Blogger Beware

Yeshiva U. was proud of its non-traditional recruit to head its honors program -- until debate about the mission emerged and his anonymous blog was discovered.
September 12, 2008

Faster than you can say “Larry Summers,” James Otteson was gone from Yeshiva University.

The former head of the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva College, the institution’s undergraduate college of liberal arts and sciences for men, resigned from his leadership position near the end of the spring semester after administrators at the university uncovered remarks viewed as sexist on his pseudonymous blog, Proportional Belief. One particularly controversial remark -- which he revised -- referred to "high-functioning women." Now, following months of rumor concerning the nature of his resignation, Otteson has taken a year-long visiting professorship at Georgetown University, though he maintains a contract for a tenured full professorship with Yeshiva.

Though exact details of Otteson’s resignation and departure from the university are unclear, some say he was asked to resign because of the contents of his blog. Like the departure of Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University, the debate over Otteson concerns both controversial statements about women and also questions on leadership that extended beyond those comments.

Administrators at Yeshiva declined to comment, saying that this is a personnel matter. Similarly tight-lipped, Otteson said the university “insisted” on a legally binding agreement which bound him and it from speaking about the matter, noting that the situation had been difficult on his family and that he was “trying to move on.” He added only that he has no plans to pursue legal action against the university and that the two parties reached an agreeable out-of-court settlement, the details of which cannot be made public.

Initial Concerns

Otteson, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, was hired at Yeshiva to head the honors program and arrived on campus in fall 2007. At the traditionally Orthodox Jewish institution in New York City, Otteson stood out as a Roman Catholic philosopher who previously had been a department chair at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He was initially praised by many at the university for his leadership skills and intellect.

“We are extremely privileged to count Jim among our most distinguished young faculty and administrators,” said Richard Joel, Yeshiva president, in a press release announcing a publishing prize bestowed upon Otteson shortly after his hire. “We know that his keen erudition, creative pedagogy, and commitment to imparting the highest ethical values will have a profound impact on our students, as well as our institution as a whole.”

In April, some faculty at Yeshiva's undergraduate men’s college expressed concern about the direction of the honors program. “An open letter to the administration and faculty” was penned and signed by a number of professors outlining their concerns. Moshe Bernstein, a professor of Bible who signed the letter, would not offer any comment concerning the letter or the circumstances under which it was written, only noting that it “was not meant for publication.” The letter was made public in July by Jonathan Kandelshein, a 2008 graduate of the honors program, in his pro-Otteson blog, Proportional Outrage.

The letter from concerned faculty disparages Otteson for shaping the honors program in a less than transparent manner without significant faculty support or consensus. Professors also worried that the honors program could become "an elitist college" within Yeshiva's undergraduate men's college, with its own curriculum, administration and faculty. Additionally, the letter condemns both Otteson and the administration for recruiting two new administrators without the proper vetting of candidates by a committee of faculty.

“The contradiction between the stated desire on both the Honors Program director’s part and that of the administration to create a nationally recognized liberal arts college and their failure to follow standard academic practices in implementing that goal is striking,” the letter reads. “The university cannot attract the students who are opting to matriculate at Columbia, Brandeis, or the University of Pennsylvania if our institution does not recruit teachers and scholars -- especially those who will teach its Honors Program -- through rigorous national searches that seek to identify and attract the very best candidates.”

Following the circulation of this letter, meetings were held between faculty and Otteson to discuss the contentious issues it raised. David Srolovitz, dean of the Yeshiva College, offered an apology, according to a transcript of comments made available at Kandelshien’s blog.

“I have failed you as your dean,” the comments attributed to Srolovitz state. “My job should be to lead and to help my colleagues in leadership positions to lead. I apologize for this failure first to Jim Otteson, who came to us this past fall and has been hard at work recruiting students, interviewing students and raising money to make the Honors Program great. Second, I apologize for my failure to my friend and associate, Joanne Jacobson, who has been trying to point out the problems with how we were approaching the evolving Honors Program for months – to no avail. And, finally, I apologize to you, my colleague for not giving you more information on the plans and not for involving you more in the planning processes. Most of the problems that many of you have brought to my attention, I now see, could have been avoided with proper communication and consultation with you, my colleagues.”

In an e-mail from Otteson to a colleague obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Otteson states that he tends to be “an independent and autonomous person” and that this was “clearly something that contributed to the ‘Open Letter' from faculty.” Still, he maintains that he followed all of the recommendations made by faculty in the letter, noting that he and others in the honors program “reorganized the procedures for going forward in ways to involve more faculty.” He notes that the administration supported him, even after this incident – up until his blog was discovered.

