Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Words and Moral Dilemmas: Mr. Donohue Denies Defending Maciel, and I Think Through a Moral Dilemma

Slow to blog these days, in part, because I am trying to think through an ethical dilemma—one I haven’t faced before, and so I don’t have clear guidelines from my own experience to assist me in resolving it.  It has also—and this is the wont of moral thinking, since it’s our own consciences struggling to resolve moral issues, based on how our own insights and experiences cause us to perceive moral norms—gotten tied up with the experience of turning 60 last week.  And that’s making it even harder to think through.

This isn’t, in some respects, an earth-shaking problem.  There are moral problems of far more import facing most of us.  Still, it’s my problem right now, and until I figure out on which side of the dilemma I’m comfortable coming down, it’s definitely tying up my mental energy.

The problem: someone I once supervised (and hired) as academic dean at a college has asked me for a reference.  I have never refused a reference to anyone in the past.  I know from my own experience, from one such experience, that the refusal of someone who was once a supervisor, and who praised your work in the past but refuses to give a reference for you in the present, can be extremely hurtful.

And so I’m not quick to follow my initial instinct, which is to tell the person contacting me that, regretfully, I can’t see my way to giving him a reference.  Here’s the sticking point for me: I hired this person when he was at what academics call the ABD stage.  He had all his course-work completed; he lacked only his doctoral dissertation.

He came to us from a prestigious east-coast ivy-league university.  He was not the kind of candidate we normally attracted.  He was far out of our league.  He fit right into the slot we needed to have filled, and he brought us a two-for-one deal: since his degree was in comparative literature and required him to speak and read Spanish fluently—something he already did in any case as a Latino—he could also teach Spanish.

We needed this faculty member, and we were delighted when he accepted our offer.  But, as with most historically black colleges, the teaching load at our institution was gruesome, and he did not have spare time to complete his dissertation.

Then along came a provost who was placed in authority over me, and who (what follows is a digression, but it’s also somehow part of the narrative) was determined to unseat me.  The few months in which she headed the academic helm of the college were horrific ones for the entire faculty, since she was 1) racist, 2) destructive, 3) exceptionally mean-spirited and amoral, and 4) for those of us who were gay, perhaps most important of all, homophobic.  She made it her business to target a number of Caucasian gay men the president had hired, and to see all of us fired.

The president somehow fit into the equation, since she brought this provost aboard and encouraged her to undertake the gay purge—something for which she later apologized to me.  And I foolishly accepted that apology and believed it was sincere, with dire consequences down the road.

And here’s how all of that fits into the story of the reference I’m not sure I can provide.  Because the provost’s degree was from the same prestigious ivy-league school at which the faculty member was finishing his dissertation, she cut him slack to complete his dissertation, when he informed her that he was unable to complete it while teaching full-time.

She gave him a half teaching load, with the stipulation that he’d sign an agreement to teach another two years for us after he completed his dissertation.  And then he completed the dissertation and immediately took another position elsewhere, violating the signed agreement—and never informing me as dean that he intended to do this, or was sorry.  Or anything.

This faculty member was also gay, by the way, and I had done all I could to shield him and several other gay faculty members when the provost mounted her purge.  But he had special protection from the purge, in any case, because in her way of viewing things, the fact that they both hailed from a prestigious ivy-league school trumped the fact of sexual orientation in his case.

By the time this faculty member reneged on his signed agreement, the provost had left the school, in any case.  She left in disgrace, as a matter of fact, when it turned out she had plagiarized a faculty handbook.  That fact became apparent when the slick new handbook she wrote for our college unfortunately had passages in it retaining the name and location of the HBCU whose handbook she had copied wholesale—forgetting to instruct her assistant to remove the name and location of the other school when she “wrote” the new handbook for us.

So we had a wonderful new handbook written for College A in Little Rock that talked about the cultural advantages students coming to College B in Atlanta would find in the Atlanta area, when they arrived on campus.  And I have retained the sole copy of that handbook that survived the provost’s reign of terror, in case it would ever be needed down the road.

