Faculty Forum

Vol 12 No 1
15 September 2000



In This Issue

From the Editor

This is the first issue under my editorial direction, so it might be useful to put down for the record a few editorial principles.

This publication is a forum where the Duke faculty can exchange and debate ideas. Anything of interest to at least a modest number of faculty is appropriate to be printed here, whether it is an essay, a review, a letter, a poem or a picture. It is not a place to publish accounts of your own research, unless you and I agree that it is likely to interest faculty outside your specialty. It is certainly a place to report or comment on the antics of our administrative friends, subject of course to the constraints of accuracy and reasonable civility.

I will continue the tradition of sprinkling the issue with little feature items, such as quotes that catch one's fancy, pictures, cartoons or rumors heard around here. Reprints of things published elsewhere are fair game, if it is not too hard to get permission. I welcome suggestions along these lines.

I have my own opinions about the current state of affairs in the American university in general, and this one in particular. I will take advantage of my position from time to time (especially if space needs to be filled) to make my views known. But those views will be expressed under my name, and I will not let them affect my purely editorial work. I specifically encourage colleagues who find my opinions to be ill-founded, biased or even stupid to send for publication here their attempts to set me straight.

I agreed to take on this task because I think the Faculty Forum can be a valuable medium for faculty discussion and argument. That will only happen if members of the faculty make it happen. Those who read the stuff should also think about writing some of it.

Finally, all of us owe gratitude to my predecessors here. Bruce Lawrence, John Staddon, Roger Corless and Victor Strandberg took a promising idea, nurtured it, and created a viable venue in which ideas and arguments can be presented for consideration.


Planning in the Natural Sciences

An Interview With Berndt Müller
[Berndt Müller, James B. Duke Professor of Physics and Dean of Natural Sciences, came to Duke in 1990 from Universität Frankfurt, where he had served on the faculty and where he received his Ph.D. in 1973. He research area is theoretical physics, specializing in nuclear processes. He is the author of 11 books and over 200 refereed journal articles. He holds a Humboldt Award and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He became James B. Duke Professor in 1996, and from 1997 to 1999 was chairman of the physics department. This interview took place on 14 August, in Dean Müller's office.]

FF: When did your term start and how long does it run?

BM: I started 1 September 1999, on a three-year term.

FF: Could you say in a few words what items fall under your authority, and that of Karla Holloway?

BM: Briefly, we have authority over department budgets and with Bill Chafe are responsible for strategic planning, I in the natural sciences, she in the humanities and social sciences. We also oversee the junior faculty searches, once they are authorized. Finally, we and Bill together represent Arts and Sciences in presenting cases to the APT Committee.

FF: How does this division of authority work, in your opinion?

BM: It works extremely well, and has been very constructive. We have twice weekly meetings of the staff (Bill, Bob Thompson, Karla and myself, along with the supporting inner staff) which allow us to compare notes and reach agreement on how to deal with particular cases.

FF: In the planning exercise currently being carried out under the auspices of the Provost, what is your role?

BM: As you know, there are two tracks in that process. The first is carried out within the Provost's Office, and is concerned mainly with interdisciplinary and inter-school initiatives. The second is within the schools. Karla and I have been leading this part of the process, which has received input from the departmental plans. The Arts and Sciences plan will be sent to the Provost in early September. The Academic Priorities Committee will discuss and comment on it then. Subsequently, Bill will present it to the Trustees at the October meeting.

FF: Does the Arts and Sciences plan focus mainly on the set of major initiatives departments have been asked to put forward, or does it include everything?

BM: It includes everything. We have tried to address the broad picture rather than trying to second-guess departmental plans and initiatives. It is thus concerned less with items requested by departments and faculty than with the broader priorities of the school, including budgetary and college related issues.

FF: So the departmental initiatives inform the general plan, rather than standing on their own as part of it?

BM: Yes and no. Let me be clear about one thing: The academic excellence of our departments remains the core foundation for the excellence of the school as a whole. However, we recognize the need for overarching goals and priorities to guide our investments in the next decade. Progress in the sciences requires more and more interdisciplinary collaboration. Duke has a strong record in this respect and our plan is to build on this. Generally, we expect and hope that each of the school's priorities will benefit various departments, but the plan is written from the school's point of view rather than from those of the departments.

FF: Apart from the Academic Priorities Committee, are there other faculty governance entities that will discuss the plan?

