George Bush is scheduled to give a commencement speech at Furman University next month, and numerous faculty members don’t like it. A letter has gone out asking for signatures, with a cover note that begins:
As you are well aware, the fact that the President of the United States will be speaking at commencement has created both excitement and controversy. This is understandable, as his administration is considered one of the most controversial and divisive in recent history. But controversy can be a good thing. Many faculty are trying to use this visit as a ‘teachable moment,’ both in terms of discussing policy issues in class and in terms of demonstrating the right of a free people to dissent. To that end, a group of faculty has drafted the attached letter protesting some of this administration’s policies.
The “We object” letter begins this way:
Under ordinary circumstances it would be an honor for Furman University to be visited by the President of the United States. However, these are not ordinary circumstances. In the spirit of open and critical review that is the hallmark of both a free democracy and an institution of higher learning, we, the undersigned members of the Furman University community, object to the following actions of the Bush administration.
There is a problem here. Not that faculty members disagree with Bush policy on crucial matters (many conservatives and libertarians feel the same way). And not that they shouldn’t take the opportunity to express their disagreement. Rather, it is the contradiction between their collegial assertions of “discussing policy issues,” “teachable moments,” “dissent,” and “open and critical review,” on one hand, and, on the other hand, the solid, party-line “protest” and “objection.” The “We object” letter includes a list of actions such as running up big deficits and extending federal power into properly local matters, but instead of posing these policies as topics for debate, the letter concludes, “We are ashamed of these actions of this administration.”
Shame is not an invitation to debate. It allows for no critical response. If the faculty members chose to host a series of extracurricular discussions of Bush policy and invited a few defenders into the room, that would serve the educational mission and, indeed, turn Bush’s visit into a teachable moment. This statement, however, closes off back-and-forth discussion from the start.