On the dangers of meetings
Since I appear to be stuck on the meetings meme, let me reprise at least an excerpt from some earlier writing about a meeting I enjoyed while at UT-Austin. This is from NEW SENSE, and my three part essay PILGRIM'S EGRESS. Actual facts below: I report, you deride.
...the department decided to take strong action. In other words, it formed a committee. It apparently wasn’t taking the problem all that seriously, though, because the chairman asked me to be on the committee. As a third-year junior person, I had little knowledge and even less power. But it was my first committee assignment, and I was determined to do my best.
Our agenda was simple: how to deal with the complaints that a few students had leveled, verbally, alleging no single incident or valid cause, against two of the instructors in the Government Department. The answer seemed pretty easy to me. We needed to say that these were not real complaints. There was no action that justified interference with the classroom teaching of these faculty.
When it came time for the meeting, though, I was shocked. The committee chair said that there was good news. The department had done a great job of dealing with the complaints of previous years. There had been, in fact, no complaints at all.
This seemed facile. After all, there had been complaints, just not actionable ones. I said I wanted the department to take a stand, not sweep the problem under the table. In retrospect, I was obnoxious, and probably wrong. The distinction between “no complaints,” and “some complaints, but nothing important or specific,” was not exactly at the Watergate level of cover-ups. Still, I could not have predicted what happened next.
The head of the committee was furious. “What sort of complaints?”
I knew the answer to that: “Some of the students have complained that the instructors are ‘too liberal’, and that they make the students uncomfortable. Now, I think…”
He interrupted me: “Have there been complaints that you are too conservative?”
I later realized that he thought he was threatening me, but I wasn’t clever enough to understand. This should show you, though, that the very idea that professors might be afraid for being liberal, inside the administration, is far-fetched. Most department chairs, and mid- and upper-level administrators, lean Left. The others lean so far Left that they have toppled entirely. But what I said next, in my ignorance, made things worse. “Suppose there have been complaints, about me, about being too conservative. Then there still have been complaints, and our committee needs to address them.”
He got very quiet then. He asked me what the complaints were, though we had discussed them in the hallway. Then he asked me, quite formally, what classes and professors the complaints had been addressed to. I played along, and named the courses and the instructors. Then he closed his notebook, looked at the other two committee members, who had not said a word, and announced that the meeting was now over.
This seemed like a funny way to run things, but okay. I went home. When I came in the next morning, I walked by the open door of one of the complained-about professors. The person howled, “SO! YOU DON’T LIKE MY CLASS! WHY DIDN’T YOU HAVE THE COURAGE TO COME TO ME YOURSELF?”
I actually was so dumb I didn’t know what the person meant. “No, I don’t have a problem with your class. What do you…”
“YOU MADE A FORMAL COMPLAINT YESTERDAY! YOU SAID I WAS TOO LIBERAL! HOW DARE YOU!”
What the committee chair had done was to scuttle down the stairs to the main office, and say that I, Michael Munger, was complaining about the class. I tried to explain, but the instructor I had “ratted” on was beyond wanting to hear explanation. This person had thought we were at least casual friends, and here I had complained about the person’s class, in a “secret” meeting, without even letting the instructor know first.
I went back into the hallway and heard a booming voice. “Doing a little red-baiting, are you Munger?” The speaker was a friend, a guy way on the left side of the political world, but a perfectly decent and thoughtful fellow. We had been over to each others’ houses and went to lunch at least twice a week. I tried to explain to him what had happened, but he had already made up his mind. “Munger, this is why we can’t have conservatives in the department. When it comes down to it, you people can’t help yourselves. You have to play the commie card!” I could see that he was laughing at me, and was half-joking.
But he was also half-serious. The academic Left needs to see itself as being outré, oppressed, the “Other” in the society in which it lives. If the Left thought of itself as conventional, and established, two things would happen. First, they would actually be responsible for the problems and inadequacies of American university education, rather than the rebels trying to make things better against overwhelming odds. Second, they would be overcome by unhappiness on a grand scale. Many people on the Left require a sense of “otherness” to be able to survive psychologically. Intellectual laziness and moral bankruptcy are not very attractive. Better to be beaten down and discriminated against by “the man.”
I had to give up, and I did. I apologized to the two instructors whom I had “wronged.” (And, if I had done what they had been told I did, it would have been wrong.) The committee chair was a different matter. The amazing thing was that, by the time I talked to him again, he had convinced himself that his made-up account was true. He took me to lunch and tried to have a fatherly talk, saying that I needed to curb my ideological extremism.