Withdrawal at Brooklyn

A sociology professor who called religious people "moral retards" declines department chair position.
June 8, 2005

A sociologist at Brooklyn College whose election as department chair set off a controversy over his outspoken criticism of religion on Tuesday announced that he would not become chair after all.

Brooklyn released a two-sentence statement saying that "Professor Timothy Shortell declined the election" as chair and that the college's president "will be consulting with the department and appropriate members of the administration regarding the future leadership of the department."

Shortell could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A college spokesman and a faculty leader who supported Shortell both said Tuesday that Shortell himself decided to resign as chair and was not forced to do so. But faculty union officials at the college said that they viewed the furor over Shortell as an attack on important principles.

Steve London, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn, said that Shortell "was subjected to a witch hunt and intimidation" and that the attacks on him were "an attack on academic freedom." London is first vice president of the Professional Staff Congress, an American Federation of Teachers union that represents faculty members at the City University of New York, of which Brooklyn is part. He said that 70 faculty members gathered Tuesday to discuss Shortell's withdrawal and "the inadequate response" by CUNY and Brooklyn officials to the attacks on him.

The Professional Staff Congress had sent CUNY leaders a letter last week, calling on them to back Shortell's election and speak out against those attacking him.

Shortell's election as chair became controversial not because of his actions as a scholar, but because of his writings about religion on a Web site. In an essay on a Web site where Shortell said he did work as an artist, he described religious people as "moral retards." Among other things, he wrote in the essay that "Christians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but they’ll just as soon kill you. For your own good, of course."

The essay prompted a series of articles in New York City newspapers, with many editorials criticizing Brooklyn College for having Shortell serve as a department chair, and questioning whether he would be fair to students or faculty members who are religious. The New York Sun, for example, wrote prior to Shortell's withdrawal that taxpayers "have got to have the right to draw the line at what kind of person they want teaching students and participating in the tenure process. If a professor had spoken of, say, gay persons or Jews as moral retards, it's a safe bet that things would not be dealt with quite so delicately as they seem to be on Brooklyn College’s campus at the moment."

In an interview shortly after the controversy broke, Shortell said that he should not be deemed unqualified for a department chair position because of writings that were in no way connected to the college. He also said that he would never be unfair to religious students or faculty members -- and that his professional responsibilities would guide him in the chair's position.

“What most commentators seem to forget is the nature of professional ethics,” he said. “I don’t worry when I visit my dentist, for example, that I am going to receive substandard care because he is a conservative Republican and I am not. I trust that he is a professional and when he is wearing his dentist’s hat, as it were, he treats his patients to the best of his ability. When he is off-duty, sitting in an overstuffed chair at the country club, let’s say, he is free to criticize my left-wing views and even insult me if he chooses."

He added: "It is a mistake to believe that simply because I have expressed my political views as a private citizen that I am unable to treat people fairly in my professional role. Any public university is going to attract a great deal of diversity. Indeed that is one of the things I enjoy most about Brooklyn College. I work all the time with people who are different from me in almost every way. There has never been any trouble. I treat people with respect and they reciprocate. That is how we all get along despite our differences."

In the last two weeks, Shortell has posted comments on his Web site that elaborate on his views of the controversy.

In one comment, he wrote, "I am proud to be among a group of intellectuals who have argued for a free, secular society, including Voltaire, Marx, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, Richard Dawkins, and many others," and "I remain convinced that humanity would be better off without religion."

But in the same post, he also said, "The world is filled with reasonable people who identify or affiliate with religious traditions. I know many such people, and some of them even call me a friend. They respect my right to express my political views, and I respect their right to do the same."

In another post, he argued that just because he wrote a manifesto with his views doesn't mean he would engage in such discussion in a classroom. He made a comparison to the way one might engage in one form of expression at a baseball game, but not elsewhere:

"If your team's hitter strikes out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning when your team is behind by a couple of runs, you express yourself in the appropriate manner: you boo. You don't shout 'Although you did not produce in this particular instance, I know that you make many contributions to the team, many of which don't show up in the statistical indicators of performance, and also I know that you are a decent fellow who is active in the community!' No, you don't do that. You boo."

Added Shortell: "I also understand that the manifesto is not an appropriate form of speech in other contexts, such as the classroom. Just like any competent adult, I can switch roles when necessary. I know when I am playing the role of political actor and when I am playing the role of teacher. Just as I know when I am playing the role of baseball fan and when I am playing the role of mourner. It is funny how easily people forget about context when criticizing others' speech, even though they know all about playing multiple roles and role switching."

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