Thursday, February 17, 2011

The most important post I've written so far

Imagine the following scenario: The legislature in your state passes a bill that requires all doctors to post their confidential medical records on an internet site where they will be available to the public. Every doctor, no matter the specialty - psychiatrists, gynecologists, proctologists - is obligated to do this, with absolutely no exceptions. What do you think would happen? Would the doctors willingly comply, or would at least some object strongly that the new law violates the fundamental ethical principles of their profession?

Now imagine the following: The legislature in your state passes a bill that requires all college professors to allow students with permits to bring guns to class and to other campus buildings: the library, the professors' offices, the dorm. Every professor is obligated to allow this, with absolutely no exceptions. What do you think would happen? Would the professors willingly comply, or would at least some object strongly that the new law violates the fundamental ethical principles of their profession?

Here in Texas, we may be about to find out the answer to the second question. While I am not aware of any laws being contemplated that would require medical records to go online, my own legislators are now very close to requiring me, as a college professor, to violate every principle on which my professional identity is founded.

Let me explain. Like every profession, college teaching depends on certain fundamental principles that absolutely cannot be compromised. Doctors cannot be required to make confidential information public, because patients would be afraid to come to them for treatment. Such a requirement would violate the very first statement in the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm."

For those of us who teach college, there is nothing more important than the open community of the classroom. It may not always be realized in practice, but at the heart of all of our lives is the belief that we are creating a space in which students can be unafraid, and in which the quest for knowledge can lead freely in whatever direction is necessary. The classroom is a sacred space, in which the anxieties of the world can be temporarily laid aside. Students come to us from different backgrounds, but we offer them all the same thing: openness, trust and absolute integrity. Students who violate that trust by cheating are rightly punished, and trust is thereby affirmed. Professors who violate that trust by inappropriate conduct are rightly fired, and integrity is thereby defended.

As someone who has devoted my life to this ideal, I can only be horrified at the prospect of students legally bringing guns to class. Nothing that I have ever dreamed or imagined would more thoroughly or effectively undermine the openness and trust of which I speak. They would disappear as completely, and as irrevocably, as my doctor's or lawyer's confidentiality would disappear once their private records went public. Virtually everyone I know who teaches understands this, and our opposition to the bill making its way through the Texas legislature is absolute.

Now here's the difference. The legislature and the people seem to understand the importance of confidentiality in the practice of medicine, and so nobody would dream of introducing such a bill. In the unlikely event that it were to be introduced, it would not pass, and in the inconceivable event that it did pass, the courts would block it. The occasional rogue doctor might still trespass on patients' trust and cause great damage. That doctor would be punished with the contempt of decent society and go to jail, and that would be the end of it.

So why are we even talking about the possibility of making it legal for students to bring guns to class? If our society had any understanding of the nature and importance of my profession - if it truly valued and nurtured teachers and professors, as it often claims to do - this law would never be considered. In the unlikely event that it were to be introduced, it would not pass, and in the inconceivable event that it did pass, the courts would block it. The occasional rogue student might still trespass on the ethics of our profession and cause great damage. That student would be punished with the contempt of decent society and go to jail, and that would be the end of it.

As someone who has devoted my life to my profession, I am appalled at the thought that what I give to society is so little understood or valued that such an unthinkable piece of legislation may in fact soon become law. For once in my life, words fail me.


  1. To touch on a thought you brought up in your last post, I think there are two different realities coexisting in the United States. One reality is created by those Americans, associated with a particular party, that believe it is o.k. to allow guns on college campuses, and to make unimaginable cuts in education, and to restrict peoples opportunity to basic health care. The other reality is created and lived in by those Americans who seem to believe the opposite. I agree that I perceive the two realities becoming more polarized. Those who live in one reality can't comprehend the other reality. Many things in the United states are boggling my mind right now. Check this out:

    If I live in the opposite reality of these people, then I'm in the right place.

  2. @Paul, the South Dakota bill appears to be dead.

  3. In all fairness, Republican college professors and administrators - and I know quite a few - are opposed to this bill too. Nobody in my profession thinks this is a good idea.

  4. It's amazing to me that the gun fetishists are so insistent on expanding their "rights" to carry loaded firearms wherever they want that they would be willing to sacrifice even higher education and the trust that it depends on for the sake of their own idolatry. How utterly selfish.

