University of Rhode Island Issues New Statement on Erik Loomis

by Corey Robin on December 24, 2012

Yesterday, the President of the University of Rhode Island issued a new statement on the Erik Loomis controversy:

Over the past several days we have heard from many individuals concerning statements made or repeated by Professor Erik Loomis. Many writers forcefully expressed serious concern about his statements and many others expressed very strong support for Professor Loomis, especially in regard to his First Amendment right to share his personal opinions. In the statements at issue, Professor Loomis did not make it clear that he was speaking solely as an individual, and that the views he expressed were his alone and did not reflect the views of the University of Rhode Island. This was the rationale for our original statement.


The University of Rhode Island strongly believes that Constitutionally protected rights to free expression are the foundation of American democracy, and central to our mission of imparting knowledge and promoting the exchange of ideas. It is our conviction that Professor Loomis’s personal remarks, however intemperate and inflammatory they may be, are protected by the First Amendment, as are the views of those who have contacted us in recent days.


David M. Dooley, Ph.D.
President
University of Rhode Island


Many thanks to all of you who signed our statement and wrote individual emails and letters to URI administration.

{ 58 comments }

1

Neil Levy 12.24.12 at 4:15 pm

I do not thnk this is good enough. Loomis did not say anything intemperate and inflammatory.

2

Jacob T. Levy 12.24.12 at 4:22 pm

There is, of course, no norm that academics on twitter should end every tweet with “these views are my own and not those of my university.” Indeed, one of the virtues of a correct understanding of academic freedom is that it ensures that everyone always understands as a default that academics– in their research, their advocacy, their contributions to public debate– are not speaking for their university.

“Intemperate and inflammatory” is a reasonable description, unlike “acts or threats of violence.” But this statement still does not show an adequate understanding of the university’s correct posture toward its professors’ speech.

3

jeer9 12.24.12 at 4:28 pm

Dooley remains a clueless douchebag.

4

David Steinsaltz 12.24.12 at 4:28 pm

I don’t see anything to celebrate in this legalistic statement. Their “conviction” is that Professor Loomis’s statements (which they go out of their way to deplore again) are protected by the first amendment. So they would be surprised (though not necessarily disappointed) if he were to be imprisoned for making them. Whether the university might take its own action to remedy this gap in the law is left open.

This lacks even the boilerplate acknowledgement that freedom of speech is actually a good thing (rather than a legal hurdle that makes it difficult to give that bastard Loomis what he deserves), and particularly important to the thriving of a university, not to mention the more robust defence of academic freedom that I would expect from a serious university, saying that the university has no part to play in policing the opinions expressed by their faculty. To the extent that they may have mistakenly been misled into believing that this was a case of academic misconduct, they regret the error, and have nothing more to say (“intemperate and inflammatory”!), other than that the university welcomes the robust discussion.

Perhaps their faculty should take the initiative of separating themselves from the university when they appear on expert panels and commissions, prefacing each remark with “this is my private opinion, and not that of the University of Rhode Island or its trustees.”

5

Jim Henley 12.24.12 at 4:33 pm

I am heartened that their last sentence acknowledges that my own statements were “protected by the First Amendment.” Truly heartened.

6

Harold 12.24.12 at 4:39 pm

Dooley perhaps is still angling for funds from the Olin or other big ammunition and armaments companies. When are university presidents going to disassociate their institutions from the NRA, the spokesman for these armament corporations, I’d like to know? That is something students could legitimately protest about.

7

Corey Robin 12.24.12 at 4:39 pm

The statement is weaselly and certainly doesn’t convey any deep understanding of the issues at stake. But in my experience, this is most definitely a victory. We are dealing with university administrators, remember. So the university gives itself a bullshit face-saving way out of its own embarrassment (paragraph one) yet affirms the basic right of faculty to speak out — even in what it considers to be an intemperate fashion — and affirms that that freedom is central to its mission (paragraph 2). The latter was very much in doubt less than a week ago; it no longer is. I count that as a win.

8

Scott Lemieux 12.24.12 at 4:40 pm

Until Dooley makes clear that his original implication that Erik issued “threats of violence” was (to put it charitably) erroneous, any follow-up is going to be inadequate.

9

Scott Lemieux 12.24.12 at 4:41 pm

Although I also agree with Corey that this probably a win in context.

10

Scott Lemieux 12.24.12 at 4:45 pm

And one last point: while the 1st Amendment language would be pure weaselly evasion if this was a private university, for a public one it’s actually meaningful.