I will admit that I have a certain amount of personal pique now, due to the aftermath of the faculty member’s sudden resignation and abrogation of his signed agreement to teach two more years for us, if we gave him a reduced teaching load to complete his dissertation.  The pique stems from the fact that I had to clean up the mess the provost had made by offering that agreement to the faculty member, before her own disgrace and resignation. 

And my pique stems from the fact that those on this HBCU campus who still wanted to work the homophobic angle after the provost left blamed me for having made an agreement with a gay faculty member which I decidedly did not make—and probably would not have made.  There were too many other faculty members struggling to complete dissertations under the same circumstances, to give special consideration to one faculty member and not all.

And so now the faculty member is looking at a job at another school and wants my letter of reference.  And I do not want to do harm to him.  On the other hand, I do not want to do harm to another school by recommending someone likely to ignore written agreements he might make with that school.

And I’m caught between two possible scenarios of harm, and trying to weigh them.  And not sure on which side I feel most comfortable coming down.

At the same time (here’s how my turning 60 affects the process of thinking through this moral dilemma), I wonder if my belief in the binding nature of one’s word—either verbal or written—is just hopelessly old-fashioned.  I wonder if I have outlived my time, if I am really a remnant of a culture that simply no longer exists.

People don’t seem to take their word or the word of others seriously anymore, at all.  Mr. Donohue of the Catholic League put out a press release yesterday stating that he has never defended Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who was removed from his position after years of abuse of seminarians.  It has since been found that Maciel apparently fathered one or more children—apparently with more than one mother—supporting at least one of the mothers (and their children) secretly through funds of his religious community.

Mr. Donohue’s defense of himself against the charge that he defended Maciel cites only a 1997 letter he wrote to the Hartford Courant as the basis for the charge that he defended Maciel.  Donohue claims that this letter was not a defense of Maciel.

The problem with Mr. Donohue’s defense is that the charge that he has defended Maciel doesn’t center on that 1997 letter at all.  It centers on a statement that one credible source after another claims Mr. Donohue placed on the Legionaries’ website in 2002, when Maciel was under attack in the media. 

I don’t have a copy of Mr. Donohue’s alleged 2002 comments on the Legionaries’ website.  I do have copies, however, of quite a few sources I consider credible, which cite the 2002 comments—including a 20 May 2006 New York Times article by Ian Fisher and Laurie Goodstein, which states explicitly that Donohue wrote a defense of Maciel and put it on the Legionaries’ website in 2002.  

If these and a multitude of other credible sources are telling the truth, then Mr. Donohue is not telling the truth in his statement of self-defense yesterday.  I suspect that someone somewhere will eventually know how to produce the 2002 statement on the Legionaries’ website, and if it says what I vaguely recall it saying, then Mr. Donohue’s perhaps already slightly tarnished reputation when it comes to matters of truth may end up being even more decisively tarnished.

If anyone still cares about such matters . . . . And, frankly, I’m not really convinced people do care very much.  The political and cultural world we now inhabit—and this extends to the churches as well—seems to me far more interested in glitzy images and in who has more power than others to bend “truth” to his own ends.  Far more interested, that is, in image and impressions than in authenticity and reality. 

More interested (when it comes to the churches) in being apparently pastoral than in being actually pastoral.

We’re more interested, it seems to me, in raw, brute power than in ethics; more interested in victors rather than those they vanquish.

I think I may well be an old man who has outlived his time, and who natters on here as if words matter when the world in which I now live is about image far more than about texts.  And in which not only one’s own personal word no longer matters, but in which the belief that words can change things or affect how we appropriate truth is in and of itself  hopelessly old-fashioned.

And if that’s the case, then I might as well give the faculty member my recommendation, since what he did in ignoring his written agreement with us is what anyone else might well do these days—though I can’t see myself taking my word or any words so casually.  The world would stop making sense for me if I went down that path, it seems to me.