Letter to the editor: 12/14/16

By TRENT BERTRAND | December 14, 2016

Letter to the Editors of The Johns Hopkins News-Letter

The Johns Hopkins News-Letter article entitled “University suspends professor for ‘hostile’ classroom environment” tried to provide a balanced picture of a classroom environment that supposedly lay behind my suspension by Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Beverly Wendland on Dec. 8 after I had been barred by Campus Security officials from entering my classroom on Dec. 6 to give my second-to-last lecture of the course. This picture is not balanced, partly because key information was not available to the authors and partly because some of the anonymous complaints are totally false. The most important points in rebuttal are as follows.

The suspension could not have anything to do with an investigation of the student complaints. I just learned today (Dec. 14) from Sara Slaff in the Office of Institutional Equity, who is the person overseeing the investigation, that it has not even started since the students who made anonymous complaints requested that no investigation begin before final grades were in and this was agreed to. Yesterday (Dec. 13), Economics Department Chair Laurence Ball refused to answer whether the decision to recommend my suspension and my forcible exclusion from the classroom on Dec. 6 was his alone or a collective decision by the Economics Department or to provide any justification for that drastic action. The drastic action took place after I gave a three-minute farewell to the class in which I noted there was an ongoing war between those principles that go back to the Enlightenment defined so well by Immanuel Kant by the motto “Dare to think for yourself” versus an intolerant climate built on Political Correctness, safe spaces and fear of any student being made to feel uncomfortable by ideas that clash with the indoctrination many of them have had in Political Correctness all their lives. In my farewell talk, I urged students to keep an ‘Open Mind’ and to indeed ‘Think for Themselves’. This three-minute talk was followed by thunderous applause from the class just as Professor Ball was apparently texting the security officials to remove me from the class.

So what explains my being barred from the classroom by presumably armed security officials and then suspended by Dean Wendland?

Perhaps it was that my lecture for that day was on trade policy and the environment in which I was to present slides based on the work of some of the most noted climatologists and atmospheric scientists in the world indicating that the underlying basis for the claim for human man made global warming was indeed badly flawed. This dogma is the Holy Grail of the Left seeking reasons for political control over much economic activity and the minds of the young, and trade restrictions on countries not following a growth constraining policy limiting use of fossil fuels. Perhaps it was that I had circulated memos to the Chairman of the Department of Economics, the Economics Faculty and the Dean that questioned the rationale for an Office of Institutional Equity that seemed perfectly aligned with enforcing Political Correctness rather than fostering an educational environment of open debate and hard argument on which independent thinking depends. Perhaps it was because I had circulated student comments that endorsed the intellectual environment in my class and damned the requirement that their thoughts correspond to the ideologies of their professors in other courses, with some of these statements saying that mine was the only course they in which they had found intellectual challenge in their four years at Hopkins. Perhaps it was because I noted that Hopkins was badly in need of the sort of “Statement on Principles of Free Expression” advanced by the University of Chicago in sharp contrast to the meaningless blather about diversity found in official statements by Hopkins.

Of course, the above factors could not be the stated reason for my suspension. Instead, the administration cited uninvestigated complaints about the course by students schooled in political correctness. As with most such complaints, the person out of step with Political Correctness is condemned not only for being wrong but for being evil, with the usual epithets of racist, misogynist and bigot laid at my doorstep. Such epithets are not deserving of a response and by now are properly discounted by any thinking person. There is however one statement in The News-Letter that I find particularly objectionable, to wit:

“Several times, people did speak up and contradict him. He would be very dismissive and counter that in a condescending way like, ‘Oh, well you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just children and students,’” she said. “He wasn’t creating an environment where things could be discussed, and you could have a back and forth, like a respectful dialogue.”

Despite editors of The News-Letter telling me that this anonymous statement was sufficiently verified, it is a total fabrication. The only time in six years of teaching this course that I have said anything remotely related to this was to advise students not be dogmatic in the views they hold at their young ages since if they keep an open mind and develop intellectually these opinions are likely to change over time. I begin my courses with a slide showing the wide diversity of opinion on many of the issues to be discussed in the course by professional economists, with many Nobel Laureates on different sides of the issues — trying to get students to make up their own minds.

A final aspect to the stain on the University’s academic integrity implicit in my suspension was raised in conversation with a long term Hopkins faculty member who I had lunch with on the day I first heard of student complaints. Student complaints were not brought up at our lunch, but he did lament the extent to which the faculty had lost control of the University to the administrators. I think he is right on this point and that this reflects the increased impact of government regulations on the running of universities, which puts more power in the hands of the administrators who interpret and enforce regulations designed by politicians with a poor idea of the proper function of a university, many of which are geared to supporting political correctness. I doubt if my case would have ever been brought up, never mind mishandled in such an incompetent way, if not for this shift in power away from faculty.

Trent Bertrand has taught at Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University, Princeton University, Binghamton University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Hawaii in the U.S., Queen’s University, McGill University in Canada and Thammassat University in Thailand. He has worked and lectured in over 40 countries around the world. Files on the email chain and student comments on the course relevant to my suspension are available by request from trent.bertrand@jhu.edu or inteconwtb@aol.com.

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