BM: It will go to the Executive Committee of the Arts and Sciences Council, and that will transmit it to the Council. Copies of the plan will go to the departments after it is sent to the Provost, sometime in September. I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion during September.

FF; Returning to the various aspects of your job, could you tell us what parts of the many activities carried out by our late friend Charles Putman are now done by you?

BM: One thing he did I do not do, and that is oversee the Office of Research Support. That is currently being done by Lew Siegel, although there is a search planned for a person to do that among other things. I have taken over from Charles some aspects of development of research initiatives in the sciences. It involves working with departmental faculty and chairs, as well as developing initiatives together with other schools.

FF: How many people come to you about this sort of thing?

BM: Quite a few. They are typically interested in projects that might require special infrastructure or other support that only the University can provide through the schools. Both I and John Harer in the Provost's office become involved in these things. In the past year, I have been closely involved in the planning for the genomics and nanoscience initiatives.

FF: What about representing Duke in dealing with the government, especially in DC? Who does that now?

BM: Duke has recently hired a very experienced person, Nan Nixon, as Director of Federal Relations. She came to us from Harvard.

FF: Let's turn to the capital campaign. Is that already so far advanced that there is not much discussion about goals any more?

BM: On the contrary, the campaign is only about half over. In Arts and Sciences our goal is about $325 million. So far we have raised about 73% of that, so we are slightly ahead of schedule. We're not doing as well as athletics, which has already exceeded its goal, but we're doing pretty well. We have not had huge gifts, such as the Pratt gift to engineering. But we have made excellent progress in financial aid. And we have nearly reached our $48 million goal for endowed chairs, which includes the Bass program.

FF: On financial aid, are the contributions mainly unrestricted, or are people setting up special scholarship funds?

BM: There is some of both.

FF: In the $325 million goal, there is not much for bricks and mortar, is there?

BM: Very little. The original goal included $7 million for improvement in facilities. We have been talking this year about development of a portfolio of things we would like to raise money for, and a new person has just been hired who has experience in fund-raising for the sciences. This area will be aggressively pursued for the remainder of the campaign.

FF: Has much of the $7 million been raised, or is this a problem area?

BM: It is something of a problem area, although some funds have been raised. But we have been rethinking our priorities in this area, to better match the things we really want to do with the goals that are attractive to donors. We believe we can do much better than we have in the past.

FF: Finally, now that you have been in the job for a year, can you give us some idea of your thinking about what Duke needs to do most urgently in the sciences, and what its chances are for finding the resources to do them?

BM: First, one must ask what are the intellectual areas where Duke can establish a national and international position of leadership.

One clear case is the general area of genomics. This involves coordination of effort with the medical school, parts of engineering, and to some extent the law school. Within our school, it involves obviously biology, biological chemistry, and bioinformatics. A second general area is brain science. We are in a good position to make real progress, both through the Center for Cognitive Neurosciences and through the reorganization of experimental psychology into a department of brain sciences and psychology. Finally, there is the area of materials science. This requires development of coherent plans involving engineering and condensed matter physics.

Beyond identifying the intellectual goals and formulating plans to meet them, one must face issues of space and instrumentation. There is a chronic problem with finding appropriate research space, and much of our teaching space is in a dreadful state. We would like to address some of these needs in the capital campaign.

These things require careful planning, and they will take quite a number of years and many resources to follow through. This is not a short-term effort.

FF: Are these three intellectual areas ones where with a doable investment of resources you think we can establish leadership?

BM: If we pick our stances within these areas carefully, I think we can. It seems likely that good external funding in these areas will be available for the next decade and beyond. But we are not large enough to cover the areas comprehensively.

FF: A lot of areas of science that we currently have are left out of these three areas. Traditional botany, for example.

BM: Actually, I don't agree with that. For example, genomics has become an important tool in the traditional areaof plant systematics, where we have just hired two outstanding young faculty members.

FF: So you mean genomics in a very broad sense.

BM: Absolutely, this is the idea of defining priority areas broadly.

FF: Certain parts of physics are left out. Yours, for example.

BM: Condensed matter physics is certainly included and is an area where Duke has for some time needed to make a real investment. And to set general priority areas does not imply that we will not continue to invest in other areas where we are already strong.

FF: Yes, but what will you say to people who, upon reading the plan, note that they are being left out of the vision of the future?