  5. Some are even seriously suggesting that children as young as kindergarten should be allowed to bring guns to school. If this passes, I can practically guarantee that it won't stop with *higher* education.

  6. Same problem going on here in Arizona, home of many wacky laws. The barrier to carrying a gun is so much lower than that to driving a car. The proposed Arizona bill made the Colbert report the other day:

  7. Courtesy of my friend Mark Brill, I have some direct evidence of how the value that society places on education is reflected in the results thereof. Only 5 states do not have collective bargaining for educators and have deemed it illegal. Those states and their ranking on ACT/SAT scores are as follows:

    South Carolina - 50th
    North Carolina - 49th
    Georgia - 48th
    Texas - 47th
    Virginia - 44th

    And Wisconsin? It currently ranks 2nd. My guess, meanwhile, is that if Texas passes the guns on campus law, it will decline to 50th. Educators don't want to work in a state that places no value on what they do.

  8. Robin, I think you're being naive. I suspect that there are plenty of educators who have no problem with students packing.

    Two cases in point: Glenn Reynolds, Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and Eugene Volokh, Professor of Law at UCLA.

    Look, Robin, I agree with you that students and teachers shouldn't carry firearms on campus. But you actually don't know very much about this topic, and you are substituting emotion for evidence. It is not hard to discover that there are educators who don't equate firearms carry with disrespecting education. I think they are foolish, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

  9. Joel, both of these links are to the same quote from Eugene Volokh, objecting to Cornell and other schools banning pepper spray. He's not talking about firearms.

    Of course there are some educators who don't agree with me on this. Educators aren't known for agreeing on much of anything, which is both one of the glories and one of the frustrations of our profession. That just makes the overwhelming majority opinion on this one issue all the more impressive.

  10. *sigh*

    Hugh Hewett: "Let me start with you, Glenn, your reaction to today’s shooting, and to the proposition, which my callers are urging on me, that college students ought to be carrying concealed weapons."

    Glenn Reynolds: "I certainly think so. I actually have quite a few students who have permits to carry concealed weapons. One of them, in fact, was on the Springfield Armory National Pistol Team. And if they were armed in my classroom, I would feel enormously safe."

    Hugh Hewett: Eugene Volokh, what’s your reaction to the idea of college and law students carrying concealed weapons on campuses?

    Volokh: You know, in principle, I think it’s probably a good idea, especially if you focus on 21 year olds and up. I also think it’s a good idea to have faculty do it.

  11. My point, Robin, is that it is very easy to find educators who will not only tolerate firearms on campus, but embrace concealed carry. I'm sure there are plenty more who will tolerate it in exchange for keeping their jobs.

    I doubt many university faculty in Texas will leave if this legislation passes. The universities in Utah seem to be staffed, and when Colorado State allowed concealed carry, they didn't experience a sudden exodus of faculty.

  12. I take your point, Joel. I don't think I was saying that Texas would experience a sudden exodus of faculty. What I do know is that I and many of my colleagues will be severely demoralized, and that many people will be reluctant to take a job in Texas if one is available somewhere else. I remember you yourself saying, when we discussed this issue last fall, that you were glad you didn't take a job at the Baylor College of Medicine when it was offered. Many people I've spoken to in other states have expressed similar sentiments. Maybe Glenn Reynolds and others like him will flock to Texas instead.

  13. I had other choices (one of which was UT-Austin). Many don't.

    I think allowing firearms on campus, outside of campus police, is stupid. I'm opposed to concealed carry anywhere--if firearms carry is allowed, I want conspicuous carry, so I can exercise my right not to associate with gun nuts. Ideally, all civilian firearms would be painted bright orange, with a phosphorescent paint that also glows in the dark.

  14. And be large enough to be impossible to conceal. But not large enough to look threatening.

    I think I've mentioned what my strategy will be for dealing with this next fall. I am going to make it known that all of my classes, as well as my office hours, are sporting events. That's the one exception that would still be allowed. However, the law (and I have read every word of it) does not define what constitutes a sporting event. I smell a constitutional challenge coming.

  15. Good luck with that. University administrators are not selected for their sense of humor.

  16. I didn't mean it as a joke. However, it looks like I'll be spared; the final version of the bill now exempts private schools like Baylor. I have been assured by a lawyer friend that any attempt to coerce private schools into allowing concealed weapons wouldn't stand up to a challenge anyway.

    Unfortunately, the public universities in Texas have no such recourse.