The Power of the Professor

A University of Texas English professor and his sexual harassment of female graduate students got the Dan Solomon/Jessica Luther treatment on the Splinter News site. (Click and read here before you get much further down my piece; I’ll wait.)

That a male English professor would use his power over female students in that way is yet another chapter within a disturbing #MeToo time of reckoning. What makes this chapter even creepier is the perceived lack of enthusiasm displayed by those who supervised Coleman Hutchinson (many of them women) to discipline him.

The article details the reason why. There’s the defense of tenure stuff, yeah, and college faculty can circle the wagons as reflexively as any other profession.

But there is also a chilling thread that seeks to indulge the professor-student relationship, in particular at the graduate level. One essayist wondered if “erotic longings between professor and student” were “unavoidable.” Graduated to the community of advanced scholars, some speculate that sexual fireworks ignite intellectual curiosity–a needed component for graduate students.

And academics wonder why the rest of society thinks we’re crazy.

Call me stuffy and puritanical, but to me, any relationship that gives an inch to such a natural impulse is asking for a mile’s worth of problems. It would be comically clumsy if it didn’t leave so many exploited, damaged souls on the outskirts of a career they had dreamed of pursuing.

As a professor, whether dealing with graduate students or undergraduate students, I start from a basic assumption: I operate from a position of power and authority over them and they know it. Thus, I need to be careful not to exert that power in a way that unnecessarily hurts them, particularly to indulge myself.

That power might be emotional power, academic power, social power and, yes, even sexual power. But the instructor has no right to wield it in a way that hurts a student.

There are reasons for boundaries between the professional and personal. Of course we expect certain benefits from our romantic relationships. But when any professional seeks those benefits from a working relationship, it’s almost certain to turn out badly.

And when a professor projects any such expectations–romance or friendship–onto students, it’s can unfairly put them into an awkward situation within which they have little power.

A working relationship does provide personal benefits, and college students are awesome to work with, but those benefits are limited. The professor who flirts with students is as inappropriate as the professor who exults in the intended compliment, “You’re just like a fellow student.” (My response is, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”) By projecting peer benefit needs onto students to fulfill, the professor is putting unfair pressure on those students to be something to him/her that they are not intended to be. Friends and acquaintances, yes; peers, no.

In a balanced life, we draw benefit from a variety of sources — work, friendship, family and faith, for many. When life is unbalanced (and the academic life is the champion of unbalance), we look for friendship, acceptance and love in all the wrong places.

Policies that limit romantic relationships between faculty and students do not limit academic freedom and certainly do not endanger the academic process.

Those in a position of power also have a responsibility to protect those in a position of weakness, and that is our duty toward our students. Yes, the classroom is a place of great enjoyment and in so many ways, students bring joy to our task.

That’s a benefit, yes. But it’s not their responsibility, nor is it the students’ function.

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The Mighty Pen

On May 9, 1962, sophomore Jim Dinsmore penned a column, “Cluttered Heart Cries for Expression on Issues,” in The Auburn Plainsman. The column wandered over a variety of topics. One paragraph would ignite a firestorm.

That was it. A single paragraph on integration that turned out to be accurate in its forecast.

But meetings and statements and letters later, Dinsmore would step aside from the newspaper staff for a year. He would be disqualified from running for editor, probably because of that column. And The Plainsman would be suspended from summer publication for the only time in its history, perhaps because of that column.

When the article came out, the AP quoted President Ralph Draughon as saying Dinsmore “has no limits on extremism. He doesn’t represent the thinking of the institution.” Dean of Students James Foy described Dinsmore as “highly intellectual, and highly confused.”

The Publications Board (predecessor to today’s Board of Student Communications), met on Friday, May 17, to discuss how to respond to the column. The chair, Foy, was also concerned with the sentence that followed the integration paragraph: “On the state of Alabama: At the present time it can only be characterized as a haven of general ignorance, prejudice, and narrowmindedness.”

