Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"The Tweeting Professor": A Parable About the Price of Speech Made in the Service of Others

Parables are short tales that help reinforce cultural norms and expectations, and in the process may reveal deeper truths about the characters, the storyteller and the framework within which both story teller and hearer are expected to relate to the materials.  In traditional societies they can serve as powerful teaching tools, which along with rituals and elaborate rules producing a mimicry of established action reinforce and direct cultural sensibilities and produce the basis for understanding and protecting right conduct, thought and action. There is a rich scholarship in parable, especially as relates to Abrahamic religions. (e.g., Gowler, David B., What They are Saying About Parables? (New York: Paulist Press, 2000).

(Pix "Food for Thought" (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

Parables are sometimes most powerful when they can be fashioned from out of current events that directly relate to or are drawn from the audience to whom they are directed.   And so it is with academics and academic culture in a world that values speech but which may extract a price for its use when it might be deemed owned by another, in this case the university specifically and the academic community whose legitimacy may be affected.  But it is also a parable that suggests that the highest price of speech is paid by those who choose badly (within current cultural constraints) when they seek to avoid payment.

I offer here a parable of speech in the academy which I might call "The Tweeting Professor".  The Parable is crafted from recent stories written by Adam Martin ("NYU Professor Immediately Regrets Fat-Shaming Potential Students," New York Magazine, June 3, 2013); Nick DeSantis ("Professor Apologizes for Tweeting That Fat Students Won’t Finish Dissertations", Chronicle of Higher Education June 3, 2013); Paul Baskin ("In Reversal, NYU Investigates Professor Who Tweeted on Obese Ph.D. Students" Chronicle of Higher Education June 11, 2013);  and Karen Wentworth, UNM Institutional Review Board Makes Determination on Miller, UNM Today, Jul 1, 2013).

On a Sunday, 2 June 2013,  Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychology professor resident at the University of New Mexico and visiting at N.Y.U. University, sent the following tweet: "Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don't have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won't have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth."  The reaction was immediate, and originated from within the community of scholars within which Miller works. Adam Martin continues:
After fellow tweeters, including NYU colleague Jay Rosen, called Miller out for being inappropriate (Wired writer Steve Silberman compared it to eugenics), . . .  The professor, who is visiting as an instructor at NYU's Stern School of Business from his permanent position at the University of New Mexico, also claims that, "obviously my previous tweet does not represent the selection policies of any university, or my own selection criteria." But it's not obvious. Miller has sat on admissions committees before, his CV states. Now he's expressed this apparently serious, if better-left-private, non-academic criteria for accepting or rejecting people. And his peers are calling foul. (Martin, "NYU Professor Immediately Regrets Fat-Shaming Potential Students," supra)
Professor Miller reacted quickly but in two distinct directions.  First he appeared to defend his tweet:

 (From mazzie (official) 2 Jun . it wasn't impulsive if you went on to defend it. and you're a coward for deleting.

Then he appeared to retract it. Martin writes: "he's since deleted it and offered his 'sincere apologies to all for that idiotic, impulsive, and badly judged tweet.'"   (Martin, "NYU Professor Immediately Regrets Fat-Shaming Potential Students," supra). The reactions to the Martin article were also interesting and worth reading for an initial sense among the community of participants of the issues raised and the distinctive analytical perspectives brought to bear, including absurdity.

But it appears that at some point Professor Miller did more than retract, he sought to explain.  That explanation, one that compounded the initial tweet, now provoked the disciplinary mechanisms of the institutions in which he worked.  While informal disciplinary pressure may have produced the initial reaction and the ultimate retraction/apology, the institutional responses of N.Y.U. and U.N.M. would take on a life fo their own.  

U.N.M. was initially deployed the more aggresive institutional response. It's response was almost immediate, even in the wake of Proifessor Miller's initial apology and retraction.
In a written statement on Monday evening, the University of New Mexico said it was “deeply concerned” about the impact of Mr. Miller’s comment, which it said “in no way reflects the policies or admission standards of UNM.”

The university added that the chair of its psychology department, Jane Ellen Smith, had contacted Mr. Miller about the incident. “He told her that his comment on Twitter was part of a research project,” the university’s statement said. “We are looking into the valid­ity of this asser­tion, and will take appropriate mea­sures.” (DeSantis "Professor Apologizes for Tweeting That Fat Students Won’t Finish Dissertations", Chronicle of Higher Education, supra).
It appears that at this point Professor Miller moved from defense, to retraction/apology and then, when UNM sought to invoke its own institutional disciplinary machinery against him, to affirmative defense in the safe harbor of research. It was at that point that a speech protection line appears to have been crossed.

That crossing from apology to explanation that sought to invoke the protections of academic research then produced a change in the position of N.Y.U. N.Y.U. had initially sought to allow communal academic discipline take its course, one that had produced in short order the retraction fo the statement and considerable potential embarassment for Professor Miller among his peers. But that changed once UNM acted. And it wasn't as much that UNM had acted as the position Professor Miller appeared to take in his defense there that moved NYU from reliance on communal self discipline to the proteciton of its own institutional intersts, even if such proteciton might collide either with the course fo events to date and its earlier reliance on the academy to police its own. Paul Baskin reported days after the tweet that:
One week after escaping punishment from New York University over a Twitter message rejecting obese doctoral students, a visiting psychology professor is under investigation by NYU for claiming the tweet was part of a research project. . . .

The University of New Mexico, where Mr. Miller is an associate professor of psychology, said last week that it was "deeply concerned" by the Twitter message and was evaluating its response. But New York University, where Mr. Miller is currently a visiting professor of business, had said it planned no action.