BM: First, we are not restricting all our investments to only a few areas. We shouldn't. We will continue to give support where it is needed to maintain our good programs. But when one looks at future faculty appointments, given that the faculty will not expand much in the next few decades, we must ask how we can use our limited numbers most effectively. The Chemistry Department, for example, has decided to move significantly toward biological chemistry. But that does not mean that we will not continue to have faculty in inorganic and physical chemistry.

FF: What are your hopes for the role of the Free-Electron Laser lab in this connection?

BM: That lab has several potential opportunities to satisfy the high expectations we had when it was established a decade ago. One certainly is the applications of the gamma ray beam in nuclear physics, which I'm happy to see is going to happen. The lab also has the potential to be a significant player in materials science and in biological physics.

FF: Any other comments you would like to make about goals in the sciences?

BM: I have been impressed by the degree of enthusiasm I have found among the faculty since I have come to know them better. There are many excellent scientists here, and we have made considerable progress this year in learning how to plan together. I look forward to significant upward movement in the reputation and rankings of our science departments.


Monsters I Helped Create: The Green Forms

Lawrence Evans

[This is the first of what may become a series of confessions. In my many years as an active member of the Duke faculty, I have probably done more than my share of damage to the institution, in terms of participation (sometimes even leadership) in the creation of entities that, while reasonable sounding at the time and usually starting modestly, took on lives of their own and developed into unforeseen and often monstrous forms. Today's monster is the system of student evaluation of courses and instructors at the end of each term.]

As of the first of this month I have become Professor Emeritus. That means that they don't pay me, unless I do a specific job on a term basis. But it also means they can't do anything to annoy and insult me, like give me a 3% raise when people all around me (especially in the administrative and support sectors) are getting 5% or more.

It also means I don't teach if I don't want to. And that means my professional performance is no longer subject to critiquing by kids with no clue as to what it involves. I am no longer graded by those to whom I assign grades. I have outlived that demeaning ritual.

But I have guilt. I was among those who, nearly thirty years ago, argued that the practice of collecting course evaluations by students (which the students started doing themselves in the 60's) should be taken over by the faculty. Indeed, I drafted the first official evaluation form, and then argued for its acceptance by the faculty in the body that subsequently became the Arts and Sciences Council.

How could I have been so stupid? Well, for one thing I was young.

Birth of the Monster

The early 70's were a time of heavy pressure on the faculty to give students a larger say in the academic world. That pressure came more from the administration (in Duke's case, especially the President) than from the students, who wanted mainly to control their private lives and to avoid the draft.

But those students who got themselves elected to the student government were (as always) pushing for more student involvement in every part of the university. Duke's student leaders wanted to take over publication of the little book containing the results of the student evaluations, and they argued successfully that it would be a fairer representation of student opinion if it were made formal and if the faculty were officially encouraged to cooperate.

It sounded reasonable. We would devise a standard form. At the end of courses these would be filled out by the students, and then be kept in the department offices. The students who put together the little book would come to those offices and, under rules set by the department, read the forms and write summaries of what they found.

The whole thing was to be optional for the faculty. One could refuse to play, with impunity. Departments or instructors who didn't like the official form could devise their own (several did).

In the discussion leading to approval by the faculty body, it was made clear I spoke to the points myself that the official form would contain no questions to be answered by numerical or other grading scales, and that the forms would remain the property of the departments, to be read only by the chairman and the instructor involved. Each instructor's approval would be required before the student committee could use his forms in writing their little book.

It was specifically forbidden that the forms be moved to the offices of the dean or other administrators. We all recognized the serious flaws in the data about to be collected, and we wanted to make sure they were not used for important matters like raises or promotions. The administrators of that time understood those concerns, and didn't want to be responsible for the thousands of pieces of paper anyway.

The questions on the original form were general in nature. I don't have a copy any more but I know there were just four questions, each to be answered by writing a few sentences, concerning the value of the course, the role of the instructor, and the role of other things (texts, labs, etc.) in the learning process. I recall that the student was asked to tell what fraction of the classes he or she attended, and (I think) to estimate rank in the class, by quartiles.

The forms could not be reduced statistically to make even worse data. They remained the property of the departments involved, in the hands of people who could interpret the student comments in the proper context. We felt reasonably sure that we had adequate control measures. We were very wrong.

