Trouble at Butler U.

By | 2009/10/20

“Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it’s because the stakes are so small.” — various

The administration at Butler University has been having trouble with the Zimmermans. Prof. Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend has a new contract… one that does not have him serving as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In addition, Butler U. Provost Jamie Comstock apparently said harsh words about Prof. Zimmerman that he is treating as defamatory. Also, Prof. Zimmerman’s wife, Prof. Andrea Gullickson, was Chair of the Department of Music, but was first stripped of the chair and then threatened with dismissal from her faculty position.

That’s the usual run of academic politics, and something that would likely not have hit anyone’s radar in the normal course of events. But then we get to Butler U. and the third Zimmerman. This one is Jess Zimmerman, currently a junior enrolled in courses at Butler U. Jess has been pretty understandably upset about the treatment his father and stepmother have received at Butler U. Jess, though, did more than be upset: he blogged about the situation, quoted emails about Gullickson’s treatment, and opined that the administrators at issue were bad news for the Butler U. community. The cherry on top so far as Butler U. was concerned was that Jess did this blogging anonymously.

While I don’t often partake of anonymous commentary, I think there are good reasons to use it. One of the best of those reasons is that of making it harder for petty tyrants to seek retribution. As a student at the institution being criticized, there are a great many ways that the wrath of an administration pricked by words can be unleashed. What has turned a local rumor and gossip circuit story into national news is the actual way the administration chose to wield its power: they filed a libel and defamation lawsuit against the anonymous blogger.

Then came the revelation of just who it was they were suing: a student and family member of faculty who were quite reasonably seen as victims of administrative power struggles. The suit has been withdrawn, but the outrage lives on. Besides the obvious issue that the lawsuit was frivolous (look at the supposedly defamatory comments), Butler U.’s lawyers were also not thinking about what they would open the school up to in terms of the discovery process. Think that stuff like what happened to Profs. Zimmerman and Gullickson occurs in an absence of high-level communication? Think again. The odds are long that further embarrassment would have been avoided if a lawsuit went forward.

Now, though, Butler U. administrators still want to “punish” Jess Zimmerman. Having denied Jess his day in court, Butler U. is offering to provide him his day in kangaroo court, via an unspecified set of punishments chosen for miscreant students. Further, in discussions over Prof. Zimmerman’s own legal claims against Provost Comstock, the university lawyers sought to make it a condition of settlement with Prof. Zimmerman that Jess give up any right of appeal and submit to any (thus far undisclosed) administrative sanctions against him. Prof. Zimmerman quite rightly refused to make any such deal. The cases are separate, and the attempt to join them is nothing better than extortion.

I’ve seen various comments that try to defend the Butler U. administration. I’m afraid that the more I read, the lower my opinion of the Butler U. administration drops. One expects that in complex cases, there will be points that go to favor one and the other side. This situation, though, seems thoroughly lopsided.

I will divulge here that I work regularly with Michael Zimmerman and consider him a friend. I’ve never met Jess but I wish him the best of luck getting through this trying time. Butler U.? If they wished for my advice, they’d give up trying to take out their frustration on a student over having their dirty laundry aired. Nobody who looks at the record is buying the various rationalizations for the vindictiveness, guys.

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2 thoughts on “Trouble at Butler U.

  1. John Stanton

    You have nothing to worry about unless you, like this guy, call someone a “liar,” “Immoral,” and “unethical.” That’s defamation, plainly.

  2. Austringer Post author

    Who is “this guy”? Certainly not Jess Zimmerman, whose blogging as “Soodo Nym” at issue is collected here. Conspicuous by their absence in the posts by “Soodo Nym” are the specific words “liar”, “immoral”, and “unethical”. (Though “lied” does appear in places, as when Zimmerman notes that one can infer from the differences in the quoted accounts that a person lied about the events of a meeting.) Nor do those words make an appearance in Zimmerman’s posts on his current blog.

    Paragraph 31 of the complaint against “Soodo Nym” is straightforward:

    Doe’s Defamatory Statements were factually false and inaccurate.

    This would appear to be what is called “arguable” in the law, and it would have required a trial to establish which version of events could be said to be true. It certainly appears to me that Zimmerman did a good job of supporting his statements with quoted materials from the principals, and demonstrating truth is a perfect defense against claims of defamation, at least in the USA. I certainly rely on that when I find that the facts make it plain that someone has been lying, immoral, and/or unethical, and say so. It plainly isn’t defamation if what is said is true.

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