11

David Steinsaltz 12.24.12 at 4:52 pm

I need to amend my comment. It does include boilerplate saying that it is a good thing for universities that people can’t be prosecuted for their speech. Whether he believes that (within the framework of the university) people like Loomis should be otherwise punished is left open. Perhaps he thinks that is covered by the legalistic invocation of the Constitution because his is a public institution.

I’ve certainly seen stronger defences from university presidents, though perhaps not when they need to climb down from an intemperate first reaction.

12

Main Street Muse 12.24.12 at 5:02 pm

You have been heard. And the administration has acknowledged that they heard you and has revised their statement to reflect the foundational importance of freedom of speech in an academic setting. In this age of tone-deaf university administrations, that is important. I see this as a win. But only as long as Erik Loomis keeps his job.

13

engels 12.24.12 at 5:14 pm

Shorter David Dooley:

Loomis is left-wing looney but this great country called America gives him the consitutional freedom to be a left-wing looney on his own dime, provided he accompanies each and every lunatic statement with a disclaimer making it clear is a speaking in a personal capacity.

14

anand sarwate 12.24.12 at 5:22 pm

Perhaps we should have a hashtag for “The Views Expressed Here Are Solely Those Of The Individual And Not Their Employer” : #TVEHASTOTIANTE ?

It’s actually pronounceable!

15

Both Sides Do It 12.24.12 at 5:32 pm

It’s interesting the original statement (signed by Dr. David M. Dooley, President, University of Rhode Island) provided no professional or honorific title when referring to Loomis but “Professor Loomis” is used four times in this one. But then of course they would do that.

16

bianca steele 12.24.12 at 5:35 pm

Taking the two statements together, one possible conclusion is that the administration considers Professor Loomis to have made a threat because the preponderance of their mail states that he did. Otherwise it isn’t at all clear why they mentioned the many letter-writers who wished him to be censured. I suppose it could be all boilerplate. But I wonder what could lie behind an apparent assumption that the administration’s actions should be ruled by the vehemence of letter-writers (which, admittedly, could mean anything from “strongly worded legalistic letters from board members” to “‘legitimate’ threats to bomb the campus”).

17

Robert Farley 12.24.12 at 5:37 pm

This is worse than the original, given the implication that every academic must now append “is speaking solely as an individual, and that the views he expressed were his alone and did not reflect the views of the University of Rhode Island” to every tweet.

Maybe come up with a three character short hand and call it the Dooley Weasel Clause.

18

rf 12.24.12 at 5:40 pm

Speaking on own behalf (SOB)?

19

AcademicLurker 12.24.12 at 5:41 pm

Meh. It’s sort of annoying that people are obliged to issue these kinds boilerplate “the views expressed here do not represent and are not endorsed by…” statements, but that’s just institutional life for you.

The key thing is that the language in the original statement implying that the use of a bog standard metaphorical expression could be interpreted as a credible threat of violence by anyone not wearing a tin foil hat has been removed. That was the bit that conceded way too much to the NRA’s flying monkey brigade.

20

AcademicLurker 12.24.12 at 5:46 pm

Clarification: By “people” I meant institutional spokespeople such as university administrators. I agree with 17 that it becomes a problem if everyone becomes obliged to issue a “these statements don’t represent the views of my employer” disclaimer when they are speaking outside of their professional capacity.

21

Jim 12.24.12 at 6:09 pm

@Scott at 10:

I don’t think the citation of the first amendment helps here. The university was never going to fire Loomis for his tweet; the risk was always that he would be denied tenure officially because of inadequate scholarship or (if they can cherry pick enough negative comments from his evals) poor teaching, but unofficially because he’d embarrassed the university.

It seems to me that the statement still says he’s embarrassed the university and therefore the risk remains. I don’t know where he is in the process. Has he had his third year review yet?

22

Eric 12.24.12 at 6:10 pm

This is certainly better. I agree with JTLevy, it still isn’t good.

23

rea 12.24.12 at 6:17 pm

As an old geezer, I don’t use twitter, but I understand it has a 140 character limit? Which makes inclusion of a disclaimer about speaking for the university a bit awkward . . .

24

Anderson 12.24.12 at 6:19 pm

“I do not thnk this is good enough. Loomis did not say anything intemperate and inflammatory.”

Sounds like you need a dictionary for Christmas, then.

… But yeah, every blog post has to end with … ” this is not my employer’s opinion”? The RI president made a stupid statement and is trying to walk it back.

