and anyone interested can track down the sordid story very easily. My point is that this action by Hamilton is clearly a penalty for ideological nonconformity, precisely what academic freedom and intellectual inquiry are supposed to celebrate. For the particulars, see this story.

What makes it even more ironic is that Paquette is mates in the History Department with Maurice Isserman. Isserman, likewise an exemplary colleague in my brief time at Hamilton, is an outlier to the left as Paquette is an outlier to the right, and has likewise critiqued Hamilton College and its intellectual culture. Has Isserman suffered for his views? If yes, we have even better evidence of mandated conformity; if no, a double standard for dissent on the left and on the right.