NYU changed its position, however, after Mr. Miller explained his action to university officials in New Mexico by saying he had sent the Twitter message as part of a research project.

"That prompted us to look into it," a New York University spokesman, Philip Lentz, said on Monday of the research claim. "And that's what we're doing."

In NYU's original response to Mr. Miller's Twitter message, Mr. Lentz had said that professors sometimes make controversial statements. This particular statement was regrettable, but Mr. Miller apologized for it and NYU considered the matter closed, Mr. Lentz said last week. (Baskin, "In Reversal, NYU Investigates Professor Who Tweeted on Obese Ph.D. Students" Chronicle of Higher Education, supra)
What had started as an absurdity with its plausible consequences, and the initial invocation of academic self discipline had taken a different course.

Now the University of New Mexico, through its Institutional Review Board, and in line with the determination of the NYU IRB,  has concluded its institutional reveiew of Professor Miller's claim that thew Tweet was part of a research project.  It reported:
The Insti­tu­tional Review Board of the Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico has met and con­cluded that the tweet­ing activ­i­ties of Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Geof­frey Miller did not rise to the level of research. There will be no fur­ther IRB-related inves­ti­ga­tion or review of his actions. The board con­cluded that Miller’s tweets were self-promotional in nature and did not fol­low research cri­te­ria which require spe­cific research ques­tions or hypothe­ses, sys­tem­atic meth­ods for col­lec­tion quan­ti­ta­tive and/or qual­i­ta­tive data and cri­te­ria for select­ing respon­dents.  (Wentworth, UNM Institutional Review Board Makes Determination on Miller, UNM Today, supra).
The IRB Report read in full as follows:
To: Drs. Paul Roth & Richard Larson (I/O and designee)
Re: Main campus determination concerning Dr. Geoffrey Miller’s tweeting actions
Cc: Dr. Michael Dougher, Vice President for Research, UNM

June 28, 2013

At its full board meeting on June 26, 2013 the University of New Mexico main campus institutional review board (IRB) unanimously determined that Dr. Geoffrey Miller’s tweeting activities did not rise to the level of “research” much less “human-subject research” as defined by federal regulations 45 CFR 46.102 (d, f).  As such, the board determined that there would be no further IRB-related investigation, review or monitoring of Dr. Miller’s past tweeting actions.  The UNM IRB board was in agreement with the NYU IRB determination that Dr. Miller’s tweeting was self-promotional in nature and that key elements were absent in order to classify his actions as “research”.  Specifically, the committee determined that there were no clear research questions or hypotheses, systematic methods for collecting quantitative and/or qualitative data were absent, and that criteria for selecting respondents were unclear, at best.
Research is defined by the federal regulations at 45 CFR 46.102 (d) as “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”  Human Subject is defined by the federal regulations at 45 CFR 46.102 (f) as “a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains (1) Data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or (2) Identifiable private information.

The  consequences opened the door to further discipline at UNM: "The Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy and the UNM Col­lege of Arts and Sci­ences will now review Miller’s actions. A dis­ci­pli­nary process inquiry has been started, but will likely take a cou­ple of weeks to com­plete. Whether Miller will con­tinue at NYU or return to UNM is under dis­cus­sion, but has not been determined."  (Wentworth, UNM Institutional Review Board Makes Determination on Miller, UNM Today, supra).

Professor Miller's speech act has now assumed a life of its own.  No longer a Sunday opinion of small length, it has assumed a symbolic character the consequences of which may well be profound.  But the character of that symbol is ambiguous and contextually distinct in the hands of the interpretive communities that have chosen to use the speech act as a trigger for discipline. Once the speech act assumed a public character, through its transmission, it could assume whatever shape and serve whatever purpose, and reflect whatever intention that the recipient, and the interpretive community, might invest it with. More interesting still, the speech act ceased being the domain of a single actior but became, in its consequences, attached to Professor Miller's connecitons. In a sense, here, the speech no longer was Professor Miller's to make.  Rather, Professor Miller assumed, when he acted, not merely a personal and incarnate activity, but also one in which he was abstracted into the community of scholars to which he belonged, and as a component (and thus subservient to thew will of) the institutional communities that had hired him and in that hire had acquired rights (sometimes overaggressively claimed) over Professor Miller's totality of expression (at least as and to the extent it suits these institutions). This abstraction and disassociation between Professor Miller and his speech is not a construct of the university or the academic community in which he operates, but is now presumed.  That was the thrust of the connecitons made between the tweet and Professor Martin's position by Adam Martin's coverage in the New Yorker. It lies at the heart of aggressive university conflicts of interest policies and policies designed to control the bodies of their faculty well beyond those activities for which the university is willing to pay compensation (as part, of course, of some total package of expectations the extent to which is large but not large enough to suggest a loss of human dignity in the constitutional sense of autonomy, if only because one can always resign). The personal is now the professional and the distinction between public and private life erodes back to traditional levels of more than a century ago, but in ways that are new and molded by technology and its effects on expression and visibility. Professor Martin's tweet thus operates on several levels--as the speech act of a man, as the remarks of a member of an academic community; as an employee of one or more universities.  In each of these parallel levels, the source and consequences of the speech will be different--an individual, a member of an academic community, and an employee of an institution.  Each approaches both the tone and tenor of the speech act differently and each will extract consequences personal to the disciplining community and with reference to it rather than to the individual.  The price of speech, then, is high, precisely because the individual now no longer engages in speech as an autonomous actor, but instead simultaneously as himself and as the incarnation of abstraction (academic communities, the university, etc.).  Conspicuously absent in this story, of course, are two things, the first is proportionality, and the second is the institutional voices of the respective faculties at UNM and NYU. 

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