25

engels 12.24.12 at 6:26 pm

I think the problem with the statement is the assumption that if an employee says something which could offend a lot of people, then she has to clearly dissociate her views from the brand – sorry, ‘university’ – otherwise management has to do it for them. I thought working for a university was supposed to be a bit different from working for Apple.

26

Barry Freed 12.24.12 at 6:27 pm

Count me among the underwhelmed.

27

Corey Robin 12.24.12 at 6:32 pm

Threads like this are why whoever invented the cliche “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” invented that cliche. I don’t know how much experience folks here have with talking university administrators down from the roof, but this is pretty much how they do it. I really wouldn’t read much at all into that first graf beyond what I said above: it’s a face-saving way out. They’re not saying faculty have to provide this reassurance in the future; they’re just saying “this was the rationale for our original statement.” Which in itself has the suggestion/hint of “We know what we said was not helpful, but this was why we said it; this is how we were thinking about it.” It’s not saying they were right to say it. It’s just saying this was, well, “our rationale.” Also, the mere fact that they even have to issue a second statement is itself a concession. They’ve clearly demonstrated throughout this affair that they are not the savviest handlers of crises and controversies. So this just reads to me as a somewhat inartful attempt to affirm the basic principles of professors having the right to speak out, while also trying to affirm that they had their reasons for why they said what they originally said.

28

engels 12.24.12 at 6:47 pm

I read it as affirming that Loomis has the same First Amendment right to ‘speak his brains’ as the gun nut emailers who delayed Doolittle’s tee off, and that Doolittle nevertheless wishes he hadn’t done so.

29

harry b 12.24.12 at 6:55 pm

I agree with Corey that this is a victory and am also, like Barry Freed, engels, etc, underwhelmed. The key thing that the administration did wrong was to single out Loomis’s remarks to comment on — it should go without saying that what a professor says does not reflect the views of the university, the administration, etc, and singling out the remarks of one professor (especially an untenured one) for comment has a chilling effect on others — and a devastating effect on that professor!. My guess is that it was done under intense time pressure (the right wingers had forced the administrators to say something, alumni will have been calling asking what is up, etc), and without the due consultation of cooler heads (at a time of the year when people are particularly busy). The new statement does not acknowledge the mistake directly, or apologize for it, but it does signal an understanding that it was a mistake. And it does, sort of, tell Loomis that his job is not in jeopardy as a result of what he said, and it does, sort of, signal “we won’t do that again”. I imagine most faculty will read it that way, at least. To be fair, for most administrators this sort of event is a one-off, so they have no relevant experience to draw on. I’m always amazed when these things are handled well (I wasn’t a fan of everything my former Chancellor, Biddy Martin, did, but she handled the Cronon affair brilliantly well, and part of what was impressive was that the whole situation was so unusual that she can’t have had much to go on).

So. Well done Corey, and everyone else who helped out. And, Professor Loomis — get tenure!

30

David Steinsaltz 12.24.12 at 6:56 pm

#27: This is really defining victory down. If my university were to issue such a tepid defence of faculty who were subject to a public intimidation campaign, I’d be reconsidering my options. (Accepting that it might turn out that I have few, because that’s the way the world is now.)

Maybe this is the way “they do it”, but that doesn’t mean that we should celebrate it, or deem it sufficient. The administrators are primarily concerned with the university’s reputation. To the extent that it is the reputation among academics and the educated public (and not specifically among wealthy donors) that counts, I think the value of a thread like this is to record that, while their intention was to undo the damage, they have not accomplished that. Sometimes you have to choose between saving face and rescuing their institution from their acts.

They could have undone the damage by simply saying that their initial statement was inappropriate, that they support the free exchange of ideas (whether or not they are compelled to do so by law), and that no member of the university should fear repercussions for expressing opinions in a public forum. You say that’s not what “they do”. We need to note that, and maybe other administrators will act differently from the first, considering the reputational risk of precipitately attacking their own faculty.

31

Caroline Z-H. Abbott 12.24.12 at 7:05 pm

This new-fangled thing called “blogging” seems to have befuddled the URI administration. That Eric Loomis posted simply under his name in a not-identified-with-URI blog named “Lawyers, Guns and Money” might have led reasonable people to believe that the views were Loomis’, and not those of an unnamed institution. Perhaps LG&M (and other aggregate blogs) should include the disclaimer “not the views of URI, the Vatican, Santa Claus, or anyone other than those of the writers” in the masthead.

