Can Faculty Members Take a Stand?
A Q&A with Frank Stahl
BY EVA SYLWESTER
|Frank Stahl and his partner Jette Foss. Photo: Kurt Jensen.|
Since retiring in spring 2005, UO biology professor emeritus Frank Stahl has been busy working to publish the remainder of his students’ research, distributing anti-war literature on campus and trying to give faculty greater control over the operations of the university.
“We can’t expect democracy to survive at the national level — in fact, it may already be irreversibly dead, but be that as it may, we can’t expect it to survive unless democracy is a vibrant tradition at the local level,” Stahl said. “It has to be in the blood, in the daily habits of Americans, that organizations be operated in a democratic manner.”
The UO recruited Stahl in 1959 after he had conducted a famous experiment on DNA replication as a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology. At that time, the whole university shut down on Wednesday afternoons for faculty assembly meetings, and Stahl found this level of faculty participation attractive.
As the student body grew without a commensurate increase in faculty or classroom space, Wednesday afternoons were needed for class time, so they were no longer set aside for assembly meetings. In 1995, the faculty assembly was replaced with the elected 48-member University Senate. Stahl recalled that this change was made because by that time, usually fewer than 50 percent of faculty attended faculty assembly meetings, which was seen as violating a quorum requirement in Oregon Public Meetings Law. Stahl argued that the law was misinterpreted and that this lack of a faculty assembly has led to the UO taking stands that the faculty disagree with, such as the sale of the Westmoreland housing complex, decisions related to the new basketball arena and the quashing of an attempted faculty resolution against the Iraq war in late 2002.
In 2006, the University Senate passed legislation that allowed any emeritus professor to address the Senate and introduce motions. Stahl has since introduced various motions to facilitate the reappearance of faculty assembly meetings.
Aside from flashpoint issues like the Iraq resolution and Westmoreland and the basketball arena, how does this diminishing of faculty governance affect the day-to-day functioning of the university?
It means that the university has discouraged the faculty from contributing its wisdom to the operation of the uni-versity because its wisdom is ignored. Who’s going to go to the trouble of thinking of better ways to do things when there’s a high probability that the president will say, “Thanks, but no thanks?”
Now, this is a real serious problem, where I have sympathy for the [UO] president and the entire university: The state is contributing only about 13 percent of our budget. The university is coming to rely more and more on grants, contracts and private donors. Now the president is, almost by the nature of the job, the person who interfaces between the university, on the one hand, and the private donors on the other. The president is chief schmoozer, the guy whose job it is to raise bucks from private donors. As more and more of the budget comes from private donors and comes through the president, it’s almost inevitable that the president will feel he or she has to be the controlling officer. Otherwise, the money may get spent in a way that displeases the private donors.
Maybe this problem is unsolvable, this problem of better faculty governance, unless the Legislature lives up to its responsibility of funding the universities properly. Now you can ask, why doesn’t the Legislature fund the universities properly?
Why doesn’t the Legislature fund the universities properly?
There are a number of theories. One is they don’t care about education. I don’t know. Another is that the Legislature in Oregon has been for a long time, until recently, under Republican control. It’s Republican wisdom that public education is socialism, the way a public medical plan is socialism. Ever since the public education system was created in America, the right wing has looked on it with suspicion. …
I hope now that we’ve returned to Democratic control, and it may return quite robustly with the mess the Bush administration has made and the bad taste many citizens have with respect to the Republican Party, that we will find that a respectable amount of socialism is a good thing. Public education is a good thing, even if it is socialism. Socialized medicine is a good thing. It could save our country billions of dollars. It could make all our industries more competitive internationally because a major burden that our businesses face is an obligation to provide a medical plan.
What do you see as the most important issues in the 2008 election, and whom do you see as addressing those issues?