The Blog

Proportional Belief, Otteson’s personal blog, is self-described as a “commentary on philosophy, law, economics, and the nature of the universe,” and its first posts date back to September 2005, well before Otteson’s arrival at Yeshiva. It was penned under the pseudonym “Protagoras,” the name of a fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher. Until recently, the blog was open to all readers, but it has now been placed under password protection. The contents of the blog prior to this public closure, however, are available for all to read in cached versions saved by Google.

One of the posts said to have been deemed offensive starts by non-critically quoting Mary Graber, a columnist from self-described “conservative web community”

"I've come to the conclusion that it really is true what Aristotle, Saint Paul, and John Milton said: Women, without male guidance, are illogical, frivolous, and incapable of making any decisions beyond what to make for dinner," Graber writes in an column, cited by Otteson, about the talk show The View.

In response, Otteson notes that he “on several occasions had high-achieving women” tell him “similar things.” Originally, however, Otteson had written “high-functioning women,” instead. A later correction to the blog notes that some of his readers might have found this offensive.

“It hadn't occurred to me, until someone point it out, that since the phrase 'high-functioning' is sometimes used in relation, for example, to autistic people, using this phrase with respect to women might have what is obviously the wrong -- and an unfortunate -- connotation,” Otteson writes.

In another post, Otteson criticizes the departure of Summers from the presidency at Harvard University in a post entitled "A Case in Point." Otteson suggests that Summers is not a "man" and describes his departure as "stepping down after no longer being able to handle all the women being angry at him."

"He buckled under, apologized ad nauseam, groveled, sniveled, cowered, and, now, quit," Otteson writes. "Can you imagine Leonidas or Cato acting like that? George Washington? No, of course not. No self-respecting man would behave like that."

More recently, in May, he blogged about the "Gender Gap in Math and Science," in which he cites a study that argues this gap is a "natural artifact of free society." In his post, Otteson argues that if the gender gap can be explained by free will, then "an awful lot of contemporary law, legal action, and government spending and policy is misconceived."

"As long as the posts are being filled with good people . . . then I don't care what their sex is," Otteson responds to a reader's comment. "So why expend additional resources to artificially induce some groups of people into the fields that they otherwise would not enter? Are there not other ways that time, energy, and money could be better spent?"

Another post entitled “How to Be a Good Husband” also generated criticism. In an e-mail obtained by Inside Higher Ed from Otteson to a student, he said he was told the post was “anti-gay” and “unfit for the 21st century.” This post is inaccessible in cached format, but Otteson states in the e-mail that it contains a “short how-to list” of rules he said he tries to “live by.”

In another e-mail obtained by Inside Higher Ed from Otteson to a colleague, he states his belief that the administration stopped supporting him because of the contents of his blog. He also quotes Joel as having said to him, “You lost my support when I read your blog.” Still, he later adds that he has a “hard time imagining this is the real reason,” saying that it does not seem “to warrant action like this.”

“My integrity and honor have been questioned, and, more than that, what I believe are the most fundamental principles of education -- the marketplace of ideas, mutual tolerance and civility, disinterested pursuit of the truth, and, not least, liberty and independence of thought -- have been sacrificed to the altars of political correctness, intolerance, and bigotry,” Otteson writes in an e-mail to close friends. “This is wrong and it must stop.”

Student Protest

As rumor of Otteson’s resignation from the directorship of the honors program spread throughout the institution, a number of students penned a letter to the president, provost and dean of the men’s college expressing their discontent with the decision. More than 50 students from the honors program signed the letter.

“Having collectively read through the entirety of Professor Otteson's pseudonymous blog, Proportional Belief, we have found nothing that merits a request for his resignation,” the student letter reads. “While we may or may not personally agree with either the style or substance of the blog, we find it very difficult to understand the university's dramatic action. As it seems now, removing Professor Otteson would constitute a disproportionate response to the blog on the part of Yeshiva.”

The student letter states the “open letter” from faculty criticizing Otteson misrepresented students, claiming to be acting in their best interest when students were not approached for comment. The letter also states that the circumstances surrounding Otteson’s resignation suggest that “political considerations of some form” affected the decision.

A current honors student, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from administration and faculty, said he personally knew of three students who were in the process of transferring away from Yeshiva because of the incident.

In response to the student letter, Bernstein, one of the professors who co-signed the "open letter" from faculty, sent an e-mail, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, cautioning them.

“You should be very careful of signing letters when you do not have all the information about what you are signing,” he writes, adding a maxim in Hebrew at the end of the e-mail which he said roughly translates as “a word to the wise should be sufficient.”

Bernstein did not wish to comment on his e-mail or (much like the administration and Otteson) the circumstances surrounding Otteson’s departure. He added only that the matter was “large and complex” and should remain an “internal matter.”


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