Changes in Form

This system went into effect in the mid-70's. Since then it has been amended and revised a few times. The last revision, in the early 90's, put the faculty council on record as requiring all faculty to carry out some kind of student evaluation process at the end of each course. I was in the minority who voted no to that. (I recall the day well, because it was the only time I remember Stanley Fish coming to such a meeting. He was outraged by the whole idea of students grading faculty, and said so pretty bluntly.)

By that time the form had been changed more than once, always in what I thought was a wrong direction. The first change, as I recall, came out of a committee chaired by Dick White, not yet a dean but on his way. They imposed on us a form that originated in Michigan's education department. It was full of "quantitative" measures, leaving almost no room for students to write anything.

The current form, which bears the date 3/93, leaves room for students to write a little bit, but asks them to give grades on all sorts of things. For example, rate the "educational value" of the course on a scale of 1 to 5. Grade the "amount and type of thinking you did" on the same scale.

The dumbest single item on the form is the request to supply a single adjective to describe the whole experience. (Answers like "excruciating" are common in our required courses.) At least such irrelevancies can't be reduced to a number.

I find it hard to believe that this instrument was put together by serious people with experience in teaching.

Last spring, having decided to retire, I indulged in civil disobedience. I refused to use the green form. Instead, I wrote one of my own, tailored to the introductory physics courses I was teaching. It had no place to put numbers or other grades, only questions to be answered in words. I got much more useful information out of reading the comments on those questionnaires than I ever had from the green forms.

Out of Control

But the form itself is only a small part of the problem. It is the use of the data that has turned the process into a monster.

For a long time nobody read the forms but the chairman and the instructor, except for the student committee members. (The publication of the little book had its ups and downs, so years went by with no students involved at all.) Department chairmen often used the data in writing their annual evaluations of the teaching of their faculty. (I did that when I was chairman, but I didn't calculate statistical measures from the numbers because I refused to convert dubious data into a form that invites misuse.) For the most part the data were being used by people who knew the courses involved and understood how to interpret what they read.

Not always, though. The deans in Allen have never thought they had a right to see the forms, but there was a problem with the Summer Session. A few years ago the director at that time sent a memo with the forms, telling instructors to have them sent directly to her. After she looked at them she would send them back to the department. She got away with this in many departments and with many instructors, because they gave it little thought and didn't know the history or their rights. But I refused to send her the forms for the course I taught, stating that she had no right whatever to them. She went to the Trinity dean, who tried to make peace between us. I agreed that she could see them if she came to the department office, which was more than I should have conceded. When her successor sent around the same message I dug in my heels. This time the new Trinity dean, after learning about the history, agreed that I was right. I hope that issue is behind us now.

From Bad to Worse

In the 80's the APT Committee (another monster I helped create) began to ask for the forms. This began modestly, as such things often do. Dossiers for promotion and tenure were required to have a section with a summary account of the candidate's teaching, accompanied by a selection of the forms. The number was kept small so that the whole dossier might fit in one binder. The important thing was the department's summary account, and the little sample of forms was just to clarify and strengthen the points being made.

Over the years the APT process has become more and more rigid and formal. The committee has set up elaborate checklist procedures that demand a great deal of time from those preparing dossiers. It is not clear that the committee has ever given any thought to whether there is a corresponding value added to the review process. Their current mindless requirements concerning the green forms provide a good example of the committee's indifference to the trouble it causes for other people.

The step over the edge was taken while I was still department chairman. I was informed that APT dossiers must henceforth contain not just written summaries of the evaluations, but also statistical summaries, in the form of average scores on items in the evaluation forms. For the fewcases I still had to oversee I grudgingly sent in these numbers, accompanied by a letter of protest at the blatant misuse of doubtful data. My objection was ignored, of course.

In the last few years it has become even worse. Now departments are required to keep elaborate databases for each faculty member (at least those who might ever need approval by the APT committee) containing all the scores from the forms, whether relevant to the course at hand or not. A promotion dossier now must contain every evaluation form received for the candidate's entire teaching career (often filling several thick binders) as well as the averages and standard deviations of the scores for each category in each course. From this mountain of dubious data the committee purports to judge teaching performance.

As I say, I have guilt. This monstrous misuse of mostly meaningless data is now Duke's official way to decide who is a teacher of quality.

To assess the job performance of carefully selected professionals by looking at a few numbers derived from the momentary opinions of students who have not even finished the course yet, and who have never themselves tried to teach anything to anybody, is on its face absurd.