Paired with the fear-inducing mention of integration, it had the Publications Board running scared — of the Board of Trustees, and even the Alabama Legislature.

Professor Paul Burnett, who taught journalism classes within the English Department, “reminded the Board that the Trustees considered last spring the discontinuance of the newspaper” (after a pro-integration column by editor Jim Bullington), according to meeting minutes.

Burnett was afraid that the Trustees would suspend Plainsman publication for the next academic year if the Board did not take action.

He was not overstating the hazard. The year before, after Bullington’s pro-integration column, the board had stipulated that before any article “having a bearing on the good name of Auburn University” was published, the editor would advise Dean Foy.

Draughon took the board’s action to mean that Foy could direct The Plainsman editor not to run such an article, and the editor would have to comply. In other words, the board and Draughon said Foy was empowered to censor The Plainsman.

Draughon told Foy to inform Bullington that if he failed to follow this directive, he would be removed from office as editor. (Bullington never submitted an article to Foy for review and would step down as editor shortly before the end of spring quarter 1962 and before the board could remove him.)

In addition, Draughon warned, “If further instances should occur, The Plainsman would have to be discontinued,” Foy wrote to Bullington in a letter that is included in the archives with the Publications Board minutes. So Burnett’s fears were strongly founded.

(In the letter Foy, trying to begin with a conciliatory tone, informed Bullington that his ODK shield signifying his membership in the honorary would be arriving soon. Then he dropped the presidential beatdown.)

The Board voted to reprimand Dinsmore for writing the article and Bullington for allowing its publication. They did not suspend Dinsmore from the newspaper staff, however, because they didn’t have to.

During the debate, incoming Plainsman editor Charles McCay “stated that he hoped he would not have to bring this up, but first of all Jim Dinsmore and he thought that it would be to the best interest of everyone concerned if he would not write for The Plainsman next year,” the minutes noted.

So The Plainsman editor half-suspended Dinsmore, and Dinsmore half-suspended himself. But in fact he did not write for The Plainsman that next academic year.

At its meeting the week before, the day the Dinsmore article came out, the Publications Board had noted that no qualified editor candidates had stepped forward to edit the summer edition. Two candidates had applied, but the board considered them unqualified, whether by lack of experience or lack of coursework.

So the board voted not to publish The Plainsman for summer quarter 1962. No provision was made to wait and seek a more qualified candidate.

Did the Dinsmore column firestorm cause the Board to seek a cooling down, Plainsman-free summer quarter, with the candidate situation providing a convenient excuse? The minutes don’t say; still, this is the only time that happened. The Plainsman has produced a smaller issue, in print or later online, every summer since.

This drama had its epilogue in spring quarter 1963. Dinsmore tried to run for editor, but his application was disqualified because it had arrived a day late.

In a letter to the editor that ran in the March 27, 1963 edition (whether by Foy’s permission or not is uncertain), Dinsmore explained that he had spent spring break at home for minor surgery. His mother had mailed the application before the deadline, but it had arrived after.

Dinsmore acknowledged his procrastination in the letter (an eternal theme with college students). But he noted that late applications had been accepted in the past and he argued that he had “submitted” the application before the deadline, as stated in Publications Board policies.

His mistake, of course, was giving the Publications Board a quick and easy excuse to reject his application without having to address the column of the year before.

Dinsmore would go on to make one more statement about integration. At the beginning of winter quarter 1964, the day Harold Franklin was allowed to register, students were warned to leave him alone as he walked from his dorm room to the library.

But two members of The Auburn Plainsman staff approached him as he left the library and welcomed him to Auburn. They were detained and questioned by police and released. One was Bobby Boettcher, yet another pro-integration columnist.

The other was Jim Dinsmore.

 

Sports Spectrum, SportsFocus and Me

Seeing this article on Sports Spectrum magazine on The Ringer site brought me a sense of pride and nostalgia. Pride, because I was the founding editor of the publication. Nostalgia, because it generated memories of its founding days. Here are a few:

As the article states, Sports Spectrum started as SportsFocus magazine in 1985. Three of us magazine folks–myself, Sara Anderson and Steve Gier–joined some broadcast personnel, leaving Campus Crusade in July 1984 to start a ministry, New Focus.