Thanks, though, to Corey Robin and the rest of the CT advocates for their quick and thoughtful action. Excellent work in helping the URI administration find a way out of its reactive corner.

32

Total 12.24.12 at 7:14 pm

This is really defining victory down

It’s suggesting that most victories are complicated, ambiguous, and maybe not quite what we’d like in a perfect world. Dooley ain’t going to sign a surrender document on the deck of the Missouri.

33

DrDick 12.24.12 at 7:19 pm

While an improvement over the original, this is still pretty weaselly and gives to much cover to the brown shirts attacking Loomis.

34

Harold 12.24.12 at 7:22 pm

#30 “while their intention was to undo the damage, they have not accomplished that. Sometimes you have to choose between saving face and rescuing their institution from their acts.”

Instead, they have demonstrated their institutional (public or private) capture by the armaments industry.

35

Colin Danby 12.24.12 at 7:30 pm

Corey is right. The statement acknowledges the concerns expressed on CT and reaffirms that university employees have the same speech rights as anyone else. This is a boundary that was breached in the Ward Churchill case.

Perhaps someone can think of a clever twitter hashtag for “obviously not the views of my university.” Though you would think the swearing would have the same effect.

36

LFC 12.24.12 at 7:52 pm

This is clearly a victory, for reasons already mentioned.

37

John T 12.24.12 at 8:02 pm

At least they called him “Professor” this time. Slightly more respectful

38

Chaz 12.24.12 at 8:31 pm

Great job Corey and everyone else involved. If you say Dooley is ready to skulk back into the shadows and will no longer persecute Loomis or others, then I trust your judgement.

Aside from that issue, there is the question of the reputation of Dooley and URI. I agree with David Stenisaltz and others here that Dooley’s new statement does very little to remedy his previous offense, and in fact contains additional offensive statements. It does not retract any of his previous implicit threats and false allegations, and therefore implicitly reaffirms them.

Let it be here noted that the anonymous blog commenter known as Chaz considers David Dooley to be a cowardly and petty individual, and the URI to be a disgraced institution which clearly does not value academic freedom. And while that may not count for much here, it does mean that the next time I see a presentation by a URI researcher, I am likely to derail any discussion of his work with a discussion of the despicableness of URI. I doubt that will benefit URI’s reputation.

39

christian_h 12.24.12 at 10:06 pm

Good job CT – weasely statement yes, but proves once again that organizing works.

40

Barry Freed 12.24.12 at 11:16 pm

It’s like the Obama of administration statements.

41

Michael H Schneider 12.25.12 at 1:05 am

I’d like to see a resolution from the faculty senate (do they have such a beast?) supporting Dr Loomis, deploring the president’s first statement, and asking the president to make it clear in all future communications (public and private) that he speaks on behalf of the administration and of the university as a corporate legal entity but that his statements don’t necessarily reflect the views of the faculty. And I want a pony, and a cure for run on sentences.

The fact that this is a win – and it is – only indicates what low standards we have for administrators. And also, thanks to CT for pushing this. Can we have a coup in which CT takes over the AAUP?

42

JazzBumpa 12.25.12 at 3:07 am

In my letter to President Dooley I told him he should be ashamed of the cowardice demonstrated in the original statement. I also said this:

A good way to convince the world of your reasonability and integrity would be to retract your equally ill-advised statement; and even better, issue a new one promising Professor Loomis your clear and unconditional support.

I guess I’ll have to write again and and tell he still needs to be ashamed of his cowardice.

JzB

43

lambert strether 12.25.12 at 3:19 am

Well, the key thing now is that Loomis keep his (non-tenured) position, right? Robin seems to know the university administrator as a species pretty well; so he might advise on the sort of letter to write Dooley.

* * *
If I were writing to Dooley, I’d fulsomely congratulate him on his courage, while making sure that anybody who could read between the lines (say, a child of six) would see that we expected Loomis not to get turfed out next year in some daft academic re-org, and that we’d take note of it if that happened.

44

Corey Robin 12.25.12 at 3:23 am

I think letters like what Lambert Strether suggests at #43 would be very good. I think one could be even more blunt on that issue.

45

tomslee 12.25.12 at 3:46 am

Good job those who took up this issue: clearly a victory.

engels #25: I thought working for a university was supposed to be a bit different from working for Apple.

Yes, but even those of us who work in private industry have the right to say things without it being assumed that we speak for our employer.