Of course, the whole thing is a bit of a sham anyway, because promotion and tenure are not much determined by teaching. Teaching only really matters if it is demonstrably inadequate. But the pretense wastes enormous amounts of time and effort.

Duke is not alone. Duke is never alone in such things. All over the country universities pretend to be concerned with teaching quality, while most of them limit their actual evaluation effort to gathering the kind of student opinion data represented on our green forms.

One hears horror stories now and then, in which a faculty member is told that he must improve his 3.5 rating at least to 4.0, or else he will surely not be promoted. A few people here and there have publicly admitted that they tailor their teaching, demanding less and grading more generously, to get better evaluation scores. It works.

Despite the silly form and the inane reduction of student opinions to numbers, is it possible that the presence of these evaluations actually improved the quality of teaching at Duke? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else, because we have no credible way to evaluate teaching now, let alone a way to compare with the past.

I do know that data from the forms can have some good uses. They can deliver messages to the instructor that are valuable in improving teaching. Comments like "He can't be heard in the rear of the room" are worth reading and acting upon by the instructor himself, not anyone else. A statement that "We didn't cover the last fourth of the material" (if any student would ever complain about such a thing) is useful for the chairman to know. These things can lead to discussion, reflection, and even to change for the better.

On the other hand, a grade of "1" assigned to a required course, accompanied by the comment "This course sucks" is useless; so is a grade of "5" with the comment "She's a genius."

Today's students, by the way, seem more inclined than formerly to grade on the basis of how "caring" or "sympathetic" the instructor is. Indeed, some instructors have run experiments, deliberately smiling more and generally being more affable, to raise their ratings. That works, too. How effective the instructor is in helping the student learn the material now seems less important. Why the change from earlier days, I do not know.

I do believe that student opinion should be solicited. But only in a proper and useful form, with the understanding that its purpose is to aid the departmental faculty in improving their teaching, not to be an official process of evaluating that teaching. And certainly not to bethe only such process.

Without Peers

Even more strongly, I believe that it is time for Duke to put some time and effort where its mouth is and actually do something serious about evaluating and improving the quality of teaching. I am convinced that this requires serious peer evaluation by colleagues. Professional work should be evaluated by fellow professionals.

Our neighbors in Chapel Hill have a modest peer evaluation system, at least in some departments. Instructors are required to submit to a small department committee a brief prospectus for each course they teach, listing what they hope the course will accomplish and how they propose to reach these goals. There are some visits by members of the committee to observe the classroom situation. At the end of the term the instructors write another account, telling what worked and what didn't, and making suggestions for changes. These items are the basis for a report from the committee to the chairman, and for conferences with the instructors. It is not unduly time-consuming, and it puts the emphasis on making things work, not on assigning a grade to the instructor.

There seems to be a reluctance by many faculty to show interest in the teaching of their departmental colleagues, even to care about what is going on in their courses or why. But the teaching program of a department is not the business of the instructors individually. It is a collective enterprise, the business of all the faculty in the department. Is it too much to ask that the faculty spend a little time making sure that their department's teaching and courses are really as good as they report to the dean or tell the public?

Duke currently has a curriculum with almost no specific course requirements (yet another monster I helped create), which leaves many departments to compete with each other for enrollments. It has a system of teaching evaluation that relies almost entirely on flawed and inadequate data from students. It has no system of peer evaluation of teaching. In these circumstances the university is fortunate that so many of its faculty, despite the clear incentives and the license to take it easy, to pander to the students, and to let educational values slide, actually try quite hard to do what they know to be right in their teaching.


Annals of New Age Science

[In his recent book Voodoo Science: From Foolishness to Fraud, Robert Park divides "voodoo" science into three categories. These are: pathological science, in which the scientist fools himself; junk science, in which unsupported theories are put forward (often to juries) as possible explanations of specific occurrences; pseudoscience, in which pure baloney is dressed up in high sounding technical language. Prof. Park, a physicist on the faculty of the University of Maryland, has for some years produced a weekly one-page column called "What's New," which reports on news affecting science in general and physics in particular. Many of the single paragraph items in his column concern the current interaction of science and politics, but a number of them report the latest bits of "voodoo" science to come to his attention. Prof. Park has kindly given permission to reprint some of his goodies here, which we will do from time to time.]

