Phi Beta Cons

An Encouraging Sign

One of the more wearisome aspects of the battle for academic freedom has been the tendency of suddenly prominent professors (sometimes prominent because of their own abusive actions) to claim they are being “censored” or “intimidated” by mean e-mails. Or by mean talk-show hosts. In this Internet era, the sad reality is that almost any debate of any importance is going to be accompanied by its share of ridiculous, profane, and sometimes threatening speech.* “Trolls” are alive and well out there.

So it was with an anticipatory sigh that I read Teresa Ghilarducci’s piece in Inside Higher Ed entitled “Adventures with Rush Limbaugh.” Professor Ghilarducci is an expert on pensions, and during the campaign season advanced a rather controversial proposal regarding 401(k)’s — a proposal that was picked up by Rush Limbaugh and resulted in the professor enjoying the bright glare of publicity and the white-hot heat of abuse.

But I was wrong to sigh. The professor’s article is a good-hearted example of exactly how to engage in the marketplace of ideas. She recounts even hateful e-mails with humor, uses the criticism as an opportunity to re-state her own position, and then talks about lessons learned. I love the ending:

So what will I do the next time I am called to testify? My footnotes of supporting studies will move to the text — otherwise my views look isolated and can be picked off like a young zebra separated from the pack. I will talk to Fox only on my terms and I will be fully prepared for an attack when I venture into the blazing sun of the blogsphere and CSPAN. I will continue to publish peer-reviewed research, to be sure; but,next time, before I head out for a wild ride from refereed journals to Rush Limbaugh I’ll have an arsenal of spurs and switches.

I don’t know one thing about pensions and couldn’t tell you anything about the idea that landed her in Rush’s crosshairs, but that’s how you handle the Internet age — with self-discipline, a thick skin, a degree of self-awareness, and a dash of humor.

Well done, Professor.  

*An aside — my wife and I have developed a saying, “If you aren’t getting hate mail, then you aren’t doing anything with your life.” The hate comes from the Right (I once got a profanity-laden message that I didn’t care at all about the pro-life cause or about this country — as I was taking a leave of absence from working at a pro-life legal organization to deploy to Iraq with the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment) and the Left (my wife’s favorite is a letter whose tirade ended with the statement that our young children “drooled out their prayers”).

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