OPEN LETTER TO PROVOST JIM KALBFLEISCH
(Dated June 16, 1994; published in the UW Gazette, June 22, 1994; first published on the web, December 2002; this document is part of the Documentary History of the UW Ethics Committee, 1982-1998.)
Your open letter in the Gazette of June 8 has left me at wit's end. You have never struck me as rash or malicious, but on the contrary as level-headed and circumspect. That you were not my first choice for provost is public knowledge, but I have sensed no spitefulness from you on that account, no attitude of vengeance toward proponents of a more open mode of governance at UW. Whatever the disagreements between us, I believe we have convinced each other of our common sincere commitment to serving this university in our respective ways as best we can.
In your open letter, however, you have defamed me, accused me of going back on my word and spreading misinformation. You have brought me into disrepute. You have also demanded that I turn over to you a list of my colleagues and friends, so that you can mail them a report of the Ethics Committee that I believe to be false and defamatory. Having dealt my good name on this campus a devastating blow, you now propose to tarnish it among the people elsewhere whose respect I value most of all.
I wrote to you on May 24 that I had the most grievous objections to the Ethics Committee's proceeding, but that out of respect for the university I would comply as best I could with the requests you made of me in light of it. One of these was to write a public apology to Professor Adie Nelson, an apology that you and the Ethics Committee would have to approve beforehand, and that would have to include correction of any "misleading or incorrect statements" in my widely circulated letter of March 15, on the breakdown of order in our sociology department.
You must have known how hard it was for me to agree to that. So far as I know, no UW professor has ever before been required to apologize publicly for anything. I had indeed shouted at Professor Nelson over the telephone last November 12, and I had been visibly angry in her presence when she gave me the news of her examining committee's decision on November 11. But I had promptly and voluntarily apologized to her for my rudeness as soon as I knew what deep offense she took. She rejected my apology and portrayed herself as a victim of harassment and abuse. My chair and eleven colleagues took up her cause. The latter held a secret meeting on December 17, from which a consensus emerged to oust me from graduate teaching. While resisting this collective attack, I have continued to acknowledge and apologize for my incivility immediately after the exam. I sent Professor Nelson a further note to this effect on March 3. It was clearly wrong for me to raise my voice in anger when Professor Nelson's committee destroyed my supervisee's career, no matter how flawed the committee's procedures may have been, or how unfair its decision.
As a means of assuaging at last Professor Nelson's understandably hurt feelings, and of getting on to issues of due process and educational quality in my department, I agreed to apologize yet again and publicly, and to correct the two minor inaccuracies I had found in my letter of March 15. You and the Ethics Committee approved my apology word for word. You wrote back to me that I had fully complied with your requests.
Then in early afternoon on June 3, you telephoned my home to say I should not send out the apology, that Professor Nelson had launched an appeal to President Downey. It was too late. I had put the letters in the mail that morning, as I had promised. Then you wrote your defamatory open letter, falsely claiming that the cover letter I sent out with the apology somehow contradicted it. What got into you? My cover letter mainly expressed thanks to about 75 colleagues elsewhere, whose sanity and decency have sustained me in the midst of a fanatic and hateful mob action by my chair and colleagues here. My cover letter did indeed include criticism of the Ethics proceeding, and it asserted my innocence of all charges except those noted in the letter of apology you had approved. What was wrong with that?
I feel double-crossed. In addition, you have put me in a bind. Respected colleagues from across this continent are telephoning me, forbidding me to give you their names. They have described your demand for my mailing list as a McCarthyist spectacle, a Gestapo tactic.
Maybe I should file a complaint against you myself under Policy 33 (on Ethical Behaviour). But you say you took your action on the advice of Professor Sally Gunz, the chair of the Ethics Committee. And isn't it the provost who appoints the members of that committee? Forgive me if I worry about impartiality.
I could file a grievance against you under Policy 63, for treating me differently from the hundreds of other professors who lose their tempers sometimes in private conversations with colleagues. But you could take my statement of grievance as an attack on your competence and character, charge me under Policy 33, waive efforts at informal resolution, and haul me before Professor Gunz. That is what Professor Nelson did. Maybe then I would be required to apologize publicly to you.
I can assure you I never want to face the Ethics Committee again. Its priority, so far as I could tell, was on a different kind of truth than the kind I thought a university was about. If some statement of mine left Professor Nelson feeling truly insulted, that was enough to make the statement reprehensible. No matter if the statement was supported by evidence. No matter if it merely expressed an academic judgment different from hers. No matter even if I made the statement without naming her, mainly to friends of mine who neither know nor care who she is, and in a letter in which I also express respect and empathy for her. I thought the best measure of truth is how well a statement fits the facts, regardless of whose ego might be bruised by the telling.
Maybe the best thing for me to do now is just ask you to identify exactly which statements of mine constitute misinformation. If I cannot produce evidence to back them up, I will gladly correct them as publicly as you want me to. But if the evidence supports what I have said, then surely you will be eager to withdraw the ruinous accusations you have made against me.
I plan to have completed by June 22 a more detailed response to the Ethics Committee report. I will offer it for publication on UWInfo, and will gladly send a hard copy to anybody interested. I hope Professor Nelson will make her own response. I have no monopoly on truth, any more than she does. To the extent we ever find it, truth lies in the process of honest dialogue.
Let me confess that in 1964, at a little denominational college in Missouri, I got caught up in a kind of mob action, a witch hunt on campus against supposed heretics. It culminated in all the professors being required to sign a set of "policy statements" imposed by a committee. My best teachers left. Their sin was that they disagreed. I hope you will recognize the similar lapse into zealotry that has occurred in our sociology department, despite the excellence of its faculty in very many ways, and their obvious good intentions. Please act constructively to restore a climate of openness and mutual respect. The success of our educational mission depends on it.
Ken Westhues, Sociology