"VITAMIN O": COMPANY AGREES TO PAY $375,000 TO SETTLE. You will recall that WN first exposed the scam 18 months ago, after a full page ad appeared in USA Today (WN 27 Nov 98). Rose Creek Health Products was marketing ordinary salt water as a dietary supplement for $10 per ounce, with claims of significant health benefits. If oxygen could be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, which it can't, you would need to drink two liters each second to supply your minimum daily requirement. That's usually called drowning. In addition to consumer redress, the company is barred from claiming that research has demonstrated health benefits. Meanwhile Beverly Sassoon & Co. picked up the scam, selling salt water as BiOxygen, at $17.50 per ounce (WN 7 Apr 00).

[Editor's note: Despite this settlement, other companies continue to market salt water as "Vitamin O" (always in quotes, since there is no such vitamin). My mail this summer brought an offer from R-Garden Internationale to sell me "Vitamin O" at the bargain price of $30 for 4 oz. No health claims were made in the letter of offer, but there was an accompanying booklet of testimonials from dozens of people, claiming that the miracle substance had cured everything from warts to pulmonary fibrosis.]

CRYONICS: HEADS YOU LOSE. Another cryopreservation company has gone out of business. However, CryoCare, founded in 1993 by a science fiction writer named Charles Platt, claims its two "patients" are still being cared for. The patients are in fact disembodied heads. Presumably the theory is that by the time technology is ready to reactivate the head, building a new body should be a snap. A futurist named FM-2030, who had arranged for cryopreservation, died just last week. He was revising his book "Countdown to Immortality" when he was stricken. Perhaps an appropriate anthem would be "Freeze a Jolly Good Fellow."

[Editors note: The same Charles Platt was (inexplicably) the person selected by the Washington Post to review Prof. Park's book, referred to above. The review was not favorable.]

"What's New" can be read on the web. The link is at the site of the American Physical Society:

http://www.aps.org/


The Trouble With Stanley...

John Staddon

[Editor's note: A number of years ago Professor Fish wrote an essay entitled "There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing Too" which was widely quoted, and even reprinted in this publication. Recently he has narrowed the scope of his attack on the First Amendment and taken on the chief faculty privilege protected by tenure, academic freedom. Since this is one of the few remaining things most faculty hold sacred in the university, Fish clearly means to cause a stir again. Professor Staddon has risen to the challenge, and this piece is a variant of an essay he published elsewhere.]

The memory of Professor Stanley Fish, literary gadfly and postmodernist diva, is still fresh at Duke University. Many still remember the days when, under his leadership, the Duke English Department was truly cutting edge. A few still recall that it was Stanley who attempted to stigmatize the Duke Association of Scholars as "racist, sexist and homophobic" the evil trinity of high-PC. It was he also who responded, in space generously donated by the New York Times, to physicist Alan Sokal's humorous unmasking of the corrupt editorial practices of the Duke journal Social Text. Then Director of the Duke University Press, Fish questioned Sokal's honesty and compared the laws of science to the rules of baseball.

Prof. Fish, his Jaguar and his cutting edge, have now left Duke. He is become the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His first major publicity coup was to hire transgendered economic historian Deirdre (né Donald) McCloskey to the UI faculty. But he has also found time to write a book The Trouble with Principle (Harvard University Press) which is my topic today.

An extract from The Trouble with Principle appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education late last year (Nov. 26, 1999) and the book has since been widely reviewed. Fish's newest target is that most cherished jewelof the U. S. university: academic freedom. Paying unconscious homage to the Vietnam conflict, his apparent aim is to destroy academic freedom in order to save it: "Academic freedom is a bad idea, a dubious principle.but I am in favor of academic freedom and would do anything in my power to protect it."

Let's see how well he protects it. I have summarized in italics what seem to be the main points of Fish's piece, followed by quotes and commentary.

People make mistakes, so we should all stop trying.

"From fallibilism follows the obligation to refrain from judging one another." How's that again? Some judgments are wrong, so we shouldn't make any? To err is to quit trying?

Perhaps Prof. Fish means that we should judge ideas, not people? "[The] responsibility of the university [is] to produce knowledge and refine judgment." Well, OK, but a capacity for error ("fallibilism") can be improved only by testing our judgments against the judgments of others, not by refraining from judgment entirely.

Academic freedom requires civility and suspension of moral judgment; it is just another faith.

