The quadruple face-palm and academic freedom

Sports Reporter #1: Here comes Florida Atlantic associate professor Jim Tracy, just off his triple face-palm asserting a conspiracy over the Sandy Hook shootings.

Sports Reporter #2: Let’s see what he does here. Tracy is relatively new to high visibility academic nuttery, at least at this level of competition.

#1: Tracy looks at the timekeeper, reads the news, and … oh, my! He’s done it! A quadruple face-palm conspiracy claim!

#2: Let’s see what the judges think. They’re consulting and … it stands.

#1: Is this the first time that we’ve seen a quadruple face-palm in public?

#2: I think so. Tracy must have been practicing very hard in private to pull this one off.

#1: Up next is Niall Ferguson, well-known to our audience. He’s regularly performed triple face-palms, and he’s sure to have the confidence to try a quadruple in public.

#2: He’s a competitor, Ferguson is. With appointments at Harvard, Oxford, and the Hoover Institute, he has a reputation to uphold, and here is this upstart from Florida trying to take his crown away. He’s not going to take Tracy’s accomplishment lying down.

#1: But where will he go for a quadruple face-palm? He’s covered it all before.

#2: Let’s just watch. He’s at a conference talking with financial advisors this week.

#1: He’s up. He’s talking macroeconomics…

#2: Oh, my!

#1: He’s done it!

#2: He gay-bashed John Maynard Keynes!

#1: A second quadruple face-palm! First Tracy, and now Ferguson!

#2: Hold on. The judges are conferring and … yes, they want to be very careful here. Let’s not proclaim Ferguson a nutter on the level of Tracy without…

#1: They’re declaring it, Jim.

#2: Oh, yes. It’s confirmed.

#1: Niall Ferguson has landed more than a few triple face-palms in public before today, so we knew he was capable of it.

#2: But to see two academics perform quadruple face-palms in succession. It’s been quite a year.

The difference between Ferguson and Tracy? In terms of “accomplishments,” Tracy is much more limited, focusing on conspiracy theories, while Ferguson is happy to blather ignorantly about all sorts of topics. More importantly, for academic freedom, Tracy is at a public university, and since his conspiracy claims about Sandy Hook, there have been several calls for firing him, which have been repeated since his new claims about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. I see no just cause for firing Tracy based on his statements about either Sandy Hook or the bombing; Tracy’s claims are deeply wrong, but he has the academic freedom to make them without discipline or firing. Florida Atlantic’s leadership handled the first controversy poorly, using the tactic of complaining that Tracy did not distance himself from the institution.1 That left the FAU administration in a worse situation in the last week. If FAU President Mary Jane Saunders had stated clearly that Tracy’s public statements were his public statements, period, end of story, then they would just need to repeat that claim today.

Harvard and Oxford do not need to make any such statements, because even though FAU has fewer options in firing a faculty member because it is a public employer, the political realities are that there will be more political pressure on public institutions, even though private institutions do not have the same legal obligations. The Hoover Institute could easily separate itself from Ferguson, but we’ll just have to wait to find out if they see any problems with the particular form of nuttiness that is Niall Ferguson.2

Addendum: We may have to reclassify Ferguson’s performance as only a double or triple face-palm after his apology.

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  1. Short explanation: when making statements in public, faculty should not pretend that they speak for their institution unless they really do. For faculty who have no administrative role, that is an obligation of omission: just don’t claim you’re speaking for anyone other than yourself. There is no obligation to go around with the verbal equivalent of a sign around their neck, “I’m speaking only for myself.” As a department chair, I have a slightly greater obligation: when commenting on issues related to my role as an administrator, such as in educator preparation, I do my best to make clear on this blog that my policy views are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my two dozen department colleagues or my college. []
  2. Note: my original blog entry misattributed any potential tolerance to Jim DeMint, who I erroneously identified as the head of Hoover. Mr. DeMint is instead the head of the Heritage Foundation. []