And the “first amendment” thing would tick me off if it wasn’t Christmas time: the university should be providing stronger guarantees than that; there are non-US-specific principles at work here.

46

Eli Rabett 12.25.12 at 1:55 pm

Anyone have a read on what the AAUP and the faculty senate is going to do now?

Another thing to watch is how the Providence Journal (which has been very pro Dooley) plays this

47

Corey Robin 12.25.12 at 7:15 pm

#46: The Providence Journal ran this AP story this morning:

President David Dooley’s comments issued Sunday came after a statement last week in which Dooley distanced the university from history professor Erik Loomis’s comments.

Loomis posted the comment online after the shooting in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that killed 20 children and six adults.

Dooley’s initial statement drew criticism from URI’s faculty union and from professors around the country, who called on Dooley to stand up for academic freedom and freedom of speech.

In Sunday’s statement, Dooley writes that the university believes Loomis’s remarks are intemperate and inflammatory, but also constitutionally protected.”>

Here’s the link: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/12/uri-president-issues-new-statement-supporting-prof-who-tweeted-about-nra.html

48

Jacob Schiff 12.25.12 at 11:25 pm

I think one key sentence missing here is something like this: “While his remarks may have been intemperate and inflammatory, we acknowledge that Professor Loomis was not literally calling for the decapitation of the head of the NRA.”

This would be at least a tacit admission that they caved to the crazies.

49

James Wimberley 12.26.12 at 12:16 am

It’ s odd that the URI administration should think that anybody cares a fig what its opinions are on gun control, the fiscal cliff, the Kyoto protocol, or any other current issue of public policy. In fact universities, unlike their members, have pretty limited interests that justify having official opinions at all. Defending an expansive interpretation of the free speech rights of their students and employees – excluding the usual employment restrictions – is one.

50

engels 12.26.12 at 12:59 am

Tom: you’re right, but a university is supposed to be a special kind of institution in this regard. (See Jacob Levy’s and James Wimberley’s comments.)

As it’s Christmas though I’ll agree with Harry that the glass is half full: congrats to Corey Robin et al.

51

engels 12.26.12 at 2:09 am

URI students need to start ending their exam scripts with ‘these are just my answers and no implication is intended that President Dooley would give the same ones’ and there needs to be a special protocol for when URI faculty or students are debating an issue and advance contradictory views, to make it clear to all concerned that the University is not contradicting itself.

52

Freddie 12.27.12 at 2:38 am

This is a conditional and limited victory, one that (as Corey suggests) requires a dose of

53

Freddie 12.27.12 at 2:39 am

This is a conditional and limited victory, one that (as Corey suggests) requires a dose of context to be seen for what it is. Long-term victory comes if Dr. Loomis’s eventual tenure application isn’t affected by this event, and without knowing anything about his department, I’m cautiously optimistic.

54

Christopher Young 12.27.12 at 3:17 pm

Still weasels, but slightly nervous weasels.

I would hypothesise that this effusion, and the previous one, were written by lawyers and signed by Dooley under advice that LaPierre had an action against RIU if they were unlucky with the jury. I doubt if we will ever know what Dooley’s actual view is; most likely he doesn’t have one.

55

bjk 12.27.12 at 4:44 pm

“Professor Loomis was not literally calling for the decapitation of the head of the NRA.”

“Literally,” he was.

56

Harold 12.27.12 at 5:12 pm

Heads of executed traitors were stuck on pikes outside the Tower of London, I seem to remember. Or on London Bridge. Actually, decapitation was a punishment reserved for the upper classes, commoners were hung, garroted, and/or drawn and quartered.

57

demz taters 12.27.12 at 11:30 pm

@27: Wrong. The Red Sox predate the Internet.

58

mds 12.28.12 at 3:46 pm

But I wonder what could lie behind an apparent assumption that the administration’s actions should be ruled by the vehemence of letter-writers

Yeah, at least with Juan Cole, the threats were made by deep-pocketed Yale donors. Perhaps a similar fear of financial repercussions from the Rhode Island electorate had an effect, and the letter-writing was taken as indicative of such potential repercussions, rather than as a purely mendacious smear job coordinated on the internet by morally-bankrupt wingnut whackaloons.**

**This statement attacking those pustulent members of the conservative intellectual cesspool who aided and abetted in catapaulting all this horseshit should not be taken as representing the views of Crooked Timber or its bloggers. Any follow-up may be addressed to my solicitor, Dev Null.

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