Helen Dragas and the Bérubé test of reasonableness

Inability of some in high office to admit they are wrong, even in face of overwhelming evidence, is at heart of matter at UVA. – Larry Sabato

Everyone has myside bias, the tendency to keep believing in one’s prior views and filter available evidence through those views. The question of whether discussion among people with differing views is not the existence of such bias but whether someone indulges in the bias or is willing to check it in discussion. Evidence of indulging in the bias would include ad hominem reasoning and other tactics designed to attack the standing of opponents and their ability to participate in debate. But what constitutes evidence of trying to check our natural myside bias?

At several points,1 Michael Bérubé has framed the question as whether one can imagine and will consider types of evidence that can tip the debate. It’s a simple question: is there a type of evidence you would consider that could make you change your mind? This is a little more subtle than “what would change your mind?” It’s a question of the validity of evidence–can evidence and reasoning make a difference in one’s view, or is the debate closed?2

Given the public pronouncements of Helen Dragas, including Thursday’s statement on the difficulties at the University of Virginia, I think it is fair to ask what evidence she would consider that could persuade her that Sullivan is the right choice to lead UVa over the next few years. There is a large gap between Dragas’ implicit claims of Sullivan inaction and the evidence I see of changes Sullivan has made to the financial structure of academic units, her proposals for a different lower-division undergraduate curriculum, and the framework within which she sees options to retain and attract faculty. It’s long past time for Dragas to explain what evidence she sees as legitimate in discussing the issue; simply repeating vague assertions looks like she is failing the Bérubé test.

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  1. At the time I write this, I could not find an exact spot, but I know I’ve read this point in both print sources and his blog. []
  2. Those who know Rorty better than I will be able to suss out the link between his views and Bérubé’s formulation, or my vaguely-remembered version of his formulation. []

2 responses to “Helen Dragas and the Bérubé test of reasonableness”

  1. Bryan Bouton

    As an Alum, I have watched the developments over the past couple of weeks with interest as the truly false axiom of the day pans out: wealth and the presumed power that comes with the wealth imbues some form of expertise that must be utilized.
    Wealthy donors and friends of Rector Dragas assumed that they needed to wrest control of a public university because they know best how to make it better.
    This mind-set is what has us in most of the trouble we’re in now in the field of education.

  2. Glen S. McGhee, FHEAP

    “Inability of some in high office to admit they are wrong, even in face of overwhelming evidence, is at heart of matter at UVA. – Larry Sabato”

    We seem to be swirling down an “escalating commitment” sink-hole — from either perspective. But NO amount of “evidence” will matter, because the stakes are now so high, and because the psychology of commitment is kicking it. Reasonableness means nothing.

    In the classic escalation of commitment trap, external justification effects only serve to increase commitment, even when it is commitment to a losing course of action. Cognitive dissonance locks down attitudes, making it impossible to admit to error.

    The next thing to look for is unethical behavior — as a kind of inevitable “exit strategy.”