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One Professor's View of Punishment


To the Editors of the CRIMSON:

One regrettable feature of the Faculty's (to me) regrettable vote on June 9 on the Committee of Fifteen's disciplinary recommendations was the brevity of the floor discussion preceding the vote. In view of the seriousness of the decision being taken--its symbolic importance for the future as well as its material gravity for the students involved--the fact that only three or four faculty members spoke (and those chiefly to ask for further information) before the President acceded to a precipitate clamor for the Question, was deplorable. Having spent two hours on progress reports and an admittedly rough and ambiguous set of guidelines on conduct, the Faculty could well have afforded to explore further the justice of the critical decision on discipline that it was about to make.

Having assumed that Committee's finding might be more or less as it was, I was prepared to speak to the issue before us but was unable, in the rush to suspend debate, to get recognition from the chair. Had I been recognized, I would have said the following:

I regret the Committee's recommendations on discipline, specifically those for severance and dismissal. More precisely (since it is clear that the Committee has worked with great scrupulousness to fulfill the Faculty's instructions to it in April) I regret that the spring's troubles and our emergency deliberations two months ago have resulted in these recommendations at this particular time.

I regret them not because I am afraid of student reactions against them or because I think they will lead to new violence and discord, but because they seem to me wrong: procedurally wrong, in conscience wrong.

I can follow the Committee's logic. I can see the point and force of their arguments. Yet the upshot is:

* That we are punishing under the old order of rules and assumptions governing university affairs a group of students who have been prime agents in moving us toward a new reformed order which we ourselves have willingly embraced, in principle, by large majorities;

* That we are punishing without sufficient regard for the root cause of these disturbances, causes which are truly extraordinary insofar as they lie in outside conditions and circumstances--this loathsome war above all--which are peculiarly intolerable to young men who have no honorable refuge from them;

* That we are inflicting punishment for acts of "violence" which in fact put nobody in bandages or under doctors' care, as if events in Ithaca, New York, Berkeley, had not in the intervening time given us a better understanding of "violence" and "disruption";

* That we are acting in the service of a logic of punishment--setting an example, discouraging repetition of these particular offenses, treating second offenders in staged political confrontations as the civil courts treat hardened criminals--which is dubious in any case and is more particularly so in a case that is fundamentally political and ideological in character.

If any civil institution can afford to be magnanimous--more than that: if any civil institution is compelled by its character and purpose, by its very name, to be magnanimous, it is surely the university. And the recommendations we are asked to approve, and the other recommendations for severance which do not require our approval, are not, it seems to me, magnanimous; not large-minded and broad-viewed. They are insensitive to the full and unique character of the troubles of the past spring and the specific offenses they are addressed to.

These offenses are political in their origin and active thrust. They share in the special fury of political passion, which is, as Pasternak described it, like the fury and torment of adolescent love: "It tears one to shreds, and nothing save harm seems to come of it. At the same time one can not get free of it. And all who enter as people into history will always pass through it."

The source of this fury and these offenses lies, we all know, outside the university. But it will remain--for the near future, at least; for next year and the year after--whatever we choose to decide at this meeting.

I know of no better description of what has brought on these offenses than one offered thirty years ago by the English historian Maurice Powicke, when he spoke of the "the moral paralysis which can afflict men when evil, is measured only through the medium of statistics and the responsibility for it can be laid at no man's door but appears to be distributed throughout a large, peaceful, and well-meaning society."

And it is this effect of paralysis in the face of enormous wrong, this apparent lack of any means to control and deter, prolonging itself year after year, that drives men--good men--to single acts of rage and desperation; acts which bear no relation to their ordinary day-to-day conduct.

So often, as talk and debate about these matters goes forward, opinion seems to divide according to our ways of speaking. Some speak as if what had happened was that members of a single corporate community had fallen out with each other, to the point of committing outrageous personal offenses against each other and declaring (worst of all) a fixed lack of trust. But others speak as it the university (identical with University Hall and the corporal sanctity of its officers) had come under attack by outsiders--who, being outsiders, could fairly be called the worst conceivable names and dealt with as common criminals in the most summary way.

Well, we are to remember that we have to do with students of an in this university, members of the university community admitted by its accredited officers and committees. The causes lie outside, but students who are vulnerable to them are out own.

And if the first duty of the university in this affair is--as it has seemed to me all along that it must be-to protect itself against the disruptive effects of the war, and if we include the students in question (and how can we not include them?) as fully cherished members of the university community, then it follows that our duty is also to protect them in their university careers from these same effects. We do not do this, we do not fulfill this elementary obligation, by these dismissals and severance.

It seems to me that it ought to be possible, it is possible, for this university to stand firmly on its own best principles (as the President did in Washington last month), and nevertheless--without prejudice to these principles--be magnanimous to those who are driven to fits of rage and folly, to symbolic acts of desperation, in the face of wrongs that year after year after year simply have not yielded, and do not yet yield, to reason and good will.

I am reluctant to oppose the Committee of Fifteen's findings on discipline, and do so only with the sense that what seems to me wrong in them derives not primarily from any thoughtless on the Committee's part, but from the character of our original instruction of them (as Professor Dorfman warned us could happen), and also from the unfortunate fact that the disciplinary process we set in motion two days after the occupation of University Hall has come to the point of final decision two months later and just three days before Commencement, when our thinking of everybody in the university, has moved into new, more hopeful channels. In these circumstances I would hope that the Faculty, without repudiating the painstaking work of the Committee, might nevertheless vote to suspend at this time the findings for dismissal and severance. WARNER BERTHOFF '47   Department of English

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