February 12, 2016

Watch that killer metaphor!

Offensive — or merely tasteless? No, not the Iowa primaries; I cover only serious things. But we can tarry in Iowa to consider this item, which I stumbled across as I’ve been attempting, at a snail’s pace, to put my stack of clippings into retrievable order. Seems the president of the University of Iowa, J. Bruce Harreld, loosed his tongue in early December 2015, a week after the massacre in San Bernardino, on the subject of shooting. He was speaking, I think we can be sure, in a metaphorical register, not literally, when responding to a question at a “staff council” meeting about lesson plans. He ventured a particular way to prepare lesson plans. Anyone who shows up for class with lesson plans drawn up some other way, President Harreld suggested, “should be shot.”

Are you offended, shocked, outraged? Lisa Gardinier, a campus librarian and vocal Harreld antagonist, was. The very idea that a university president could say such a thing “just a week after the most recent highly publicized mass shooting,” she emailed him, is “horrifying and unacceptable.” Calling her boss “irresponsible and unprofessional” in an email thread made public by a university spokeswoman, Gardinier went on to say that “you may not have been kicked out since your appointment, but not for lack of trying.” (Harreld’s appointment was controversial when announced in the fall and remains so months later: a former IBM executive, he lacks experience in higher-education administration and was said to have been “almost completely unknown to recruiting firms and academic circles.”)

In response, Harreld apologized to Gardinier, calling it “an unfortunate off-the-cuff remark.” He had “no intention to offend anyone.”

Doesn’t matter, said the union representing 2,300 graduate student employees, demanding that Harreld “forfeit his position” for “promoting violence and threatening the University’s workforce.” The union opined that “it is not acceptable for Harreld to dismiss the statement with a casual apology to a single individual after making a violent threat against all of the University’s lecturers during an official performance of his duties on campus. His offending statement and flippant response are but one clear example of Harreld’s inability to function adequately or behave appropriately in the role of University President.”

A week after the staff meeting, Harreld “clarified” his remarks, telling The Gazette, the newspaper of Iowa City, that reports of what he said were inaccurate. What he now said he said: “I have learned the hard way that if I ever walk into a classroom without a teaching plan, I should be shot.” He did renew his apology, acknowledging the phrase to be “insensitive.” Does that lessen the threat? Gardinier didn’t think so. Noting his failure to offer this clarification originally, she wrote The Gazette that “if your attempt at putting it in a better light is ‘I’ or ‘they,’ that’s not a whole lot to stand on.”

The fracas is a nice example of the trouble you can get into these days for speaking without a teleprompter before a tone-deaf, unsympathetic audience. As far as I’m aware, the university president’s antagonists, despite their fear and trembling, have not summoned the police. Fake outrage? I don’t know, but don’t shoot the messenger.

Addendum: The metaphor is catching on. A separate contretemps broke out on the campus of Mt. Saint Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where Simon Newman, the president, announced a plan to coax struggling freshmen to drop out within their first month. He told a professor that “you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t; you just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.” The line at first got more than raised eyebrows (it does seem more tasteless than Harreld’s version of the killing metaphor), and the university’s board said that the metaphor was “unfortunate”; Newman has not apologized), but the fuss over his words was drowned out in early February 2016 by a greater uproar over his firing of the provost and two professors, one of whom was adviser to the student newspaper, for “disloyalty” (read: opposition to his retention plan). An online petition from academics across the country to reinstate them attracted 4,000 signatures by February 10. Apparently real termination trumps metaphoric death in the calibration of outrage.

Addendum 2: The professors were quickly reinstated. On March 1 came the news that Simon Newman had stepped down, “effective immediately,” after just under a year on the job.