[This interview was conducted before Dennis Kucinich’s and John Edwards withdrew from the race. After Kucinich dropped out, Stahl added, “I’m sorry that Kucinich was unable to continue his quest for the Democratic nomination. I am deeply grateful for the straightforward way in which he championed solutions for the most important problems facing America. I like to think that some people, including the remaining candidates, were listening and learning.”]
The only candidate who addresses the whole batch of issues and does so in a way that makes sense is Dennis Kucinich. John Edwards runs a reasonable second because he at least understands that corporations have been allowed to grow so big and so rich that they are controlling this country. People no longer have a meaningful say in the operation of the government.
Kucinich is the only one who recognizes the evil nature of this resource war that we’re fighting in the Middle East. … John Edwards doesn’t speak clearly on the issue of the war. He does speak clearly on the issue of the corporations. It is, of course, the powerful corporations that got us into the war because it’s the oil corporations that want control of the oil. …
The mainstream media and the corporations will see to it that Hillary Clinton is the nominee. They will do in Obama, who is a valid alternative and is maybe smart enough not to express his populist views. On the other hand, it’s not clear that he has populist views, but Hillary Clinton, they know is on their side. She voted for the war. We need that war to secure the oil, we need the oil for our corporations to keep growing, for our economy to keep growing, and therefore she will get the nomination.
How does your interest in politics relate to your work in biology?
At the deepest level. People go into biology because they are fascinated by life, and politics is about life. If you see politics going in a direction that threatens to annihilate life, then you as a biologist have a profound interest in politics because what you really love is life. It’s fascinating. The most obscene thing politicians can do is to make war because it annihilates life. Nowadays, it threatens to annihilate all life since nuclear bombs were invented.
I just read this book, Indoctrination U by David Horowitz. His whole ideais that when academia gets politically active, it represses other voices within academia and interferes with the inquiry process. What do you think of arguments like that?
The political left got way off base, and it happened on university campuses when political correctness became a fetish and speech had to be legislated. I think the political left lost their bearings when they tried to pass rules such as, “A man mustn’t refer to a woman as a ‘skirt’ or a ‘broad.'” Any well-brought-up man does not do that anyway. To make a law against that, or to think you can make on-campus rules of that sort, I think is what upset those right-wingers who seriously are defending the freedom of speech clause of the Constitution.
It may be that some departments on some campuses lost their bearings a little bit. I don’t know Horowitz’s motives, but I think in that movement of trying to counter the extreme left wing political correctness movement, they really have broadened their field of activity so that professors shouldn’t speak out on any controversial issue.
An example of this emerged at the Senate meeting where I tried to get the Senate to consider the resolution against the Iraq War. One senator who was very evidently earnest, as I could judge from the look on her face, said, “The Senate should not pass a resolution against the war because it might make uncomfortable those students who like war.” In Nazi Germany, what if a university faculty had thought that it should speak out against the annihilation of Jews, and somebody on that faculty said, “No! You might hurt the feelings of those who like to annihilate Jews!” …
Of course university faculties can take stands on serious political issues.
We’re not talking partisan issues here, that is, something where the Republicans and the Democrats differ in their party platforms. I’m talking issues that seriously impact society and people, political issues. If there is an issue in which the faculty feels one side is disastrous, and disastrous to the point it could properly be considered evil, it should be spoken out against. That was the case in this war. Many faculty members felt that at least it was important enough that it should be debated and voted on.
What about students who might not necessarily like the war, but might be members of the ROTC or returning veterans from the war?
They could come and debate it with faculty at the assembly. Assemblies are public meetings. … What the assembly wanted to say was not that soldiers are bad or that the ROTC is bad, but that this particular initiative to bomb the hell out of Iraq and occupy it and seize their oil was not in the American way. It is not going to serve our nation well. It is going to turn the world against us. When South Africa got the world turned against itself with apartheid, universities would not cooperate with South African universities. South African faculties became isolated. That will happen to us for sure. The world is against America now, and it’s not going to help American faculties in their international communications.