"[A]cademic freedom, rather than being open to all points of view, is open to all points of view only so long as they offer themselves with the reserve and diffidence appropriate to Enlightenment decorums [sic]Academic freedom is not a defense against orthodoxy, it is an orthodoxy and a faith." Prof. Fish has pondered the issue and discovered the obvious: Of course the principles of academic freedom are beliefs. What else could they be? Tautologies? Matters of empirical fact?

But civility is only the second principle of academic freedom. The first is the search for truth. Surprisingly, Prof. Fish is sympathetic to that: "we must allow others the freedom to pursue the truth by their own lights" But what he ignores is that "the pursuit of truth" is not possible without civility. Truth arises partly from debate. But you cannot debate with those who think no debate is possible, who demonize the opposition, or who are unwilling even to listen to alternatives. Who ever thought you could? Does Fish object to debate on principle? If he does not, he must accept civility as fundamental to academic freedom.

The personal is political is academic.

"[If] a form of speechsimply declares itself to be the truth to which all must bend, academic freedom will reject it as illiberal, just as it rejects religious speech seriously urged." Quite right, because the academy is about knowledge, not action. Dogmatists are not interested in the search for truth, for they have already found it. Their business is not academic business.

"If your colleague's positionsare anathema to you, debate them while upholding his right to have them, so long as he upholds your right to have yours.It all sounds fine and highly moral, but in fact it displaces morality.The result is not only a self rendered morally thin, but a society rendered morally thin" But how did society get in here? We're talking about the academy which (perhaps fortunately) is only a tiny part of society at large. Academic freedom doesn't extend to every aspect of life and no one says it should. After all, without judging people as well as ideas, there could be no civil society. Wrongdoers must be punished and civic virtue upheld. But if the virtues, motives and sensitivities of the participants are allowed to influence the discussion, it ceases to be academic and becomes political. That's why moral judgments are, or should be, suspended in academic discussion. (There is a topic called moral philosophy, of course. But its aim is to discuss the reasons for certain beliefs, not to enforce any belief in particular.) And that's why academic discussion exists as a separate sphere, apart from the "real world."

In American society at large, there is of course a broader doctrine o f free speech, which is subject to its own peculiar restraints and definitions. Flag burning, proselytizing, propaganda, civil disobedience and public nudity are not academic speech, for example, and would not, I suppose, be protected by academic freedom. Prof. Fish writes as if free speech and academic freedom are the same thing. They are not.

"Politics is all there is, and it's a good thing too. Principlesdon't exist except as the rhetorical accompaniments of practices in search of good public relations."

Here Prof. Fish does his best to ensure we don't take him seriously. The speed of light is 3x10 5 km/s: Is that politics? The sun rises every day: Is that politics? And if it is, why is that a good thing? Many liberal notables, such as Karl Popper and George Orwell, have argued the opposite, that the distinction between truth and politics is essential to a free society. What does Prof. Fish have to say to them? And as for principles, are they nothing but advertising? Is "Thou shalt not kill" merely good PR? Sounds "morally thin" to me. I could take this nonsense seriously and ask, Just what is it that makes "thou shalt not kill" persuasive as PR, if you like. The answer then leads right back to principles and human nature. Fish's apparently shocking "principles don't exist" is not shocking but circular. He's just saying that we like something because we like it, and denying any attempt find out why.

Academic freedom threatens positions that Prof. Fish supports.

Now we get to the heart of the matter! Prof. Fish fears that academic freedom is proving damaging to issues that are important to him: affirmative action (he's in favor), pornography (he's against), male dominance (he's against), arguments for racial superiority (ditto), etc. "The way of thinking that produces an inability to make otherwise obvious distinctions isa political weapon wielded self-consciously, and often skillfully by persons and groups with definite goals in mind. These goals arethe sale of pornography, maintenance of lily-white construction crewsand so on" Well, if all is politics, what's the problem? This is just more of "a good thing." But if all is not politics, perhaps some of these unnamed, condemned-without-a-trial critics have a case. Perhaps academic freedom is upsetting to Fish because it interferes with his attempts to win by means that academic freedom forbids ? like stigmatizing the opposition.

We may sympathize with Prof. Fish and even support some of his causes, but his discomfort at the way the argument is going is not sufficient reason to abandon the ideals of truth, civility and open debate that are the only real justification for the liberal academy.