The move provided me with the answer to the question, “What is the worst decision you ever made?”, for the rest of my life, conveniently. But it also would provide a lot of good memories.

We published SportsFocus and produced a syndicated television show, “Julius Erving’s SportsFocus.” The show itself was excellent, but it also generated this all-time out-take worth sharing, in a show that looked at sexual morals in the 1980s:

SUBJECT: I lost my lover to AIDS that year
INTERVIEWER: You lost your liver?
SUBJECT: No, my lover
INTERVIEWER: Your lover lost his liver?

We also created a film series for Word Publishers, “Champions”; two of the narrators were Orel Hershiser and Cheryl Miller (then a college student). By August 1985, the TV show and the magazine had failed to catch on, and we were broke and unemployed.

We went our separate ways. I eventually found employment first with Focus on the Family and then with Group magazine in Colorado. During this time, Radio Bible Class (publishers of Our Daily Bread) entered the picture, seeking a media project to reach a younger demographic.

They picked up SportsFocus magazine, renamed it “Second Look” and also created a “Second Look” television show co-hosted by Kyle Rote Jr. and pastor and author John MacArthur. The Group opportunity did not work out, and I rejoined New Focus, which had re-formed as a media agency producing the project for RBC, in July 1987.

The show combined segments on topics in sports with a Kyle/John studio segment that included audience questions. The magazine and television show typically covered the same topics.

New Focus’s president during this time was Ralph Drollinger. You might recognize Ralph as a leader of Bible studies both at the California state capital and more recently in Washington D.C.

Back then he was our company’s president, and sadly, not a very good one. He did not work well within a client agency structure, and pretty much negotiated the television show out of existence.

Seeing this, Steve Gier and I, fearing for our jobs as well, contacted our client RBC directly, pleading for help. They believed in the magazine, so they renegotiated the contract and even had us help develop a second project for them: a youth version of its popular devotional called Our Daily Bread Campus Journal, which is still published as Soul Journey.

The tenure did produce another unforgettable moment–on Jan. 5, 1988, when Ralph called me from Focus on the Family headquarters, shaken and upset, to tell me that basketball legend Pete Maravich had died after a pick-up basketball game that Ralph had joined in that morning.

The magazine also came back after a brief hiatus, but I soon tired of agency work (especially that experience of agency work), and I took a position at Azusa Pacific University as public information director in February 1989, ending my career in magazine publishing.

(By the way, you can link to some of my Sports Focus and Second Look issues through this blog post from three years ago.)

That put me on the path of transitioning to college teaching, and to my position  29 years later, as a full professor journalism at Auburn University.

Radio Bible Class brought the magazine project in-house about a year or two after I left (at some point renaming it Sports Spectrum), and Steve Gier moved from Southern California to Grand Rapids to continue as its art director for many years.

To be honest, I eventually lost track of the magazine and its progress as a different form of publishing (that kind that avoids perishing) consumed my attention.

I knew that it had been picked up by a group in Charlotte, N.C.; a former student of mine at Auburn even got a job there a couple of years without knowing my connection.

But The Ringer article caught me up with its progress, and I’m glad that it’s in a solid place with Jason Romano at the helm. Pro Athletes Outreach seems a perfect organization to oversee it (though granted my last contact with PAO was more than 30 years ago).

Now, as back then, the project seems guided by a belief that sports can be used in a positive way, to reinforce biblical concepts. I was particularly encouraged by Romano’s wisdom in navigating some perilous waters given race-related controversies among pro athletes today (much wiser than many evangelical leaders with a high media profile are handling political issues).

I am also grateful that the article recalled 1985, when some friends and I took our idealistic faith in Christianity and the power of sports media, stumbled around a bit, and ended up affiliated in a small way with a project that does us proud, even today.